The Secular Holocaust

By Luis Granados | 29 March 2009
God Experts

Spain, though a Catholic nation by tradition, had rebelled against the Catholic Church repeatedly beginning in the 19th century. Rather than taking a Protestant Christian turn, this rebellion was largely secular. (Credit: Dreamstime)

Today is the 70th anniversary of the end of the Spanish Civil War. People committed to secular values should understand that this was not just a war between competing Spanish politicians, but a war between the Enlightenment and Christian theocracy. A war we lost. A war whose lessons we must never forget.

The roots of the Spanish Civil War trace back to the 15th century, when the Spanish Inquisition was established. Though its original purpose was to crack down on Spain’s Jews, it proved ideally suited for crushing the outbreak of the Protestant Reformation as well. Hundreds of thousands passed through its torture chambers; as a result, the breakdown of the overwhelming economic and political power of the Catholic Church that occurred in places like England and Germany never happened in Spain, and by the dawn of 19th century the Spanish Church remained every bit as overbearing as it had been 500 years earlier.

This left Spain so out of step with the rest of Europe – and so economically backwards – that a low-level armed conflict, known as the Carlist Wars, persisted through most of the 19th century. On its surface, the Carlist Wars involved competing claimants to the Spanish throne (more than one of them named Carlos, to make things especially confusing). But the competitors had sharply different views about the proper role of the Church in Spanish society, and the Church consistently favored one faction over the other.

Except for a brief interlude in the 1870s, the pro-Church faction remained ascendant, and Spain continued to stagnate, ultimately losing the last of its overseas possessions to the Americans in 1898. By 1931, the jig was up; the king decided to abdicate, and Spain belatedly joined the rest of Europe in allowing the people to decide how they wanted to be governed.

The people’s overwhelming choice, at the first elections in 1931, was to end the tyranny of the Catholic Church. Parties committed to ending taxpayer subsidies to the Church and breaking the Church’s stranglehold on education took control of the new parliament.

A constitution was adopted that pointedly refused to recognize Catholicism as the official religion of the state. It infuriated the Church through its explicit toleration of all varieties of religious belief. As the new prime minister, Manuel Azaña, put it: “Spain has ceased to be Catholic.” Control over marriage, cemeteries, and education was transferred from the Church to the civil government, and Church doctrine was further violated by allowing women full rights of citizenship, including the right to divorce.

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Only five years earlier, the Church had been strong enough to induce the government to imprison a woman for saying that the Virgin Mary had other children after the birth of Jesus. Those days were over.

The Church did not take all this lying down. Two weeks after the parliamentary election, the primate of Spain was already condemning the triumph of “the enemies of the Kingdom of Jesus Christ.” The Catholic press began trumpeting the success of the Fascists in Italy and the Nazis in Germany as models for Spain to follow.

The Catholic politician Gil Robles, after returning from a Nazi rally at Nuremberg, proclaimed that “We must reconquer Spain … We must give Spain a true unity, a new spirit, a totalitarian polity … We must found a new state, purge the fatherland of Judaizing Freemasons. … What does it matter if we have to shed blood! … We need full power and that is what we demand … To realize this ideal we are not going to waste time with archaic forms. … When the time comes, either parliament submits or we will eliminate it.”

Politics being what it is, the coalition of liberal and secularist parties that took control in 1931 squabbled among themselves once in power, and in the 1933 elections they were defeated by a right-wing combine, subsidized by Mussolini, that sought to follow in his footsteps. This was not at all what most Spaniards wanted. In October, 1935, Azaña told the largest crowd that had ever assembled in Spain:

All Europe today is a battlefield between democracy and its enemies, and Spain is not an exception. You must choose between democracy, with all its shortcomings, with all its faults, with all its mistakes or errors, and tyranny with all its horrors. … In Spain one hears frivolous and vain talk of dictatorship. We find it repugnant not only by doctrine, but by experience and through good sense … Dictatorship is a consequence or political manifestation of intolerance; its propellant is fanaticism; and its means of action, physical violence. Dictatorship leads to war … it stupefies peoples and drives them mad.

When the next elections were held in February, 1936, the secular side reunited, and once again scored a decisive victory, despite the Church’s circulation of a catechism declaring it to be a mortal sin to vote for any candidate who supported freedom of religion, the press, or education.

