Spain’s parliamentary elections in November 2019 saw the ruling Socialist Party (Partido Socialista Obrero Español or PSOE) fall short of a majority needed to form a government. To stay in power, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez did precisely what he had promised not to do during the electoral campaign: form an alliance with the far-left Podemos party, and then rely on the votes of Catalan separatists and Basque nationalists to just barely gain approval by Spain’s legislature.
Despite the precariousness of this ruling coalition—the most radical since 1936—the plan of action agreed to between PSOE and Podemos is startling in its ‘progressive’ ambitions. In addition to raising taxes, pushing for euthanasia, and decreasing the role of the Catholic Church and of the traditional family, their plan included action items targeting Spain’s “historical memory.” This term refers to a revisionist retelling of the history of the Spanish Civil War—as preferred by the political Left and enforced by the coercive power of the State.
Among these action items are setting aside October 31st as a date to remember the “Victims of Francoism” and May 8th to commemorate the “Victims of Exile” (those exiled by Franco’s victory in 1939). They also include carrying out exhumations of Francoist mass graves and being even more aggressive in “removing the symbols of Francoism” from public view. All this comes after a 2007 Historical Memory Law (passed by the Socialists) that supposedly already accomplished much of this.
Some advocates of the ‘historical memory movement’ in Spain have defended their efforts, saying that a “leveling of the playing field” is necessary after decades of the Franco dictatorship highlighting only the victims of the leftist Second Spanish Republic. They say those who suffered from Francoist repression have been ignored. Fair enough. But if this were the case, then the goal would be some sort of equanimity—a rough equality and perhaps even an eventual tolerance that would promote harmony and reconciliation. That is not what has happened in Spain where a political double standard has been institutionalized. A few examples may be illustrative.
In Spain today (this happened in 2019), a school in Córdoba named for Ramiro de Maeztu, the conservative philosopher, had to change its name to fulfill the requirements of the region’s Historical Memory Law. De Maeztu, who was neither a nationalist soldier nor a Falangist, was arrested in July 1936 by Spanish Republic militiamen in Madrid and then murdered by them in October. He was not even given a trial.
In contrast, in Seville, in the same Andalusian Autonomous Community that has been ruled by the Socialists for decades, there is a street honoring Santiago Carrillo, the veteran Communist leader credibly accused of complicity in the massacres at Paracuellos, the worst of the civil war.
The former was a ‘far-right’ or ‘reactionary’ writer and politician. The latter was a Communist politician actually in charge of Public Order in Madrid in 1936 when thousands of people were shot in waves of extrajudicial killings. This double standard is what the Socialists’ Historical Memory Law embodies.
Spain’s leftist coalition government is also very interested in excluding the Catholic Church from the educational system. In addition to finding new ways to tax church property, it seeks to do much more. In 2017, local authorities connected to the left-wing Podemos attempted to seize the 12th-century cathedral of Zaragoza as government property. In fact, Podemos—according to one 2019 survey—was involved in 79 out of 166 attacks against religious freedom in Spain. These attacks have usually targeted churches.
Additionally, a strange alliance of leftists (PSOE and Podemos) and Islamists has wanted to appropriate the Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba for years. It was given to the Catholic Church by Saint Ferdinand, King of Castile, in 1236. That great building—which has been a church longer than it was a mosque—could be a principal target for the government’s ‘property revision’ plans.
It is not surprising then that while trumpeting the importance of ‘historical memory,’ PSOE and Podemos suffer from selective amnesia when it comes to the crimes committed by the republic against Catholic Christians during the Civil War. Over 6,800 priests, monks, and nuns were killed during the War, almost all of them killed by leftist militias (14 Basque priests were shot by Franco’s forces).
A useful antidote to this amnesia is the 2013 book by Spanish journalist Santiago Mata, Holocausto católico: los mártires de la guerra civil (Catholic Holocaust: The Martyrs of the Civil War). While there are better, more scholarly books on the subject that place these events within a broader context—such as several recent academic monographs* in English by historians Julius Ruiz and Maria Thomas—Mata’s book has a different purpose. Its value is as a chronology focused on the victims that seeks to humanize these priests and religious as individuals. In contrast to the ‘red-hot’ partisan nature of the issue, Mata seeks to depoliticize the Civil War, noting that, “having caused these martyrs does not necessarily disqualify a political regime nor does it justify the political views per se of those who were martyred.” He admirably tries to tell the human side of the story of the thousands of individuals killed by the Republicans—and of the 14 killed by the Nationalists.
While avoiding politics, Mata ably demolishes two of the major explanations used by apologists of the frente popular: that the killings were in response to killings carried out by the Nationalists in 1936 and that these were spontaneous, low-level actions carried out in the anarchic, confused early days of the civil war.
Mata begins his book by focusing on the clergy killed during the Asturias Revolt of October 1934. Thirty-Four priests and six young seminarians were killed by revolutionaries in what was part of a carefully planned, failed coup d’état carried out by the political left. While it is true that there were some spontaneous, low-level killings of clergy by local committees in the first months of the civil war, anti-clerical murders continued into early 1939, shortly before the end of the conflict.
It took energy and effort to carry out these killings. Permits, checkpoints, holding cells, patrols, paperwork, emergency tribunals, passwords: the entire machinery of the Second Spanish Republic had to either facilitate, justify, or allow the killings by inaction or complicity in order for them to take place.
The slaughter of clergy and Catholic lay workers and activists swept up all manner of people. Boys and the blind, elderly priests were all shot. Some came from middle- or upper-class families, though just as often from the ranks of the poor—orphans, the children of workers and peasants. Many were teachers—often teachers of the poor—and were killed in the name of the poor by idealists who saw themselves as ushering in (by their violence) a new workers’ paradise.
One of the more surprising martyrs was Jéronimo Fábregas Camí, a young priest who was drafted as a soldier into the Republican Army and served in the 14th Brigade of the 45th International Division. His bravery was manifest in that he celebrated communion daily and offered confession to Republican soldiers while in the ranks of an army defending a state that had killed thousands of Catholic civilians (including priests). He was eventually discovered and shot on January 19, 1939.
None of the 1,523 persons beatified by the Catholic Church took part in the July 17th military uprising by Franco and his generals. None were beatified by the Church while the Franco regime was in power. They did not attack anyone nor try to defend themselves when assaulted. In many cases, they did not even try to flee. None denied that they were priests or nuns; and none denied what they believed (even though dissimulation might have saved their lives).
It is difficult to understand the Spanish Civil War without coming to terms with the phenomenon of religious persecution. Mata ends his simple but very useful book by suggesting that the Spanish Bishops Conference should create a museum dedicated to these martyrs. And while many churches installed plaques during the Franco years listing the names of local clergy who were killed, Mata suggests that there should be chapels in some of the country’s principal cathedrals commemorating those who have been beatified or canonized.
These are modest, reasonable proposals. But one has little faith that the current government in Spain will be receptive to any of them. It’s worth noting that on April 14, some ministers in the country’s ruling coalition took time out from dealing with the Coronavirus epidemic to mark the beginning of the Second Spanish Republic—and even to tweet in support of the 150th anniversary of the birth of Vladimir Lenin on April 22. So, the selective amnesia continues.
It is important for all people of good will in Spain to fight this ongoing battle for historical truth and for memory—all of it: not just those parts that can be used as a convenient partisan cudgel.