The idea comes from the need to raise awareness about such a crucial period in the history of our city. The itinerary covers the 30s of the last century complementing the study and critical understanding of this century. 40 years of dictatorship have been an insurmountable barrier for many aspects of the history of the country, this itinerary helps to uncover indelible marks of history.
The route is about 5 kilometers and runs along several stops The objective is to review the Republican period in Bilbao, focusing first on the Bloque Antimonárquico (the anti-monarchist block: the republican parties, PSOE, ANV and intellectuals) and, secondly, on the big issues that marked the political life of the city during that time (education, secularism, autonomy …), and finally, the progress of the civil war in the city.
FIRST STOP: THE “CASINO REPUBLICANO”
The route starts behind the Arriaga theatre, opposite the Café Amaya.
The Casino Republicano of Bilbao was right over this café. Today the floor over the café is occupied by the Club Cocherito (a bullfighting club) and the second floor by Casa Leonesa, but during the republican period the highest of the two bay windows looking into Ribera Street housed the casino.
The Casino Republicano of Bilbao was founded in 1893, with an open-minded spirit, not belonging to any political party and thus it was a meeting place for all ideological tendencies. It had different locations: 16 Santa Maria Street, Ribera Street, Bertendona Street, in the corner with Hurtado Amezaga Street … but it is from 1910 onwards that it was established in 2 Nueva Street, 2nd floor, and it will be there until the entry of Franco’s troops in the city. Moreover, the headquarters of Acción Republicana first and Izquierda Republicana later on were in this same building.
In the Casino Republicano multitude of recreational and cultural activities were organised: instructional activities such as lectures, evening classes or free legal and labour offices; leisure activities, such as theatre evenings, musical and/or literary evenings and balls; commemorative activities to celebrate special dates such as February 11 (the anniversary of the First Republic) or May 2 (anniversary of the lifting of the siege of Bilbao, 1874); or obituary evenings to remembering the figures of national and local leaders. In addition, the casinos were genuine schools of citizenship for the republicans since through participation people learned the democratic political practice.
SECOND STOP: SAN FRANCISCO, THE BREADBASKET OF REPUBLICAN VOTE
From the Café Amaya we walk up the river towards La Merced Bridge and then cross the bridge and walk up La Naja quay and then take Dos de Mayo Street.
The name of the street, and the name of the rest of the streets in the area (General Castillo St, Conde Mirasol St, Hernani St), come from the date May 2, 1874 during the Third Carlist War, when Bilbao was besieged by the absolutist troops and the siege was lifted a May 2. This event was of capital importance in the political culture of republicanism in Bilbao, since it marked the values of democracy and secularism.
There is an alternative flea market in Dos de Mayo Street every first Saturday of the month which offers people a meeting place where you can browse, have fun, participate and/or buy, the products you can find are full of creativity, handcrafted, vintage and designer products.
We walk up Dos de Mayo Street until we get to the intersection with San Francisco Street, and we continue along this street to Corazón de María Square.
The constituencies of Estación, San Francisco, Cortes and Bilbao La Vieja (“Barrios Altos”) became the breadbasket of the republican and socialist votes. It was an area with a concentration of working population, which since the First Republic opted for the Republic. and since 1890, also for socialism. In the municipal elections of 1931, this district was the only one in which nationalists and monarchists did not obtain any representation, since the Bloque Antimonárquico obtained five councilmen.
This is the cradle of the Basque socialism, which was linked to the figure of Facundo Perezagua. Perezagua was a socialist municipal councillor of Bilbao for several times. Perezagua participated in the foundation in April 13, 1921, of the Partido Comunista Obrero Español (the Spanish Communist Workers’ Party), which would become later on the Partido Comunista de España (Spanish Communist Party – PCE). During the Republic Perezagua ran a bar at 24 Cortes Street. He died on May 1, 1935, that same date a year later the City Council named the current Gimnasio Street as Facundo Perezagua Street. In this same area also grew Indalecio Prieto, who came with his mother and brother from Oviedo. Here Prieto learnt about socialism, but also about republicanism, later on he become a deputy for Bilbao not only with the support of his party, but also with the full support of the republicanism of Bilbao.
