Paul Preston, Architects of Terror: Paranoia, Conspiracy and Anti-Semitism in Franco’s Spain (Harper Collins 2023), 464pp. Paul Preston, Architects of Terror: Paranoia, Conspiracy and Anti-Semitism in Franco’s Spain (Harper Collins 2023), 464pp.

Paul Preston’s important Architects of Terror demonstrates the fascist inspiration behind the mass violence of the Franco regime, finds Chris Bambery

This was a book I devoured. I was going to say enjoyed, but that’s really not an appropriate word given that Paul Preston focuses some of the most repellent and evil characters who have graced our planet, six architects of the military rebellion of July 1936, which was the detonator for the Spanish Civil War, resulting in the 36-year dictatorship of General Francisco Franco.

The six were the policeman, Julián Mauricio Carlavilla del Barrio, the Catalan priest, Juan Tusquets Terrats, the poet, José María Pemán, and the aristocrat and ex-cavalry officer, Gonzalo de Aguilera y Munro, joined by the chief planner of the military uprising, General Emilio Mola y Vidal, and the leader of the uprising in Andalusia, General Gonzalo Queipo de Llano y Sierra, a man Preston labels correctly, ‘the Psychopath in the South’. They were architects of the terror which accompanied the military uprising and the subsequent civil war on the Nationalist side (as the rebels would style themselves).

That terror has been thoroughly dissected by Preston in a previous book, The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth-Century Spain, where he puts the number executed by the Nationalists at between 150,000 and 200,000: many still lying in unmarked mass graves, many brutally tortured prior to being shot. The wives of those killed had their children forcibly removed to be given to Nationalist families in which to be brought up.

Breaking the silence

The Spanish Holocaust met with howls of protest from the right in Spain, which tried to argue that Preston was simply a Rojo, a Red, despite the fact he was widely hailed as the pre-eminent historian of modern Spain, and awarded as such. In writing that book, Preston was breaking the ‘Pact of Silence’, agreed between the former Francoists who oversaw the transition to parliamentary democracy and the Socialist and Communist opposition. Along with an amnesty for all of Franco’s torturers and executioners, they agreed to put the events of 1936-1939 and the subsequent dictatorship behind them.

The other way of attacking Preston was to claim he ignored victims of terror in the zone controlled by the Republicans, those who remained loyal to the elected government of Spain, which the generals wanted to overthrow. Preston did not in fact do so, but did point out that the numbers of those executed in the loyalist zone was far smaller, 50,000, and that the Republican government deplored the killings and, as it asserted its authority after the effective collapse of the state subsequent to the military rising, acted to halt them. In contrast, Franco and the Nationalist authorities encouraged the killings, handing over much of the rearguard to the tender mercies of Spain’s fascist party, the Falange. Their final victory would be followed by a further wave of executions, which continued, albeit on a much smaller scale, until the bitter end.

When The Spanish Holocaust appeared that Pact of Silence was already being challenged by a new generation determined to discover the mass graves of Franco’s victims, to remove monuments and street signs celebrating him and his fascist colleagues, above all the hideous tomb where Franco lay, the Valley of the Fallen (Valle de los Caídos) carved out of mountain by prisoners of war used as slave labour.

The dictatorship used a wide array of savage tactics to dehumanise, persecute, terrorise, and silence the enemy, including forced exile, labour camps, torture, and rape. Their goal was to eradicate all of Spain’s supposed enemies, actors in the ‘Judeo-Masonic-Bolshevik’ conspiracy: leftists of all shades, republicans, liberals and Catalan and Basque nationalists. The Catalans were denounced by the Falange as being Jews.

Mola declared the strategy early in the war, on 19 July 1936, when he said in a speech: ‘It is necessary to spread terror. We have to create the impression of mastery eliminating without scruples of hesitation all those who do not think as we do’ (p.212). Franco, in a speech following his 19 May 1939 victory parade through captured Madrid, justified the continued need for repression by pointing to the continuing and necessary struggle against the Jews, stating:

‘The Victory would be wasted if we did not stay on the alert and maintain the concerns of the heroic days, if we left eternal dissidents, the embittered, the egoists, the defenders of liberal economics free to act … Let us have no illusions: we cannot extinguish in one day the Jewish spirit that facilitated the alliance of big capital with Marxism, that knows all about deals with the anti-Spanish revolution. That spirit still flutters in many hearts’ (pp.27-8).

