The 2019 social movement in Hong Kong has amazed me in many ways. For one, it has evolved quickly and fluidly into a series of leader-less, internet-empowered campaigns.
Many have dubbed it, the “Be Water Movement” – for it is fluid as water, in that protesters are flexible in their response to the police in front of them. The movement is hard as ice, in that protesters have vowed to resist injustice and defend their good cause by all means. And the movement is like steam, in that it remains shrewdly elusive in order to avoid arrest by authorities, and then later re-emerge.
This strategy has allowed the protesters to stay resilient for an extended period of time. But why did these protests happen? Prior to the handover, in 1997, China offered the people of Hong Kong a new idea, which has now become a hollow promise, of “one country, two systems.” Many had doubts, some decided to leave, but more chose to stay because they loved Hong Kong and thus wanted to believe in the promise.
Since the handover, the Chinese have been aggressively asserting their influence – politically, socially, economically, demographically and ideologically. And it appears that this interference has only accelerated since President Xi took power.
In fact, the ruling elite of Hong Kong have been completely transformed by two decades of such interference. Government leaders, appointed officials and legislators readily kowtow to the commands of the Chinese, with no concern for the wishes of the local people. For example, the latest survey saw Carrie Lam, the Chief Executive, fall to merely 15 percent of public support.
But despite overwhelming public dissatisfaction, those in authority seem to care even less about the people, because they were not chosen by the people but were handpicked by the Chinese. As such, Hong Kong functions under a fundamentally flawed system of governance that is bound to fail – because it no longer reflects the will of the people.
The younger generation, in particular, feel helpless and are therefore desperate. They realize that “one country, two systems” is a big fat lie. There will be no freedom of speech. There will be no freedom of the press. There will be no freedom of assembly and association. There will be no true democratic elections. There will be no independent judiciary. The “rule of law” has quietly been replaced by the “rule by law.”
As the saying goes, bad money drives out the good. Simply put, Hong Kong will not be Hong Kong any more. It is losing its vigor; it is dying, and it is going to succumb to being a second-class Chinese city.
This protest movement is in many ways a war, a war between democracy and authoritarianism. It is a war of dignity and values. Pragmatically speaking, protesters also know that they will be defeated in the end. But they have no other option than to fight. If a woman is about to be raped does she simply beg for mercy? What option is left her? She still will cry out and resist with her last bit of dignity.
The protesters fight and resist, not because they know they will win. They fight because of their dignity. They fight because they believe in freedom and democracy. That essentially sums up their spirit.
The Japanese writer, Haruki Murakami, once said, “If there is a hard, high wall and an egg that breaks against it, no matter how right the wall or how wrong the egg, I will stand on the side of the egg.”
So, who really stands with these “eggs,” these protesters, who now smash themselves against the Chinese wall? And, for how long will support for their cause last? As we know, it was the extradition bill that sparked the protests. This bill would force anyone in Hong Kong, who did anything politically inappropriate in the eyes of the communist regime, could be extradited to China, to face dire consequences.
Some people still choose to turn a blind eye, wishfully thinking that they are going to be safe, as long as they do not rock the boat. These people are tagged as “Blue-Ribbons” – those who side with the establishment.
However, the protests have “politically awakened” large segments of the population, who now question the system and the government. And these questions are quickly uncovering the many lies and the propaganda. They do not want to live in a “police state;” and many of these people are now coming out to express their outrage. They are tagged as “Yellow-Ribbons” – those who side with the protesters.
Typical protests now range from 1 to 2 million; and they are mostly the Yellow-Ribbons. To put this in perspective, Hong Kong has a population of 7 million.
If it were not for the young protesters fighting against all odds, the extradition bill would have easily passed. Nevertheless, the government remains adamant and continues to dismiss all legitimate and reasonable requests of its own people.
This terrorist attack, for that was what it was, was inflicted on the people to instill fear and to silence the public. None of the mafia members, of course, were caught, let alone prosecuted, despite wide-spread video evidence.
Nevertheless, Hong Kong is still freer than Mainland China, at least for the time being. It has not yet put up the so-called Chinese “Internet Great Wall,” which means that there is still free access to international, online information.
But it is hard to “fact-check” everything. Truth and judgment will inevitably be clouded, given the constant bombardment of disinformation. It is harder to trust any information at hand. This also makes it harder to trust any people. Everyone becomes wary of each other, lest they be betrayed. There is fear of retribution, since China is always watching. Freedom from fear has been the first victim of communist propaganda.
Even at this moment, as I write this article, I am fearful of what might happen, of what the consequences might be of what I am now writing. Telling the truth often demands a fearful price.
What lies ahead for Hong Kong is also fearful – which lends greater poignancy to the protesters – for all Hongkongers what comes next is Cultural Revolution 2.0.
The Chinese Communist Party has never changed. It never respected human rights, and never allowed liberty to its own people. Tibet is the perfect example of what happens when China comes in and takes control.
And the Cultural Revolution 2.0 has already begun – all protesters have been labelled as violent terrorists and subversives; Hong Kong culture is being dismantled and destroyed. This what China does to minorities who refuse to kowtow. Just look at what is being done to the Uyhgurs.
What is most disturbing is that the world itself is silent, except for rare expressions of disapproval, such as, the Human Rights and Democracy Act for Hong Kong, which seems more politics than actual, real help for Hong Kong. In fact, as China grows stronger, Hong Kong will grow weaker, despite the fact that Hong Kong is extremely important as a major financial hub for China, through which it can access unrestricted capital flow.
Because of the financial importance of Hong Kong, the more radical protesters favor a so-called “scorched earth policy.” They want to smash everything that China holds dear in Hong Kong. “If we burn, you burn with us.” This sounds desperate – but we need to ask what has made these otherwise decent young people so very desperate that they will happily destroy what makes Hong Kong great – so it does not fall into Chinese hands.
This desperation has also split apart Hong Kong society. People are hesitant about sharing news with family and friends. Everyone is more guarded and careful about what they say. Relationships are torn apart – friends have become foes, couples are breaking up, children are running away from families.
Now, everyone has to take a side – whether it be as a “Yellow-Ribbon,” or as a “Blue-Ribbon.” Even companies, consumer brands and outlets are being categorized as, “Yellow-Camps” or “Blue-Camps.” Of course, the Yellows boycott anything Blue, and vice-versa. This has transformed society into opposing “tribes” – hose that protest China and those that agree and want to go along with it. But both sides are disgusted with the Hong Kong government, for its apathy, inaction and incompetence.
All the while, there is massive emigration, both among the Yellows and the Blues. Even the “Returnees” (who emigrated overseas prior to handover and the returned) are leaving for a second time. Others, who have no overseas passport, are frantically seeking alternative ways to get out and find a better future for themselves and their children.
Actually, China is perfectly fine with emigration. It seems that China wants to take over Hong Kong, but it does not want the people that come with it (the Hongkongers).
This is because there has been an uninterrupted influx of new immigrants, the rich and the elite, from Mainland China. Within a decade, the locally-born Hongkongers will be completely outnumbered in the next decade. Exactly what happened in Tibet.
Of course, this is a deliberate strategy, which will entirely delegitimize the local population. Hongkongers understand this well. Time is against them. What is now the majority voice, protesting for democracy and liberty will soon be stifled.
There is thus a sense of great urgency, which prompted a record high 71 percent turnout in the municipal council elections, in November 2019. The usual turnout for such election is 47 percent. The results of this election were encouraging, as it saw the pro-democracy camp successfully take control of 17 (out of 18) municipal district seats.
This was, in fact, a referendum, a reflection of public opinion. But despite this election, nothing really was won. The Chief Executive still will not budge. Large-scale arrests still take place every day (to-date, over 6,000 protesters have been arrested, many brutally beaten). We have no idea how many have been sexually assaulted, how many have been “disappeared,” or how many have officially “committed suicide” for the sake of this movement. They are indeed brothers and sisters in arms. They are the “martyrs” of this movement.
And in this dark time, I also see another Hong Kong, which shines with courage and righteousness. In the past, the typical young Hong Kong person used to be focused on money and success – and nothing else.
But now I see another kind of a young Hong Kong person – one who shows solidarity, perseverance and creativity. These young people can only bring admiration for what they have accomplished. I stand in admiration of their determination to do what they believe is right and to move forward without regret. Their love for Hong Kong is unconditional and sacrificial. Suffering builds up character; sacrifice builds a new world. Through their suffering and sacrifice, a new Hongkonger is being born! And I am proud to be one of them!
So, what is the endgame? We do not know what the future holds for
Hong Kong and its native people. As a realist, the future may be doomed. The fighting spirit of Hongkongers may be crushed.
But, as a Christian, however, I remember that Jesus vouched for the oppressed, the vulnerable, the marginalized and the persecuted. I believe He will vouch for Hongkongers: “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Perhaps this protest movement is a blessing in disguise. Perhaps we do not need to keep analyzing possible scenarios or calculating risks and returns. Rather exasperation, let us be proud, rejoice and move forward together as Hongkongers. We are writing history.
E. Lee is a Hong Kong-born Christian preacher, who is passionate about missions in the world, and who still loves and cares for his homeland enough to write the inconvenient truth.
Rather than trying to quell the rancor, the
resentment and all the old hatreds, the leadership of the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) chose
instead, in 2004, to revive the culture war and foment social unrest. The
lamentable message repeated ad nauseam by the official media made it
clear that since Spaniards were unable to overcome the past, the Transition
and the spirit of reconciliation
were only cowardice. This meant that the Spanish
Civil War could not be discussed outside the presuppositions of those who
regard themselves as being on the side of the good.
These suppositions are that the Right
remained Francoist, if not outright fascist; that the Law of Amnesty
of 1977 (the foundational act of the new democracy) was nothing other than a
convenient way to protect the Francoists (despite the fact that this law was
passed in the Legislature by a vote of 296 in favor, 2 opposed and 18
abstentions – in other words, with the support of the entire political class,
including the PSOE and the Communist
Party of Spain (PCE), with the exception of a handful of
Liberal-Conservatives and Francoists.
The purpose of this law was to eliminate punishment for the actions of
anti-Francoist terrorists, such as, PCE(r)-GRAPO
All these suppositions are nothing more than
a tissue of false-assumptions, lies, and radically erroneous premises – all
meant to foster a veritable fiction, with no connection to reality.
On December 26, 2007, PSOE got Parliament to
pass a “Historical
Memory Law,” which originated in a proposal introduced by the Communist
Unida). It rightly recognized and expanded the rights of those who suffered
persecution or violence during the Civil War and during the dictatorship.
But at the same time, it promoted a Manichean vision of history. Strangely, it
was adopted because of the indifference, and consent for the most part, of the
political class of the EU – even though this law undermines the most basic
right of freedom of expression.
One of the fundamental ideas of the
Historical Memory Law is that Spanish democracy is a heritage of the Second Republic.
This a highly questionable point of view, given the fact that the process of
Transition was conducted in accordance with the mechanisms provided by the Franco-regime
and was managed by a King, who was appointed by the generalissimo, and by his
prime minister, a former General Secretary of the Movimiento – as
well as the nearly unanimous consent of the Francoist political class. According
to the subjective reasoning of this law, the Second Republic (the foundational
myth of Spanish democracy, as per the Socialist Left and the extremists) –
should have been a nearly perfect regime in which all the Leftist parties would
act beyond reproach.
This law also offers a questionable amalgam
of military uprising, the Civil War, and the dictatorship of Franco, even
though all three are distinct facts, with their own relevant interpretations
and varying judgments. In effect, this law exalts the victims and the
murderers, the innocent and the guilty because they all belonged to the Popular Front
and because they are of the Left. Thus, this law confuses those who died
fighting in the war with the victims of the repression. Further, this law
promotes and justifies any and all effort that seeks to demonstrate that Franco
planned and systematically carried out a bloody repression during and after the
Civil War – all the while implying that the government of the Republic, and the
parties that supported it, had no repressive projects of their own. Finally,
this law recognizes and legitimizes the desire of many people to be able to
locate the bodies of their family members – but it also implicitly refuses this
right to those who were with the Nationalists, under the doubtful pretext that
such people had plenty of time to locate their dead ones during the Francoist
We may recall the “Garzón
Affair,” or the “Graves of Francoism,” which particularly exacerbated
tensions in 2006, given that the repression during the Civil War was equally
ferocious and widespread in both the Republican and the Nationalist camps.
Judge Baltasar Garzón
(friend of the socialists) claimed to undertake a sort of general inquisition,
curiously reminiscent of the Causa
General (General Cause), carried out by Franco’s Public Ministry,
between 1940 and 1943, and which the Democratic Constitution of 1978 formally
Spain is still a nation of laws, with many
men of the law who did not appreciate this behavior of the Chekists. The result was an
endless judicial battle, which was finally decided by the political will of the
Socialist government, on October 25 of this year (by way of a royal ordinance).
The Basilica, in effect, is a religious place, whose inviolability is
guaranteed by an international treaty signed between Spain and the Holy See in
1979. The Benedictines, who look after the monument, are not directly dependent
on the Vatican, but on the authority of their abbot and the superior of their
order, who is the abbot of Solesmes Abby.
