The Spanish Holocaust by Paul Preston

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usual suspect
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Apr 5 2012 23:53
The Spanish Holocaust by Paul Preston

Just got this book and it is intense. Truly a monumental effort at historical research. Stuart Christie calls it riveting, and will no doubt review it in greater depth soon.

The Spanish Holocaust by Paul Preston – review
This is a timely and invaluable look at Franco's legacy

Giles Tremlett, Friday 9 March 2012 04.00

In Madrid's supreme court one of the world's best-known human rights investigators, the Spanish magistrate Baltasar Garzón, has been on trial. Although he was found innocent of abusing his powers, the court still declared that he had been wrong to open an investigation into murderous repression in the Spain conquered, and then ruled by, dictator General Francisco Franco and his fascist-backed rebels.

The trial of Garzón at the behest of pro-Francoists and the Falange – which manned death squads during Spain's bloody civil war in the 1930s – is a reminder of Spain's thorny relationship with its past. Conservatives such as former prime minister José María Aznar want legislators and judges to leave the generalísimo and his cronies alone. "In the democratic transition there were implicit and explicit agreements. One was that we Spaniards don't want to look to the past," he says. "Let's not disturb the graves and hurl bones at one another. Let the historians do their job."

That is what Paul Preston, a leading British hispanicist and highly respected historian in Spain, has done in The Spanish Holocaust. The result is an essential read for anyone wishing to understand Spain and its recent history. It is also a damning indictment of Franco's deliberate and far-reaching brutality, which destroys the myth cherished by some Spaniards that he was a "soft" dictator.

One of the many remarkable things about this narrative of butchery is, indeed, how it proves Garzón's central accusation – that Franco enacted a ruthless plan involving the "detention, torture, forced disappearance and physical elimination of thousands of people for political and ideological motives … a state of affairs that continued, to greater or lesser extent, after the civil war ended".

Preston provides facts, figures and harrowing descriptions in the first full and proper attempt to explain the horror. He does not shy away from strong words – "holocaust" is deliberately chosen to describe the extent of cold-blooded killing "because its resonances with systematic murder should be evoked in the Spanish case, as they are in those of Germany or Russia". Nor does he ignore the undoubted cruelty and the crimes committed on the Republican side of a three-year civil war sparked by a 1936 military rightist uprising against an elected government. Two-thirds of the clergy in the Catalan province of Lleida were killed. A third of all monks in the Republican zone also died. That is extreme religious persecution.

It was a cowardly war where more people died away from the front than on the battlefield. The often casual nature of the violence makes numbers hard to pin down, but some 200,000 people were killed by death squads, vigilantes, village rivals or firing squads – perhaps a quarter in the Republican zone. The victor prolonged his revenge, liquidating 20,000 opponents after the war, and condemning hundreds of thousands to prison, exile, ostracism or poverty as Franco made a calculated investment in terror.

Preston establishes key differences between the two sides. Under Franco's command, terror was official policy. In Republican Spain, with some glaring exceptions, it was more often the result of chaos, fear, ignorant hatred, criminal thuggery and anarchy (often with a capital A, as unleashed by the church-hating Confederación Nacional del Trabajo). It was also usually – but not always – heavily curtailed once law, order and central authority were established.

Preston charts the prejudice that led Spain's reactionary right into this bloodletting. Decades of dictatorship, and the ensuing silence after Franco's 1975 death, have kept this out of Spanish minds. Only over the past decade, as campaigners have dug up mass graves, has a desire for knowledge burst through. As a result, Preston can turn to new local studies.

He sees two main drivers behind the slaughter. The first was the absolute, and often paranoid, conviction of radical rightists that the enemy was evil. Democrats, reds, Jews, freemasons, Marxists, Muslims, "free" women, trade unionists, socialists, socially concerned priests and social liberals were, simply because of their beliefs, considered to be guilty of crimes against the fatherland, God and the natural social order. Franco believed in an entirely imaginary "Jewish-masonic-Bolshevik" plot against Spain. The Falangist Onésimo Redondo thought "Mohammedan utopias" were also to blame.