Fascist antisemitism

The six men Preston features in Architects of Terror were architects of this terror because, and this is the central point of the book, they propagated and spread the myth that Spain faced a ‘Jewish-Freemason-Bolshevik’ conspiracy. The three central figures in the dictatorship which emerged shared that belief: Franco, the man who ruled Spain from his victory in March 1939 until his death in November 1975; his brother-in-law and Interior then Foreign Minister until his dismissal in September 1942, Ramón Serrano Suñer, and the man who would become Franco’s chosen successor, Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco (best remembered now for his assassination by the Basque terror group ETA in December 1973).

After the Second World War, both Franco and Carrero Blanco had to try to tone down their public statements attacking Jews and Freemasons, as the dictatorship tried to draw a curtain over its enthusiastic support for Hitler and, as the Cold War gathered strength, became an ally of the United States. But it was a façade. Both couldn’t stop making such hideous statements and both wrote articles (and Franco even scripted a film) under pseudonyms attacking Jews and Freemasons. Old fascists couldn’t change their stripes.

It is hard to do justice to the evil of the men Preston describes. They believed in that dreadful antisemitic forgery, ‘The Protocols of Zion’, which became a bestseller in Spain in the build up to the civil war and under the dictatorship. Pre-war, Franco devoured Tusquets’ attacks on Jews and Masons. In turn the priest, unhampered by his superiors, was part of the conspiracy behind the eventual military uprising, issuing a bulletin propagating their crazed vision to army officers and creating a card index of Masons who were to be targeted by the rebels. He claimed he could recognise a Freemason by the way their handkerchief was folded in their top pocket! Based in Barcelona, where the working class crushed the military rising, Tusquets had to go into hiding, only escaping to France and then the Nationalist zone, on a German merchant ship, using a Portuguese passport obtained from that country’s Consul.

The cop, Carlavilla, published violently antisemitic books championing the Jewish-Masonic-Bolshevik conspiracy and had to flee to Portugal (then a right-wing dictatorship, which would become an important ally of Franco) after he was involved in plots to assassinate leaders of the newly elected liberal-centre-left Popular Front government. He would return to Spain and continue to peddle his views up until his death in 1982. The poet Pemán was an even more important propagandist for Franco in the weeks leading up to the military revolt and would tour the battlefields delighting in viewing the corpses of executed Republican soldiers and supporters, wearing the blue shirt of the Falange.

Fascist violence

Aguilera boasted that on hearing news of the military uprising he went out, lined up the labourers on his estate and shot six of them he had selected. That was not true, but he clearly wished it was. Having had a British mother and having been educated at a Catholic private school in England, he would be put in charge of chaperoning the foreign press. He was a bully who could switch from being old-school English to being a violent sadist.

Mola planned the military uprising and commanded the fascist forces in the north of Spain, but would suffer because of the failure of the planned uprisings in the great cities of Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia and Bilbao. The large areas of northern Spain supported the uprising and joined in without very much resistance. That did not stop him ordering his men to implement terror, killing anyone suspected of having voted for the government or for being vegetarians, naturists or champions of Esperanto. Teachers were another target. From the beginning, Mola saw the civil war as a crusade against the ‘Jewish-Masonic-Bolshevik’ conspiracy, telling Italian fascist officers fighting alongside him that he would welcome the wholesale destruction of the industrial working class. Like many veterans of the long and bitter colonial war in Morocco, Mola, like Franco, viewed the working class in the same colonial way he viewed Moroccans.

Queipo took control of the uprising in Seville, elbowing his way to the top. He would become famous for his rants on the radio promising death to a long list of those supposedly conspiring to destroy Spain. That list would include US President Roosevelt, supposedly controlled by Jews. His forces, aided by squads of Falangists, carried out mass killings in the towns and villages of the south, where landless labourers backed the Republic. Aristocrats joined in with glee. Queipo himself loved killing, and raped and sexually assaulted female prisoners. He also despised those who rose above him, Franco above all, ensuring he would be sidelined as the dictator gathered power into his hands.

It’s often said Franco was no fascist. That may be, but he and the others in this book shared the genocidal impulse of Hitler and the Nazis. The Falange would be incorporated into the National Movement under him, along with monarchists of different hues, but they were central to the terror, and central to the regime, until it became clear Germany was going to be defeated. Nonetheless, the Falange remained the force Franco would turn to whenever he felt threatened, right up to the end.

