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Oppression and terror in the Spanish Civil War: Paul Preston's "The Spanish Holocaust"


borntorum

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I am currently reading Paul Preston's latest book, the much praised The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth-Century Spain. It is a detailed account of the terror and violence carried out by both sides before, during, and after the Spanish Civil War. While it seeks to attribute blame where appropriate to both sides, there is no doubt that it focuses on the appalling atrocities carried out by the Francoist forces and the right generally.

I am about 150 pages into it, and there is no doubt that it brilliantly, if harrowingly, illustrates the murderous and anti-democratic mindset of the Spanish Right prior to the outbreak of war. It is astonishing how a hatred of the Second Republic and democracy in general was a feature of pretty much the entire Right wing, including the parliamentary and supposedly moderate CEDA.

However, I am becoming increasingly disinterested and even dismayed by the book, and I don't know if I am going to be able to finish it. I think there are three reasons for this:

1. The unremittingly grim and depressing accounts of atrocities, rapes, extra-judicial shootings etc.

2. It is detailed, perhaps overly so, and rather turgid in its recounting of any outrage after another, without much of an overall context or overarching narrative. One would need to have at least some knowledge of the situation in Spain up to the creation of the Second Republic before coming to read the book, because little background is provided.

3. Probably my main problem: the obvious bias of the author in favour of the Republic and against the Right. There is nothing wrong with this in principle, and I think to all reasonable people the broadly democratic Republic would be favoured over the wholly autocratic and oppressive Right. But there is a persistent attempt by Preston to minimise Left violence and oppression, and to portray it as merely reactive. Right wing revolutionary rhetoric is taken at face value, whereas similar speeches from the left are dismissed as hot air. The Republic was not a perfect democracy by any means, and in particular the curtailing of freedom of religious expression was a major factor in the growth of the anti-democratic Right, but this is glossed over by Preston. Similarly, the Left wing revolt in Asturias in 1934 is portrayed as a response to Right wing repression, but it is more generally seen as an anti-democratic response to the victory of the Right in elections that year. There has been no recognition up to the point I have reached of the much-demonstrated capability of Communist forces for institutionalised violence, and the titles of the main sections of the book would suggest that Preston will continue to portray Left wing violence as essentially reactive, given that Part 2 is entitled "Institutionalised violence in the rebel zone" whereas Part 3 is called "The Consequence of the Coup: Spontaneous Violence in the Republican Zone". Furthermore, the title of the book itself, "The Spanish Holocaust", is indicative of the author's approach is, incidentally, surely misjudged.

I am interested in whether anyone else has read the book and if they agree with my description and criticisms of it. I have some knowledge of the Spanish Civil War period but I am far from an expert, and those who know about it might like to contribute as to whether the violence was predominantly from one side, or whether a true recount of the horrors of the War will require a more nuanced approach.
 
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IrishWelshCelt

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I'm quite interested in the Spanish Civil War so I might pick it up, anything on the international brigades in it?
 

borntorum

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I'm quite interested in the Spanish Civil War so I might pick it up, anything on the international brigades in it?
Not that I've seen so far. It's not a history of the war per se but rather an account of the atrocities carried out during it. I read Anthony Beevor's history of the war some years ago and I remember finding it very good, I would guess there would be more about the IBs in that
 

Eddie C

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Personally what I what I've garnered the Spanish Civil War is always written about, well when it's written about it has to be from one viewpoint or the other. That's the way it is. There were atrocities carried out in both sides, both sides must carry blame. The left (well some sections of it) were infested with a brand of (I'll term it) vitriolic anarchism of the brand put forward by Bukanin which arrived into Spain and kind of 'festered'. I think by July '36 every town and hamlet had it's own 'civil war' and it's whoever took over. I mean folk walked into the local guardia civil station and basically frog marched the local constable and sergeant out and shot them....
Similarly convents, churches were ransacked.
But lets not forget what the Right carried out and we still neither know who shot Garcia Lorca, nor where he's buried. They're still unsuccessfully searching for his burial place. I think about two to three years ago acting on some 'newer' information still no human remains were located at a new site.
It was one bitter war, it still rankles some in Spain.
 

