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Reflections on the Revolution in Spain: Remembering Robert Brasillach (March 31, 1909 – February 6, 1945)

2,169 words

In his memoir Notre avant-guerre, Robert Brasillach tells how his political enthusiasms developed in the years preceding the outbreak of war in September 1939. One of the high points of the story is Brasillach’s 1938 visit to Spain, in order to report on war conditions for his Rightist newspaper in Paris, Je suis partout. The events immediately preceding this trip have previously appeared in an extract published in these pages [1].

As noted before, Brasillach was making this trip with fellow writers Pierre Cousteau and Maurice Bardèche (Brasillach’s brother-in-law). Driving in Cousteau’s “dashing beige car,” the trio covers a lot of ground in a fortnight. Unfortunately, the author includes neither a map nor explanatory footnotes (at least in the two editions I know of [1] [2]), and the reader can get dazed by all the We went here, then we went there, and then met Señor X over in this place. . . So, briefly, I will summarize their out-and-back loop through northern and central Spain:

They begin their excursion at San Sebastian, near the French border, on the Bay of Biscay. They meet dignitaries at Burgos, then drive further south toward Madrid. Salamanca, Avila, and Toledo — all close to the front — are on this route. Then the trio, with their Spanish press official and guide, head northeast to Zaragoza; after which it’s back through the north of Spain to San Sebastian; and finally the French border and the return drive home.

You can buy Greg Johnson’s The White Nationalist Manifesto here [3]

Madrid, and much of the eastern half of Spain (including Catalonia), were still in “Loyalist” and Communist hands at this point, so we can imagine the Spanish officials carefully plotting out a series of “safe” routes on their visitors’ Michelin Carte Espagne. The distances are impressive, even today. I estimate Cousteau, Bardèche and Brasillach drove over 1,200 miles, or about 1,900 kilometers, during this Spain trip, quite apart from another 1,000 mi/1,600 km while on the road in France. This is about the driving distance from Seattle to San Diego (or Sydney to Melbourne to Sydney).  And of course, they weren’t traveling on superhighways or even two-lane blacktops, but on sketchily paved back roads, and moreover doing it during wartime, on routes that skirted the lines of an active battlefront.

Brasillach wrote this section in a breezy style, as though he was eager to get the names and sense impressions on paper while some were still fresh in his mind. This means the text does a lot of jumping back and forth, with the author tossing in details as they occur to him, and often using obscure or allusory nicknames for places and people. For example, he talks about visiting the Cité universitaire and going to the trenches. Our guess was that he meant Salamanca, but I have been told he really meant a district in northwest Madrid—quite close to the fighting! He tells us he and his colleagues enjoy a fine meal here and there, but doesn’t tell us what they ate; he says they went sightseeing in the “grand quartier” of Zaragoza, but doesn’t report whether they saw anything worth seeing.

But the real meat to the travelogue isn’t the road trip per se. What really interests Brasillach is the progress of the “National Revolution” in Spain, particularly its regard for social justice. Again and again, he tells us Spain is far ahead of the democracies and Marxists in terms of ethical accountability. What would be a slovenly soup kitchen in Paris or London, in Spain is more akin to Meals-on-Wheels, providing the indigent with three-course dinners they can eat at home. Here the author does describe the food for once, and in appetizing detail. Brasillach makes the point that the meals are not given out of grudging charity but from a high-minded sense of justice.

As another point of comparison, the Reds don’t tell their soldiers’ families when their kinsmen are taken prisoner. The Nationalists do. The Spaniards of the National Revolution look after their fellow compatriots, even the ones fighting on the other side.

* * *

This passage picks up where my earlier translation left off. Brasillach, Bardèche, and Cousteau have just received their safe-conduct pass at the border. Brasillach finds that some anonymous fan has written on the pass: “Viva Je Suis Partout!” . . .

From Notre avant-guerre:

There was some mistake about Maurice [Bardèche]’s first name. Someone had generously put him down as “Don Manuel” — how very Spanish! And Don Manuel he remained for the trip.

We were very well received. In San Sebastian they assigned us a press officer. This was a young man who had been fighting in the war at the beginning, in the Irun campaign. But then he was reassigned, marked down as “completely useless” — as he told us in his French. However he did speak quite fluently, and he was resourceful, finding us rooms in hotels that were stuffed full as an egg.

Then, driving out on the roads, we all sang together. We sang nationalist songs, and then we sang revolutionary songs (because our guide enjoyed the joke). We even sang some anti-Italian songs.  He took us to Burgos, where we were received by Señor Pablo Merry del Val, director of propaganda. We saluted each other in the Hall of Condestable, where we were introduced to everyone, including the author of the best memoir books on the war, the cordial and ironic Sr. Jacinto Miquelarena. [2] [2] In San Sebastian, we’d dined with Juan Pujol, director of Domingo [journal], and had also seen Sr. Jose Felix Lequerica, a contributor to Je suis partout who some months afterwards would become Spain’s ambassador in Paris.

Next we drove towards Madrid, along the front by Avila and Toledo, we went into the trenches of the university town [Universidad Complutense, near Madrid], then saw the grand quartier of Zaragoza, and came back through Navarre to San Sebastian and to France. It had been a wonderful trip.

For someone who knew war only from a childhood spent in small, remote towns, I found that this spectacle of a nation at war filled me with deep emotion. I was seeing things I hadn’t thought of in twenty years. The memories flooded back almost as soon as we crossed the border. In San Sebastian and Burgos, there were the wounded in uniform. Then, in Burgos, bands of laughing nurses roaming the Paseo del Espolon — very proud they were today, their unit having just been given a decoration.

