March 9, 2012 9:49 pm

Spanish agony

A leading historian and biographer of Francisco Franco painfully describes the suffering of civilians during the 1930s civil war

The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth-Century Spain, by Paul Preston, HarperPress, £30, 720 pages

This is not history for the faint-hearted. Paul Preston’s account of the torture and slaughter of thousands of civilians and captives during and after the Spanish civil war vividly describes events that we would unhesitatingly condemn today as war crimes or crimes against humanity.

Among the milder “punishments” meted out in 1936 by Francisco Franco’s advancing columns to women suspected of leftist sympathies was to shave their heads and force them to drink castor oil so that they soiled themselves as they were marched through the streets. Less fortunate victims were gang-raped and then murdered.

 

Men were taken away and shot simply for holding a trade union membership card or having irritated their quasi-feudal employers. Later, their killers might smash their heads with stones to extract gold teeth. Another “crime” was to have been the mayor of a town; it rarely saved them from the firing squad if such officials had previously protected imprisoned Falangists, civil guards, landowners or priests from attempts by enraged citizens to kill them after the military coup d’état against the Republic.

In the often chaotic Republican zones, riven with rivalries between anarchists and different groups of leftists, militiamen slaughtered priests, burned down churches and, notoriously, during one month in late 1936, removed more than 2,000 prisoners from Madrid jails, shot them and dumped the bodies in mass graves in Paracuellos and Torrejón, near what is now the city’s international airport.

Preston, biographer of Franco and the leading historian of a civil war that many Spaniards still baulk at examining more than 70 years after its end, has not written much here about politics, military strategy or even Franco himself. His principal subjects are the civilians and their suffering, as well as the class enmities and twisted ideologies that lay behind the conflict.

Drawing on meticulous research over many years, Preston calculates that nearly 200,000 men and women behind the lines were murdered or executed after brief show trials, roughly the same number as were killed in the fighting. Unknown numbers were also killed in Francoist bombing attacks and in the mass flights from his occupying forces, and a further 20,000 Republicans executed after Franco’s victory in 1939. Many more died in prisons, concentration camps (some in Germany and France) and slave labour battalions. Half a million refugees went into exile, and 12,000 children were taken from mothers who were either dead or condemned as “red”. The children, many of course alive today, were then brainwashed in Roman Catholic orphanages or state institutions.

In Spain, where the Spanish-language edition of this book was published last year, Preston has been criticised for applying the emotive word “holocaust” to abuses that did not amount to wholesale genocide, and for an alleged lack of balance – in short, for being too soft on the Republicans. Preston says he thought long and hard about the book’s title, and concluded that he was using the right word given the level of Spanish suffering – albeit not on the scale of the Nazi attempt to annihilate European Jewry – and given the anti-Semitic rhetoric used by the Francoist right.

As for balance, Preston’s subjective choice of adjectives and chapter titles (“A Terrified City Responds” covers the Paracuellos massacres) suggests that his sympathies indeed lie broadly with the Republicans. But he argues, first, that Republican officialdom often prevented extrajudicial killings and was exposed to critical international scrutiny when it failed, whereas the military rebels purposefully implemented a programme of terror that they even boasted about at the time.

Second, he finds it necessary to correct the false equivalence of blame long accorded to the two sides as a result of Franco’s successful rewriting of history after he won. This is not just a matter of statistics, even if Preston’s evidence shows that the repression by Franco’s military rebels was “about three times greater” than that in the Republican zone.

In Spain today, foreign visitors will often be told about the killings at Paracuellos. Less often do they learn about events in places such as Badajoz, close to the Portuguese border. Francisco Espinosa Maestre, a Spanish historian quoted by Preston, has calculated that at least 3,800 people there were shot without trial and buried in mass graves or incinerated after the town was captured by Franco’s forces. Unusually, some foreign journalists witnessed the aftermath of the terror and spoke to Lt Col Juan Yagüe Blanco, the commander responsible. Still more remarkable is the fact that a street in Madrid continues to commemorate the name of Yagüe.

“The rewriting of history – and denial of the experiences and recollections of both victors and victims – absolved the military rebels of guilt and sanitised the regime abroad,” writes Preston in his epilogue. “The process inflicted great long-term damage on Spanish society.”

To understand the truth of this, it is necessary to look only at the fate of Baltasar Garzón, the Spanish judge who recently had the temerity to investigate the disappearances of some of Franco’s victims long after most of their murderers had died. Garzón was accused in not one but three separate criminal cases. In the most obviously political case – instigated by two small rightist groups despite the opposition of the public prosecution service – he was charged with criminal malfeasance for defying a 1977 amnesty law agreed after Franco’s death. The Supreme Court ruled that he had erred in interpreting the law but acquitted him of the criminal charge. Garzón, however, has been barred from office for 11 years after being found guilty in one of the other cases.

One does not have to be a church-burning anarchist or a dedicated communist to think it odd that the Spanish Supreme Court is devoting so much time and energy to trying a senior judge three times over after he began to investigate the civil war, or that the first mass grave of Franco’s victims was dug up only in 2000. Amnesty International and other human rights groups have come out in defence of Garzón, calling the central accusation scandalous and arguing that amnesties have no validity under international law for crimes against humanity.

Piling horror on horror, Preston leaves no room for doubt that the events he describes were exactly that: crimes so appalling that they negate our humanity. He wept at times as he prepared what he calls “an extremely painful book to write”. Readers will weep too.

Victor Mallet is the FT’s Madrid bureau chief

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