But the improvised and sloppy drafting of
this royal ordinance, adopted by the Sánchez government, was the source of
other complications. No doubt given the notoriety of the name, Franco (a
military man, a statesman and a polemical dictator), the national and
international press omitted to mention that the application to the letter of this
ordinance will also require the immediate exhumation of 19 Benedictine monks
likewise interred in the Valley of the Fallen, along with 172 other persons who
died after the end of the Civil War. As well, we do not know the fate of the
body of José
Antonio Primo de Rivera, imprisoned for three months before the uprising,
but who was still condemned
to death by a “People’s Court” for participating in the uprising. And we do
not know what will happen to the thousands of bodies, from both sides, buried
in the crypt, which are the object of so much controversy.
This judicial imbroglio was finally resolved
by an authoritarian political measure, and by the use of the forces of law and
order, just like totalitarian dictators and banana republics.
The study of the evolution of the concept of
reconciliation in Spain, from 1939 to our own time, does merit a thesis. The
irony is that the government of the socialist Sánchez defends to this day the
exhumation of Franco, in the name of “justice and reconciliation,” and in a
spirit that, after all, is not unlike that of the Caudillo
(Franco) who expressed it in a decree of August 23, 1957, by which he
established the Foundation of the Holy Cross of the Valley of the Fallen, at
least if we put in parentheses the references pertaining to Christianity… “The
Great Cross that presides over and inspires the monument, also gives it a
profoundly Christian character… Thus, the sacred obligation of honoring our
heroes and our martyrs must also carry with it the feeling of forgiveness,
imposed by the Gospel message… It must be the monument of all the dead in
battle, over whose sacrifice triumph the peaceful arms of the Cross.”
To this, on May 23, 1958, Alonso Vega, the
Minister of the Interior, in a directive to civil governors, added that “this
is to give a place of burial to all those were sacrificed for God and for
Spain, with no distinction of the two sides that fought each other, like the
spirit of pardon that the creation of this monument has now imposed.”
But there is this substantial difference –
through the magic of the inevitable words of political propaganda, the good and
the evil have changed sides. And it is precisely this moral hemiplegia which
the Founding Fathers of the Transition and of Spanish democracy rejected in its
A few year ago, Ian Gibson, an Irish
“historian,” with strong socialist convictions, declared that he was in favor
of placing a bomb in the Valle de los Caídos and destroying the monument.
Such European fanatics, whose concepts of justice and reconciliation are
certainly worthy of the Afghan Taliban who destroyed the Buddhas of Bamiyan,
are unfortunately not rare. They would certainly make us despair for humanity,
were it not for strong personalities, in their own circles, who keep them in
their place. One of the players of the Transition, the socialist Felipe Gonzáles,
declared in 1985, when he was Prime Minister: “We must accept our history…I am
personally able to face the history of Spain… Franco… is in it… Never would I
get the idea of toppling one statue of Franco. Never! I think it’s stupid going
about pulling down statues of Franco… Franco now belongs to the History of
Spain. We cannot erase History… I have always thought that if anyone believes
that it is meritorious to knock Franco from his horse, then he should have done
that when the man was alive” (Juan Luis Cebrian, “Interview
with Felipe González,” El Pais, Madrid, November 17, 1985).
This is to say that a socialist government
deciding to move the body of a Catholic, monarchist, conservative, anti-Marxist
and anti-Communist dictator may perhaps be explained, but it cannot be
understood. As we know, peace around the graves of revolutionaries and
dictators is extremely rare. Unless I am mistaken, to this day, there are only
two or three great exceptions (admirable for their serenity and their respect
for the dead), which refute this immutable rule: In Russia, the mausoleum of Lenin
in Red Square, and the Kremlin Wall
Necropolis, where Stalin is buried; and in France, the tomb
of Napoleon I in the Invalides.
But behind this desire to exhume the ashes of
Franco and to officially condemn his actions and his regime, there hides an
important question, which is very thorny and very embarrassing for the powers
that be – namely, the interpretation of the origins of the Civil War, which
only highlights the considerable responsibility of the PSOE. Therefore, let us
recall some well-established facts.
Both on the Right and the Left, the
proclamation of the Spanish Republic, in 1931, was greeted with hope. But
disillusionment quickly set in. In bringing about democracy and “progress,”
Spain fell into disorder and anarchy. In October 1934, the PSOE, whose
leadership had been entirely Bolshevized since 1933, deliberately triggered a
general strike in all of Spain, which the police managed to contain, with the
exception of Catalonia and especially the Asturias. In February 1936, the
fragile victory of the Popular Front put an end to the chaos. In June 1936, in a
speech to the Legislature (which was immediately declared to be a “catastrophe”
by opponents), José
Maria Gil Robles, leading light of the moderate Right, tallied in four
months 353 attacks, 269 political murders, and the destruction of 160 churches.
According to Communist historiography,
popularized by the Komintern,
which is now regarded as canonical, or at least “politically correct,” this
terrible tragedy was the direct result of a military coup d’état against
a perfectly democratic and progressive regime. Then the army, backed by a
handful of fascists, rose against the people who were defenseless, but who
resisted courageously and drove back the rebels. Finally, it is said, Franco
could not have won had it not been for the help of Germany and fascist Italy.
this one single fact will suffice to refute, or at least lend nuance to, the
premise of the military uprising against democracy: The great intellectuals of
the time, the Founding Fathers of the Republic, Ortega y Gasset, Marañon and
Ayala, and let us not forget Unamuno –
they all unreservedly voted for the National side, and against the Communist,
Socialist-Marxist and anarchist extremism of the Popular Front.
the numerous myths that could be mentioned here, for lack of space, I shall make
note of only two, which were recently deconstructed. First, the victory of the
Popular Front in the elections of February 1936, and the reasons and conditions
for the assassination of José
question of whether the elections of February 1936 were regular or irregular,
legitimate or illegitimate, legal or illegal, democratic or anti-democratic
never ceases to foment debate. But in 2017, a crucial piece was added as
evidence. It is the work of two historians at King Juan Carlos University,
Fraude y violencía en las elecciones del Frente popular (1936: Fraud
and Violence in the Elections of the Popular Front) by Roberto Villa García
and Manuel Álvarez Tardío.
After a long and careful study, these two
researchers have shown, in a manner both rigorous and incontestable, that the
frauds, falsifications, manipulations and violence of the Frente Popular
(the Popular Front) were of a considerable magnitude. In the aftermath of the
voting, the Frente Popular claimed 240 seats (out of 473), but
deliberately stole 50 from the right-wing opposition. Without this plundering –
a veritable parliamentary coup d’état – it could never have governed
alone. The institutions of the Republic were deliberately violated; and it is
perfectly right to question the legitimacy of the government of the Spanish
The assassination of Calvo Sotelo, which was
the prelude to the Civil war, is in itself another good illustration of the
reality of facts. José
Calvo Sotelo, at 43 years of age, was one of the most eminent figures in
the Spanish conservative right. He was a member of the monarchist party (the Renovación
Española), contributor to the intellectual revue, Accíon Española,
and a former minister of the economy and finance. A courageous and eloquent
parliamentarian, he attracted all the hate of the Popular Front. His speeches
had a profound impact on public opinion, so much so that Santiago Cesares
Quiroga, head of government and minister of defense, did not hesitate to
openly threaten him in the full sitting of the Legislature on June 16, 1936.
The response of the future victim is now
legendary: “Mr. Cesares Quiroga, I have broad shoulders. You are a man quick to
challenge and threaten… I take full note of your warning… I will answer you as Saint-Dominique de Silos
did to the King of Castille, ‘Lord, all you can do is take my life and nothing
more.’ Better to die with honor than to live without dignity.”
On June 23, 1936, Calvo Sotelo was again
threatened in the columns of the Madrid newspaper, El Socialista. Then, in the
evening of July 12, the Lieutenant of the Assault Guard, José
del Castillo, instructor of the militias of the Young Socialists, was assassinated, in
reprisal for the murders of José Luis Llaguno, a Carlist student and Andrés
Saenz de Heredia, who was the cousin of José Antonio Primo de Rivera. The
Assault Guard was a special police force that was highly politicized. At their
barracks in Pontejos, the comrades of Lieutenant del Castillo shouted for
revenge. These were men, for the most part, who were also close confidantes of
the government. Chief among them were Major Ricardo Burillo Stholle,
Lieutenant Maximo Moreno, and Captain of the Civil Guard, Fenando Condès.
The last two had already actively participated in the attempted socialist
uprising against the Republic in October of 1934.
On July 13, 1936, around two o’clock in the
morning, vehicle No. 17 of the Assault Guards left the barracks at Pontejos. Sitting
inside it were eight Assault Guards, and four hired men of the Socialist Party,
under the command of Captain Fernando Condès. They were all in civilian
A few minutes later, a second commando unit
rolled out into the night whose job it was to eliminate the other great leader
of the right, Gil-Robles,
who was head of CEDA (a
coalition of the conservative-right, liberals and Christian-democrats).
Luckily, he was in Biarritz at the time, and so, miraculously, he escaped
Vehicle No. 17 went on its way towards
Vélasquez Street, where the house of Calvo Sotelo was located. It stopped in
front of number 89. Captain Condès and several of his men got out. They summoned
the night watchman to open the door to the building, and he did so. The Guards
went up the stairs, rang at the door of the Monarchist Deputy and demanded
entry, under the pretext of a search. Awakened by the noise, Calvo Sotelo
opened the door.
Quickly the Guards rushed into the apartment
and cut the telephone. Captain Condès asked the politician to come with him to
Directorate. Calvo Sotelo was wary. A deputy could not be arrested, unless
caught red-handed actually committing a crime. It would be necessary to call
the Directorate General of Security, but the telephone did not work. His wife
tried to go out to get help. The Guards stopped her. The resistance of the
leader of the National Bloc was mollified by the assurances given on the
Captain’s honor. Calvo Sotelo got dressed, then kissed his children in their
beds and his wife to whom he promised that he would telephone as soon as
possible, “unless these gentlemen are taking me away to put four bullets into
He got into the bus. He sat down on the third
seat, flanked by two Assault Guards. Behind him stood Luís Cuenca Estevas,
a known bodyguard of the Socialist leader, Indalecio Prieto.
Captain Condès took a seat behind the driver. The others went and sat at the
back. The vehicle headed off and went only as far as about 200 meters, when at
the top of the intersection of Ayala and Vélasquez streets, Luis Cuenca took
out a pistol, pointed it at the back of Calvo Sotelo’s neck and fired twice,
killing him instantly. (According to other sources, the killer was Maximo
Moreno, the Lieutenant of the Assault Guard). The body of the victim collapsed
between the seats.
Unperturbed, the driver went down the road.
At the crossroads of Vélasquez and Alcalá streets, a truck full of Assault
Guards entered the flow of traffic. But for vehicle No. 17, the way was open.
With their murderous mission accomplished, and having returned to the barracks
at Pontejos, the assassins reported to their leader, Lieutenant-Colonel Sanchez
Plaza. Downstairs, Guard Tomas Pérez removed bloodstains from inside the
The wife of Calvo Sotelo had not sat idle.
She immediately got in touch with her family and her loved ones. To all of
their demands, the Directorate General of Security and the Minister of the
Interior invariably replied: “Nothing has happened… There is nothing at any
On the morning of July 13, the identification
of a body dumped at the Eastern Cemetery
roused disbelief and outrage. While the Socialist, Indalecio Prieto, demanded
that arms be distributed to all “workers” organizations, funeral arrangements
were made for the following day to be held before an enormous crowd.
The judicial investigation was hurriedly
buried. The Civil War put a stop to any remaining pretense of legality.
On July 25, 1936, at 12:45 PM, in broad
daylight, a dozen members of the militia of the Popular Front, entered the
buildings of the Ministry
of the Interior, led by a man in civilian clothing. Inside the office of
the judge charged with investigating the case, they seized by force all the
records and files pertaining to the assassination, and took everything away. Thus
disappeared all documents relating to the inquiry, including the scientific
evidence of the medical examiners, and the reports of the interrogation of the
Most of those involved with the murder were
rewarded after the uprising. For a good number of historians, the elimination
of Calvo Sotelo is nothing more than revenge for the assassination of José del
Castillo. But this explanation, partial and inadequate, has now been thoroughly
questioned (in 2018) by the former Secretary General of
the PSOE of Galicia, namely, Francisco
Vázquez Vázquez, the Deputy, Senator and Mayor of A Coruña (see, “Memoria
histórica de Calvo Sotelo,” ABC, April 9, 2018). Indeed, the shock
produced in public opinion by the news of the elimination of a leader of the
political opposition is completely incommensurate with any emotions stirred up
by the murder of a Lieutenant-Instructor of the Assault Guard.
Vázquez, a well-known and respected
politician, provided the original report – never before published because it
had been lost – of a declaration made before a judge by one of who was directly
involved with the assassination. This is the statement of Blas
Estebarán Llorente, the driver of the ambulance-van that was responsible
for transporting the body to the Eastern Cemetery. We learn in this crucial
testimony that the militias of the Socialist Party, then under the direction of
all the principal leaders of the movement, had planned the assassinations of
Calvo Sotelo, José Maria Gil Robles,
and the monarchist, Antonio
Goicoechea at least three months earlier. Also implicated in the plot were Jésus
the Communist leader and future Minister of Education during the Civil War, and
a certain Antonio López. Then, Blas
Estebarán went on to state that, as ordered by the Security Directorate, he met
the vehicle at the top of Manuel Becerra Place, and that he followed it, before
parking and taking charge of the corpse, which he took to the Eastern Cemetery.
The assassination of Calvo
Sotelo became the detonator of the national insurrection of July 18, 1936.
