Rampant militarism. Income disparity. A refugee crisis. Demogoguery. A tectonic battle between the right and left. Even if one discounts the warnings of George Santayana, it’s clear that some things never change.
With the 80th anniversary of the start of the Spanish Civil War quickly approaching, it’s an immensely relevant time to look back at a period with many similarities to—and caveats for—our own era.
“I believe there are lessons in the Spanish Civil War which relate to us today,” says Serge Alternês, co-author of Live Souls: Citizens and Volunteers of Civil War Spain, in an interview with the Straight. “We have to be aware that democracy and freedom are hugely important, and we have to play by the rules.”
Indeed, as fascism swept over Europe in the 1930s and the rule of law was subverted, human suffering followed on a scale never before seen. And, unfortunately for Spain, it was to serve as a staging ground for the coming horrors of the Second World War, as Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini tested out their latest weaponry on the Iberian peninsula.
Part historical analysis and part primary document, Live Souls combines modern commentary and context from Alternês with writing and period photographs by Vancouverite and former UBC professor Alec Wainman (1913-1989), who served as an ambulance driver with the volunteer British Medical Unit in Spain (he also worked as an interpreter, and went on to become a press officer in the Spanish Republican government).
Through more than 200 striking chronological images, Wainman manages to convey the essence of those heady days of 1936-38, and along with it all the bravery, passion, horror, and insanity of a country torn apart by civil war.
Although an amateur photographer, Wainman clearly had the eye of a professional, and managed to produce some arresting, artfully composed, and almost lyrical photos.
It’s a staggering collection, but one that was lost for nearly 40 years, until Alternês managed to track it down in England. And, like the famed Mexican Suitcase of photojournalist Robert Capa, Wainman’s trove came with a fascinating back story.
As the reign of Spanish fascist leader Francisco Franco was winding down in 1975, Wainman was contacted by others who had served in the British Medical Unit, looking to publish his photos.
“That’s the first time, I think, that his photographs had really been looked at and taken seriously,” says Alternês.
The collection was then shipped to London for publication with a small Soho publisher, but the deal fell through, the publisher went bankrupt, and Wainman developed Alzheimer’s disease.
“Basically, it just got lost for four decades,” says Alternês, who finally located the photos after a chance phone call with a former member of the Soho publisher’s editorial team. “She happened to have saved the collection, it was in a suitcase. The English Suitcase!”
In all, there were 1,650 photos, chronicling both the war and the Spanish people, throughout Republican territory and in particular Valencia, Barcelona, and Madrid. There’s also an epilogue of sorts, with a series of shots taken in the Basque Country in 1939, to which Wainman returned after the civil war’s end to aid Basque refugee families.
While the focus of Live Souls is Spain, Alternês is also quick to point out that the book and the Spanish Civil War itself have many Vancouver connections. It’s a fact that will be marked on Monday (July 18) with a panel discussion, Q&A, and book signing at the People’s Co-op Bookstore. Joining Alternês at the event will be editors David Yorke (Mac-Pap: Memoir of a Canadian in the Spanish Civil War) and Dr. Larry Hannant (The Politics of Passion: Norman Bethune's Writing and Art).
“This really is quite a fitting event to mark Vancouver’s role—and Canada’s role—in the Spanish Civil War,” explains Alternês, who lives here part-time.
“Many people are familiar with Dr. Norman Bethune, but very few people know about Dr. Reginald Saxton, a British-educated doctor who was with the British Medical Unit and the Spanish Medical Aid Committee for the better part of two years. He was a Vancouverite, and spent the last years of his life in Vancouver. He probably actually did a lot more than Bethune in his six months there, but he was a lot less-known.”
Alternês also notes that Vancouver—and British Columbia—provided one of the largest contingents of men to the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion, theCanadian volunteer combat troops who went to Spain to fight for the Republic.
“The Lower Mainland has always been very adamant in support of important causes, and James Telford, the mayor of Vancouver at the time, was also very supportive. He believed that you needed to be apolitical in some situations, and that’s a good place to be.
“They had a dream team in the Spanish Republic,” Alternês continues, noting the spirit of cooperation in Prime Minister Juan Negrín’s 1937-39 coalition government. “They all worked together, and I think that’s something we forget today—that we can all coalesce and work together and get things done. The people who went to Spain believed in democracy, believed in freedom, believed in human rights, and they were fighting one common force, fascism. I think we’re very lucky when I come back to Vancouver and I see what a peaceful city we have. We forget. Fascism and hatred are often linked, and you cannot let hate win.”