Monday, December 31, 2012

Dr. Moisès Broggi, The International Brigade surgeon

In honor of the long and brilliant life of Dr. Moisès Broggi, who passed away today, I'm posting the interview that Toni Strubell did with him in his excellent book, What Catalans Want.

Update: newspaper is reporting that Dr. Moisès Broggi was Ernest Hemingway's inspiration for one of the young, brave Republican doctors at the front in For Whom the Bell Tolls. Hemingway was impressed by Broggi, a surgeon, who saved the lives of many of the International Brigades who fought on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War. Broggi also pioneered the use of mobile surgery units as well as 24-hour emergency hospital care.

Dr. Moisès Broggi’s home is a small haven of peace in a hectic district uphill from the centre of Barcelona. A small gate on a side-alley off a major avenue leads to narrow steps that transport one into a quiet garden home, where the 102-year-old doctor lives with his charming wife, Angelina. Small in stature, but universally admired in Catalonia, he is one of the last living vestiges of Catalan Republican dignity. Indeed, in 2009, he was shortlisted for the prestigious ‘Catalan of the Year’ prize granted yearly, on the basis of a popular vote, by the newspaper El Periódico—though FC Barcelona’s triumphant coach, Pep Guardiola, eventually carried off the award. For the press and institutions, Dr. Broggi is a key figure to turn to when debates and tributes are being planned. In that same year, 2009, he was also awarded the Catalan Government’s highest distinction.

Dr. Broggi was born in Barcelona in 1908. He studied medicine at Barcelona University, where he graduated in 1931, the same year that the ill-fated Spanish Republic was proclaimed. He specialized in a field that was going to prove vital in the tragic years ahead: surgery. When the Civil War broke out he had no doubts about taking sides for the Republic, which had enabled Catalonia to recover part of her political autonomy in 1932. Dr. Broggi joined up with the International Brigade’s medical team. He was very active in the creation of mobile operating theatres placed near the trenches. At the end of the war he initially took up posts at the Vallcarca and Hospital Clínic hospitals in Barcelona, but his political record soon caught up with him and he was suspended. He was submitted to the usual reprisals to which most Republican medical staff were exposed. He was nevertheless able to continue practicing in different clinics, at a time when doctors were very much in demand.

After Franco had died, in 1980, Dr. Broggi was elected president of both the Royal Academy of Medicine in Barcelona and the Commission on Medical Ethics of the College of Medicine. He was also a founding member of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, a prestigious association that won the Nobel Prize in 1985. Similarly, several universities have conferred upon him Honoris Causa degrees. In 2010, the new public hospital at Sant Joan Despí—just outside Barcelona—was named Hospital Moisès Broggi, an honour that greatly satisfied this venerable veteran of Catalan surgery.

Do you think the sacrifice of the International Brigades in the Civil War has been sufficiently acknowledged by present-day society?

I’m convinced that their contribution has not been commemorated enough. Their sacrifice was truly remarkable. All those people who came here to put their lives in peril for an ideal! At the Battle of the Ebre, in late 1938, there were still International Brigade volunteers present. It was extraordinarily memorable and praiseworthy. Not enough has been done to honour them. This could be put down to the way in which the political transition after Franco was handled. After Franco’s death, things didn’t change as they should have done. In many senses Francoism continued to exist, and in many ways it still does today! There are elements that subsist in the legislation that prove that the Franco regime is still alive and kicking. I think this has a great influence on things even today, despite the democratic gloss.

What kind of influence does it have?

I think there are admirers of Franco who still pull the strings. This effectively prevents Spain enjoying a fuller degree of democracy. There were a lot of people who, as we say in Catalan, ‘swam between two waters’, and who still hold office and wield power today. Look at Rodolfo Martín Villa presiding over Sogecable. Or the late Juan Antonio Samaranch’s post as Honorary President of the International Olympic Committee.1 Deep down, it’s a disgrace to all democrats, and won’t look at all good in history books. I reckon a large part of Spain’s right wing is still Francoist. Their favourite motto is: ‘We were better off under Franco’.

But lots of members of the Partido Popular say they have nothing to do with Francoism…

Of course they do. They deny it because they’re ashamed to admit it. But, deep down, I’m convinced they do. They don’t want to own up because, as is well known, the crimes committed during the Franco regime have begun to be publicized worldwide. As time goes on, more and more is known about the terrible crimes Franco committed. Although their perpetrators remain unpunished, the regime was morally reprimanded at the European Parliament and by the United Nations’ Human Rights Council in 2008. All this makes things increasingly embarrassing for diehards. This is why every attempt has been made to sweep all these crimes under the carpet.