Conspirators had already been at work well before this terrible political
crime, and the uprising would likely have taken place regardless of this
assassination. But the shock of this event made a decisive contribution towards
smoothing out the difficulties and dissipating the doubts of the conspirators.
It accelerated the preparations and imposed a definite day and hour. It
considerably increased popular sympathy for, and participation in, the plans of
the military. Because of this crime, hatched and covered up by the State, it is
clear that all the adversaries of the Popular Front felt themselves in danger
of being killed. As Gil Robles said in Parliament, “Half of Spain will not
agree to being killed.”
One of the major observers of
the time, Julián
Zugazagoitia, a minister of the Popular Front, told one of his visitors,
“This attack is war.”
We cannot repeat this enough –
it is not the military uprising of July 1936 that is origin of the destruction
of democracy, as the leaders of the PSOE nowadays claim. On the contrary, it
was because democratic legality was destroyed by the Popular Front that the
uprising began. In 1936, no one, neither Left nor Right, believed in liberal
democracy as it exists today. The revolutionary myth believed by the entire
Left is that of an armed struggle. The anarchists and the Communist Party did
not believe in democracy. The vast majority of socialists and most notably
their leader, the very prominent, Largo
Caballero (the “Spanish Lenin), who advocated the dictatorship of the
proletariat and rapprochement with the Communists, also did not believe in
From this, we can conclude that the army of 1936, like Spanish society itself, was very divided, while both sides (the Left and the Right) enjoyed powerful popular support. If the legend fabricated by Spanish and Soviet propagandists of the Frente Popular is indeed correct, then there would have been no civil war because the army, entirely unified, would have risen up and the Nationals (not “nationalists” as they are always and erroneously called in France) would have had victory within 48 hours. And if the people all had been on one side, then the Frente Popular and its allies would have easily won. But it was not so.
Arnaud Imatz, a Basque-French political scientist and historian, holds a State Doctorate (DrE) in political science and is a correspondent-member of the Royal Academy of History (Spain), and a former international civil servant at OECD. He is a specialist in the Spanish Civil War, European populism, and the political struggles of the Right and the Left – all subjects on which he has written several books. He has also published numerous articles on the political thought of the founder and theoretician of the Falange, José Antonio Primo de Rivera, as well as the Liberal philosopher, José Ortega y Gasset, and the Catholic traditionalist, Juan Donoso Cortés.
This article was translated from French by N. Dass.
The photo shows a portrait of José Calvo Sotelo at the Bank of Spain.
Few Americans know much about Francisco Franco, leader of the winning side in the Spanish Civil War and subsequently dictator of Spain. Yet from 1936 until 1975, he was a famous world figure. Now he is forgotten—but not by all. Franco is, and has been for decades, a cause célèbre among the global Left, seen as the devil incarnate for his successful war against Communist domination of Spain.
To successfully delay, or worse, block, any Left attempt to establish their permanent rule, thereby revealing that history lacks a progressive direction, is the unforgivable sin. Naturally, therefore, my own impression of Franco was generally favorable. But after reading up on him, my impression of him has changed. Now it is positively glowing.
It is very difficult to grasp the controversial figures of the past century. By “controversial,” I mean right-wing, since no prominent left-wing figure is ever deemed, in the common imagination formed by the left-wing dominance of academia and media, to be “controversial.” Instead, such people are “bold” or “courageous.”
The only way to get at the truth about a right-wing figure is to absorb a great many facts about him. It doesn’t matter much if the facts are slanted, or are disputed, or even if lies are told, as they always are about any right-wing figure. Reading enough detail allows the truth to come into focus, which mostly means ferreting out where the Left is lying or where one’s impression has been formed by propaganda or half-truths.
Even though facts matter most, the first thing to do when reading a book about any right-wing figure, or any event or happening important to the Left, is to check the political angle of the author, to know the likely slant. Somewhat surprisingly, most recent popular English-language general histories of the Spanish Civil War are only modestly tilted Left.
The best-known is that by Hugh Thomas (recently deceased and a fantastic writer, mostly on Spain’s earlier history), which I’ve read; Antony Beevor, specialist in popularized histories of twentieth-century war, also wrote one, which I have skimmed. Several others exist, and voluminous Spanish-language literature, as well, about which I know essentially nothing other than as cited in English-language texts.
Reading biographies of Franco, rather than histories of the Civil War, pulls back the lens to see Spain across the first three-quarters of the twentieth century, not just in the years between 1936 and 1939. Any history revolving around Franco in that period is necessarily both a history of Spain and the history of Left-Right conflict.
This is useful because my purpose is not just to understand Franco, although that’s interesting enough, but what Franco and his times say for our times. While my initial intention was just to read one biography, it quickly became clear that more detail would allow more clarity. I deemed this amount of effort important because I think the Spanish experience in the twentieth century has a lot to say to us.
Therefore, I selected three biographies. The first was Franco: A Personal and Political Biography, published in 2014, by Stanley Payne, a professor at the University of Wisconsin. Payne has spent his entire long career writing many books on this era of Spain’s history, and he is also apparently regarded as one of the, if not the, leading experts on the typology of European fascism. Payne’s treatment of Franco is straight up the middle, neither pro nor con, and betrays neither a Left nor Right bias—although, to be sure, a straightforward portrait contradicts the Left narrative, and thus can be seen as effectively tilted Right, whatever the author’s actual intentions.
The second was Spanish historian Enrique Moradiellos’s 2018 Franco: Anatomy of a Dictator, a shorter treatment generally somewhat negative with respect to Franco.
The third, Franco: A Biography, was by Paul Preston, a professor at the London School of Economics, who like Payne is an expert in twentieth-century Spain. Unlike Payne, or Moradiellos, he is an avowed political partisan, of the Left, and his 1993 biography of Franco is vituperative, but it was also the first major English-language study of Franco, and is regarded as a landmark achievement offering enormous detail, even if it is superseded in some ways by later scholarship.
Preston also published, in 2012, the dubiously named, The Spanish Holocaust, analyzing through a hard-Left lens the killings of the Civil War, which I have read in part and to which I will also refer.
In addition, I have consulted a variety of other books, including Julius Ruiz’s recent work on the Red Terror in Madrid, and repeatedly viewed the five-hour 1983 series The Spanish Civil War, produced in the United Kingdom and narrated by Frank Finlay, available on YouTube, which while it has a clear left-wing bias, offers interviews with many actual participants in the war.
Unlike my usual technique, which is to review individual books and use them as springboards for thought, I am trying something new. I am writing a three-part evaluation of twentieth-century Spain, through a political lens, in which I intend to sequentially, but separately, focus on three different time periods.
First, the run-up to the Civil War. Second, the war itself, mainly with respect to its political, not military, aspects, and its immediate aftermath. Third, Franco’s nearly forty years as dictator, and the years directly after.
Using multiple books from multiple political angles will highlight areas of contradiction or dispute, and allow tighter focus on them. True, I have not read any actually pro-Franco books—I would, but, as Payne notes, there are no such English-language books, though he mentions several in Spanish.
The American (and English) Right has always been very reticent about any endorsement of Franco. Part of this is the result of ignorance combined with the successful decades-long propaganda campaign of the Left. If you’re ill-informed, it’s easy to lump Franco in with Hitler, or if you’re feeling charitable, Mussolini, and who wants to associate himself with them?
Part of it is the inculcated taste for being a beautiful loser, on sharp display for some reason among modern English conservatives, not only Peter Hitchens in his book The Abolition of Britain but also Roger Scruton in How To Be A Conservative. But a bigger part, I think, is distaste for the savagery of civil wars, combined with the feeling that Christians should not kill their enemies, except perhaps in open battle in a just war.
On the surface, this seeming pacifism appears to be a standard thread of Christian thought. But examined more closely, it is actually a new claim, since the contested dividing line has always been if and under what circumstances killing in self-defense is permitted. Whether the killing occurs in the heat of battle is a mere happenstance, now incorrectly elevated by some on the Right to the core matter, probably as a backdoor way of limiting killing by the state. The effect, though, is to repudiate killing in self-defense outside of battle, even by the authorities, ignoring the admonition of Saint Paul, that the ruler “beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.”
Competently illustrating this weak-kneed and incoherent line of thought among the modern Right, Peter Hitchens wrote a recent piece in First Things about Franco. Hitchens was, in fact, also reviewing Moradellios’s book, and his review exquisitely demonstrates this intellectual confusion and theological incoherence.
He goes on at great length about the evils of the Republicans and how their victory would have been disastrous for Spain. But then he goes on at greater length telling us that Christians cannot look to Franco, because he committed “crimes,” none of which are specified in the review (or, for that matter, in the book being reviewed), probably because to specify them would make them seem not very crime-like.
We must therefore reject Franco, Hitchens tells us, for an unspecified alternative that was most definitely not on offer in 1936, and is probably not going to be on offer if, in the future, we are faced with similar circumstances.
This is foolishness. (It is not helped by Hitchens’s self-focus and his repeated attempts to establish his own personal intellectual superiority, sniffing, for example, that Franco watched television and “had no personal library,” though if Hitchens had read Payne, he would know that was because the Republicans destroyed it in 1936). And Hitchens whines that Franco “hardly ever said or wrote anything interesting in his life,” which is false (and if true would be irrelevant), though in part explained by Franco’s oft-repeated dictum that “One is a slave to what one says but the owner of one’s silence.”
Hitchens squirms a bit, though, when he (at least being intellectually honest) quotes Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s ringing endorsement of Franco. “I saw that Franco had made a heroic and colossal attempt to save his country from disintegration. With this understanding there also came amazement: there had been destruction all around, but with firm tactics Franco had managed to have Spain sidestep the Second World War without involving itself, and for twenty, thirty, thirty-five years, had kept Spain Christian against all history’s laws of decline! But then in the thirty-seventh year of his rule he died, dying to a chorus of nasty jeers from the European socialists, radicals, and liberals.”
Hitchens, for no stated reason, seems to think that Moradiellos’s book proves Solzhenitsyn wrong, when the exact opposite is the case. Hitchens even ascribes Solzhenitsyn’s praise to “infatuation on the rebound,” whatever that means, though the quote is from the late 1970s (from the recently released autobiography, Between Two Millstones), long after Solzhenitsyn’s experiences in the Gulag.
Probably realizing how weak his argument is, Hitchens then switches gears without acknowledging it, dropping the “crimes” line and claiming that since Franco’s work was all undone rapidly after his death, Franco was bad. Which is even more intellectually sieve-like.
The lack of mental rigor in this line of thought can be seen if we switch the focus from Franco to any one of scores of Christian heroes of the past. Once you leave Saint Francis of Assisi behind, any Christian military hero plucked at random from the pages of history did far worse things to his enemies, and often to his friends, than Franco.
Try Charlemagne. Or Saint Louis IX. Or Richard II Lionheart. Or El Cid. Or Don Juan of Austria. All wars fought to decide ultimate questions are unpleasant and involve acts that endanger the souls of men. It is merely the proximity of Franco to us in time, combined with the lack of steel that has affected many Christians for decades now, that makes Hitchens shrink from endorsing Franco and his deeds, all his deeds.
In two hundred years if, God willing, the Left and its Enlightenment principles are nothing but a faded memory and a cautionary tale, Hitchens’s complaints will seem utterly bizarre, like a belief that the Amazons were real. Would I care to stand in Franco’s shoes before the judgment seat of Christ? Not particularly. But I am far from certain that it would be an uncomfortable position.
In astronomy, there is the concept of “standard candles.” These are stars of a known luminosity, whose distance can be accurately calculated, and against which other celestial objects can then be measured. I think of events that regularly recur in histories as standard candles: happenings about which certain facts are not in dispute, but which different authors approach differently, either by emphasizing or omitting certain facts.
By examining each author’s variations, we can measure him against the standard candles, determining, to some degree, whether his history is objective, or a polemic, in which latter case its reliability becomes suspect.
For many Americans, the thought of historical Spain conjures up images of ships carrying gold across the ocean, or for the literary and somewhat confused, Don Quixote riding with his lance across a dusty plain. But in 1892, Spain was a country with no gold and no knights, though plenty of farmers. Franco was born in that year into a naval family, when the Spanish military, and particularly the navy, had also fallen far from its former glory (in part the result of recent defeat by America in the Spanish-American War).
Not a promising physical specimen, he enrolled as an infantry cadet at fourteen. He asked to be posted to Spanish Morocco, the only place Spain had any fighting military, and went there at nineteen, quickly establishing himself as a courageous, unflappable leader of men, as well as a disciplinarian and martinet.
Franco asked for the most dangerous assignments (of the forty-two officers assigned to the “shock” troops in 1912, only seven were alive by 1915), and his mostly Muslim soldiers were in superstitious awe of his luck. His luck wasn’t perfect—he was gut shot by a machine gun, and only survived because the bullet happened to miss all his organs, a most unlikely event. But even that contributed to Franco’s reputation, and to his own later belief in his providential mission.
All this brought much attention from the prominent, including the King, Alfonso XIII (Spain was a parliamentary monarchy at the time), and rapid promotion. Although Spain was politically in turmoil during these years, Franco (like most officers in the Spanish military) was strictly non-political. He married in 1923 (and unlike most men of power, was unfailingly faithful to his wife his entire life). Continuing his service in Morocco, he was promoted to general in 1926, at thirty-three the youngest general in Europe—though by European standards, he had little modern war experience.
He never commanded more than a brigade, and experienced only relatively primitive warfare with relatively primitive weapons, since the Spanish military was never well-equipped. After being promoted, he “retired” from combat, becoming director of Spain’s main military academy, until 1931.
