Paul Preston, The Spanish Holocaust, review

A draft of my review of this important new book, published this month in the Journal of Genocide Research, 15, 2, 2013.

Paul Preston, The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth-Century Spain. New York: Harper, 2012.

What happened in Spain in the 1930s has hardly been reckoned with in that country even eight decades afterwards. However, it is also underestimated in prevailing Western scholarly understandings of twentieth-century history, which tend to see the Spanish events as a tragic prelude to the main global struggle that broke out in 1939, just after Francisco Franco’s Nationalists had consolidated their seizure of power. It is particularly neglected in genocide studies, which tend to depict genocide in the 1948 Convention’s terms as an attack on ethnic, national, racial and religious groups, and hardly recognize the genocidal character of attacks on politically and class-defined populations.

Thus we think about the Spanish events primarily as a ‘civil war’, and remind ourselves that such wars are particularly brutal, an idea recently encapsulated in Stathis Kalyvas’s idea that there is a particular type of ‘civil war violence’ that civilians help to produce through their centrality to the dissemination of information and the settling of local scores. This may well be true. But this challenging new book by Paul Preston, the foremost English-speaking historian of 1930s Spain, suggests that much more was at stake.

The events of 1936-1939 were more than a civil war. Rather, the military rebellion against the Republic involved an attempt to exterminate the left in Spain, not only in a political sense, by destroying its Republican, Socialist, Anarchist and Communist parties, but in a social sense, by destroying all movements of exploited workers and agricultural labourers seeking to improve their generally wretched living conditions. The rebellion, after half a decade of ‘social war’, was an enterprise by a large section of the military’s upper ranks, aided and abetted by substantial sections of the rightwing parties, Church and property-owning classes, to put a definitive end to what they saw as a ‘Bolshevik-Jewish-Freemason’ conspiracy and an ‘un-Spanish’, Russian-inspired revolt against the natural, divinely sanctioned order of Spanish society.

Preston explores this theme in a book that I can only describe as relentless in its depiction of the rebels’ campaign of atrocities. I am often asked, when I describe my field of interest, whether it is not disturbing to read and think about genocide. That is undoubtedly the case, but Preston’s catalogue of unspeakable violence is among the worst that has come my way in a long time. The character of his narrative reflects, however, the rebels’ own relentless exterminatory thrust, and since he draws on a huge range of recent Spanish local and regional as well as national research, he vividly depicts the horrors of their army’s advance and its aftermath, village by village and town by town. The reader is drawn willy-nilly into the appalling ends of so many men, women and children, most of them ‘guilty’––if of anything at all, since the execution of the violence was often random as well as selective––of little more than supporting the Republic, a Republican party, or one of the social movements of the early 1930s.

One of the most striking features of the book is the repeated murder of Republican leaders and public officials, national and local, however moderate they were in the spectrum of Republican opinion. Indeed, one learns to expect that if a local mayor or national minister has shown any interest in protecting rightwingers from leftwing violence, then he will inevitably meet the most gruesome end once he falls into the rebels’ hands. But this was no mere ‘politicide’: the mass shootings of labourers, the extensive rapes and murders of Republican women, the appalling repression of Republican populations, the brutality against Republican children and their organized theft in the aftermath of the war, together with the suppression of Catalan, Basque, and Galician identities, all testify to a broader destructive process.

Preston does not neglect leftwing violence before, during, or after the military rebellion. He shows, however, that violence against landowners, clergy and pro-rebel politicians was often provoked by extreme exploitation or rebel atrocities. It was never part of an overall campaign of extermination comparable to that pursued by the rebels, and almost everywhere involved fewer victims. But there were important exceptions, notably anarchist-inspired violence against rightwingers and clergy, and Stalinist-led mass murders of rightwing prisoners in Madrid and so-called ‘Trotskyists’ in Barcelona, even if these were disowned by the Republic’s Socialist and Republican national leaders. The leaders of the military rebellion, on the other hand, clearly backed its exterminatory violence. Indeed, Franco more than once forewent an opportunity for military gain in order to complete repression in the rear.

Preston uses the term ‘Spanish Holocaust’ to include the mass violence on both sides, and he justifies this–despite recognising the differences from the Nazi Holocaust–on the grounds that the violent conflagration affected large sections of Spanish society. He does not engage with the genocide literature, but his work has many resonances with its recent themes. He shows the role that colonial brutalism and racism played in forming the Spanish military’s contempt for the working masses: they were regarded as no more than subhuman natives deserving of extreme reprisals. He emphasizes the influence of antisemitic ideology in rightwing Spanish nationalism, resonating with international fascism as well as the country’s earlier genocidal expulsions of Moors and Jews. The rebels’ extreme violence was well rehearsed in violent discourses over the preceding years.

From Preston we can conclude, therefore, that the Spanish Holocaust was no national sideshow but an important part of the exterminatory momentum of international politics that climaxed in the Second World War. We tend to think, following Lemkin, of European genocide as targeted against national and ethnic groups. Yet in the 1930s, in Spain as in Soviet Russia, violence was organized primarily on a class basis, even if subordinate nationalities were also targets. In Germany too during this period, of course, the Nazis ‘came for’ the Communists, Socialists and trade unionists as well as the Jews. The exclusion of destructive violence against ‘political groups’ and social classes from the scope of genocide is not only theoretical and moral nonsense, but ahistorical, since this violence was a crucial link in the road to Auschwitz.

3 thoughts on “Paul Preston, The Spanish Holocaust, review”

  1. In general agreement with your review analysis of Paul Preston’s book, I refer you to the genocide in East Pakistan in 1971. The definitive class, social and economic factors in relation to the Spanish conflict were all present in that post-war genocide. A fascist military elite determined to annihilate all Bengali nationalists and with a colonial/racist attitude towards the common Bengali people, countless numbers of whom were murdered only because they supported the Awami League, and a vicious religiosity that encouraged, perhaps, more than a million Hindu families to be slaughtered, rank this as a genocide exceeded only by that of the Nazis. .

    Historically, what happened in Bangladesh in 1971 is a grossly under-studied subject. It would be interesting if you could write something.

    1. Tom, thanks for commenting. I agree that this is an important case, although recent analyses (see Sarmila Bose in the Journal of Genocide Research 2011) suggest a more complex pattern of violence.

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