What is your opinion of Allied non-interventionism during the Civil War?

That was a disaster for us. The rebellion of the generals in 1936 brought havoc on our country, and left us without law and order. At the outbreak of the war, extremists won the day on both sides. And it was then, thanks to Franco’s coup, that the more radical factions—the FAI2 in Republican areas and the Falangists in Franco-controlled zones—took over completely. That was disastrous for us because Franco continued to enjoy the support of Hitler and Mussolini, whereas the negative image created by the FAI led the democratic nations to abandon us, hoodwinked as they were by the propaganda put around by the conservative and Catholic press in Europe.

Do you think the Republican and Catalan governments could have done more to stop the crimes in the Republican rearguard?

No, I really do not. Our government just didn’t have the resources to face up to the situation. It had very few military assets, and it was at the mercy of the anarchists who had hoarded large quantities of arms during an uprising prior to the Civil War, in October 1934. The economic situation was also desperate. Unemployment was enormous because work on building the underground railway in Barcelona had come to an end. Lots of people had been made redundant. There were a lot of people on the streets, some of whom were armed and more than willing to kick up trouble. There was no stopping them when the coup unleashed violence in its worst form.

In 2008, the Consuls-General of France and Germany publicly apologized for their countries’ part in handing over President Companys3 to Franco…

Yes. But for some strange reason, the ceremony conducted at the Generalitat Palace did not get the coverage it deserved. I know, for example, that the Consuls-General were unwilling to let their speeches be published. It was as if they had subsequently been put under pressure to hold back. And that would surely be because the diplomatic corps, despite accepting the invitation to participate in such a noble act, knew that influential members of the local establishment are associated—either by family or ideological connections—with the Fascists who had Companys shot. They weren’t happy at all about that ceremony. I’d say they had strings pulled to have the tribute muffled.

What about the position of Madrid with respect to Companys?

They have never apologized for what the State did. They have not even annulled the sentence with which Franco sentenced him to death! Now I believe they have issued the family some kind of ‘good conduct diploma’, that they were made to apply for at the Ministry of Justice. It’s humiliating, and quite unlike anything that has happened in other countries that have overcome dictatorships and civil wars.

Did you ever meet President Companys yourself?

Yes, I did. And I pride myself on being able to say that I enjoyed a personal friendship with him. I remember we had a meal together with him in the company of other doctors. He was a most inspiring and dignified leader. It’s curious, because my mother had a small shop with an assistant who was an orphan. Her name was Carme Ballester. My mother had taken her on and treated her like a daughter. And it was that girl who, when she grew up, became Lluís Companys’ second wife! So I’ve got plenty of memories of him, all of them positive. Such was the relationship president Companys had with our family that he entrusted a very delicate matter to my father during the war.

Do you think that the Catalan issue was one of the reasons Franco declared war?

Yes, I think it was very important. The Republic had accepted an incipient form of devolution for Catalonia with the 1932 Statute of Autonomy. Subsequently there were achievements as significant as the creation of the Autonomous University of Barcelona. These greatly upset the Spanish right and the military. But the spark that really set the Civil War alight, in my opinion, was the fact that in 1936 the Republic was considering the economic question and the need to finance Catalan self-government. That is very often overlooked. But I do think anti-Catalan feeling was a key issue in the outbreak of the war. It’s very similar, in that sense, to the current situation, in which the financial issue is what most seems to infuriate Madrid.

Senator Francesc Ferrer coined the term ‘Catalanophobia’ to refer to the dislike many Spaniards have for things Catalan. Do you consider the term appropriate?

As I see it, there is outright antagonism between Catalonia and Spain. That’s nothing new. It has age-old roots. It’s a gut feeling both for them and for us. The reason is that we are completely different. We belong to two different nations. They are Spanish and we are Catalan. The problem is we are completely and utterly subjugated to them. They take advantage of the power they exert over us. Little by little they are throttling our economy, and taking advantage of us without showing us the slightest respect or indeed gratitude for the economic solidarity we show. They need us for the tax levies they get out of us. But at the same time they mistreat us. The big change occurring now is that Catalonia no longer needs Spain.

