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3: 1931: Madrid: The Fall of the Monarchy and the Proclamation of the Republic

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    I went to Spain by train, changing at Irun because, while France had standard-gauge track, Spain’s was (and still is) broad-gauge. My first shock came when I entered the station men’s room. Scrawled in black on the wall was “¡Muera el rey!” (Death to the King!). In the English press there was little mention of this hostility to him; the fact that his wife Victoria Eugenia de Battenberg was of the British royal family helped his cause in England, but Spaniards stressed that she transmitted hemophilia which made the succession dangerous. In fact, the youngest son Juan, the father of the present king, Don Juan Carlos, was free of it, thus saving the dynasty. I have since wondered if that graffito was simply an expression of leftist republicanism, of Basque nationalism, or also, but this is improbable, of Basque hatred of that royal line, since the Basques had supported the rival Carlist line.

    I spent the first night in San Sebastian, a beautiful resort on a shell-shaped beach (la Concha), not for from the French border. Now it is a hotbed of ETA Basque nationalist terrorists, but that was unknown there in those days. San Sebastian was proud of the fact that well-to-do families spent the summer there to escape from the heat of Madrid and most of Spain, which has nine months of invierno (winter) and three months of infierno (hell). While there was no terrorism, there was, even more than in Catalonia, an active nationalist movement which wanted a federal republic. Republican leaders had met there in the autumn of 1930 and signed the Pact of San Sebastian. I heard no mention of it, but it became an important document when the republic was proclaimed and the Basques and Catalans demanded that the pact be honored.

    My next stop was Burgos. Spanish trains were primitive, and the passengers mostly poor. In each train there was una pareja—a pair of Civil Guards armed with rifles; they always traveled in pairs for self-protection. An elite group—soldiers were demoted one rank when they joined—the Civil Guard was the symbol of harsh law and order and as such was commonly resented. Today the Basques want them out as the symbol of Castilian imperialism. Despite their grotesque hats, they inspired respect in me, although the sight of them with their rifles slung over their shoulders seemed odd.

    The train chuffed wearily up from the pleasant coast to the highlands, going through the small town of Hernani, which Victor Hugo chose as the name for the hero of one of his dramas about Spain. The line then goes down to valley of the Zadorra to Vitoria, the capital of Alava, one of the three Spanish Basque provinces and now the seat of the autonomous Basque government. The line crosses the Ebro, which flows east to the Mediterranean, at Miranda del Ebro. Climbing up to the Montes de Oca, it goes through La Bureba region,  where the Castilian language was born. With the Reconquest of Spain from the Moors the language spread south, becoming known as Spanish, and across the Atlantic as far as Patagonia. It one of the world’s great languages.

    Soon the line reaches Burgos, now a bustling city, but in those days a sleepy little cathedral town, God bless it; it has lost its ancient quaint charm. The cathedral is one of the most beautiful in Spain. It was dark when I entered. Old women were praying with a devotion I had not seen in northern countries. Next day I toured the cathedral. The eleventh-century Spanish hero El Cid (from the Arabic word for lord) was from the village of Vivar, just north of Burgos; hence his name Rodrigo Ruy Díaz de Vivar; the village is now known as Vivar del Cid. His Arabic title betrays the fact that he was an adventurer who fought for both sides during the Reconquest, of which legend has now made him the Spanish hero. Spanish liberals have tried to debunk him as the symbol of old Spain. Certainly his dubious morality is embodied in a wooden box proudly displayed in the cathedral. The Cid filled it with sand and pledged it to two Jews, Rachel and Vidas, saying that it was full of gold.  The Cid may have been a cheat, but the Jews are not that stupid. His defenders claim that he repaid the loan.

    I took an evening train to Avila, arriving there in the early morning. It was dark and cold, but fortunately there was a coal fire in the station waiting room. I huddled by it, waiting for the dawn. When it was light, I walked toward the city walls. The streets were deserted, but I passed a priest, waiting for his first mass. We saluted each other solemnly. In the city there was a stand selling churros—sticks of dough boiled in olive oil. To a hungry young man they tasted like ambrosia, but today they would make me sick. The gaunt stone city of Avila with its massive walls stood out sharply against the blue sky. Storks flew around or perched on their nests. Avila, more than any other city, embodies the spirit of the rocky highland of Old Castile, just as its most famous daughter Santa Teresa expresses the religious tradition of this tierra de santos y de cantos—land of saints and boulders.