A second driving force was the brutalisation of Spain's colonial army in Africa, where Franco had made his name. This army was used to fighting north African Muslims it viewed as sub-human. It was no great leap to see Spain's own politicised landless labourers as "Berbers and savages". That made it easy for Franco and generals such as Emilio Mola or Gonzalo Queipo de Llano to pursue not just victory, but annihilation. "It is necessary to spread terror, eliminating without scruples or hesitation all those who do not think as we do," said Mola. "All those who oppose the victory of the movement to save Spain will be shot."

An early taste came in Badajoz. Hundreds, if not thousands, of prisoners were machine-gunned to death in the city's bullring. Rightists came to watch and cheer. The brutality drove one Portuguese witness to madness. Nearly 10% of the city's population of 40,000 was killed following the seizure of the town. People far from the frontline were treated just as savagely. "Here there is no battlefield shooting or taking of prisoners, but instead the most bestial persecution and unjustified murders," wrote Miguel de Unamuno, the Spanish philosopher who had initially backed the rebellion, from the university city of Salamanca. "It is a stupid regime of terror."

Anarchist excesses on the Republican side – perpetrated by murderous outfits such as the Lynxes, the Death Brigade and the Dawn Squad – completed the vicious cycle. The horrors of Badajoz fed the "red terror" of Madrid (including the notorious killing of more than 2,000 prisoners at Paracuellos del Jarama), which then encouraged greater Francoist brutality.

Life became a cheap commodity. The casual way in which victims were put to death is revealed in the case of the poet Federico García Lorca and the humanist Agustina González Blanco. "We killed him for being a queer and her for being a whore," said one rightist. Franco's obsession with freemasons saw 100 people killed for belonging to a masonic lodge in Huesca which had only five members.

Rape, humiliation and sexual abuse of women was common. "They'll not live more than four hours," said a Francoist officer as two teenage girls deemed leftists were pushed into a schoolhouse with 40 soldiers.

By the end of the war more than 370,000 prisoners were being held. In Franco's upside-down world, defenders of the legitimate, elected government could be executed for "military rebellion". Laws were passed allowing for the trial of those who had held positions of responsibility in the two years before the uprising – for breaking laws that did not exist at the time. Even the dead could be fined and their widows forced to pay.

Preston follows the repression to the early 1950s. Others will have to provide the story of later Francoism, a period some conservatives recall as "extraordinarily placid" (as Aznar's former interior minister Jaime Mayor Oreja put it). Preston's excellent, spine-chilling narrative, however, explains just how deep Franco's early investment in terror was and, as a result, why he was able to draw on it for decades.

Franco had time to impose his own version of history, which still prevents contemporary Spain from "looking upon its recent violent past in an open and honest way", writes Preston. He is only too aware of the hysterical reaction to Garzon and those who break the taboo of interrogating the past. The fierce criticism of the truth-seekers is, he says, a long-term consequence of the brainwashing that turned many Spaniards into Francoists or, at least, adherents of what Spaniards call "sociological Francoism". "It lives on in the democratic Spain of today," Preston warns, just as "sociological communism exists in the countries of the old Soviet bloc." That is an uncomfortable thought for a country now facing its toughest period since the caudillo's death. But this is an invaluable book that does not shrink from even the harshest of truths.

The Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade offer their own review, much more critical of what they call the ultraleft:

Joined: 10-10-08
Apr 6 2012 08:21

I understood that there was a delay concerning it's release but have just ordered it from Amazon.

Django's picture
Joined: 18-01-08
Apr 6 2012 09:11

I like how the reviewer cites "anarchist excesses" as an aggravating factor of fascist atrocities then mentions a Communist-ordered massacre.

x359594's picture
Joined: 16-08-08
Jun 23 2012 23:22
usual suspect wrote:
The Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade offer their own review, much more critical of what they call the ultraleft

Paul Preston belongs to the ALBA listserve (as do I) and has polite debates with Stalinist apologist Grover Furr. Otherwise there's much good information.

Joined: 20-09-09
Apr 7 2012 07:18

Looking forward to reading this.