It was toward the end of this period that politics became impossible for Franco to ignore. In 1930, the Spanish left-wing parties all managed to ally under the Pact of San Sebastián, collectively adopting the label “Republican” to denote their left-wing goals, a nomenclature that stuck, and agreeing to overthrow the monarchy by any means necessary.
This is the origin of the term Republican as denoting one side in the Civil War; it means both revolutionary leftist and necessarily exclusionary of any non-left parties, rather than being derived from “republican,” meaning devoted to representative government. (For this reason, Payne uses the terms “Republican” and “revolutionary” interchangeably in his book.) Even among this group of Leftists, there was a range of opinion (ignoring the outlier viewpoint of the Catalan separatists, who were also involved).
The key principle, as with all such groupings, was that there could be no enemies to the Left, and no compromise with the Right; total power to the Left and the disenfranchisement of the Right was the permanent goal.
After the dictatorship of Miguel Primo de Rivera, which lasted from 1923 to 1930, was succeeded by the even softer dictatorship of Dámaso Berenguer, the Republicans quickly initiated their first political violence, a small military revolt, the “Jaca revolt.” The revolt was put down quickly, but not before the Republican rebels had killed several other soldiers who refused to join them. (One of the Republicans involved, though not in the killing, was Franco’s brother Ramón, a political radical who fled Spain as a result, but who returned later to fight for Franco, and died in the war).
As Payne notes, “These totally unprovoked killings opened the steadily accelerating cycle of leftist violence in Spain that would eventually bring civil war.” That was the goal, naturally—one theme of Payne is that the Left wanted civil war, figuring they would win and that would cement their power permanently, since, as Moradiellos points out, Spain was not only sharply divided, but without any group having notably more power than the others, such that the result was political deadlock without some deus ex machina.
The Jaca revolt is revealing, and usable as a standard candle, because as the earliest such event, it begins to show the pattern of ideological distortion found in different histories. At least in the mainstream, English-language works I have read, there is little dispute as to facts.
But what you find is that the left-leaning authors, Preston in particular, solve the problem of inconvenient facts by simply omitting them. So, here, Preston never mentions that the rebels killed anyone; they were unjustly executed as “mutineers,” and their subsequent adulation as Republican martyrs is portrayed as entirely reasonable.
In 1931, the monarchy ended and the Second Republic was declared. This wasn’t the result of any democratic process, but the result of the total collapse of support for the monarchy from its traditional supporters at the same time the Republicans had prepared to seize power, combined with the King’s unwillingness to risk civil war. In practice, the first government of the Second Republic was merely the self-named “revolutionary committee” of the Republicans.
But despite these unpromising beginnings, and the open participation of many anti-democratic, revolutionary elements, the Second Republic managed, at the beginning, to be actually republican, more liberal than leftist, though there were plenty of leftist actions taken, most prominently open violence against the Church and extensive anti-religious legal measures, along with open persecution of the religious.
Preston ignores all this, referring instead to the “hysteria” (one of his favorite words) of anyone opposed to leftist hegemony. Still, as Payne notes, the first Republican government, under the “left Republican” Prime Minister Manuel Azaña, “held that the Republic must be a completely leftist regime under which no conservative party or coalition could be accepted as a legitimate government, even in the remote possibility that one were democratically elected. . . . Such an attitude made the development of a genuinely liberal democratic regime almost impossible.”
To anyone paying attention, this is merely the usual tactic of the Left—the ratchet must only go one way. It can go Left, but however far Left it goes, it can never go any less Left, no matter how many democratic votes the Right gets. If the Right threatens to disturb the ratchet, violence is the acceptable solution to keep Left dominance.
Until recently, this was a purely Continental phenomenon; its most recent manifestations have shown up in France (with the National Rally, what was the Front National) and in Sweden (with the Sweden Democrats). Since 2017, it has shown up in the United States, as a reaction to Donald Trump daring to actually try to govern in a conservative fashion, something no Republican had tried to do since Calvin Coolidge.
The same beginning low-level violence led by the Left against the Right is already in evidence here, as well, unfortunately (as well as occasional higher-level political violence, such as James Hodgkinson’s attempted assassination of the Republican Congressional leadership, which has been memory-holed by the Left using its control of the media—one difference between then and now, as I discuss below, is that the Left now controls far more of the levers of power).
Political violence was the new norm in 1930s Spain. Payne estimates that nearly 2,500 lives were lost to political violence from 1931 until the beginning of the Civil War in 1936. Most of those people were killed by the Left, but not all, and both sides tended to dehumanize the other side, though again the Left led here—as Payne notes, early on one of the favorite Republican words was “extermination.”
Here again, we see this type of language rising on the mainstream American Left—last month Democratic freshman Representative Ilhan Omar, the bigoted new flower child of American progressives, publicly referred to Donald Trump as “not human,” and prominent Democrat Paul Begala publicly called Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner “cockroaches” and “a different kind of species,” in both cases without any apology or consequences.
One might object, if one were a Leftist offended by the truth, that there is also right-wing political violence in America today, adducing, say, Dylann Roof killing black church parishioners in 2015, or, stretching abroad, last month’s killing of mosque worshippers in New Zealand. You have to draw a pretty big circle to claim those killers are “right-wing,” but it’s not totally implausible. They certainly weren’t left-wing, in any reasonable read of their confused politics.
Still, the “political” angle, and tie to concrete politics, of Hodgkinson was far more evident. But the key difference, that makes right-wing high-profile attacks different, is that Hodgkinson was part of the ecosystem of the Left, and the right-wing killers were not part of the ecosystem of the Right.
Such killers being part of the Left ecosystem is a necessary consequence of the mandatory Left principle that there are no enemies to the Left; you cannot plausibly maintain both that principle and that you are not responsible for fringe actions, and Hodgkinson was merely following the very many open calls for violence after Trump’s election by progressive leaders, none of whom even thought once about apologizing or trying to dial back their violent rhetoric afterwards. (In the Spanish context there was even less ambiguity—all Left violence was an acknowledged part of the Left program; the question was only whether any particular act was prudent).
On today’s American Right, which aggressively polices its borders (probably too aggressively), there is no legitimate claim that the Right in general is responsible for fringe actions. Which is not to say that, with the Internet and the persecution of conservatives, that such fringe actions will not occur more often, as sociopaths seek meaning and transcendence through violence.
Naturally, the Leftist media inverts this reality, without any claim to logic or reason, in order to attack the Right and wholly excuse the Left. In the fevered imaginations of the Left, or so they claim, murderous white supremacists, for example, are key and important components of the American Right.
But the true reality is inevitable and inescapable. Just as inescapable is leftist propaganda and lies, for exaggerating right-wing violence and demanding a response from the Right is both a successful way to ask a “have you stopped beating your wife?” question and a way to avoid talking about the evils of the Left. They offer not reasoning or argument, but shrieks that the Right must abase itself and surrender for no apparent reason other than that it is desired by the Left. The correct response is simply to refuse to engage in such discussions, and instead demand the Left clean its own stables.
However, this entire analysis is somewhat beside the point, because it
ignores that high-profile political violence, whether of Hodgkinson or Roof, is
not the core of political violence today. Such violence may be, as it became in
Spain, the main event. But today the core of political violence is rather the
daily violence visited exclusively today by the American Left on the Right, on
the streets, in restaurants, and in schools. And that core is what will, and
should, cause a justified reaction on the Right, at which point violence will
likely become part of the ecosystem of both Left and Right, though the fault
will lie primarily with the Left, as always.
Anyway, back in Spain and eighty years ago, the Azaña government also immediately implemented another inexorable feature of leftist rule, the legal prosecution of their political opponents—in this case, those who served under the monarchy during the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera, and those involved in prosecuting the “Jaca martyrs.”
The euphemism for this was the “responsibilities program.” (Yet again, we see this occurring in the United States, with the witch hunt against Trump and his associates, and when the Democrats regain executive power, we will doubtless see an enormous explosion of such prosecutions, as well as a growing number of state-level attacks, both of which grew lushly under Obama).
Some military men fell before these attacks, but Franco, although he was prominent, was well known to never engage in politics, so he was not attacked. Still, he was demoted and ostracized by the new government, which (correctly) saw that his basic orientation was conservative.
Franco took no part whatsoever, however, in the failed 1932 revolt led by General José Sanjurjo, subsequent to which the Republicans arrested thousands of conservatives and closed hundreds of newspapers, and continued their policy of blocking conservative political meetings and generally obstructing Right political action, though Sanjurjo himself escaped, to play a part in the Civil War. (Such activity has its modern parallel in the shutting down of conservative speeches across the nation, by violence with government complicity, and the massive and expanding coordinated deplatforming of conservatives from the public utilities that are the main method of communication in America today).
Seen, therefore, as generally reliable, Franco was appointed commander of the strategic Balearic Islands, where, in his leisure time, he began to become more politicized, though not visibly. The main targets of his ire were a perceived conspiracy among Freemasons, big business, and finance capital, which, if you leave out the Freemasons, makes him not dissimilar to Tucker Carlson. (Anti-Semitism was not part of this; Franco was not, then or later, in the least anti-Semitic as an ideological position, and probably no more personally anti-Semitic than, say, Franklin Roosevelt).
A new center-right party, the CEDA, gained political ground. In the 1933 elections, in a trial run for 1936, violence was used to suppress the CEDA vote, and when the CEDA got the most votes and was the largest party in parliament, the Republicans attempted to simply cancel the results. While the president, Niceto Alcalá-Zamora, a Leftist somewhat more moderate than most Republicans, though an active participant in the Pact of San Sebastián, declined to comply with his fellow Leftists’ demands (there was always a spectrum on the Spanish Left), he ensured that the CEDA was barred from any participation in the government and denied any share of political power. (Preston delicately refers to this as the Left resisting “electoral disunity”).
By 1934, though, this became untenable, so some minor ministerial offices were granted the CEDA. The response of the harder left side of the Republicans, led by the Socialists, was to launch a widespread revolt (often today euphemistically called a “general strike,” but called at the time by the Socialists a “revolutionary strike,” with the avowed aim of “overthrowing the government and taking power”), passively supported by the rest of the Republican parties.
Only in the Asturias mining regions did this succeed, for a time, with the Republican revolutionaries killing around a hundred of their local political opponents out of hand, burning churches and stealing millions from local banks.
The revolting miners, as Hugh Thomas points out, were very well paid; “[t]heir action was politically, rather than economically, inspired.” The Asturias rebellion was put down by Franco, using Moroccan troops; Payne says “the army units also committed atrocities, and there may have been as many as a hundred summary executions, though only one victim was ever identified, despite the vociferous leftist propaganda campaign that followed for months and years.”
It is worth spending some more time on the Asturias rebellion, for a few reasons. For one, it was the first time Franco came to be seen as an enemy of the Left, and his successful defeat of the Left meant that he became a permanent target of the Left’s hatred.
The Asturias rebellion is also an example of the propaganda machine of the Left, which for nearly a century has used this as the supposed inception of the Civil War, conveniently ignoring not only that it was a Left revolt to overthrow an already leftist government, for the sin of allowing a center-right party to participate in the government at all, and that violence had been a stock tactic of the Spanish Left, by 1934, for several years.
Finally, and related to the second reason, the Asturias rebellion is a good way to gauge how susceptible an author is, himself, to propaganda; it is a standard candle.
Payne, as I say, offers specifics—maybe a hundred dead leftists in summary executions—but he offers a footnote, “Within only a few months leftist spokesmen were permitted to present charges of atrocities before a military tribunal. The resulting inquiry produced concrete evidence of only one killing, though probably there were more. The most extensive study on this point is [a 2006 Spanish-language monograph].”
Hugh Thomas gives the figure as about 200 killed “in the repression,” though he offers no support for his figure. Overtly Left mouthpieces commonly talk of “thousands” killed. Preston offers no figures, he merely complains for pages about “savagery,” “brutality,” “howling for vengeance” and such like, while making racist statements about Franco’s Moroccan troops.
This pattern continues in almost all high-profile events in the Civil War—all of which are high profile because they were specifically chosen by the Left at the time as the most susceptible to use for their global propaganda campaign.
This was all run-up to the fatal elections of February, 1936, in which the CEDA contested against a “Popular Front” of rigidly leftist parties. The election was called by the President, Alcalá-Zamora, specifically to prevent the CEDA leader, José María Gil-Robles, from becoming Prime Minister.
The result was probably an extremely narrow victory for the Popular Front, marred by extensive pre-election violence (almost exclusively by the Left, as Payne notes) and leftist mobs in numerous areas “intefer[ing] with either the balloting or the registration of votes, augmenting the leftist tally or invalidating rightist pluralities or majorities.”
Rather than wait for the normal processes for handover of power, the Left immediately seized power wherever it had the ability, releasing their compatriots from jail, and illegally and forcibly “unilaterally register[ing] its own victory at the polls.”
The Left’s behavior with respect to the CEDA is similar to the electoral behavior of the American Left today. It is not quite as dramatic here, because in the American structure the tools are lacking to actually deny power to a party that wins seats.
The American system is more cut-and-dried in that way. Therefore, when conservatives threaten to gain any actual power, other actions are instead taken. The first line of defense is to allow neutered conservatives “in the government,” like John McCain or Mitt Romney, on the condition they never, ever, attempt to actually deny any victory to the Left.
The second line of defense, against those who are not, like McCain and Romney, quislings deep in their souls, is to use the press, dominated by the Left and able to wholly determine what is considered news, to open propaganda campaigns to delegitimize conservatives who threaten to actually exercise power.
