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Dictators Kill Poets: On Federico García Lorca’s Last Days

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Before dawn on August 17th, 1936, a man dressed in white pajamas and a blazer stepped out of a car onto the dirt road connecting the towns of Víznar and Alfacar in the foothills outside Granada, Spain. He had thick, arching eyebrows, a widow’s peak sharpened by a tar-black receding hairline, and a slight gut that looked good on his 38-year-old frame.

It was a moonless night and he wasn’t alone under the dark tent of the Andalusian sky. He was escorted by five soldiers, along with three other prisoners: two anarchist bullfighters and a white-haired schoolteacher with a wooden leg. The headlights from the two cars that had delivered them here illuminated the group as they made their way over an embankment onto a nearby field dotted with olive trees. The soldiers carried Astra 900 semiautomatic pistols and German Mauser rifles. By now the four captives knew that they were going to die. The man in the pajamas was the poet Federico García Lorca. 

Exactly a month earlier, Francisco Franco and other Spanish generals had launched a coup d’état against Spain’s young, contentious democracy. A brave, ruthless career officer with an incongruously reedy voice and the grandiose custom of riding a white horse into battle, the 43-year-old Franco led forces in Spanish Morocco, where he commanded the colonial army of 40,000 Africanista soldiers, including the notoriously brutal Spanish Foreign Legion. Coordinated uprisings in military garrisons across the Spanish peninsula followed the next day, buoyed by the support of right-wing sympathizers, foot soldiers of fascist militia, and members of the Civil Guard—or national police corps—who aligned themselves with the rebellion. The uprising’s goal was to remove the Popular Front, a left-wing coalition that had won elections in February, and save their country from what they saw as the excesses of the Second Spanish Republic, the system of governance instituted in 1931 after the military dictator Miguel Primo de Rivera was ousted and his ally King Alfonso XIII left the country.

In the five years since the Republic’s founding, leftist administrations had carried out a series of ambitious reforms aimed at transforming and modernizing Spain: legislation to increase rights for women, new agrarian laws to reduce the suffering of the landless poor, changes in the educational system to free it from the dominance of the Catholic Church, and restructuring of the armed forces to decrease the influence of the military. Such attacks on the traditional structures of Spanish society earned the reformists, as well as the Republic itself, a committed bloc of enemies, from loyal monarchists to conservative Catholics, from wealthy landowners to the Spanish fascist party, the Falange. Now these groups united under Franco and other generals. They hoped to take back Spain and return it to its former imperial greatness, which in many cases meant eliminating perceived foes, such as Lorca. 

Born in 1898 to a well-off family in a village near Granada, Lorca had grown up to be a gifted musician, pathbreaking poet, theater-filling dramatist, and unparalleled party guest. His personality was so contagious that when a young Salvador Dalí first met Lorca in college, the painter would literally run away from him to battle in private his jealousy of the Granadine’s charisma. By the time he was in his mid-thirties, Lorca was one of the most beloved Spanish-language writers alive. Alongside his literary peers, the Generation of ’27, he reinvigorated Spanish poetry, bringing artistic innovations from the rest of Europe into harmony with Spain’s folkloric traditions, especially that of his native Andalusia with its rich gypsy influences. The Chilean poet Pablo Neruda wrote of his friend Lorca: “I have never seen grace and genius, a winged heart and a crystalline waterfall, come together in anyone else as they did in him.” 

Behind that shimmering waterfall, however, Lorca inhabited a fragile, shadowy inner world. As a gay man in a steadfastly homophobic society, he was never able to express his true self in all its complexity, perhaps the worst fate imaginable for someone as torrentially expressive as Lorca. His pain fueled poems of melancholy longing and stage tragedies of disastrously failed love. Yet if the country that created Lorca failed to accept him during his life, this didn’t stop him from cherishing Spain all the way down to its darkest impulses. 

In the five years since the Republic’s founding, leftist administrations had carried out a series of ambitious reforms aimed at transforming and modernizing Spain.

“Everywhere else, death is an end. Death comes, and they draw the curtains,” Lorca wrote in a famous lecture. “Not in Spain. In Spain they open them.” He traced the Spanish tradition of bullfighting to the same fatalistic attraction to death. “Spain,” Lorca wrote, “is the only country where death is a national spectacle, the only one where death sounds long trumpet blasts at the coming of spring.” Now in the hot summer of 1936, death had spilled out of the plaza de toros—the bullfighting arena—into the plazas of cities and villages, where the Nationalist uprising left bodies rotting in the streets. 

After being airlifted by Nazi Junkers transports across the Strait of Gibraltar, Franco’s army beat an unrelenting march northward toward Madrid, with the aid of German and Italian tanks and planes. Taking orders from superiors and incited by the sinister broadcasts of Lieutenant General Queipo de Llano in Seville, the uprising machine-gunned innocents, raped and branded women, and carried out mass executions of peasants. The soldiers of the Foreign Legion, who called themselves the bridegrooms of death, collected the ears of enemies, just as Franco had once done as a young soldier in Africa. Their battle cry was: “¡Viva la muerte!”—Long live death! 

