Fighting over the Fight in Spain: The Pro-Franco Campaign of Bishop Peter Amigo of Southwark

Article excerpt

For several decades historians, literary scholars, and others have investigated a relatively wide spectrum of British responses to and involvement in the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939. A cross-section of their production illustrates the breadth of that topic. Valentine Cunningham, among others, has examined how numerous English littérateurs treated the war.1 P. M. Heaton has chronicled Welsh efforts to break blockades of wartime shipping to Spain.2 Bill Alexander has told the story of British military volunteers in that country.3 Anthony Aldgate has probed the shaping of the visual image of the Spanish Civil War in British newsreels.4 Tom Buchanan has treated meticulously the contours of Labour's responses to the war.5 Jill Edwards has analyzed the British policy of non-intervention.6 Frederick Hale has explored the efforts of the eminent Jesuit editor Joseph Keating to rally British Catholics for the support of Francisco Franco7 and how the erstwhile pacifist Michael de la Bédoyère, editor of The Catholic Herald, underwent a fundamental change of mind from neutrality to enthusiastic advocacy of the Nationalist insurrection.8 Many of the findings of their research have been synthesized in Buchanan's highly useful Britain and the Spanish Civil War.9

To be sure, the pertinent scholarship has progressed on an uneven front, as one must expect which considering a broad phenomenon which entailed many kinds of responses. While certain aspects have thus been brightly illuminated, others remain tenebrous. Among the latter, Buchanan has identified those dealing with religion as "the leastresearched aspect of the British response to the Civil War."10 Largely overlooked in published scholarship is the crucial campaign of one of England's best-known Catholics during the 1930's, Bishop Peter Amigo of the Diocese of Southwark, to sway popular and denominational opinion in favor of the Nationalist cause and the conflicts which his endeavors in this regard engendered. It is my purpose in the present article to examine in its historical context this eminent churchman's response to the war and how it stimulated both public conflicts and private hostility involving fellow Catholics and Britons of other faiths. Part of the significance of such an investigation obviously lies in the light it sheds on ecclesiastical and popular attitudes toward the war, which at the time was widely perceived in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in Europe as a kairotic moment, the crux of an international crisis for Christianity and Western civilization generally. It also further illuminates such matters as popular anti-Catholic sentiments, the relationship between members of the Labour Party and Catholicism in England (where a considerable number of Labour Party members, especially those of Irish descent, were Catholics), fear of the bugbear of international communism, and related matters. To be sure, any attempt to gauge the magnitude of the Amigo controversy and the impact he made on his co-religionists must be impressionistic. The British Institute of Public Opinion did not begin to measure attitudes toward the Spanish Civil War until 1938, and its findings did not distinguish Catholics from other people in the United Kingdom. Nevertheless, when viewed in historical context, the controversial efforts of this prominent bishop to align his denominational fellows behind the Nationalist cause make manifest the centrality of the factors just listed in the debate of the late 1930's over the perceived crisis in which Catholicism found itself as its future seemed to hang in the balance and Europe slid toward the bloodiest war in the history of the world.

A consideration of Amigo's strident position on the Spanish Civil War, especially in 1936, also directly addresses a pivotal historiographical issue which lies at the juncture of religious, political, and military history. Professor Paul Preston's magisterial 1993 biography of Francisco Franco represents a major contribution to the historiography of modern Spain and a minor addition to scholarly enquiry into AngloSpanish relations. …


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