The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth-Century Spain
The young Jesuit was an idealist. A slim and bespectacled student of philosophy, Father Fernando Huidobro Polanco dreamed of the redemption of Spain from the evils of its secular, redistributive Republic. A supporter of the military coup by nationalist generals in July 1936, he discounted stories of mass murder of Spanish civilians by the rebels. But knowing that war tries the conscience, he nevertheless wanted to offer pastoral care to the rebel soldiers. When he arrived on the battlefield as a Roman Catholic chaplain that September, he was confronted by two surprising realities. First, many of the soldiers fighting under the banner of Spanish nationalism against the Republic were Muslims, mercenaries from Spanish Morocco. Second, Christian soldiers were little interested in the application of ethics to their deeds. Father Fernando quickly realized that he had been wrong about the honorable behavior of the rebels. The war that he saw, as he courageously wrote to the rebel commander General Francisco Franco, was “without prisoners or wounded,” because they were murdered by nationalist soldiers, along with civilians seen as supporters of the Republic. In April 1937, as Paul Preston records in this breathtaking history, Father Fernando was shot in the back by his own men.
This is but one of the two hundred thousand or so murders of the Spanish Civil War, many of which Preston records at this or greater level of detail. His book is macro-history by way of micro-history, assembling local stories into an overwhelming panorama of a tortured Spain. Reading this study is like running your palms along the walls of the Toledo Cathedral on a dark night, slowly acquiring painful impressions until a sense of dark structure emerges. You have the sense, though Preston never quite raises the issue directly, that something must have been amiss in the Roman Catholic Church. Somewhere beneath his account of sins by Roman Catholics against Roman Catholics, underground like the remains of a mosque beneath an Iberian cathedral, is a further history of colonized Muslims.
What Preston knows about the years of civil war, 1936-1939, is astounding, bespeaking his own formidable record as a historian of twentieth-century Spain, but also the work of Spanish historians who are restoring knowledge of a period that had been protected by a double taboo. After Franco’s victory and the destruction of the Republic in 1939, his dictatorship taught its own self-justifying history for two generations; and after his death in 1975 and the general amnesty of 1977, a consensus prevailed in newly democratic Spain that it was best to delay a historical reckoning until democracy seemed solidly rooted. But that moment finally arrived, and Preston’s work is a powerful intervention in a Spanish discussion. Its significance transcends the events it brings to light, and suggests some basic re-evaluations of recent European history (if not the one suggested by its title).
PRESTON BEGINS by showing us just what class war, that bogey of American political rhetoric, actually looks like. The lesson of interwar Europe is that there is no political magic in the untamed marketplace. From Poland’s Galicia in the east to Spain’s Galicia in the west, conditions of radical inequality conspired with weak state institutions to turn the energy of capitalism against democracy by generating support for the far Left and the far Right, especially during the Great Depression. In what were still predominantly agrarian societies, only land reform might have taught peasant majorities that they had something to gain from voting and paying taxes. Without it, peasants would support anarchists or communists who promised them relief from the state’s apparently senseless demands, while landholders consolidated their economic power in an antidemocratic reaction. In Spain, the rich sought and found ideologies to mask their interests and champions to protect them. In the 1920s, the dictator Miguel Primo de Rivera reassured the owners of estates by condemning reformers as alien to the nation. In his view, anyone who supported any sort of change in the countryside was a communist, and communists were not proper Spaniards.
Under Primo de Rivera, Spanish landholders gained a secure sense of their position in the world, Spanish priests maintained their place as caretakers of the rural status quo, and Spanish officers experienced “vertiginous” promotions during the colonial wars, across the Mediterranean, against Moroccan rebels. To an extent that can only seem shocking, but is impressively documented by Preston, all three groups learned to see challenges to the inequitable and authoritarian status quo of the 1920s as a matter of racial penetration by an alien Judeo-Masonic-Bolshevik conspiracy. Such conspiracy theories were put forth with the greatest extravagance by Spanish fascists (one organization was founded by Rivera’s children), but they seem to have acquired the status of common sense within much of the Right.
And so the Republic itself, when it was re-established in 1931, was bound to provoke determined and articulate resistance. Its new constitution propagated a secular state, which angered the priesthood and the conservatives. The first government purged the officer corps, demoting many officers who had been promoted for their deeds in Morocco. But more infuriating still, it concerned itself with the fate of the peasantry, rather than leaving them under the authority of local notables.