Today's New York Times has a review of a new exhibit which opened yesterday Facing Fascism: New York and the Spanish Civil War and the tenor of the review might surprise a lot of readers around St. Blogs. The exhibition is a celebration of the heroism of “the 3,000 or so United States citizens (about a third from New York City) who defied the government’s prohibition and secretly went to Spain in 1937 to fight the forces of fascism. Some 800 lost their lives. . . " George Orwell was among those who volunteered and was wounded. The exhibit’s version of the story goes like this: The American volunteers were heroes because they fought fascism in Spain. They were heroes because they recognized that fascism threatened a whole world on the verge of war. And they were heroes because they continued to fight fascism at home. “ In a series of video interviews, one veteran argues (presumably in the 1980s) that what happened in Spain was no different from what was happening in Nicaragua, El Salvador and South Africa; another asserts that the United States in Vietnam was doing just what Hitler and Mussolini did.” The Times review is critical of portraying the civil war as a morality tale with simple heroes (the communists) and villains (Franco's supporters) and points out that this is a trend. “In February, for example, in The Guardian of London, the historian Eric Hobsbawm celebrated the ultimate triumph of the war’s losers and suggested that the virtues of their cause transcended Stalin’s machinations. The recent film “Pan’s Labyrinth” portrays populist forest-dwelling partisans confronting a monstrously evil fascist leader. In June, W. W. Norton is going to release the latest edition of Paul Preston’s much-hailed history, “The Spanish Civil War: Reaction, Revolution, and Revenge,” which blames “an unholy alliance of anarchists, Trotskyites and cold warriors” for obscuring the nature of the war against Spanish fascism.” The truth is that both sides were guilty of atrocities. What I find particularly frustrating is that nowhere in the article is the horrific persecution of the Church during the civil war mentioned – a persecution which convinced many Catholics of the day to support Franco.
It is hard for us to see the world as they understood it before World War II and the holocaust and a thousand movies made anything to do with Nazism an unthinkable and abhorrent alternative. What Catholics in the 30’s were wrestling with was this:
12 bishops, 4,184 priests, 2365 monks and 300 nuns were killed by the Communists in Spain. Seven priests and a nun were beatified as martyrs in 2005. (The picture to the right is that of a church destroyed during the civil war)
The remarkable Catholic lay apostle, Catherine Doherty, who later went on to found Madonna House, was a witness of these horrors in Brunette, a town near the French border that had recently been recaptured from the communists. (warning: the next few paragraphs are pretty graphic)
She writes in Fragments of My Life that she and her Irish companion entered a church in which they found a large ciborium on the altar in which consecrated hosts were inserted in feces. Next they came to the cemetery of a Carmelite monastery in which both nuns and priests had been buried. The bodies had been disinterred and some had been arranged naked in positions of intercourse.
Catherine remembers: “My companion sat down on a rock and swore as I’ve never heard a man swear before-deliberately, slowly, monotonously, in every way it is possible to sear. He swore in sheer horror before the blasphemy that met our eyes.”
Catherine’s response? “We are going to kneel down right here in the midst of these bodies and pray for those who have done this. It is the only way to purify the cemetery.”
They moved on to a hospital run by Carmelite nuns. There they found a dying nun of about 20 years old. She had been raped by about 15 soldiers. When they were done, the soldier had cut off her breasts and cut her thighs into small pieces. This time, Catherine fainted.
Most Catholics at the time recognized that it was the choice between two evils and were trying to determine which side was the lesser. For all of Franco’s faults and their distaste for his alliance with Hitler, many Catholics considered anything preferable to the brutal anti-Catholic atheism of his opponents. For poet Roy Campbell, who, with his wife, had converted to Catholicism in Spain and loved the traditional life of the Spanish countryside, the situation seemed very clear. He enlisted to fight for Franco. Ronald Knox, Evelyn Waugh, and Christopher Dawson, among many other well-known Catholics of the day, also came out in support of the Nationalists. Graham Greene couldn’t stomach Franco and his connections with Hitler but couldn’t support the Republicans either. So instead, he tried to support the Catholic Basques who were fighting with the Republicans but not for a communist state. Greene was attacked from both the right and the left for his position. Jacques Maritain and Francois Mauriac also supported the Basques but theirs was a lost cause. The Spanish civil war is a good example of the extraordinary complexity of the world in which lay Catholics have to navigate. That’s why it is possible for equally orthodox and devout Catholics to ultimate disagree with one another about the application of Church teaching to concrete situations in the world. Who among us would dare to say that Ronald Knox was a real Catholic and Jacques Maritain was not – or vice versa? Our best efforts to discern, to avoid the evil and do the good, can be hampered by partial knowledge, propaganda, pressure from those about us, our own history, and situation in life and many other factors. Sometimes all you can do is pray like Catherine Doherty. Around St. Blog’s, we must remember that our oneness in Christ is deeper and fundamental than our oneness with those who agree with us on any given issue. Especially since the secular mindset isn’t going to understand either of us.