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Michael Seidman and "The Spanish Holocaust"
iberia | history of anarchism | opinion / analysis Sunday September 23, 2012 18:59 by Stuart Christie
Whatever happened to ’serious’ and authoritative’?
What has happened to editorial judgement at the TLS [Times Literary Supplement]? What on earth led the editor to commission the patronisingly offensive twaddle from such a pro-Francoist apologist as Michael Seidman in his review of Paul Preston’s “The Spanish Holocaust”?
Apart from complaining about Preston’s ‘discrediting the moral capital of the Nationalists’, Seidman’s principal objection appears to be the use of the term “Holocaust” to describe the carnage triggered by the “rebellious officers, whom Hitler and Mussolini quickly aided” (the implication being that neither regime had been complicit in the plans to topple the Republic). This objection to the word Holocaust is either academic pedantry or a zealous political attempt by Seidman to ‘own’ the term on behalf, exclusively and of course unbidden, of the Jewish victims of Nazi anti-semitism at the expense of the other 5, 6 or 7 million victims of the Nazi killing machine - anti-Nazis (Jewish and non-Jewish), intellectuals, socialists, anarchists, communists, liberals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, gypsies, the mentally ill, the disabled, etc., etc. - between January 1933 and May 1945.
‘part of a largely deliberate and calculated effort to eliminate “fascists” (very broadly defined), rightists - and also members of the clergy, who were perceived as fifth columnists and potential obstacles to workers’ or people’s revolution. The murders were closely connected to, and usually approved by, the parties of the Left, Socialists, Communists and anarchists.’How Seidman (or anyone else for that matter) concludes that there was such a conspiracy between such disparate and contending groups on the ‘Left’ escapes me, and reflects poorly on his understanding of the history, politics and culture of Spain between the two world wars. Had such a conspiracy existed it was more likely to have been targeted by the national and regional leaderships against their own known dissidents - rank-and-file militants and intellectuals who challenged party hegemony - not the unknown fifth-columnists caught behind Republican lines who more often than not joined the labour unions, including the CNT, and the communist and socialist parties and often proved to be the most ‘ultra’ of the party faithful.
Seidman speaks as though everything kicked off in 1936. Murder and mayhem on both sides: agreed. Grisly murder tainted by grudge, self-interest, gain, etc., it covered the whole spectrum. No one was above reproach, agreed, and as I relate in my own recent 3-volume work, “¡Pistoleros! - 1918-24”, there was no shortage of offenders in the anarchist camp either.
However, Seidman’s own figures taken from the period “during the Spanish conﬂict” (I’m assuming he means 1936-’39, i.e. the civil war) show a 13 to 5 kill rate in favour of the Nationalists (fascists, Catholic authoritarians and “One Spainers”). The latter explains how generals such as Cabanellas - who were freemasons and/or republicans under the early Republic and monarchy - morphed into “fascists” in 1936. Or were they perhaps always of the same authoritarian mind-set? A mind-set they shared with many (until yesterday monarchists) “new” republicans, explaining incidents such as the bloody repression at Castilblanco in 1931, Arnedo in 1932 and Casas Viejas in 1933, , etc., and the establishment of the Assault Guard as a public order-only police force. The notoriously “republican” and freemason Eduardo López Ochoa led the crackdown and repression of the Asturias uprising in 1934. “Republican” did not necessarily mean “leftist” or even “liberal”. Hence the scepticism in CNT ranks. See Melchor Rodriguez’s article “April to April” (KSL Bulletin) counting those who perished at the hands of the new Republic’s security forces.
Infatuation with romanticism about the Republic tends to blind us to its rougher edges as experienced by the poor and the working classes. The Church, the propertied classes and the One-Spainers might have taken offence at some of the rhetoric and legislation from the Republic, but they never had to suffer batons, bullets and artillery fire as did the workers. Was General Sanjurjo, after his attempted coup against the Republic in 1932, punished as severely as the peasant Seisdedos or the rebel coalminers and peasants of Upper Llobregat? It would be interesting to have the details of the differential treatment.
The Republic did not make mere disaffection an offence, unless it was translated into action in the form of desertion, obstruction, practical opposition. But under the Francoist’ Order 108 from the National(ist) Defence Junta (13/09/36) provision was made for the confiscation of goods from those deemed to have been “directly or subordinately responsible, by action or incitement” for opposition to the Nationalist Movement.
