Thursday, September 06, 2012

Tragedy in the Spanish Republic

I just read a review of a new book that documents atrocities committed during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), when forces under General Francisco Franco rose up in violent insurrection against the Spanish republic. There was widespread violence against civilians and prisoners-of-war, and the event remains a major scar in Spain's history that is only now being examined more fully and honestly.

The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth-Century Spain
By Paul Preston (W.W. Norton, 700 pp., $35) 

The reviewer, Yale historian Timothy Snyder, cogently describes the book and summarizes its major implications. One that I thought most interesting was the idea that the conflict heralded the "arrival of neocolonial practices to Europe itself." Here are some key passages from the review:
"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....

IT IS HARD TO overstate Preston’s close familiarity with the individual atrocities he documents, one after the other. Early-morning executions in Pamplona attracted large crowds, and with them sellers of hot chocolate. Expectant mothers in the maternity ward in Toledo were taken away and shot. The progressive mayor of Uncastillo was humiliated, tortured, and executed; his corpse was dismembered by an ax. A Republican pilot who crash-landed was murdered, his body cut into pieces, the pieces placed in a box, and the box dropped by parachute over Madrid with a threatening note. Landowners who joined the rebellion also joined in its violence. Their sons would force peasants to dig their own graves before shooting them, laughingly referring to this as “land reform.” Some young señoritos hunted for peasants on their polo ponies. One landowner killed ten peasants for every fighting bull of his that the local population had taken and eaten.

The historical challenge that this book presents for the Roman Catholic Church is considerable. Although some priests sought to prevent violence or shelter those who were under threat, more seemed to have supported the rebellion, and even joined its fighting columns. Some adopted fascist salutes and took direct part in the killing. One priest shot a man who was seeking shelter in a confessional.

Preston is concerned to show that violence from the Right was on a greater scale than violence from the Left during the Spanish Civil War. Contemporary accounts of atrocities came from Madrid, the Republican capital, where reporters and ambassadors could observe and criticize the actions of the Republic but not those of the rebels—with certain exceptions, such as that airdropped corpse. Preston reminds us that prevailing opinion in the British establishment (Churchill was a good example) held at the time that right-wing killings were relatively insignificant. But with the help of massive documentation recently published by Spanish historians, Preston shows that roughly 150,000 Spaniards were murdered on territories controlled by the rebel nationalists, compared with about 50,000 in the Republican zones.

He is also concerned to demonstrate a few differences in the intentions and motivations. The Republic was a state, concerned with the rule of law. After the disruption of law caused by the coup, all of the left-wing parties—socialists, communists, Trotskyites, anarchists—created their own checas (a Soviet term), hit squads to eliminate internal enemies. But the government itself supported the people’s tribunals that replaced the murder units. As the war proceeded, ever fewer people were murdered by the Republican side. The greatest single massacre by the Republican side was of some two thousand prisoners in Madrid as Franco’s forces were approaching the city. This was a terrible atrocity, but it points up a basic difference: Franco’s forces did not usually even take prisoners. The socialist politician Indalecio Prieto gave an eloquent speech in August 1936 urging defenders of the Republic not to murder their enemies, despite the practices of the nationalist rebels: “Do not imitate them! Do not imitate them! Be better than them in your moral conduct!” Though he was not always heeded, he was right to ask in exile if anyone on the other side had issued a similar call for mercy....

Franco’s African Army itself brought the practices of colonialism to Spanish shores. Officers and men boasted that they treated conquered Spanish towns like they treated Moroccan ones. They killed the wounded and the prisoners and the local elites for the same reasons they had in Africa, so as not to leave any possibility for resistance in the rear, and to intimidate the surrounding countryside....

The Soviets would never have achieved the influence they did in Spain without Franco’s coup, which left the Republic desperate for help. After Franco’s victory in early 1939, and for the next three decades of his dictatorship, Franco would systematically exaggerate the extent of Soviet influence, and ignore the obvious fact that his own actions had made Spain the plaything of foreign interests. It is to Preston’s great credit that he resists the polarizing logic of the politics of the era of fascism and anti-fascism. He is not a partisan of anything, except a clear record of mass murder, regardless of the perpetrators and their goals. He certainly does not seek to minimize Soviet violence, or violence perpetrated by the Left in general. He attends to it with the same level of painstaking detail as he does to the atrocities of the Right. When he concludes that the one was substantially worse than the other, this is a careful judgment by a careful historian.

