History is full of violent revolutions and civil wars. Overthrow the government; disband the state; our guys will be better than their guys.
Rare is the example where the dreams have ever come true. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss; this usually turns out to be the best case – with a lot of bloodshed and terror in between.
Consider perhaps the best outcome of a violent revolution: the American Revolution. In hindsight, one could conclude that – at best – the situation for the average citizen of one of the thirteen states improved for only a few years; at worst, well see this from Gary North. For what it’s worth, life under the Articles of Confederation at least kept the seat of government power reasonably close to home. Maybe far away was better!
This lasted only until 1789, with the ratification of the Constitution. Thirteen years (at best). Half of which were war years. A pretty high price to pay given the limited duration of any, at best negligible, benefit.
Conversely, an example of an extended period of anarchy comes in medieval Europe, after the fall of Rome. Certainly not a Rothbardian anarchy, but a period of significantly decentralized government. A result not directly of war, but of the collapse of Rome due to the cost of empire, internal deficiencies, and the withdrawal of consent by many of its citizens and subject.
“The Cypresses Believe in God,” by José Maria Gironella is a novel, the first of three in a series written by the author, on the Spanish civil war. In this volume, he writes about the eve of the Civil War – from April 1931 to July 1936:
Considered by many critics to be the greatest novel about the Spanish Civil War, this classic work by Spaniard José Maria Gironella is an unbiased account of the complicated events, movements and personalities that led up to the war. Beginning in 1931, Cypresses covers the next five years of political unrest, culminating in the explosion of the brutal war that wreaked such great havoc on Spain and its citizens. In his epic novel, both gripping and suspenseful, Gironella deftly portrays the human conflict, both internal and external. The most influential philosophical movements of the 20th century are embodied in various characters. Through them, the reader is introduced to every faction involved—[anarchist], communist, Catholic, royalist, existentialist, and others.
Prior to reading this first installment, I knew little about this war. Communists on one side, fascists on the other; there were anarchists in there somewhere (which side?); at the end of it all, Franco was dictator for a long time.
I don’t intend to review the novel in multiple installments or in significant detail – the detail, in fact, is almost overwhelming for someone with a limited knowledge of the events, political parties, etc. And Gironella introduces dozens of characters – some historical, some fictional. Through these characters, he tells the story of life in such a tumultuous time – a personal story of regular people, not a story of politicians and generals. A story of how such chaos impacts those people.
Gironella paints a picture of the chaos, turmoil, and terror when one is faced with a situation from which there is no escape – when no avenue offers safety, when no side can be chosen because all sides are violent and repressive, and choosing the wrong (losing) side is just as likely as choosing the right (winning) side; and the “right” and “wrong” sides can change claim to the seat of power, at times even day-to-day.
Such is life in revolution and civil war – no good choices regarding life and death.
The story is centered in Gerona, in the extreme northeast of Catalonia near the French border and the Mediterranean. The story centers on one family, the Alvears: Matías, his wife Carmen Elgazu, their sons Ignacio and César, and their daughter Pilar. He begins the novel:
On the second floor of one of the oldest houses on the right bank of the river lived the Alvears. The front balconies looked out on the Rambla, opposite the Café Neutral, located in the middle of the pleasantest arcade of the city; the rear window and balcony overhung the river, the Oñar.
The Alvears are a working-class family – they do not go hungry, but their existence is almost day-to-day. Matías, a telegraph operator, might be one of the wisest characters in the novel – astute to the political climate and risks. Carmen is devoutly Catholic, and is pleased when her oldest son, Ignacio, goes to seminary. Then, rather disappointed when he decides shortly thereafter that seminary is not for him.
Ignacio, after leaving seminary, tastes some of what the world has to offer. After experiencing and recovering from certain painful negative consequences of his decisions, he goes with his mother for a confession lasting 90 minutes – which pleases Carmen to no end:
As for Ignacio, he kept his promise. Arm in arm with Carmen Elgazu, he went out in the midafternoon to go to confession.
“Where do you want to go?”
“To Mosén Francisco.”
Carmen Elgazu was pleased with the choice. And they turned their steps in the direction of the parish of San Félix, crossing the Calle de las Ballesterías.
The choice of priest had been deliberate. Ignacio wanted someone who would understand and console him, who would give him courage to begin a new life.
The entire experience changes Ignacio, toward a more thoughtful and contemplative attitude.
Carmen’s disappointment at Ignacio’s leaving his priestly path is soothed when César decides he will go to seminary. After two years, he is sent home from the seminary early for the summer with a note:
César arrived unexpectedly. He came from Collell carrying a letter from his Latin teacher which read: “Make him sleep. He has spent whole nights here praying without feeling fatigue.”
Carmen Elagazu untied her apron and, quickly pinning her hair in place, went to see Mosén Alberto. César had spent whole nights in prayer without feeling tired. “What is your opinion of that?” Mosén Alberto, to whom the director of Collell had already written in this connection, was of the simple opinion that César was a saint and that this was evidence of grace. Carmen Elgazu raised her hands to her cheeks and cried: “Jesus!” Her joy was so great that her eyes filled with tears that perhaps were water, perhaps not. “A saint! A miracle! My son performs miracles!”
César is struck by the tragic condition of the poor, a burden he carries throughout the novel; sensing the coming turmoil, he comes to accept a fatal attitude toward his future.
Pilar, the youngest, is not as well developed as a character – yet we learn that she is attractive enough to gain the attention of certain, locally powerful individuals – including Julio, a childhood friend of Matías and eventually the chief of police for the town (and reportedly a Mason).
Neither Matías nor Carmen are native to Catalonia – and this immediately introduces one facet of the coming difficulties. They are considered outsiders in an area that remained under the Republican (as opposed to Nationalist) control for much of the war.
