After a lengthy legal battle concluded in September, Spain’s Supreme Court gave its approval to the socialist government’s plans to exhume and remove the remains of General Francisco Franco from the Valley of the Fallen, where they have lain since his death in 1975. The controversial general led Spain’s Nationalist forces to victory over their Republican opponents in the Spanish Civil War, which ended 80 years ago.
The Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) was among the most bitter of the 20th century. The current Spanish government’s decision to open Franco’s grave demonstrates that the wounds have far from healed. The reason for such bitterness is that this war was a civilization-defining conflict, a war of values and principles, a microcosm of that which has divided Western man since the French Revolution. The Republicans represented the new revolutionary order: liberals, socialists, communists, and anarchists. The Nationalists represented the traditional Spanish order: conservative, Catholic, and monarchist.
The Spanish Civil War is a rare conflict whose history has been written by the losers rather than the victors. The leading histories of the war show a strong sympathy for the Republican side. Within popular culture the leftist view of the conflict has taken root. This is partly a result of the fact that major literary figures of the day volunteered with the Republican forces. A 1937 poll of English writers found 100 supporting the Republicans and five supporting the Nationalists.
The standard left-liberal view of the conflict goes something like this: a progressive, democratic republic was cruelly thwarted by a fascist coup in league with Hitler and Mussolini. The International Brigades are portrayed as an example of heroic idealism in which people from around the world volunteered to fight for democracy against fascism in Spain. In the United Kingdom, a memorial to the Brigades stands on London’s South Bank exalting their heroic struggle. That the Brigades were the official army of Stalin’s Comintern and were faithful followers of Stalinist Communism is nowhere mentioned.
The civil war represented the culmination of a long battle between traditional and revolutionary forces which began in the 19th century. During that century, Spain was plagued by conflict between liberals and conservatives. A loss of faith in the traditional order opened the way for the rise of Marxist and anarchist movements.
Today we are used to thinking of anarchism as a fringe ideology. But in the early 20th century, a wave of anarchist terror spread over the Western world. In Spain, support for anarchy was greater than elsewhere. Three Spanish prime ministers died at anarchist hands. By 1931, when the Spanish Republic began, the anarchist union claimed 600,000 members. Following the outbreak of the civil war as many as four anarchists would hold positions in the Spanish government, possibly the only time in history when anarchists have held political power.
The establishment of the Republic brought about a period of chaos that was the harbinger of civil war. The Republic’s first government, composed of left-liberals and socialists, was distinguished by its fanatical hatred of Spain’s Catholic heritage. This was seen in its response to the mass church burning which erupted following Cardinal Segura’s call to vote in elections for candidates who “defend the rights of the Church.” More than 100 Catholic establishments were burned. When Prime Minister Niceto Alcalá-Zamora, one of two Catholics in the government, called out the army to stop the destruction, he was opposed by the War Minister Manuel Azaña who proclaimed, “All the convents in Spain are not worth the life of a single republican.” When Alcalá-Zamora resigned, unable to accept the anti-religious clauses in the new constitution, Azaña became Prime Minister.
That constitution sought to remove religion from the life of the nation. It outlawed religious education and called for the closure of Catholic schools. The religious orders were to be expelled. Public manifestations of faith were forbidden without state permission. Some have claimed that the Church, by placing itself in outright opposition to the Republic, invited its own persecution, but in reality Church officials had called on Catholics to accept the Republic, as had the Pope.
In 1933, the left was defeated by the CEDA, a broad alliance united by opposition to the anti-religious clauses in the Republic’s constitution. But the CEDA was disorganized upon entering the government, and was not prepared for the immediate counter-assault they faced. The left had no respect for the democratic process when it did not bring their desired outcome. The Socialist Party called for a general strike and an uprising began. Workers were armed with rifles from a shipment of arms arranged by one of the Party’s leaders, Indalecio Prieto, supposedly a “moderate” socialist. Several cities in Asturias were occupied and priests and other “class enemies” were murdered. This uprising was suppressed by army intervention. “It was full-scale civil war,” historian Antony Beevor recounted in his book, The Battle for Spain (Penguin Books, 2006). “The Asturias revolution had lasted no more than two weeks, but it cost around 1,000 lives.”