Joined: 11-02-07
Jun 22 2012 11:15

Stuart Christie defending Paul Preston against criticism of his book. From the Northern Voices site which has more discussion about it, mostly critical.

Stuart Christie wrote:

Some thoughts on the criticisms of The Spanish Holocaust
I certainly wouldn’t have responded to this review on the Stalinist-rump/Special Branch front that is the ‘Searchlight’ website (creating an atmosphere of trust within the anti-fascist movement indeed!), but as you have run with it on Indymedia UK I felt I should add my ha’penny worth to the discussion on Paul Preston’s excellent book ‘The Spanish Holocaust’.

As Nostromo says, some cenetistas and so-called ‘anarchists’ supported the Republican government wholeheartedly (at the expense of their so-called principles and flying in the face of the Confederation’s anti-statist, anti-capitalist and anti-party political and parliamentary ethos), others opposed governmental and party political alliances and pacts in the belief that the only way to defeat fascism was to pursue the social revolution. No argument there then; the question for anarchists should be how that process was de-stabilised. My personal belief is that it was derailed and destabilised precisely because of the actions and Machiavellian manoeuvres of these ‘strategically sophisticated pragmatists who were willing and able to pursue their ideals within the context of (relatively speaking) mainstream politics’.

As for the criticisms of Paul Preston’s new book ‘The Spanish Holocaust’ — that he somehow ‘toes the Popular Front party line’ and, as one person accused him of in the Middle Aged Working Class Anarchists Facebook page, ‘Preston trots out the same old slurs about anarchists (the incontrollables) doing all the killings of fascists in the republican zone that the commies and socialists were (falsely) claiming at the time . . .’ — I posted the following response:

Unfortunately, Lewis, what you refer to as Preston’s ‘slurs’ against the anarchists is true — at least to an extent — which is a theme explored in the third volume of Farquhar McHarg’s ‘Pistoleros!’. Membership of either the CNT or the FAI (or both) during the SCW (and subsequently) did not and does not automatically endow virtue; it did, however, sometimes — certainly in the period 1936-1939— provide protection and cover for criminals, lowlifes, and fascists caught in the Republican Zone. Additionally, the power it conferred on some militants (with previously impeccable records) soon exposed their essentially authoritarian – and, occasionally – psychopathic tendencies. Their behaviour during the SCW — and after, in exile – cannot or should not in any way be condoned or excused by the fact that they described themselves as anarchists or anarcho-syndicalists. I am referring here, specifically, to Dionisio Eroles y Battlle (CNT-FAI head of the Generalitat/Barcelona police and security service 1936-1937); Aurelio Fernández Sanchez (CNT-FAI head of the Control Patrols), Manuel Escorza del Val (CNT-FAI head of the CNT-FAI Intelligence and Security Service); Justo Bueno Pérez (one of del Val’s top hitmen); Felipe Sandoval (another assassin); Jaime Riera (FAI Investigation Service), to name but a few of the more prominent ones. These people and their acolytes didn’t just target fascists, they were the unquestioning creatures of both the Catalan Regional Committee of the CNT and the National Committee of the CNT in Madrid who were targeting for assassination their own so-called ‘uncontrollables’, i.e. militants such as Antonio Ortíz (leader of the second militia column out of Barcelona and later of the 25th Army Division) and Joaquín Ascaso (of the Council of Aragón), men and women who dared to challenge or question the collaborationist and anti-anarchist policies of the ‘prominent’ leaders of the CNT committees, particularly Mariano Rodríguez Vázquez and Federica Montseny, both of whom who bear ultimate responsibility for much of what happened on their watch.

Apart from provocateurs and plants such as Bernardino Alonso, the CNT-FAI head of the Republican Ministry of War’s ‘Special Services Counter-Intelligence Brigade, who was later exposed as a Soviet asset working for Alexander Orlov, there is also the largely unaddressed and sensitive question of the huge number of ‘false anarchists’ and false anarcho-syndicalists’, fascists and rightists who affiliated to the CNT and the FAI for protection after July 19 1936 after being unexpectedly caught in the Republican Zone. These included the famous ‘Fifth Columnists’. For example, a number of Melchior Rodríguez’s cabinet (MR – the ‘Red Angel’, an anarchist and a former bullfighter with an impeccable reputation who became Director General of Prisons during the SCW — and who saved the lives of thousands of fascist prisoners — and the last Republican Mayor of Madrid) turned out to be leading fascist fifth columnists, including his driver Rufo Rubio and his Chief of Services, Juan Batista.