The Francoists’ Political Accountability Law of 9/2/39 (providing for confiscation of assets) was made retrospectively applicable to events from October 1934 (which must be some sort of a clue to the legislators’ mindset- why not 1931, ’32, ’33?), and in the event of the accused’s having died in the meantime all liability and penalties arising there from became applicable to his/her heirs or relations. Two thirds of these confiscation proceedings applied to working class “culprits” and most of these had to be set aside, not from melted hearts, but due to the lack of seizable assets. Fines were applied and enforced against republicans and others who had been shot back in 1936. The Popular Front socialist (PSOE) deputy Vicente Martin Romera (murdered on 7 August 1936 in Madrid on the orders of Colonel Cascajo) was hit with a post-war and posthumous fine of 125,000 pesetas which, his family had to pay in order to recover “free access to his assets”.
Fines and confiscations were often accompaniments (before as well as after the fact) to executions. In Albacete 43 per cent of those sentenced by courts martial had Political Accountability files opened on them and 80 per cent of those punished were farm labourers or manual workers. In 1942 an amendment to this Law replaced economic sanctions with positive disbarments before the law was repealed on 13/4/45, as far as fresh proceedings were concerned. Those already in train were pursued until 10/11/66. I don’t want romanticise the Republic but (barring a communist take-over) I doubt that it would have carried victimisation to those lengths.
As for Seidman’s extraordinary statement that “Nationalists may have integrated proportionally more POWs into their army than any other civil war belligerents in twentieth-century Europe” - Has it not occurred to Seidman that the POWs had little choice in the matter, the other option being a firing squad and a mass grave? This reference to the Nationalist recycling of POWS into their army is intended to counter Preston’s allegations regarding a “programme of extermination”, but does it? Into which units were they recycled? How were they officered, disciplined and deployed? In what sectors were they deployed? Facing which republican forces? Any chance they might have had a deterrent used against retreaters? (Machine guns à la Trotsky in the Russian civil war or à la Stalin in the Second World War? What was their rate of attrition as compared to Nationalist “volunteer” units or regulars? I do not know. I merely ask. In short such recycling was not necessarily in contrast to extermination plans but might well have been integral to them - using the enemy to kill the enemy while clearing one’s rearguard of the openly disaffected.) In his own Republic of Egos, Seidman admits to a manpower shortage in Nationalist Spain - a shortage of workers not of troops.
As to Preston’s so-called “exculpation” of the Spanish left and his alleged tendency to over-state the Soviet influence on the Paracuellos massacre of suspected or known anti-republicans by a motley crew of Spanish leftists, that massacre seems to have emanated from, among others, Santiago Carrillo, late of the Juventudes Socialistas Unificadas (JSU) and by then of the Spanish Communist Party (PCE) - and little was done by that last body that was not filtered through the politburo and its Comintern advisers.
Seidman’s point about Catalan Carlists in the Nationalist armies: does it not suggest that there might be some justification in suspicions of a 5th column operating in the rural areas of Catalonia where these characters came from, and of typical Requetés who might not have been of an age for military service but might have served in other ways? This is not to excuse but rather, perhaps, to partly explain the murderous treatment inflicted on right-wingers and the Catholic clergy.
When Preston suggests (according to Seidman) that the “radicalism” of republican leaders was more rhetorical than actual, the point is redundant. President Azaña’s alleged talk of “making mincemeat” of the army (“triturar el ejército”) with his reforms created as much (maybe more) alarm and rancour in those circles as any strike violence. Likewise the Jacobin, Enlightenment critique of the Church. The CEDA grew out of a desire to defend Catholic principles regardless of the regime, the eternal against the circumstantial: that’s what CEDA’s “accidentalism” was about: a focus on the (un) real over the formal. A republic observant of Catholic values was good, a monarchy unobservant of them, bad. Well, ditto libertarian or leftist values, surely?
Preston may underestimate the “street” attacks after February 1936 on property but Seidman needs to bear in mind the “Eat Republic” taunts of the right during the bienio negro, the legacy of the October ’34 repression, the severe curtailment of union rights, etc., the blatant flirtation of the Spanish Right with authoritarianism and fascism elsewhere in Europe, the Austrian example of 1934, etc. Is there just a chance that the street was moved by this and its own issues rather than some high-ﬂown rhetoric from some republican luminary? He is right in what he says about the general downplaying of the rougher face of the class struggle but I would ask him this: how “safe” were the lives, liberties, offspring and roof over the heads of the NON-rightists and the NON-property-owner? As someone who specialises in the minutiae of revolt in all its uncomfortable and inconvenient manifestations that do not fit into neat ideological models, Seidman ought to trace a typical worker’s life 1923-1943 and spot the improvements. They might not overlap the defined outlines of Republic, Monarchy, Dictatorship and (again) Dictatorship. Mark Two. Look past the formal to the REAL is what he seems to be saying but if Preston’s focus is on working “from above”, a lot of this is going to be missed. Life isn’t always played out by the speechmakers or in print. The CNT was forever referring to the anónimos and there were anónimos players and factors outside the CNT as well.