The third line of defense is legal attacks by either civil suits or the organs of the state. And the fourth line of defense, the trump card (no pun intended) is to use the courts, in particular but not limited to the Supreme Court, to simply, much as in the old Spanish Republican way, to illegally deny the exercise of power to conservatives.
This last strategy is wholly successful in only a few areas, related to claimed emancipatory autonomy (notably abortion and sexual license), because the Left does not control every aspect of the Supreme Court as it so dearly desires.
The Left’s response to not being able to completely control the Supreme Court has been, when this fourth level of tactic is needed, to drag every conservative attempt to exercise power through legal molasses, by suborning low-level federal judges into issuing ludicrous and unlawful decisions based purely on the desire to advance Left goals, and imposing nationwide injunctions mandating the desired result.
After many months or years, if the Supreme Court has time to add such a case to its docket, the lawless decision is reversed, with no consequence or sanction to the original judge (quite the contrary), but the Left goal has usually been mostly or totally accomplished.
This system is intolerable—conservatives should find a good issue and declare a refusal to adhere to such an injunction, and such lawless judges should be severely punished. But that is a discussion for some other time.
Back to February, 1936. Whether the election was truly won by the Left is unclear. Hugh Thomas thinks it was, though by a slim margin. Payne is less sure, and emphasizes that vote totals can’t tell the whole story when votes were suppressed by leftist violence and fraud.
Payne notes that “There were runoff elections in several provinces in March, but in the face of mounting violence the right withdrew, adding more seats to the leftist majority. Late in March, when the new parliamentary electoral commission convened, the leftist majority arbitrarily reassigned thirty-two seats from the right to the left, augmenting that majority further.”
Elections in conservative provinces were declared invalid; and in the re-runs, conservatives were violently prevented from running.
Payne’s conclusion is that “In a four-step process, electoral results originally almost evenly divided between left and right were rigged and manipulated over a period of three months until the Popular Front commanded a majority of two-thirds of the seats, which would soon give it the power to amend the constitution as it pleased. In the process, democratic elections ceased to exist.”
But both Payne and Thomas agree that after the initial vote, the Left manipulated the system to try to expand a dubious majority. The details of this episode are glossed over by Moradiellos, who prefers to simply claim that the Popular Front won a “slight” victory and move on, and simply ignored by Preston, who says the victory was “narrow” but resulted in “a massive triumph in terms of seats in the Cortes,” without any explanation of how that could be.
(It is about here in reading Preston’s book that one realizes that his normal tactic is to lie by omission, while burying the reader in mounds of irrelevant detail, making his account seem complete.) At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter, since the Left’s goal was the permanent seizure of power, and this was the handy trigger. If it hadn’t been this, some other pretext would have been used to violently cement power and permanently, or so they thought, destroy the Right.
The Republicans immediately unleashed a nationwide assault against the Right. Payne asks, “How bad was the situation by July 1936? The frequent overt violations of the law, assaults on property, and political violence were without precedent for a modern European country not undergoing total revolution.”
These included looting, arson, massive theft, “virtual impunity for criminal action by members of Popular Front parties, manipulation and politicization of justice, . . . and a substantial growth in political violence, resulting in more than three hundred deaths.”
The military began to actively plot overthrow of the government, though Franco was not initially actively involved and hedged his bets (his calculating, and some thought cold, manner of approaching such decisions was not pleasing to his Army compatriots).
But on the night of July 12, 1936, José Calvo Sotelo, the charismatic chief Monarchist in parliament, was brazenly assassinated by the government’s Assault Guards (indirectly assisted by the Republican Minister of the Interior), in revenge for the murder of an Assault Guard prominent in anti-Right violence, José Castillo, by the Falange, the small Spanish fascist party.
The Republican government’s reaction was to arrest nobody but two hundred rightists and to continue its campaign of repression. (Preston characterizes this as “immediately beginning a thorough investigation” and then does not return to the matter).
For many or most on the Left, most prominently the Socialist leader Largo Caballero, a military revolt was desired, since they believed the Republicans could crush it and thereby permanently seize power without further pushback.
And regardless of desirability, most on the Left now believed in the “necessity” of civil war. “Thus, in the final days neither the government nor the leftist parties did anything to avoid the conflict, but, in a perverse way, welcomed military revolt, which they mistakenly thought would clear the air.” (Their mistake, actually, was not that it did not clear the air, but that the fresh air was not to their liking).
Logically enough, Payne pegs this as the point at which the generals, and Franco, realized that it was more dangerous not to revolt than to revolt, so the war was on. The generals (not yet under Franco’s leadership) launched their revolt; the government handed out weapons to the Left. And the war came.
The Civil War
All Franco biographers cover the war in detail. It lasted three years. Soon Franco was granted supreme military and political control by the other counter-revolutionary generals, in part because he had the best troops, in part because he managed to be the conduit for equipment from Mussolini, and in part because of his dominant personality and the near-universal admiration in which he was held among the military.
The Republicans held several of the major cities; the Nationalists others and the countryside, where they had broad-based support, especially among poor peasants. The Nationalists, in the areas they controlled, deliberately implemented a counter-revolution to end leftist and liberal domination; they “embraced a cultural and spiritual neotraditionalism without precedent in recent European history.”
In their political theory, following Joseph de Maistre, arch-opponent of the French Revolution, a counter-revolution was not the opposite of a revolution, which would make it Burkean, but an opposing revolution. The Spanish Civil War showed that Burkeanism has very definite limits, after all; appeals by American conservatives to him and to Russell Kirk, past a certain point in the polity, which we have not reached yet, are only of any relevance or use once the smoke clears and the bodies are buried, and serve before then only to hamstring conservatives in their reaction to those who would destroy them.
Despite their far superior organization (though the Republicans improved theirs over time), the Nationalists were inferior to the Republicans in domestic propaganda, and far inferior in international propaganda. In part this was because the people in charge on the Nationalist side were military men, both disinterested in and contemptuous of propaganda.
Their idea of propaganda was to broadcast choleric and threatening radio addresses into towns they were attacking. In part it was because the Left has always been master of propaganda, a fact on display both inside Spain, where morale was kept up by inspirational posters and mass rallies (though the Nationalists used posters too), and even more so outside of Spain, where the international Left eagerly created a distorted perception of the Nationalists and the war.
The Falange, the Spanish fascists, are rarely a significant focus of discussions about the Civil War, except in propagandistic discussions. This is because they were not notably powerful; they were merely one part of the mix of Nationalist politics, which included many military men not aligned with a party, monarchists (in two brands), and Catholics (who opposed the Falange generally, and violently opposed modernist foreign right-wing political movements, especially National Socialism).
The Falange, in any case, lost most of their independent power when Franco forcibly took over the party as the vehicle for his “National Movement,” cramming, in theory, everyone into his personal party and blurring the lines between himself and the Falange. During the war and immediately after, Franco identified himself publicly with the Falange.
He was happy to accept their support, and encourage the cult of their leader, executed early in the war by the Republicans, José Antonio Primo de Rivera (son of the dictator)—as many have pointed out, it was convenient for Franco to only have to compete with a dead man. After the war, with his typical cold calculation, Franco suppressed what power the Falangists still retained, seeing them as adding no value to his neotraditionalist Movement, and being far too interested in radical modernism.
Nobody who is serious contends that Franco was fascist in any meaningful way—that is, under any actual definition of fascism, rather than under its use as a flexible term of abuse. (Moradiellos offers a detailed analysis of the use of the term in modern Spanish scholarship.) Nomenclature can be misleading if transposed without thought into today.
To take another example, Franco regularly used the term “totalitarian” as a positive, something inconceivable to us after seeing the results of totalitarian regimes in the twentieth century.
But when Franco described the Movement as totalitarian, he meant not that it would attempt to control every aspect of life, even people’s thoughts, which is the meaning we imbibe from Communism and from works like Orwell’s 1984. Nor did he mean that politics would continuously invade and dominate all areas of life; Mussolini’s famous definition of fascism as “Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.” Rather, he meant a system “that would dominate the public sphere but otherwise permit a limited traditional semi-pluralism.”
By way of example Franco offered fifteenth-century Catholic monarchs. Moreover, the Movement was meant explicitly to advance a flexible plan, not a program. “It will not be rigid or static, but subject, in every case, to the work of revision and improvement that reality may counsel.” Franco looked backward, not forward to ideological rightism.
The same distorted nomenclature is true of “dictator,” originally a Roman term used not as a term of opprobrium, but of description, and until the modern era, seen as simply another possible method of political organization, useful in certain circumstances but, like all political organization, subject to abuse.
Franco was a sovereign dictator—but that does not imply that his rule was arbitrary or despotic, the meaning we typically take from the modern use of the term. Franco had very definite and very simple core principles. But beyond those, he was politically flexible—not, for example, wedded to a monarchy after his death, and when he decided that was the best course, not quick to decide which monarchical line should ascend the throne (left vacant after 1931). And Spain under Franco was very much a country of the rule of law.
There is no need here to rehash the details of the war. In short, Franco gradually rolled up the Republicans, after trying and failing to quickly capture Madrid and end the war. It is fairly evident that Franco did not mind a longer war; as Moradiellos emphasizes, this enabled him to permanently repress the Left by killing his opponents and scaring the rest into final submission (shades of Sherman’s March to the Sea). Both the Axis and Stalin supplied the Nationalists and Republicans respectively, but that almost certainly did not change the end result of the war. By 1939, it was over.
Immediately upon the beginning of the Civil War, both sides began systematic executions of their political opponents in areas they controlled. Contrary to myth, this was organized on both sides, though as with all things better organized by the Nationalists.
It was not some kind of excusable spontaneous excess on the part of the Left, as they have often tried to pretend during and since, the line that Preston uniformly takes as well. Other than being factually wrong, such a claim is laughable on its face when viewed hindsight from the twenty-first century, since in, without exception, every other Left accession to power, organized mass killing of opponents in order to create the “new world” has been an absolutely essential and central part of the plan, invariably carried through if and to the extent power is gained.
As with many other Left actions and claims, from denying the evil of Lenin to the guilt of Alger Hiss to who was responsible for Katyn, they may have been plausible once, but current belief brands one as either a liar or a fool. In fact, such violence had openly been part of the Left’s plan in Spain for years.
True, on both sides the organization of killing outside of battle was mostly locally organized, not centrally organized. Payne says “It is now generally agreed that the number of executions by the [Republicans] totaled about fifty-five thousand, while those by the Nationalists were more numerous, with estimates ranging from sixty thousand to one hundred thousand or more.
The higher figures appear to be a demographic impossibility, so that the low estimate appears more likely. In the long run, the Nationalist repression became more concerted, was the more effective of the two, and claimed the most lives, particularly with the extensive round of executions after the end of the Civil War.” Preston agrees with these numbers, though his estimate is on the higher end, which suggests, at least, rough agreement across the historical spectrum.
Of course, this is comparing apples to oranges, because it ignores two critical elements. First, the Left killed fewer because since they conquered little territory, killings were mostly confined to the cities they held when the war began, and therefore could not accomplish their goal of wiping out all those on the Right, merely those unfortunate enough to be trapped with the Republicans (including a high percentage of the country’s Army officers). (And, as famously narrated by Orwell in Homage to Catalonia, soon enough the Communists turned to stamping out former allies on the Left).
Second, it ignores the certainty that the Republicans would, like all Communists coming to power, have slaughtered enormous numbers of people after the war for many years, so including post-war executions in a comparison is a distortion.
It would be far more realistic to assume that the Republicans would have executed some double-digit multiple of those the Nationalists executed; it would have been like the Jacobins in the Vendée. And, critically, unlike Left regimes, which are always focused on killing by class and status in order to achieve utopia, not the punishment of specific crimes, Franco’s repression quickly became less radical, not more radical.
As Payne notes, “Once the major actors and criminals of the Spanish revolution had been prosecuted, there was no need to repeat the process.” That would not have been true if the Republicans had won.
Thus, such killings by the Nationalists during the war had nothing in common with the ideological killings of the twentieth century, whether by Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot, or many others. Rather, they were conducted under a semblance (sometimes dubious or even specious) of the rule of law, through military tribunals, directed either at those known to have committed significant crimes (as the Republicans had in every area they controlled) or, a smaller number, those who were leaders of the revolutionary opposition.
I find the latter hard to morally justify, sitting comfortably in my twenty-first-century seat of luxury and security, but in context, I do not find them hard to understand (and I understand the Republicans’ killing of political opponents as well); nor do I find the “victims” in any way blameless (although there must have been mistakes and excessive severity in many cases, as is always the case in wartime situations).
Regardless, this was not the type of class- or race-based killing common in the twentieth century, sweeping up without specific accusations and guilt men, women, and children. It was political and executive judgment on actual enemies working to destroy their countrymen, and that’s what happens in civil wars.
Preston, in 2012’s The Spanish Holocaust, addresses killings during the war. But unlike his magnum opus, his biography of Franco, this later book is a work of unhinged propaganda, designed to whitewash and excuse all Republican killing, and to magnify the horror of all Nationalist killing. Words such as “savage” and “vicious” appear with metronomic regularity, never once applied to Republicans.
The default mode is the passive voice when, infrequently, Republican killings are described, always in the context of excusing them. Preston makes truly ludicrous claims, such as that during the entire Civil War, there took place (he cannot bring himself to use the word “rape” by Republicans) “the sexual molestation of around one dozen nuns and the deaths of 296,” a low toll he attributes to the “respect for women that was built into the Republic’s reforming programme.”