THIRD STOP: THE IMPORTANCE OF EDUCATION
We walk along San Francisco Street until we reach Corazón de María Square, and we stand right next to San Francisco State School and opposite Tomas Meabe Socialist Association, the oldest in Bilbao.
In fact, San Francisco State School had been originally named after the socialist politician Tomas Meabe, the first stone was laid on May 1, 1933 by Indalecio Prieto, Minister of Public Works, and Niceto Alcala-Zamora, President of the Republic. The construction of this school is part of the policy pursued by the republican government to extend education. Education has always been one of the pillars of republicanism. The Minister of Education, Fernando de los Ríos, launched a plan to build thousands of schools throughout Spain to fight against illiteracy, which affected at least one third of the population. In December 1932, he announced in Parliament that almost 10,000 out of the 27,000 schools needed had been built. The municipal council of Bilbao assumed this objective and promoted a plan for the construction and provision of schools, in collaboration with the Government. The municipal budget increased spectacularly, 30% from 1931 to 1932, above the average increase of total expenditure which was10.79%. According to republicans, in 1931 there were about 36,000 children between 3 and 14 years in Bilbao, of whom 8,000 were enrolled in national schools, 6,000 in municipal schools and 7,500 in private schools, thus remaining 14,500 children out of school.
FOURTH STOP: REPUBLICAN-SOCIALIST CONJUNCTION
Going down San Francisco Street at number 8 and 11 we find the former headquarters of the Círculo Socialista, it is a building with deteriorated bay windows in which the socialist centre was located.
The objectives of “Las casas del pueblo”, as the headquarters of the socialist group were known, and the objectives of the workers’ circles linked to socialism are clearly stated in the regulation of the Socialist Circle of Bilbao, being its main objective “the socialist propaganda by dissemination of culture in all its manifestations, and comfort and relaxation of its members, for that purpose a library will be created and different instructional conferences will be organized, as well as musical, literary, art, and recreation evenings and anything that stimulates moral and intellectual development”.
At this point we can also mention something about the union of republicans and socialists, first during the Restoration, the so called Republican-Socialist conjunction, and then during the Second Republic, in the Bloque Antimonárquico and the Frente Popular. Bilbao was the first place in Spain in which republicans and socialists stood together for elections. It was in 1907, two years before the national republican-socialist conjunction took place, when both parties formed the Bloque Democrático. In 1909, with the creation of the 1909 Conjunction, and until 1918, republicans and socialists dominated the representation of the municipality of Bilbao, sending Horacio Echevarrieta and Indalecio Prieto to the Parliament in Madrid.
During the Second Republic, republicans and socialists, together with Acción Nacionalista Vasca (ANV), stood together for the municipal elections of April 12, 1931 in the Bloque Antimonárquico and, at some other time without ANV then, Republicans and Socialists maintained their union for the elections to the National Parliament, and obtained 4 seats in the district of Biscay (Prieto, Araquistain, Aldasoro and Fatrás). In 1933, despite the rupture of the union of the left-wing groups, in Bilbao they stood together for the elections, it was the only district in Spanish in which this was so. Candidates were Prieto, Zugazagoitia, Azaña and Domingo. Republicans and socialists lost the elections in Bilbao for the first time since 1910, but they could send Prieto and Azaña to parliament. In 1936, republicans and socialists joined ANV and PCE in the Frente Popular (popular front), the candidates were the socialists Prieto and Zugazagoitia, the republican Ruiz Funes and the communist Carro. The Frente Popular was victorious, and the four candidates had a seat in the Parliament.
FIFTH STOP: RONDA STREET, THE INTELLECTUALS and ANV
We walk down San Francisco Street towards San Anton Bridge and cross the bridge towards Ronda Street.