Eddie C

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Personally what I what I've garnered the Spanish Civil War is always written about, well when it's written about it has to be from one viewpoint or the other. That's the way it is. There were atrocities carried out in both sides, both sides must carry blame. The left (well some sections of it) were infested with a brand of (I'll term it) vitriolic anarchism of the brand put forward by Bukanin which arrived into Spain and kind of 'festered'. I think by July '36 every town and hamlet had it's own 'civil war' and it's whoever took over. I mean folk walked into the local guardia civil station and basically frog marched the local constable and sergeant out and shot them....
Similarly convents, churches were ransacked.
But lets not forget what the Right carried out and we still neither know who shot Garcia Lorca, nor where he's buried. They're still unsuccessfully searching for his burial place. I think about two to three years ago acting on some 'newer' information still no human remains were located at a new site.
It was one bitter war, it still rankles some in Spain.
 

Eye of Angkor

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I am also in the course of reading this book and would agree with the OP's observations about the author's style and the unrelenting detail of the violence he describes.

The chief revelation in the book is the systematic use of violence by the right to destroy all they regarded as their enemies.

Prior to Preston's book, the narrative tended towards asserting that excesses were committed by hot heads on both sides. Depending on one's point of view, one side would be more to blame than the other. Preston blasts that lazy approach to pieces, demonstrating forensically that the right deliberatly sought to terrorise and exterminate its perceived enemies. The plain truth is that Spaniards were reluctant to discuss these events until relatively recently and they remain contentious to this day.

In many cases one side is more guilty than the other. Franco and his associates look somewhat the worse for wear with the passage of time.
 

borntorum

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In many cases one side is more guilty than the other. Franco and his associates look somewhat the worse for wear with the passage of time.
Indeed they do. My criticism of the book is Preston's minimising of wrongdoing by the Republican side and attempt to purely blame the Right for the Civil War. I don't think the basic point that the Francoists were much more guilty of terror and murder than their opponents would have been compromised by a harsher critique of the mistakes made by the Left and its own sometimes dubious relationship with democracy. However, for me, his failure to suppress his own obvious political beliefs actually lessens the impact of his basic thesis and makes me dubious about how selective he is being across the board
 

Malcolm Redfellow

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… the obvious bias of the author in favour of the Republic and against the Right.

I suspect, going with the rub of the green, this will be the main topic of any ensuing debate here.

I suggest those who feel that the rebels and their allies (and they had many: ecclesiastic, plutocratic, autocratic …) are somehow done down by Preston should read (or, to be generous, re-read) the opening paragraphs of his Prologue:

Behind the lines during the Spanish Civil War, nearly 200,000 men and women were murdered extra-judicially or executed after flimsy legal process. They were killed as a result of the military coup of 17-18 July 1936 against the Second Republic. For the same reason, perhaps as many as 200,000 men died at the battle fronts. Unknown numbers of men, women and children were killed in bombing attacks and in the exoduses that followed the occupation of territory by Franco’s military forces. In all of Spain after the final victory of the rebels at the end of March 1939, approximately 20,000 Republicans were executed. Many more died of disease and malnutrition in overcrowded, unhygienic prisons and concentration camps. Others died in the slave labour conditions of work battalions. More than half a million refugees were forced into exile and many were to die of disease in French concentration camps. Several thousand were worked to death in Nazi camps. The purpose of this book is to show as far as possible what happened to civilians and why. All of what did happen constitutes what I believe can legitimately be called the Spanish Holocaust.

I thought long and hard about using the word 'holocaust' in the title of this book. I feel intense sorrow and outrage about the Nazis' deliberate attempt to annihilate European Jewry. I also feel intense sorrow and outrage about the lesser, but none the less massive suffering undergone by the Spanish people during the Civil War of 1936-9 and for several years thereafter. I could find no word that more accurately encapsulates the Spanish experience than 'holocaust'. Moreover, in choosing it, I was influenced by the fact that those who justified the slaughter of innocent Spaniards used an anti-Semitic rhetoric and frequently claimed that they had to be exterminated because they were the instruments of a 'Jewish-Bolshevik-Masonic' conspiracy. Nevertheless, my use of the word 'holocaust' is not intended to equate what happened within Spain with what happened throughout the rest of Europe under German occupation but rather to suggest that it be examined in broadly comparative context. It is hoped thereby to suggest parallels and resonances that will lead to a better understanding of what happened in Spain during the Civil War and thereafter.
It is interesting to compare that, from the printed text, with what I assume is an early draft. The whole of that second paragraph is an interpolation — presumably added at the behest of an editor to justify the title.

