Franco and the Duchess

My Prison

by the Duchess of Medina Sidonia
Harper & Row, 169 pp., $6.95

Jail is a great teacher. Prison accentuates the evils of a system. In that closed world, directly subjected to state authority, the prisoner begins to understand principles that are not clear outside.” The Duchess of Medina Sidonia’s comment on her eight months’ incarceration as a political prisoner in Spanish jails sums up the merits of her book. Through it, as though in a photographic negative, we see many of the realities of contemporary Spain.

The duchess was imprisoned for leading a peaceful demonstration of villagers. It took place at Palomares, a village on the Mediterranean coast unknown until a SAC bomber, refueling on its return from the borders of the Soviet Union, crashed there with its load of hydrogen bombs in 1966. The danger of radioactive contamination from the bombs’ split cases was sufficiently great for the US military to scrape off the village’s topsoil and ship it for burial to the US.

The impact on the villagers, needless to say, was dramatic. Not only was their livelihood from the sea (where a bomb lay undiscovered for months) and land jeopardized but their lives were endangered. The US authorities promised full compensation and satisfaction—a promise confirmed by the Spanish government. But once the affair was forgotten by the world’s press, so too, the villagers claimed, was the full compensation, as well as the results of the radiation tests. (Instead they were treated to the ludicrous spectacle of the US ambassador dipping himself in the sea to reassure them that there was no danger.) After legal recourse had failed, the villagers decided, a year after the event, to march on the US embassy in Madrid. They invited the duchess to march with them.

The invitation was not accidental. Isabel Alvarez de Toledo y Maura was a teen-ager when, on her father’s death after the war, she inherited the title to one of the oldest Spanish noble houses. She didn’t “get on with her world”; she was an aristocrat révoltée, a young woman who had not lived through the civil war. Though her house was not one of the great latifundist landowners of Spain, she inherited land in Andalusia, and her most famous act was to give most of this away to her tenants to set up a cooperative. Her uncompromising views on her own class and the regime, though she was herself a member of no opposition party, was bound sooner or later to lead her into conflict with the state.

The marchers had gone 200 yards down the road from Palomares when she was arrested: demonstrations, however peaceful, are a threat to a regime which congratulates itself on the “peace” it has brought to Spain for the past thirty-three years. The demonstration was stopped before it could start.

Tradition has it that the nobility in Spain is not publicly punished. The duchess was under no such illusion in her case.

My offense lay in the fact that I had openly sided with people who …

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