Out in the street you’d see, once again, continual requests for donations; and so many other wartime details you had forgotten about: signs pointing the way to the shelters, posters reminding you to watch out for spies (Keep Mum, Watch Out, Enemy ears are listening! . . .), candy boxes shaped like bombshells, patriotic newspapers for the children, sandbags piled between the pillars of the arcades, the windows crossed with strips of paper to guard against splinters of glass. At all hours of the day, for five minutes at a time, comes the siren announcing the alert, and then the bells ring to sound the all-clear.

It’s the eternal face of war, what it looks like in the rear, whether you’re in Spain or France. And it took us a few hours to see what was different and unique about these modern-day experiences, and not just keep noticing the resemblances to earlier times. But if you’re a Frenchman who is not yet thirty years old, it’s really your childhood that this new Spain first brings back to you.

In these towns off in the rear, everything is organized and coordinated, not only in aid of the combat at the front, but also for the National Revolution. It really impresses you as a foreigner when you realize that the cost of living has not increased since the war: except for some manufactured objects (shoes in particular), one lives in Spain for the same price one would pay two years ago [i.e., July 1936, on the eve of war]. There’s the same abundance of fruits and vegetables, the same excellent bread.

Strict laws prevent price increases. And these go beyond the ineffectual verbal scolding that we see in democratic countries. In Zaragoza, in particular, we kept seeing big, boldly lettered posters in shop windows: This shop has been fined for selling at excessive prices. Or: This shop has been fined for concealing goods.

It’s widely known that nationalist regimes have conjured up a variety of indirect-taxation methods. Here in Spain, Monday is a day without pastry, Thursday a single-food day, Friday a meat-free day. At the cafe, at the cinema, you buy stamps to provide “subsidies to the fighters”, and everywhere you go people are collecting cigarettes for the army. These are good methods.

And then there are others. On the whole, the Spanish haute bourgeoisie and aristocracy have admirably understood their duty. Some of the greatest families, starting with the royal family itself, have had sons killed in this modern Reconquista. While many families of more modest background contribute financially, donating a “duty of gold” as substitute for “duty of blood.”

The Falange has the responsibility for explaining what is needed, and how much; and, like the Italian fascists, also for reminding them how beneficial these voluntary contributions truly are. Rather than be robbed by the Marxists, isn’t it better to sacrifice part of one’s assets? They thus raise funds with masterly persuasion and discretion.

Some of the great lords who were solicited imagined it was very generous of them to write out a check for 6,000 pesetas [about $750]. With a laugh, our press official told us a little story. One of these grandees liked to boast that his magnificent beard made him famous in all Spain. He was soon visited again, by some young men who, with great care, placed him in a spacious armchair, courteously put a shaving dish around his neck and razored off his precious fleece. The next day he “completed” his offering to the party.

But most people of the better classes have little need of such firm persuasion. They understood from the start that they would need to take the lead and contribute their intelligence and time and charity. In the social works of the new regime you find daughters of the aristocracy and daughters of the upper-middle class, working with their hands alongside the daughters of the working class. These are the women of a great people.

The most important organization of the Auxilio Social [the Nationalists’ social charity] is their meals-at-home program. The meals are assembled into small containers with three tiers (because of the Spanish habit of multiple dishes). We saw these meals distributed in Valladolid, where our guide was a doctor who both spoke French and had French-speaking help. The poor people who came to get the meals impressed us with an air of being proud and free; no political propaganda or official command could have given them that self-respect. The pretty Castilian girls who handed them the crisp bread, the spicy sausages, the chickpeas in oil, they were all cheerful and fraternal. This was the furthest thing from a soup kitchen. These people would take their meals home and eat them with their families, at their own tables. This sort of enterprise carries a bad name in France, but here in Spain it took on a totally new meaning. It wasn’t called a charitable enterprise, or a help to the poor, but rather hermandad: that is to say, fraternité.

Yes, war-torn Spain has found a spell of inner peace. When the evening descends on the Spanish cities, there’s still the same joy of the promenade, the same charming paseo; just a few more soldiers than usual, along with some blond-haired or brown-haired “technicians.” But the war is still there, all the same, a war that is a part of the needed Revolution. At half-past-eleven in the evening, all the T.S.F. (Nationalist radio) stations, at their maximum power, in restaurants and cafes, in public squares, broadcast the communiqué. At the start of the broadcast, they give a rather long list of names. When we asked what this was all about, we got the reply:

This is news for the families of the Red prisoners. That is, the prisoners we’ve taken. The Reds usually just report them missing, without explanations. We tell the families if the prisoners are injured and whether they’re being treated, and what their condition is. So these families listen to the T.S.F. to hear news of their relatives.

After the communiqué came the official hymn, the Chant des Grenadiers, which had been the Marcha Real [traditional national anthem of Spain].

And then everyone stood up, and saluted with outstretched arms.


[1] [4] Robert Brasillach, Notre avant-guerre. First published in 1941 (Paris: Editions Plon). My translation here is made from a later paperback edition, copyright 1992 by Maurice Bardèche (Paris: Le Livre de Poche), pp. 320-325.

[2] [5] Jacinto Miquelarena actually wrote two memoirs about being a prisoner of the Reds, signing himself El Fugitivo. One was Cómo fui ejecutado en Madrid (How I was executed in Madrid). He was evidently writing the second book about the time of Brasillach’s visit. He titled this El Otro Mundo.