MADRID — On July 17, Catholic churches in Spain marked with sadness and prayer the 75th anniversary of a brutal, convulsive, three-year conflict. For the Catholic Church, the Spanish Civil War was a low point in a century with a lot of lows.
When Pope Benedict XVI meets with hundreds of thousands of young people gathered in Spain next month for this year’s celebration of World Youth Day, he will encounter a Spain that was deeply influenced by the war, three quarters of a century earlier.
“I was 6 years old in July 1936 when the war started,” remembers Ismael Virto, a U.S. representative of Spain’s University of Navarra. “There was a knock on the door, and it was the militia — self-appointed men and women, Spanish people, with guns.”
“They said, ‘Give arms to the people!’ Our house was modest, a middle-class house in the city of Valencia, which was controlled by the socialists. Why did this gang come to us? My father had a car, which was a problem — for us,” continued Virto.
“So, the militia searched our house. They took whatever weapons we had, a hunting gun and some ceremonial swords. But then they saw it and knew we were dangerous: My grandfather had a life-sized crucifix in his bedroom. And to these guys, the Church was their enemy,” Virto explained.
Summer of ’36
He continued, “So this is the situation the militia sees. They tell my father, ‘We’re coming back tomorrow.’ The next day, my father was already in London. He represented a British fruit importer, so he went to London quickly, and he brought the rest of us later.”
“Could my father have survived? It’s doubtful. My aunt was married to a man who was a small industrialist. He was killed by the militia. They had eight children,” Virto said.
“It was just like the French Revolution or in the Soviet Union, but it was Spain in the summer of 1936. These militias — the Republican side — took regular people from their homes and took them to the jails or to the cemeteries and just shot them. It was totally lawless.”
Many Americans, if they think about it at all, probably picture the Spanish Civil War vaguely, as a pre-World War II face-off between a fascist dictator, Gen. Francisco Franco, supported by wealthy friends, the so-called Nationalists, vs. a ragtag army of international idealists, misleadingly [for Americans] known as Republicans.
Some people might know that the “idealists” were actually a fiercely anti-religious alliance of socialists, communists and anarchists.
Certainly everyone who has seen Ronald Joffe’s latest film, There Be Dragons, depicting the early life of St. Josemaría Escrivá, knows the Catholic clergy were a particular target for Republican retribution.
But even Dragons gets key historical facts wrong: For example, the nomadic band of fighters appear to be regime opponents, but it was the Republican side that controlled the Spanish government throughout the conflict, begging its major ally, the Soviet Union, for advisers, equipment and mercenaries, known as the “international brigades,” who were recruited from communist parties around the world.
What touched off the war in 1936 was an attempted military coup d’etat against the Republican government, which had already shown itself to be avidly anti-Catholic by passing legislation forbidding priests and nuns to teach, taking over Catholic Church properties and funds, banning public religious processions or feasts, and expelling the Society of Jesus — particularly ironic since the Jesuit order was founded by a Spanish soldier, St. Ignatius of Loyola.
Most Catholics had little choice but to support the Nationalists, led by Franco, although, as Virto acknowledged, “They were certainly no angels.”
The Spanish Civil War was an ugly, brutal war, with atrocities committed by both sides, as historians of all political stripes have come to agree.
But as one of the United States’ leading historians of the period, Stanley Payne, wrote, “The Spanish Civil War was one of the comparatively few modern conflicts in which the losers largely won the battle of propaganda — to some extent during the war, but certainly during the decade that followed.”
Books such as Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, whose main character is an American fighting for the Republicans, and, indirectly, Pablo Picasso’s massive painting Guernica, solicited by the Republican government to be shown in Paris at the 1937 World’s Fair, blame Franco and the Nationalists for the war’s chaos and misery.
Besides being historically inaccurate, this misperception is very problematic because it puts Catholics on the side of supposedly “fascist oppressors,” when the reality is that Catholics were largely victimized throughout the conflict.
As Payne wrote in Franco and Hitler: Spain, Germany, and the World (Yale University Press, 2008), the Spanish Civil War witnessed the “most extensive and violent persecution of Catholicism in Western history, in some way even more intense than that of the French Revolution.”
“More than 6,800 Catholic clergy were slaughtered, including 13 bishops, more than 2,360 monks and friars, 4,172 diocesan priests and seminarians, as well as 283 nuns. Thousands of churches were destroyed.
Most of the intense killing occurred in the first six months of the conflict, but by the end of the war about 20% of the nation’s Catholic clergy was dead.
Catholic author Robert Royal dedicated an entire chapter to the persecution of Spanish Catholics in The Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century: A Comprehensive World History (Crossroad General Interest, 2000).
