The Road To Madrid
By Peter Langdale
E had a hair-raising time travelling along the Barcelona road and mostly the guide kept to the mountain paths which he knew well, having used them many times as a contrabandista.
He confessed quite boldly that he was a smuggler by profession, making about 200 francs a week before the war; and excused his more or less illegal career by saying he was a good contrabandista who charged fair prices for his wares.
Nis calling, however shady, helped us greatly when we began striking the villages, where the people were going about their business as though there was nothing much wrong with the state of their country.
The buildings were gay affairs of coloured plaster stucco, and some had been built with material quarried from the hills.
No Sign of Respect
Nearly every village had its church but in some places it had been blown to fragments together with the rest of the build ings. Those that still stood were being used as garages. store houses, offices and even sleeping-quarters.
There was no sign of respect.
This was, perhaps, accounted for by the fact that everything sacred had long been removed by the priests and pious lay-folk, or stolen and destroyed by desecrators.
Like the Reformation In some cases, after the manner of the Reformation, sacred vessels had been buried at the first sign of unrest, and the priest and the few trustworthy parishioners had disappeared, taking the secret of the hiding-place with them.
One man, a blacksmith, whom I met in Barcelona, told how he had been apprehended and savagely tortured with heated pokers laid on the calf of his leg when he refused to disclose the place where the church vessels of his village had been concealed.
That happened at the beginning of the war when riot and looting was the order
of the day. At the present time I honestly believe that such an incident could not take place. There is evidence in most towns of a certain rigid discipline, although by what authority and under what politi cal party that discipline is maintained, it is sometimes hard to discover.
The Friend of an Andorran . . .
The question of passes did not give me a great deal of trouble. The friend of an Andorran, especially when the Andorran was a brave smuggler, was welcome everywhere and almost without suspicion.
Then, one day, my friend, in his cups, gave my guilty, closely-guarded secret away.
Point blank he told an official who was also a close friend of his that I was a journalist writing for Catholic interests in England, and my heart stood still. There was a pause while the official tried to focus his wits on a situation that must have been
unique. I supposed he simply failed to bring his mind to bear on the situation for his shoulders shrugged and he stamped my road pass to Valencia.
His attitude was not as remarkable as it may sound.
Merely Abuse Later I was to come to the conclusion that once he had managed to "jump" the barriers of red tape at the frontier, it would not be impossible for a Catholic journalist to declare himself as such and pass unharmed, except, perhaps, by abuse, throughout Government Spain.
This is the easier to understand when I say that Catholic priests, garbed in their familiar black cassocks and cloaks, can still be seen in the streets of Spanish towns; few, admittedly, but some.
The first of these I saw was standing outside the ruins of his church which had been badly damaged by bombs a few weeks before. There were tiny specks of aeroplanes high in the sky and he was looking up at them, muttering something quickly in Spanish. We were travelling by lorry after passing through sadly despoiled Barcelona, and I persuaded the driver to stop for a moment to see if the priest really was a priest.
He was, but he turned away as I called back to him and would only point to the ruined church in wordless sorrow. ..
A True Spaniard With the help of my informal interpreter I asked a man in the next village what had happened to the priests after the commencement of the war. But he did not
seem at all interested. He was a true Spaniard and had held a commercial position in Madrid. He was now a lorry driver in the Government transport system.
"In this district we do not kill the priests," he said. "If they don't trouble us with their preachings against the ideals of liberty, we leave them alone." (Surely a very odd impression to gain from the eloquence of the pulpit). "You will meet a number of priests as you go further on. None of them are in fear of their lives, except, perhaps from starvation. They find it difficult to remain in their villages when all the people who believe in them are dead or have gone elsewhere."
In other villages we passed through, where we stopped for meals or to rest, the
attitude was the same. No one was greatly interested in what religion they practised at the moment. War was the all-absorbing topic.
And after the war? .
The general opinion, whether rightly or wrongly, was that all religions would be tolerated under the control of the State—if the Government won—and that was already assured in their minds. If Franco won, the Catholic Church would merely have increased influence and that prospect was not noticeably unpopular either.
It was only The political possibilities of Fascism, as described to them by Government propaganda—the enslavement of their personal independence—which raised a passion of hatred.
Russian Aid The Spanish nation has shown throughout history that it resents foreign interference, even when that interference is on its own side. Russia, as an aiding power, is really only encouraged by the minority of Government supporters. There is elsewhere less sign than Englishmen imagine of the comradeship and ,wholesale cooperation in Red creeds that the Soviet desire as payment for assistance. This is only evident among the communistic element— the minority, though a formidable one.
Even in those centres where a communistic system already reigned supreme, the attitude was, "Of course, people can think what they like about a god (we can't control their thoughts), and as long as it does not interfere with the working of the State they will be left alone."
These were the actual words of a communal leader who was nothing but a foreign agitator. His name was Spanish enough, but he spoke the language with an accent as foreign as my own, and represented the type of man who has been responsible for the desecration of the churches, and the atrocities that were perpetrated on priests and nuns in the early days of the war.
More Than a Finger1...
The blame for all these crimes has been laid at the feet of Spain. Spaniards abetted them but they were not primarily responsible for them. Later evidence that came my way proved it. Russia had more than a linger in the pie during those sacrilegious riots. She had a whole hand.
The nearer we advanced to Madrid the more obvious it became that somewhere, somehow, the reports I had read about the conditions of living in Government territory was, to say the least, exaggerated, I Saw No Shambles I had seen villages referred to as "shambles turned into pig-sty slums, by Government victors," and the people described as "dressed in rags and utterly disspirited."
I did not myself come across any of these.
To be quite truthful the only "utterly dispirited" person I had myself seen so far was the priest who had lost his church— and who could blame him—and the refugees in Andorra who had lost their homes, perhaps for good. Of the alleged degradation behind the government lines there was no evidence whatsoever.
The Real Truth Has Been Missed As Madrid came nearer and the villages and roads became more noticeably warscarred, the more I was convinced that the greater portion of the truth, the real truth behind second-hand gossip and biased rumour, had somehow been missed.
And gradually I was settling my own opinion.