Monday, May 16

The Francoist plunder of more than 200 Catalan athenaeums: “The objective was repressive and economic”

A building with a room for shows, a two-story house, a ground floor apartment, a piano, an espresso machine, benches, chairs and nightstands. All this, property of the Centro Obrero de la Sénia, in the province of Tarragona, awarded to the Francoist organization Delegación Nacional de Sindicatos on July 14, 1944. That same day, the authorities of the new regime also appropriated all the assets of the Ascó Agricultural Union, while studying the files of the Sarroca Recreational Society and the Borges Blanques Republican Labor Center, both in the province of Lleida.

Art as spoils of war: how the Franco regime plundered what the Republic tried to safeguard

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Inventories used to be always similar. One or two buildings plus the furniture they kept inside. It is the small print of the Francoist looting to which the Catalan athenaeums were subjected during the immediate postwar period and that now a book has documented until locating 291 properties seized from 232 entities. Most of them were owned by the Francoist vertical union, which then did what was most convenient with them. Above all, transfer them to social, cultural or youth organizations affected by the new dictatorship or auction them or sell them to obtain economic revenue.

Neus Moran, author of the book The Francoist espoli dels ateneus catalans, has drawn up the map of this looting that affected the Catalan athenaeums, a category that includes all those social centers of towns and cities owned by residents and in which all kinds of activities were carried out. Dances and festivities, choirs, mutual aid, consumer or housing cooperatives, popular schools, sports, political militancy… “Based on the fact that there was no coverage of basic social needs, in these athenaeums people found a way to achieve cultural, educational or labor claims”, summarizes Moran, historian and researcher at the Josep Termes Chair at the University of Barcelona (UB).

The requisition of the heritage of the vanquished of the Civil War, including these cultural associations, was based on different legislation and was carried out first by the military and then by the administrative network. Laws such as the one on political responsibilities, of February 1939, made it clear that parties and organizations “declared outside the law will suffer absolute loss of their rights of all kinds and the loss of their property.” “These will become state property,” they added. For years, it was the Commission for the Qualification of Marxist Trade Union Assets (CCBSM) that was in charge of evaluating the files of these athenaeums and associations.

“It was a systematic and planned process with a vision to last over time. The winners of the war had no assets and, for example, the assets accumulated by the National Delegation of Trade Unions came from associations linked to the labor movement,” says Moran. According to this historian, the looting of the athenaeums, at least the ones she has studied in Catalonia, had a double purpose for the Franco regime. “The objective was repressive, economic and political and responded to the need to erase everything that had been the essential fabric of republicanism,” she details.

In some cases, it was members of the Spanish Falange who occupied these buildings just after the rebel side took over a town at the end of the war. But the regulation of plunder could be done years later. In fact, the volume of seizures was such that they were not closed until 1966, almost three decades after the end of the war.

The destination of this heritage was often the State, after passing through the vertical syndicate, but there were also sales to individuals. Moran has identified at least 20. Those that remained in the hands of the administration, with the arrival of democracy, could be claimed. Of course, if the entities had survived the dictatorship. The 232 associations analyzed by Moran are only a tiny part of the constellation of more than 30,000 associations that were operating and registered in Catalonia before the war.

For the Ateneo Obrero de la Sénia, for example, the end has been relatively happy. Its initial requisition and looting occurred on April 14, 1938, with the entry of Franco’s troops into the town. From that moment on, it has been used for various purposes, such as a Social Assistance dining room or the headquarters of the local Youth Front. After formally registering as property of the vertical union, in 1952 it was transferred to the Brotherhood of Farmers and Ranchers for thirty years, but since 1975 the building remained closed and in disrepair.

In December 1979, already in democracy, “the civil governor of Tarragona ordered the delivery of the keys to the entity that had been reconstituted by the former partners in July 1977”, Moran relates. They could use it, but they had not recovered their property, which had been transferred to the Ministry of Labour. Finally, in the 1990s, a transfer of use was signed with the City Council, which in turn transferred it to the entity, and in 2000 it was transferred to the Generalitat’s Treasury Department.

Moran, however, is critical of this type of outcome. “It seems fat to me that town halls or the Generalitat have kept it, starting from more than doubtful purchases in the middle of the dictatorship,” she recalls.