In February 1937 the Republican Government fought more than one battle. Despite the ongoing Civil War, the authorities did not renounce one of the great objectives that the Second Republic had set for itself when it was proclaimed 90 years ago: the education of the population. The Ministry of Public Instruction and Fine Arts decided to combine both struggles and in February 1937 published the Antifascist School Booklet, a method of adult literacy framed within the program Militias de la Cultura and which at the same time responded to a propaganda mission. Carmen Agullo, a professor at the University of Valencia, an expert in education during the Second Republic, explains it like this: “While the Pedagogical Missions sought to bring culture to the towns and were within the paradigm of the Free Institution of Education, the Militias defended that fascism is defeated with weapons and with culture. Just as there were battalions of militiamen who fought with rifles, there were battalions of teachers who fought illiteracy on the front lines and in the hospitals. They made murals, story contests and plays or puppets, such as those of María Teresa León and Rafael Alberti. It is in this context that the Primer appears ”.
The Antifascist School Booklet was written by the journalist Eusebio Cimorra and Fernando Sainz, a leading figure in Spanish public education, sanctioned by Primo de Rivera when, as chief inspector of education in Granada, he refused to allow the city’s schoolchildren to come to greet the bishop in his inauguration. Inspired by the theories of the New School and following the Decroly method, both authors created a material for adults in a war scene, which included phrases such as “We do not se-re-mos nun-ca es-cla-vos” or “La vic -to-ria e-xi-ge dis-ci-pli-na ”, accompanied by photomontages by Mauricio Amster, who used images by José Val Del Omar and José Calandín for them.
The literacy manual was completed with an arithmetic book that used tanks and bullets to teach soldiers to add, multiply and, despite its symbolism in the midst of conflict, subtract and divide. Agullo explains: “It was an innovative product worldwide that must be understood in the context of war, in the need to educate soldiers, in the fight against fascism and in a specific moment of the conflict. It emerged with Jesús Hernández, Minister of Public Instruction, of the Communist Party, and it could not have been made with his replacement, Segundo Blanco, an anarchist ”.
Although two editions were printed, one of 25,000 copies and the other of 100,000, few are preserved, both because it was a material destined for the front, and because of Franco’s repression. “I have only seen one original copy. It was taught to me by the son of a man who, during the dictatorship, kept it under the marble of his bedside table ”, recalls Agullo.
On the occasion of the 90th anniversary of the proclamation of the Second Republic, Libros del Zorro Rojo has reissued both primers in one volume. This editorial initiative adds to the recognition of the National Library that, in 2016, included the primer among 15 relevant works of Spanish art, along with the paintings of Altamira or Las girls. Pedro G. Romero, artist and author of the text that accompanies the reissue, highlights: “It is a fair recognition.” For him, the primer “is an exceptional piece that reflects like few others the understanding of visuality in the generation of the Republic. In a sense, it is the culmination of a certain communist aesthetic, agitprop (propaganda of agitation), realistic and photomontage, for which the mastery of Amster is fundamental ”.
Mauricio Amster arrived in Spain invited by his friend Mariano Rawicz. Both were Poles, typographers and Jews, like Max Aub or Cansinos Assens, key figures in the modernization of Spanish culture during the first half of the 20th century. “Often times, the heroes of the avant-garde like Picasso, Miró or Dalí make us forget our own modernity, if you will, provincial, but in a way of understanding the modern typical of the Iberian Peninsula. The timid awakening of Sefarad in the few years of the Republic changed the state of things and this acceleration of what could be a new world is still his great legacy ”, explains Romero.
The defeat of the Republic put an end to his educational projects. Fernando Sainz again suffered repression for his pedagogical work, Val del Omar continued to develop his art under the Franco regime and Amster went into exile in Chile, where he suffered another dictatorship, that of Pinochet. “They are two examples of survival as, in many respects, their collaborations with communist propaganda during the Civil War were also survival,” says Romero. “In any case, talking about collaborationism would be a mistake. Although neither Val del Omar nor Amster carried out their works under the hegemonic guidelines of the political regimes that support them, they did not confront them head-on either. We could say that they pierced them. The Antifascist School Booklet of Amster pierces Stalinist rhetoric, as Grenadian mirrorwater O Fire in Castile of Val del Omar pierce the national-catholic regime ”.