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The Spanish Martyrs of the Twentieth Century: A Case of Forgotten Empathy

Empathy is a concept thattogether with tolerance and transparencyseems to have become a required condition for the correct application of domestic and international policy in contemporary American society. If a man or a woman has empathy for the abused, despised, and downtrodden and is intolerant of the victims’ transgressors, he or she is complimented for demanding retribution for the injustice committed. This tendency prevails also in the international arena, where empathy for the victims of oppression, tolerance for past aggressions, and the need for greater transparency are generally accepted principles in world affairs. All steps taken in this direction should be encouragedbut at the same time, the public must be made aware that empathy, tolerance and transparency are not virtues in themselves and, if not properly and objectively applied, can lead to gross injustice. To use or misuse these terms as a means to foster political and or ideological objectives can be described as violations of truth. 

The process of globalization and the creation of international organizations are playing an ever increasing role in world affairs and, to a certain degree, have compounded these problems. The International Court of Justice in The Hague is a perfect example. There is nothing wrong with this “humanitarian” trend at the global level if the actions taken by these institutions contribute to a more just and orderly international society. Nations as well as individuals deserve respect and understandingbut justice, when applied, must be objective and not guided by political or ideological motives but rather by a genuine desire for peace and harmony. For example, it would be a grave error and an outright injustice to have “empathy” for the victims of human rights violations in one case and completely ignore the reality of similar or even worse violations in other cases, simply because the so called evaluators base their conclusions on their personal ideological or political opinions. In one case, the violators and their accomplices are punished severely, whilst in the other, the transgressors go free without even a mild reproach; empathy for the victims of the abuses does not seem to apply to them. On the contrary, the violators often occupy newly appointed positions at the highest level of government and are accepted without hesitation by the international community. Under these conditions, “justice” is a mockery.

For example, in the Soviet Union, China and Vietnam, there wasand still seems to belittle empathy for the victims of mass slaughters, and the leaders and accomplices of these crimes go untouched. No investigations for past violations are recommended or even suggested. On the contrary, in the case of Chile, empathy for the victims of the Pinochet government occupies the center stage even though, in terms of the number of atrocities, there is no comparison between what happened in the southern cone of Latin America and the horrors of the Gulag in the Soviet Union and other communist countries.1 Can double standards be accepted in the application of international justice?

Not too many years ago, an article appeared in the newspapers that the Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon, well known for his indictment of Pinochet, was in the process of opening an investigation into the deaths and disappearances that occurred during the regime of General Francisco Franco in Spain.2 The investigation applied exclusively to the “alleged crimes” of the Franco government. Due to Spanish law, Garzon was limited in his investigation of the crimes committed in Spain up to 1952. He used Argentine rights groups to address any state terror in the country from 1936 to 1977, when democracy was restored.3 No mention was even made about the possibility of violations of human rights during the years of the Republic (1931-1939) and much less about the reality of what really happened to large sections of the civilian population as well as religious organizations during the years of the Civil War (1936-1939). Madrid and other major cities were “de facto” under the control of socialists, communists, and anarchists until June 1939. Apparently, there was no need for an evaluation of their actions during that tragic period of Spanish history. Can this be called an honest search for justice?

Once again, the world is facing the problem of international justice. The Spanish lawyer limited his argument to human rights violations in Spain during the Franco regime. He was playing with the term “empathy” to justify the investigation he wants to carry out, as if the only victims during the period he mentions were the result of “crimes” committed by Franco and his “accomplices.” Why didn’t Garzonin order to be objectiveopen also an investigation into the assassinations committed or tolerated by the Republican government and its allies during said period? Does he not have empathy for the victims of the Republican era who suffered the consequences of crass injustice? Is tolerance for the perpetrators of past crimes reserved exclusively to one of the contending parties?  If transparency is still the “motto” of the day, why didn’t Garzon and his followers present all the factsopenly and without subterfugeand not only those that fit his ideological bias? In fairness to the truth, if the Spanish lawyer had wanted a fair and balanced investigation to take place, justice demanded a more thorough and objective analysis of the tragic events that occurred in Spain during the turbulent nineteen thirties.

