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Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth-Century Spain by Paul Preston – Aye Write Book Festival, Glasgow

I recently attended a talk by Paul Preston on his book The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth-Century Spain, held as part of Glasgow’s Aye Write book festival. The book deals with murders and other atrocities committed during and in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, which was started by a military coup in 1936 and lasted for three years. The supporters of the elected government are referred to as the Republicans and those who backed the coup as the Nationalists.

Paul Preston began by explaining the title of his book. He used the word holocaust to shock as he was shocked by what he learnt during his research. Most people do not appreciate the scale of the killings and some positive views of Franco persist. The proportion of Spain’s citizens who died as a result of the coup and the actions that followed it was higher than the proportion of Germans who were killed by the Nazis within the borders of Germany. He was not trying to compare the killings in Spain to the Jewish Holocaust. The word exterminate was used in planning of the military coup and inquisition evoked the atmosphere of intolerance in Spain, going back to the Spanish Inquisition.

The Spanish Civil War started as a Spanish war but within a fortnight the involvement of Germany, Italy and the USSR meant that it became a European one, fought in Spain.

The progressive government of the Spanish Republic wanted to make major changes quickly to help those who had nothing and therefore made enemies. Conditions in the Spanish countryside were then equivalent to those in Africa now.

The Nationalists believed that they were fighting a Jewish-Bolshevik-Masonic conspiracy. Paul Preston pointed out that there were few Jews in Spain, the Spanish Communist Party had less than 20,000 members and there were less than 6,000 Freemasons in Spain, although the Spanish Army created a card file index of over 80,000 alleged Freemasons. The Nationalists made no distinction was made between Jews and Arabs.

The Spanish Civil War had elements of a colonial war. The Nationalists saw the working classes of the south as being similar to African colonial peoples and thought that Spain’s colonial army, the only effective part of the Spanish Army, was the appropriate body to deal with them.

Paul Preston argues that historians should be honest, demonstrating this via foot and end notes, but claims that the idea of them being entirely objective is ‘lunacy.’ A work of history will be a filter of the historian’s own ethical views. His sympathies are with those who had nothing and the progressive forces who were trying to help them.

Killings took place between Republican lines as well, but these could not have happened without the coup. The Nationalists had 40 years to hide their crimes and devoted a massive effort to investigate Republican crimes. There were monsters on both sides, for example the anarchists who travelled around in the ‘death’s head bus’ carrying out murders, but there were more on the Nationalist side.

The Republicans were accused of raping large numbers of nuns; a Church investigation showed that the total of nuns raped was 12. Just under 7,000 clergy were killed, just over 6,000 of whom were men. People who were perceived to support the Nationalists, such as army officers and priests, were killed behind Republican lines. The Church supported the great inequality that existed in Spain. Some will have killed priests for personal motives, including theft of church property. Clergy who helped the poor were generally not harmed.

Mass rape was used as a weapon by the Nationalists, who despised feminists and wanted to humiliate them. Spanish women had no property rights until the Republic was established in 1931. Silence on this subject has continued for decades because of the humiliation.

In recent years, a huge number of books have been published in Spain by local historians. Some are just lists of names, but these are often the only memorial to the dead. Silence was imposed on the survivors, and their children were brought up in silence. The grandchildren are now demanding to know the truth. To a large extent, Paul Preston’s book is gathering in the information discovered by these local historians.

Paul Preston is disbelieved by the Right because he’s a foreigner and because he is a friend of King Juan Carlos, something he finds amusing. Most people believe him because he’s a foreigner and thus uninvolved.

This was a very interesting talk, and I will be buying the book. A couple of warnings from Amazon reviews are that it is a harrowing read and that it assumes a fair degree of knowledge of the war and its political background. It is available in hardback and e-book editions. No doubt a paperback will follow, but the UK hardback edition was only published on 1 March 2012.

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