Lower Aragon is a very different place to the towering peaks of the Aragonese Pyrenees, where I spent most of last week. Drive south of Zaragoza and you leave the fertile plain of the Ebro River and pass through a strikingly weird lunar landscape of chalk-white hills that would make a perfect location for Starship Troopers or a cinematic version of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.
Curve round beyond these hills and head east roughly parallel to the Ebro and you find yourself in flattish terrain of bronze rock and hard soil, dotted with a collection of hundreds of wind turbines that would have driven Don Quixote mad.
When we went through it yesterday pretty much everything was parched, bleached and burnt dry at the end of a summer where temperatures were still reaching 32 degrees even at the beginning of September. This is the countryside that produced Goya, who was born in a humble and austere stone house in the pretty village of Fuendetodos. It was also a key front in the Spanish Civil War, and the area is still littered with trenches, bunkers, and former firing positions that now provide one of the major tourist attractions in an area that doesn’t tend to figure on the itinerary of many foreign visitors.
Just a few miles away from the village are the ruins of Belchite, the scene of one of the most devastating battles in the Civil War. Between 24 August and 7 September 1937, seven thousand Francoist troops resisted an assault by the newly-created Republican Army of the East, supported by units of the International Brigades.
The Republican assault was ultimately successful, despite a Nationalist counteroffensive supported by the Condor Legion – at the cost of six thousand mostly civilian lives and the virtual destruction of the town. After the war Franco designated the ruins of Belchite as testament to ‘Red barbarism’ and a monument was established there to honour the Nationalist dead, even as a new town was built alongside it, initially by Republican prisoners-of-war.
Post-Franco Spain redisignated the ruins of Belchite as a general testament to the destruction and folly of war, and its impact on civilians. Each year thousands of tourists, visitors and schoolchildren come here to see the gutted and bullet-splattered facades of churches and chapels, the former hospital and theatre, the Goya cinema, the houses of the wealthy and the poor.
Today visitors are no longer allowed to visit the ruins by themselves, partly because they are dangerous, and also because last year Francoists defaced the more recent post-Franco monument which commemorated the dead on both sides, and sprayed graffitti that included swastikas and exhortations to ‘ honour our fallen’ that explicitly rejected the efforts by the Aragonese local government to present Belchite as a tragedy that transcended the intentions of either side:
As a result the monument has now been fenced off. And yesterday we joined the guided tour, and spent an hour and half in the ruined town that was once wrecked by Republican and Nationalist artillery, by the bombs of the Condor Legion, and the fierce house-by-house fighting that left no building untouched:
Not all the damage was the result of the battle. In the early sixties there were still people living here while the new town was being built. Now the years of abandonment have compounded the impact of wartime destruction, so that Belchite at first sight resembles some of the hundreds of Aragonese villages that have been abandoned because their inhabitants were unable to make a living in them.
But it was war that first turned this ancient town into a ghost-town, and as I walked through the ruins I thought of Goya’s Desastres de la Guerra, of the artists impressions of Zaragoza that were drawn in the aftermath of the two French sieges of 1808/09, of the devastated Southern cities during the American Civil War, of Stalingrad, Warsaw and Berlin:
All these buildings were places where men and women worshipped, played, relaxed, stored their food and animals, collected water, gossiped and flirted, watched films and theatrical performances. The ruined churches were themselves a reflection of the town’s rich and ancient history, from their Baroque facades to the mudejar horseshoe arches and geometrical patterns that reached far back into the early Middle Ages.
Before the war Belchite had evolved over centuries from a Celtiberian settlement to a Moorish town, to a mixed community of Christians, Jews and Muslims, to a provincial nineteenth century bourgeois town. In 1936 it had a Socialist mayor, who was shot when Francoist troops seized the town in the first days of the Nationalist uprising.
The Civil War was not the first time that Belchite had been transformed into a battlefield. In the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, the name of Belchite is inscribed to commemorate one of Napoleon’s victories during a battle in the Spanish War of Independence. Belchite also became a battleground during the two Carlist civil wars in the nineteenth century.
In 1937, the town was exposed to the full destructive power of twentieth-century warfare, in which children were shot down by snipers, waterways were turned into trenches, machinegun nests were erected in churches, and the Condor Legion razed an entire neighborhood.
This time Belchite did not recover. Thousand of years of human endeavour and artistic creation were obliterated in two weeks, leaving the hollowed out buildings that have been slowly mouldering away beneath the deep blue sky of Aragon for the past 77 years.
These ruins are a poignant and powerful reminder of the national tragedy that was the Spanish Civil War – and the spectacle of devastation that has befallen so many towns and cities as civilians have been transformed into ‘collateral damage’ and deliberate targets of military operations in wartime.
Today in 2014, civilians remain the primary victims of war in Gaza, Aleppo, Mosul, Homs and Donetsk, where cities and neighborhoods have been reduced to ruins by gunmen, warlords and vainglorious holy warriors bored with too much peace, by arms manufacturers and the governments who serve them, by politicians who celebrate the ‘great’ war of 1914 and dream of new ones that they will never fight in.
Today, the world is closer to a major conflict than at any time since World War II. There are many reasons for this situation, but in the Western world at least, the militarist drift is partly the result of the fact that too many people have forgotten what war really means, and/or have allowed themselves to be seduced by fantasies of ‘surgical’ high-tech violence that have once again served to legitimize war as a policy instrument.
Belchite has a different message, to those who are willing to listen to it, a message summed up its empty homes, and the words of a local poet, inscribed on the door of a destroyed church:
Old town of Belchite/the young men no longer loiter around you/Now they will no longer hear the songs that our fathers sang.