    From Avila, the train took me over the Sierra de Guadarrama range to El Escorial on the foothill overlooking the plain where Madrid is located. From his stone bench, Philip II could survey the progress of the great monastery he was building as well as the plain where he was transforming a village into the capital of Spain. Even liberal Spaniards who dislike Philip II view the Escorial as the embodiment of the greatness of the Spain of his time. Little did I realize then that Spain was to be torn by a Civil War at the end of which Franco would build the huge underground mausoleum, El Valle de los Caídos, as a burial place for himself and the dead of both sides. It really is an echo of El Pudridero, the crypt in the Escorial where the bodies of the kings of Spain were allowed to rot (hence the name) before they were buried in splendor. Felipe II, who watched mass every day from a room overlooking the altar, rests today in the church in splendid isolation.

    My next stop was Madrid. We had arranged an exchange by which the son of a Madrid family would stay with us in Winchester. My good mother, who never warmed up to the French boys who stayed with us, took a great liking to the Spanish boy, who displayed indeed the human qualities which make Spaniards in general so attractive. The family with which I lived had a modest apartment overlooking a colorful and noisy street market. The father, who dominated the family, worked for a savings bank called Previsores del Porvenir—Foreseers of the Future, a name which turned out to be totally wrong as far as the depositors were concerned. The bank had impressive quarters on the Gran Vía and put out a magazine making it appear that the customers belonged to some kind of a club. It promised fabulous returns at the end of twenty years, and every day at meals the father would make speeches about the dazzling plan. Wishing to show that I was appreciative, I began paying monthly installments from my meager resources. The Civil War suspended operations; after it I received a circular letter saying that the bank was conducting a ponzi scheme. I have always wondered if the father was fooled too or whether he was an unscrupulous salesman.

    It was the de Osma Scholarship which took me to Madrid, and more precisely to the Instituto de Valencia de Don Juan. Pleasantly located at Fortuny 43, just west of the great Castellana avenue, it is primarily a fine arts museum. It was founded in 1916 by Guillermo J. de Osma and his wife the Condesa de Valencia de Don Juan. Its collection of Spanish art, especially of Morisco pottery is remarkable; I was impressed, but too ignorant to appreciate it fully. My closest contact there was Pedro Longás, a portly, serious priest who always wore his black cassock. He was the institute’s literary scholar, and librarian. With Martin de la Torre he edited the Latin codices in the National Library. The first and apparently only volume appeared in 1935, just before the Civil War which. forced almost all my Madrid acquaintances who were not killed into exile. Since so many priests were killed, I have often wondered what happened to Don Pedro. I believe he was in nationalist territory and survived.

    Obviously my Madrid experience was dominated by the fall of the monarchy. The dictatorship of General Miguel Primo de Rivera had ended in January 1930. It was not really a harsh dictatorship, not a dictadura (hard) but a dictablanda (soft). Many Spaniards, especially the Basques and Catalans, resented his rule, while the intellectuals were especially resentful because he scorned them. The army was much in evidence. Many churches and other old buildings had been turned into barracks. In Old Castile I had visited a monastery used as a barracks. The commanding officer let me in reluctantly. Hoping to impress him, I said my sponsor was Salvador de Madariaga. I could not tell from his face whether he did not know the name or whether he despised the liberal intellectual.

    Primo de Rivera died a simple, lonely death in Paris soon after his dismissal. As his successor, Alfonso XIII appointed General Dámaso Berenguer, who convened the parliament (Cortes) for March, 1931. Just before I arrived in Madrid, Alfonso XIII set up a new government under Admiral Juan Bautista Aznar on February 17, 1931. Perhaps Alfonso XIII doubted the loyalty of the army because of the December 1930 military uprising in the Pyrenean town of Jaca led by two crazy young captains, Fermín Galán and Angel García Hernández. They were captured and shot while they marched on Saragossa. They became martyrs to the republican cause, and the King, who was blamed for insisting on their execution, lost more popularity. To ease tensions, he scheduled municipal elections for April 12, 1931.

    Their precise results have still not been established, but all the major towns voted republican, and this was taken by the crowds as a mandate without waiting for elections to parliament. The King realized that the game was up, and on April 14 he and his family sailed to Italy. The Republican leaders were embarrassed later to realize that they had failed to get him to sign a declaration of abdication. Monarchists were saddened by this course of events. I clearly remember a cover picture in the monarchist paper ABC of Count Romanones sitting desolately in the railroad station of El Escorial after saying farewell to Alfonso XIII. In Madrid the public mood was one of rejoicing. It was an unusually bloodless revolution. Crowds strolled happily through the sunny streets. The Republicans claimed that they were restoring ancient liberties and that the blue in an old flag symbolized those liberties. The old red-yellow-red striped flag lost one red stripe, replaced by a deep blue one. It happened that the capes of the police had a deep blue lining, so they draped the cape over their shoulders to show their republican sympathies. The crowds appreciated the symbolism and applauded. No one realized that a civil war was in the making.

