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Spanish Civil War split public opinion and stirred passions on the Rock

The Spanish Civil War probably split public opinion and stirred passions more deeply in Gibraltar than almost anywhere else in the world outside of Spain, says Dr Gareth Stockey. A lecturer in Spanish studies at the University of Nottingham he has been working on the history of Gibraltar for over 15 years and has published two books on the subject – ‘Gibraltar: a Dagger in the Spine of Spain’ (2009) and (with Chris Grocott) ‘Gibraltar: a Modern History’ (2012). His main interest has been Gibraltar’s social history and in particular its complex relationship with Spain.

More recently, Dr Stockey has been working on the history and memory of the Spanish Civil War. He has published a short book on Spain’s monument ‘El Valle de los Caídos’, and his most recent project explores Francoist repression in the Campo de Gibraltar.

“I’ve spent almost half my life working on aspects of the history of Gibraltar, and while my work has moved into many other areas relating to Spanish history, the Spanish Civil War and ‘historical memory’, Gibraltar remains a source of fascination to me,” he says.

His interest in the Spanish Civil War stemmed from a complete coincidence when as an undergraduate he just happened to sit in on a lecture on the subject while waiting for the rain to stop. From that day he was hooked.

“When I came to do postgraduate work on the history of Gibraltar, I was particularly interested in exploring the relationship between Gibraltarians and Spaniards over a longer period, and it quickly became obvious that the Spanish Civil War was a hugely important period for understanding that relationship. “I’d be keen to stress that contrary to a lot of received wisdom in Gibraltar, the civil war made Gibraltarians feel closer to Spain, not distinct from it. The ‘break’ with Spain came much later in my opinion, not even as a result of the Evacuation, but largely due to Franco’s vindictive measures against Gibraltar from the time of the Queen’s visit onwards,” he suggests.

At the symposium he spoke briefly about various Gibraltarian's who were caught up in the civil war in Spain. The most obvious example is Agustin Huart, then leader of the Transport and General Workers’ Union in Gibraltar and a staunch supporter of the Spanish Republic.

“He did a tour of the Republican lines in the spring of 1937 and at one point was photographed in a Spanish trench with revolver in hand. His commitment to Spanish republican refugees in Gibraltar remained constant long after the civil war. By contrast, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Gibraltar, Richard FitzGerald, toured the rebel zone and campaigned strongly for Franco’s cause both inside and outside Gibraltar.”

And he adds: “Two Gibraltarians involved in the British diplomatic corps in La Línea have a very public spat at the very start of the civil war. We have some indication of Gibraltarians even going to fight in Spain on behalf of the Republic. There are so many fascinating stories, and I hope in relating them at the conference we can open up some interesting areas of discussion and future research.”

The role Gibraltar played in this area during the Spanish Civil War, he says, even though the fighting moved on from Gibraltar very quickly in July 1936, was still prominent throughout the conflict.

“For one thing, pretty much all of the decisions taken by policymakers in London revolved around the security of Gibraltar and the maintenance of Britain’s power in the Mediterranean,” he says.

“The idea was to stay friendly with whichever side emerged victorious in Spain, though there is little doubt that most (Conservative) ministers, British diplomats in Spain, and indeed the colonial hierarchy in Gibraltar, were rooting for a Franco victory. Gibraltar saw the first major British decision in relation to the war, when local shipping firms decided (with the belated approval of the British government) not to sell fuel to the Republican navy in July 1936. This was a huge boon to Franco, whose Army of Africa was at the time stranded in Morocco.”

And thereafter, he adds, Gibraltar was the focus of Britain’s involvement in the Non Intervention Patrols.

“One of the things I am working on at the moment is the widespread flaunting of Non Intervention controls at Gibraltar – probably with the tacit support of the colonial authorities – and the supply of goods to Franco’s forces from the Rock. Gibraltar also played home to dozens of foreign newspaper correspondents covering the civil war, as well as networks of spies and other shady characters. We know a great deal about all of these things, but there is still much more to do.”

Dr Stockey says one of the things he would emphasise was just how important the civil war was to the formation of Gibraltarian identities.

“The civil war doesn’t appear often in local history books, and when it does it is usually described as something that happened ‘over there’. What is obvious to anyone who looks at testimonies and documents from the time is just how intimately Gibraltar and the Campo were in the early twentieth century’. The Spanish Civil War probably split public opinion and stirred passions more deeply in Gibraltar than almost anywhere else in the world outside of Spain in these years, he adds.

The situation deeply divided opinions on the Rock, particularly between the working classes and Gibraltar’s mercantile elites, but also between the Catholic Church and many Gibraltarians who viewed the Church as an ally of fascism and reaction.

“Believe it or not, you also had attempts to form a branch of the British Union of Fascists in Gibraltar during the civil war, and also some Gibraltarians joining the Spanish Falange. A final point I’d make is that Gibraltar offered refuge to thousands of Spanish refugees from the Campo – many of who would almost certainly have been killed had they stayed in Franco’s Spain. Hundreds of these Spaniards stayed on in Gibraltar working in the dockyards in the Second World War, and so they continued the fight against fascism,” he says. Also relevant, Dr Stockey points out, is the relationship between the Gibraltarian and Campo working classes which proved a very complicated and frequently changing one. He suggests it is little understood, on either side of the border, “that Gibraltar’s earliest labour organisations were inspired principally by the ideas of Spanish anarchism.”

And he continues, “it was the dream of the colonial authorities and Gibraltar’s moneyed classes to wean local workers off anarchist ideas and tactics and towards a more ‘British’ and ‘reformist’ style of labour relations. And for a time it worked, the main labour organisation between the wars was the TGWU, and throughout the 1920s they abandoned ‘Spanish’ tactics and opted to work gradually, and within the structures of British colonial rule. The trouble was, it didn’t work, and the 20s were desperately difficult times for working class Gibraltarians (and indeed Spaniards in the Campo).

“The birth of the Second Republic in Spain in 1931, and then the events of the Spanish Civil War, galvanised Gibraltarian workers once again in the belief that radical change was both necessary and realisable. It also brought Gibraltarian and Spanish workers back together in terms of mutual solidarity, assistance, and shared commitment to a better world. Even after the war many in Gibraltar retained this commitment. Some Gibraltarians helped smuggle propaganda and supplies into southern Spain, for example, to help in the guerrilla struggle against Franco after 1945. Agustin Huart, the leader of the TGWU in the 20s and 30s, campaigned for the rights of Spanish refugees to live in Gibraltar after 1945, and his death was lamented in a Spanish socialist newspaper, in exile, over twenty years later.”