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July 18, 2013 3:09 PM Why the Spanish Civil War Still Fascinates

By Ed Kilgore

Since it is, as noted in the Daylight Video, the 77th anniversary of the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, thought I might offer a few thoughts on why that long-lost conflict has always been a source of unusual fascination among writers, artists and musicians, as well as the historically minded.

I definitely share that fascination. For some it’s about Spain as a precursor to World War II (indeed, Nazi Germany, Italy and the Soviet Union were very actively involved; the bombing of the Basque town of Guernica by German pilots—famously immortalized by Pablo Picasso—is often viewed as a laboratory for the terror from the air inflicted during the larger war). For others it’s about the exceptional heroism of the combatants, especially on the Republican side, which became a cause celebre on the Left for many decades.

But sad to say, it’s the savagery and ideological extremism associated with this war that probably inspires the most fascination. Spanish political polarization even before the war was exemplified by the merger of the Socialist and Communist youth organizations (“We’ve lost our future!” lamented one Socialist leader), and the parallel merger of Nationalist and Falangist (the Spanish fascist movement) youth groups. Once war broke out, no quarter was offered. Prisoners were not often taken by either side, and when they were taken, summary executions were the norm.

And the conflict was clearly cultural as much as political. The Navarre-based Carlist movement (whose anthem I posted at Lunch Buffet) was animated by the conviction that the regional and local autonomy it desired could only be achieved if dissent over fundamentals was first destroyed, under a theocratic monarchy. Well into the 20th century, Carlists were still demanding the reinstitution of the Inquisition.

Equally committed to totalitarian means to achieve radically decentralizing ends were the Spanish Anarchists, particularly strong in Catalonia and Andalusia. These “libertarians” (as they called themselves) took seriously the Diderot maxim (sometimes attributed to Bakunin) that “man will only be free when the last king strangles on the entrails of the last priest.” Executions of clergy and religious by the Anarchists were probably more common than execution of Nationalist prisoners. I can remember visiting a church in Barcelona a few years ago where the statuary in the side altars was still blackened from being burned by Anarchists at the outbreak of the Civil War.

So this was total ideological war mitigated only by the two sides’ limited technology of death, and the eventual exhaustion of the Republican forces. It was a precursor not just to the bloodshed of the rest of the twentieth century, but to the hyper-politicized and militarized culture wars that persist around the planet well into the current century.

Reading about it, it still makes me shudder.

UPDATE: In the comment thread, Max mentions a recent book, The Spanish Holocaust, and Shane Taylor mentions a review of that book at TNR by Timothy Snyder. Even though I was reading Snyder’s Bloodlands (a magisterial account of the horrendous death toll wrought by Nazi and Soviet authorities before and during World War II in the territories between Russia and Germany) and writing regularly for TNR at the time, I somehow missed this review. Many thanks to both commenters.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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