Order revolution and political violence

The military rebels gave a taste of their sword to tens of thousands of citizens. Nobody knew better than they did how useful terror could be to paralyse any potential resistance and eliminate their opponents. Many of them had cut their teeth in the colonial wars, ideal settings for learning to reject human values and civic virtues, to become educated in the veneration of violence. The premeditated violence before the coup, during the plotting stage, was nothing compared to what was to begin in July 1936. They started by spreading terror from the very first day, intimidating, killing, crushing any resistance. With the declaration of martial law, anyone defending the Republic was deemed a 'rebel'.

When the military coup evolved into a war, the destruction of the enemy became the absolute priority. And in this transition from politics to war, the opponents, either political or ideological, lost their status as compatriots, 'Spaniards', and became an enemy against whom the use of violence was totally legitimate. 'If I see my father in the enemy ranks, I shoot him', said General Mola.1 War was no longer the continuation of politics by other means, as Karl von Clausewitz, the leading military theorist of the nineteenth century, had written. A century later, it was a case of using it to resolve social conflicts, something which matched perfectly the pattern of that turbulent epoch of wars, revolutions, Fascism and democracies in crisis. In Europe, in the period between the two world wars, political styles, according to Richard Vinen, 'became aggressively masculine', and the words 'struggle', 'battle' and 'the enemy' dominated political speeches.2

1 José María Iribarren, Con el general Mola. Escenas y aspectos inéditos de la guerra, Ed. Heraldo de Aragón, Zaragoza, 1937, p. 211.

2 Richard Vinen, A History in Fragments: Europe in the Twentieth Century, Abacus, London, 2002, p. 154.

In Spain, it was not just the military rebels who considered the Republic to be illegitimate or believed that the true social values, the values of order, were in danger. The policy of extermination initiated by the military rebels was fervently subscribed to by conservative sectors, landowners, the bourgeois, property owners and 'respectable people', who rejected once and for all the defence of their order via the law because, 'once the social peace had been broken', this was now impossible, as they never tired of saying in the spring of 1936. 'The urgent re-establishment of the principle of authority' is what the representatives of the Chambers of Commerce asked for in their convention held in Madrid at the end of June that year.3

This 'principle of authority' began to be re-established with the declaration of martial law, a procedure that enabled the military rebels to implement a series of exceptional regulations in order to exercise their power without restrictions. In areas where the military coup was unsuccessful, the State ceased to exist outside Madrid - if indeed it existed even there - and groups of varying postures and beliefs took to the public stage with arms. The moment had come for the power of committees, 'vigilante' patrols, 'investigation' groups, for the setting up of local and regional powers isolated from José Giral's republican government in Madrid, which, harking back to the past, was still referred to as the 'central' government.

From the collapse of the State, the disintegration of the administration and the distribution of arms among those who were willing to take them, emerged a wave of militant egalitarianism, millennium-ism, a 'spontaneous revolution', which, in the view of many witnesses, would collectivise factories and land, with wages suppressed and with the establishment of the earthly paradise that the people had been dreaming of for so long. This was the happy image of revolution that was handed down, for example, by George Orwell in his Homage to Catalonia, published in 1938.

But before any building, the 'social ill' and its main causes had to be weeded out. This was what revolution meant for many anarcho-syndicalist leaders and militants, but also for many other socialists and UGT members: the radical elimination of the symbols of power; the overthrow of the existing order; propagating an aggressive

3 Memoria de la Camara Oficial de Comercio e Industria de Zaragoza, 1936, pp. 21-5.

rhetoric that spoke of a society with no classes, no parties, no State. Revolution meant cleaning the atmosphere, applying the scalpel to diseased organs. And all this was a throwback to the Jacobins, the revolutionaries of the nineteenth century or those of the Russian revolution, reflected in the 'Public Health Committees', which, as in Lérida or Málaga, for example, devoted themselves to the cleansing of 'the unhealthy' in the summer of 1936.

Cleansing was a recurrent theme in the two zones created as a result of the uprising. The Spanish Civil War has gone down in history, and in memory, for the way it dehumanised its adversaries and for the horrific violence that it generated. If we go by the meticulous research carried out in the last few years, there were at least 150,000 lives lost to this violence during the war: close to 100,000 in the zone controlled by the military rebels and somewhat fewer than 60,000 in the republican zone. Figures aside, we are fully aware of the principal manifestations of this terror in the 'two cities', one 'celestial', the other 'earthly', recalled by the bishop of Salamanca, Enrique Pla y Deniel, quoting Saint Augustine.4 The entrance of the Church onto the stage, far from reducing the violence, increased it, blessing it on the one hand and kindling even more the popular feeling against the clergy that had broken out at the same time as the defeat of the military uprising. It is now time to give an account of this immeasurable violence.

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