Naturally, he does not mention the roughly 7,000 other clergy executed by the Republicans, except obliquely, without numbers, and to excuse them as unfortunate, but understandable, excesses by zealous heroes. On the other hand, as I say Preston uses the same numbers of dead as Payne and other unbiased scholars; his fault is in propagandistic presentation and the use of anecdotes that are mostly almost certainly lies, not statistics (in fact, Payne uses higher numbers for those executed after the war, 30,000 instead of Preston’s 20,000).
There is not much more to say about this book, but if you’re interested, you might try reading Payne’s bloodless evisceration of it in a Wall Street Journal review. “Mr. Preston, rather than presenting a fully objective historical analysis or interpretation of violence against civilians during the Spanish conflict, is recapitulating civil-war-era propaganda. . . . Rather than implementing some radical new Hitlerian or Pol Pot-like scheme, the essentially traditionalist Franco followed the policy of victors in civil wars throughout most of history: slaughtering the leaders and main activists of the other side while permitting the great bulk of the rank and file to go free.”
Franco did not care what it took to put the Republican revolution down. Such was Franco’s personality—practical, tending toward icy, in his political relations. Really, though, Franco’s personality was somewhat opaque; he kept no journal and what few personal papers he had are still mostly in the possession of his family and not public.
He was, in both personal and military matters, straightforward for the most part. He took counsel from others, but was decisive when the time came to make a decision. Most importantly, he shared two crucial characteristics with me. He fell asleep immediately upon going to bed, annoying his wife because she wanted to talk, and he hated rice pudding. Beyond that, though, it is hard to say in many cases what Franco thought.
No surprise, however, at some point Franco, at least to some extent, began to believe his own press. He did not become puffed up, much less behave badly—he was always punctilious in his personal behavior, and did not fly into rages or otherwise show lack of self-control like many dictators.
But he did become convinced that he was an instrument of Providence, always a dangerous belief. He also prided himself on some minor abilities he did not have—for example, he believed he was an expert in economics, whereas everyone knew he was not. Regardless, Franco developed a charismatic form of leadership, and was never challenged for leadership. Payne’s conclusion is that “the effort to achieve legitimacy [was] thus more praetorian or Bonapartist than Fascist.” That seems about right.
In any mention of the Civil War, another standard candle, the 1937 bombing of the Basque town of Guernica by the German Condor Legion, always comes up. This is not because it was the only, or the most damaging, aerial bombing of the war, but because the Left chose it as the focus of a propaganda campaign. Aerial bombing was then highly inaccurate (my grandmother’s house in Debrecen, Hungary, during World War II, was partially destroyed as the result of American bombs missing the railway station).
Payne notes that far from the “planned terror-bombing” of leftist fever dreams, the bombing of Guernica was a routine strike on a military target (and as Payne notes, “indiscriminate attacks on cities, almost always small in scope, were in fact more commonly conducted by the Republican air force,” giving the example of the bombing of Cabra, which killed more than a hundred civilians, but of which you have never heard).
Preston, of course, ignores these facts, and accepts at face value high-end, propagandistic claims for the number of dead. The inept and mendacious Nationalist response, including the suggestion that the Republicans had burned Guernica themselves to deny it to the Nationalists (it was a largely wooden town), made things worse for the Nationalists. But it was propaganda gold for the Left, who inflated the casualty figure, Payne says, “approximately one thousand percent” (the real figure was around 200, maybe somewhat more or less, and only that high because an air-raid shelter took a direct hit).
How many Spaniards died in the war? All in, maybe 350,000 by violence, including battle deaths, executions, and civilian deaths, with maybe 200,000 or 300,000 more due to “extremely harsh economic and social conditions.”
But, as Payne says, “[I]t would be hard to exaggerate the extent of the accompanying trauma the war inflicted on Spanish society as a whole. The complete destruction of the normal polity, the ubiquity of internecine violence, and the enormous privation and suffering left many of its members shell shocked and psychologically adrift.”
This in part explains why Franco faced nearly zero domestic opposition during his lifetime—nobody wanted to go back to that. They were reminded of that by a low-level terroristic Communist insurgency in the late 1940s, which killed several hundred people, mostly in train and train station bombings (and which Preston characterizes as heroic resistance).
After The War
After the war, Franco and the Nationalists cemented their power. As Payne says, “Franco planned not merely to complete construction of a new authoritarian system but also to effect a broad cultural counterrevolution that would make another civil war impossible, and that meant severe repression of the left.”
Forceful action to that end was characteristic of the immediate post-war period, with nearly 300,000 imprisoned in 1939, though most were released in 1940. “The Francoist repression, despite its severity, was not a Stalinist-Hitlerian type of liquidation applied automatically by abstract criteria equivalent to class or ethnicity. The great majority of leftist militants were never arrested, nor even questioned.”
The death sentence was reserved for political crimes involving major violence. Still, there were many executions after the war, much along the same lines as during the war, but with more due process, and quite a few jail sentences—though unlike today in America, when multi-decade sentences for relatively minor crimes are the norm, the sentences were relatively short and soon enough even those convicted of being involved in political killings were released from jail, certainly by the late 1940s.
Preston does not talk much about postwar justice in his biography of Franco, moving quickly to World War II and contenting himself with occasional references to “savage repression,” without much more detail, which superficial treatment by omission reinforces Payne’s more detailed account.
Franco’s goal in 1939, and onward, was to not only complete the
conservative counter-revolution and create neotraditionalism on a social level,
but to economically modernize the country and make Spain relevant on the world
stage. He saw no contradiction between those two things, a failure of
prediction, though understandable through a backward-looking prism. In other
words, Franco wanted to make Spain great again, by which he meant forgetting
the entire previous 150 years.
By economic modernity, Franco meant mostly autarchy, not development relying on foreign trade or foreign investment. And by global relevancy, Franco meant an authoritarian regime with an international presence, mostly at the expense of the French in North Africa. Retrospectively, both these goals seem half-baked.
But from the perspective of the time, both autarchy and authoritarian regimes, of left or right, were the coming thing in Europe, so Franco was not swimming against the tide. In fact, as with many people across the globe, including in the United States, Franco believed firmly that, globally, “the democratic system is today on the road to collapse.” He was wrong, although perhaps his prediction was premature, not wrong.
Still, Franco claimed to be democratic. What that meant was what he, and the Spanish political scholars of the time, rejected “inorganic democracy,” consisting of pure majority rule. Instead, he wanted “organic democracy,” where voting was organized around groups (e.g., family voting; syndicalism); local institutions (including, but not limited to, the Church) had significant power (in essence, subsidiarity); and, naturally, a strong executive power, in the form of himself (as “caudillo”) or, later, a return to monarchy.
As Moradiellos cites the Spanish legal theorist Luis del Valle Pascual, it was “based on the basic social forms (corporations, families, classical municipalities) and formulated by a ‘command hierarchy’ according to a ‘fair principle of selection.’ ”
If the Nationalists had won quickly, as was widely expected, nothing would have been settled. The irony is that the Civil War sought by the Left to permanently destroy the Right ended up doing the opposite. Both because of the smashing of the Left during and after the war, and because the great mass of Spaniards never wanted to return to the dark days of the war, Franco was able to remake Spain after the power of the Left was permanently broken.
True, Spain was ruined after he died, but not in the way that would have resulted if the Nationalists had not launched their counter-revolution, by mass slaughter and establishment of a Communist utopia. Those elements of the Left, as in Greece, were destroyed, and most of their successors took a different, Gramscian tack, resulting in Spain taking the same path to decay as the rest of Western Europe.
Franco’s governmental system therefore involved an “indirect and corporatist scheme of representation.” Whatever the specifics, which changed somewhat over the decades, the regime was widely supported by most of Spanish society (although foreigners could be forgiven for not realizing that, given the ongoing global Left propaganda campaign).
Nobody wanted to go back to the war, and most people, with the usual exceptions of some urban workers and radicalized agricultural laborers (along with Catalan and Basque separatists), saw that the Republicans having won would have been very bad indeed.
The majority of the revolutionary/Republican leaders had been executed or fled the country, and the rest of the remaining Republicans kept their mouths shut (although they were not persecuted). Franco emphasized the country’s Catholic identity, and he used the Movement to keep a firm lid on all segments of Nationalist support, gradually downgrading the Falange and keeping a firm lid on the monarchists.
From 1939 to 1945, Franco tried to get as much benefit as he could from the Second World War without becoming directly involved. Spain couldn’t actually join the Axis without imploding, since it depended on British-supplied oil and was in dire economic straits.
But Franco wanted to expand Spain’s possessions in North Africa, and when Hitler and Mussolini were at the height of their power, he was only too happy to curry favor—while refusing to actually offer anything meaningful, trying to keep up his balancing act of not overly angering the Allies. Certainly, Franco resonated with some aspects of National Socialism and Fascism, but was never interested in such systems being imposed in Spain, and refused to participate in persecutions of the Jews, accepting thousands of Jewish refugees fleeing France and ignoring the protests of the Germans and the Vichy French.
The major contribution to the Axis was that thousands of volunteer Spaniards fought against the Soviet Union, in the Blue Legion. Soon enough Franco realized that Hitler had reached his apogee, and delicately sidestepped away, trying to pretend that he was never really that serious about it anyway, and don’t you know that Communism is the real enemy? Still, this is probably the least attractive period of Franco’s career, though I suppose people who allied with Stalin shouldn’t really find too much fault with Franco’s choice of wartime friends.
Thus, Franco would have gotten autarchy even if that hadn’t been an economic goal of his, because after 1945, Spain was wholly isolated, due to its association with the Axis, and due even more to the global hatred of the Left for Franco and his success against the Left. Such rage dominated the American perspective, as well as pretty much every other major country other than England (where Churchill was very open that were he Spanish, he would have been a Nationalist).
Soon enough, though, between hard diplomatic work and the aggression of Stalin, relations with the United States improved. Under Eisenhower they became positively warm. Therefore, with his usual luck, Franco managed to emerge from World War II with Spain in a reasonably good position, and without the recurrence of the Republican threat.
Still, the 1940s mostly consisted of Spain staggering along economically. Moreover, this, along with Franco’s excessively relaxed attitude, encouraged widespread corruption, always the hallmark of a system with troubles (although Franco himself did not build a fortune, nor did his family get especially rich, at least by the standards of most authoritarian regimes).
Postwar Spain very much had the rule of law. Franco never interfered in the judicial process, which was uniformly applied (even though technically supreme judicial power was vested in him). The Cortes had free discussion. Every so often there were still death sentences, such as that imposed on Julián Grimau in 1963. Grimau was a Republican police officer who had been in charge of an infamous Barcelona prison where many were executed (mostly leftists in disfavor, but some Nationalists too).
He returned to Spain (why is not clear) and was arrested and sentenced (somewhat dubiously, using an obscure statute to get around the expiration of the statute of limitations).
This incident would not be important except for what it says about the Left and its lies. “The Communist leader was painted in the international media, however, as an innocent oppositionist, a peaceful organizer, about to be executed exclusively for being a political opponent. A massive clemency campaign got under way. . . . The Spanish embassy in Paris was firebombed.”
Nonetheless, Grimau was executed, causing more howls of rage from the Left, which succeeded in imposing another short period of international ostracism. Why this matters is that it shows that any claim made by the Left, that is, any claim in mainstream currency that makes the Nationalists look bad, has to be examined not only for its tilt, but for whether it has any truth at all, or is simply a pack of lies. Since the Left is so often able to control the narrative, and never has to pay any price for lying, it is encouraged to lie.
Franco maintained political order, and dropped his demand for autarchy, not so much because he had changed his mind but because he was convinced of the need to do so by his technocratic advisors (most of them Opus Dei members, including Franco’s closest advisor for decades, Luis Carrero Blanco, assassinated by a Basque bomb in 1973).
The idea that Franco ruled “with an iron hand” is silly; he actually didn’t spend much time ruling at all, and most governing was done by his cabinet, which he carefully balanced among competing political interests and periodically reshuffled to that end. “Franco was a ‘regenerationist’ who sought to economically develop his country while restoring and maintaining a conservative cultural framework, contradictory though those objectives were.”
Political controls, whether over the press or the political activity of unions or individuals, loosened over time, which was criticized by the Right and taken as a sign of weakness by the Left. That said, the political controls were never very aggressive; Solzhenitsyn was widely criticized by the Left when he visited Spain after he was exiled by the Soviets and snickered at the Spanish Left’s claim that they suffered under Franco; he pointed out that they could buy all the foreign newspapers they wanted, move wherever they wanted, and only suffered the lightest censorship. He was not invited back.
“The last twenty-five years of the Franco regime, from 1950 to 1975, was the time of the greatest sustained economic development and general improvement in living standards in all Spanish history.” GDP rose an average of 7.8 percent per year through the 1950s.
Payne compares Spanish economic policy in the 1960s to that of China today, noting that “the two main differences are that there was greater freedom in Spain during the 1960s than there [is] in China and that the proportion of state capitalism was much less.”
But, as Payne also notes, “Modernization resulted in a profound social, cultural, and economic transformation that tended to subvert the basic institutions of Franco and his regime.” The birth rate was deliberately, and successfully, encouraged to stay high. Land reform was gradually introduced, as was universal education.
