Among the Fallen

Judged by the standards of a century replete with political slaughter, the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39 can seem a relatively tame affair. Tens of millions died in Stalin's Ukrainian hunger famine, the Holocaust, Mao's Great Leap Forward, and Pol Pot's Cambodian killing fields; the civil war in Spain managed a mere 500,000 killed. In the time, however, and for decades afterwards, the Spanish Civil War was a twentieth century political Rorschach blot: whether you stood with the Spanish Republicans or with the Spanish Nationalists was a pretty good indicator of where you stood on other classic left/right divides. The Spanish Civil War accelerated the development of an anti-totalitarian Left in the West (George Orwell being a prime example); conversely, many European and American conservatives thought the Nationalists were fighting a kind of anti-modern crusade.

The truth is that just about everyone behaved badly during the Spanish Civil War, and there are atrocity stories to spare on both sides. The victory of Francisco Franco's Nationalists was frequently portrayed, at the time, as a preview of fascist ascendancy. Yet Anthony Beevor (a British historian not terribly sympathetic to Franco) argued recently that, had the Republicans won with the aid of the USSR, Spain would have become like Romania and Bulgaria after World War II — a Soviet dependency, freed only by the Revolution of 1989.

As the recent beatification of 498 martyrs of that period suggests, the Catholic Church suffered terribly during the Spanish Civil War; the new beati join hundreds beatified in the 1980s and 1990s and the nine Martyrs of Asturias canonized in 1999. Yet the beatified and canonized are a fraction of the total — some 7,000 bishops, priests, seminarians, monks, and nuns were killed simply because of who they were; no one knows how many thousands of lay Catholics were dispatched for the same reason. Some of the killings were beyond grotesque, as priests and seminarians were treated like bulls in the ring: stabbed, flayed, their ears cut off, and so forth, before the coup de grace. Entire monasteries, seminaries, and convents were wiped out; the dead bodies of nuns were exhumed and desecrated. There was little (some say no) apostasy.

 On a clear, crisp mid-November morning, lethal wickedness seems far away as one approaches the Benedictine Abbey of the Holy Cross, the spiritual center of the Valley of the Fallen, the Valle de los Caidos, Spain's national memorial to its civil war dead. Located about forty minutes outside Madrid, the complex consists of a national park, in which 40,000 Nationalist and Republican dead are buried; a colossal basilica hewn out of a granite mountain, atop which is the world's largest cross (some 150 meters high); and behind the memorial cross, a classic monastic grid composed of a monastery, a choir school, a research library, and a center for social studies.

Critics carp that the Valley of the Fallen is a monument to one side of the civil war — Franco's — and reflects Nationalist sensibilities. The abbot, Father Anselmo Alvarez, OSB, has a different view; as he put it to me after Sunday Mass, "This is a place of reconciliation." Reconciliation was preached at Mass; reconciliation is what the monks teach the visitors who come in large numbers every day. The great mosaic in the basilica's dome (a dome carved inside a mountain) is dedicated to Christ the King, who is surrounded by angels, martyrs, confessors — and the dead of the civil war. There, in the true Kingdom, there is neither Left nor Right, for the "former things" have "passed away" (Rev. 21.4).

Another fair-minded British historian, Hugh Thomas, wrote of the anti-Catholicism of the Spanish Civil War that "at no time in the history of Europe, or even perhaps of the world, has so passionate a hatred of religion and all its works been shown." Spain's aggressively secularist government is now trying to rewrite the history of the 1930s in order to eliminate that truth. In dealing with the contentions and savagery of the past, the monks of the Valley of the Fallen have, I suggest, found the more excellent way.

George Weigel


George Weigel is an American author and political and social activist. He currently serves as a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Weigel was the Founding President of the James Madison Foundation.

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  • Guest

    It seems to be one of Mr Weigel's vocations to remind us of things we have negligently forgotten. He reminds us of these horrors and then like the true follower of Christ that he is, he calls us to reconciliation. Reconciliation is not the same as forgetting…. if we don't 1st remember we have nothing to forgive. Thank you for an informative and inspiring article.

  • Guest

    The repercussions of the Spanish Civil War are indeed vast. Many fled Spain for Mexico, in particular, which at the time was emerging from its own massive persecution of the Catholic Church, a government pogrom known as the Guerra Cristera. Pope Pius XI wrote an encyclical in 1937, directed at the Mexican clergy, entitled Nos Es Muy Conocida (It is Well Known to Us, the linked document is in English). Note that this puts the Holy Father's work smack in the middle of the Spanish Civil War, which also would have been well-known to him.

    By then the Mexican pogrom was diminishing enough that Spanish exiles could begin arriving. On May 21, 2000, Pope John Paul II canonized 25 Mexican saints who were murdered by the Mexican government during the Guerra Cristera (the canonization was of 27; I couldn't determine from the homily who the other two were). There are Mexican priests in Mexico and the United States whose parents or grandparents escaped the Spanish Civil War. The founder of the Legion of Christ is a survivor of the Mexican pogrom. The list goes on and on.

    The source of the persecution in Mexico was the progressivist dictatorship (some might call it socialist or fascist) of Plutarco Elias Calles, whose goal was to eradicate the Catholic Church. Anyone who wants to see what Spain might have been like had the Republican side won might study this particular portion of the history of Mexico. Calles left office in 1928 and continued to rule through a collection of puppets until Lazaro Cardenas – a hero of Mexican Revolution – won the presidency in 1934. Cardenas was certainly leftist, but he was also pragmatic, noting the closeness of the United States coupled with the increasingly problematic situation in Europe. It was Cardenas who ultimately ended the pogrom, but the years from 1924 to 1934 (and even beyond, as things wound down) were horrible for the Mexican Catholic Church. Study that period if you want some thought on how Spain might have fared if the supposedly enlightened Republican side had won.

    This is not to say that there was a good or bad side in Mexico, either. Indeed, I can recall a recent issue of the Knights of Columbus's Columbia magazine that highlighted the martyrdoms of 4 Mexican priests, now saints, who were martyred during the Guerra Cristera. One of them was hanged, and he blessed his noose before his persecutors murdered him. The only good side was the side of peace, but many Catholics were forced into self-defense mode when the Calles dictatorship brought war to them.

    This walk through history draws me back to the Mexican Revolution itself, another poorly understood episode in history. I read once an estimate that during the years of that war (around 1914 to 1920), the population in Mexico dropped by about 10%. This means that a population of around 10 million dropped to 9 million over the course of several years. So many more than 1 million died. We might double or triple the 1 million population drop to get a starting estimate of the number killed.

    Happily, we have not yet descended into such anarchy in the United States. My prayer to St María de Jesús Sacramentado Venegas is that we might never have to. But we must pray vigilantly. We must not ever forget that it was the most highly cultured country in Europe – Germany – that unleashed Hell in World War II.