Wait! What do you mean, Republican and Nationalist? Now, further complications are introduced. Basically, the Republicans consist of groups that can be labeled communist, socialist, and anarchist – anarchist like Bakunin, not anarchist like Rothbard – and supported externally by the Soviet Union and Mexico. This marriage of anarchists with the communists seems to be one of convenience, as they have little in common other than common enemies.
The Nationalists consist of groups that can be loosely described as fascist, as well as supporters to a return of monarchical rule; Catholics were aligned with the Nationalists as well. This side was supported externally by Italy, Nazi Germany, and Portugal.
However, these groupings, while reasonably appropriate, should be considered generalizations. For example, in different regions, alliances could be somewhat different.
Throughout the novel, even five years before the beginning of hostilities, one has a sense of the coming conflict. The building of factions is developing. There are episodes of strikes, countered by martial law and arrests. These episodes are somewhat limited in scope and duration.
Yet, a sense of coming conflict and an inevitability are two different things – to flee is not judged worthwhile in this condition.
For the rich, why leave? Their wealth is tied in their factories, in their lands. To leave and start over comes with a great cost. For the poor, how can they afford to leave? But in all cases, while the sense of risk is there, it is somewhere out there, not yet here and not yet certain.
Gironella describes the formations of the various political groupings and parties – in the bank where Ignacio works, among the handful of employees, virtually every faction is represented. Not merely Republican and Nationalist, but the multitude of parties that made up each of these groups.
Life in Gerona proceeds throughout this period of prelude to the war – the economy is slowing, more and more are unemployed, no answers seem to be found. This raises the possibilities for the communists and anarchists, who begin a program of delivering free food from the outlying farms to those in the city who accept the party card.
Cosme Vila is the local communist leader, and at one time a fellow bank employee with Ignacio. El Responsable is the anarchist leader – the two of them form this union to bring food from the rural areas and into the city. It is a union of convenience, as other than a desire to overthrow the government and counter the Nationalist factions, they hold little in common.
Gironella describes the activities of the private teachers – David and Olga – socialists with a vision of indoctrination for schoolchildren. In the fragmenting and rebuilding of society, they find an uneasy home with the communist Republicans.
The priests and bishops – the fate that awaits them if the Republicans seize control. The businessmen and landowners. We are introduced to dozens of residents of Gerona, as well as intriguing characters from elsewhere in Spain, and even Russia and Germany.
The pressure raised by the Republicans increases. As the situation reaches boiling, a faction of the military attempts a coup in 1936 – with the proclaimed intent to save Spain from the Republican influence – the communists, socialists, and anarchists.
Arriba España! The coup is for Spain.
In the various regions of Spain, this coup comes with mixed results. In parts of Spain, the Nationalist forces hold territory – Franco being the notable example.
In Gerona, it lasts only one day. The representatives of the military that remained loyal to the government bring it to a quick end; through this, the Republicans see their chance. They then unleash terror in the city – burning and looting the churches, killing members of opposing parties by the hundreds through the first few nights of complete terror.
Merely owning a firearm, if one was a member of the wrong side, was enough to warrant execution – not only disarmament, but execution.
By the dozens, the so-called enemies of the people are jailed by day or taken from their homes in the night, subsequently marched out at night to face their fate.
Matías fears for his family. While not directly involved with either party, both Ignacio and Pilar have become friendly with Marta and Mateo, respectively, who are both affiliated with Falange Española, a fascist group now on the losing side in Gerona. César, being from the seminary, was in even more danger. Matías racks his brain for a method of protecting his family.
The Alvear family was among those seeking a protector. Julio had sent them a message: “Be on guard. They are looking for Mateo and Marta, and your house will be searched. Be careful with Ignacio and César.”
He recalls at one time Ignacio gave blood to Dimas, an anarchist of some standing. Matías leaves the house, at some risk to his own safety, and returns with Dimas, who promises to protect the family as long as they all stay in the home.
Matías was back in exactly half an hour. His return was dramatic. His heart was going like a triphammer. He still could not explain how the idea had come to him. It must have been the hand of Providence. When he received Julio’s note, his desire to save his children was so great that he had hit upon the solution.
The fact of the matter is that he returned with a tall, unshaved man armed with two huge revolvers; Dimas, of Salt. And accompanying Dimas, another militiaman, short, whose gleaming white teeth gave him a pleasing expression. Dimas was growling: “You should have said so, you should have said so. Not even God is coming in here.”
Carmen Elgazu and César were struck dumb at his words, but they understood their meaning, as did Ignacio, as did Pilar. Such a weight had rolled off Matías’ shoulders that Dimas’ language amused him.
Unfortunately and initially undetected, César the seminarian leaves the house, never to be seen by the family again. He was one who was rounded up in the jail, and later marched out at night to meet his fate:
A volley rang out, and César felt something gently pierce his skin.
Moments later he heard a voice saying: “I absolve you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” a voice coming nearer and repeating: “I absolve you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” And he also heard groans. He opened his eyes for a moment. He saw a militiaman kneeling and taking tiny communion wafers from his wrist watch and putting them into the mouths of his fallen neighbors. In the militiaman he recognized Mosén Francisco. César’s eyes closed. He felt a kiss on his forehead. Then his heart closed.
César the saint, who previously sensed his fate, met it quietly.
The priest, Mosén Francisco, instead of hiding, went out disguised in the clothes of the militiamen in order to perform this duty.
And with this, the first installment of Gironella’s wonderful work comes to a close.
Throughout the novel, I am struck by the paralyzing nature of the situation – what choices can one make when all choices are bad? Gironella paints this picture with great nuance and clarity – the lives of everyday people in a boat floating off as it will – with no one able to control it.
Such is the path of violent revolution or civil war.
I say make it a non-violent one instead.