All in all, Spain was made great again, although no doubt the carping Left managed to convey a different picture to the world of the time. But as this happened, in the 1960s and 1970s, Franco became somewhat out of touch, and more out of sympathy, with the new booming, glitzy, consumerist Spain, even if that was the inevitable result, at least in that era, of the economic dynamism he had sought and achieved.
Franco died in his bed in 1975, slowly and painfully but with no complaint, with his rule never having been challenged, and having carefully arranged the succession of political power to a restored monarchy, in the person of King Juan Carlos, grandson of Alfonso XIII, deposed in 1931. What Franco wanted was a strong monarchy, an avoidance of a return to political parties, which had caused so much trouble in the early twentieth century, and continued neotraditionalism.
He got none of those things. All the things that Franco had tried to do, except to prevent a Communist takeover, were largely and swiftly overturned, many even before he died. Materialism and consumerism ruled Spain; the birth rate plummeted; even the Church, long a bulwark of Francoism, turned left, with younger priests engaging in subversive activities and even encouraging violence (a harbinger of the corruption that has now swept over the Roman church).
King Juan Carlos, although he was more liberal than Franco hoped, but probably no more liberal than Franco thought likely, ensured that the Left was not able to immediately retaliate against Franco supporters as they gained power. So for some years Francoism was mostly ignored. Some writers, including Moradiellos, contort themselves to derive meaning from this silence.
They attribute it to a tacit agreement to move on. But silence is the default for all the great leftist crimes of the twentieth century; this attempt to derive meaning is merely an expression of surprise at the Left’s inability to successfully persecute anyone associated with Franco and Francoism after the end of that political system.
More likely this silence is indifference by modern Spaniards, who refused then and still refuse today to endorse the Left’s usual campaign to silence and punish their opponents of decades before.
Political memory is the essential fuel of the leftist engine of destruction, which requires delegitimizing any regime opposed to the Left, and that, as Moradiellos complains, a third of Spaniards choose “none” as their “personal political attitude to the immediate collective past,” simply shows that, for whatever reason, Spaniards generally refuse to buy into the Left’s hysterical demands for rewriting the past and using it for oppression in the present, which is to their credit.
In recent years the silence has been broken, because the Left in Spain has been running an aggressive campaign against Francoism, since the Left never forgets, unlike the Right. A key component of these campaigns is always the elimination of any agreed-upon amnesty that was offered the Right (the Left has a permanent amnesty in all cases, whether or not the law says so).
This campaign gets occasional notice in English-language media. One element of this has been to attack the mausoleum for Civil War dead Franco erected at the Valley of the Fallen (where he is also buried, although he did not specify that wish). The claim is made that it was built by “slaves”; Peter Hitchens echoes this claim.
Payne disagrees, and as always offers specifics as opposed to the generalities of leftist propagandists. “Such accusations are exaggerated. Between 1943 and 1950 a little more than two thousand prisoners convicted by military courts were employed, but they received both modest wages, as well as fringe benefits for their families, and a steep reduction in their prison terms, ranging from two to six days of credit for each day worked. Each was a volunteer for the project, and there were rarely more than three to four hundred at any given time. They worked under the same conditions as the regular laborers, and some of them later returned to join the regular work crew after completing their sentences.” The Pyramids this was not.
And a few weeks ago the Spanish government announced that Franco’s body would be disinterred. At least they are reinterring him in a government cemetery, rather than throwing his body in the river, though wait a few decades, and maybe that will happen too.
What Does This Imply?
We have now reached the point where, inevitably, I try to derive lessons for today. As always, one should not try to shoehorn the present into the past. Much is different between 2019 America and 1936 Spain, and not just that people are a lot fatter now.
The specific political issues of the day are quite different, in part because everyone being wealthy by historical standards long ago destroyed the mass appeal of Communism and true socialism (even if it appears to be having a resurgence of sorts), and anarchism is not on any relevant menus. Such specifics are less important than the basic divide between Left and Right, however, which remains exactly the same as it was in 1936.
The atrociously low level of public discourse today also adds to confusion; it is difficult sometimes to grasp the nub of arguments with the tremendous amount of chaff flying around in the air. But beyond these, there are two differences that really matter.
First, the divisions are much more poorly demarcated in America today. In Spain, who was Right and who was Left was clearly evident to everyone. Today, who is Left is mostly evident, though somewhat vaguer than in Spain, with more spread-out power centers and leadership, as well as more fragmented issues of focus.
But there is no equivalent in America today to any part of the 1930s Spanish Right. There is no powerful, organized opposition, or any organized opposition whatsoever, to the Left. The closest thing to an opposition is the masses of “deplorables,” who are denied all power by both the Democrats and Republicans in America, the latter group existing mostly to provide a pseudo-opposition to the Left, by promising the deplorables what they want and then reneging on even trying. No equivalent exists to the monarchists, or the Falange.
There is no powerful media that advances the Right agenda; there are some outposts of conservative monologues, and some Internet stars, but they are not allowed to set the narrative, which is wholly within the grasp of the Left or its enablers, as are the universities, the schools, all big corporations, and the entertainment media. Intellectual groups of conservatives in America are ineffectual, with no actual power or influence and no path to achieve it (although some could offer intellectual heft if there were an actual Right).
Second, and a consequence of the first difference, the specific enemies of today’s American Left are less clear. Spain had Right institutions staffed by people who could be easily targeted: the Church, the Army, the right-wing press, right-wing academics.
The Left focused on winning by eliminating those people. Today’s Left could not do that; if the Left were going to conduct a campaign of violent suppression, the targets would merely be occasional individuals who form the beginnings of a threat to the absolute Left hegemony (e.g., Jordan Peterson), not Right institutions or classes of people staffing those institutions, since there are neither such institutions nor such classes of people.
True, today’s Left does not need to do that, since it has gathered all power to itself, but either way, it makes attacks such as the Left conducted in Spain mostly pointless.
These two differences imply that a civil war here, today, of the type fought in Spain is very unlikely, whatever dark mutterings about the possibility keep cropping up on both the Right and Left. Even if the Right wanted to start a violent counter-revolution, it is not even remotely clear how that could be organized, or what the practical goals would be.
And the flashpoints that actually started the Civil War, private killings sanctioned by the government, are, despite the prevalence of low-level violence by the Left, really totally absent in America today. One can predict that they’re coming, but there’s little actual evidence of that, even if the normal historical arc of the Left is to converge on the desirability of physically eliminating opposition.
Sure, there is plenty of evidence of soft totalitarianism, where the Right is actively suppressed by denying prestigious education and remunerative employment, as well as membership in the ruling class, to anyone who dares to challenge the Left. It’s very hard to organize, or justify, high-level violence as a response to that, though. So yes, someday the grasp of the Left may exceed its reach, and result in civil war, but that does not appear imminent.
Such optimism, however, if that is what it is, depends on wealth, which can paper over a lot of sins and structural problems. The Left in power inevitably destroys wealth, because it always wants to enforce equality, by taking from the haves and giving to the have nots (hence the resurgence of true socialism).
The neoliberals who are only hard Left on social matters, while maintaining some semblance of economic reality (at the same time oppressing actual workers), will likely give way to the more attractive religious beliefs of the Marxists, while even on social matters they eat their own—both processes we see beginning in the current Democratic race for President.
At root, the Leftist program always has as its ultimate aim the achievement of utopia through the accomplishment of two concrete goals—remaking of society for “equality,” and the destruction of all core structures of society and their replacement by celebration of various forms of vice, this latter process labeled “liberty.”
It appears that people will, if it’s done non-violently, tolerate the former so long as their cup of consumer goods is full. When the music stops because the money runs out, whether because of economic irrationality or some externally imposed rupture, all bets about civil war are going to be off, because, I predict, the demarcations, and the leadership of groups so demarcated, will immediately arise.
The problem is that such demarcation will likely result in civil war, unless reality defeats and discredits the Left first, which is certainly possible. If not, it will have to be defeated permanently, as Franco very nearly did. It does no good to put the Left down if they will simply rise again; it is pointless to play Whack-A-Mole.
The Left must be stripped of all power and fully discredited, and to be discredited, it must be viewed by future generations as the intellectual equivalent of a combination of Nazism and the worship of Sol Invictus. I am not sure if that is even possible, since what the Left offers is so very, very seductive.
At a minimum it would require in the present day the equivalent of denazification; or perhaps the same kind of successful forgetting of the past implemented by King Charles II after the Restoration (not the typical Left forgetting of the past, which is just biding time until their past enemies can be destroyed). But it would also require offering something attractive as an alternative to the Leftist poison dream, which Franco did not do—he offered the past, which while better, does not inspire, and cannot be returned to. History has no arrow, but it does not go backward, either. The future must be what we make it.
Thus, at this moment Franco seems irrelevant. Or we are schooled to believe he is irrelevant, because we are conditioned to believe that the inevitable end of a regime like Franco’s is, well, like Franco’s—the return of left-wing dominance, at a minimum, the end of neotraditionalism, and triumph of liquid modernity.
We are so conditioned both because that is what has happened in all instances so far, not just of the ending of regimes like Franco’s, but also of the end of Communist regimes, which were replaced by “liberal democratic” regimes friendly to the philosophies that underlay Communism, but offering more Coca-Cola. We are further so conditioned because it is in the interests of, and a core belief of, the Left that history does have an arrow, and their triumph is the way it must be.
But this is really merely a glaring example of the error that George Orwell ascribed to James Burnham, to always be predicting “the continuation of the thing that is happening.” The opposite is actually true: the modern world of so-called liberal democracy is based on a fundamental denial of reality, and therefore it cannot continue.
Franco was not wrong that “inorganic democracy” is a silly system, something long recognized but forgotten in the modern era (and leaving aside that we don’t even have that anymore, as can be seen most clearly in Europe). Past performance is not only no guarantee, but no indicator, of future results; the Enlightenment project is played out.
So let’s predict the future. One possible path is the one we’re on: where Leftist oppression wears a smile and offers maximal freedom, that is, corrupt license, to everyone except those opposed to offering maximal freedom, and allows democracy as long as votes are for more of the same. Such is “liberal democracy” today; as Ryszard Legutko says, consisting of “coercion to freedom.” I imagine that as long as the money holds out, this could go along for a long time, even though collapse is a step function and no society at this point of degeneration has ever done anything but rapidly collapse.
Which leads us to the other possible path, getting off the path we’re on, pushing through some brambles, perhaps, and setting our steps on a broad and sunny path the contours of which were set, and the road itself paved, a long time ago. Franco proves it can be done, and just because Franco’s vision was shattered on his death, doesn’t mean the next entrant in the contest to bring virtue back to the West will suffer the same fate.
Even today, there are leaders pushing in this direction. In many ways, Viktor Orbán and his extremely popular Fidesz party in Hungary, and the Law and Justice Party in Poland, are the philosophical heirs of Franco, and are highly successful, which explains the hatred and vitriol directed their way by the global Left.
As Franco said in 1961, and as I am sure Orbán would agree, “The great weakness of modern states lies in their lack of doctrinal content, in having renounced a firm concept of man, life, and history. The major error of liberalism is in its negation of any permanent category of truth—its absolute and radical relativism—an error that, in a different form, was apparent in those other European currents that made ‘action’ their only demand and the supreme norm of their conduct [i.e., Communism and National Socialism]. . . . When the juridicial order does not proceed from a system of principles, ideas, and values recognized as superior and prior to the state, it ends in an omnipotent juridicial voluntarism, whether its primary organ be the so-called majority, purely numerical and inorganically expressed, or the supreme organs of power.” Exactly so.
This implies that the Left can be permanently defeated without war. But the only way out is through. As David Gress said of conservatives of the nineteenth century, “[T]hey were pessimists because they understood on the one hand that liberalism was the destiny of the West, and on the other that this set of doctrines was unable and unwilling, by its very nature, to restore the sense of self, of continuity, of belonging, and of tranquility that they considered essential to any civilization with a pretense to last.”
But liberalism has had its day; it is no longer the destiny of the West, but a played out set of empty and destructive doctrines. Through that reality, the future looks different, and brighter. We have rarely seen the Right offering this as an alternative, instead offering pabulum and the prayers that they will be eaten last. But we do see it being offered more often: in Hungary, in Poland, in Brazil, in Russia (though in dubious forms in those latter two).
In America, too, though without the organization or leadership found in those countries. It is not clear who could lead such a movement here. Certainly, nobody in evidence now. But the maelstrom births new creatures, some demons, some angels, some in-between. The right person at the right time can both defeat the Left and offer the future. Instead of offering that we will be as gods, he will offer that we be mighty among men, and he will offer human flourishing, rather than human destruction and depravity, the gifts of the Left.
What should be the goals of that man? His first step should be administrative: to create the organization on the Right that is lacking. This will be a new thing; the Man of Destiny will not rise through the Republican primaries and kiss Mitch McConnell’s ring, before settling into his seat in the Russell Office Building. Beyond that, though, what?
Franco, for all of his virtues, had a vision that was far too narrow. For the most part, he wanted to re-create the past, which is by definition impossible, and the attempt is both self-defeating and breeds unexpected consequences. He was the man to win the war, but really, he was not the man to lead the future, even Spain’s future.
What we want, what we need, is a new system drawing on the same roots, but not an insular, autarkic, inward-looking one. Rather, one dynamic, that can renew the shrinking human race. Perhaps it will renew the dying culture of the West, by far the best the world has ever seen. Or perhaps it is too late for that, and some form of synthesis to create a successor culture is necessary, as the West rose from Rome and the barbarians.
