As outsiders we view the Spanish Civil War as a dress rehearsal for World War II, with Soviet-backed republican forces pitted against Fascists led by Franco and supported by Hitler and Mussolini. After Franco won, he strangely did not join his erstwhile benefactors in battle against the Allies. Suckers for a lost cause, we idolize the members of the Lincoln Brigade, the American volunteers who fought on the republican side, and romanticize Hemingway, who reported on the war for American newspapers.
Jose-Maria Gironella explains the roots of the conflict in a remarkably objective historical novel, given that Gironella was a Catholic novelist who fought with Franco’s forces. Gironella describes the events of the five years preceding the Civil War, beginning in 1931, through the eyes of his young protagonist Ignatio Alvear, who grows up in Girona, a city in Catalonia, the region of northern Spain that abuts France and includes Spain’s second largest city, Barcelona. Ignatio’s mother is an ardent Catholic Basque, his father an agnostic socialist from Madrid. Ignatio sees his country as a backwater in Europe: limited innovation, limited industry, hoards of landless farm workers and inadequately compensated industrial workers, the distress heightened by a global depression. Shockingly, for an American reader, the only thing that Spaniards have to crow about is the discovery of America and the persistence of Spanish culture in former Spanish colonies. Ignatio, who leaves the seminary at 14 to attend classes at night while working in a bank during the day, views the Church as having subverted its mission by allying itself with the wealthy and neglecting the poor. The parties on the left and right are splintered. On the left are moderate republicans, socialists, communists and anarchists. The right includes conservative landowners, the Church, monarchists, and a growing Fascist movement, the Falange, which Ignatio regards as quixotic and brutal. Ignatio describes the resistance on the right to even modest land reforms and depicts the impossible position that moderates found themselves in the Second Republic (there was a brief First Republic in 1873-1874). If they don’t ally themselves with anarchists and communists, they can’t achieve a parliamentary majority. When they join forces in the Popular Front, they can’t control the radicalism and occasional violence of their allies–although historians say that a good share of the violence was committed by the Falange and falsely attributed to leftists. The unrest and reforms scare the forces of reaction. The military begins to plan a coup. The military (which had a history of being called in to quell civil unrest) still feels the sting of the Spanish-American War and the loss of Cuba followed by a 1921 defeat by tribesmen in Spanish Morocco. It was damned if it were going to accede to some of the centrifugal tendencies supported by the Second Republic, particularly the grant of autonomy to Catalonia. Meanwhile, the Church is chafing from the open and sometimes gratuitous anti-clericalism of the Second Republic. It’s one thing to institute civil marriages and legalize divorce. It’s another to outlaw processions on holy days and forbid religious education. (There’s a difference between separation of church and state and tolerating free exercise of religion). That some leftists are burning churches doesn’t help things. (The Second Republic also extended suffrage to women, a step that doesn’t help it as most women voted with the right).
The military conspirators take action on July 18, 1936 following the assassination of a right-wing politician in retaliation for the killing of a left-wing member of the Civil Guard. (The Civil Guard served as an additional police force charged with keeping order in rural areas). In truth, the coup failed, and two-thirds of Spain remained in republican hands. (Why Franco ultimately succeeded is a story for a different day). The Cypresses Believe in God ends with the forces of the left overcoming the military coup in Girona. The communists and anarchists then unleash a pogrom, destroying churches, killing priests, nuns, landowners, and anyone with an affiliation for the right.
This ending may have been the novel’s most glaring false note. Many historians view the “red terror” as propaganda circulated by the right. To be sure, well over 6,000 members of religious orders were killed along with other members of the right. But retaliation on the left was distinguished from repression on the right by both extent and charter. The so-called “red terror was dwarfed by the repression, massacres, and terror committed by the nationalist armies. Some estimates of numbers killed by the Franco repression run in the hundreds of thousands. What’s also true is that for the right, the violent repression was official policy. For the left the violent reprisals stemmed from the breakdown of social order. Due to the defection of the military, the Second Republic was compelled to arm the workers, and leaders attempted not always successfully to regain control over the masses. Another jarring note was the muted place that Gironella gives to anti-Semitism. The right blamed the existence of the Republic upon a conspiracy of Jews, Masons, and communists. Virulent anti-Semitism persisted even though Spain had expelled its Jews in 1492.
In any case, evil communists were a good selling point for a novel written during the Cold War. Gironella, while having the guts to write a novel that was not overly laudatory of Franco and the right, may have been the only Spanish writer who came out ahead during the Franco years. He walked over the Pyrenees, wrote his novel (and its successors–The Cypresses Believe in God is part of a trilogy) in France. The Cypresses Believe in God sold three million copies. Gironella lived in luxury the remainder of his life.
The Cypresses Believe In God, now out of print, deserves a second chance. The Spanish Civil War is the story of a middle that could not hold out against the extremes, and that’s something to think about.
For more, see Paul Preston, The Spanish Civil War: Reaction, Revolution, and Revenge (2006)