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Essay: Examining Repression of the Spanish Civil War: Was it Genocide?

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The Francoist repression occurred during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and continued afterwards during the Franco dictatorship (1939-1975), resulting in roughly 200,000 deaths (Preston, 2012). The repression was aimed at a victim group which included Republicans, communists, freemasons, Jews, and feminist women. Genocide, as defined by the Rome Statute, is the act by a perpetrator to intentionally destroy a whole or part of a group, based on identifying characteristics, through direct or indirect means (Fein, 2009). The repression comprised of many genocidal acts, such as extermination, mass rape, and the transfer of children, with Franco’s ‘determination to annihilate as many Republicans as possible’ (Preston, 2016, p. 308). The purpose of this essay is to examine the context in which the repression took place, the acts which were carried out under Franco’s orders, and the impact that the Franco regime had, and still has in Spain today. It will also discuss why the Francoist repression should be considered an act of genocide.

The Spanish Civil War was fought by the Republicans, a leftist faction, and the Nationalists, a fascist group which was led by General Franco (Payne, 1973). The Nationalists were victorious, and Franco ruled Spain as a dictatorship until his death in 1975. During the Civil War, executions were carried out behind both Nationalist and Republican lines (Preston, 2016). They differed however, as in the Republican zones killings were carried out by civilians, sparked out of fear, and the government attempted to stop this (Preston, 2016). Meanwhile in the Nationalist zones, violence was often authorised or even carried out by the authorities, and murder by vigilante groups was actively encouraged by the military forces (Preston, 2016).  Further, atrocities carried out by the Republicans were often exaggerated by the Catholic church and the media, creating fear of ‘red’ barbarianism (Preston, 2012). This fear helped fulfil the Francoist plans of extermination, as it justified the purging of all social, political, and moral aspects of the Republicans. This is genocidal in nature, as according to Lemkin (1994, cited in Fein, 2009) the goal of genocide is the physical destruction and the social breakdown of a group. After the Civil War had ended, a new war began under the reign of Franco, which aimed to extract revenge. The crimes committed by the Republicans were denounced (Arnabat Mata, 2013), and punishments were used as a tool for terror and intimidation, to prevent any possible resistance to the Franco regime being established. The Guardia Civil supported the Nationalists, and were responsible for collecting information on crimes, arresting all potential suspects, and ‘beating red’ (Arnabat Mata, 2013, p.39).

It could be argued that the Francoist repression was a result of fear of the ‘red’, and the dehumanisation of the victim group which justified the extermination. There were often references to a Judeo-Masonic-Communist conspiracy in Franco’s speeches (Preston, 2016), and he viewed the Civil War as a victory over the scum that were trying to destroy Spain. The Franco Regime created the Law for the Repression of Masonry and Communism in 1940, making it illegal for anyone to practice or act in support of either movement (Preston, 2012).  Following this in 1941, the death penalty was applied, with the executions often occurring without a trial (Preston, 2012). Further, this mentality of superiority was shared by psychiatrist Antionio Vallejo-Nágera, who conducted experiments based on German eugenics theories and the Catholic church doctrine (Pearlstein, 2015), and aimed to ‘establish the bio-psychic roots of Marxism’ (Preston, 2016, p. 313). Experiments were carried out in Francoist prisons and concentration camps on Republicans and members of the International Brigade, in search of the ‘red gene’, in order to cleanse Spain of this inferiority (Pearlstein, 2015).

Further, the Africanistas, who were veterans of the Spanish wars in Morocco and were extremely right wing, fought on the side of the Nationalists during the Civil War (Preston, 2012). When previously fighting against African Muslims, they viewed the group as subhuman, and this racial prejudice was transferred to the Spanish left, allowing unrestrained brutality. This so called ‘column of death’ left a trail of death and destruction on their march from Seville to Madrid, conquering towns and villages along the way, slaughtering the inhabitants and raping the women (Preston 2016).

Under the Rome Statute, a method of genocide would include killing members of the group (Fein, 2009). The number of deaths that occurred during the Francoist regime is still debated by historians (Payne, 1973), although it was estimated by Preston (2012) that 200,000 people died, 100,000 of which were politically motivated killings (Payne, 1973). Members of the victim group died by fighting, by death squads, at the hands of vigilante groups, or in concentration camps (Preston, 2016). Franco’s intent was to destroy the Republicans.

Further, the forcible removal of children from the victim group to another is classed as a genocidal act, in an attempt to destroy and erase the victim group’s culture (Cryer et al., 2014). Research in recent years has revealed that several thousand children whose education was supposedly being put at risk were removed from their ‘red’ parents, and put up for adoption to families who fit the religious and morals standards of the regime (Amir, 2016). This was to avoid contamination and correct their racial inferiority (Amir, 2016). Therefore, this transference of children from Republican families to those that the dictator would deem fit, to destroy the ‘red’ in them, should be classed as an act of genocide. Moreover, during the civil war, roughly 32,000 children were evacuated from Spain to other countries (Amir, 2016). After the war, the reparation of children was ordered, and those that were sent back to Spain were transferred to the state and subjected to reforms in religious institutions (Hassiotis, 2009). They were re-educated to believe in the Francoist ideals and values, and to have disdain for the principles of their ‘red’ parents (Amir, 2016).