THE HISTORY invites reconsiderations of the European twentieth century. It is hard to overlook the resemblance between the German terror bombing of Guernica in 1937 and the German terror-bombing of Polish cities, beginning with Weilun in 1939. The three basic purposes of Franco’s political terrorism are identical to those of the Germans during the invasion of Poland, which followed the end of the Spanish Civil War by less than six months: the murder of elites who might resist, the intimidation of a population expected to be hostile, and the preparation for a dictatorship to come. For that matter, Franco’s pacification was also similar to the methods the Soviets used when they invaded Poland in 1939. By this time Stalin had reversed course again, accepting an invitation from Hitler to destroy Poland together. That Franco, Hitler, and Stalin all undertook quite similar policies designed to destroy physically an entire political elite in 1939 suggests not only the cruelty of the late 1930s, but also a broader trend in twentieth-century European history.

All three regimes, for all their significant ideological differences, were examples of the arrival of neocolonial practices to Europe itself. The Soviets self-colonized (Stalin’s expression) by collectivizing agriculture in order to build industry; the Germans wanted to colonize eastern Europe to build an agrarian paradise for the Aryan masters; Franco brought colonial troops from Africa in order to restore a traditional agrarian order and oppress an orientalized peasantry. All three of these approaches were ideological alternatives to land reform under democratic conditions, which by and large had failed; all three were economic responses to the Great Depression, which seemed to signal the end of capitalism as such; and all three were political schemes of agrarian domination in a Europe where maritime expansion and thus traditional colonialism no longer seemed possible. In other words, if one brings the history of self-colonizing violence in western Europe (Spain) together with that of central Europe (Germany) and eastern Europe (the USSR), a new model for the twentieth century presents itself. The major theme of European history shifts from colonization to self-colonization by the 1930s. Then, after the disaster of World War II (western Europe) or the demise of communism (eastern Europe), it shifts again from self-colonization to integration—where integration means, precisely, the abandonment of colonial practices both within and without Europe."

I jotted some lines in response to this piece:

To notarize is to bear witness

The end of the Second Republic --
awash in a sea of blood, collapsing into itself, engulfed in flames
the nationalists set fire to what was Spain

In the violence, killing, burning that ensue,
they place the yoke over the countryside again,
restoring the natural order of domination: the landed and the gentry, ruling the agrarian peasant flock,
stewarded by the sanctity of the priest

They mount an attack on the urban center, of novel culture and open ideas,
once teeming and vibrant with life, now thronged with loyalist resistance,
stubborn and hardened -- ¡No pasarán! -- as shells and munitions rain down overhead

the entombment, the entrapment:
re-ossifying the nation into the rigid order of tradition, both pastoral and paleolithic in its Old World mentality,
but murderously corporate -- organized, mechanized, realized
with modern modes of slaughter and inquisition

all while painting a picture of medieval glory,
the celebration of another restoration:
¡Viva el Imperio español!

Woe that the colonizers of the Americas (oh the Fall! such Disaster!)
-- now vested only in Moorish Africa by the arms of the Foreign Legions,
their generals overcoming giants, themselves overcome with honor -- weeping,
bring the civilizing power of the Spanish conquistador to the shores of home.

Under a hail of bullets,
the fires in the hearth and
the clear, shining lights of cities become
pinpoints in a conflagration of civil proportions,
tragic and unyielding beacons, as the hills echo with the sound of furious combat
and the careful treatment of the wounded and the captured, so that none are left.

Firing squads ring in time to the tolling of church bells,
furrows in the earth are stained red.
Muddy rivulets flow through fields not yet planted
as humanity lies scattered on the ground,
for to restore the Kingdom That Was, we must first inter the new.


No comments: