Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Book Review: The Spanish Holocaust, Paul Preston


To either the lay reader or someone more invested genocide studies the title of this book seems somewhat shocking, that ‘holocaust’ is used out of context. For the lay reader “holocaust” implies the immutable evil perpetrated by the Nazis during WWII. For genocide scholars this etymological problem of how “holocaust” is used is provocative; however, it seems in this context to convey a analytically disproportionate use of a ‘maximal standard’. According to Martin Shaw, this use of the word unhelpfully creates gold standard of suffering, that demands to be met or exceeded to validate moral superiority.


That being said, Preston deploys this term successfully, in the popular or lay sense, as has David Stannard in American Holocaust. Preston conveys the sheer scale and mass trauma of the Spanish civil war and the genocide largely acted out by the actors of Spanish fascism from the 1930s to Franco’s death in 1975. These forces, eventually headed by Franco by the time the tide turned against the Republic, enabled and participated in almost complete destruction of its perceived enemies. This group, Preston points out, was defined retroactively as any Spaniard who neglected to support the failed 1934 military coup against the Republic, including, but not limited to anarchists, liberals, republicans, communists, socialists, intellectuals and artists, and broadly any who were perceived to be or actually engaged in actions against fascist causes.


Preston clearly describes the terror imposed by anarchist, socialist, communist groups, including the so-called ‘Iron Column’. Such extra-judicial courts and militias mobilised during the civili in the Republican zone to combat the perceived and real threat of the fascist ‘fifth column’. However, the accomplishment and “success” of the fascist forces by the early 1940s was so total that the process of genocidal violence was distinctly owned by Franco and those loyal to him. He also tracks the social conflict that built up following the 1934 coup, and how this evolved in mass violence.


The social level destruction visited upon the enemies of fascism compares, without doubt, to that of many genocides where those already practiced in violence set themselves down the spiral of atrocity for a “moral purpose”. Republican women were frequently raped, had heads shaved and were forced to drink castor oil, in order to induce publicly humiliating defecation. Thousands of men, and often women, were rounded up and executed. Some were exposed to facade of military trial, which one can only liken to Soviet show trials of the “Great Purge”, but without the pageantry. In the end the fascists created a system that produced death in 1984-esque scale, rather than the slave labour of the Nazi system.

If ‘holocaust’ can adequately capture for the lay reader a sense of total social destruction, then Preston succeeds in offering Spain a historical narrative of its past too often forgotten and buried.