Paul Preston's provocatively titled The Spanish Holocaust provides an exhaustive catalogue of degradation and bloodshed in Spain, a country only now addressing its murky past.
Spanish Civil War analysis opens debate on forgotten atrocities
For all its recent bad fortune, Spain is one of Europe’s remarkable success stories. Democracy, so often the exception in its tumultuous history, is now the unquestioned norm: instead of shooting at each other, Spaniards take to the ballot box to settle their political quarrels. By contrast, the Spanish Civil War of 1936 to 1939 saw the destruction of a democratically elected republic by Francisco Franco’s rightist forces. The Generalissimo ruled unchecked until 1975, and his death that year ushered in a new era. The Spanish people turned away from dictatorship but, to preserve their new democracy, a majority of Spaniards embraced the so-called el pacto de olvido – “the pact of forgetfulness”. Spain would look forward to the promise of the future, not dwell on the wounds of the past, at least in the political arena.
The ghosts of the Spanish Civil War were laid to rest, but only for a time. Over the past decade, Spain has been wracked by spasms of remembrance. Families of the victims of Francoist repression have campaigned to open the mass graves that dot the map of Spain in the hope that the remains might be identified and buried properly. It is an emotional business. The Civil War has intruded into elections, with the Spanish left wielding the Francoist past against right-wing rivals. The publication of The Spanish Holocaust, by British historian Paul Preston, marks a culmination of sorts in Spain’s reckoning with one of its darkest chapters. A major – and controversial – event in Spain, Preston’s book is an exhaustive catalogue of atrocities, bloodshed and degradation. Looking beyond the battlefields, the author goes behind the front lines to account for, in precise and ghastly detail, the murders of some 200,000 civilians: men, women and children.
The book is a major achievement from a pre-eminent historian of modern Spain. Preston belongs to a distinguished tradition of British historians – Gerald Brenan, Raymond Carr, JH Elliott, Hugh Thomas – who have made their mark writing on Spanish history; indeed, these figures have had a decisive influence on the very parameters of Spanish historiography itself.
There is virtually no dimension of the Spanish Civil War that is not touched by (often acrimonious) debate. If Spaniards remained quiescent about their past during their years of olvido, historians have not stopped going around and round discussing the causes of the conflict – who provoked the civil war is the subject of a vast literature – and the downfall of the Republic. The historical consensus remains unsettled. The cause of the Republic inspired a generation of progressives and radicals steeped in the political battles of the 1930s. For them, the Spanish Republic was a bulwark against fascism in Europe. Preston himself stresses the essential decency of the Spanish Republic, even if he strains hard at times to rationalise the violence meted out to the political enemies of the republic during the war. Not surprisingly, reviews of the book have been sharp-edged, and mirror the enduring polarisation about the war. The historian Timothy Snyder, writing in The New Republic, was ecstatic in his praise. Right-leaning publications had a different take. The Daily Telegraph published a highly sceptical review, while Stanley Payne, himself a major figure in Spanish Civil War studies, accused Preston in The Wall Street Journal of merely “recapitulating civil war-era propaganda”.
Payne concluded Preston’s work “must be judged a failure”. This is much too severe a verdict. Preston’s book has its flaws, more on them in a moment, but its painstaking collation of statistics and research, drawn from Catalan, Basque and Spanish sources, showcase the mastery of a historian, not the cant of a partisan.
For all that, Preston does himself no favours with his clangingly off-key title and hysterical subtitle. The author wants to draw attention to the savagery of the war, but he makes virtually no effort to situate the tragedy of Spain in the larger context of mass slaughter in 20th-century Europe. The barbarianism Preston chronicles on his pages is sufficient enough to make a case without the hyperbole. Readers will also want to have on hand a good general history of the conflict: Preston presumes a great deal of previous knowledge about the main outlines of the war and its origins.
Such shortcomings do not detract from the terrifying sweep of his account. Spain in the early 1930s was one of Europe’s most impoverished and unequal countries. The Republic came to power vowing to take on the traditional pillars of Spanish society: the Catholic Church, the army and landowners. Preston shows a country descending into hate. Though the reformist government of liberals and socialists acted rashly, Preston lays the blame on the Republic’s disintegration overwhelmingly on the right. The historian surveys a whole rhetoric of deadly intent that emanated from right-wing groups such as the Falange, the Spanish fascist movement. Anyone who supported the Republic was subhuman, one right-wing analysis contended: “The sewers opened their sluice gates and dregs of society inundated the streets and squares, convulsing and shuddering like epileptics.”
Intent became reality after the coup of July 16-17, 1936, when a group of army officers moved against the Republic. In a conflict that unravelled like a jumble of disembodied acronyms and political abstractions – POUM, PSOE, CEDA, FAI, CNT, JONS – Preston minutely focuses on tribulations of individuals. His research is breathtaking. Region by region, province by province, town by town, Preston depicts the savagery of the civil war; he diagrams 1,000 points of darkness. Preston likens the Nationalist campaign to Spain’s colonial wars in Morocco: the most hardened Nationalist forces were brutalised in these campaigns and, in turn, brutalised, as the coup’s leader Emilio Mola put it, “those who do not think as we do”.
The list of those not deemed Spanish included virtually anyone on the left: Freemasons; trade unionists; republicans of every stripe. In Cadiz, a group of such figures was forced to ingest castor oil and industrial alcohol mixed with sawdust and breadcrumbs, which caused excruciating abdominal pain, and they were then beaten mercilessly. Outside of Seville, a group of agricultural labourers who had agitated for land reform were forced to dig their own graves before they were shot. Falangist women taunted them: “Didn’t you ask for land? Now you’re going to have some, and for ever.” Republican women were singled out for rape and humiliation. The rebel general in charge of the south, the repulsive Gonzalo Queipo de Llano, impelled his troops with salacious exhortations that can only be described as demented: “I don’t have to urge you on because I know your bravery. I tell you to kill like a dog any queer or pervert who criticises this glorious national movement.”
The Spanish Holocaust is traumatic enough to read; writing it must have been an ordeal. Though exact numbers are hard to pin down – Franco destroyed many records, and many mass graves have yet to be sifted – Preston reckons that, in the south, the “repression by the rebels was about three times greater than that which took place in the Republican zone”.
According to Preston, some 150,000 people were killed by the military rebels. But Preston also forensically examines the deaths in the Republican-held Spain, where out-of-control left-wing death squads targeted rebel sympathisers and suspected Fascists. His meticulous detailing of one of the most notorious of these episodes, the execution of at least 2,000 civilian and military supporters of the rebels at Paracuellos, outside Madrid, is a masterpiece of its kind.
Yet Preston makes a contrast between the violence in Nationalist and Republican-controlled Spain. The former, he argues, carried out a deliberate, carefully planned operation of elimination. “In contrast, the repression in the Republican zone was hot-blooded and reactive ... it is difficult to see how the violence in the Republican zone could have happened without the military coup, which effectively removed all constraints of civilised society.” This strikes me as a somewhat arbitrary distinction. Preston has done as much as any historian to describe the Spanish Civil War as more than a cartoonish struggle between good and evil, as so many partisans of left and right have seen it, but his book is unlikely to settle an argument that has no end.
Matthew Price’s writing has been published in Bookforum, the Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe and the Financial Times.