Although the Genocide Convention does not explicitly address sexual violence, it is argued by Sharlach (2009) that it could constitute as genocide, as it can cause death, serious bodily or mental harm, or prevent births through forced impregnated of women by men not within their group. Under the ICTR statute, Jean-Paul Akayesu was found guilty of acts of genocide, including rape, during the Rwandan genocide (Sharlach, 2009). Rape should be an act of genocide as it represents the dominant group’s desire to destroy the victim group.  John T. Whitaker, an American journalist, reported on the Civil War and atrocities that he witnessed under the orders of Franco (Preston, 2012). He noted that systematic rape was used as a tool of repression. Terror was instilled into the civilians, as warnings were issued that any woman associated with Republicans that was captured, would be given to the soldiers of the African Army to be raped (Preston, 2012). Whitaker also reported that gang rapes occurred regularly, and was encouraged by military officials, often resulting in the deaths of the young women.

According to Stanton (2009), genocide occurs through a process that goes through eight stages, which include classification, symbolisation, dehumanisation, organisation, polarisation, preparation, extermination, and denial. Although not all these stages can be seen in the Francoist repression, there are many present. The victim group was classified as different from the Nationalists (Preston, 2012), and this classification was then symbolised with the name ‘reds’. The victim group was then dehumanised through language and propaganda, often being referred to as scum, criminals, and whores (Preston, 2016). This justified Franco’s need for ‘purification’, a euphemism used to conceal the fact that genocidal extermination was to follow (Preston, 2016). This is a common form of denial, and is similar to Hitler’s ‘ethnic cleansing’ of the Jewish population (Charny, 2009). There is also evidence of preparation, as lists were made with the names of those to be executed for political reasons (Gassiot Ballbé et al., 2007).

Extermination of the victim group was carried out by death squads and vigilante groups of ordinary citizens, which resulted in the deaths of roughly 200,000 people (Preston, 2012).  Further, thousands of ‘reds’ were detained in Francoist prisons and concentration camps, where prisoners endured forced labour to redeem themselves of their sins (Preston, 2016). The camps functioned to differentiate between those who were redeemable through re-education, and those who were not, and those that weren’t were executed (Preston, 2016).

Lastly, there was denial of these genocidal acts. The Francoists attempted to claim they were actually the victims of mass killing, through exaggerations of crimes committed in the Republican zones (Preston, 2012), which is a common form of denial, used for the justification of violence (Charny, 2009). Following this was a rewriting of history, through the control of the media and education system (Preston, 2012), denying that any blood was ever shed. It is argued that Spain is still in denial today, as the Amnesty Law of 1977 ensures that those who committed atrocities during the repression cannot be prosecuted (Preston, 2016). It has only been in recent years that there have been investigations into what happened during the repression, with the excavation of mass graves finally bringing closure to relatives of victims of the dictatorship (Gassiot Ballbé et al., 2007).

Spain transitioned to a democracy in 1975, which led to the creation of the Amnesty Law of 1977, which grants impunity to those responsible for committing acts of abuse and violations of human rights under the Franco regime (Preston, 2016). This political decision was made so to not bring up the past, and to ensure an easy and peaceful transition. The nation of Spain elected to forget the horrors of the repression and move on. (Preston, 2016).

While it can be argued that the Amnesty Act did have a purpose when it was first created, there is controversy over whether it should still be enforced, and in 2008 the UN urged Spain to repeal it (Miguez Macho, 2013). According to Baltasar Garzón, a Spanish judge, the Franco regime carried out systematic attacks against a civilian population, including mass killings and the hiding of bodies, (Miguez Macho, 2013), which could legally be considered crimes against humanity under the Rome Statute. There are no statutory limitations on crimes against humanity, and they would not be covered under the Amnesty Act (Tremlett, 2012). By opening the investigation, Garzón was indicted by the Supreme Court, although eventually acquitted, which lead to anger by human rights groups, as justice for the families of the victims of Franco’s dictatorship is still not being served (Tremlett, 2012).

However, the Historical Memory Law was passed by the Spanish government in 2007 (Preston, 2016), which acknowledges the victims of the Spanish Civil War, on both the Nationalist and Republican sides, and pays reparations to the victims and decedents of Franco’s dictatorship (Miguez Macho, 2013). This was seen by the UN Commission on Human Rights as a positive thing, as it was the first attempt by Spain to recognise its bloody past under authoritarian leadership, although it does contrast with the Amnesty Act (Miguez Macho, 2013).

Furthermore, the Francoist repression has had lasting effects on Spanish society. Despite the fact that Spain has been a democracy for over forty years, there still exists a culture of fear and silence, with the citizens living in denial of what happened under the rule of Franco (Gassiot Ballbé et al., 2007). This fear is also occasionally directed towards the Guardia Civil, due to their allegiance to the Nationalists during the Civil War and the Franco dictatorship, who have been accused of police brutality, for example towards migrants on the Spanish border in Morocco (Human Rights Watch, 2014). There is also evidence of the Guardia keeping the spirit of Franco alive in Spain, as members of the Guardia Civil were photographed posing in front of one of the last statues of Franco (Águeda, 2015), which sparked outrage.

In conclusion, the Francoist Repression is a bloody part of Spain’s history, which involved the deaths of thousands of civilians during the Spanish Civil War, and afterwards during Franco’s dictatorship. Through the creation of fear of a communist takeover and the destruction of Spain, the Republicans were demonised, which served as justification for the genocidal acts that followed. Despite not being classed as a genocide, the repression does demonstrate many of the features which characterise genocide under the Rome Statute. The civilian population of Spain was brutalised, and the Nationalist army employed systematic rape as a tool of terror, carried out mass killings, and children were removed from their families and re-educated, all with the intention to destroy the Republican group. Despite evidence of these atrocities, the perpetrators still denied that any violence occurred. Lastly, the repression has had lasting consequences on the Spanish people, who still cannot look upon the past. The Amnesty Act of 1977 also protects the perpetrators of these genocidal crimes, and denies the families of the victims the justice and closure they deserve.

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