A greater catastrophe commenced following the 1936 elections. The liberals, socialists, and communists formed a bloc called the Popular Front. The Right, consisting of the CEDA and various monarchist parties, formed a rival bloc. The exact election results are disputed. The Popular Front won a majority in the legislature, but the resulting government was made up of only the liberal faction. The socialists and communists saw the result as an endorsement of their revolutionary goals and called for Soviet-style revolution. Spain descended into chaos. Political murders and attacks on churches occurred daily. In June 1936 the CEDA leader, José María Gil-Robles, reported that there had been 160 church burnings, 269 political murders, and 1,287 other assaults in the four months since the elections.
The liberals who formed the government appeared unwilling to act to prevent the violence perpetrated by their bloc partners. Their hatred for the Church seems to have got the better of them. For example, when a leftist mob seized control of Cádiz and burned numerous Catholic establishments, the military governor received orders from the government not to intervene. General Franco learned of this order while passing through Cádiz and interrogated the military governor. “Is it possible that the troops…saw a sacrilegious crime being committed and that you just stood by with your arms folded?” he asked. When the governor explained that he had followed the government’s orders, Franco replied, “Such orders, since they are unworthy, should never be obeyed by an officer of our army.” It was in this permissive environment toward the left’s political violence that the seeds of Franco’s military uprising took root.
The final straw came with the murder of monarchist leader José Calvo Sotelo by the Assault Guards, a special police force established by the Republic, who were avenging the death of one of their own by rightist forces. Calvo Sotelo was taken from his home and his body dumped in the city cemetery. By this time, leading generals had decided that the only way to put an end to the chaos and assault on Spain’s traditional culture and religion was to remove the regime by force.
The military uprising began in Morocco in July 1936. An English plane arrived in the Canary Islands where Franco was military commander. Franco was flown to Morocco to take command of the troops, who secured the territory easily. Needing air cover and a means of transporting large numbers of troops across the Mediterranean, Franco appealed to Germany and Italy, a decision for which he is heavily criticized. But he could not have appealed to other powers. France had elected a Popular Front government that aided the Republic, while Britain and America wanted to avoid involvement in Europe. Troops across Spain mustered in their barracks in support of the uprising, but they were suppressed in Spain’s major cities. The country became divided into Nationalist and Republican zones and a savage conflict dragged on for nearly three years.
Both sides committed atrocities, but nothing matches the Republican militias’ genocidal persecution of the Church. An estimated 10,000 to 20,000 Catholics were killed, including 13 bishops and nearly 7,000 priests, monks, and nuns. The accounts of the slaughter are horrifying in their cruelty. Rosary beads were forced into monks’ ears till their tympana were perforated. A young man distinguished for his piety had his eyes dug out. A crucifix was forced down the mouth of a mother of two Jesuits. “At no time in the history of Europe or even perhaps the world has so passionate a hatred of religion and all its works been shown,” wrote Hugh Thomas, the great historian of the Civil War. In certain dioceses as many as 88 percent of the clergy were wiped out, and around 20,000 out of 42,000 churches and chapels in Spain were destroyed or damaged, according to works by the historians Julio de la Cueva and Warren Carroll.
This violence was accompanied by a form of politically correct speech code which expunged all religious references. From July 1936 until the war’s end in April 1939 no Catholic Mass was said openly in Republican Spain, except in the Basque provinces. “More than 100 villages whose names began with ‘Sant’ or ‘Santa’ were renamed,” de la Cueva wrote in the Journal of Contemporary History. “Teachers could be found erasing the words ‘God’ and ‘Jesus’ from textbooks.”
