Spain entered the 20th century in a turmoil, having lost its colonies. It was marked by uneven social and cultural development. Less than 2% of landowners owned two-thirds of the land while laborers eked out a living on near-starvation wages. In 1931, the country became the Republic of Spain, a liberal democracy that separated church and state and adopted the principles of freedom of conscience, freedom of religion and freedom of the press.
During 1931-1936, Catholic politicians ridiculed campaigns for women’s rights or women in parliament, even though women constituted the majority of practicing Catholics. When Catholic women turned to organizing meetings and making public speeches, they were subject to being doused with castor oil and having their heads shaved. Disease, poverty and illiteracy were the major concerns, but in a country that left most of the wealth untaxed, little money was directed to these urgent problems.
Religious practice became the order of the day. There was overwhelming evidence that showed the imposition of religious observances as conditions for the poor to be eligible for aid. The resentment generated by making charity dependent on religion resulted in priests and nuns, whose laudable work might have saved them from popular hatred, were nonetheless, murdered. According to Benedictine writer, Fr. Hilair Raguer, a great majority — nearly the entire hierarchy of the Catholic Church, monarchists, aristocracy, and nearly all the prominent among the laity did nothing to restrain the conflict, but spurred it on by joining en bloc on the side of the Fascists and demonized those who worked for peace.
The Vatican feared the liberal democracy with its freedoms, would spell the end of the Church in Spain. Although the Republican government was legitimate and democratically elected, the Church portrayed it as illegitimate in origin, usurper of power, traitor to the Fatherland and enemy of God. By doing so, the Church provided moral and spiritual justification for the Nationalist insurgency and further defended its divine intervention. The war was likened to a surgical operation, directed by God, a divine therapy for a country that had strayed from its godly path.
In 1936, Vatican Secretary of State, Eugenio Pacelli (who would later become Pope Pius XII) was sent to the United States for the entire U.S. election campaign. There, he along with Cardinals Hayes and Spellman cautioned President Roosevelt of the cold, political fact that he would lose the Catholic vote unless he embargoed arms to Spain. The Holy See thanked Roosevelt for his neutrality in spite of the fact the American-owned Vacuum Oil Company in Tangier refused to sell oil to Republican ships and the Texas Oil Company rerouted tankers to the Nationalist controlled port of Tenerife and supplied gasoline on credit to Franco until the end of the war. In addition to this, thousands of Americans fought on the side of the Republicans.
Abandoned by the West, the Republicans were mainly dependent on Soviet military assistance that played right into the hands of the Catholic Church and its portrayal of the Spanish Republic as a Marxist and godless state and that the war was indeed a national CRUSADE to rid Spain of those godless communists. The ” Christian Crusade against Communism” had begun. Spanish priests spewed hatred against the “Reds” from their pulpits and blessed the troops and flags before battle. The enemy now was not the Moors but Communists, anarchists, liberals and Jews. Republicans were denounced as “Sons of Moscow.”
The war in Spain was supposed to be a civil war, but reaction to it was complicated by intense rivalry among European powers. Britain, France, Germany and the Soviet Union all eyed each other with increasing suspicion and growing distrust. Bishops spared no pain in attacking the Soviet Union for its intervention but were silent on the intervention on the side of the Nationalists by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.
Hitler’s support of Franco consisted of the Condor Legion – an adjunct of the Luftwaffe. It provided the opportunity to develop and perfect tactics of aerial warfare that would fuel Nazi Germany’s Blitzkrieg during World War II. As German air chief, Hermann Goering testified at his trial after the war: “The Spanish Civil War gave me the opportunity to put my young air force to the test and a means for my men to gain experience”
Some of those experimental tactics were tested on that bright and beautiful spring day on the afternoon of April 26th.1937 with devastating results on the city of Guernica. First came the bombs that incinerated rooftops and set them ablaze. This was followed by 250-kilogram heavy explosives that destroyed water pipes thus hindering the extinguishing of fires. More than 1600 people were killed and hundreds more suffered severe burns.
The horrific destruction of Guernica and the massacre of Badajoz, coupled with thousands of Fascist troops from Italy paved the way for a brutal and revengeful Fascist dictatorship under Franco. Thousands of Republican prisoners of war were murdered and others were forced to work on the construction of the huge monument to the memory of Franco in the Valley of the Fallen. It is an underground church and tomb topped by a 500 – ft. cross that can be seen from a distance of 30 miles. According to historian, Angel Vinas, it is a monumental architecture to Fascism and a shame that in a European country there exists a huge monument to the memory of one of the bloodiest dictators.
In the Vatican, Pope Pius XI did not really endorse the rebellion, but did not hesitate to officially name those murdered by the Republicans as martyrs, but failed to mention the many priests and others who were murdered by the Nationalists. His successor, Pope Pius XII (Eugenio Pacelli) was more openly supportive. At the end of the war, he sent the victorious Franco a message in which he singled out Spain as a nation historically chosen by God as an invincible bulwark of the Catholic Faith. He also sent Franco the Supreme Equestrian Order of the Militia of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Pius XII also blessed the Italian Fascist army and air force on its return from Spain. Decades later, President Ronald Reagan,a staunch anti-Communist, paid a tribute to the brave Americans who fought in the Spanish Civil War even though they had fought on the “wrong” side. This led people the world over to wonder if Hitler, Mussolini and Franco were the “right” side.
As we approach the 80th anniversary in July of the start of the Spanish Civil War, we hope that Pope Francis will acknowledge the unjustified silence of the Church regarding the indiscriminate killings and executions of the Franco regime. We also hope Pope Francis will not evade the question of the historical complicity of the Catholic Church with a dictatorship that came to power after a brutal and bloody civil war, supported by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.