After this defeat, the Catholic side understood that it could not succeed through the ballot box. Left to their own devices, Spaniards would never support continued control by self-appointed God experts. Great Fascist-style rallies were held at which Gil Robles was hailed with the cry “¡Jefe! ¡Jefe! ¡Jefe!” (the Spanish equivalent of “Führer”) in the hope that he might start a “March on Madrid” to seize power. But it was not a politician who ultimately acted. It was General Francisco Franco, the recently demoted Army chief of staff, who launched a rebellion in July, 1936.

Most of the army quickly joined Franco’s revolt, but there was a problem. The bulk of Franco’s forces were in Spanish Morocco, and could not easily cross back to Spain because sailors of the Spanish navy remained loyal to the elected government. The solution was an airlift provided by Mussolini, who intervened on Franco’s side from the very start. Ultimately, some 100,000 Italian troops fought in the war. Hitler soon jumped in as well, with the Luftwaffe perfecting at Guernica the saturation bombing techniques that were to prove so effective during World War II.

With most of the army on his side, Franco could have swept into power quickly. But that was not his intent. He sought not a coup, but a permanent revolution, in which the forces of secularism would be crippled beyond hope of recovery. As he wrote to a friendly diplomat: “I will occupy Spain town by town, village by village, railway by railway … Nothing will make me abandon this gradual program. It will bring me less glory but greater internal peace. That being the case, this civil war could still last another year, two, perhaps three. Dear ambassador, I can assure you that I am not interested in territory but in inhabitants. The reconquest of the territory is the means, the redemption of the inhabitants the end. I cannot shorten the war by even one day … It could even be dangerous for me to reach Madrid with a stylish military operation. I will take the capital not an hour before it is necessary: first I must have the certainty of being able to found a regime.”

One of Franco’s colleagues, General Mola, spoke of the important role terror must play in the campaign: “It is necessary to spread terror. We have to create the impression of mastery, eliminating without scruples or hesitation all those who do not think as we do. There can be no cowardice. If we vacillate one moment and fail to proceed with the greatest determination, we will not win.”

General Queipo de Llano spread his own brand of terror on radio broadcasts: “Our brave Legionaries … have shown the Red cowards what it means to be a man. And, incidentally, the wives of the Reds, too. These Communist and Anarchist women, after all, have made themselves fair game by their doctrine of free love. And now they have at least made the acquaintance of real men, and not milksops of militiamen. Kicking their legs about and struggling won’t save them.”

The Church backed Franco’s revolt with every fiber of its being. The Cardinal of Toledo and Primate of Spain called it a “clash of civilization with barbarism, of the inferno against Christ,” and condemned the “Jews and the Freemasons who poisoned the nation’s soul with absurd doctrines, Tartar and Mongol tales dressed up as a political and social system in the dark societies controlled by the Semite International.”

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The Archbishop of Zaragoza said: “This violence is carried out not in the service of anarchy but legitimately for the benefit of order, the Fatherland and Religion,” while the Bishop of Pamplona denounced the government as “the enemies of God and Spain.”

The Jesuit provincial of Leon reported to Rome that “Catholics see this war as a veritable religious crusade against atheism, and regard it as totally inevitable. Either it is won or Catholicism will disappear from Spain.” The Bishop of Salamanca issued a pastoral letter declaring that “On the soil of Spain a bloody conflict is being waged between two conceptions of life, two forces preparing for universal conflict in every country of the earth … [the war] takes the external form of a civil war, but in reality it is a Crusade.”

When the southern village of Rociana was taken by the rebels two weeks into the revolt, the parish priest made a speech from the balcony of the town hall: “You all no doubt believe that, because I am a priest, I have come with words of forgiveness and repentance. Not at all. War against all of them until the last trace has been eliminated!” Over the next three months, 60 villagers were shot; not enough to satisfy the priest, though, who filed an official complaint that the repression had been too lenient.

As wars go, the Spanish Civil War ranked high on the barbarism scale. Atrocities were committed on both sides – lots of them. But that does not mean that both sides were equally to blame. When an adult encounters a fight between children, the natural tendency is to have no patience in listening to whether Billy took Johnny’s candy, or who hit whom first. But sometimes Billy really is in the wrong, and Johnny’s reaction is entirely justified. The adult who fails to recognize that deservedly loses Johnny’s respect. The greatest discrimination sometimes lies in treating different things the same.