It was in these circumstances that in May 1937 the Spanish bishops issued a “letter to the whole world” declaring their support for Franco’s uprising and declaring the war “a decisive struggle for or against the religion of Christ and Christian civilization.” Of the Republican atrocities they wrote:
…we affirm that, in the history of the western peoples, there is on record no such phenomenon of collective savagery, nor any like accumulation of transgressions produced in a few weeks, and committed against the fundamental rights of God, of society, and of the human person.
The collective letter was organized by the Spanish Primate, Cardinal Gomá, who had written in a pastoral letter:
This most cruel war is at bottom a war of principles, of doctrines, of one concept of life and social reality against another, of one civilization against another. It is a war waged by the Christian and Spanish spirit against another spirit.
Supporters of the Republic claimed they were fighting to defend democracy against “fascism.” But threats of a fascist government were slim. The closest Spain had to a fascist organization, the Falange, won a single seat in 1933 and no seats in 1936. While it was active supporting the uprising, most of its leaders were killed early in the war and its remnants were forced to amalgamate with the monarchists.
The threat of communism, on the other hand, was not negligible. Spain’s leading leftist organization, then as now, was the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), and at the time was dominated by open Marxists. Its most influential figure was Francisco Largo Caballero, who called himself the “Spanish Lenin.” Extracts from his speeches illustrate the communist agenda he planned for Spain:
We have always intended to forge a united party…a party that adopts as its standard the armed insurrection for the conquest of power and the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat…
In February 1936, El Socialista, the socialist newspaper, posted the following statement: “We are determined to do in Spain what was done in Russia. The plan of Spanish socialism and of Russian communism are the same.”
By this time communism had destroyed all religion in Russia, caused tens of millions to starve to death after forced collectivization, eliminated “kulak” peasants in the millions, and had begun a massive show trial known as the Great Purge. The PSOE is the same party currently holding power in Spain, and which for decades has been campaigning to remove or destroy every memorial to the Civil War’s Nationalist victors. The PSOE was the largest party in Spain’s legislature following the 1936 elections and the leading party in the Popular Front.
The Popular Front strategy was a “Trojan Horse” tactic favoured by Stalin and outlined by Georgi Dimitrov at the 1935 Comintern meeting:
Comrades, you will remember the ancient tale of the capture of Troy…The attacking army, after suffering heavy casualties, was unable to achieve victory until with the aid of the famous Trojan Horse it managed to penetrate to the very heart of the enemy Camp.
It is from this strategy which emanates the idealistic narratives about the Republican forces “defending democracy” and “fighting fascism.” It was a myth peddled by the communists in order to rally support internationally for the Republican cause and by doing so recruit new members to the Communist Party.
The communists completely dominated the Republican side. Just before the war the communist and socialist youth movements were amalgamated into the United Socialist Youth. In September 1936 Largo Caballero became prime minister and appointed communists to the ministries of education and agriculture.
However, Largo Caballero was unwilling to take orders from Moscow. After refusing to suppress other leftist groups he was forced out of office and replaced by Juan Negrín, a man willing to fulfil the Soviets’ every whim. The Republic received large amounts of military equipment from the USSR, its army was trained by Soviet advisors, and most of its key commands were held by communists. Promotion within the army became almost impossible without Communist Party membership. The Republic shipped two-thirds of Spain’s gold reserves to the USSR. Worst of all, Stalin’s NKVD secret police became active in Spain, and often murdered those who dissented from the Stalinist line.
The Stalinist takeover of the Republican forces was what caused many of the idealistic writers who had given their services to the Republic to ultimately shun communism. It was his experience in Spain that caused George Orwell to develop the hatred of totalitarianism that manifested itself in Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. It was the murder of his friend José Robles by the NKVD that set John Dos Passos on his journey away from communism and towards conservatism. And it was his Spanish ordeals that caused Arthur Koestler to record in The God That Failed his realization:
that man is a reality, mankind an abstraction…that ethics is not a function of social utility, and charity not a petty bourgeois sentiment…every single one of these trivial statements was incompatible with the Communist faith I held.
