The Death Of The Greatest Humanist You Never Heard Of

By Luis Granados | 7 November 2010
God Experts

The future President of Spain was born outside of Madrid in 1880. After losing his parents at an early age, Manuel Azaña was packed off to be educated by the monks of the Escorial. He detested them. As an adult, he wrote a book called “The Garden of the Monks” about the anti-intellectual discipline he experienced there. (Credit: M.Peinado / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0 ES)

Winners write history books. That’s why Manuel Azaña, whose lonely death occurred exactly 70 years ago last Wednesday, is the greatest humanist you never heard of.

The future President of Spain was born outside of Madrid in 1880. After losing his parents at an early age, Azaña was packed off to be educated by the monks of the Escorial. He detested them. As an adult, he wrote a book called The Garden of the Monks about the anti-intellectual discipline he experienced there. “We learned to refute Kant with five points, and Hegel, and Comte, and so many more. We used to oppose the erroneous assaults with good objections: (1) It is contrary to the teachings of the Church; (2) it leads straight to pantheism; and (3) other puncture-proof reasons.” Reducing the supernatural to a series of canned platitudes turned him off: “I have dreamed of destroying all this world,” he wrote.

He launched his career as a writer by mocking the Church’s obsession with relics in a short story about the medieval Spanish hero El Cid. Bones said to be those of El Cid are examined by a doctor and determined to be those of a horse; the archbishop, unconvinced, concludes instead that El Cid must have been a giant.

Azaña didn’t hate Catholics – he married one, and he and his devout wife respected the other’s views throughout their years together. As his writing turned more toward politics, though, he found religion contrary to the necessary virtues of a responsible citizenry: “Pure faith is unsociable; it is not useful in the republic, whose sovereignty it neither strengthens nor defends.” Catholicism, in which people owe a loyalty to the Pope superseding what they owe the state, was especially problematic.

Azaña’s Spain was overwhelmingly Catholic, a fact that can be traced back to the Inquisition established in the 15th century. Though the Inquisition’s 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 weakening of the political power of the Catholic Church that occurred in places like England and Germany never happened in Spain. By the dawn of the 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 between Catholics and humanists persisted through most of the 19th century. Meanwhile, Spain continued to stagnate, ultimately losing the last of its overseas possessions to America in 1898. By 1931, the jig was up; the king decided to abdicate, and Spain belatedly joined the rest of Europe in allowing its people to decide how they wished to be governed.

The people’s overwhelming choice, at the first elections in 1931, was to end the tyranny of the Catholic Church. A coalition led by Manuel Azaña’s Republican Action Party swept to power, committed to ending taxpayer subsidies for the Church and breaking the Church’s stranglehold on education. Azaña became Prime Minister, and the principal drafter of a new constitution for the new Republic.

The constitution Azaña helped produce pointedly refused to recognize Catholicism as the official religion of the state. On the contrary, it infuriated the Church by its explicit toleration of all varieties of religious belief. 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. As Azaña put it on the floor of the Cortes: “Spain has ceased to be Catholic.”

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

The Church did not take Azaña’s victory lying down. Only two weeks after the 1931 election, the Catholic primate 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.

Politics being what it is, the liberal and secularist parties that took control in 1931 squabbled among themselves once in power. In the 1933 elections they were defeated by a right-wing combine, subsidized by Benito 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 humanist side reunited. Once again it 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 shrewdly gave up on the ballot box. Left to their own devices, Spaniards would never support continued control by God experts. A few months later General Francisco Franco, the recently demoted Army chief of staff, launched an armed rebellion against the people’s choice. Franco claimed to be fighting against Communism; in fact, Azaña had excluded all Communists and even Socialists from his government, even though they had contributed to his coalition’s success.

Ironically, Azaña had devoted much of his energy during his first term in office to modernizing and strengthening the army, and that new-found efficiency was now being used against him. With most of the army on his side, Franco could have swept into power quickly. But speed was not Franco’s intent. He sought not a coup, but a permanent revolution, in which the forces of humanism 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 terrorism must play in the Catholic 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.”

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.” Franco got support from four main sources: the Catholic Church, Spanish conservatives, the German, Italian and Portuguese fascist governments, and big business in the US and elsewhere. (Credit: Dreamstime)

General Queipo de Llano spread his own brand of terrorism 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.”

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 Azaña’s elected government as “the enemies of God and Spain.”

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.

Most national leaders throughout history, confronted by the kind of revolt Azaña faced, would have assumed dictatorial powers until the emergency had ended. Even Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus at the outbreak of the American Civil War, and arrested members of the Maryland legislature to prevent them from voting for secession. Dictatorship was utterly antithetical to everything Manuel Azaña stood for, though, and he never gave it a second thought. His refusal to destroy his Constitution in order to save it resulted in anarchic conditions when the bulk of the army and police force deserted, allowing uncontrollable vigilantes to do their worst.

They were not encouraged or condoned by President Azaña; on the contrary, he did all he could to maintain order, not only because it was the right thing to do but for the selfish reason of his 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 you have no trained army or police, and when the people in a local community convince themselves – often correctly – that a particular priest is aiding the rebels against the majority and nobody in authority is doing anything about it.

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 perpetrated by the Catholic rebel armies. Their best estimates put the civilian body count in the 180,000 range, many 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 that over 200 executions were being carried out daily in Madrid in the summer of 1939, 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. Another 400,000 backers of the elected government were consigned to concentration camps to perform slave labor.

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Yet another 400,000 Franco opponents, including Manuel Azaña, were driven into exile. Unfortunately for them, the most logical refuge was neighboring France. A year later the Nazis, emboldened by their success in Spain, invaded France as well; Azaña died of a broken spirit while hiding from the Gestapo, on November 3, 1940.

Why did a government that enjoyed majority support lose the war? The simple reason is that it was outgunned. Franco’s rebels received massive aid from Hitler and Mussolini. 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 Catholic Church.

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. 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 Texaco, 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 was prevented from shipping planes and parts that had already been purchased by the Spanish government.

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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.”

As the aid from Mussolini and Hitler poured in, Spain turned to the Soviet Union as the only country that would sell it arms, strengthening the hands of the trade union Communists who took the lead in establishing militias to fight Franco. Azaña, a proud bourgeois who had no use for communism, tried to position himself above the fray, as a national unifier who could heal wounds if only the two sides would agree to a ceasefire. If there was one thing Azaña cared about more than democracy, it was Spain itself; watching the nation he cherished be destroyed before his eyes broke his spirit. He devoted most of his energy during the war years to diplomacy, rather than egging on his hastily assembled forces to fight to the death. In hindsight, this seems Pollyannaish, and both sides scapegoated him for “cowardice” after the war. But if America and the other democracies had abandoned appeasement only a few months earlier than they ultimately did, Azaña might well have succeeded in his quest to save Spanish democracy without destroying it. (Today we have no Nazis to appease, but radical Islamists; we let the humanists in Muslim-majority countries fend for themselves.)

By late 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. Insulting or ridiculing a Catholic priest was made a crime, as part of the penal code section outlawing sedition. In return, the Vatican pledged every Spanish priest to say a special prayer for General Franco every day.

Forget Azaña’s literary wit, his personal courage, his unswerving loyalty to the vision of the tolerant society that Spain finally became after Franco’s death, his leadership of one of the few truly non-violent democratic revolutions in our planet’s history. Is not the man who said “Liberty does not make men happy; it makes them men” worth remembering for that alone?

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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