VALLE DE LOS CAIDOS, Spain — Judged by the standards of a century replete with political slaughter, the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39 can seem a relatively tame affair. Tens of millions died in Stalin’s Ukrainian hunger famine, the Holocaust, Mao’s Great Leap Forward, and Pol Pot’s Cambodian killing fields; the civil war in Spain managed a mere 500,000 killed. In the time, however, and for decades afterwards, the Spanish Civil War was a twentieth century political Rorschach blot: whether you stood with the Spanish Republicans or with the Spanish Nationalists was a pretty good indicator of where you stood on other classic left/right divides. The Spanish Civil War accelerated the development of an anti-totalitarian Left in the West (George Orwell being a prime example); conversely, many European and American conservatives thought the Nationalists were fighting a kind of anti-modern crusade.
The truth is that just about everyone behaved badly during the Spanish Civil War, and there are atrocity stories to spare on both sides. The victory of Francisco Franco’s Nationalists was frequently portrayed, at the time, as a preview of fascist ascendancy. Yet Anthony Beevor (a British historian not terribly sympathetic to Franco) argued recently that, had the Republicans won with the aid of the USSR, Spain would have become like Romania and Bulgaria after World War II — a Soviet dependency, freed only by the Revolution of 1989.
As the recent beatification of 498 martyrs of that period suggests, the Catholic Church suffered terribly during the Spanish Civil War; the new beati join hundreds beatified in the 1980s and 1990s and the nine Martyrs of Asturias canonized in 1999. Yet the beatified and canonized are a fraction of the total — some 7,000 bishops, priests, seminarians, monks, and nuns were killed simply because of who they were; no one knows how many thousands of lay Catholics were dispatched for the same reason. Some of the killings were beyond grotesque, as priests and seminarians were treated like bulls in the ring: stabbed, flayed, their ears cut off, and so forth, before the coup de grace. Entire monasteries, seminaries, and convents were wiped out; the dead bodies of nuns were exhumed and desecrated. There was little (some say no) apostasy.
On a clear, crisp mid-November morning, lethal wickedness seems far away as one approaches the Benedictine Abbey of the Holy Cross, the spiritual center of the Valley of the Fallen, the Valle de los Caidos, Spain’s national memorial to its civil war dead. Located about forty minutes outside Madrid, the complex consists of a national park, in which 40,000 Nationalist and Republican dead are buried; a colossal basilica hewn out of a granite mountain, atop which is the world’s largest cross (some 150 meters high); and behind the memorial cross, a classic monastic grid composed of a monastery, a choir school, a research library, and a center for social studies.
Critics carp that the Valley of the Fallen is a monument to one side of the civil war — Franco’s — and reflects Nationalist sensibilities. The abbot, Father Anselmo Alvarez, OSB, has a different view; as he put it to me after Sunday Mass, “This is a place of reconciliation.” Reconciliation was preached at Mass; reconciliation is what the monks teach the visitors who come in large numbers every day. The great mosaic in the basilica’s dome (a dome carved inside a mountain) is dedicated to Christ the King, who is surrounded by angels, martyrs, confessors — and the dead of the civil war. There, in the true Kingdom, there is neither Left nor Right, for the “former things” have “passed away” (Rev. 21.4).
Another fair-minded British historian, Hugh Thomas, wrote of the anti-Catholicism of the Spanish Civil War that “at no time in the history of Europe, or even perhaps of the world, has so passionate a hatred of religion and all its works been shown.” Spain’s aggressively secularist government is now trying to rewrite the history of the 1930s in order to eliminate that truth. In dealing with the contentions and savagery of the past, the monks of the Valley of the Fallen have, I suggest, found the more excellent way.