How to commemorate the victims of fascism in Britain and Spain is a tricky question, writes Chris Bambery
The past is always a subject of debate. That is also the case when it comes to how to commemorate historic events.
Last week I was proud to take part in a conference on the bombing of Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War and that of London during the Second World War. It brought together historians and politicians from Catalunya and Britain.
Catalan contributor after another kept making the point that while they were on the losing side in a war against fascism the victims of that evil had not been recognised, unlike in London, where the victims of the Blitz had received due recognition. Looking round the room I could see I was not the only Brit who was looking embarrassed. Because despite the Blitz becoming part of the national myth wheeled out over the last five decades whenever the capital was hit by a bomb attack, there is no proper memorial to those who died at the hands of the Luftwaffe. Some 20,000 Londoners were killed, many thousands were wounded and 3.5 million houses were damaged or destroyed.
Despite much worse which was to befall the population of German and Japanese cities later in the war, culminating in the dropping of atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, such losses should be remembered and the fact London did “take it” be a matter of pride.
Here I should declare a personal interest. My mother, like my dad, volunteered to fight in 1939, believing this was a war against fascism. My mother became a search light operator and was based in East London all through the Blitz. She remembered real horror, the generosity of East End working people and things like going to lunch time dances where she met Free French, Canadians, Norwegians, Poles and so on. Her elder sister was working in London and told me how the rich had escaped the city and the bombing, going to their country homes or North America, and subsequently you could pick up flats in the West End for next to nothing (many were in fact squatted).
But returning to the way London remembers the Blitz it’s true there is a plaque beside the memorial dedicated to London firefighters’ role in the war near St Pauls, and in Wapping at the Hermitage Memorial Riverside Garden there is a monument to the people of East London, the money raised from charities, businesses and individuals by a local group. The Museum of London also has an excellent display hall. In addition there are plaques across the city marking particular explosions, like the one at a railway bridge in Mile End where the first V1 flying bomb fell in 1944. But, incredibly, there is no national memorial such as the one recently unveiled outside the Ministry of Defence to those who served in Afghanistan.
In Bethnal Green there is the Stairway to Heaven project which aims to properly remember the 27 men, 84 women and 62 children who were crushed to death in 1943 on the stairs down to Bethnal Green tube station, trying to reach shelter (to compound this tragedy it was a false alarm). Yet there is an issue which needs to be addressed of how you mark such a tragic event which befell a white working class community in an area which is now predominantly Muslim. Things are never simple.
In commemorating the Blitz other issues can quickly surface which dent the myth that we were “all in it together.” The Chamberlain government refused to sanction building deep shelters for working people because of the cost and because they believed workers would stay down below rather than going to work. This was despite the evidence from Barcelona, subject to Italian, German and Francoist bombing in 1937-1938. The anarcho syndicalist union, the CNT, and local community organisations had built deep shelters. The key civic engineer who designed them was brought to London by the secret services but his advice to follow Barcelona was ignored.
Instead Londoners were issued with Anderson shelters; a sheet of corrugated iron covered in earth that you used to cover a hole dug in the back garden or yard. Many of course had neither. They were directed to brick built shelters. Both could protect you from shrapnel but could not withstand a direct hit or a bomb which fell close by.
In Barcelona the Metro stations had been used as shelters. In London they were closed to civilians seeking safety. Yet the rich could access deep shelters built privately under the likes of the Savoy and Dorchester Hotels (the Foreign Minister Lord Halifax used this one, dressing for cocktails and dinner before retiring for the night). On 14 September 1940, the eighth night of the Blitz (the night bombing raids on London which followed the Battle of Britain) a crowd of East Londoners, led by the Communist Party, forced their way into the Savoy shelter. Similar direct action ensured tube stations were open to civilians. The Churchill government also sanctioned the building of deep shelters.
Things like the occupation of the Savoy deserve to be commemorated but they are not because they don’t fit with the received narrative of the Blitz.
So, contrary to the remarks of the Catalan speakers at the conference, we now have the strange situation that there has been more done to commemorate those killed in Catalan cities like Barcelona, Tarragona and Granollers than in London, plus a huge effort to excavate and restore the deep shelters built by Catalan workers.
That flows from the upsurge in support for Catalan independence but also, as elsewhere in Spain, a determined effort to mark the victims of Franco. After his death and the transition to democracy the major parties, including the Communists, agreed on drawing a line under the crimes of the regime. A new generation don’t buy into that.
That has led to some fascinating debates. In the south of Catalunya, in the city of Tortessa there is a huge monument erected by Franco in the River Ebro celebrating his eventual victory in the 1938 Battle of the Ebro, which commenced with a republican offensive. Faced with much criticism the local mayor called a referendum asking citizens if they wanted to demolish it or “reconceptualise” it. Not surprisingly the vote was for the latter, but many dispute the result saying the vote should be across Catalunya. On a more positive note Franco was finally removed as “perpetual” mayor of the city.
At the conference the issue of the Valle de los Caídos (Valley of the Fallen) was raised. This is a huge, fascist memorial built by republican prisoners to celebrate those who died fighting for Franco. It is where that monster is buried and where fascists gather to salute him with raised arms. Some argue for its demolition, the historian Anthony Beevor, introducing the conference, agreed it was horrific but argued it could be turned into something highlighting the horrors of the Franco dictatorship, though his remains should be removed. I’ve not visited it myself; I couldn’t bring myself to, but have seen it in the distance, dominating the landscape, from road and rail.
The whole issue of how to remember the Spanish Civil War and the victims of Franco is a real hot potato in Spain, where memories of the Franco years fuels Catalan and Basque separatism.
Also at the conference was the director of the museum being built in Turin to the memory of the Italian resistance and those deported to their deaths or to forced labour in the Third Reich. That is another hot potato. A new young generation is seeking to keep alive the organisation of Italian partisans as the last of them near death.
Again history brings strange twists. During building work a Second World War bomb shelter was discovered. The director pointed out that visitors assume it was built to protect civilians from the Luftwaffe. Not so, it was built to offer protection from RAF bombers!
It seems to me that the people of London deserve a national monument to those killed in the Blitz. Just what that might be is the interesting question.
Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.