It is time that the record be set straight and not limited to what Garzon calls the crimes of the Franco regime.  Otherwise, wouldn’t it be fair to state that there is a lack of transparency in the investigation and even a significant cover up? Was the search for truth his real objective?

The recent beatification by Pope Benedict XVI of 498 martyrs who died for their faith prior to and during the Spanish Civil War is a clear indication that violations of the most elementary human rights were not limited by any means to the alleged crimes of the Franco regime. The process of beatification has brought back memories of the atrocities committed during that tragic period of Spanish history, atrocities which were mainly overlooked or purposely ignored by Garzon and large sectors of the Western media. 

With the end of the Second World War and the boycott of Spain by the victorious Allies, a blanket of silence covered the truth of what really happened in the Iberian Peninsula shortly after the fall of the Monarchy and the establishment of the Republic in 1931.

The world remembers with justified horror the famous Krystall Nacht, an event that brought about shame to one of the most civilized and cultured nations of Europe. That tragic day was only the prologue of what came later: a devastating war that killed millions of people and the horrors of the Holocaust. The rightful indignation of the Western media was more than justified. Unfortunately, however, Germany was not the only country that experienced  the horrors of mass assassinations, torture, and imprisonment under the harshest of conditions during the thirties of the 20th century.  Apart from the Soviet Union, Spain is a case in point. The decision of the Roman Pontiff to beatify the Spanish martyrs brings back to my mind the reality of the Spanish Republican government’s actions or “voluntary” omissions during the critical period from 1931 to 1939. Let us briefly analyze the facts to set the record straight.

The Spanish military under General Franco rose up against the Republican government on July 17, 1936, four days after the assassination of the conservative leader Calvo Sotelo. The revolt did not succeed as expected. The main capitals such as Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, and Bilbao remained loyal to the leftist Popular Front government elected in February of 1936. The country was divided and polarized between a powerful conservative right, including the less numerous Falange founded by Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera (shot to death in Alicante in 1936) and a robust but divided left, which included socialists, communists and anarchists. In addition, the country, since the flight of King Alfonso XIII, was torn apart by incessant strikes, political violence, and an increasingly weak government controlled to a large extent by left wing militants, all of which contributed almost inevitably to the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939.

The Komitern had not been particularly interested in Spanish affairs until the fall of the monarchy and the violent workers’ strikes of 1934 in Asturias. Disorder and private assassinations spread around the country with the tacit, if not overt, consent of a government that was incapable of maintaining order. With the arrival in 1936 of Marcel Israelievitch Rosenberg, the new Soviet ambassador to Madrid, Moscow began to take a more direct intervention within the internal politics of Spain. Gradually, he endeared himself to such influential government figures as Juan Negrin and Alvarez del Vayo, to such a degree that he was invited to participate as a de facto vice-Premier in the Council of Ministers of Largo Caballero’s government. Spain’s President Manuel Azana also supported him. One of the most outspoken defenders of the communist wrath against religion and tradition was the “famous” Dolores Ibarruri, better known as La Pasionaria, who, through her vicious speeches, was responsible for much of the violence and deaths that ensued. Under those circumstances, it would be difficult to deny that Madrid, at the highest level of government, was totally infiltrated by communist agents and agitators.

With the initiation of the Spanish Civil War, the Soviet agents of the NKVD began to gain an even greater influence in the already infiltrated communist government of Largo Caballero. Alexander Orlov, responsible for the NKVD operations in Spain, received instructions not only to get rid of the remaining Franco sympathizers in the Red areas of Spain but also to eliminate (physically) all of those (such associalists or anarchists) who were not loyal supporters of Stalin’s Soviet regime. They were accused of being Trotskyites and, thus, enemies of Stalin’s Russia. 

