The best thing about slow travel is how random encounters can send you off in new, interesting directions. It so happened we were talking Me Too stuff at a waterside cafe in Barcelona, and I was explaining to Alan about Bill Cosby and his quaaludes when a British voice from the next table asked, “You wouldn’t happen to have a few of those tablets on you now, would you?” Ha ha. But long story short, this nice British couple said they were doing a Spanish Civil War walking tour the next day, I said that sounds interesting, and they dropped an easy-to-remember name: Nick Lloyd. Just google it with Spanish Civil War, he said, and he’d come up.
And so he did. I booked us for one a few days later. What a great recommendation.
Going in, I confess my Spanish Civil War knowledge was sketchy. Franco and his fascist nationalists on one side, Republicans on the other. Franco won, stayed in power for decades and became a Saturday Night Live one-liner. Guernica. That was about it. On my seventh-grade trip to Spain with my mom, I remember soldiers on every other corner, well-armed and scary-looking. This would have been in the early ’70s, before Franco died.
So much I didn’t know, so our three-hour walking tour with Nick and about a dozen others was a revelation and unsettling. Unsettling why? Let’s start with the roots of the conflict, when King Alphonso XIII abdicated in the global depression of the early ’30s. The second Spanish Republic formed and adopted a constitution with a lot of crazy progressive ideas, including: Spain should not have a state religion. Women should have the vote. And so on. The moving forces behind it were left-oriented — communists, anarchists, labor unions, republicans. A loose coalition of nationalists, monarchists, the Catholic Church (of course) and other right-wing groups decided this was too much, and a coup began in July 1936. Strip out the objections in Spain and replace them with the trans menace and critical race theory and about a dozen other hand-wringing topics Fox News likes to get on about, and, well, it starts to sound uncomfortably familiar. The Spanish war had no Mason-Dixon Line; it tore apart towns, neighbors, families. The scars remain today, and sometimes it seems they’ve barely closed. Sound familiar?
I won’t run through the whole tour, but it was fascinating. Yes, Atrocities Were Committed on Both Sides, but I’m still giving the edge to the fascists who allied with none other than Adolf Hitler. Here are children playing in a square in Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter. See the pitted walls at the far end? Those are scars from a bomb attack carried out by none other than the Luftwaffe, supporting the fascists. The death toll in this strike was something like 169, all civilians:
(God, Spanish children are so cute. You see them out and about, and they’re playing like you expect kids to play, with soccer balls and jump ropes. They must get phones at some point, but I didn’t see any carried by younger kids.)
And then there was Guernica. Hitler: “Hey Frankie, I got a new idea for carpet-bombing a civilian population. Mind if I practice in your neck of the woods? Maybe on a market day, for maximum casualties?” Franco: “Sure, be my guest. There’s this pain-in-the-ass Basque town I’m thinking of.”
We saw the painting in Madrid. When was the last time a work of art got people talking like Picasso’s “Guernica?” Maybe “Piss Christ,” or Robert Mapplethorpe with a bullwhip up his ass.
Nick had a lot of ephemera from the period. This was an ID case or dues record or something from the workers’ union, which included a fair number of anarchists.
They never did get their shit entirely together, but they produced some nice graphic design.
Military footwear. Imagine marching miles in these:
Anyway, without deep-diving into George Orwell, etc., here’s one story that’s in most of the guidebooks to Toledo, which we visited during our Madrid stay: A nationalist commander, Col. Moscardo, was under siege at the Alcazar of Toledo in the earliest days of the war. The Alcazar was a fortification at the highest point in town; it started as a castle, then bumped through the centuries as this and that, and in 1936 was a military base, and the Republicans wanted the munitions it held. Col. Moscardo was holding them off when a Republican commander telephoned Moscardo’s office and told him they were holding his son, Luis. If he didn’t surrender in 10 minutes, Luis would be shot. Moscardo asked to speak to his son, and is said to have told him, “Commend your soul to God and die like a hero.” Luis handed the phone to whoever was holding him, and Moscardo said, “I don’t need 10 minutes. I will never surrender the Alcazar.”
It was a long siege, but Moscardo was as good as his word. (Luis was not shot immediately, contrary to newspaper accounts at the time, but was disposed of a month later with some other hostages.) For some reason, this struck me as the most Spanish Civil War story ever. Half a million people died. Moscardo’s office is preserved as a museum exhibit now. Here’s where it happened:
Anyway, while we’re on the subject, a pivot to some bloggage, Fiona Hill interviewed in Politico about the Ukrainian situation. Elon Musk is the Henry Ford of the 21st century, very smart in some areas, criminally dumb in others:
Reynolds: We’ve recently had Elon Musk step into this conflict trying to promote discussion of peace settlements. What do you make of the role that he’s playing?
Hill: It’s very clear that Elon Musk is transmitting a message for Putin. There was a conference in Aspen in late September when Musk offered a version of what was in his tweet — including the recognition of Crimea as Russian because it’s been mostly Russian since the 1780s — and the suggestion that the Ukrainian regions of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia should be up for negotiation, because there should be guaranteed water supplies to Crimea. He made this suggestion before Putin’s annexation of those two territories on September 30. It was a very specific reference. Kherson and Zaporizhzhia essentially control all the water supplies to Crimea. Crimea is a dry peninsula. It has aquifers, but it doesn’t have rivers. It’s dependent on water from the Dnipro River that flows through a canal from Kherson. It’s unlikely Elon Musk knows about this himself. The reference to water is so specific that this clearly is a message from Putin.
Now, there are several reasons why Musk’s intervention is interesting and significant. First of all, Putin does this frequently. He uses prominent people as intermediaries to feel out the general political environment, to basically test how people are going to react to ideas. Henry Kissinger, for example, has had interactions with Putin directly and relayed messages. Putin often uses various trusted intermediaries including all kinds of businesspeople. I had intermediaries sent to discuss things with me while I was in government.
This is a classic Putin play. It’s just fascinating, of course, that it’s Elon Musk in this instance, because obviously Elon Musk has a huge Twitter following. He’s got a longstanding reputation in Russia through Tesla, the SpaceX space programs and also through Starlink. He’s one of the most popular men in opinion polls in Russia. At the same time, he’s played a very important part in supporting Ukraine by providing Starlink internet systems to Ukraine, and kept telecommunications going in Ukraine, paid for in part by the U.S. government. Elon Musk has enormous leverage as well as incredible prominence. Putin plays the egos of big men, gives them a sense that they can play a role. But in reality, they’re just direct transmitters of messages from Vladimir Putin.