The bulk of the atrocities on the secular side were committed by out-of-control vigilantes. They were not encouraged or condoned by the elected government; on the contrary, the elected government devoted great energy to the attempt to maintain order, not only because it was the right thing to do but for the selfish reason of its life-or-death quest for support from the other western democracies. Every time a church was burnt or a priest was shot the hope for that support diminished. Maintaining control is not an easy task, though, when most of your army and police force defects overnight, and when the people in a local community convince themselves – often correctly – that a particular priest is actively aiding the rebels against the majority and nobody in authority is doing anything about it.

By contrast, the Catholic rebels had a conscious policy, from the top down, of using the war to exterminate secularists and secular values from Spain. For example, after the capture of the town of Badajoz, an American journalist reported on the roundup of those who had fought to defend the city: “At four o’clock in the morning they are turned out into the ring through the gate by which the initial parade of the bullfight enters. There machine guns await them. After the first night the blood was supposed to be palm deep on the far side of the lane. I don’t doubt it. Eighteen hundred men – there were women, too – were mowed down there in some twelve hours. There is more blood than you would think in 1800 bodies.”

A Jesuit wrote glowingly of Franco’s minions: “With the breath of God’s vengeance on the blades of their machetes, they pursue, they destroy, they kill … and intoxicated with blood, the column moves on.”

Aside from the authorization for the killings, there is the sheer quantity. Winners write history books, and the winning Catholics never tired of mourning the 50,000 civilians killed by government supporters during the war, including nearly 7,000 members of the clergy. Since the death of Franco in 1975, though, local historians throughout Spain have explored the previously taboo subject of the killings and torture committed by the Catholic rebel armies. Their best estimates put the civilian body count in the 180,000 range, executed for crimes such as owning a radio or reading the wrong newspaper.

That’s just during the war. After the end of the war, Count Ciano reported to Mussolini in the summer of 1939 that over 200 executions were being carried out daily in Madrid, 150 in Barcelona, and 80 in Seville. The American in charge of the Spanish bureau of the Associated Press estimated that half a million supporters of the government were executed by the Franco regime after the war.

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Another 400,000 backers of the elected government were consigned to concentration camps to perform slave labor. There Major Antonio Vallejo-Najera, head of the Army’s Psychiatric Services branch, carried out experiments on women prisoners in search of the “red gene” which caused them to be so obstinate; the high command was so delighted with his scientific research they promoted him to colonel. Ironically, 20,000 of these slave laborers were forced to construct the massive Valle de los Caidos monument to the rebel war dead. Not a memorial for all who died in the Civil War, as we have in America at Gettysburg and elsewhere, but strictly for those who died to re-establish Catholic supremacy.

Yet another 400,000 Franco opponents, including President Manuel Azaña, were driven into exile. Unfortunately for them, the most logical place to flee was neighboring France. A year later the Nazis, emboldened by their success in Spain, invaded France as well; Azaña, and countless others, died while trying to hide from the Gestapo.

Why did a government that enjoyed the support of a majority of the population lose the war? The simple reason is that it was outgunned. Franco’s rebels received massive aid from Hitler and Mussolini, who contributed over 100,000 troops. But the western democracies, including America, would not even sell weapons to the legitimate Spanish government. This was part of the larger strategy of appeasement; it is no coincidence that the Spanish war ended two weeks after Hitler consolidated his control over Czechoslovakia. To a larger extent, though, western democracies refused to help Spain because of the political influence of the international Catholic Church.

Throughout the world, Catholics rallied to the Franco cause. German bishops issued a pastoral letter in the first weeks of the rebellion to endorse Hitler’s support for Franco. The Vatican effectively recognized Franco in 1937, and throughout France, England, and America the Catholic press branded the elected government as the bloody executioner of priests and nuns, a campaign aided immeasurably by the Pope’s decision to proclaim all of them holy martyrs without further ado. An English cardinal wrote to Franco: “I look upon you as the great defender of the true Spain, the country of Catholic principles where Catholic social justice and charity will be applied for the common good under a firm peace-loving government.”

