Monday, April 25, 2016

Spain: carnage, confusion and courage

It is a truism that the victors get to write the history. In The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939, Antony Beevor points out that the story of Republican Spain upends this pattern, presumably because General Franco's victorious Nationalists were functionally a branch of the Nazi/Fascist axis utterly destroyed in the European phase of World War II. The Generalisimo held on to power until 1975, but his dictatorship was a tainted relic of ugly memories.

Beevor's history is largely an account of military campaigns whose details are not gripping to most foreign readers; the larger history seems worth recounting, if only because, for those who didn't live through it, it might seem tangled beyond comprehension. The contemporary analogy is probably Syria's terrible civil war with its mix of domestic and international belligerents and deathly incompatible ideologies.

Franco's revolt against the democratically elected Spanish Republic was based in the imperial army in the African colonies, re-enforced by a collection of traditional monarchists, a feudal and obscurantist Roman Catholic church, Spain's own quasi-populist fascist movement, and industrialists and landowners determined to resume unchecked power. Though this was not a simple coalition to manage, the Generalisimo rapidly emerged as the unchallengeable leader commanding a coherent and ruthless military force in service of national dictatorship.

The Republic was a political mess, composed of ineffectual bourgeois democratic liberals, anarchist trade unions and cooperatives, and communists more loyal to Stalin's Russia than to Spanish liberty, all pulling and hauling for advantage. Not surprisingly, Republican forces were never effectively organized or properly led against the Nationalists and were crushed with enormous loss of life both in battle and through decades of reprisals. Modern estimates calculate that the Fascists were responsible for 3 to 5 times the number of political massacres committed by the left, with 150,000 to 200,000 victims.

That brief summary elides that this struggle was as much a proxy war among European states as a civil war. Hitler's Germany and Mussolini's Italy armed and equipped Franco's forces, tested their most modern aircraft and tanks in Spain, and sent "advisors" and even units of regular troops. The Soviet Union armed the Republicans much less generously, managed to extract Spain's gold reserves in return, and meddled in favor of the communists within the Republic's domestic political fracas. Britain and France dithered, unsure whether they feared fascism or communism more. The United States Congress passed a law forbidding supplying both belligerents, but our capitalists found ways to assist their kind. The internationalist left, mostly communists, raised brigades of foreign fighters to support the Republican cause. (I've bought Adam Hochschild's Spain in Our Hearts about the US contingent and will write it up soon.)

Beevor tells this story deeply, I think fairly, with empathy and sometimes disgust. If you want to know about Spain, this is a good book. Apparently it was a best seller in Spain on its release in 2006.
Reading Beevor, I learned about an episode of courageous integrity at the outset of Franco's brutal regime which I am sure is legendary among those who know it, but of which I had been ignorant. It seems worth sharing here. For simplicity's sake, I am taking this from a Wikipedia article which tracks other accounts.

In 1936, Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo was an author, poet, philosopher, one of Spain's most celebrated intellectuals, and rector of the University of Salamanca.
On 12 October 1936 the celebration of Columbus Day had brought together a politically diverse crowd at the University of Salamanca, including Enrique Pla y Deniel, the Archbishop of Salamanca, and Carmen Polo Martínez-Valdés, the wife of Franco, Falangist General José Millán Astray and Unamuno himself. According to the British historian Hugh Thomas in his magnum opus The Spanish Civil War (1961), the evening began with an impassioned speech by the Falangist writer José María Pemán. After this, Professor Francisco Maldonado decried Catalonia and the Basque Country as "cancers on the body of the nation," adding that "Fascism, the healer of Spain, will know how to exterminate them, cutting into the live flesh, like a determined surgeon free from false sentimentalism."

From somewhere in the auditorium, someone cried out the motto "¡Viva la Muerte!" (Long live death!). As was his habit, Millán Astray responded with "¡España!" (Spain!); the crowd replied with "¡Una!" (One!). He repeated "¡España!"; the crowd then replied "¡Grande!" (Great!). A third time, Millán Astray shouted "¡España!"; the crowd responded "Libre!" (Free!) This -- Spain, one, great and free -- was a common Falangist cheer and would become a Francoist motto thereafter. Later, a group of uniformed Falangists entered, saluting the portrait of Franco that hung on the wall.

Unamuno, who was presiding over the meeting, rose up slowly and addressed the crowd: "You are waiting for my words. You know me well, and know I cannot remain silent for long. Sometimes, to remain silent is to lie, since silence can be interpreted as assent. I want to comment on the so-called speech of Professor Maldonado, who is with us here. I will ignore the personal offence to the Basques and Catalonians. I myself, as you know, was born in Bilbao. The Bishop," Unamuno gestured to the Archbishop of Salamanca, "whether you like it or not, is Catalan, born in Barcelona."

"But now I have heard this insensible and necrophilous oath, "¡Viva la Muerte!", and I, having spent my life writing paradoxes that have provoked the ire of those who do not understand what I have written, and being an expert in this matter, find this ridiculous paradox repellent. General Millán Astray is a cripple. There is no need for us to say this with whispered tones. He is war cripple. So was Cervantes. But unfortunately, Spain today has too many cripples. And, if God does not help us, soon it will have very many more. It torments me to think that General Millán Astray could dictate the norms of the psychology of the masses. A cripple, who lacks the spiritual greatness of Cervantes, hopes to find relief by adding to the number of cripples around him."

Millán Astray responded: "¡Muera la inteligencia! ¡Viva la Muerte!" ("Death to intelligence! Long live death!"), provoking applause from the Falangists. Pemán, in an effort to calm the crowd, exclaimed "¡No! ¡Viva la inteligencia! ¡Mueran los malos intelectuales!" ("No! Long live intelligence! Death to the bad intellectuals!")

Unamuno continued: "This is the temple of intelligence, and I am its high priest. [Éste es el templo del intelecto, y yo soy su gran sacerdote.] You are profaning its sacred domain. You will win [venceréis], because you have enough brute force. But you will not convince [pero no convenceréis]. In order to convince it is necessary to persuade, and to persuade you will need something that you lack: reason and right in the struggle. I see it is useless to ask you to think of Spain. I have spoken."

... Unamuno was removed from his position of rector of the University of Salamanca by Franco and placed under house arrest. He died of natural causes before the year ended.
We all like to think we'd be courageous if confronted by political atrocity. But would we? The old man was.
Unamuno was escorted from the hall surrounded by howling, saluting fascists. Photo source.


Brandon said...

Interestingly, I was reading a little about Franco, Falangism, and the Spanish Civil War the other day. He managed to keep Spain out of WWII and distanced his movement from the fascist ones in Italy and Germany. Whether Franco was a full-on fascist or not, his was a right-wing authoritarian movement.

Does the book say if Latin American leaders like Pinochet took inspiration from Franco?

janinsanfran said...

Hi Brandon: Nobody at the time doubted whether Franco was a fascist. He offered to come in on Hitler's side in the early days of WWII, but only if Hitler paid for his troops. Hitler was busy, what with being on the verge of invading the Soviet Union, so turned down the overture.

I remember hearing that Pinochet admired Franco, but can't source it offhand. Supporters of the deceased Franco in Spain were also said to admire Pinochet. Birds of a feather ...