Just read a great review essay by Timothy Snyder in TNR on Paul Preston’s new book The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth-Century Spain. The first time I read something by Preston on Spain was some 35 years ago. Snyder, author of the recent Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin—which received dithyrambic reviews when it came out two years ago—, was the right person to review Preston’s book
What Preston knows about the years of civil war, 1936–1939, is astounding, bespeaking his own formidable record as a historian of twentieth-century Spain, but also the work of Spanish historians who are restoring knowledge of a period that had been protected by a double taboo. After Franco’s victory and the destruction of the Republic in 1939, his dictatorship taught its own self-justifying history for two generations; and after his death in 1975 and the general amnesty of 1977, a consensus prevailed in newly democratic Spain that it was best to delay a historical reckoning until democracy seemed solidly rooted. But that moment finally arrived, and Preston’s work is a powerful intervention in a Spanish discussion. Its significance transcends the events it brings to light, and suggests some basic re-evaluations of recent European history (if not the one suggested by its title).
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
The Spanish Civil War, we learn, was even crueler and bloodier than was thought, and most of the bloody-mindedness came from the franquistas
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 franquistas were the bad guys (duh) but the good guys, as it were, were hardly angels. In my lefty political milieu in the ’70s, the Spanish Moscow-line Communists were viewed as bad guys among the good guys—confirmed to me yet again in (finally) reading George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia some six years back—, with the POUM and anarchists being the martyred good guys all around. But in Preston’s book the anarchists were not good at all
The most violent political force in the Republican zone were the anarchists, who fought against Franco but also opposed the Republic. Beyond the reach of the government, and bountifully armed, they were all but impossible to control. They ran the most murderous of the checas, including one squad that decorated their murder van with skulls and their uniforms with death’s heads. They burned corpses to avoid investigation and identification; they burned churches and convents on principle. They saw civil strife as the prelude to a revolution that would overpower not just the Right but all those who upheld the state, including the socialists and the communists. They tried to collectivize agriculture, sometimes forcing peasants who had just gained land from landlords to cede it to a collective farm. They and the Spanish communists killed each other in significant numbers, over real differences in doctrine and practice.
Snyder is well placed to situate the Spanish Civil War in the larger European context in that awful decade of the 1930s
THE HISTORY invites reconsiderations of the European twentieth century. It is hard to overlook the resemblance between the German terrorbombing 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.
On this subject, I saw a fascinating documentary last year—and that I mentioned in a blog post in May—, ‘Los Caminos de la Memoria’ (Paths of Memory), on the contemporary effort in Spain to recover the memory of the Civil War via the unearthing of mass graves of Republicans massacred by the franquistas. It has yet to open in the English-speaking world.
For the anecdote, I have a memory of the first time I visited Spain, as a boy in July 1967. In Madrid, walking with my family past Franco’s palace—or what I remember being his palace—, in the late afternoon, the setting sun shining over it, my father looked at me and said in a low voice, “This is a dictatorship…” I doubt I knew exactly what a dictatorship was but it sounded bad. My father’s words made a strong impression.
UPDATE: Adam Hochschild has a review of Preston’s book in the NYT Sunday Book Review. (May 13)