In the United States, Franco’s Catholic champion was Father Charles Coughlin, the powerful “Radio Priest” whose pro-Fascist broadcasts had to be silenced during World War II. In 1936, though, Franklin Roosevelt had no stomach for a fight with Father Coughlin, or for that matter with Joseph Kennedy, his pro-Franco Catholic ambassador to England. Roosevelt announced a “moral embargo” on arms sales to both sides, elevating the military rebels to the same moral plane as the democratically elected government. Enforcement was selective; the pro-Nazi President of the Texaco oil company, Thorkild Rieber, received a slap on the wrist fine for supplying the rebels with millions of dollars of oil on credit, while the Martin Aircraft Corporation of Baltimore was prevented from shipping planes and parts that had already been purchased by the Spanish government.

Harold Ickes wrote in his diary: “He [Roosevelt] said frankly that to raise the embargo would mean the loss of every Catholic vote next fall. . . . This proves up to the hilt what so many people have been saying, namely, that the Catholic minorities in Great Britain and America have been dictating the international policy with respect to Spain.”

By 1939, Roosevelt admitted to his Spanish ambassador that “We have made a mistake; you have been right all along.” But it was too late. On April 1 of that year, Pope Pius XII telegraphed Franco : “Lifting up our hearts to the Lord, we give sincere thanks with Your Excellency for Spain’s desired Catholic victory. We express our hope that your most beloved country, with peace attained, may undertake with new vigor the ancient Christian traditions which made her great.”

His hopes were more than fulfilled. Massive state subsidies to the Church were reinstated, and its status was re-elevated to its 16th century glory. If a high clergyman was accused of a crime – even murder – he could not be summoned before a Spanish court as a defendant without the Pope’s special permission. A priest could not even be summoned by a magistrate as a witness in a criminal case without permission of his bishop. Insulting or ridiculing a Catholic priest or Catholic ceremony was made a civil crime, as part of the penal code section outlawing sedition. In return, a Concordat with the Vatican pledged every Spanish priest to say a special prayer for General Franco every day.

The most significant effect, though, was the absolute control the Church was given over the education of Spanish youth. A primary school history book, for example, instructed teachers when dealing with the Moorish conquest to: “Dwell on the treason of the Jews and the negligence of the governing Christians – both dangers remain always in the life of the fatherland. Provoke repugnance in the heart of the children toward the vileness of the traitors and have the children write and learn the following phrase: ‘The Moors overpowered Spain because they were helped by the Jews and traitors.’” Another chapter, called “The Jews Kill a Child,” describes the Jewish ritual crucifixion of Santo Domingo de Val for refusing to surrender his crucifix.

Another text used throughout the Spanish school system called Darwinism “a ridiculous and absurd system,” and offered a brief Q&A on secular values: “Is it true that Man may choose the religion which pleases him best? No, because he must profess the Catholic apostolic Roman religion, which is the only true one. … Must not the government protect all the opinions of its subjects? Yes, sir. But always provided that these opinions are not condemned by the Church.” Spain became the only country in the world in which every book on the Vatican’s “Index of Prohibited Books” was officially banned by the government – including, for example, dangerous works like the King James Bible.

Jews do a good job of remembering their Holocaust. Secularists do not. Today the chief threat to secular values lies not with the Catholic Church (though it should never be counted out), but with militant Islam. Secularist Dutch politicians are murdered, and when other Dutch politicians raise their voice against this outrage, they are banned from places like England out of fear of offending the sensibilities of a religious minority. The United Nations Human Rights Council passes a resolution to ban “defamation” of religion. Sound familiar? The world is not on an inexorable march toward civilized freedom. The Spanish Civil War shows how things can get worse, rather than better, when we drop our guard. We must never forget.

Luis Granados is the director of Humanist Press, the publishing house of the American Humanist Association, and the author of Damned Good Company: Twenty Rebels Who Bucked the God Experts. He writes the Rules Are for Schmucks column for

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  1. Let the barbarous west – which produced Hitler, Franco and centuries of catholic obscenity – get the hell out of other people's countries. End global state terror. Otherwise we have no standing to criticize the retail violence of los de abajo.

  2. The democratic government would never have had to appeal to Russia for help in defending itself if the other democracies had done it. They failed because they bought fascist propaganda.


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