Ronda Street is the street that closes Las Siete Calles (Seven Streets) of the medieval period. The illustrious Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo was born in this same street, in number 16 Ronda Street. Right in front of Unamuno´s birthplace we stop to make some considerations on the role of intellectuals during the Republic. Unamuno himself, apart from being a socialist, he was also a candidate to the general government of the local republicans of Bilbao. Just like in other places in Spain, in Bilbao there was also the Asociación al Servicio de la República (an association supporting the republic).
Continuing through Ronda Street, we reached number 32. This was the Euzko Etxea, headquarters of the ANV (Basque Nationalist Action party). The ANV was founded in 30th November 1930 and represented a left-wing secular nationalism. ANV together with the republicans and the socialists formed a block which stood for the municipal elections of 12nd April in Bilbao. Thanks to that agreement ANV had seven municipal councillors, a result clearly above the force they represented. The role of ANV was important in the management committees, which aimed at the Statute of Autonomy. ANV also agreed with republicans and socialists about the formation of the Frente Popular. ANV had a minister in the Government of the Republic who was the architect and municipal councillor Tomás Bilbao.
We reach the end of Ronda Street and find María Muñoz Street, where we can have a break at the Muga Bar, a republican bar.
SIXTH STOP: THE MAY 2 FEAST DAY
We walk along Ronda Street and we reach Unamuno Square (formerly Auxiliares Square). From here we walked up the stairs leading to the old Mallona cemetery, from where there is a privileged panoramic view of Bilbao, and there we see the monument to the auxiliares (auxiliaries). Instead of going up the stairs we can use the lift in the underground´s station as a plan B.
The May 2 Feast Day in 1933, in which the civic procession was headed by Ercoreca, Prieto and Alcalá-Zamora.
It is the civic procession that liberals, republicans and, later on, socialists held every May 2 in memory of the “heroes of freedom”, those who fought against ”carlistas” (troops fighting for Don Carlos in the XIX century) in the Siege of Bilbao. The civic procession departed from the City Hall and continued along Sendeja Street, up to Bidebarrieta Street and from there it turned towards the square and then up the stairs leading to Mallona.
The civic procession, a custom in the city throughout the Restoration period and the Second Republic, has gone unnoticed for the locals during the past 40 years after having being banned for the previous 40 years. In this case, Franco wanted the liberal spirit and symbols of Bilbao to fade into oblivion, and this has been a success, even now due to the lack of cooperation from democratic institutions.
It was a majestic female figure symbolizing the strength of Bilbao against the carlistas with laurel wreaths in her hands, and a base on which there were four lions, but at present you can hardly appreciate the pillar on which the female figure was based. One of the first things the troops that entered Bilbao on June 19, 1937, mostly Carlist militians “Requetés”, was to maim the hands of this figure so that the laurel wreaths symbolizing the victory of liberal ideas against reaction could not be seen.
SEVENTH STOP: THE REPUBLICAN CITY HALL
From Mallona, and crossing through Etxebarria Park we follow the edge of the viewpoint, leaving the sports ground to the right and we begin the descend towards the Gas Square and finally to the City Hall. Then we stand facing the building of the City Hall, just next to Oteiza´s sculpture.
On April 12, 1931 municipal elections were hold, a calling plebiscite on the form of government to have. In Bilbao, the anti-monarchist candidature was victorious, achieving 31 councillors vs 12 for PNV (Basque Nationalist Party) and 3 for the Monarchic Group. The 31 antimonarchical councillors were distributed as follows:12 PSOE (Partido Socialista Obrero Español), 7 ANV (Acción Nacionalista Vasca) and 12 republicans (8 for the Partido Republicano Autónomo, 3 for the radical socialists and 1 for Derecha Liberal Republicana). When the king knew the results of the elections he could not but left the country, and the Second Republic was proclaimed on 14 April. In Bilbao the population took to the streets in celebration, concentrating around the City Hall and Sendeja Street. That same day the councils were appointed, in Bilbao Ernesto Ercoreca (from the Partido Republicano Autónomo) was the elected mayor, whose name is born by the square next to the city hall at present. Ercoreca was a veteran of municipal politics, because his name already appeared in 1905 in the Republican list of candidates. He was elected councillor for the first time in 1911, and became provincial deputy.
