Belchite: A Truly Haunting Monument

Church of San Martin de Tours, Old Town Belchite. Photo by JOMISAG via wikimedia commons.

Church of San Martin de Tours, Old Town Belchite. Photo by JOMISAG via wikimedia commons.

The mere concept of a ghost town fascinates people. The idea that a thriving town could one day cease to have any value, to the point where it becomes completely abandoned, is confronting.

How many of them actually have ghosts? I don’t mean in the metaphysical sense, but in the skeletons in the closet, bad things happened here sort of way. Belchite, 40km from Zaragoza in Spain’s Aragon region, is one such place.

Some History

Belchite was founded in 1122 on the border between Arab and Christian Spain. It’s long, prosperous and nondescript history was brought to an abrupt end during two weeks of fighting between Nationalist and Republican forces during the Spanish Civil War. A new town was rebuilt a few kilometers away, but the old town was left standing as a monument to war by the soon-to-be victorious Franco dictatorship.

The Battle

The Battle of Belchite occurred during a key phase of the war. The front lines had been fixed and the Republican side, infused with the International Brigades (volunteer forces in the fight against fascism from around the world) and Soviet air power, attempted a push westward from Barcelona to capture Zaragoza and hinder a Nationalist offensive aimed at the Basque Country.

Belchite, Aragon. Cityscape of a ghost town left as a monument to the destruction of war. Work by ecelan via Wikimedia Commons.

Belchite, Aragon. Cityscape of a ghost town left as a monument to the destruction of war. Work by ecelan via Wikimedia Commons.

Franco’s forces held the town for two weeks before the superior numbers of the Republicans seized control. The battle was a tactical victory for the Republicans, but the delay in taking the town allowed the Nationalist reinforcements time to arrive and shore up the contested front, leading to a overall stalemate in the campaign.

The Ruins

The result of the battle was, predictably, complete and total devastation. 6,000 lay dead and the town was left in ruins. General Francisco Franco immediately declared the town be left as is, a monument to the horrors of war. Some would argue, he left it as a monument to the horrors that Soviet-backed Communist forces committed (Franco was ardently anti-communist, not to mention antisemitic, anti-masonic, anti-democratic, etc…).

Is it really any surprise that Franco chose Belchite for the monument, a town destroyed by Soviet firepower, and not Guernica, the Basque village bombed by the German Luftwaffe at the behest of Franco’s forces forever immortalized by Pablo Picasso’s moving tribute.

The ruins of Guernica following Nazi bombardment, 1937. From the German Federal Archives.

The ruins of Guernica following Nazi bombardment, 1937. From the German Federal Archives.

The Aftermath

The pendulum would soon swing permanently in the Nationalists’ favor. 1938 saw Franco, backed by Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy, strike the decisive blows in the war en route to an early ’39 peace agreement. The 2nd Republic was abolished and Franco’s fascist regime would take the reigns of power, holding them until 1975.

After the fall of the Republic, up to 500,000 Republicans were herded into concentration camps with some 50,000 executed almost immediately. Republican sympathizers fled into France, where possible, and refugee camps overflowed with those desperately seeking to escape retribution.

Belchite Today

You can walk around the ruins of the city today. There are little restrictions for tourists. The church of San Martin de Tours and the old clock tower are two highlights. The first link below has an excellent photo gallery worth checking out.

Not all ghost towns are created equal. Chernobyl, like Belchite, reminds us of the destruction mankind can wreak on itself. A remote copper town who’s mine has dried up doesn’t hold the same captivating sway as one destroyed by man’s own hand. One is an economic folly, the other, truly haunting.

It’s rather obvious with which side my sympathies lie in the conflict. I hope my prejudices didn’t overwhelm you, the reader. I plan to do more on the Spanish Civil War in the future, as it’s one topic I actually have extensive knowledge on.

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10 thoughts on “Belchite: A Truly Haunting Monument

  1. Good story. I am going to Zaragoza this year so might make a visit.

  2. JOMISAG says:

    Hola: Soy JOMISAG, autor de la fotografia de la iglesia San Martín de Tours que aparece en primera posición. Agradezco que hayan elegido mi fotografia para su página. Saludos.

  3. Lucy Clare says:

    Muy interesante – gracias por la information!

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