About Matthew Tree


Catalonia, soiled

Nazis a Barcelona. L’esplendor feixista de postguerra (1939-1945) [Nazis in Barcelona. The fascist splendour of the post-war period (1939-1945).]

Authors: Mireia Capdevila and Francesc Vilanova

Publisher: L’Avenç and Barcelona City Council

227 pages

Barcelona, 2017

It is no secret that the Franco regime, in spite of maintaining a formal neutrality during World War II, was enthusiastically addicted to the fascist side (Paul Preston outlines the most salient details of this partisanism in his biography of Franco, published in 1994). However, no book had previously managed to describe the extent to which this support for fascism manifested itself visually, both officially and in the popular arena. Nazis a Barcelona fills this void in Catalonia’s collective historical memory.

Photo: ANC. Solidaridad Internacional - La Prensa

Photo: ANC. Solidaridad Nacional – La Prensa

Photo: Pérez de Rozas (AFB)

Photo: Pérez de Rozas (AFB)

In a nutshell, the Francoist government and military were quite open about their support for the regimes of Hitler and Mussolini: they invited high-ranking Nazi and fascist officials to Barcelona and other places in Catalonia and treated them to gala dinners, medals and praise-filled speeches in which the fascist and Nazi struggle was described as a seamless continuation of the Francoist Crusade. Nazi Germany’s propaganda magazines and pamphlets – not to mention Hitler’s speeches – were disseminated in Spanish throughout Spain. The Military Officers’ Residence in Barcelona was fitted out with a Germany Hall featuring a bust of Hitler on the table and a framed swastika on the wall. (The swastika, by the way, became a commonly used emblem at the University of Barcelona, the former Catalan Parliament, the Barcelona Provincial Council, Barça stadium and the Palau de la Música).

The book is packed with shocking photographs – many unpublished or little known – of the countless pro-Fascist events that were held in Barcelona, Montserrat, Sabadell and Terrassa. How disturbing it is to see a children’s choir singing at the Palau de la Música in celebration of Hitler’s birthday, or the monks of Montserrat laughing heartedly while shaking hands with Heinrich Himmler.

However, if something is perhaps lacking in the book, it is reference to what the Nazis were doing between their visits to Barcelona, which would explain why these visits were so obscene. For example, when Himmler arrived in 1940, his special SS squads called the Einsatzgruppen had already shot dead hundreds of thousands of Jewish and Polish civilians. In 1940, SS troops established the ghettoes in which thousands of people would die of starvation. In 1941 nearly one million Jews were shot in the territories that the Germans occupied during their invasion of the USSR. 1942 saw the opening of the Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka extermination camps, where 1,274,166 Jews, Roma and Poles were killed – either gassed, shot or beaten to death. Between 1943 and 1944, 1.1 million people – most of whom were Jewish – were gassed in Auschwitz, and another 79,000 – again mostly Jews – were gassed or shot in the Majdanek fields (18,400 in a single day in 1943, on the day of the harvest festival, officially celebrated in Barcelona by the German community and several Francoist officers at the Palau de la Música).

If it is possible that Franco’s government knew nothing about the Shoah at the beginning of the war, it is inconceivable that they had no reliable information about it from late 1942 onwards. They nonetheless continued to support Hitler until 1944. Perhaps it would not be a bad idea for some of today’s politicians – before accusing certain Catalan public figures of being Nazis and fascists – to look back at the attitudes that some of their predecessors had towards the real Nazis and fascists between 1939 and 1945.

Coming up roses

Perhaps the single most astonishing thing about St. Jordi’s day is that it gets hundreds of thousands of people to browse and buy books. The fact that printed matter, the decline or disappearance of which has been declared inevitable so many times, should still hold such fascination for an entire country – albeit on just one day – suggests that books still have a role to play.

Vicente Zambrano

Saint George is the patron saint of 21 countries, England and Catalonia included. I don’t recall this dragon-slaughtering holy man’s day (April 23rd) being celebrated much in London (except by the odd – and perfectly missable – display of morris dancing). In Barcelona, by contrast, the date is commemorated in a way so unusual – indeed, almost bizarre – that it instils a kind of elated surprise in even seasoned participants, let alone newcomers. Enter the Rambla, the Rambla de Catalunya or the Passeig de Gràcia and you will find yourself being drawn willy-nilly into an oozing throng flanked on both sides by open-air bookstalls at which many well-known local and international authors are perched behind their wares like so many fishmongers. In between the bookstalls stand buckets full of red roses, their sellers’ eyes peeled for prospective purchasers.

The roses came along long before the books: as early as the 15th century, in the area around the Catalan government building in the Plaça Sant Jaume, roses were sold on April 23rd as part of the celebration of the dia dels enamorats or Lovers’ Day (Valentine’s Day, which became popular in many places after the 18th century, has never properly taken off in Catalonia). Books, however, didn’t make their first appearance on Sant Jordi’s Day until 1929, following two years of attempts by a Valencian bookseller to promote a literary festival throughout Catalonia. April 23rd was settled on because, besides being the day of Catalonia’s patron saint, it is the day Cervantes was buried and the day Shakespeare died (in 1981, it also turned out to be the death day of one of the greatest 20th-century Catalan- language prose writers, Josep Pla). The ensuing combination of rose- and book-giving followed a pretty sexist protocol until the early nineties: the males would give the apparently soppy females a rose and the females would give a book to the apparently brainier males. This old-fangled convention having now been thrown to the winds, books and roses are handed back and forth between lovers, friends and relatives of all sexes (in 1995 UNESCO declared April 23rd to be World Book and Copyright Day).

In many countries, writers are more often than not rather remote figures, who can only be seen on TV chat shows or, at best, reading their stuff live from podiums. But on Sant Jordi’s Day, dozens upon dozens of them are fully available, signing throughout the day at different bookstalls, and more than happy to meet their readers, chit-chat, exchange views, and so on. This is good for the writers too, given that it provides us with direct feedback from the people we write for (it also does wonders for our notoriously fitful egos).

Perhaps the single most astonishing thing about Sant Jordi’s Day is that it gets hundreds of thousands of people to browse and buy books (and not just in Barcelona, but all over Catalonia). The fact that printed matter, the decline or disappearance of which has been declared inevitable so many times, should still hold such fascination for an entire country – albeit on just one day – suggests that books still have a role to play, just as radio never ceased to have one after the arrival of cinema, which has held its own long after the advent of videos, DVDs and YouTube and what have you. Video never killed the radio star and the panoply of all the (relatively) new forms of communication and entertainment surely won’t ever kill the pleasure that can only be found by reading a written voice that talks to you person-to-person, in silence, and with meaning