THE gloves are off in Paul Preston’s indictment of the inhuman behaviour of Franco’s rebels
In October 1936, as the rebel army led by Francisco Franco advanced on the democratically elected government of Spain, the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno warned Franco and his henchmen: “Venceréis pero no convenceréis.” His prophecy – “You will win but you will not convince” – was uncannily accurate. Franco eventually won what is misleadingly known as the Spanish Civil War, and his fascist regime subsequently held power for almost 40 years after 1936.
But he never convinced. His war was one of the few in recorded history after which the victor’s version of events did not triumph over the defeated. Paul Preston’s book The Spanish Civil War is its definitive account in any language. It makes clear that there were relative goodies and relative baddies in 1930s Spain, and the baddies won. In his latest epic narrative, Preston takes the gloves off. He demonstrates, in vivid, eloquent, stomach-churning detail, just how very bad Franco’s baddies really were.
At best, the rebels were delusionary psychopaths. At worst, they were as bad as humanity can be. They disgusted and dismayed even Heinrich Himmler, who made a friendly visit to Franco’s Spain on behalf of Nazi Germany. In view of what Himmler’s regime was doing in Germany, Poland and elsewhere at the time, Preston thought hard before including the word “holocaust” in his book’s title. He stresses that he does not intend to equate what happened in Spain with the racial elimination pursued by the Nazis in the rest of continental Europe. But there were strong parallels, and in the end he could find no more suitable word.
The bones of his story are simple and well known. In January 1936 a left-wing coalition government was legally elected and formed in Spain. A cabal of Spanish colonial army officers, chiefly based in North Africa, who were already smarting from the fact that Spain had dispensed with its monarchy in 1931, decided to overthrow that government.
In July 1936, the army’s coup was only partly successful. Thanks to citizen militias, some loyal members of the Civil Guard and the military, and enormous popular support, most of Spain remained in government hands. So the Army of Africa began a ruthless campaign in its own country against its own administration and its own people, and by April 1939 its sheer force of arms – aided throughout by troops, weapons and munitions of Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy – had succeeded in overthrowing the legitimate government of Spain and establishing a military dictatorship led by Generalissimo Francisco Franco.
It is a truism about civil wars that they are vicious. That may be the case, but this was not a civil war and throughout The Spanish Holocaust Preston significantly avoids the term. It was a coup supported by feudal landowners, right-wingers and most of the Catholic Church. They called themselves Nationalists. Preston calls them rebels.
The rebels’ tactics were made clear from the very beginning. They would conduct a campaign of annihilation and terror against the civilian population. They were not, after all, fighting an army – they were the army. They were fighting voters who had elected a government that displeased the army’s officers. Ordinary Spaniards did not have to oppose them to invite rape, plunder and summary execution. They had merely to live in a village or a town that had elected a Republican mayor, or be in a working class district of a city. In many cases, they had only to be Spaniards in Spain after 1936.
Preston makes an intelligent attempt to fathom the mindset of men (they were almost always men) such as the Andalusian landowner who celebrated the outbreak of the rebellion by calling in his workers from the fields, lining them up and shooting six of them dead, or the army officer who fed two teenage peasant girls to his hungry Moroccan regulares and told a horrified American journalist not to worry as the girls would be permanently out of pain within four hours.
To justify such deeds, the rebels dehumanised their victims. They determined that any suspected supporter of the elected government was not a true Spaniard but was a polluted, alien element of which Spain must be cleansed.
As their definition of a “true Spaniard” was essentially medieval, the alien element could comfortably include humanist academics and women who sought a modicum of human rights. These categories were easily extended and adapted to explain the routine, sadistic mutilation and rape, invariably followed by a bullet in the head or a bayonet in the belly, of ordinary civilian women.
Preston does not ignore or excuse atrocities committed by Republic supporters behind government lines. They were far fewer in number and had different motivations. They were usually retaliatory executions of fifth columnists and rebel supporters, carried out as news of rebel massacres in the south and west reached Madrid or Catalonia.
But there was a semi-criminal underclass in Spain, some of whom attached themselves to the government cause and operated more like bandit gangs than disciplined militias. Priests and nuns and landowners were murdered, and their churches and holdings looted and torched.
“He did it first” is no excuse, even in such a conflict. The qualitative difference – the saving grace for the Republic – is that while rebel leaders loudly encouraged their men to rape, loot, burn and kill, government ministers, officials and supporters did everything possible, in the face of inhuman provocation, to keep their own furious people in line.
Many of them also protected right-wingers and priests from the fury of the mob. Such principled and courageous actions did them no good after Franco’s victory. Despite the testimonies of those they had saved, they were shot or garrotted anyway.
While General Gonzalo Queipo de Llano was drunkenly broadcasting from captured Seville, telling people in the rest of southern Spain how horribly they were about to die, the government’s naval minister Professor José Giral was telling his supporters over the airwaves from Madrid: “I beg you, I entreat you, do not imitate their behaviour. Meet their cruelty with your pity, meet their savagery with your mercy… Do not imitate them! Do not imitate them!”
At the end of the war, in exile in Chile, the former Spanish Republican prime minister Indalecio Prieto said: “I ask you to show me a single word of mercy pronounced by the rebels. I ask you to show me, if there are none from the military rebels, words of mercy from the civilian elements that supported the insurgency.”
Even as he spoke, Franco’s victorious insurgents were executing women for washing clothes and frying eggs for Republicans, and working in government hospitals.
Nobody will read the 500 fully-sourced pages of The Spanish Holocaust and nurse the vainest hope that the reputation of Franco’s rebels can ever be restored. History – Paul Preston’s scrupulous, painstaking, scholarly history – has damned them irretrievably.
• The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth-Century Spain
by Paul Preston
Harper Press, 720pp, £30
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