The old Spanish town of Belchite found itself on the front lines between two armies and two ideologies during the Spanish Civil War of 1936 to 1939.
A revolt made up of fascist-nationalist generals of the Spanish army in 1936 was the immediate cause for the war, but unexpectedly for the generals, instead of the neat takeover of the government they had been planning, large swaths of Spain rebelled against them, defeated or subsumed local armies and carved out regions of opposition. This opposition, comprised of the Spanish Republican government and an alliance of anarchists, socialists and communists, would fight for control of Spain until the fascist-nationalist victory of 1939.
Belchite sat directly on the front. Initially controlled by Nationalist army, the Republican army took Belchite after a siege lasting from August 24th until September 7th, 1937. A number of Americans, part of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion of the International Brigade, took part in the siege not long after its Republican capture. Ernest Hemingway and two other journalists, Martha Gellhorn and Herbert Matthews, were said to have visited the battle site.
“[the journalists] found a town so totally ruined that often one could not tell where the streets had been. People were digging under piles of mortar, bricks, and beams pulling out corpses. Mule carcasses, cooking pots, framed lithographs, sewing machines—all covered with flies—made a surreal collage. Belchite was less a town than a nasty smell.” -Cecil D. Eby
The Republicans held Belchite until Nationalist forces, then led by General Francisco Franco, retook it in 1938. Franco decided not to demolish the nearly completely ruined town, leaving it instead as a monument to the war. A new town of Belchite wasn’t completed until 1954, leaving residents to scrape a living out of the destroyed town for fifteen years.
Today Belchite looks largely as it did in 1939; piles of rubble strewn about, the clock tower barely standing, mudejar brick-and-arch work of some residences on display, the cathedral pockmarked with bullet holes and gouged by mortar shells. Belchite is largely open for visitors and people looking to see this lingering moment of the past.
Franco intended the melancholy ruins of Belchite to serve as a monument to his ability to punish at will. It served as just that for over three decades until, as it is said, “the dictator died in bed.” What remains of Belchite stands not as an enduring mechanism of terror, as it was intended, but a testament to the human folly of war and the brutality of fascism.