Homage to the Spanish

When I began to work on the history of the Spanish civil war in 1957, it was believed that the conflict had killed a million people. The gifted Catalan novelist José María Gironella entitled one of his books Un Millon de Muertos, and Winston Churchill in The Gathering Storm also talked of a million being killed. So did the 1936-39 supplement to the great Spanish encyclopaedia published by Espasa Calpe.

I myself soon thought that this figure must be exaggerated. There was no sign of such a tremendous dent in the population statistics as a million dead would have caused. In appendix II to the first edition of my history I ventured to suggest that the figure must have been just over 400,000 killed in battle or behind the lines.

No reviewer or critic paid any attention to this piece of humane diminution. It was as if the two sides in the civil war were happy with malign exaggeration and as if Anglo-Saxon observers preferred to think of Spaniards as even more ruthless than they really were.

Professor Paul Preston would, I think, agree with my arithmetic and that I was the innovating humanist in this matter. What he has done in his new book is to investigate the deaths in the two rearguards. This is a really horrible task, though he has in general done what he can to adopt a balanced approach by telling us not only of the atrocious shootings in Seville under the auspices of that strange General Queipo de Llano, but also the murderous mass killings at Paracuellos after the Communists emptied the Republican prisons in Madrid in November 1936.

I have a number of observations. I am not sure that Professor Preston has quite entered into the minds of the Right in Spain,  who from 1934 onwards felt threatened by a left-wing revolution on a Russian model. Even the British ambassador in Moscow, Lord Chilston, thought the civil war in Spain “likely to end in the establishment of a Communist regime”. That had been tried out up to a point in 1934 when the Left recklessly refused to accept their defeat in the national elections of that year and embarked on a destructive rebellion causing among other things the ruin of the University of Oviedo. The Labour spokesman for foreign policy, Hugh Dalton, thought that the rebellion of 1934 removed the justification for anyone feeling outraged by the Right’s rising of 1936. 

It will be argued that there was really no danger in Spain of a Soviet-style revolution. But the once staid secretary general of the socialist trade union Large Caballero promised such a thing in early 1936 and approved the merger of his own socialist youth movement with the Communists. How were people to know that he was being rhetorical?

In Spain there was also a cult of violence in the anarchist movement which had captured the imaginations of landless labourers in Andalusia and industrial workers in Catalonia. That movement was brilliantly analysed by Gerald Brenan in his admirable book, The Spanish Labyrinth. The anarchists talked of “the propaganda of the deed” and many genuinely believed that paradise would be on its way  when “the last king was strangled with the guts of the last priest”. The world could be remade “with a pistol and an encylopaedia”. Half the working class of Spain in, say, 1920 believed in this idea. The consequent murders in Catalonia in particular were all the same atrocious and unpardonable. 

A second national eccentricity was the anarchists’ rejection of everything to do with the state, an evil institution with which one should have nothing to do, certainly nothing like casting a vote. This meant that the Restoration  parliamentary system of 1875-1923 and the Republic of 1931-36 would have to do without any participation by half the labour force. The anarchists of the FAI (Federación Anarquista Ibérica) thought, as Professor Preston reminds us, that “the Republic, like the monarchy, was just an instrument of the bourgeoisie”. The FAI wanted an insurrecction against the Republic by “revolutionary gymnastics” and the latter’s replacement by libertarian Communism. That meant the abolition of the state and of private property, with communes established in the cities and villages.

The larger and slightly less doctrinaire CNT (Confederación Nacional del Trabajo)was also anarchist in its outlook. It expected the Republic to change nothing and so also aspired in 1931 to “propagate its revolutionary objectives”. The political system was thus flawed from the start. There was no anarchist vote in 1931, 1933 and 1936 though, eventually, once the war had begun the anarchists provided four ministers to the socialist government of Largo Caballero.

The anarchists’ negative conduct, combined with their violence, goes a long way to explain why the civil war occurred.

By far the worst event in Spanish history, it occurred because of a failed coup d’état sponsored by intelligent but ruthless army officers who had been prominent in the recent wars against the Rif in Morocco, and by a small number of falangists or fascists, mostly young men with an ideological resentment against the Left. They were supported by a Catholic church which had seen its ancient privileges pushed aside by intolerant liberal reformers, and by landowners who hated the agrarian changes that those reformers had introduced. Religious processions at Easter had been attacked and church steps had sometimes been soaped in the hope of causing the Virgin Mary to fall as she was carried from the building. The Russian Revolution had taken place less than 20 years before and the language of some socialists suggested that some on the Left rather hoped that catastrophe would be visited on Spain. In addition, Spain seemed about to break up, with an independent Catalonia accompanied by a free Basque country and a self-assertive Galicia.War of class, war of religion, war of secession, the civil war had many elements.

Professor Preston does well to commemorate those who did what they could to restrain the killings, on the two sides. In that spirit, and now that anyone involved in the civil war who is still alive is likely to be at least 90, the time has surely come to establish a memorial to all who died on both sides in the manner of the museum of Yad Vashem outside Jerusalem which commemorates the Holocaust of the Nazis. We should forget about who killed whom, at Paracuellos or in the Triana, and rejoice that personal relations between the classes in Spain are as good as they now are. Of course the Right killed more than the Left, but victors always kill more. The Spanish Yad Vashem should have inscribed in alphabetical order the names of everyone who died violently in the civil war and afterwards. Federico García Lorca, murdered by nationalists near Granada, should be there as well as Pedro Muñoz Seca, the surrealist playwright executed by Republicans at Paracuellos. A great work of art should be commissioned from a noble sculptor to inspire times of happiness not revenge and to recall that the transition to liberty after the death of General Franco in 1975 was a political triumph of the first order.

An autumn note

“For many, the end of this uneasy year cannot come quickly enough”

An ordinary killing

Ian Cobain’s book uses the killing of Millar McAllister to paint a meticulous portrait of the Troubles

Greater—not wiser

John Mullan elucidates the genius of Charles Dickens
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