The Last Crusade: Spain 1936
By Warren Carroll
(Christendom Press/ISI Books, 240 pages, $15)
WHEN THE HEROICS of the Spanish Civil War come up — Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, Hemingway’s fictions or the effusions of various poets — there is a very large and usually unremarked elephant in the room: Orwell, who actually fought, and Hemingway who wrote about fighting, were on the wrong side.
The strategic point is simple: had the Stalinists won war, then during the period of the Hitler-Stalin pact from 1939 to mid-1941, they would have allowed Hitler to cross Spain and seize Gibraltar. Had this happened, the British forces in the Mediterranean, including the British Empire’s last remaining field army in action, would have been cut off. The British army and fleet could probably have been supplied through the Suez Canal, at least for a while, but their positions would have been immeasurably weakened, and the enemy’s position immeasurably strengthened.
There would have been no Force H to sally forth from Gibraltar to stop the Bismarck massacring the Atlantic convoys, eventually the Middle-East oilfields and the Suez Canal would quite likely have fallen into Nazi hands, as would the Jewish population of what would become Israel. Fascism and Nazism would have ruled the Mediterranean and there would have been little to stop them reaching the shores of the Indian Ocean, and perhaps eventually joining up in India with the Japanese. The chances would have greatly increased that Hitler would have won the war, and even if America had come in before that, eventual victory for the allies would have been much more costly. As it was, Franco refused to allow Hitler to attack Gibraltar through Spain, though Hitler met him and harangued him for hours. Franco also later gave the Allies at least passive help in the “Torch” landings on North Africa. Some Franco diplomats were active (unlike the Vichy French) is saving Jews from the Holocaust by issuing them false passports.
It is an interesting exercise to put oneself in Franco’s place — leader of a desperately weak, divided and exhausted country – and wonder if one would have done so well against Hitler — who was not only, by all accounts, spell-bindingly persuasive, but also master of the mightiest Army the world had ever seen, who had smashed France flat in a month and whose flag flew from North Cape in the Arctic to Africa.
SO MUCH HAS LONG BEEN known by any person reasonably historically literate. However, until I read Professor Carroll’s The Last Crusade: Spain 1936, I did not realize the full moral dimension of how wrong Orwell, Hemingway and the rest were. They could not reasonably have been expected to foresee the Hitler-Stalin pact or know that they were fighting to install a government which would have allied with Hitler. Orwell bravely defied the Stalinists who took over the Republican side, but long before that, right from the beginning of the war, the Republicans had been characterized by an insane savagery recalling the anti-Christian persecutions of Diocletian and anticipating the bestialities of the Mau-Mau and the Totenkopf SS.
This was not aberrant behavior by undisciplined mobs, but deliberate and directed most specifically against Christianity (some liberal Republican politicians were mildly distressed by the murder of their secular opposite numbers, but showed no such distress at the murder of religious). While the Republican side gradually came under the control of Moscow-directed Stalinist communists, its leadership in the early part, when the worst anti-Christian massacres took place, was a mixture of old-guard liberal parliamentarians, anarchists, Trotskyites and other non-Party communists of various factions, as well as disciplined Communist Party members, united by anti-Christian fanaticism. There is no doubt that in the event of a Stalinist victory in Spain, in addition to the disastrous geo-political consequences, the ensuing domestic blood bath would have been of an order of magnitude greater than that which actually occurred.
According to Carroll, 6,832 Catholic priests and other religious, including 283 nuns, were murdered in the territory of the Spanish Republic during the war, most of whom, according to another scholar, Stanley Payne, were killed without even “the simulacrum of condemnation by revolutionary tribunals.” This was the greatest clerical blood-letting in the history of the Catholic Church. About 12% of the entire Catholic clergy of Spain and about a quarter of those caught in the Republican zone were murdered. Probably hundreds of thousands of lay people were killed for observing Christian worship or for trying to shelter priests and nuns. Many of the killings were accompanied with torture. In his autobiography Approach March, British politician Julian Amery, of Jewish background, recalls visiting territory captured from the Republican forces and the evidence of their literally Satanic, death-obsessed, nihilism. The extent to which Christianity was targeted is also indicated by the fact that nearly half of Spain’s 40,000 churches were destroyed, this in a European country in the 20th Century which a deep Catholic heritage. For Professor Carroll to have titled this book The Last Crusade is no misnomer.