EIGHTH STOP: THE FIGHT FOR SECULARISM
From the City Hall building we cross the bridge towards Buenos Aires Street. We arrive at Circular Square and take the Gran Vía to Eliptica Square. Once in this square we stay in the middle facing Sagrado Corazón Square.
One of the greatest enemies of the Republic was the Church, due to the attempt to create a secular state. In the Basque Country, the fight between right-wing Catholics and left-wing anticlericals was peculiar because the pro-clerical posture was represented by the PNV (Partido Nacionalista Vasco), a political party which did not contributed to establish the Republic but which positioned itself in the legality side after the coup in July 18, 1936.
The religious question raised serious clashes between the municipal government and the opposition of the PNV, just the same as in the Parliament between parties in favour of the separation of the church and the state, and the conservative opposition, which claimed to continue with the privileges the Church had always enjoyed in Spain. However, the most virulent discussion was related to the Sagrado Corazón of Jesús statue, built during the time of Primo de Rivera´s dictatorship. In the plenary session of January 3, 1933 the socialist city councillor, Santiago Aznar, presented a request in full for the removal of the monument to the Sacred Heart.
A month later, at the plenary session of February 8, the commission for public works and transport presented a request to the Apostleship of Prayer to proceed with the demolition of the monument to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The position of the PNV was against that decision, since they wanted the statue to continue to be present. After a long and intense debate, with an outstanding oratory of the Republican councillor Ambrosio Garbisu, on March 15 it was agreed that the costs of the removal of the Sagrado Corazón statue would be charged to the contingency budget. A few days after this resolution, on March 27, 1933, it was announced that Tomas Eguidazu, Mariano de Arostegui and some other former mayors of the city had lodged and appeal and that the courts had decided to temporarily suspend the demolition. The subsequent suspension of the City Council which was not replaced until the triumph of the Frente Popular in 1936 caused the monument to the Sacred Heart to remain in its place to the present day.
NINTH STOP: THE AUTONOMY
Now we look at the Carlton Hotel.
This building housed the headquarters of the Presidency of the Basque Government (Lehendakaritza).
The Second Spanish Republic was an important period for the resolution of the problem of how the Basque provinces fitted in Spain, it was the beginning of the autonomy process. The regions could have a Statute of Autonomy if they wished to, and it was so since the adoption of the Pact of San Sebastian in the summer of 1930. One year later the Constitution prosecuted this issue of autonomy.
In Catalonia the support of all the autonomists had contributed to the establishment of the Republic, and therefore the Statute of Catalonia was adopted relatively quickly, in 1932. In the Basque Country it was different. The PNV (Basque Nationalist Party), the most important political party at the time, had not taken part in the Pact of San Sebastián and consequently, there was no unit in the statutory process, in fact there were two statutory processes, one supported by the PNV and the Carlistas, known as the Statute of Estella, and another one supported by the Republicans, socialists and ANV , known as the Statute of the Gestoras.
It was not until the victory of the Frente Popular in 1936 that the Basque statutory problem was solved. The nationalists and the Frente Popular, headed by Prieto, agreed to create a new Basque Statute but its approval was delayed due to the beginning of the Civil War and it could not enter into force until October 1936. The Basque Government was sworn in Gernika on October 7, 1936. The Government was compound by 4 representatives from the PNV, 3 PSOE , 2 Republicans, 1 communist and 1 from the ANV. Therefore, the representation of the Frente Popular was majority, but the president was Jose Antonio Aguirre from the PNV
The representatives of the Frente Popular were Aznar (PSOE, Industry), Toyos (PSOE, Work), Grace (PSOE, Social Assistance), Aldasoro (Republican Left, Trade), Espinosa (Republican Union, Health), Astigarrabia (Communist Party, Transport) and Nardiz (ANV, Agriculture).
TENTH STOP: FROM BEING MILITARY HEADQUARTERS TO BECOME A PRISON
From the Elíptica Square we move towards Alameda de Recalde Street and continue that way up to the Piarist School.
