Slaves for the Fatherland: Isaías Lafuente
My first visit to Spain was back in 1968, when I spent 18 months at a seminary in Valladolid. I arrived knowing no Spanish, very little about Spain and its history and, in fact, it was my very first trip abroad.
I remember crossing the Bay of Biscay on a ship called the Pride of Bilbao owned by Swedish Lloyd, on an extremely stormy night, when most of the passengers were seasick, including my three Spanish cabin mates. We arrived very early in the morning at the Basque port of Bilbao. As we were docking, I stood on deck, marvelling at the thought of stepping onto foreign land for the very first time, and hearing the dockers below speaking a language completely beyond my comprehension. My schoolboy Latin and Greek had served no purpose here.
What I little realised at the time was that the men below were not speaking Spanish, but a regional language called Basque, a language that not only emphasised their regional difference, but was actually officially banned as a medium of communication in Franco Spain.
On a later return to Spain in the early 1970s, I crossed the border between Hendaye and Irún, visibly carrying a copy of George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. In my total innocence, I never realised this had been a proscribed piece of literature, and it was confiscated by a wily border guard. Over the many years of my association with Spain and its language, I have come to learn a lot of that period of modern Spanish history. The Spanish Civil War (1936-9) had been a bloody and gruesome affair, claiming the lives of over 1 million people, but the pain, suffering and death did not stop with its conclusion.
Isaías Lafuente, in his book Esclavos por la Patria (Slaves for the Fatherland), picks up a thread of what happened to thousands of prisoners of war after the civil war had ended. Many were detained under the most brutal of conditions, and sent out to work on huge national projects, like the construction of reservoirs, roads and airports. Huge numbers died or were seriously injured, and most suffered starvation and deprivations of many kinds.
The one ‘national project’ that really caught my attention was the construction of the huge basilica of the Valley of the Fallen (Valle de los Caídos), with its towering cross that can now be seen for miles across the landscape. This was hewn out of the mountainside as a huge cavernous mausoleum, bigger than St Peter’s in Rome, and was to serve as the burial place of Francisco Franco himself, when his time came to ‘be seated at the right hand of his creator’. The construction of his burial place cost the lives of hundreds of prisoners.
On November 20th 1975, when Franco finally shed his mortal shackles, the country at large was so “distressed” that every retail outlet across the nation sold out of Cava Champagne…….resulting in such a huge national hangover that the nation’s commerce and industry was paralysed for several days afterwards.