Fieldnotes: Fascism, women, and the Spanish Civil War

WARNING: If you’re upset by violence, you might want to skip this post. However, if you really want to see how women fare under far-right fascist governments, you should read this, espeically if you live in America right now.

In order to simplify the opposing forces in the Spanish Civil War for my American readers:

The elected Republican government was roughly the equivalent to today’s Democratic Party. Franco’s fascists referred to the Republicans as “leftists,” or as “reds” even though most Republicans did not consider themselves to be communists.

The rebels (Franco and his military junta) were backed by the Church, industrialists, the rich, and fascists, which can be likened to today’s evangelicals, the one percent, and Trump’s fascist party, the GOP. They consisted of members of the hard-right and fascists.

Before anyone accuses me of misrepresenting the GOP’s fascist mentality, their current philosophy was initially made clear in a speech by one of Franco’s more flamboyant generals, Juan Yagüe y Blanco (more commonly known as the Butcher of Badajoz):

“… We have decided to redeem you and we will redeem you whether you want to be redeemed or not. Do we need you for anything? No, there will never again be any elections, so why would we need your vote? The first thing to do is to redeem the enemy. We are going to impose our civilization on them and if they don’t accept it willingly, we will impose it by force …”

That attitude, expressed by Yagüe in October of 1937, exemplified the rhetoric behind Franco’s war of annihilation, which was especially brutal on women. Republicans, who weren’t able to flee Franco’s advancing forces, were shot or taken into custody, not as prisoners of war but as common criminals. If the men couldn’t be found, their mothers, wives, and daughters were imprisoned in their stead. In Huesca, seventy-four women were executed for the crime of being the wives of men who had either fled or been shot.

Falangists (fascists) raped Republican women at will. They were also known to brand their victims’ breasts with the Falangist symbol of yoke and arrows. In one case, Falangists raped two women and when they were done, they placed hand grenades between the women’s legs and pulled the pins.

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Executions were commonplace and had no regard to either gender or age. In Madrid on 5 August 1939, “fifty-six prisoners were executed including a fourteen-year-old boy and thirteen women, seven of whom were under the age of twenty-one. They came to be known as the Trece Rosas, thirteen roses whose fate symbolized the cruelty of the Franco regime. They were members of the United Socialist Youth, the JSU. Their capture in the spring of 1939 had been facilitated because the Casado Junta had seized JSU membership lists then left them for the Francoists. The excuse for the executions was a non-existent plot to murder Franco.”

The repression in Jaca was exceptionally brutal and was quite often led, not by the military, but by the priests. One in particular, Father de Fustiñana, who was the Chaplain to the local Requetés and liked to walk the streets carrying a gun, was especially feared. Called a ‘bird of ill omen,’ the prisoners knew that when he entered the prison, death followed. On 6 August 1936, Fustiñana, an army captain, and two Falangists “seized two women from the Jaca prison, took them out into the countryside and shot them.” The women were Pilar Vizcarra, who was twenty-eight-years old and pregnant, and Desideria Giménez, a member of the Socialist Youth. Giménez was sixteen.

Fustiñana enjoyed these executions. “He offered confession and the last rites to those about to be shot. Then, his shoes caked with blood, he would visit the families of the few that accepted.” Fustiñana maintained lists of those executed and whether or not the condemned decided to make confession at the end. Over four hundred people from Jaca and its surrounding villages were murdered during this purge.

Those arrested were often members of the Republican middle class, especially doctors and schoolteachers. Women weren’t allowed to take children older than three into prison with them. Since family members were also either imprisoned, executed, or in exile, the women had no one to care for their children. In other cases, babies were taken away (often by force) from their mothers immediately after birth in prison.

The Republican children were placed orphanages, often while the parents still lived.

The justification for removing children from their parents was precipitated by Major Antonio Vallejo Nágera, who was appointed by Franco to oversee the Psychiatric Services of the rebel army. Vallejo spent his time searching for the “‘red gene’ and the links between Marxism and mental deficiency on Republican prisoners.” He justified “the sequestration of Republican children in a book entitled The Eugenics of Spanishness and the Regeneration of the Race.” Vallejo’s theory was that race “was constituted by a series of cultural values” such as hierarchical, military, and patriotic.

Of course Vallejo noted that the values of “the left” were inimical to the fascist idea of Spanishness, and therefore had to be eradicated. “Obsessed with what he called ‘the transcendent task of cleansing of our race’, his model was the Inquisition, which had protected Spain from poisonous doctrines in the past.” To his way of thinking, the “health of the race required that children be separated from their ‘red’ mothers.”

His work eventually led to the 1941 law that “legalized the changing of the names of Republican orphans.”

After the war, roughly twelve thousand children were placed in state or religious orphanages. These orphanages brainwashed the children by telling them that their parents were criminals. One woman recounts how her husband was shot before her and her small daughter. She was arrested and the child was given to a Catholic orphanage. “The mother wrote regularly until one day her daughter replied saying, ‘Don’t write to me any more about papa. I know he was a criminal. I am taking the veil.’”

Likewise, other children were brainwashed into denouncing their fathers as assassins. They were “forced to sing the songs of the murderers of their father; to wear the uniform of those who have executed him, and to curse the dead and to blaspheme his memory.”

When women were allowed to take their small children with them into prison, it usually resulted in a death sentence for the child. In Ventas, Paz Azatí recounted that each day “on the floor of the Ventas infirmary you would see the corpses of fifteen to twenty children dead from meningitis.” The notorious prison in Saturrarán prison in the Basque Country murdered more than one hundred women and fifty children with disease alone.

Rather than outcry, the Francoists applauded his atrocities at every turn. Propagandists “presented the executions, the overflowing prisons and camps, the slave-labour battalions and the fate of the exiles as the scrupulous yet compassionate justice of a benevolent Caudillo. In 1964, they launched a highly choreographed, nationwide celebration of the ‘Twenty-Five Years of Peace’ since the end of the war. Every town in Spain was bedecked with posters rejoicing in the purging of the atheistic hordes of the left.”

In an interview with ABC, Franco “made it clear that the celebrations were not for peace but for victory … The unspoken message of the elaborate celebrations was that the return on Franco’s investment in terror could not have been more successful.”

For the sake of ourselves and our children, we should take care the past does not become the present.

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All quotes taken from The Spanish Holocaust: inquisition and extermination in twentieth-century Spain by Paul Preston.