By the time the Stalinists took over the Republican side there were not many religious left to kill in the territory they controlled, so the anti-clerical massacres were fewer and in any case they turned much of their energy to killing their comrades on the non-Stalinist left, such as Orwell’s formation, the POUM.
IT WOULD BE ABSURD to say the Nationalists were uniformly angelic. They carried out wholesale executions, and one of their leaders reputedly blamed the whole trouble on the fact that giving the lower classes plumbing had also given them unseemly notions of democracy. However, Carroll writes that in many cases they attempted moderation and some mercy in a merciless war, and in the face of a pitiless totalitarian ideology that gave no quarter. The fact that, in a desperate situation, they accepted some fascist help (no democratic governments offered help) did not make them fascists. Like the Republican side, the Nationalists were a coalition of disparate forces (The Republicans were not the only ones to attract idealistic volunteers from other countries, either. One of a number of foreign volunteers who fought for Franco was the British/South African poet Roy Campbell, who possibly influenced the conception of Aragorn in The Lord of The Rings).
Carroll also highlights the qualities of some of the military leaders of the Nationalist side, like the fanatically brave and patriotic Millan Astray, who created the Spanish Foreign Legion, who by the time of the Spanish Civil War had already lost an arm, a leg, an eye and much of his jaw campaigning in Africa and who knew how to both upset intellectuals and enthuse his own soldiers even late in the war-weary day, or Colonel Jose Moscardo, commandant of the makeshift garrison of the Alcazar at Toledo which held out for months against a siege not by the siege-weapons of medieval times but by tanks, heavy artillery and aircraft as well as immeasurably superior ground forces. When the Republicans captured Moscardo’s son and put him on the telephone to his father, promising to kill him if the Alcazar did not surrender, Moscardo’s words were: “Commend your soul to God, shout ‘Viva Espana!’ and die like a hero, my son.” The son replied: “Don’t worry about me!” and asked for a last kiss. Professor Carroll comments:
In the otherwise completely restored Alcazar at Toledo today, the room where Colonel Moscardo received that telephone call is preserved exactly as it was. On its scored and battered walls hang translations of that conversation in most of the principal languages of the world. A contemporary Socialist government, no longer revolutionary but hardly sympathetic, has removed all the most vivid and shocking memories of the great siege — all but this, which they have not dared to touch.
And there was Franco himself, the odd, reluctant, unglamorous dictator, who as the eventual victor kept Spain at peace and oversaw its long, slow transition into a prosperous and free democracy under a fine and noble constitutional monarch. The story told here of how Franco returned to Spain from the Canary Islands to lead the Nationalist uprising reads like something from sensational fiction.
Few can be unmoved to read how, in a gesture veritably worthy of Don Quixote, Franco turned aside from the advance on Madrid to relieve the Alcazar, now a heap of ruins, its haggard, starving but indomitable defenders literally their last gasp:
General Franco came to the Alcazar, saluted the gold and red flag tied to the girder, and was greeted by Moscardo, who told him: “You will find the Alcazar destroyed but its honor intact.” Franco embraced him, pinned of his chest the Cross of San Fernando, Spain’s highest decoration for valour; promoted him on the spot to General and declared him worthy to stand among the greatest heroes of Spanish history.
On May 30 1939, Franco attended a Te Deum service in the church of Santa Barbara in liberated Madrid, offering a prayer of thanks for the vanquishing of “the enemy of truth in this century.” It was a penetrating choice of words from a man without intellectual pretensions. He then laid his sword before the high altar with the solemn promise to God and man never to draw it again save in defense of his country against invasion. It was a promise he kept, as Hitler would discover.
