On October 28, in Rome’s St. Peter’s Square, 498 martyrs of the religious persecution in Spain (1936-1939) were beatified. It was the largest group ever to be beatified at the same time.
As the Catholic world celebrates All Saints Day, the pope is doing Catholics a favor by highlighting this bleak and neglected moment in church history. A survey of the handy Web site Wikipedia reveals that in 1931, the Spanish monarchy was overthrown by Republican forces. The new Republican government was miserably disorganized and a rival Nationalist front, led by Francisco Franco and supported by Hitler and Mussolini, attempted to remedy the situation hoping to return Spain to its traditional structures.
To enforce this Nationalist regime it is estimated that 200,000 to 800,000 people died. However, the Spanish Civil War was marked by atrocities on both sides. The Republicans (supported by the Soviet Union) opted for radical economic and structural change in Spain, resulting often in anarchy. Much of the Republican wrath fell on the Catholic Church. Religious buildings were burnt and others were turned into Houses of the People. It is estimated that in the course of the Republican terror, 6,832 members of the Catholic clergy were killed. Another source breaks down the figures as follows: 282 nuns, 13 bishops, 4172 diocesan priests, 2364 monks and friars.
In some dioceses, the numbers are overwhelming. In Barbastro 88 percent of the clergy were murdered. There are accounts of the faithful being forced to swallow rosary beads, being thrown down mine shafts and of priests being forced to dig their own graves before being buried alive. A priest of Cienpozuelos was thrown into a corral with fighting bulls where he was gored into unconsciousness. Afterwards, one of his ears was cut off to imitate the feat of a matador after a successful bullfight. The claim that the Spanish clergy were corrupt and deserved harsh treatment is false. In fact, they were quite sincere and heroic.
The Spanish Civil War could easily be understood as a class conflict — the rich versus the poor, the conservatives versus the liberals, the establishment versus the marginalized. Franco’s fascistic Nationals included the majority of the Catholic clergy and practicing Catholics (outside of the Basque region), important elements of the army, most of the large landowners, and many businessmen. The communistic Republicans included most urban workers, much of the educated middle class, especially those who were not entrepreneurs, and most peasants. Clearly, the Nationals feared anarchy while the Republicans focused on poverty. Yet, one author cautions that the Spanish Civil War was not an irrepressible outpouring of hatred by the man in the street for his oppressors, but a semi-organized activity carried out by sections of nearly all the communist-leaning groups. Clearly, the Republican’s communistic allies in Spain had the same agenda that became all too clear in Eastern Europe after World War II. They used a veil of legitimate democratic institutions to outlaw the establishment hoping to convert the state into a Soviet people’s republic with total Communist domination.
Recalling the persecution that would plague the church in Eastern Europe after the Second World War, readers should understand the maltreatment of the church in Spain was not simply a hatred of the church but more deviously a hatred of God himself fed by systemic atheism. The Spanish martyrs were not slain because they were members of the bourgeois establishment. They were slain because they were vivid reminders of the presence of God in history. They, like God, had to be eliminated.
Despite the fact that the church suffered appalling persecution behind Republican lines, these historical events have been met by much silence and even attempts at justification by some scholars and historians. In the 1970s, Pope Paul VI placed a moratorium on all saintly causes dealing with the Spanish Civil War. Remember that the Soviet Union was still a world power during that decade and perhaps the pope did not want to antagonize the Communist regimes by reviewing their sordid pasts. When European Communism faded into history, Pope John Paul II lifted this ban so that the sufferings of dedicated, hard-working, sympathetic Spanish bishops, priests, religious and laity could be explored more openly. Massive persecutions during the 20th century occupy a great but tragic place in the history of mankind. The senseless persecution of these rank and file Spanish Catholics, spawned by an atheistic hatred of God himself, must not be overlooked.