The persecutions that took place all over Red Spain were ruthless and without pity. Thousands upon thousands of people were slaughtered and suffered unbelievable tortures in the hands of the Tcheka. People of all social classes were included as enemies of the “State.” There are hundreds of witnesses who can attest to these truths, but, again, these ordeals have hardly been mentioned in the West. Pravda even initiated a campaign claiming that in Catalonia all Trotskyites and anarchists should be wiped out with the same energy as Stalin did in the Soviet Union. As late as 1938, hundreds of anti-Stalinist leftists were rounded up, imprisoned in a Tcheka (Santa Ursula) called the “Dachau of the Spanish Republic,” where they awaited certain death, hopefully before being tortured first. Tchekas were to be found all over Red Spain.

Ironically, the communist general Campesino (Valentin Gonzalez) who was responsible for the massacre of thousands of peasants in Castilla, managed to leave Spain at the end of the Civil War only to end up in Russia and was later deported by the NKVD to Siberia with thousands of other communist exiles, who were believers in “the peoples’ paradise.”  Fortunately for him, he was able to escape from Siberia and take refuge in Iran. A similar fate occurred to many other communist defenders of the Spanish Republic who, after their defeat and exile, were no longer needed by the Komitern.

The communist hatred was not limited to the so-called enemies of Marxism-Leninism but also all those who dared challenge their godless philosophy. The story of the torture and death experienced by thousands of Spanish priests, nuns, and lay men who had nothing to do with politics and died for their faith should be known by the young generations of the future. Just as the Nazi Krystal Nacht and the Holocaust should serve as examples of man’s capacity for evil, in a similar way, the Spanish Krystal Tag of the early 1930sthe day when hundreds of churches and schools were burned to the groundshould also remind us of communism’s destructive power for unbelievable iniquity.4

To the consternation of many honest persons, the western “intelligentsia” still remains largely silent in the face of so many atrocities committed by the Communists in Spain. Until very recently, they were still apologists for the Soviet Union, praising the achievements of Communism.  Following the example of such prominent literary figures as Andre Gide and Jean Paul Sartre, well known in the France of the nineteen thirties, the “intelligentsia” of the third millennia still shy away from accepting the reality of what really happened in Spain. As the German philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand once said: “we are living in an epoch which is characterized by the dethronement of truth.” The irony of it all is that the truth is the only thing that is going to make us free.

The abuses and errors of the Franco regime in the post Civil War years are well known and need not be repeated today. The media has taken care of propagating them.  That is why it is time that the world should also become aware of the horrors inflicted upon the Spanish people by a ruthless communist system that gradually took control of the Spanish Republic shortly after the fall of the monarchy in 1931. The recent beatification by Pope Benedict XVI of the 498 martyrs for the faith is a clear indication that in the end, the truth always prevails. 

The time has arrived for modern man to search for the truth and not be guided by false and biased interpretations of such terms as empathy, tolerance, and transparency.  These terms should not be used to defend certain dubious political and ideological positions that deviate from the truth. Ignorance of the truth, whether voluntary or involuntary, does not contribute to the peaceful and harmonious development of society. The modern world must come to the realization that it must restore the full respect for truth as the supreme judge in all questions and not be led astray by false interpretations of popular words that only contribute to the dethronement of truth.5

The philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand reminds us that “every man is exposed to an infection by the errors and perverted trends that are, as it were, in the air of an epoch. To become fully alive to these dangers and aberrations is, therefore, imperative also for our own sake.”6 He claims that man is living in an era characterized by what he calls the “dethronement of truth,” and this entails the decomposition of man’s very life. According to him: “Disrespect for truth, when not merely a theoretical thesis, but a lived attitude, patently destroys all morality, even all reasonability and all community life. All objective norms are dissolved by this attitude of indifference toward truth; so also is the possibility of resolving any discussion or controversy objectively; peace among individuals or nations and all trust in other persons are impossible as well. The very basis of a really human life is subverted.”7

All types of ruses carried out to confuse the public should be avoided, as they misconstrue the very concept of truth. It is unethical and disrespectful for truth to present events in a biased way with the intention of promoting or defending the ideological or political positions of the author under the pretext that he or she is presenting the objective truth and not his personal opinion. It is interesting to note that in the case of Germany, the truth about Nazi atrocities was presented clearly and without ambiguities; a great achievement which deserves our praise. The terms empathy for the victims, condemnation of the guilty, and full transparency were accurately interpreted and applied. The same cannot be said of the communist systems in the Soviet Union and other communist regimes.