The success of the far right in spreading the pernicious myth of a ‘Jewish-Masonic-Bolshevik’ conspiracy drew on old Catholic traditions, stretching back to the expulsion of Muslims and Jews in 1492, when the last Muslim kingdom of Grenada was conquered. But its propogandists quickly picked up and spread the current version issuing from Berlin. The Falange mushroomed in size before the military uprising, recruiting the monarchist youth en masse, and then did again once the civil war got underway and it was given a free hand to kill en masse.

The entire Spanish right, from open fascists to the officer corps, the Catholic hierarchy and most of the priesthood, and the monarchists, were infected by Nazi ideas and by Nazi methods. When World War II began, Franco would declare Spain neutral but after Hitler’s occupation of Scandinavia, the Low Countries and France, changed that to ‘non-belligerence’, supporting Germany and Italy in every way short of joining in the fighting.

The truth was that after the civil war, Spain was in no position to join the war and Hitler could not afford to supply it with the material that would have required, or accede to Franco’s price, swathes of North Africa. But when Hitler invaded Russia, Franco did send 40,000 men to fight there, the fascist Blue Division. He supplied the Third Reich with raw materials and weaponry till the end, and Hitler’s U-boats docked in Spanish ports to be refuelled, repaired and to be supplied with weather charts and information on British shipping. The Germans in turn ran a huge propaganda operation in Spain, targeting Jewry.

Toxic legacy

What Preston also shows is that subsequent efforts to pretend Spain helped save Jews from across Europe were a barefaced lie. The regime handed over the census it took of its own Jewish population to the SS commander, Heinrich Himmler. It imposed fines and taxes on them, and made it clear they were not part of Franco’s new order. When Franco occupied Tangiers, until then a French possession, the Falange ran amok, attacking its Jewish population and forcing them to flee. The regime also tried to stop Jewish refugees (including Spanish-speaking Sephardic Jews, the descendants of those expelled from the Kingdom of Spain in 1492, many of whom had Spanish passports) entering Spain and, when they relented to a degree, allowed those with papers only the right to cross the country to a port from which they could depart. Those without papers were interned.

All the time the press and radio were issuing antisemitic statements given to them by the German embassy or lifted from ‘The Protocols of Zion’. Post-war Holocaust denial was the rule of the day. This book gives quotation after quotation to prove all this. I hesitate to reproduce them for reasons of good taste.

Why does all this matter? Since Franco’s death, Spain has struggled to deal with his toxic legacy. One indication of that was its reaction to the Catalan push for independence, culminating in the illegal October 2017 independence referendum. The right-wing Popular Party government sent in paramilitary police to stop voting by attacking voters, smashing their way into polling stations and seizing ballot boxes. Since then, Catalan leaders have been jailed, exiled and hundreds prosecuted for crimes such as insulting the monarchy.

Within Spain there was consensus between the right and the Socialists that Catalans could not vote for independence. Meanwhile the right has been vehement in opposing attempts to uncover those buried in Franco’s mass graves. For decades, the country prided itself that the far right was marginal, but that changed in December 2018 when a new party, Vox, entered the regional government of Andalusia in coalition with the centre right. Since then it has established a presence in the central parliament and given its votes to the right-wing Popular Party, taking control of the key region of Castile.

The party combined the familiar targeting of migrants – Muslims in particular – with violent attacks on Catalan and Basque nationalism, support for Spain’s Catholic identity and for the family. Attacks on Muslims were linked to the long ‘reconquest’ of Spain after it had been conquered by the Arabs and Berbers. Vox does not attack Jews and Freemasons, but the underlying themes echo those of Franco, particularly in its obsession with the Catalans.

Vox’s president, Santiago Abascal stated in 2019:

‘We are the voice of all those who had parents on the nationalist side and resist having to apologize for what their families did. We are the voice of all those who do not want to change the name of their street because of the fanatical political beliefs of those who want a Spain of one-sided memory.’

When the Socialist-Podemos coalition government presented a new Law of Democratic Memory (under which Franco was removed from the Valley of the Fallen), Macarena Olona, Secretary General of Vox told the Spanish Congress the left was ‘attempting to win through laws a war it lost on the battlefield.’[1] Paul Preston’s Architects of Terror is a chilling read, not just for what it tells us about Franco and his murderers, but because it carries a warning from history that cannot be ignored.

[1] Jason Xidias, ‘From Franco to Vox: Historical Memory and the Far Right in Spain’, CARR Research Insight 2021.1 (London, UK: Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right 2021).

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Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.

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