The language of arms

Right from the start of the military coup, and quite some time before it evolved into open war and generated the beginning of a revolutionary process wherever it had failed, the rebels put into action a terror mechanism that destroyed the resistance capabilities of the workers' and republican organisations, intimidated their less active adversaries, and physically wiped out their political and ideological enemies.

8 Mola's and Marcelino Gavilán's utterances are taken from José María Iribarren, Con el general Mola. Escenas y aspectos inéditos de la guerra, Editorial Heraldo de Aragón, Zaragoza, 1937, p. 211; Franco's belief in his mission is from Preston, Franco, pp. 145-6; Allen's sentence is quoted in Ian Gibson, Queipo de Llano. Sevilla, verano de 1936, Grijalbo, Barcelona, 1986, pp. 81-2.

The course of events was very similar in all the cities where the rising was successful. The army left their barracks, swarmed into the streets and proclaimed martial law, thus banning meetings, strikes and the possession of arms. Military squads with their machine guns installed outside the main public buildings showed that this was serious. Civil governors were replaced by officers. From their new post, they dismissed the political authorities, beginning with the mayors and regional council leaders, and ordered the Civil Guard in the various towns and villages to join the uprising.

Thus began mass gaolings, selective repression to eliminate resistance, systematic torture and 'hot-blooded' terror, the type of terror that abandoned people wherever they had been shot, in roadside ditches, against cemetery walls, in rivers or in disused wells and mines. Mayors, civil governors, local councillors, trade union and Frente Popular leaders were the first to suffer the terror of the paseos. One could come across a corpse anywhere, still warm or in an advanced state of decomposition, due to the high temperatures of that summer of 1936. For example, a milkman came across the republican mayor of Salamanca, the Professor of Medicine, Casto Prieto Carrasco, in a ditch beside the road to Valladolid. Another doctor, Manuel Pérez Lizano, president of the Zaragoza Provincial Council, was discovered by members of the Red Cross, an institution over which he also presided, on the banks of the Aragon Imperial Canal.9

Compliance with the law was replaced by the language and dialectic of arms, by the rejection of human rights and the veneration of violence. Now that this new scenario of total war was under way, in which politics came to be assessed exclusively in military terms and one was either a friend or an enemy, the legitimation of the use of physical violence met no serious obstacles. It was enough to say that the enemy was not a human being to kill him without remorse. They were rats, 'red scum', 'rotten limbs' that needed to be amputated 'to save the nation, the Fatherland'. Political and ideological adversaries, or simply adversaries, no longer had the right to be considered fellow countrymen.

Under these circumstances, with no law to be obeyed, and with no fear of punishment, gangs of killers appeared everywhere, protected

9 Unless indicated otherwise, the analysis of the political violence in both camps comes from Julián Casanova, 'Rebelión y revolución', in Santos Juliá (ed.), Víctimas de la guerra civil, Temas de Hoy, Madrid, 1999, pp. 57-185.

by the army, by landowners and the middle class fearful of revolution; they organised shooting parties to settle old scores, dominated by young Falangists, students and respectable citizens, but also by predatory and spiteful people who, unfettered by the inhibitions that had previously restrained their violent instincts, now gave free rein to their aggression and cruelty. Thus it is hardly surprising that the greatest bloodshed took place in the two months that followed the rising, before this violence was legalised.

Indeed, the final days of July and the months of August and September 1936 saw the highest number of killings in almost every region that had been under the control of the rebels from the start: between 50 and 70 per cent of the total number of victims of this repression during the civil war and afterwards were concentrated in this short period. If we extend this period to the end of 1936, the percentages border on the upper limit, which shows that this was not just a wartime repression, a war that still had two years to run, but also an emergency 'surgical' extermination. Over 90 per cent of the close to 3,000 killings in Navarre, and 80 per cent of the 7,000 in Zaragoza occurred in 1936. But the percentages were very similar in Córdoba, Granada, Seville, Badajoz and Huelva, the provinces in which, together with Navarre and Zaragoza, the stench of death was at its strongest in that wave of summer terror. In none of these provinces was the death toll below 2,000 victims, in barely seventy days.

The killings were rife wherever there was the most resistance, wherever old conflicts and influential leftist organisations triggered the settling of scores. Rational behaviour took a back seat amidst so much torture and death. Apparently peaceful citizens killed with impunity when they were given a uniform or acted collectively. An apparently trivial event, a commemoration, was all it took for the death toll to soar. The night of 10 to 11 August 1936 in Seville was such a case: to celebrate Sanjurjo's anti-republican coup in 1932, various left-wing figures were murdered, including the city's first republican mayor and Cortes deputy in 1933 and 1936, José González Fernández de Labandera; the socialist deputy Manuel Barrios; the secretary of the Andalusian masons, Fermín de Zayas; and the Andalusian nationalist notary, Blas Infante. August, the festive month par excellence in Spain, was, in 1936, the month of death.

And death came in the form of paseos on the blood-stained stage of that summer. The victims would be arrested in the streets or in their homes for being 'well-known leftists', for opposing the 'glorious National Movement', sought because they appeared in the documents seized on the premises of political and trade union organisations, denounced by their neighbours or singled out for their irreligious behaviour. They would be held for a few days in the many buildings that had been equipped as gaols, where they would stay until the saca (cull) - another word that gained a place of honour in the vocabulary of repression on both sides during 1936. Those chosen for the sacas would be 'taken for a walk' at night, just before dawn. Sometimes the coroner would be in attendance to authorise the removal of the bodies, but usually, in those early days, they would be left abandoned, after a priest had tried to give spiritual comfort to the prisoners.

The avalanche of killings in this major 'cleansing' operation gave rise to all types of anomaly. Thousands of deaths were never registered, while many others appeared as 'an unidentified man or woman'. For example, 581 men and 26 women appear as such in the city of Zaragoza. In Huelva, 827 were inscribed with no date of death. This was the time of mass killings in the area covered by Queipo de Llano's 2nd Division, in Galicia, in Extremadura, in Aragon, executions carried out by civil guards, by armed police in plain clothes, by 'paramilitary' patrols that killed for pleasure. There was no longer any room for the dead in the cemeteries, so large mass graves were dug, as in the case of Lardero, a small village near Logroño where close to 400 people were shot and buried; or, in the case of Víznar, a few kilometres from Granada, where García Lorca met his death. Common graves were rapidly dug by the victims themselves or on the orders of the competent authority, as was the case with the Zaragoza City Councillor, García Belenguer, who on 5 August 1936 requested that compressors be taken to the cemetery to 'check the earth-moving works with greater speed'.10

This 'hot-blooded' terror needed no procedures or safeguards. Three-quarters of the 1,830 killed in Cáceres were 'taken for a walk', almost all of them in the first few months, while only 32 of the 2,578 victims of repression in the city of Zaragoza during 1936 faced a court martial, eight of whom were members of the army, shot in their barracks. In fact, being a member of the army was practically the only circumstance that enabled one to avoid the paseo in the rebel zone,

10 Minutes of the Zaragoza City Council session, 5 August 1936.

although, as we have seen, this did not mean that officers loyal to the Republic or who were hesitant about joining the uprising escaped the cruel persecution of their rebel colleagues.

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