The Spanish Civil War retains a prominent place in the imaginary of left-wing historians, intellectuals, and artists — even eighty years after General Franco’s victory over the Republican army. For many in the Anglosphere, film-maker Luis Buñuel remains the most famous exile from Franco’s Spain (Pablo Picasso had left the country before his infamous Guernica was exhibited during the war). In Spain, however, the poet Rafael Alberti is amongst the most celebrated, having escaped the country with his wife, the writer María Teresa León, on a single-engine plane to Oran, Algeria 24 hours before Franco took Madrid. After Juan Carlos I invited him to return in 1977, Alberti became a symbol of resistance and survival. On 16 December 1982 he filled Madrid’s bullring with a poetry reading, so huge was the crowd that wanted to see him.
Alberti was part of the ‘Generation of ’27’: a group of Spanish poets who emerged in the mid-to-late 1920s, including Federico García Lorca. Like the French Surrealists who influenced them, they were engaged with left-wing politics, setting themselves in opposition to the military dictatorship established by Primo de Rivera in 1923. Initially, Alberti wrote in favour of revolution, reciting poems at demonstrations against de Rivera’s regime, but like García Lorca, he supported the Republic that was set up in 1931. He was given money to travel across Europe to report on the continental cultural scene, where he met figures such as Picasso, Louis Aragon, Sergei Eisenstein, and Maxim Gorky; but also witnessed the rise of Fascism, being present at the Reichstag fire in February 1933.
Alberti supported the Popular Front that won the Spanish election in 1936 on a platform of land, education, military, and economic reform. Soon, however, he was forced to defend not just the minority government but the Republic itself, when Franco announced his intended coup. During the ensuing Civil War, Alberti safeguarded paintings in Madrid’s Prado, and became the secretary of the Alliance of Anti-Fascist Intellectuals, organising the Second International Congress of Writers to draw attention to the Spanish struggle. Soon after his dramatic escape, Alberti was forced to move again: not long after its installation in Nazi-occupied France, the Vichy government stripped Alberti and León of their work and residence permits, and they fled to Buenos Aires.
Written between 1948 and 1952, and translated into English by Carolyn L. Tipton, Returnings: Poems of Love and Distance document Alberti’s exile, and the feelings that it engendered. He described the way in which “my distant Spanish life would present itself to me down to the minutest details; the memories — places, people, desires, loves, sorrows, joys — would invade me,” but the last of the volume’s three sections focuses on pre-war Europe, and the hopes for a socialist future that was lost amid the rise of fascism.
The collection is testament to the power of poetry to record the emotions essential to anti-fascist resistance, and the possibility of popular movements that might bring change: melancholic remembrance of what has been lost, and identification of (and with) sources of hope. In ‘Return of an Assassinated Poet’, Alberti addresses García Lorca, murdered in 1936, saying that “despite the little battles that we fought / you are still joined to me, even more perhaps / in death for all those times — forgive me — that we failed to be in life.”
In ‘Return of the Spanish People’ — the volume’s final poem — Alberti identified the courage shown in their defence of the Republic as cause for optimism, even though Franco would endure for another quarter of a century. Recalling those Republicans who, after March 1939, “overflowed the cells, the killing / pits of the prisons, the fields of forced labour” who “still managed to send me, across the sea, that strong sustaining wind,” Alberti ended with a dream: “may my blood / always flow in unison with yours, and may we soon lift up one voice to celebrate / the definitive re-dawning of our day.”
After its end, Franco’s Fascist rule was not a topic of polite discussion. The commemorations for the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil War’s outbreak were discreet: Alberti’s poster for a conference, ‘Valencia, Capital of the Republic’ in 1986, based on the Republican flag, was unofficially but effectively banned. Now, with a Spanish far-right using nostalgia for its exile — from power, if not the country itself — as a basis for a new movement, domestic and international anti-fascists would do well to go back to Rafael Alberti, and draw strength from his determination to return.