In most democratic countries the administration goes to great lengths to curtail inter-ethnic strife and prevent tension between communities. Is this so between Spain and Catalonia?

For reasons that escape me, the Madrid government seems to have no interest whatever in improving the relationship between Catalans and Spaniards. They could do so by encouraging mutual understanding, and the right of each community to choose the political future that best suits it. They could strive to get these choices respected. Even the king could do something about this. But his incapacity or reluctance to do so is more than our patience can put up with any more. I think the king is anything but impartial. He has no interest in Catalonia and how Catalans feel. He has just been to Santiago de Compostela to pray for national unity before the tomb of Saint James. And that’s no joke! The truth is that we have reached a point at which the only option left is separation.

At present there is political unrest in Catalonia. Why is that so, in your opinion?

I believe it is because people have been able to overcome the fear that memories of the Civil War inspired in them. People do not remember it so much now. Fear has largely been overcome, even though there are lots of people who are still unwilling to talk about the past. War is a very serious matter. Many people cannot forget that the others, the right wing, have always had the army behind them. And the army is constitutionally primed to act against us if necessary. In that sense, the situation is not so very different from that of Yugoslavia in the nineties.

Can the situation in Catalonia be compared with those in other countries?

The situation we are going through cannot be seen as something entirely remote for a lot of people in Europe. Before the 1914-18 war, situations like ours today were widespread. There were the Ottoman and the Austro-Hungarian Empires, whose disappearance after the war enabled the emergence of a whole range of nations, some of which had lacked freedom for centuries. Greece and the Balkan countries had been dominated and exploited by the Turks. Sweden and Norway separated peacefully in 1905. Likewise, the British granted independence to many nations after World War II, largely without bloodshed. Now Catalonia needs that same kind of treatment. Like Scotland, Catalonia is awaiting an opportunity to be free. I really cannot think why it is seen as so impossible for Catalonia to separate from Spain! Now is the moment to lay our cards on the table and make our demands as clear as possible. We want to be free. It’s that simple.

Do you think the international community will understand that?

The main problem is that no-one seems to know about us. Nobody knows about our problems. People think we’re just Spaniards with a stupid tendency to complain about things all the time. I think it would be a very good idea if we tried to carry on with the excellent work done by people like Pau Casals, Josep Maria Batista i Roca and Josep Trueta.4 They were able to put across our case most effectively. I also think tourism should be exploited more in this sense. People ought to be told who Gaudí really was. Aren’t his buildings the most visited monuments in Barcelona? When you visit Italy, they tell you all about Michelangelo and his ideological position. Here it seems to be a taboo to let anyone know that Gaudí was in favour of Catalan independence or that he was arrested for speaking in Catalan. Maybe if these things were explained, people would have more of an insight into what is going on here.


  1. Rodolfo Martín Villa, who held various posts under the Franco regime and was Interior Minister in the transition government of Adolfo Suárez from 1976 to 1979, has been chairman of Sogecable, one of Spain’s largest pay-TV providers, since 2006; Juan Antonio Samaranch (1920–2010), famous as the President of the International Olympic Committee from 1980 to 2001, had previously been one of the leading figures of the Franco regime in Catalonia from the 1950s to the 1970s.
  2. The Federación Anarquista Ibérica (Iberian Anarchist Federation), a radical and violent anarchist group linked to the anarchosyndicalist union the CNT before and during the Civil War.
  3. Lluís Companys (1882–1940), President of the Catalan Generalitat from 1933 and throughout the Civil War, went into exile in France at the end of the war. In August 1940 he was arrested by the German Gestapo with the assistance of the French Pétain government, and handed over to the Franco regime. He was tried by court-martial and executed in October 1940.
  4. A reference to three of the most distinguished Catalan exiles who played prominent roles in international cultural life after the Civil War: the celebrated cellist Pau Casals (1876–1973; often known internationally as Pablo, the Spanish form) worked tirelessly to publicize the cause of Catalonia and democracy from his exile in France and Puerto Rico; the historian and anthropologist Josep Maria Batista i Roca (1895–1978) also went into exile and taught for many years at Cambridge University, founding various institutions to promote awareness of Catalan culture; and Doctor Josep Trueta (1897–1977), Professor of Orthopaedics at Oxford from 1949 to 1965 and one of the creators of the Nuffield Orthopaedic Centre, also published a short book in 1940 on The Spirit of Catalonia.

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