He said that, while researching the book at the Vatican in 1999, in the office where records documenting new martyrs were maintained, some 13,000 causes had been forwarded from around the world and about half were from Spain.
“The Republicans were just utterly unrestrained. Whole convents were killed. Whole orders. It was very nasty,” said Royal. “The Vatican tried to defend people as well as they could, but there was little they could do against increasingly radical forces controlling the government.”
Asked about some claims that because the Spanish Catholic hierarchy had become too close to secular power it allowed itself to become a target in a political conflict, Royal acknowledged: “In the Spanish case, there’s plenty of room to criticize the Church.”
But he pointed out the exemplary behavior of the bishops in the darkest days.
“We hear about how Spanish bishops were corrupt; they enjoyed being honored,” he explained. “Yet, when the persecutions started, every single one refused to flee the country. There were only two bishops who were not captured and killed — because they happened to be out of the country on business.”
Jose Nieto, 74, a producer for Spanish TV based in New York, has spent his adult lifetime amassing a 6,000-volume collection on the Spanish Civil War and researching documents as they have been declassified from national archives.
Nieto said that the most recently available historical documentation demonstrates the central role played by the Soviet Union in: manipulating political alliances in order to position the left to gain power as the “Popular Front” in 1936, with the Communist Party playing a critical but low-profile role; providing material support, including tanks and arms at the outset of the conflict; recruiting 40,000 mercenaries from around the world, called the aforementioned international brigades; and promoting strategies such as the murderous attitude toward Catholicism.
“The nature of these atrocities would have been different, not so brutal, if the outside influence was not as aggressive,” observed Nieto, who described himself as a nonreligious man who was very moved by the suffering experienced by Catholics during the war.
He described how thousands of people — mostly military personnel and Catholic priests, but also doctors, lawyers, professors and writers — were taken from Madrid by bus to fields near Paracuellos del Jarama, where they were systematically executed for three straight days, and their bodies were dumped in mass graves in November 1936.
This massacre was not something the Spanish would come up with on their own, Nieto pointed out; recent evidence points to Santiago Carillo, a longtime Spanish Communist Party secretary, as the chief of the operation, who was being directed by Soviet Comintern representatives. They also sent the whole Spanish gold reserve to Moscow.
Carillo, who is still alive, “would be, and should be, serving a life sentence,” according to Nieto. Instead, he has been an influential European political operative for some seven decades, never condemned for his role in a major European massacre.
Nieto concluded, “The crimes committed by the 40,000 international red brigades, under the leadership of the Moscow-controlled Comintern, remain, to date, uninvestigated and unpunished.”
Royal observed that the persecution of Christians witnessed in the Spanish Civil War is linked to oppression experienced around the world last century — and today.
“There is something in the genetic code of socialist and communist regimes which includes violent repression,” he said. “Christians are the strongest source of opposition, so it’s almost a requirement for them to target the Church.”
The atrocities committed against Christians during the Spanish Civil War became a signature style of communist regimes from Lithuania to Romania, from China to Cuba. In order to build “a new society,” churches were destroyed, clerics were murdered and imprisoned, religious property was confiscated and public worship was banned.
Asked whether the Church in Spain has recovered, Royal pointed to negative and positive trends. “I don’t think the Church has recovered entirely, if you look at what the socialist government has done,” he said.
Abortion on Demand
The Spanish government legalized abortion on demand in 2009, allowing girls as young as 16 to get abortions without parental consent; it was one of the first European countries to legalize same-sex “marriage” in 2004. Meanwhile, the divorce rate has increased 200% over the last 20 years.
And Nieto pointed to a law approved by the socialists in 2007, the law on historical memory, which awarded Spanish citizenship to some 188,000 descendants of people who fought with the Republicans against the Nationalists (including descendants of the international red brigades).
However, Royal said, “The Church is very much alive, contrary to the stereotype. Very vigorous, forward-looking people are engaged in lay movements such as Opus Dei, a new movement which has really brought new vitality to the Church.”
With regard to the Spanish Civil War, under Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the Vatican has concentrated on highlighting the remarkable sanctity — and number — of martyrs and saints, including Blessed Ceferino Gimenez, known as El Pele, the first Gypsy to be beatified.
During the war, El Pele defended a priest being dragged by a Republican soldier, who then found that El Pele was carrying a rosary, which he would not relinquish. El Pele was executed holding the rosary, shouting, “Long live Christ the King!”
Last April, Pope Benedict beatified another 22 Spanish martyrs, bringing to approximately 1,000 the number who have been beatified or canonized. For another 2,000, the beatification process is ongoing.
Victor Gaetan writes from Washington, D.C.
He received the 2011 Catholic Press Association’s top award for a Register series of articles on Cuba.