Carroll is judicious about the Nationalists’ general conduct and does not seek to minimize the darker part of their record, but his attempt to put this in perspective is legitimate. Of Franco he writes:
It remains to consider the issue of the deaths for which Franco and his government were responsible. In considering this vexed question, it is first necessary to set aside all deaths which were directly or indirectly the result of the war, whose justification or lack of it comes under the heading of whether this was a just war, and not Franco’s personal policy. It is also necessary, in fairness, to set aside those executions which were ordered by others without Franco’s knowledge or consent, especially in the first two months after the rising before Franco was named Generalissimo and Head of State. During the war Franco repeatedly pledged to bring to justice all persons whom he could find, whom there was good reason to believe guilty of committing, aiding or abetting the criminal horrors of 1936. He never granted any amnesty to such people, and continued relentlessly to pursue them until 1959.
Whatever one may conclude about the wisdom or desirability of such a pursuit, it is not necessarily contrary to the Christian teaching of forgiveness. Forgiveness is a personal response to the soul of an offender, justice is a state responsibility to find, convict and punish the guilty … an immense number of the most terrible crimes imaginable had been committed in the in the Spanish Republic during the Civil War, mostly in the last six months of 1936.
Franco was not utterly merciless. He commuted many death sentences to periods of imprisonment of varying length. It can be reasonably argued that he should have communed more of them, and ended the search, investigation and trial sooner, but no moral law required him to do so, for justice is the supreme duty of the state.
This is the context in which we should view the total number of executions and murders in the Spanish Civil War….In the Republic from 1936 to 1939 the total was 72,344; in Nationalist Spain from 1936 to 1950 it was 57,662. Of the Nationalist total, 16,763 were executed during the first two years after the war, with 5,878 more during the next ten years. All these were done in a country at peace under judicial process; many, perhaps a majority, of the executions and homicides during the war were without a genuine trial…every Western nation in the period 1936-1950 used the death penalty with some frequency…in France immediately after World War II over 10,000 people were executed for treason….It ill behooves those who have never seen nor really tried to imagine the kind of horrors that were routine in Barcelona, Madrid and Toledo in 1936 to call for them to be left unpunished.
Compared to the death-tolls of the 20th century totalitarians like Hitler, Stalin and Mao, or even Mussolini, who wantonly plunged his country into war, this is a modest total indeed.
THE LAST CRUSADE HAS SEVERAL important themes. It gives some overdue recognition to both the heroism and, sometimes, the moderation of the Nationalist side in the Spanish Civil War, endlessly slandered as fascists and murderers. It also tells of the supernatural valor of many of the murdered religious figures. But the other aspect upon which it throws a searing light is the atrocious wickedness of so many on the Republican-Anarchist-Communist side.
And here the figure of even the great anti-Fascist and anti-totalitarian George Orwell, in some ways one of my own political heroes and inspirations, must stand before the bar of history. Orwell wrote in “Looking Back on the Spanish War” (published in New Road, 1942), that “I have little direct evidence about the atrocities in the Spanish Civil War. I know that some were committed by the Republicans, and far more (they are still continuing) by the fascists.” Orwell’s whole life was an often painful and career-damaging commitment to the truth, and I think it can be assumed that he is telling the truth here. Further, he was writing at a time when if looked at if there was a good chance fascism would conquer the world, and some didactic intent can be forgiven in such circumstances. We will never know the answer now, perhaps, but one may ask: “How much did Orwell know?” if not by “evidence,” at least by hints and rumors.
Indeed, Orwell’s commitment to truth (as well as perhaps the fact that he was writing amid the general misinformation, propaganda and “fog of war”), and his determination “not to be taken in,” seems to have led him into false equivalence more than once, as when he suggested the Soviet invasion of Finland and the Allied occupation of Madagascar were morally indistinguishable.
Anyway, Orwell arrived in Spain after the worst anti-Christian massacres in 1936 and spent most of his time as a fighting soldier in the trenches, so there is a real case for his innocence. He did, however, seems to regard stories of Republican atrocities as less believable than Nationalist atrocities, writing in the same article of Nazis and Fascists, the Catholic press, and the conservative British Daily Mail “pretending that life in Government Spain was just one long massacre.” Professor Carroll has put the case for the other side with political courage.