Saturday, October 20, 2012

Book Review: The Spanish Holocaust (2012) by Paul Preston

In the game of My Holocaust Was Worse Than Your Holocaust, the Spanish always lose out because the carnage that took place during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) was immediately dwarfed in scale and popular memory by the Grand Guignol that was World War II. Paul Preston has done a superb job of dragging the horrors of the Spanish Civil War out of the shadows, and at the same time making a compelling argument that the atrocities committed by Franco's Nationalists should be considered as part of a genocidal program.

Tossing around the term "holocaust" isn't something historians do lightly. It's a politically-charged definition that continually sparks controversy; the best example being the continuing scuffle over whether or not the massacre of Armenians in Turkey from 1915-23 was a genocidal holocaust. The Turkish government, not surprisingly, has consistently denied the claim, and, most controversially, some Jewish groups have been accused of denying the Armenian Genocide in the interest of protecting the uniqueness of the Jewish Holocaust. Historian Howard Zinn has a short but effective piece on this issue here.

Preston methodically assembles his evidence and shows that the rebels, a coalition of the military, police, landowners, industrialists and the Catholic Church, and led by General Franco, were quite clear in their intentions even before the war broke out. What we now call "eliminationism," the belief that political opponents must and should be removed from society through expulsion or killing, was rife in Spain in the years preceding the war. Political, economic and social relationships between the ruling classes and the peasantry and industrial proletariat in pre-Civil War Spain were still essentially feudal in nature. In short, the upper classes saw those at the bottom as beasts of burden, as virtually another (inferior) race. With the rise of unions and left-wing political groups (Anarchists, Communists, Socialists), the ruling classes became possessed with a hysterical and fanciful fear of a Jewish-Masonic-Marxist cabal that was somehow plotting to bloodily overthrow all that they held dear.

When the war broke out, rebel-held areas became the scene of mass executions of anyone with the slightest, most ephemeral link to the left wing. Preston estimates that over 150,000 people were massacred by the rebels, but cautions that since the Francoist forces held power  in Spain for decades afterwards, there's a reasonable suspicion that the historical record has been altered to reduce the evidence of rebel atrocities, and the true figures of those killed may be far higher. What's undeniable is that the rebel killings were genocidal in intent. Time and time again they stated that their opponents were sub-human or perverted, and the ferocity and cruelty of their actions against leftists are bloody proof of their beliefs. Not content with merely killing their enemies, the rebels also indulged in mass rapes of lower-class women that rival anything the Soviet Army did in Germany at the close of World War II. The role of the Catholic Church in the war deserves special criticism. Not only did high-ranking members of the Church advocate war on the left and the lower classes, more than a few rank and file priests actually took part in the killing.

The killing wasn't all on the right hand side of the ledger. The Republican forces are reliably credited with 50,000 extra-judicial killings. These murders also had an eliminationist flavour as some hardcore leftists, especially the Anarchists, saw the upper classes as irredeemably parasitical. The main difference between the right and left when it came to extra-judicial killings was that the Republican government did not advocate genocidal killings and even took steps to stop them. The problem was that the Republican government was shambolic, ineffectual and hesitant. The rebels, on the other hand, made murder, torture and rape an unofficial policy.

What gives this conflict an additional layer of horror is that its victims are almost completely forgotten. The Spanish Civil War now stands as a historical footnote, known mostly as a warmup for World War II, and as a venue in which various famous writers (Orwell, Hemingway, Koestler) earned some street cred. Even in Spain there's evidently a lot of resistance to digging up the past, and I wonder if that's had a subtle influence on Spanish filmmaking, which has produced  some excellent horror/fantasy films (The Devil's Backbone, The Orphanage, Pan's Labyrinth) that have their roots in the Civil War. One recent Spanish film that seems to be all about the corrosive heritage of the Civil War is The Last Circus. My review's here. And if I was a wealthy Spaniard whose recent ancestors owned large rural estates, this book would make me wonder not if, but how much blood was on the hands of my grandfathers.

The only fault I can find with this book is that it feels like it needs an additional chapter, rather than a brief epilogue, to describe how the post-1945 Franco regime worked to suppress the history of its crimes. That aside, this is a fantastic history of crimes that are largely unknown and have certainly gone unpunished.

No comments: