For centuries, invaders from North Africa ravaged the Iberian Peninsula. In the 14th century, Morocco’s ruling Marinid dynasty invaded one last time, trying to reverse the increasing success of the Reconquista. While Arab corsairs would continue to ravage Iberian coasts for centuries, by the 15th century the Iberians had the advantage and the two Moroccan coastal cities of Ceuta (taken in 1415) and Melilla (in 1497) were in Christian hands.
Despite this history, and its geographical proximity to Morocco, Spain’s principal focus for centuries was elsewhere in its vast overseas empire, and even in the 16th century, in action against the Ottoman Turks. Morocco again became a focus for Spain later, in the heyday of Western colonialism and imperialism, as Madrid’s own overseas possessions were lost. In 1859-1860 a short, sharp punitive campaign by Spain against the Moroccans was successful at Tetuan (a battle commemorated in two great works of art by Mariano Fortuny and—in an homage to Fortuny—Salvador Dalí). A second, short border conflict, against tribes surrounding Melilla broke out in 1893-1894.
By the end of the 19th century, as Spain lost its remaining colonies in Asia and the Caribbean, all that was left was Africa. But France, not Spain, was the dominant power there. France offered to divide Morocco with Spain, an offer Spain refused and then fatefully accepted in 1904 in a secret treaty only revealed in 1912. Spain was to have a small northern strip of Moroccan territory one twentieth the size of what France gobbled up.
The Moroccans, of course, were not consulted. These were to be “protectorates” rather than outright colonies—a semantic difference lost on the locals. Spain accepted this settlement out of pride, still wanting to be considered a European power, and in the hope that the little-known mountainous and hostile territory, the Rif, would somehow be profitable. As Ernesto Giménez Caballero wrote, the Rif was “a bone for a dog. And we are that dog.”
Giménez Caballero, whilst was one of the best Spaniards to write about Spain’s Moroccan misadventure, which would prove to be very costly indeed. For the 21-year-old Gecé, as he was nicknamed, it would be the beginning of a tumultuous literary and political career.
His 1923 book, vividly chronicling his conscript service there—Notas Marruecas de un Soldado—“part travelogue, part memoir, part polemic,” was the first book in a writing life spanning six decades.
Gecé was fortunate. Born in a family of modest means, his father would become wealthy by building up a successful printing business at a time when Spanish books and newspapers were booming. The young man received a fine education at the University of Madrid where he was part of a group of young Socialists who later founded Spain’s Communist Party in 1921. But he was also drawn to a brilliant generation of conservative intellectuals in whose journals his first writings were published. Upon graduation, Giménez Caballero tried to obtain a scholarship to Columbia University but had to settle for a position teaching Spanish at the University of Strasbourg.
After one semester he was drafted into the Spanish Army. In that he was also quite fortunate because he just missed the debacle at Annual. This battle, or rather rout, is called in Spanish the Desastre de Annual. On July 22, 1921, a few thousand Rifian Berbers, under the leadership of a brilliant commander named Abd al-Krim, destroyed a Spanish army of 13,000 men. It was the worst defeat inflicted on a Western army by a tribal society anywhere—much worse than Adowa or Isandlwana or the Little Bighorn.
The book is vivid and assured for one so young. Poetic, sarcastic, and unsentimental. Written in short journalistic chapters very much like notes, Giménez Caballero begins with a description of his disembarking from a troopship off the Moroccan coast—impressions of “stones, hills and sun. And in the distance, majestic mountains.” There is no shade and no food or water until sundown. He compares the cosmopolitan European cigarette to the voluptuous Moroccan kif, the local hashish.
Gecé writes movingly of the forgotten Spanish soldier—mostly illiterate, hungry, underpaid and ill-equipped. They fight in Africa, connected “to the oldest and most profound tradition of the Spanish warrior: the struggle against the Moor.” But although this is a venerable tradition, there is no answer to the dogged questions: Why are you fighting? For what? He recalls fallen fellow conscripts, simple humble men—“Fernandez, Santiago, Pepe Diaz”—in thumbnail sketches of those who fought and “did not return with me to Spain.”
An educated man in an army of untutored peasants, he became a hospital orderly and eventually a general’s aide. In the hospital, he described the famished soldiers, who were used to only getting some cooked rice or a few crackers while in the ranks, now feasting on a bowl of soup or slices of ham. Desperate men looked for creative ways to remain in the hospital, injuring themselves so that they could not fight and would have to return to peninsular Spain.
A band apart in the hospital were the wounded of the Spanish Legion, those volunteer shock troops of the Tercio, formed only in 1920 as expendables to fight as brutally and bravely as the Moroccans. Giménez Caballero describes the hospital visit of the unnamed Commander of the Legion (it was, of course, the famous Colonel José Millán Astray) like a force of nature, seeing to the health of his “African panthers.” “Where are my jackals? Long live Spain! Long live the King! Viva la Legion!” At least one Spanish writer believes that the author was mocking Millán Astray (for whom Gecé later briefly worked as a Franco propagandist during the Spanish Civil War), but that doesn’t seem quite true. Yes, the histrionics are faithfully recorded, but also that the legionary commander, unlike other officers, visited his troops, handing out chicken, ham, bottles of wine, Vichy Water, mosquito nets, and personally rewarding his men with medals and promotions. He seemed like “an ancient condotierre” with a wild look and violent expression, surrounded by his men who asked him for things, as his orderly rapidly wrote them down. The depiction is both admiring and satirical.
One need only compare the depiction of the vigorous, if overwrought, Commander of the Legion with the description of the fat and indolent officers of the General Staff. “If it had not been for the neglect of such as these, the defenses of Annual would not have failed.” He bitterly notes that “there is nothing to win here,” but that the war would not end as long as corrupt officials and contractors could make money from it. The shocking defeat at Annual was due to disastrous leadership but also to corruption. Soldiers had been selling guns and ammunition to the Moroccans in return for food. A private in the Spanish Army earned less than a Rifian Berber hired for road construction.
As fierce as he was on the incompetence and corruption around him, Giménez Caballero also had an eye for beauty, for the cats of Tetuan, “the degeneration of ancient tigers,” for “the sound of an Andalusian song. And a dark Moorish girl, pretty, with a geranium in her hair.”
Some of the inhabitants of the Rif, both the Muslims and Jews, were descendants of Spanish Moors and Jews expelled from Spain at the fall of Granada. Tetuan was even nicknamed “Pequeña Jerusalén” by its Sephardic inhabitants. His writing on these native peoples is sympathetic and realistic while generally avoiding the worst excesses of Orientalist romanticism.
He is particularly sympathetic to Sephardic Jews, of whom he had a higher opinion than the local Spaniards of the Protectorate, praising the enterprise and energy of Jewish men and the beauty and enchantment of Jewish women. Unusual given his future political trajectory, Giménez Caballero’s sympathy for “the Jews of the Spanish Motherland” were long lasting. Sepharad would become a regular topic of interest in his journal Gaceta Literaria and later, in 1929, he travelled on behalf of the Spanish government to visit Sephardic communities in the Balkans where he lectured, wrote, and produced a documentary film.
Gecé ends his book with more criticisms of the entire Moroccan enterprise and the war profiteering of those in power. He does this from a position of nationalism, differentiating between the Spain of corrupt officials and the “vital nation” of the Spanish people, and he expresses hope that veterans will play a future political role. After a just vengeance for Annual is extracted, there will be no reason to stay in Africa. There needs to be an accounting for this catastrophe but there were also foreign interests supporting Abd al-Krim, jealous of and intent on weakening Spain.
In a reverie with two Moroccans, the three commiserate: “You are not like the French,” they say. And he answers, “yes, we are closer to you. And we are a weak people.” Some of his right-wing criticisms of the chaotic Moroccan situation were echoed later by leftist Spaniards such as Arturo Barea and Ramon Spender, also soldiers in Morocco, in their writing on the colonial war.
When actually published in 1923 the book caused a furor, selling out within days. It was praised by the conservative Miguel de Unamuno and serialized by the Socialist Indalecio Prieto. He was arrested and jailed for sedition and defaming the military; he faced the possibility of 18 years in prison—fame and a cause célèbre. He was saved by the September 1923 coup by General Miguel Primo de Rivera. Giménez Caballero wrote that “if a liberal government asked for 18 years in prison, a dictator would probably cut my head off.” But it turned out that Primo de Rivera was also a critic of the Moroccan campaign and wanted to withdraw completely from the territory (he was persuaded later not to do so, and in conjunction with the French, Abd al-Krim was defeated in 1926; Franco’s Spain willingly surrendered its protectorate to a newly independent Morocco in 1956). Giménez Caballero was released and returned back to Strasbourg before the dictator changed his mind.
Undeterred, or perhaps emboldened, by just avoiding a long prison sentence, Giménez Caballero returned to Spain in 1924, throwing himself into the cultural and political passions of the 1920s and 30s. Inspired by Futurism and Surrealism, a pioneer in Spanish cinema, who embraced pan-Hispanism (hence his enthusiasm for Sephardic Jews), Gecé was brilliant, provocative, and prolific. Marrying the sister of an Italian diplomat, he drifted inexorably towards the Rome of Mussolini.
The year after—1928—that he founded the influential vanguardist publication Gaceta Literaria, he visited Rome and was captivated by the Italian dictator. He declared himself a fascist, indeed Spain’s first fascist, while his journal carried a broad range of cultural voices from the far-left to the far-right. Garcia Lorca, Dali, Luis Buñuel, Alberti, works by Catalan and Galician activists, research on Sephardic Jews, conservative writers, all appeared in the pages of a magazine edited by Cesar Arconada, a Communist, under the direction of Giménez Caballero. Among the works mocked in its pages, in 1931, was Hitler’s Mein Kampf, for its antisemitism.
Scholars have noted that while Gecé’s fascism was more fashionable pose and financial greed than anything else, his admiration—not unusual at the time—for Il Duce was real enough. Even greater was his fascination with Latin culture and enthusiasm for the city of Rome. This exaltation of Latin Catholic Mediterranean culture, in opposition to ideologies surging out of Northern Protestantism, was a principal feature of several of his most important works offering a conservative or reactionary critique of modernity during this period. Giménez Caballero wrote at the time of a third way—between the excessive liberalism of the West and the collectivism of the Eastof an Eternal Rome that had once again synthesized “hierarchy and freedom,” a civilization that was “Christian, European, and that is Universal, Catholic.”
Not surprisingly, he joined the fascist Falange Party of his friend Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera and then was thrown out of the party by the same in early 1936 due to both his abrasive personality and his dallying with rival conservatives.
Once the Spanish Civil War began in July 1936, he spent several nightmarish months in Madrid evading leftist death squads before escaping and making his way to the Nationalist Franco side.
He served that regime faithfully, if eccentrically. He was neither the Spanish D’Annunzio nor the Spanish Goebbels, but a writer whose greatest creation was his own larger than life, peculiar persona. One leftist journalist, decades later, called him “the Groucho Marx of the New State,” and that wasn’t a compliment. To keep him out of trouble, the Franco regime eventually sent him off to Alfredo Stroessner’s Paraguay as Ambassador for 12 years.
Other Spanish observers have been kinder in their commentary, seeing him ripe for literary reappraisal and noting that whatever the political pose and the rampant narcissism, the writing talent and intellect were always there. He continued to be read and even honored for his writing in a democratic Spain. After the death of Franco, his Morocco book was reprinted in 1983.
In a recent work, Spanish historian Jeronimo Molina Cano has called Ernesto Giménez Caballero “a Spanish nationalist, without a doubt a patriot, an adventurer of literary endeavors and many other things.” Certainly, a man whose volume of work, despite—or because of—his eccentricities and extremism, makes for some very compelling reading.
Alberto M. Fernandez is a former U.S. diplomat and Vice President of the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) in Washington, D.C.