Another small example is that of the Toledan village of Miguel Esteban in which, after the war, the Guardia Civil reported that membership of the local CNT unions ‘consisted mainly of right-wingers’ (elementos de derecha). Another indication that these were ‘false anarchists’ was the fact that after Franco’s victory they were neither arrested nor their property seized as happened with other Republicans. The village of Miguel Esteban wasn’t the only one in which fascists and rightists sought cover by affiliating to the CNT. Workers in the villages of La Mancha tended to be affiliated to the UGT, PSOE, PCE, FNTT or the FETT so it would have been easier for rightists to claim to have been harbouring CNT sympathies — if only to explain their previous lack of involvement in socialist or Communist Party activities.

As for Paul Preston’s so-called ‘toe-ing the Popular Front party line’, I certainly don’t believe that to be the case. He is a man of integrity — who tells it as he sees it — and an exceptionally meticulous and stimulating historian (whether one agrees with his analysis or not) who has dedicated his academic career and much of his personal life to exposing the brutal and vicious nature of Francoism, the Franco regime and its consequences. I should also add that it was Paul Preston who organised much of the funding for the publication, in English, of Peirats’s three volume ‘The CNT in the Spanish Revolution’. It was also Paul Preston who arranged the Spanish translation and publication of my own book, ‘We, the anarchists…’, into Spanish. Hardly the actions of someone who is obsessively ‘anti-anarchist’.

Joined: 17-02-09
Jun 22 2012 11:51

Many thanks for reposting that, Mark. Fascinating stuff.

plasmatelly's picture
Joined: 16-05-11
Jun 23 2012 14:05


This isn't a go at you, btw, you've done nowt wrong.

Sadly, Stuart Christie divulged part of what is essentially a discussion on a private Facebook page with possibly less than a couple of dozen members interested in the subject matter. I'm disappointed with re-reading without context or counter-argument a slice of what was being discussed on a not-for-public consumption basis. Although the discussion was cut short, taking snippets from private life and reproducing in this way is pretty low, imho.

Mr. Jolly's picture
Mr. Jolly
Joined: 28-04-11
Jun 23 2012 19:49


Joined: 13-10-05
Sep 24 2017 15:09

this is on my list, very informative links and opinions here

e2a sept. 2017: i read it, or as much as i could. iirc preston speaks of his difficulty in finishing the writing on account of the demented brutality he had to document. i believe it, the book is hard enough just to read.

Juan Conatz's picture
Juan Conatz
Joined: 29-04-08
Jun 23 2012 22:04
plasmatelly wrote:

This isn't a go at you, btw, you've done nowt wrong.

Sadly, Stuart Christie divulged part of what is essentially a discussion on a private Facebook page with possibly less than a couple of dozen members interested in the subject matter. I'm disappointed with re-reading without context or counter-argument a slice of what was being discussed on a not-for-public consumption basis. Although the discussion was cut short, taking snippets from private life and reproducing in this way is pretty low, imho.

Sorry, if its on Facebook, its public. Also, I didn't see any identifying info on anyone, so I don't see the problem.

x359594's picture
Joined: 16-08-08
Jun 23 2012 23:19
plasmatelly wrote:
...Stuart Christie divulged part of what is essentially a discussion on a private Facebook page...

In as much as Christie was quoting himself he has every right to make his utterances public (note that he did not divulge the identity of his interlocutor,) and as Juan wrote, Facebook is a public forum even if that particular group is closed.

Joined: 8-01-11
Sep 23 2017 22:51
Anarchist excesses on the Republican side – perpetrated by murderous outfits such as the Lynxes, the Death Brigade and the Dawn Squad – completed the vicious cycle.
Does anyone have any more information about this?