Maps are not silent: a different view of the Civil War in Catalonia in 1936

Unique atlas of new information and 400 maps was five years in the making

Around 12.45pm, Durruti left his command post in Madrid in his Packard car. He drove by the Hospital Clínico, occupied a day earlier by Francoist troops. Barely 15 minutes after that, as he got out of the car, a bullet hit him in the chest. According to some witnesses, he fell on the north side of the Civil Guard station, as indicated by the red explosion on the map. According to others, he fell to the south, closer to his own military column, as marked by the blue explosion. In any case, between 2.30pm and 3pm on November 19, 1936, a badly-wounded Durruti was admitted to the Ritz Hotel, where a field hospital had been set up. He died around four in the afternoon.

The final steps taken by the legendary anarchist official are carefully traced in a minutely-detailed map, as are other events like the civilian plot to stage a coup in Barcelona, and the route followed by Assault Guards down the tunnels of Barcelona's subway system between 12.30pm and 2pm on July 19, a move that greatly helped neutralize the insurrection in that city.

In each case, the point was to collect as much information as possible on Catalan-related aspects of the Spanish Civil War. The result is the Atles de la Guerra Civil a Catalunya (or Atlas of the Civil War in Catalonia), a unique volume on this subject, filled with over 400 fascinating maps, that was five years in the making by a team at the International Historical Studies Center of Barcelona University.

Everything is documented with military precision, down to the road networks, the railroad lines and the cities' street names. Where does all this information come from, including the disheartening list of 70 high-ranking officials of the Catalan Army who plotted the coup on July 18, and the headquarters where they were stationed? Or the exact formation of the military columns, and even of the civilian columns that sprung up spontaneously with no support from any party? Or the map showing the location of all the banks in the Catalan capital?

"A good chunk of it is previously unpublished information, like the material we extracted from the basement of the home of Carmen Negrín, the granddaughter of the Republican prime minister, who lives in France and has kept his papers. [...] We also went around to the headquarters that political parties used to have in various neighborhoods, and noted every piece of information found in memory books and hospital records," says Antoni Segura, a history professor who wrote the book together with his colleague Joan Villarroya and the cartographer Víctor Hurtado.

Theirs is a different way of looking at a war that raged between 1936 and 1939. "We were more rigorous and quarantined many earlier statements; all we are doing here is presenting facts at a time when this conflict is being reviewed from purely ideological approaches. In our case there is nothing but field work and a good going-over of the Salamanca Archive," says Segura. In all, researchers consulted 20 archives (including one in Norway, four in Italy and one in France) and eight libraries (one in The Netherlands). Another 88 books made the reference list.

Seen from this bird's eye-view, the war seems different. Barcelona awoke in an insurrectionist mood on July 18, 1936 and it was only in the evening that there was a change of sides in the armed confrontations. There were air battles on July 19; readers can track the route followed by the hydroplanes of General Goded, which took off before receiving the order to bomb El Prat airport. The map of the fearsome checas (detention and torture centers) shows that most belonged to the anarchist federation CNT-FAI. The Catalan republican left (ERC) had two and the union UGT one.

Maps are not silent. At the Battle of the Ebro, the Fascist counteroffensive shows the existence of eight German and three Italian airfields. Another map details ships that were sunk near the Catalan coast. Most were merchant ships, and many were British. There are maps showing the 11 traveling libraries that the Generalitat sent out to soldiers on the Aragón front, as well as maps of the entertainment possibilities in a war-torn Barcelona, including three bullrings and two circus rings in 1938. There is nothing like this book elsewhere in Spain, although Segura notes that "the model could be exported."