Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Franco's Process of Extermination

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Franco's Process of Extermination

Article excerpt

In Paul Preston's history of the Spanish Civil War, the atrocities under Franco mirror those in Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany.

The Spanish Holocaust. Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth- Century Spain. By Paul Preston. Illustrated. 700 pages. W.W. Norton & Company, $35; HarperPress, Pounds 30.

In "Homage to Catalonia," his memoir of the Spanish Civil War, George Orwell remarks that Francisco Franco's military uprising against Spain's elected government "was an attempt not so much to impose fascism as to restore feudalism." Paul Preston's magisterial account of the bloodshed of that era bears this out.

Fascism may belong to the 20th century, but Franco's grab for power evokes earlier times: The parading soldiers who flourished enemy ears and noses on their bayonets, the mass executions carried out in bullrings or with band music and onlookers dancing in the victims' blood. One of Franco's top aides talked of democratically chosen politicians as "cloven-hoofed beasts," and anything that smacked of modernity -- Rotary Clubs, Montessori schools -- seemed to draw the regime's wrath. Echoing the Inquisition, Franco ordered particularly despised foes put to death with the garrote, in which the executioner tightens an iron collar around a person's neck.

There is also something medieval in the fierce class divisions of 1930s Spain, with its great latifundistas, whose estates were worked by landless peasants so hungry they stole acorns from pigs' troughs. Mr. Preston describes the "near racist" loathing Franco's officials had for the lower classes; one contemptuously referred to unionized farmworkers as being like "Rif tribesmen." Indeed, Franco's leading commanders were mostly, like him, Africanistas, veterans of Spain's bloody colonial wars in North Africa. As a young man, the generalissimo himself led troops on a raid that brought back the severed heads of 12 Moroccan tribesmen.

With Hitler and Mussolini supplying weapons to Franco, and the Soviet Union supplying the embattled Spanish Republic, the death toll of the 1936-39 war was enormous. About 200,000 soldiers died in battle and a large but unknown number of civilians were killed by Franco's bombing of cities and of vast columns of refugees. But Mr. Preston's subject is something else: the approximately 200,000 men and women deliberately executed during the war, the 20,000 supporters of the Republic shot after it ended, and the additional tens of thousands of civilians and refugees who died in concentration camps and prisons.

A prolific British historian of modern Spain, Mr. Preston says this was "an extremely painful book to write." It is also, unlike several of his other works, a difficult book to read. The newcomer to Spanish history will nowhere learn the difference between the Assault Guard and the Civil Guard, or between a Carlist and an integrist. Chapters roll on for 40 or 50 pages without a break. A blizzard of names of thousands of perpetrators and the towns where they carried out their tortures and killings overwhelms the reader.

"The Spanish Holocaust" is not really a narrative but a comprehensive prosecutor's brief. With its immense documentation -- 120 pages of endnotes to both published and unpublished material in at least five languages, including corrections of errors in these sources -- it is bound to be an essential reference for anything written on the subject for years to come.

In quashing democracy and timid agricultural reform, and in restoring the traditional hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, the army, big landowners and an authoritarian state, the Spanish version of fascism was very much a fundamentalist movement. And like so many political and religious fundamentalisms, it had a particular ferocity toward women.

Franco's troops practiced gang rape to frighten newly captured towns into submission, and until media-savvy superiors silenced them, his officers even boasted about this to American and British correspondents. …

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