The murder of Calvo Sotelo was indeed a “cold-blooded killing”. What were Casas Viejas and the many other similar incidents? It was not the government or judiciary that made a scandal of Casas Viejas, was it? What has Seidman to say of some working-class “Franco” pushed into “revolution” by Casas Viejas or the repression of some strike?
His mention of the Generalisimo’s Special Military Tribunal dismissing 15,000 cases in ’36-’38. How many of those named in the charges were already dead? Executed? Escaped? And another 15,000 were upheld and presumably sentencing followed. He cites the decline in death sentences “after 1941” (i.e. after 3 years of mass executions) but he misses out any “contextualization” such as references to WW2, (remember, this would have been about the time that Ramón Serrano Súñer was telling the Germans that Spain had no interest in the fate of any Spanish Reds in Nazi hands) Spain’s difficulty in feeding herself and the death rate in Francoist prisons from disease and starvation, aggravated by lack of medical attention and the regular use of torture. Better for the statistics if many of those prisoners died off-site, unemployed and unemployable, blacklisted, homeless, dependant on the charity of the Church or the social services wing of the Falange, hardly the hallmark of mercy. And he fails to mention the spike in executions in 1947-49, a full decade after the war and after all those exiles, convictions and executions in the post-war years.
As to Seidman’s comments about the Nationalists’ rural policies, was it the case that maybe the runaway estate-owners had not yet returned, that the workforce was seriously depleted due to so many men of economic age serving at the front and that the offering of incentives to the “squatter” peasants might have been a makeshift stratagem for the duration of the war pending the recovery of all of Spain’s productive land? Kill the opposition, jail the lesser offenders, fine as many as you can, conscript those of serviceable age and encourage (!) the rest to step up production?
In 1957 a Juan García Suárez was executed but not before the local bishop of the Canaries wrote to Franco in person to remind him of the “thousands of people” whom the “Nationalists” had killed in the Canaries. Bishop Pildain wrote: “Most Excellent Sir Don Francisco Franco Bahamonde, Spanish Chief of State. Most Excellent Sir: I, Antonio Pildaín y Zapiain, bishop of the apostolic diocese of Las Palmas, find myself obliged, as pastor of the souls and spiritual father of Canarians to ask that you commute the capital sentence on Juan García Suárez, sentenced to death at a council of war held in this place. That death would be looked at very dimly in the Canaries where nothing happened, since all the barbarity committed hereabouts came from the Nationalists and not the republicans. I would rather not go too deeply into this matter and remind your excellency of everything that happened on this island, especially in the Jinámar gorge where several thousands perished." (Santos Julia [editor] Víctimas de la Guerra Civil, Temas de Hoy, pp. 335-336). Pildaín made an oral statement to historians José Luis Morales and Miguel Torres, one of whose recollections was: “Bishop Pildaín mentioned to me that he reckoned from the figures that between 5,000 and 6,000 people must have perished hereabouts. Most of them vanished.”
Contrast the “nothing happened” with the 5,000-to-zero relative kill rate in the Canaries! At what point were the Canaries under military threat? If “nothing happened” we can take it for granted that the islands fell without serious resistance. Am I indulging in victimology when I ask what implications this might have for attempts to equate republican and Nationalist violence?
I could go on and on, but I just don’t recognise Seidman’s terms of reference, especially his point that “The Spanish counter-revolutionaries did not wage a racial war against Jews, but concentrated on combating revolutionaries who threatened their lives, property and faith”. Who is he talking about? Franco and his cohort of clerico-fascist murderers were never “counter-revolutionaries”, they were reactionary golpistas who - with the help of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and influential elements in the British Establishment - overthrew a legitimately elected republican government (whatever one might think of that government) and massacred who knows exactly how many tens of thousands of innocents - who posed no threat whatsoever to life, property or faith (as witnessed to by Bishop Antonio) - in an attempt to counter perceived “proletarian barbarism” and roll Spain back 400 years to the Medieval Catholic values of the Holy Roman Empire.
No, in fact, the “counter-revolutionaries” during the Spanish Revolution and Civil War were Azaña, Prieto, Negrín, Companys, Jesús Hernández, Federica Montseny, Mariano R. Vázquez, and all the other ‘notable leaders’ on the Republican side; nor was it fascists, fifth-columnists, priests and nuns whom they were primarily targeting behind republican lines, but the thousands of revolutionaries and rank-and-file militants who, between July 1936 and December 1937, challenged their plots and manoeuvres to restore and consolidate bourgeois order.
The decision to give Paul Preston’s invaluable work on the Francoist Holocaust to the sophistry of such a blatantly pro-Francoist reviewer such as Michael Seidman reflects poorly on the formerly rigorous editorial standards of the TLS under previous editors such as Arthur Crook and John Gross (and chief subs such as Nicolas Walter). Whatever happened to ‘serious’ and ‘authoritative’?