I first came across the Spanish Civil War in 2012 when I was researching a woman called Eileen O’Shaughnessy. Eileen was born in South Shields and to cut a long story short, was married to the writer George Orwell.
The couple spent some time in Barcelona during the civil war. Orwell went ahead earlier than Eileen to write a story, but ended up joining the militia in their fight against fascism – you could say he replaced his pen for a gun.
Below is a photograph taken on the front line of the war, with Orwell the largest figure at the back and his wife Eileen crouching behind the machine gun. In an earlier post I talked about a documentary about Eileen that I made (Wildflower 2014) and how I first saw this photograph it had an effect which was the catalyst in making the film.
In the documentary I wanted to include this part of their life together, so contacted a guy called Alan Warren. Alan was living in Barcelona, and with the organisation Porta de la Historia, they had done mountains of research into the Spanish Civil War and Orwell.
I took a flight out to Barcelona and stayed for a few days in a hotel in the Gothic area of the city. We met up in a café on Las Ramblas and talked about how we could tell this part of Eileen’s story.
Next day Alan guided me to the locations Orwell wrote about in Homage to Catalonia, an account of his personal experiences during the civil war. Through research we came across letters written by Eileen when she was in Barcelona.
She mentioned going to a restaurant, Los Caracoles, just off Las Ramblas. We went there and after some negotiation in Spanish by Alan, with owner Aurora Bofarull, I filmed a short sequence to include in the documentary – we also got a free meal of eggs and peppers.
Alan told me about the group he is working with …..Porta de la Historia (PdlH) is a group of historians and enthusiasts based in Spain and Catalonia who are interested in the hidden history of the Spanish Civil War 1936-39, and the 35,000 men and women from 52 different countries who came to support the Spanish Republic, many of whom served in the International Brigades.
For over ten years PdlH has conducted extensive Field Research and study of the many first hand accounts to allow the hidden landscape, of not just the battles, but also places in the rear guard and hospitals, to come alive.
Standing at the same spot described by an International brigader over eighty years ago is an experience to be treasured. In addition, the use of cameras during the War, by the likes of Robert Capa and Gerda Taro has allowed many locations to be identified.
More importantly, local contacts and knowledge allows visitors to see parts of Spain that are rarely visited by tourists. It is, to a certain extent, the real Spain.
Apart from many bespoke tours for one to four people, larger school trips are also offered. In addition, film and documentary work is common, as well as editorial advice for historians.
The Field of Research is large. It is said that more books have been written about the Spanish Civil War than World War Two. It has been called ‘The Last Crusade’ and ‘The first Battle of World War Two’.
The passion, romanticism, beliefs and idealism of both sides is also full of violence, hate and bloody revenge. A polarising event of such tragedy that even now many families will not talk about it.
However, Porta de la Historia is slowly allowing this subject to be addressed more openly. And hopefully the distance between now and then, as well as some government support, is allowing grandchildren and great grandchildren to try and understand the conflict that tore Spain apart. A nation that forgets it’s history is condemned to repeat it.
This work is a pleasure and a responsibility. Having known many International brigaders in later life, it is important to explain and try to understand this period objectively and factually. And there is still so much more to explore and discover in some beautiful parts of Spain.
If you have any information about the North East men and women who were in any way involved in the Spanish Civil War please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org
Gary Alikivi April 2020.