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In August 1936 a military coup d'etat triggered a national uprising in Spain, and this resulted in a prolonged and tragic civil war. The complexities of that war cannot be analysed here, but in broad terms it was a rebellion by the monarchist, catholic Right against the socialist government and its allies.
When the uprising began, the Alcazar of Toledo was ill-prepared for war. The old fortress on the hill was a military academy at the time, and most of the students were away on vacation. When news arrived of the coup in the south, the skeleton garrison took prompt steps to join the rebellion. A squad of cadets marched out of the Alcazar and down to the Plaza del Zocodover, where a proclamation was read aloud (FOR church and motherland, AGAINST bolshevism). The trainee soldiers then marched back up to the Alcazar and closed the gates behind them. Though no-one realised it at the time, one of the great sieges of history had begun.
Toledo is only 45 miles south of Madrid, and therein lay the Nationalists' problem. The Spanish capital was overwhelmingly Leftist, with huge concentrations of men and equipment. Easily the nearest rebel stronghold, the Alcazar was the obvious place for the Madrid government to attack. Leftist artillery and infantry were brought up, and toledanos with right-wing sympathies moved into the Alcazar for safety. And so it came about that 800 men, women and children endured six weeks of siege. When the garrison was finally relieved on September 27 1936, the Alcazar was a ruin, but its defenders had held out.
In order to understand the emotional and cultural importance of the siege, it is essential to know three pieces of Spanish folklore. Indeed, without an awareness of them, it is impossible to make sense of the Alcazar story.
First, there is the Guzman legend. Don Guzman was a christian hero who commanded the defence of Tarifa on behalf of his king, Sanco IV, in the year 1292. The infidel arab hordes were surrounding the walled town, led by the traitor Don Juan. Guzman's little son had been entrusted to Don Juan as a pageboy, and now the traitor called Guzman onto the battlements and ordered the hero to surrender, or see his son's throat cut. In a gesture greatly admired by the Spanish, Guzman threw a knife down to the traitor. The story encapsulates Spanish notions of heroism and stoicism which were to find an uncanny echo in 20th-century Toledo. The commandant of the Alcazar, Colonel Moscardo, received a telephone call one day. It was the Reds, informing him that they were holding his teenage son, and that the boy would be shot unless the Alcazar surrendered. Moscardo, like a latter-day Guzman, asked to speak to his son. He told the boy, "Die well."
Second, the Spanish brand of catholicism has a long history of standing alone against the surrounding forces of darkness. Through the dark days of muslim conquest, then later the Reformation, and then the anticlerical Napoleonic invasion, the Spanish church has seen itself as the staunch, unwavering champion of christian goodness. The Alcazar was yet another symbolic stand in which the Spanish church was able to draw on its profoundly-felt sense of having a special role as defender of the true faith.
Third, there is a standing order in Spanish army regulations which requires a junior officer, when relieved by a superior, to salute and report, "Sin novedad" ('no news'). It is rather like the anglosaxon 'all present and correct', except that it carries heavy notions of honour. It matters very much to the outgoing officer that he is able to hand over his responsibilities without anything having gone wrong. "Sin novedad" means that all has gone well on his watch. When, on September 27 1936, the Foreign Legion fixed bayonets and advanced into the wreckage of the Alcazar, they found some ragged defenders. The duty officer of the fortress was able to inform the Legion commander that not one woman and not one child had been harmed. Although the defenders were at the end of their tether, the Alcazar had survived the siege. He stood down with the words, "Sin novedad".
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