I bought this at first publication: not cheap, even at Amazon's discount, but worth every cent — and every hour of reading time. Not a bedside book, perhaps.

As for being a book biased against the Francoists, wait till you reach Chapter 8.
 

onlyasking

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Indeed they do. My criticism of the book is Preston's minimising of wrongdoing by the Republican side and attempt to purely blame the Right for the Civil War. I don't think the basic point that the Francoists were much more guilty of terror and murder than their opponents would have been compromised by a harsher critique of the mistakes made by the Left and its own sometimes dubious relationship with democracy. However, for me, his failure to suppress his own obvious political beliefs actually lessens the impact of his basic thesis and makes me dubious about how selective he is being across the board
Well, in relation to a more recent conflict, one much closer to home, there are those who seek to highlight the violence of only one party to that conflict.

I'm sure you would acknowledge that we have had multiple OPs on this forum on the crimes of a single party to Ireland's most recent conflict by those who seldom, if ever, feel the need to express outrage at similar actions by 'the other side'.

That, in my view, represents a failure to "suppress their own political beliefs". Such a failure isn't limited to the history of the Spanish Civil War, and a deeply partisan approach to Irish history would appear to be the norm here.
 

Boy M5

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I have the book and haven't really picked it up yet.
WH Smith, which at some airports / terminals has a monopoly, is promoting it.
A very good book about the aftermath of the Civil War / the attempted coup is The anatomy of a moment by Cercas. Its about the Guardia Nacional coup and the former Phalange / Republican rivals standing together.
 

borntorum

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I have the book and haven't really picked it up yet.
WH Smith, which at some airports / terminals has a monopoly, is promoting it.
A very good book about the aftermath of the Civil War / the attempted coup is The anatomy of a moment by Cercas. Its about the Guardia Nacional coup and the former Phalange / Republican rivals standing together.
I read that last year; I thought it was one of the best history books I've ever had the pleasure of reading. He combines a masterly ability to present the complex and murky origins of the coup with a novelist's sense of the profundity of individual moments
 

Boy M5

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I read that last year; I thought it was one of the best history books I've ever had the pleasure of reading. He combines a masterly ability to present the complex and murky origins of the coup with a novelist's sense of the profundity of individual moments
The author is a novelist isn't he?
 

Malcolm Redfellow

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onlyasking 2 9:00 pm

But borntorun admits, in the headline post, that 'I am about 150 pages into it' (and, I confess, it took me a fortnight to reach page 528). So, clearly he hasn't reached Chapter 8: Revolutionary Terror in Madrid (page 259).

He is still ploughing through the preliminaries, as Preston explicates — again in that Prologue — that:

the rebels' war effort was built on a prior plan of systematic mass murder and their subsequent regime on state terror …

Preston's thesis depends on an unequal balance of blood-guilt (though both sides deserve that taint):

The leaders of the rebellion, Generals Mola, Franco and Queipo de Llano, regarded the Spanish proletariat in the same way as they did the Moroccan, as an inferior race that had to be subjugated by sudden, uncompromising violence. Thus, they applied in Spain the exemplary terror they had learned in North Africa by deploying the Spanish Foreign Legion and Moroccan mercenaries, the Regulares, of the colonial army.

Their approval of the grim violence of their men is reflected in Franco’s war diary of 1922 which lovingly describes Moroccan villages destroyed and their defenders decapitated. He delights in recounting how his teenage bugler boy cut off the ear of a captive. Franco himself led twelve legionaries on a raid from which they returned carrying as trophies the bloody heads of twelve tribesmen (harqueños). The decapitation and mutilation of prisoners was common. When General Primo de Rivera visited Morocco in 1926, an entire battalion of the Legion awaited inspection with heads stuck on their bayonets. During the Civil War, terror by the African Army was similarly deployed on the Spanish mainland as the instrument of a coldly conceived project to underpin a future authoritarian regime.

