Remembering the IB in Madrid

November 13, 2011
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The defaced monument to the IB, Madrid. Photo Martin Minchom.

The commemorations celebrating the 75th anniversary of the founding of the International Brigades came at the very end of a strange never-ending summer. The blue skies that presided over inauguration of the new monument to the IB in Madrid in October were gone within a day or two.

The monument was an inititative of the Asociación de Amigos de las Brigadas Internacionales, but many other entities were also involved, including the university’s Faculty of Fine Arts. Since June, the Complutense has had a new rector, José Carrillo, the son of veteran Communist leader Santiago Carrillo. But the project had already reached an advanced stage under his predecessor, Carlos Berzosa. The inauguration took place in the presence of four surviving brigaders, and visitors from Spain and around the world, including ALBA representatives and members. Several speeches were given, including a most dignified one by the 92 year-old British brigader David Lomon. (Lomon’s speech here; more photos and videos hereherehere and here.)

On a cool, overcast day earlier this week I returned to visit the monument. This was on Wednesday November 9th, exactly 75 years to the day since the International Brigades had their baptism of fire down by the river, as well as in the open countryside beyond, during the bloody battle for Madrid. A few days later the brigaders had helped to stop Franco’s troops from using the campus as a launch pad to take the capital. So it was exactly this far, and not an inch further, that Franco had reached before the open fighting stopped, and entrenched positions were consolidated.

The new monument is actually located in the no-man’s land between the two fronts, just opposite the Faculties of Pharmacy, Medicine and Dentistry, which were held by the Republicans. Today those buildings are essentially unchanged. Cross the wide square and you can still see the shell marks.

Bullet holes from the Spanish Civil War on the Dentistry building at the Universidad Complutense of Madrid. Photo Martin Minchom

Dentistry building at the Universidad Complutense. Photo Martin Minchom.

The state of the monument, as I saw it on Wednesday, can be seen from these photos. Very recently, as was reported here, the memorial was daubed with red paint and the word “asesinos” was painted across it. Given that the writing was three yards from the ground, the culprit not only had a can of paint to hand, but also a ladder, a car and presumably a friend or two. For one reaction, see this article.

But basically, I think, the images speak for themselves.

From the site of the new IB memorial you only have to walk about 10 minutes to see that this is a contested space, one from which Franco’s ghost has not been fully exorcized. If landscapes shape the creation, and recreation, of cultural memory, then this is most certainly a “site of memory”. Franco’s monumental Victory Arch still presides intact over the nearby access to the city center. Just behind it, the Moncloa district’s administrative offices are host to a multitude of small crosses which betray their original, memorial function. Three Francoist gun emplacements, but no republican ones, were left on the edge of the West park, bordering the campus.

Francoist Gun emplacement in the West Park, Madrid. Photo Martin Minchom.

Also forming part of this cluster of Francoist constructions is a post-war monument to the aviators of a 1920s expedition, one of whom was Franco’s brother. This is wrongly thought to take the form of an eagle on top of a column. But it is, I’m told, a condor,– yes, that kind of condor – which was put to a new use in the post-war period. Looking at a photo of it, it’s a mean, thick-necked brute compared to the Andean bird, but I guess that figures. With the Spanish genius for subversive transformation, this monument became popularly known as the Avecrem, a bouillon cube for chicken soup made by the Gallina Blanca company.

In 1936, it was claimed that Madrid marked the “universal frontier that separates Liberty and Slavery”.  On a campus where the frontier had a literal, as well as a symbolic, meaning, the new International Brigades memorial, bloodied but unbowed, now faces the buildings where the Republic held out, as well as the cluster of Francoist constructions that lie just beyond them.

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One Response to “ Remembering the IB in Madrid ”

  1. [...] While Franco is gone and Spain is now a constitutional monarchy which has even had socialist governments, it took 72 years before a public monument rose in Spain to honor the Internationals. [...]

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