Barcelona

An oppressive and beleaguered empire, a terrorist international, a storm raging in the world press about torture, right-wing Christians on the march against moral decline and the collapse of family values–you can stand here on Montjuic hill and history grips you by the arm.

In 1896 all Europe was shaken by reports of the terrible tortures endured by prisoners entombed in the dungeons of the fortress built by the Bourbons on Montjuic. Terror, in the form of militant anarchism–the Al Qaeda of its era–had already been on the march for a generation, its detonations caused by such devices as the “Orsini bomb,” whose sinister horns were filled with fulminate of mercury, which exploded on impact, thus bypassing the need for a fuse. Orsini went to the guillotine in 1858 after hurling his invention at Louis Napoleon. He missed, but he killed eight and injured 156. In 1862 Nobel patented dynamite and gave “propaganda of the deed” a deadlier tempo.

Suicide bombing can be traced at least as far back as Ignatei Grinevitsky, part of the team that killed Czar Alexander in 1881. The first bomb failed in its intention, so Grinevitsky stepped close enough to the Czar’s carriage to insure that the second bomb would do the job, though it took him as well as his target. As listed by Benedict Anderson in a marvelous series across three issues this spring, summer and fall in New Left Review, international anarchism had a steady run of successes. After Czar Alexander came the assassinations of French President Carnot in 1894, Spanish Prime Minister Cánovas in 1897, Empress Elizabeth of Austria in 1898, King Umberto I of Italy in 1900 (planned in Paterson, New Jersey), US President McKinley in 1901, King Alexander of Serbia along with his Queen in 1903, Russian Interior Minister von Plehve in 1904, Grand Duke Sergei of Russia in 1905, King Carlos of Portugal and son Luiz in 1908, Prince Ito of Japan in 1909, Russian Prime Minister Stolypin in 1911 and King George of Greece in 1913.

Being a ruler was a riskier business a hundred years ago, and bystanders were not immune either. From the explosives hurled at processions or from such venues as the upper tiers of theaters came substantial collateral damage, contemplated with moral equanimity by some anarchists. Asked at his trial in 1894 why he had killed so many innocent people, the French anarchist Emile Henry explained to the court that anarchism “is born in the heart of a corrupt society which is falling to pieces; it is a violent reaction against the established order. It represents egalitarian and libertarian aspirations which are battering down existing authority; it is everywhere, which makes it impossible to contain.” So, said Henry as he faced the guillotine, “Il n’y a pas des innocents.” There are no innocents, at least among the privileged classes.

In 1896 came the famous bloodbath at the Feast of Corpus Christi on June 7, when an unknown hand threw a bomb into a religious procession led by the bishop of Barcelona. This may have been the work of a police agent, since the bigwigs had passed by and the bomb killed twelve working people at the tail end of the procession who, at least by Emile Henry’s standard, were innocent, unless an anticlerical perpetrator had reckoned that mere participation in a religious procession recruited one to the ranks of the guilty.

After the Corpus Christi bombing an unrelenting police roundup saw hundreds of suspected anarchists and kindred suspects dragged up the hill to the military prison on Montjuic, where instruments of torture dating back to the Inquisition were awaiting them. Their bones broken, their genitals burned and mutilated, some died or went mad. Five were garroted.

Among the prisoners was a Cuban creole called Fernando Tarrida, professor of mathematics and engineering director at Barcelona’s Polytechnic Academy. He was also a contributor to Barcelona’s anarchist daily, El Productor, and the journal Acracia, arguing against “propaganda of the deed” by small groups as ineffective in battling the money power. Tarrida urged broad anarchist organization of working people. A lieutenant warden in the prison recognized his former teacher and leaked his arrest to the press. Tarrida’s cousin, a conservative senator, got him released and Tarrida headed across the Pyrenees with letters and documents from the prisoners in Montjuic recounting the tortures they had endured. He exposed the horrors in his book Les Inquisiteurs d’Espagne. From platforms across Europe orators thundered against Montjuic.

Anarchism had many chapters left to unwind, not least of them the Tragic (or Glorious, depending on your point of view) Week beginning July 26, 1909. The already terrible condition of Barcelona’s poor had been augmented by a fierce downturn in the textile industry. There was also great popular fury at a military draft, which had seen 40,000 conscripts dispatched (with grave subsequent casualties) to Spanish Morocco to protect the commercial interests of a Barcelona consortium including architect Antonio Gaudí’s prime patron, Eusebi Güell. In one night twenty-three churches and convents were fired and gutted.

Maybe because it was a rich source of employment, Gaudí’s cathedral, the Sagrada Familia, then as now in construction, was spared, though the anarchists had no love for Gaudí, identified as the architect not only of Güell but of Catholic reaction. In 1936, at the onset of the Civil War, anarchists broke into the Sagrada Familia and destroyed all of Gaudí’s plans and records. History marched on, rich as always in surprises. Today the Sagrada Familia is as vibrant a building site as any Gothic cathedral in the Middle Ages. The day I visited it and contemplated Gaudí’s paean to the Holy Family, and the additions by later hands, I bought a copy of El País, whose main headline brought news of Spanish Prime Minister Zapatero’s announcement that his Socialist Party was endorsing gay marriage, of which Spain will soon be the third legal sanctuary in Europe. The Catholic Church, well aware of its financial underpinning by the state, soon muted its initial fury.