The repression carried out by the military rebels was a carefully planned operation to eliminate, in the words of the director of the coup, Emilio Mola, ‘without scruple or hesitation those who do not think as we do’. In contrast, the repression in the Republican zone was hot-blooded and reactive.
 

JohnD66

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I am currently reading Paul Preston's latest book, the much praised The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth-Century Spain. It is a detailed account of the terror and violence carried out by both sides before, during, and after the Spanish Civil War. While it seeks to attribute blame where appropriate to both sides, there is no doubt that it focuses on the appalling atrocities carried out by the Francoist forces and the right generally.

I am about 150 pages into it, and there is no doubt that it brilliantly, if harrowingly, illustrates the murderous and anti-democratic mindset of the Spanish Right prior to the outbreak of war. It is astonishing how a hatred of the Second Republic and democracy in general was a feature of pretty much the entire Right wing, including the parliamentary and supposedly moderate CEDA.

However, I am becoming increasingly disinterested and even dismayed by the book, and I don't know if I am going to be able to finish it. I think there are three reasons for this:

1. The unremittingly grim and depressing accounts of atrocities, rapes, extra-judicial shootings etc.

2. It is detailed, perhaps overly so, and rather turgid in its recounting of any outrage after another, without much of an overall context or overarching narrative. One would need to have at least some knowledge of the situation in Spain up to the creation of the Second Republic before coming to read the book, because little background is provided.

3. Probably my main problem: the obvious bias of the author in favour of the Republic and against the Right. There is nothing wrong with this in principle, and I think to all reasonable people the broadly democratic Republic would be favoured over the wholly autocratic and oppressive Right. But there is a persistent attempt by Preston to minimise Left violence and oppression, and to portray it as merely reactive. Right wing revolutionary rhetoric is taken at face value, whereas similar speeches from the left are dismissed as hot air. The Republic was not a perfect democracy by any means, and in particular the curtailing of freedom of religious expression was a major factor in the growth of the anti-democratic Right, but this is glossed over by Preston. Similarly, the Left wing revolt in Asturias in 1934 is portrayed as a response to Right wing repression, but it is more generally seen as an anti-democratic response to the victory of the Right in elections that year. There has been no recognition up to the point I have reached of the much-demonstrated capability of Communist forces for institutionalised violence, and the titles of the main sections of the book would suggest that Preston will continue to portray Left wing violence as essentially reactive, given that Part 2 is entitled "Institutionalised violence in the rebel zone" whereas Part 3 is called "The Consequence of the Coup: Spontaneous Violence in the Republican Zone". Furthermore, the title of the book itself, "The Spanish Holocaust", is indicative of the author's approach is, incidentally, surely misjudged.

I am interested in whether anyone else has read the book and if they agree with my description and criticisms of it. I have some knowledge of the Spanish Civil War period but I am far from an expert, and those who know about it might like to contribute as to whether the violence was predominantly from one side, or whether a true recount of the horrors of the War will require a more nuanced approach.

I've been resisting reading it for precisley the reasons you give, although I'm very interested in the Spanish Civil War. I don't think I could face reading all those pages of atrocities, and you know that Preston himself is on the left, so you have to assume he's not going to give you the full story.

Having said that, there is (still) something poisonous that lives at the heart of the Spanish right wing.
 

borntorum

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I've been resisting reading it for precisley the reasons you give, although I'm very interested in the Spanish Civil War. I don't think I could face reading all those pages of atrocities, and you know that Preston himself is on the left, so you have to assume he's not going to give you the full story.

Having said that, there is (still) something poisonous that lives at the heart of the Spanish right wing.
There is definitely something unreconstructed about them alright. Perhaps it's not surprising, given that the dictatorship existed less than 40 years ago. In fact it could be argued that it's more surprising that most Francoists were so relatively quick to adjust to democracy. Aldolfo Suarez deserves huge credit for his skillful manoeuvering towards democracy, as Carcas shows in the book mentioned above
 

west'sawake

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There was a thread some time back that included a discussion on this Spanish Civil War, some demonising Franco, others the Republicans, as the worst offenders.

You can pick the more interesting contributions from Glennshane, Almanac, Aggressive Secularist, Christine Murray, and other erudite posters from it. Here is the link when the debate was well under way.

http://www.politics.ie/forum/eu/36244-francos-crimes-against-humanity-5.html
 
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