It is ironic that subjective ethical standards were used in the case of Spain, de facto ignoring the reality of historical facts. Objective truth was sacrificed in the altar of political or ideological expediency. Thus, it is imperative that, in justice, the truth be made known of what really happened in the land of Cervantes between 1931 and 1941. The record must be made straight so that the tergiversation of truth does not spread and continue to confuse the minds of both young and old.

The Spanish judge Garzon conveniently “forgot,” and, thus, decided not to request an investigation of the mass assassinations that occurred during the domination of the “Popular Republican Front” government in Madrid. Something similar can be said of most editorials and press releases that, under the banner of objectivity, analyze the Spanish situation during the Civil War years. These biased and misleading actions clearly tend to indicate the lack of respect for objective truth.

Pope Benedict XVI did not hesitate to bring to public attention the multiple assassinations of Christians who suffered persecution during the nineteen thirties-massive assassinations which have hardly been reported by the international media. Apparently, public empathy for the Spanish martyrs should be dumped into the dust bin of history. Why didn’t Garzon ask for an investigation of those responsible for these atrocities? Perhaps he feels that society should be tolerant of these abuses, and the need for transparency is not necessary. Neither is there any need for empathy.

Let the example given by Pope Benedict XVI serve as reminder that man, in his efforts to bring justice and peace to the world, cannot ignore the need to respect and defend truth in its entirety. Otherwise, could it be proclaimed, paraphrasing the famous statement, alleged to be said by Mme. Roland on her way to the guillotine during the French Revolution: “Liberty, liberty, how many crimes are committed in thy name!” The only thing wanting is to replace the word “liberty” with the more philosophical term “truth.”  How ironic it would be for contemporary man to be carried away by “false statements called truths,” when REAL TRUTH is the only thing that makes him free! May the new generations of the 21st century realize the threat to our society posed by the “dethronement of truth”no matter what form it takesand take the necessary steps to protect themselves from the aberrations and nefarious consequences of a “false truth.”

By this I do not imply that a single violation of human rights can be justified. However, any objective and honest observer has to admit that the horrors of Stalin’s and Mao’s communism are difficult to imitate. The only case that comes to my mind is Nazism in Hitler’s Germany.  

See: The Washington Times, “Argentina asked to probe suspected war crimes in Spain under Franco.”  Washington D.C. April, 2010. Garzon was the Spanish judge who initiated the case against August Pinochet in 1998. 

An amnesty law was passed in Spain in 1977 to help Spaniards to put behind them the horrors of the Civil War (1936-1939).

It so happened that my parents were living in Madrid that fateful day. I still remember, as a child, having witnessed the destruction and burning of multiple churches, schools, and convents in the capital. The burning of Arenero, a Jesuit school in the center of Madrid, comes particularly to my mind.  My father and mother took my brother and me to see the devastation caused by the communist hatred of religion in general. The government, either willingly or not, stood silently by. The memory of these tragic events has remained deeply engraved in my memory. A few months later, my family left Spain for good and went to England, where peace and honest government prevailed.

Without truth, writes Pope Benedict XVI, even charity (empathy) can degenerate into sentimentality.  Love, claims the Roman Pontiff, “becomes an empty shell, to be filled in an arbitrary way. In a culture without truth, this is the fatal risk facing love. It falls prey to contingent subjective emotions and opinions; the word ‘love’ is abused and distorted, to the point where it comes to mean the opposite. Truth frees charity from the constraints of an emotionalism that deprives it of relational and social content and of fideism that deprives it of human and universal breathing-space.” Empathy for the downtrodden and oppressed must also be understood, confirmed, and practiced in the light of truth and not in a discriminatory way.  There must be a link between both, a complementary sequence of caritas in veritate. See: Benedict XVI, Charity in Truth. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2009) p.10.

Dietrich von Hildebrand, The New Tower of Babel. (New York: P.J. Kenedy & Sons, 1953. p.6.

Ibid, p. 61