In Lorca’s hometown of Granada, where he had fled to thinking he would be safer than in his adopted Madrid, long-simmering hatreds and rivalries boiled over. Falangist Escuadras Negras—Black Squads—began conducting summary executions, revealing a bloodlust among neighbors that rapidly left ravines threaded with shallow graves. In Granada’s municipal cemetery, where firing squads also operated, the caretaker was later rumored to have gone insane from all of the carnage he witnessed during the war. This violence merely mirrored what was occurring all throughout Spain as adherents to the coup battled for control with backers of the government, opening the curtains for death. Spain’s fratricidal free-for-all was at heart a dispute over the identity of the nation in a still-young century that had already produced the First World War and the Bolshevik revolution—and over who would shape that identity.

Would the country return to the lost dominion of the Catholic kings, a medieval feudalism in which landowners ruled over disenfranchised peasants and the church defined public and private life? Would it continue on the brash new boulevard of democracy built on Enlightenment ideals of reason and a belief in liberty and equality? Or would it get trampled and torn apart in the crossroads of history, with Stalin’s communism bearing down on one side and Hitler’s Nazism on the other? For years—arguably for centuries—these tensions had been building in Spain, as if the past and the future had come together to form a crushing vise on the present. In the past 120 years alone, the country had seen three civil wars, two dictators, six different constitutions, and over fifty coups. Not only the rebels but even some politicians of the Popular Front saw a new eruption of violence as inevitable and necessary. The only solution, as the socialist leader Francisco Largo Caballero put it, was a “bloodbath.” 

In Granada, it quickly became clear that Lorca’s safety was far from guaranteed. On July 20th, less than a week after his arrival, his brother-in-law, the recently elected mayor of the city, was arrested. His term in office had lasted a mere ten days. Soon after, a group of Falange thugs showed up at the Lorca family home and knocked the poet down the stairs. Then they tied the Lorcas’ groundskeeper to a tree and beat him. Lorca was terrified. As the leader of a government-sponsored theater troupe that performed in the dusty, forgotten pueblos of Spain, he was a vocal supporter of the Republic. Add to this the envy his success inspired, never mind his fondness for insulting the conservative bourgeoisie of Granada, and it seemed certain that sooner or later the soldiers would return for, as some of his detractors called Lorca, “the fag with the bow tie.” 

The next day he went into hiding at the house of Luis Rosales, a 26-year-old poet who idolized his older friend, even as he himself had joined the uprising. This was the Spain of that tempestuous, uncertain moment: a maze of bonds and vendettas—personal and ideological, local and national—in which people might protect their supposed enemies from their own apparent allies, even at great risk to themselves. It was also a moment in which betrayals proliferated. 

The maze swallowed Lorca. While there are different versions of who betrayed him—some would say it was one of Luis Rosales’s brothers, others would claim that the poet’s whereabouts were an open secret in Granada—the result was the same. Word made its way to a vengeful would-be small-time politician named Ramón Ruiz Alonso, who hoped that erasing Lorca would raise his profile in the ranks of the Falange. 

Not only the rebels but even some politicians of the Popular Front saw a new eruption of violence as inevitable and necessary.

On the afternoon of August 16th, just hours after Lorca learned that his brother-in-law had been executed, Ruiz Alonso led a convoy of over 100 soldiers to the Rosales home, which they surrounded with their guns aimed as if preparing for the last stand of a legendary bandit. With the men of the house away at the front, Mrs. Rosales resisted the demand that Lorca show himself. Ruiz Alonso refused to be diverted. “He’s done more damage with a pen than others have with a pistol,” he said. Trembling, Lorca finally appeared. He was taken to a government building, then after nightfall driven up into the scrubby hills of the Sierra Nevada mountains to an ad hoc prison in the white- painted village of Víznar. Before dawn, he and his three fellow prisoners were delivered to a bend in the road to Alfacar, where he stepped out onto the dirt under a sky with no moon, dressed in his blazer and white pajamas. 

“Just as being born didn’t concern me, neither does dying,” Lorca had told a reporter not three months earlier, during what he didn’t know would be his last interview. This was a lie. He feared his mortality to the point of morbid obsession; for years he periodically playacted out his death in front of friends as a form of comic therapy. But how could he have properly prepared for this end, with its nightmare logic and unforgiving suddenness? Death, the “question of questions,” as Lorca called it, the great unknowable void—it was upon him, emptied of all poetic romance. 

On the dark field adjacent to the road, the soldiers told the prisoners to stop. The five men weren’t professional executioners. They had taken a side and now accepted their duties, some more zealously than others. One of the soldiers, who would later brag in public about having shot Lorca in his “big head,” was the first cousin of a man whom the poet had unflatteringly fictionalized in a new play. One of the other men had paced nervously earlier in the night, exclaiming, “This isn’t for me! This isn’t for me!” Another, the leader of the firing squad and a former chauffeur for the first prime minister of the Republic, had lost his firstborn ten-month-old son the day before. 

The five men lifted their guns, took aim, and fired. 

If anyone heard the echoing cracks, they didn’t come to see what had happened. Lorca writhed on the ground, bleeding, until one of the soldiers administered a coup de grâce. He stopped moving, and suddenly verses from the sorrowful “Lament” he had written for his friend Ignacio Sánchez Mejías, a famous bullfighter who was fatally gored, spoke of the fate of the man who had written them: 

But now he sleeps without end.
Now the moss and the grass
open with sure fingers
the flower of his skull.
And now his blood comes out singing. 

Federico García Lorca was dead. The Spanish Civil War was far from over. 

__________________________________

Excerpt from The Age of Disenchantments by Aaron Shulman. Copyright 2019 by Aaron Shulman. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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