Belchite: A city untouched after war

May 24, 2013
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Travelers wait for years in anticipation of the day they can visit the ruins of ancient civilizations. Pictures fill history books telling stories of the battles fought and whole countries ruined many years ago.

In Spain, however, the fighting wasn’t thousands of years ago and the civilization didn’t crumble at the feet of an adversary. The remnants of the Spanish Civil War can be found throughout the country, whether it is art in the form of old war propaganda or bombs on display at the main alter at Pilar Cathedral in Zaragoza.

As Spain spent years picking up the pieces of the battles fought for their home, one city remains untouched as a reminder of the destruction of the war.

“Franco specifically said he wanted Belchite left as it was, as a monument to the destruction wreaked by the Republicans,” Chris Holme, a journalist who founded the website historycompany.co.uk, said. “I don’t really know about a warning [to the Republicans]. It is certainly a reminder of the destruction of war but it is difficult to know what to do with it – the wounds of the Civil War are still too raw.”

The Spanish Civil War began in 1936 when a strike by the Nationalists – the rebels hoping to overthrow the Republican government – failed to take the entire country. For the next three years, battles were fought throughout the country until the Nationalists led by Francisco Franco finally took over in 1939.

Norman Berdichevsky, professor of Hebrew at the University of Central Florida, lived in Spain for seven years and wrote the book “Spanish Vignettes.” In his book, he spends a chapter analyzing the Spanish Civil War looking at Franco, fascism and the Falange.

“The Spanish Civil War has frequently been portrayed as an epic struggle between the forces of the left (variously identified as progressive, liberal, socialist, internationalist, democratic and ‘anti-Fascist’) and the right (labeled reactionary, conservative, religious, and ‘anti-democratic’),” Berdichevsky wrote.

During the war, Franco took on the role of Commander-in-Chief or “generalisimo.” He created a “National Movement” by bringing together rival groups and named it Falange Española Tradicionalista y de las Juntas de Ofensiva Nacional Sindicalista.

“The National Movement became the only legal political entity in Spain during the remainder of Franco’s rule until his death in 1975,” Berdichevsky wrote. “The Falange had a major influence in the movement at its inception but its leaders were gradually reduced to a mere token presence and then almost thoroughly eliminated by the time of Franco’s death.”

Following the war and Franco’s death, some of his decrees remained. Including the decree that Belchite, which had been reduced to rubble between Aug. 24 and Sept. 7, 1937, be left in the same condition it was when the fighting ended. Today, travelers can visit the ruins by a guided tour or visit the new neighboring city, also called Belchite.

“Belchite is known for the historical part damaged during the civil war. For history buffs are abundant around the remains of the Civil War fortifications and trenches,” Juan Carlos Salavera, Belchite technical director of tourism, said. “But there are other resources that are less known but not to be missed.

The other resources Salavera speaks of include a bird sanctuary, olive groves and a folklore museum. He said travelers could enjoy these plus the ruins over a few days visiting Belchite.

“The new population also has a style much appreciated by students of architecture and has an interesting folklore museum, not to mention the cuisine of the area which has some annual meetings where top professionals gather,” Salavera said. “Finally it is also recommended to visit the people in the Easter holiday or in the month of September where you can enjoy a nice festive atmosphere full of tradition.”

As for the ruins themselves, Salavera said they hold the history and the memories of Belchite’s ancestors. As one of the city’s officials, he said they are focused on preserving the ruins and therefore preserving the memory. Although many travelers visit the ruins without a tour guide, Salavera said taking a guided tour is not only recommended, it is required.

“All landmarks should be visited with a guide and do not speak only for safety but for the self-preservation of the monument,” he said. “If visitors do not regulate the monument disappears. Also the guides know perfectly the true story of what happened there but often contrasted duly wrongly counted both on the web and in books and magazines. They know well the path that must be done to avoid any area where an accident could occur.”

Holme visited Belchite while on vacation in Zaragoza, which is 28 miles or 46.2 kilometers from Belchite. He said Belchite is not a well-advertised, but having already done research on the Spanish Civil War he decided to take the bus to the ruins.

“I think we owe it to the memory of all those British, Irish, Canadian, American and other International Brigaders who had given their lives there for a cause so far away from home but so close to their hearts,” he said. “Also, to the many Spaniards on both sides who were killed.”

According to Holme’s research on Belchite, during the Battle of Belchite, 370 Republicans who lived in the city were killed. Those killed accounted for one in 10 of the city’s population. Franco ordered that a new city be built beside the ruins, which are now just ghost town left for people to visit.

Holme visited the new city, also named Belchite, but said the city had very little connection to the original battle site.

“We had a splendid lunch in a café, but ‘new’ Belchite was largely built by Republican prisoners after 1939,” he said. “There isn’t much association with the battle site. For many residents, I think it is a bit of an embarrassment.”

For tourists traveling to Barcelona, Belchite – both the new and old city – are a little over two hours from the city. On Saturday and Sunday, there is a museum open for tourists, but the ruins are open to anyone to walk around any time.

“[I felt] Predominantly a very humbling feeling of sadness,” Holme said. “The stillness was very eerie, given the ferocity of the fighting there. It was also strange to see it as it was in 1938, apart from the subsequent depredations of wind and weather.”