This is an example of a building that was used during the war as the headquarters of some of the “gudaris” (basque patriots) or militiamen battalions and after the end of the war in the Basque Country it became a prison. This building in particular was used as the headquarters of the “Rebelión de la Sal”, “Malato”, “Aralar” and “Sukarrieta” battalions. After the Fall of Bilbao, the building was used by francoists as a place for detention and imprisonment, about 7,000 political prisoners were confined in this building; all of them in custody, that is to say, without trial and without charges.
If we move on up to the estuary, we can see the University of Deusto.
During the war this building was used as the Headquarters for some battalions of the Meabe Column. After the Fall of Bilbao, the university became a concentration camp under Colonel Inspector Martin Pinillos. This centre of illegal and extrajudicial detention belonged to the military administration and was used to place and classify the republican prisoners, without trial. It was in operation, from the second half of 1937 to the beginning of 1940, and 331 people died, 188 of them victims of executions and 143 died as a result of a disease. This concentration camp was an important distribution centre of forced labour for the different disciplinary battalions, used in the mines, in the war industries, rebuilding the “iron ring” (defensive line of Bilbao) or even constructing the airport in Sondika (the former airport of the city)
ELEVENTH STOP: THE FALL OF BILBAO
Once we have reached the Guggenheim Museum we descend to the estuary. From there we continue walking to the statue of Ramón Rubial. In 1978 Rubial was elected president of the Basque General Council which was the embryo of the future Basque Government. This is a good place to explain the last days of the Republic in Bilbao before the Fall of Bilbao, while we are facing Mount Artxanda.
In late March 1937, after the stagnation in the frontline in Madrid, the rebels turned to the Cantabrian territory which was still loyal to the Republic, although isolated since almost the entire province of Gipuzkoa had already been occupied. The frontline in the Cantabrian territory had stopped just outside the province of Biscay. This territory could provide the “national faction” (francoists) with important resources. Since the beginning of that year, various places in Biscay had been frequently bombed, causing heavy casualties and frightened the population. The bombing of Durango on March 31 and Gernika on April 26, for example, are unforgettable pictures of this barbarism (See the picture “Gernika” by Pablo Picasso).
The rebels reached Bilbao, and on June 11 the assault to Bilbao´s Iron Ring began. On June 12, following an attack with artillery and aerial bombardment, Franco´s troops surpassed Bilbao´s Iron Ring in the area around Mount Gaztelumendi, just about 10 km from the center of Bilbao. On June 13 Aguirre instructed to defend Bilbao, but it was clear that once the rebels reached the mountains that surrounded the city it would be impossible its defense, and for that reason on June 14 the Government started with the evacuation of the civilian population, since Bilbao was almost completely surrounded.
Three days after the breakup of the “Ring”, they attacked Mount Artxanda, falling into enemy the area between Santo Domingo and Fort Banderas. Once the mountainous area around Artxanda had been conquered, Franco’s troops took up positions on Mount Pagasarri, and in that way the siege of Bilbao was completed. There was just one way out: the road bordering the Nervión from Bilbao towards Zorroza.
On June 16 when the national forces were on the verge of closing any possible way out for the troops and population westwards, the Basque Government met with the military commanders and they decided to withdraw the army from Bilbao. The evacuation of the population was difficult because from Mount Banderas, the artillery of the rebels controlled the road along the Nervion. During the night of June 16 they found the way to recovered Fort Banderas, Berriz, Artxandasarri, el Molino and the road from Artxanda to Santo Domingo, withstanding the continuous attacks from Franco’s troops during the rest of the day.
On June 17, the Basque Government moved to Trucíos, just the councillors Aznar, Astigarrabía and Leizaola remained in Bilbao and ordered the withdrawal. That same day about 20,000 bombs were dropped over Bilbao, in what represented an advance to the final ground assault. On June 18 the order was given to withdraw the last troops in the city. The last one of these units left Bilbao in the early morning of June 19, leaving the city free of “gudaris” and militiamen for the entry of rebels. With no resistence, between 5 and 6 pm, of June 19, 1937, the fascist troops occupied Bilbao beginning therefore the end of the Northern Frontline.