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HISTORY

Belchite: the open wound of Spain’s Civil War

Like many Spanish villages, Belchite was devastated by Spain's 1936-39 Civil War. But it is the only one which looks largely as it did at the end of the conflict, with piles of rubble strewn about, the clock tower barely standing and mass graves.

Belchite: the open wound of Spain's Civil War
Paleoanthropologist Jose Ignacio Lorenzo exhumes the remains of people killed between 1936 and 1939 during the Spanish Civil War in the Belchite cemetery, near Zaragoza on July 8th 2022. (Photo by CESAR MANSO / AFP)

“Here we found men, women and children,” said Ignacio Lorenzo, a 70-year-archaeologist as he exhumes the last skeletons from a mass grave in this village in the northern region of Aragon.

“Their crime was to have voted for left-wing parties or to be members of a union,” he said.

The siege of Belchite was part of a Republican offensive in 1937 to capture Zaragoza, the capital of Aragón, from the Nationalists led by General Francisco Franco.

Franco went on to win the war and establish a dictatorship that lasted until his death in 1975.

The repression of Belchite by Nationalist forces at the start of the war resulted in the execution of 350 of its roughly 3,000 residents, according to witness testimony from survivors.

The grandparents of veteran Spanish singer Joan Manuel Serrat were among those killed.

Lorenzo and his team have so far found the remains of 90 missing Republicans in the cemetery, some of them with their hands and feet bound. Others displayed signs of having been tortured.

British historian Paul Preston, author of “The Spanish Holocaust”, estimates that 200,000 Spaniards were killed far from the front lines — 150,000 in areas controlled by Franco’s forces and the rest in Republican areas.

Franco’s regime honoured its own dead, but left its opponents buried in unmarked graves scattered across the country.

“There are still 114,000 disappeared,” mostly Republicans, Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said earlier this week. Only Cambodia had more missing people, he added.

His government has drafted a law that, for the first time, will make exhumations of those who disappeared during the war a “state responsibility”. The bill faces its first parliamentary vote on Thursday.

Belchite was devastated during “the Battle of Belchite” in the Spanish civil war in a series of military operations confronting loyalist Spanish republicans and General Franco’s nationalists forces between August 24th and September 7th 1937. (Photo by CESAR MANSO / AFP)

‘Forget it’

Belchite was captured by Franco’s forces shortly after the start of the war, then taken over by the Republican camp a year later before being recaptured by the Nationalists.

The fighting left at least 5,000 dead and completely destroyed the village.

After the war, Franco visited Belchite and ordered it to be abandoned and preserved in its ruined states for propaganda reasons. A new village was built next door for the surviving residents.

The ruins of Belchite are now fenced off and can only be visited via a guided tour.

belchite spanish civil war

Volunteers from several countries work to clean up and restore the streets of the old town of Belchite. (Photo by CESAR MANSO / AFP)

“A rupture took place after the civil war, the past was left behind,” said Mari Angeles Lafoz, a socialist councilwoman in Belchite.

Domingo Serrano, the mayor of Belchite between 1983 and 2003, strove during his mandate to preserve what was left of the old village but lacked any real means.

He himself was born in 1946 in “old Belchite”, in one of the few houses that had survived the war.

“We let it go downhill,” said Serrano. “It’s as if we thought it was better to forget it.”

But the €7 million ($7.0 million) recently earmarked by the government for “old Belchite” were coming “40 years too late,” he said.

View of the village of Belchite, south of Zaragoza, which was totally destroyed in battle in August 1937. Following the battle Franco ordered that the ruins be left untouched as a “living” monument of war. (Photo by CIFRA / AFP)

‘Sensitive issue’

The ruins of Belchite — which include a cathedral pockmarked with bullet holes and gouged by mortar shells — were visited by 40,000 people in 2019 before the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted travel.

It has been dubbed “Spain’s Pompeii”, after the Roman city frozen in time when it was buried under ash from a volcanic eruption in 79 AD, said archaeologist Alfonso Fanjul.

The 48-year-old president of the Spanish Association of Military Archaeology heads a team of volunteers from around the world who clean and restore the village’s original cobblestones.

“I think it’s really one of the only places in the world that can this starkly remind you of something that has happened like this,” said one volunteer, Ellie Tornquist, a 24-year-old student from Chicago in the United States.

But the civil war continues to divide Spain.

While leftwing parties want to rehabilitate the memory of the Republican victims of the conflict, the right accuses them of seeking to open the wounds of the past.

The current mayor of Belchite, Carmelo Pérez of the conservative Popular Party, admits the war is a “very sensitive issue”.

But the village “is a unique place in Spain” where we can “restore dignity” and create a place of peace, he said.

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CULTURE

Spain’s Prado probes if artwork was stolen by Franco’s regime

Madrid's El Prado Museum said Thursday it was investigating the provenance of 62 works in its collection to determine whether they were seized during Spain's civil war or the Franco dictatorship.

Spain's Prado probes if artwork was stolen by Franco's regime

“The aim is to clear up any doubts about the origins and the context that brought about the entry (of an artwork) into the Prado’s collection,” said a statement from the museum.

If the law allowed, they would be returned to their legitimate owners, it added.

The Madrid-based museum had on Tuesday released a list of 25 works that “originated from seizures during the (1936-39) civil war”, publishing images of 22 of the paintings on its website.

By Thursday, the number of artworks confirmed as seizures rose to 62, most of them paintings.

Among the works are paintings by 17th-century Flemish artist Jan Brueghel the Younger, French painter Francois Boucher and impressionist-inspired Spanish artist Joaquin Sorolla, according to the list.

Most of the works were being held in storage, although five of them — one by Sorolla — have been on display at public museums in Girona, Granada and Malaga, RTVE public television said.

“The quality of the works is very diverse, there are some by well-known masters like Joaquín Sorolla, but also anonymous paintings whose ownership will probably never be known,” Andrés Ubeda, the Prado’s head of conservation and investigation, told public television on Wednesday.

Investigators will now try and establish why these works were seized, he said, indicating it was the first step in what would likely be a long process aimed at restoring the artworks to the families of the original owners.

“The seizures carried out by Franco’s government were aimed at taking away the legitimate possessions of their wartime enemies,” he said.

The Prado said it had set up a team to probe the provenance of works in its collection. It will publish its report in January.

“The Prado Museum has decided to formally open an investigation into the possibility that some of the works in its collection may have come from seizures during the civil war or during the Franco dictatorship,” which ended in 1975, it said on Tuesday.

All 25 works initially identified were “deposited in (the museum’s) collection by the Commission for the Defence of Artistic Heritage” set up by Francisco Franco during the civil war, the statement added.

Seventeen of those paintings were given to the museum between 1940-1942, while another six were initially transferred to Madrid’s Museo de Arte Moderno in 1942-43 and later acquired by the Prado, it said.

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