Most Americans who have even heard of the Spanish Civil War have been led to believe that it was a conflict between democratic, freedom-loving Republicans on the one hand and Fascists led by General Francisco Franco on the other. Ernest Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls and George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia portray the war in that light, though both have the decency to admit that widespread murder of Catholics took place. Thousands of idealists from other nations volunteered to fight on the side of the Republicans in “International Brigades.” Franco's forces were characterized as reactionary and authoritarian Catholics. But at the time, no western nation supported the Republicans, precisely because of their anti-religious atrocities. Only the Soviet Union, then closely allied with the Spanish Republicans, and Mexico, itself perpetrating atrocities against its own church at the time, backed Republican Spain.

The other countries of the world were right. In Spain, one of Europe's most staunchly Catholic countries, large numbers of Catholics were butchered during the 1936-1939 Civil War solely for being Catholic. Unlike the martyrdoms in most parts of the world, whole sectors of the religious community were liquidated. At least 6,832 priests and religious were martyred, including 13 bishops. In the 20th century, probably no country witnessed so much bloodshed among its clergy.

The male religious martyred included 259 Claretians, 226 Franciscans, 204 Piarists, 176 Brothers of Mary, 165 Christian Brothers, 155 Augustinians, 132 Dominicans, and 114 Jesuits. The toll among the female orders was lower, but still shocking when we recall that these women could have had virtually nothing to do with the political struggle: 30 Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, 26 Carmelites of Charity, 26 Adoratrices, and 20 Capuchins, along with many others.

But perhaps the greatest fury fell upon diocesan clergy, though it varied a great deal from one place to another. Pamplona, a Nationalist and pro-Catholic stronghold, had no diocesan casualties. Barbastro in Aragon saw 123 of its 140 priests lost to the violently anti-clerical Republican anarchists. Elsewhere, too, the pattern reflected the fortunes of war. Seville was captured early by the Nationalists and therefore lost only four priests. But the other large cities that remained in Republican hands for the duration of the war had far higher casualty figures: Barcelona, 279; Valencia, 327; Madrid-Alcalá, 1,118. In percentage terms, these represented 22%, 27% and 30% of the diocesan clergy in those cities, respectively.

Remarkably, most of the murders were carried out in only the first six months of the war. Probably half of all clergy were, within a week of the uprising, protected in areas controlled by the Nationalists. Without the Nationalists, the slaughter could have been much greater. As it was, about a quarter of the male clergy in Republican-controlled areas disappeared.

Almost none of them gave up the faith when they were threatened with death. Their steadfastness is even more remarkable in that they were subjected to almost unprecedented tortures and abuse. At times, these took bizarre forms: besides the usual mayhem, in several instances priests were killed and had their ears cut off and passed around as trophies — as if they had been bulls killed in a Spanish bullfight. Their witness indicates that the claims that the Spanish Church was corrupt and deserved harsh treatment were false. In fact, it seems, they were quite sincere and heroic.

Nor were lay people spared. One of the most impartial analysts of the Spanish Civil War, Jose M. Sanchez, has described their plight as follows: “An incalculable number of lay persons were killed because of their religious associations, either as well-known church-goers, members of fraternal and charitable religious organizations, or as the fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, and friends of clerics.

Some were killed because they professed their faith by wearing some outward symbol of belief, perhaps a religious medal or scapular. Some were killed for acts of charity, for granting refuge to clerics attempting to escape the fury. It is impossible to determine the number of these lay persons who were slain for their faith. … Nor was the anticlericalism limited to killing. Thousands of churches were burned, religious objects were profaned, nuns'tombs were opened and the petrified mummies displayed to ridicule, and religious ceremonies were burlesqued. Indeed, practically any imaginable anticlerical act was not only possible but likely.”

Of the 20th-century martyrs beatified by Pope John Paul II, it is no surprise, then, that the great majority resulted from the civil war in Spain. In 1996, before the wave of beatifications and canonizations associated with the Jubilee year began, of the 266 he beatified, 218 were Spaniards.

Whatever might be said about the complex politics on either side in the Spanish Civil War — and in fairness it ought to be mentioned that Franco and the Nationalists were certainly not Fascists nor the Republicans simply Communists — it is a simple fact that this massive slaughter of Catholics within supposedly civilized Europe has never received the attention it deserves. Some intellectuals who defend the Republican cause have unfortunately tried to excuse the anti-Catholic violence as somehow a merely symbolic reaction to centuries of Church dominance in Spain. Even George Orwell, author of 1984 and normally a decent observer, tended to play down these wholly unjust murders.

The historical injustice continues. Many religious people have been the object of murderous hatreds in the 20th century. All deserve proper recognition of the abuses they suffered. We should not forget that Catholics in Spain figure prominently among them.

Crossroads will soon publish Robert Royal's book

The Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century.