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A Young Spaniard Betrays a Cause and joins the Fifth Column to Survive--and Tell the Tale

July 25th 2011

Europe Topics - Spanish Civil War recruiting poster
Catalonian recruiting poster

When Spain’s Civil War came in 1936, Gaspar Viana lived in a small farming community in the province of Guadalajara called Peralveche. Located in Castile, Peralveche had “neither fascists nor reds,” according to Viana. “In town, we didn’t know anything about what was going on in Madrid, where they had already killed the Economics Minister, they had burned down convents, and the Montaña barracks had rebelled. We only knew what was going on at home.” Viana noted “There wasn’t a newspaper or anything.”

Nothing, apparently, had prepared the then young Spaniard for the coming war between the Republican government and its leftist, Soviet, and anarchist allies on one side, and Francisco Franco’s Nationalist troops, Italian fascists and German Nazis on the other. Tensions had been growing throughout 1936, but neither Viana or his father were aware. Proof of the establishment of the Second Republic came in 1931 when Viana was 13 years old. While planting oats at their small place, Viana’s father asked a neighbour “Irene, what are those rags you have put up?” The woman answered, “Cirilo, it’s the banner of the Republic that has been installed in Spain!”

This sort of disconnection between the rhythms of the earth, and the mechanized and electric onslaught that marked the European wars of the 20th century, was notable in many places in Spain. Despite some material advances, Spain was largely poor and rural as Gaspar Viana grew to manhood.

While it has been said that Europe begins at the Pyrenees, earthly powers were to make Spain their prey from July 17, 1936 to April 1, 1939. Spineless Spain, or as philosopher José Ortega y Gasset dubbed her - 'Invertebrate Spain' - was the proving ground for the world war that was to come, and the divisions that would ensue.

In 1936, anarchist militia came to Peralveche.  “They seized a mare and several head of cattle,” recalled Viana, who also said that they took volunteers to fight at the front against Franco.  Viana remembered that the town mayor assembled the young people and harangued them, “Boys, the war has begun, everyone in the 36th youth militia are now activated, but within four days there will be more mobilizations.  It would be better for you to go as volunteers because you will have the advantage and be able to go up in the ranks from the beginning.”

Of the less than 150 souls in Peralveche, 20 left for the front.  Viana, even though he was 17, did not go at first but his brother Roque did.  Roque went to fight at Pozuelo de Alarcón, where he witnessed atrocities committed by both sides, and survived to tell the tale.

Viana remembered that the Catholic priest at Peralveche was not as lucky.  The priest fled to the nearby village of Salmerón, having disguised himself as a common laborer.  “He had hidden in a mill.  They found him there and took him back to Salmerón, where they paraded him nude with a cord tied around his private parts while the town band played music.  Later, they took him to my town and at the entrance, shot him four times and cut off his ears.  Then they ran through Peralveche showing off the ears and shouting ‘Do you have a fascist who is bothering you?  Look what we have done with this crow.’”

When he was finally mobilized in 1938 and sent to the front at Teruel, Viana (who is now 93) recalled “My only thought was to save myself, nothing more.  Not politics or anything else.  Only to save my skin.  It’s an accident that I am alive.”

The legitimate Republican government of Spain had to contend with internal divisions, as well as competing interests such as native Basque and Catalan nationalists, anarchists, and Soviet-supplied communists, as well as incompetence in its military.  Viana recalled the Republican army was “a disaster.”  “They would send us on surprise assaults to take positions and we were always the losers.  I remember one occasion in Cublas de Teruel when we had a lieutenant who made about 20 of us soldiers attack an area full of nationalists who could see all of our movements.  He stayed behind while half of us fell.  I remember that I jumped over the body of a corporal from Valencia who had a bullet go through an eye and come out behind, right in front of me.  And all of that without sanitation, stretchers, nothing.  Whoever fell, there he stayed.”

The memory-filled nonagenarian recalled being bombed by Republican aircraft, following artillery fire from Franco's nationalists. Disillusioned with the Republican cause, and shocked by war, Viana was able to return several times to his native village even without official permission.  Friendly medics would give him medical leave.  Fleeing the fighting at Teruel, he and some friends got to Valencia “with lice, and eating what we could find.”  In Valencia, bodies of civilians and military littered the streets. Family members loaded bodies on hand carts for burial or immolation.

But it was not until October 1938, less than a year before Republican Spain would fall to the Nationalists, that Viana and his brother-in-law decided to desert the front.  Reaching Madrid, they met Mariano Lerín who had left the front at Jarama since he belonged to the Falangist movement and declared enemy of the Republic.  Lerín had joined the so-called ‘fifth column”

The term was new at the time, and is attributed to General Mola of the Nationalists who was advancing four columns of infantry and armor towards Madrid in 1936.  The “fifth column” was a group of Nationalist and Falangist sympathizers awaiting orders in Madrid to rise up against the Republican government and military.

Lerín put Viana and his companion up at an apartment in central Madrid.  Calling upon a sympathetic physician, Lerín had the medic inject the two men with a solution that bumped their body temperature up to 100° F.  Now feverish, the two were taken to a hospital where they remained until Christmas.  When their fever subsided, Viana heard the director tell the attending physician, “Palacios, these two kids are bad people.”  This was to let them know that were recognized as members of the fifth column and would not be sent to the front.

By the beginning of January 1939, the fifth column was ready to take up arms at a signal from Franco’s armies.  “But they told us to stay quiet,” remembered Viana.  Colonel Segismundo Casado of the Republican forces attempted to negotiate a truce with Franco, only to meet with a demand for unconditional surrender.  Communist forces in Madrid refused to lay down their arms. Fighting was fierce between the communists and the pro-Franco forces until March 28, 1939, when the shooting came to a halt.

It was only then that Viana and the fifth column were given arms and told to seize a food warehouse and disarm the militia there.  The war had ended and now Viana’s last martial duty was to serve as a guard for the victory parade in Madrid.  He had survived.  “That is why I joined the fifth column, to save myself and continue living.”

Cutting Edge Senior Correspondent Martin Barillas also edits Speroforum.com. 

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