A word should be said about the International Brigades which have entered leftist legend. These Brigades were recruited from the world’s Communist parties. Their controller was the French Comintern representative, André Marty, who ensured rigid ideological conformity, and had around 500 Brigadiers executed for “ideological deviations.” The Brigades operated their own concentration camp which had around 4,000 prisoners. Despite this, the London memorial to the Brigades unironically quotes Lord Byron, “Yet Freedom! yet thy banner, torn but flying, Streams like the thunder-storm against the wind.” It was not for freedom that they fought, but one of history’s greatest tyrannies.
The war officially ended on April 1, 1939, and for the next 36 years Spain was dominated by the figure of Francisco Franco. Franco may not have been a likeable man, and mercy was not one of his virtues. Nonetheless, following his victory churches reopened and crucifixes and religious symbols were restored to public buildings. The ground was laid for peace and stability. While he was no intellectual, Franco’s prayer before the altar of the Church of Santa Bárbara following victory represents a profound understanding of what his enemies stood for:
Lord, benevolently accept the effort of this people, which was always Thine, which, with me and in Thy name, has vanquished with heroism the enemy of truth in this century.
The “enemy of truth in this century” was defeated and this act and this ability to understand its nature is what has given Franco one of the highest places in the ranks of left-wing demonology. In the decades since his passing, Spain’s historic Catholic faith has collapsed and the enemies of truth in both the old and new century have become ascendant both in Spain and all over the Western world. The opposing sides in the Spanish Civil War represent those that still divide the West today, Christian versus secular, conservative realist versus liberal-left idealist. It’s a war still fought every day in politics, the press, academia, and online.
What are some of the parallels we can draw between this war of 80 years ago and today? Increasingly Western society is in the process of polarizing into left-right divisions. Left-liberal ideas, for so long ascendant, have taken something of a beating, the election of Donald Trump being the most visible example. Faced with what it sees as a threat to its hegemony, the left lashes out—sometimes violently. Trump’s election led to leftist rioting in some places and a leading celebrity called for blowing up the White House. Perhaps the most violent example of the leftist reaction has been the emergence of Antifa, an anarcho-communist group inevitably calling itself “anti-fascist.” Antifa’s activities have included beating up conservatives wherever they gather and rioting on university campuses whenever a conservative speaker appears.
Much as the left in 1930s Spain denounced Catholics and monarchists as fascist, so today the stigma of fascism is attached to anyone who dissents from the smallest aspect of the leftist agenda, whether they be pro-lifers, traditional-marriage supporters, or anyone who questions man-made climate change. Marxists have risen to lead major political parties in the Western world, Britain’s Jeremy Corbyn being a notable example. In the U.S., for the first time, leading Democrats openly embrace socialism. As for the Church, while it has not yet been subjected to violent persecution, the very foundations of Christian morality are attacked. Catholic adoption agencies are forced to close for refusal to place children with same-sex couples, Catholic hospitals are penalized for not providing contraceptives, while a British judge has recently ruled that “lack of belief in transgenderism” is “incompatible with human dignity.” The attempts to remove and destroy statues of historical figures, including Christian missionaries, who are no longer considered politically correct, has ominous parallels with the attempts of the Spanish Republic to destroy Spain’s cultural and religious heritage.
President Trump’s recent tweet in which he quoted a Southern Baptist pastor who suggested that impeaching Trump could lead to civil war, was predictably denounced. Yet he had a point. Could a successful Trump impeachment be the spark that lights the fire for a major civil conflict similar to the one that tore Spain apart? While it is easy to imagine minor skirmishes, it is difficult to envisage the repetition of the horrific bloodbath that took place in Spain during the last century. We should pray for a peaceful restoration of the Christian civilization that the revolutionaries of the 20th and 21st centuries have done so much to efface.