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Spain's Civil War Ended In 1939 But Memories From It Are Still Fresh

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The end of the Spanish Civil War 80 years ago changed the balance of power in Europe. It marked the beginning of Francisco Franco's fascist dictatorship, which lasted until his death in 1975. Lucia Benavides recalls her own grandfather's experience at the end of that war and reflects on what it means today.

LUCIA BENAVIDES, BYLINE: My father, Fernando (ph), and I are walking up a tree-lined promenade in Barcelona, where children play and old people bask in the sun, that leads to the building where my grandfather grew up.

FERNANDO BENAVIDES: Well, we are right now at the entrance door of what used to be my father's house

L BENAVIDES: From the sidewalk, we look up at the fifth floor apartment, which seems narrow and dark. Before my grandfather passed away in 2016, he would tell his family stories about living there as a child during the civil war - like the time the building across the street was completely destroyed during a bombing raid.

F BENAVIDES: He remembered people eating and chasing, I mean - hunting for rats to eat some protein.

L BENAVIDES: But my grandfather didn't stay in Barcelona long. He and his siblings fled to France with their mother in 1936. The children went to school and earned money working in the vineyards. When the war ended in 1939, my father says, they returned to Spain and to a very different Barcelona - now under the reign of dictator Francisco Franco.

F BENAVIDES: Food was scarce at that time - some rice. My grandmother was buying - had this little box.

(SOUNDBITE OF RALLY)

L BENAVIDES: The Spanish Civil War was a fight for power between the left-leaning Republican government of the Second Spanish Republic and fascist, nationalist rebels who wanted to topple that republic. Fascism was rising all over Europe. By the time war broke out in Spain, Benito Mussolini was the prime minister of Italy and Adolf Hitler already the chancellor of Germany.

CATHERINE HOWLEY: Part of that anti-Franco fight in the Spanish Civil War were a lot of peasants and workers who actually had lost faith in the state, not in Spain. It was the political structure in Spain that had failed them.

L BENAVIDES: That's historian Catherine Howley (ph), who leads walking tours in Barcelona about the Spanish Civil War. She says at the heart of Franco's regime was the idea that Barcelona was full of what he called red Masonic-Jewish conspiracists.

HOWLEY: So it results in this immediate rounding up of anyone Catalan nationalist, labor members or union members, left-wing politicians, activists. And they're routinely executed.

L BENAVIDES: To this day, there have been no official trials for the human rights violations that took place during and after the war, and some say the wounds are not completely healed. Andrea Cresel (ph) is 84 years old. She grew up in Barcelona and remembers Republicans and local Catalan people fleeing to France when the war ended and Franco took power.

ANDREA CRESEL: (Foreign language spoken).

L BENAVIDES: You could see them walking along the highway, she says, carrying bags and blankets. At home, her family hid Catalan books and flags which were banned under Franco. Cresel says that today, Spain feels divided again. She's frustrated with both Catalan separatist leaders and far-right nationalist parties in Spain.

CRESELS: (Foreign language spoken).

L BENAVIDES: "The experience of others seems to be useless," she tells me. "Today's politicians," she adds, "are too young to remember what those years were like." For NPR News, I'm Lucia Benavides in Barcelona.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BEST PESSIMIST'S "FUTURE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.