We Need Barcelona’s Hidden Radical History Now More Than Ever

We Need Barcelona’s Hidden Radical History Now More Than Ever

We Need Barcelona’s Hidden Radical History Now More Than Ever

The 1992 Barcelona Olympics changed a city that in the 1930s wanted to change the course of world history. 


In the United States, there is a mighty and deeply reactionary movement for historical erasure. Its aims are nothing less than to prevent teaching the truth about the ugliest parts of the history of this country. The bewitching, paradoxical city of Barcelona presents a vision of what it could look like if such a movement were to reach its goals.

Barcelona is a city adorned with the world’s most beautiful architecture, art, sports, and food. It’s also a city where, despite the best efforts by small but determined groups of people, its history remains muffled and marginalized. Every main civic artery seems to have infinite side streets with all kinds of storefronts that seem to specialize in hidden historical gems. It is in these shops and among these treasures that one can envision the Barcelona that could have been; the Barcelona envisioned by the radicals of the 1930s who fought the forces of General Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War and saw a People’s Barcelona as a tangible reality: a city that could be not only a bulwark against fascism but als0 a model for a society run by workers, or, to use Orwell’s phrase, “a town where the working class was in the saddle.”

To walk down La Rambla, the long promenade of trendy shops in the heart of the city—practically every third one selling knockoff products that celebrate the Barcelona Football Club—and to also know that this space saw some of the bloodiest street fighting of the Spanish Civil War is jarring. To be among restaurants framed by walls where there is still damage from fascist air bombing campaigns or firing squads, unadorned by any plaque or marker, would disturb even a cynic. To visit the Pablo Picasso museum and see room after room of genius and mastery of diverse artistic styles, yet to see no mention of his radical politics and a curious absence of his works of the 1930s is equally disconcerting, like if one went to the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville and saw no mention of the years 1966–70. Perhaps his most famous work, Guernica, which captures the horrors of fascist aggression, is housed in Madrid—the city that was the base of Franco’s power—which feels more like insult than tribute.

You can find anarchist shops and used book stores crowded with treasures sold cheaply that by all rights should be in their own museum: posters, pins, magazines, newspapers, pamphlets—all that at one time were produced under the direst conditions albeit with the hope for a better world. The posters in particular, available for a few euros, should be framed and preserved: the phrase “¡No pasarán!” framed by women and men soldiers, armed with the cheapest weaponry but determined not to go down against Franco—and his backers Hitler and Mussolini—without a fight. This included the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, a group of leftist radicals from the United States determined to be part of the armed global struggle against fascism. Their numbers included Black sergeants in charge of white troops, something we would not see in the United States Armed Forces until the Vietnam war.

There is also a George Orwell Square, a tribute to the great socialist author whose book about the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Catalonia, still inspires and draws people like a magnet to the city, although the square is marked only by a small sign. The restaurants see an opportunity where the city refuses to look, with Orwell specials listed on menu chalkboards for tourists hungry for paella and wine.

While the city chooses not to celebrate the time when brave, undersupplied brigades descended upon Barcelona from around the world in the name of being, as the US government so infamously put it,  “premature anti-fascists,” it basks in the memory of hosting the 1992 Summer Olympics. The games, as recounted in the constantly circling double-decker bus tours, marked a pivot for the city, transforming it from a small, decaying urban area off the beaten path into a tourist destination. Factories were torn down to open up the beaches. New modes of public transportation were set up for the collective benefit. Shops and restaurants thrived. Woody Allen set a movie there starring Javier Bardem. Barcelona—a place of just 1.6 million people—became chic: a global city, in no small part to the games. But a price was paid for this transformation.

There is irony layered upon irony in this history. The Olympics have always been most comfortable with authoritarian and even fascist regimes. The 1992 games were brought to the socialist-leaning city by International Olympic Committee President Juan Antonio Samaranch, a fascist youth organizer during the Spanish Civil War over 50 years earlier. Now, there is an Olympic museum in the city that bears his name and celebrates both his personal biography as well as the history of the Olympic Games. The museum presents a very peculiar kind of history of the Olympics. There is no mention of any of the controversies that have engulfed the games: corruption, displacement, or the militarization of public space. The 1936 Olympic torch—the first torch in the modern games—that lit the flame in Hitler’s Berlin is displayed without any political context. Barcelona itself was ready to host a People’s Olympiad in opposition to the Hitler’s Olympics that year, a brilliant plan scuttled by the civil war. There is no reference to the People’s Olympiad in the museum. The only mention of anything outside the lines is the killing of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, but that merits just a few sentences upon a wall. The countless people displaced for the games, the political dissidents disappeared from Berlin to China, don’t make it into the history. Yet there is an entire tribute room dedicated to Samaranch that includes a series of his oddly uncharismatic speeches playing on a loop.

There is also something very uncomfortable about such a museum’s being located in Montjuïc mountain. This is a place where the killings and torturing of anarchists, socialists, communists, and Republicans was commonplace in the civil war’s aftermath. Now it’s home to a museum bearing the name of someone whose hands were stained with their blood.

Barcelona’s history deserves to be expressed boldly, demanding examination, not to be tucked away and hidden. To celebrate the 1992 Olympics while consigning the civil war to side-street shops tells its own story, less about Spain than about where we are in the world. The vision that the fighters for a democratic Spain held to their hearts does not belong in a near-forgotten chamber of suspended stasis. It should be celebrated and studied, especially during these times when authoritarians are on the march and environmental sustainability appears only as a pipe dream. The Olympics next year will be at the heart of global authoritarianism and environmental degradation when they bring their carnival to China. The International Olympic Committee’s plans for LA in 2028 are also dystopic. Barcelona’s history in the 1930s represents a counter-vision, and we need that kind of visionary thinking desperately today. The city bursts at the seams with this history. I pray that it breaks through, because its lessons are invaluable for young people in the 21st century fighting for the collective good.

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