    The transition was not abrupt. The new prime minister, Niceto Alcalá Zamora was a lawyer from Andalusia, and both he and Interior Minister Miguel Maura were Catholics. However, the cabinet contained others who were opportunists and demagogues, notably Foreign Minister Alejandro Lerroux, a founder of the Radical Party and the boss of a notorious district of Barcelona. An anti-clerical, he was remembered for a 1905 speech in which he exhorted a crowd to raise young nuns to the status of mothers. Another anti-clerical was his right-hand man in the cabinet, Diego Martínez Barrio from Seville, a strong Mason in a country where that meant secrecy and anti-clericalism. Many of the republican leaders had ties with the anti-clerical Institución Libre de Enseñanza, described elsewhere. Here then, within the government, was the fatal religious split.

    Another problem was the irresponsibility of many “intellectuals” who backed the republic. While I had the greatest respect for men like Salvador de Madariaga, other struck me as poseurs.

    Already in 1931 I was becoming suspicious of the famous authors of the period. Ramon del Valle-Inclán (1866-1936), the author of four exotic fantasies called Sonatas, was a clown, an extravagantly eccentric character. Posing as a conservative in his youth and as a radical in his old age, he wanted to show that he was bucking the trends. Pedro Salinas (1892-1951) as an author was fantastical, but as an individual and as a university professor he was a solid citizen. When I called on him he must have wondered what was wrong with me, since I had an awful stomach attack; I had just eaten my first meal of calamares en su tinta, rubbery “squid in their ink”, a favorite Spanish dish and an acquired taste which I never acquired. Pedro Salinas was solicitous and kind. Just as I recovered, Valle-Inclán swept in, a strange bearded figure wrapped in a cape. I had told Salinas that I would like to meet some authors, so Salinas introduced me and suggested that I meet with Valle-Inclán for a chat. Valle-Inclán said he would be delighted to chat with me, and when I asked him when and where, he insisted that any time was fine with him. I suggested noon next day in his hotel, and he readily agreed. So I arrived on time with one of his books which I hoped he would autograph. He had not turned up by one, so I asked where he was. “Está en el café” was the reply—in his habitual cafe with his friends. I left a message that I would return next day at 12:30, which I did, but by 1:30 he had not arrived. So I said I would return the next day at one, with the same result. The next day I proposed 1:30, with the same result. My humility and patience were wearing out, so I decided to make one last try at 2:00 the next day. Always the same reply—he must have spent his life in the cafe. Now quite angry, I left the book at the desk with the request that he sign it. When I went back, he as usual was not there, but the clerk gave me my book in which he had written in his flourishing hand “To my old friend Ronald Hilton.” These were kind of people who thought they were ordained to run Spain.

    I returned to England by another route, taking the train to Zaragoza, and then up to Jaca (the scene of the uprising of Gabriel and Galán) and across the Pyrenees to France. I learned a grammatical lesson which I have often told my students. A man in my compartment had two botas —typically Spanish leather wine bottles with a spout. The trick is to hold it about a foot from the mouth, hold your mouth open and then squeeze the leather do that the wine shoots into it. It was a skill I had never acquired. The two botas were full of thick red wine from La Rioja. French customs allowed each traveler to carry only one, so the man asked me to take one through customs for him, which I did.

    When we got into the French train he invited me to take a swig of the wine. Realizing the challenge I faced, I declined, but he insisted three times, which, under Spanish rules means that one must accept. With great misgiving I did. I held the bota a foot away, opened my mouth aimed and squeezed. I was a poor shot. The thick wine made a big red patch on my white shirt. General puzzlement. I tried again, raising my sights. This time I was hit in the eye, and I was literally red-faced. For a third try I chose the middle route. This time my aim was good, but the wine hit my uvula, triggering a violent coughing spell. By this time the compartment was looking at me as if I were demented.

    Sitting next to me was a priest. He clearly decided that I was mad and dangerous, so he buried himself in his breviary. I decided to prove to him that I was sane and harmless. Just before reaching Pau, the line crosses the Gave river, The train stopped on the bridge. Hoping to establish reasonable contact with the priest, I pointed to the river and asked him in French if it was la Gave. It was a terrible mistake. Gave is masculine in French, therefore le Gave. The priest thought I said la gare—the railroad station. He was confirmed in his belief that I was insane, pointing at the river and asking if it was the railroad station. He answered with obvious alarm “pas encore!”—not yet! I was not aware of my mistake. Having asked the question and got the same reply three times, I gave up. As the train pulled into Pau, the priest showed the courage of the martyrs. As we got out, he asked me “Where are you going my son?” “To Paris” I replied. He took me by the arm, led me across the platform, urged me to get in and said slowly and clearly “This train will take you to Paris.” After he took off, I belatedly realized my mistake. I used this experience to impress on my students the importance of grammar in language and of using the right gender of nouns.

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