Timothy Snyder: Review of Paul Preston's "The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisiton and Extermination in Twentieth-Century Spain"

Roundup: Books

Timothy Snyder is Housum Professor of History at Yale University and the author of the award-winning Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (Basic Books).

The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth-Century Spain
By Paul Preston
(W.W. Norton, 700 pp., $35) 

The young Jesuit was an idealist. A slim and bespectacled student of philosophy, Father Fernando Huidobro Polanco dreamed of the redemption of Spain from the evils of its secular, redistributive Republic. A supporter of the military coup by nationalist generals in July 1936, he discounted stories of mass murder of Spanish civilians by the rebels. But knowing that war tries the conscience, he nevertheless wanted to offer pastoral care to the rebel soldiers. When he arrived on the battlefield as a Roman Catholic chaplain that September, he was confronted by two surprising realities. First, many of the soldiers fighting under the banner of Spanish nationalism against the Republic were Muslims, mercenaries from Spanish Morocco. Second, Christian soldiers were little interested in the application of ethics to their deeds. Father Fernando quickly realized that he had been wrong about the honorable behavior of the rebels. The war that he saw, as he courageously wrote to the rebel commander General Francisco Franco, was “without prisoners or wounded,” because they were murdered by nationalist soldiers, along with civilians seen as supporters of the Republic. In April 1937, as Paul Preston records in this breathtaking history, Father Fernando was shot in the back by his own men.

This is but one of the two hundred thousand or so murders of the Spanish Civil War, many of which Preston records at this or greater level of detail. His book is macro-history by way of micro-history, assembling local stories into an overwhelming panorama of a tortured Spain. Reading this study is like running your palms along the walls of the Toledo Cathedral on a dark night, slowly acquiring painful impressions until a sense of dark structure emerges. You have the sense, though Preston never quite raises the issue directly, that something must have been amiss in the Roman Catholic Church. Somewhere beneath his account of sins by Roman Catholics against Roman Catholics, underground like the remains of a mosque beneath an Iberian cathedral, is a further history of colonized Muslims.

What Preston knows about the years of civil war, 1936–1939, is astounding, bespeaking his own formidable record as a historian of twentieth-century Spain, but also the work of Spanish historians who are restoring knowledge of a period that had been protected by a double taboo. After Franco’s victory and the destruction of the Republic in 1939, his dictatorship taught its own self-justifying history for two generations; and after his death in 1975 and the general amnesty of 1977, a consensus prevailed in newly democratic Spain that it was best to delay a historical reckoning until democracy seemed solidly rooted. But that moment finally arrived, and Preston’s work is a powerful intervention in a Spanish discussion. Its significance transcends the events it brings to light, and suggests some basic re-evaluations of recent European history (if not the one suggested by its title)....

THE HISTORY invites reconsiderations of the European twentieth century. It is hard to overlook the resemblance between the German terrorbombing of Guernica in 1937 and the German terror-bombing of Polish cities, beginning with Weilun´ in 1939. The three basic purposes of Franco’s political terrorism are identical to those of the Germans during the invasion of Poland, which followed the end of the Spanish Civil War by less than six months: the murder of elites who might resist, the intimidation of a population expected to be hostile, and the preparation for a dictatorship to come. For that matter, Franco’s pacification was also similar to the methods the Soviets used when they invaded Poland in 1939. By this time Stalin had reversed course again, accepting an invitation from Hitler to destroy Poland together. That Franco, Hitler, and Stalin all undertook quite similar policies designed to destroy physically an entire political elite in 1939 suggests not only the cruelty of the late 1930s, but also a broader trend in twentieth-century European history.

All three regimes, for all their significant ideological differences, were examples of the arrival of neocolonial practices to Europe itself. The Soviets self-colonized (Stalin’s expression) by collectivizing agriculture in order to build industry; the Germans wanted to colonize eastern Europe to build an agrarian paradise for the Aryan masters; Franco brought colonial troops from Africa in order to restore a traditional agrarian order and oppress an orientalized peasantry. All three of these approaches were ideological alternatives to land reform under democratic conditions, which by and large had failed; all three were economic responses to the Great Depression, which seemed to signal the end of capitalism as such; and all three were political schemes of agrarian domination in a Europe where maritime expansion and thus traditional colonialism no longer seemed possible. In other words, if one brings the history of self-colonizing violence in western Europe (Spain) together with that of central Europe (Germany) and eastern Europe (the USSR), a new model for the twentieth century presents itself. The major theme of European history shifts from colonization to self-colonization by the 1930s. Then, after the disaster of World War II (western Europe) or the demise of communism (eastern Europe), it shifts again from self-colonization to integration—where integration means, precisely, the abandonment of colonial practices both within and without Europe....

comments powered by Disqus