Entertainment Books

Sunday 26 January 2020

Review: Military History: The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition & Extermination in Twentieth Century Spain by Paul Preston

Harper Press, £30
Available with free P&P onwww.kennys.ie or by calling 091 709350

In September of 1936 a group of Falangists arrived at a women's prison in Spain intent on raping, torturing and murdering all the detainees -- whether political activists, wives and daughters of Republicans or merely women suspected of being sympathetic to the elected government that Franco's rebellion intended to crush.

The prison director reprimanded them strongly: "It is outrageous to kill them all at once. When you want to kill women, by all means come and get them, but one at a time."

Suitably chastened, the Falangists departed with just a handful of victims who were never seen again.

In the context of intense indoctrination by figures within the Spanish church and army, the prison governor's lack of empathy for her terrified captives was unsurprising: if not "less than human", they were certainly viewed as "lesser" humans.

Hitler propagated the notion of all Germans being a master race, with certain "lower" races destined for extermination or slave labour. Franco was unique among the fascist dictators in regarding huge sections of his own race as sub-human.

Parliamentary democracy had begun in Spain in 1931 but, thanks to a right-wing coup supported by fascists, monarchists, landowners and the church, it was short-lived.

From 1936 to 1939 the civil war followed, with the rebels supported by the Nazis. The war was characterised by extraordinary brutality. The fascists won and democracy was replaced by Franco's dictatorship.

Initially Franco had allowed others to spearhead the conspiracy, knowing that his prestige, garnered by formerly heading the military academy and by the atrocities his men had committed in North Africa, would assure him of leadership.

His diaries lovingly recount his destruction of Moroccan villages, with the inhabitants decapitated, after having been mutilated. Battalions of the Spanish Foreign Legion would await inspection with severed heads of tribesmen on their bayonets.

His experiences in Africa served as an apprenticeship in how to deploy wholesale terror on a civilian population to crush resistance to an authoritarian regime.

Three decades after Franco's death, Professor Paul Preston did not always find archival material easily available in Spain when researching this book.

All societies -- including Ireland -- survive at certain times by exercising a form of collective amnesia, and, even allowing for the destruction of archives, some local officials remain apprehensive about what close inspection of civilian registries in certain districts might reveal.

Because external forces became involved -- with Hitler using Spain as a training ground and Stalin seizing the chance to purge many European communists viewed as disloyal to Moscow -- many accounts have viewed the war within its broader European context.

In some ways this harrowing book gives the war back to Spain. Painstakingly, region by region, and year by year, it details the appalling atrocities and inhumane reprisals committed on both sides.

It is easier to calculate Republican atrocities, because records were kept by government authorities trying to limit them or bring perpetrators to justice.

It is far harder to account for the thousands of ordinary Spaniards tortured or slaughtered by the fascist side for not knowing their place -- women who had dared to vote or farm labourers refusing to work for starvation wages. In the free-for-all slaughter no records were kept, because those killed or raped were regarded as degenerate humans.

Preston's use of "holocaust" in the title seems provocative. Two hundred thousand Spanish deaths pales when compared to Auschwitz and the other camps. Yet it is justified in the sense that the same warped mentality underlay Franco's murders, with everyone from school teachers to starving labourers opposing the church-supported landowners.

Preston's book details not only a ragtag of landowners, shopkeepers and released criminals who carried out brutal tortures and exterminations, but those within the church, like the Catalan priest, Juan Tusquets Terrats, who laid the ground by disseminating the crazy anti-Semitic "Protocols of the Elders of Zion".

The church -- which suffered its own persecutions -- had more reasoned voices, but the terror which Franco unleashed during and after the war created an environment where reasoned voices would not be heard, where "he who is not with us is against us and will be treated as an enemy".

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