All doors are open, or will be, soon enough, and it will be the job of the new Franco, and his acolytes, to both unlock the correct door, and to step through.
Charles is a business owner and operator, in manufacturing, and a recovering big firm M&A lawyer. He runs the blog, The Worthy House.
The photo shows a poster of Franco, from the 1940s.
Any conversation about the Gulag would be unthinkable without Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, for he was the first in the USSR to introduce the topic to the public.
The risky publication of his short novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in the literary magazine New World in 1962 became a bombshell. Previously, the topic of Stalin’s camps had not been raised in public although it had – of course – touched almost every family in the country.
In One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, the protagonist, a peasant, recalls how he went to fight the Germans, was captured, escaped, and was immediately sent to the camps. That was how the Stalinist regime treated anyone who had fallen into German captivity: they were viewed as spies or deserters. The book also offers vivid descriptions of the hardships of everyday life in the labor camps.
Those who want to study the topic more deeply and get a broader picture of the scale of Stalin’s camps should read Solzhenitsyn’s magnum opus The Gulag Archipelago, which he himself called an experiment in artistic research.
Varlam Shalamov foresaw the appearance of a large number of memoirs and non-fiction works about this terrible period of Soviet history. He believed that authenticity would become the main strength of the literature of the future. In a dry and succinct manner, as if through the eyes of a documentary filmmaker, Shalamov writes about prisoners’ backbreaking work, awful and scant food, beatings and the terrible cold of Kolyma. Behind these daily observations, there are the writer’s ruminations about human beings and the value of life. His bleak writing style penetrates deeply into readers’ consciousness and this document about the Gulag may turn out to be more affecting than any work of art.
“Backbreaking work inflicted irreparable wounds on us, and our life in old
age will be a life of pain, endless and varied physical and mental pain.”
Here are some excerpts from
Shalamov’s short stories…
From, “The Carpenters”
“But the cold kept up, and Potashnikov knew he couldn’t hold out any longer. Breakfast sustained his strength for no more than an hour of work, and then exhaustion ensued. Frost penetrated the body to the ‘marrow of the bone’ — the phrase was no metaphor. A man could wave his pick or shovel, jump up and down so as not to freeze — till dinner. Dinner was hot — a thin broth and two spoons of kasha that restored one’s strength only a little but nevertheless provided some warmth. And then there was strength to work for an hour, and after that Potashnikov again felt himself in the grip of the cold. The day would finally come to a close, and after supper all the workers would take their bread back to the barracks, where they would eat it, washing it down with a mug of hot water. Not a single man would eat his bread in the mess hall with his soup. After that Potashnikov would go to sleep.
He slept, of course, on one of the upper berths, because the lower ones were like an ice cellar. Everyone who had a lower berth would stand half the night at the stove, taking turns with his neighbors in embracing it; the stove retained a slight remnant of warmth. There was never enough firewood, because to go for it meant a four-kilometer walk after work and everyone avoided the task. The upper berths were warmer, but even so everyone slept in his working clothes — hats, padded coats, pea jackets, felt pants. Even with the extra warmth, by the morning a man’s hair would be frozen to the pillow.
Potashnikov felt his strength leaving him every day. A thirty-year-old man, he had difficulty in climbing on to an upper berth and even in getting down from it. His neighbor had died yesterday. The man simply didn’t wake up, and no one asked for the cause of death, as if there were only one cause that everyone knew.”
From, “In the Night”
“Are you a doctor?” asked Bagretsov, sucking the wound.
Glebov remained silent. The time when he had been a doctor seemed very far away. Had it ever existed? Too often the world beyond the mountains and seas seemed unreal, like something out of a dream. Real were the minute, the hour, the day — from reveille to the end of work. He never guessed further, nor did he have the strength to guess. Nor did anyone else.
He didn’t know the past of the people who surrounded him and didn’t want to know. But then, if tomorrow Bagretsov were to declare himself a doctor of philosophy or a marshal of aviation, Glebov would believe him without a second thought. Had he himself really been a doctor? Not only the habit of judgment was lost, but even the habit of observation. Glebov watched Bagretsov suck the blood from his finger but said nothing. The circumstance slid across his consciousness, but he couldn’t find or even seek within himself the will to answer.
We tried to work, but our lives were too distant from anything that could be expressed in figures, wheelbarrows, or percent of plan. The figures were a mockery. But for an hour, for one moment after that night’s dinner, we got our strength back.
And suddenly I realized that that night’s dinner had given the sectarian the strength he needed for his suicide. He needed that extra portion of kasha to make up his mind to die. There are times when a man has to hurry so as not to lose his will to die.
As usual, we encircled the stove. But today there was no one to sing any hymns. And I guess I was even happy that it was finally quiet.
From, “Dry Rations”
We were all tired of barracks food. Each time they brought in the soup in large zinc tubs suspended on poles, it made us all want to cry. We were ready to cry for fear that the soup would be thin. And when a miracle occurred and the soup was thick, we couldn’t believe it and ate it as slowly as possible. But even with thick soup in a warm stomach there remained a sucking pain; we’d been hungry for too long. All human emotions — love, friendship, envy, concern for one’s fellow man, compassion, longing for fame, honesty — had left us with the flesh that had melted from our bodies during their long fasts…
“Just imagine,” said Savelev. “We’ll survive, leave for the mainland, and quickly become sick old men. We’ll have heart pains and rheumatism, and all the sleepless nights, the hunger, and long hard work of our youth will leave their mark on us even if we remain alive. We’ll be sick without knowing why, groan and drag ourselves from one dispensary to another. This unbearable work will leave us with wounds that can’t be healed, and all our later years will lead to lives of physical and psychological pain. And that pain will be endless and assume many different forms. But even among those terrible future days there will be good ones when we’ll be almost healthy and we won’t think about our sufferings. And the number of those days will be exactly equal to the number of days each of us has been able to loaf in camp.”
From, “A Child’s Drawings”
We finished the work, stacked the wood, and waited for the guards. Our guard was keeping warm in the building for which we’d been chopping wood, but we were supposed to march back in formation, breaking up in town into smaller groups.
We didn’t go to warm up, though, since we had long since noticed, next to a fence, a large heap of garbage — something we could not afford to ignore. Both my companions were soon removing one frozen layer after another with the adroitness that comes from practice. Their booty consisted of lumps of frozen bread, an icy piece of hamburger, and a torn pair of men’s socks. The socks were the most valuable item, of course, and I regretted that I hadn’t found them first. “Civvies” — socks, scarves, gloves, shirts, pants — were prized by people who for decades had nothing to wear but convict garb. The socks could be darned and exchanged for tobacco or bread.
From, “The Red Cross”
The evil acts committed by criminals in camp are innumerable. The unfortunates are those from whom the thief steals their last rags, confiscates their last coin. The working man is afraid to complain, for he sees that the criminals are stronger than the camp authorities. The thief beats the working man and forces him to work. Tens of thousands of people have been beaten to death by thieves. Hundreds of thousands of people who have been in the camps are permanently seduced by the ideology of these criminals and have ceased to be people. Something criminal has entered into their souls for ever. Thieves and their morality have left an indelible mark on the soul of each.
The camp administrator is rude and cruel; the persons responsible for propaganda lie; the doctor has no conscience. But all this is trivial in comparison with the corrupting power of the criminal world. In spite of everything, the authorities are still human beings, and the human element in them does survive. The criminals are not human.
The influence of their morality on camp life is boundless and many-sided. The camps are in every way schools of the negative. No one will ever receive anything useful or necessary from them — neither the convict himself, nor his superiors, nor the guard, nor the inadvertent witnesses (engineers, geologists, doctors), nor the camp administrators, nor their subordinates.
Female authors who went through the camps are less well known. One of the more notable is Eufrosinia Kersnovskaya: she accompanied her memoirs with drawings – simple, child-like images, but for that reason even more terrifying.
Kersnovskaya possessed incredible strength, both physical and mental, and asked to be given men’s work – she even worked in a mine. Her story is amazing: she managed to escape and survived in the taiga when her only food was a frozen piece of horse-meat.
She describes, without embellishment, the most terrible things that were going on in the Gulag, the lowly position occupied by women prisoners and what many of them were prepared to do in order to survive.
The title of her book reflects her
attempts to understand under what conditions a person can lose their essential
Present-day writers too turn to the topic of the Gulag. For example, one of Russia’s leading authors, Zakhar Prilepin, sent his hero to a camp on the Solovetsky Islands – the very same Gulag archipelago.
This major novel is based on
thorough archival research. The author made numerous trips to the Solovetsky
Islands, working in the archives there. He offers an extremely accurate
depiction of the head of the camp, as well as the entire camp structure – from
prison cells made out of former monastic cells and wooden bunks in churches to
punishment cells set up in remote monastic retreats.
Prilepin also portrays different groups of inmates – political prisoners and ordinary criminals rubbed shoulders in these camps.
This is another contemporary novel
on our list, the debut novel by writer Guzel Yakhina, which became a bestseller
in Russia and has already been translated into 10 languages. It tells not so
much the story of the Gulag itself as of the Stalin-era repressions, namely the
dispossession of Tatar peasants and their deportation to Siberia.
The book’s heroine, together with a
group of prisoners, finds herself in the middle of the taiga under the escort
of one officer. They have to dig their own dugout, forage for food and fend off
the cold. But, strangely, in these circumstances, she feels a freer person than
when she was when oppressed by her husband and mother-in-law.
Although this is a work of fiction, but Yakhina studied archive materials about deportations to Siberia in Stalin’s times. In addition, her grandmother was among those dispossessed in the 1930s, and when depicting the everyday life of her characters, the author relied on her grandmother’s recollections.
corpulent man wearing a pince-nez remains one of the most symbolic faces of
Joseph Stalin’s era. Lavrentiy Beria was calculating and vicious, hard-working
and hedonist – and people feared him so much that it led to his downfall.
like his boss Joseph Stalin, Lavrentiy Beria (1899 – 1953) was born and bred in
Georgia. An ethnic Mingrelian (a small nation closely-related to Georgians), during
the Russian Civil War (1918-1921) he specialized in spying and undercover
operations for the Bolsheviks in neighboring Azerbaijan. Later, Beria returned
to Georgia to work for the Soviet secret police, known as the Cheka – the
made a great career in Georgia: in the 1930s, after Stalin got rid of the old
Georgian Communists, Beria led the republic. “Beria had no values, was always
ready to discard ideology or personal relations – and Stalin liked that about
him,” historian Lev Lurie writes.
Beria was indeed a good manager. “During his reign in Georgia, the republic
became the main supplier of tea, grape and citrus for the entire USSR… the
republic that was among the poorest turned into the most prosperous,” Lurie notes.
Beria established excellent personal relations with Stalin, who visited Georgia
many times during his vacations. That helped him a lot – Beria was one of only
two heads of Soviet republics ( there were 15) who survived the purges of 1937.
Moreover, Stalin took Beria to Moscow, appointing him chief of the NKVD, the
notorious secret police.
Russia, it is common to associate Beria, the longest-sitting head of the NKVD
during Stalin’s era, with mass repressions. In fact, it was Beria’s predecessor
Nikolai Yezhov who ran the secret police during the height of the terror,
1937-1938. As far as Stalin was concerned, appointing Beria to head the NKVD
was a way to scale back the extent of the executions.
was a violent yet clever man who was well aware of the fact that further
repressions would lead to the failure of his power,” wrote Sergo Beria,
Lavrentiy’s son, in his memoirs. “He needed a man of a different kind [from
Yezhov] to lead the NKVD.” Sergo’s objectivity can be disputed, but his father
did alleviate the violence: in 1938 (the last year of Yezhov’s tenure as head
of the NKVD), 328,000 people were sentenced to
death in the USSR; in 1939, with Beria in charge that figure was 2,600.
that doesn’t mean Beria was a bleeding-heart liberal: like everyone else in
Stalin’s government he was always ready to spill blood if there was an order.
For instance, it was Beria’s NKVD that sentenced 14,500 Polish war prisoners to
death in 1940 (the infamous Katyn massacre).
appreciated Beria’s organizational skills enough to put him in charge of the
manufacture of armaments, aircraft and aircraft engines during World War II –
which was in addition to his duties in state security that included both
coordinating the work of spies and the infamous deportations of ethnic groups
accused of collaborating with the Germans – Chechens, Crimean Tatars and so on.
the war ended, the USSR faced new challenges – the nuclear arms race, with
Washington ahead of Moscow. Stalin had no doubt who could supervise the Soviet
atomic project: Beria headed the Special Committee on Creating Nuclear Weapons
in the shortest time possible.
ruthless minister spent 1945 to 1949 providing Soviet scientists with
everything they needed. Ninel Epatova, an engineer who used to work on the
atomic project, saw Beria periodically, and she recalled: “Back then, Beria
always looked exhausted… with red eyes, bags under them… It seemed he didn’t
care about anything except work.”
work consumed Beria, and historian Oleg Khlevniuk writes that: “Soviet nuclear
testing could result in his triumph or, in case of failure, the end of his
career or even life.” But testing was successful: in 1949, the USSR became a
nuclear power, and Beria was among those who made it possible.
attitude towards Beria was special. He was the only one among the top members
of the Communist Party not to have an apartment but a mansion in Moscow all to
himself,” Lurie states. Today, this mansion on Malaya Nikitskaya Street in the
Moscow center hosts the embassy of Tunisia and… is rumored to be haunted.
are dark legends surrounding Beria: allegedly he was something of a sexual maniac,
having young girls delivered to his house, raping and (sometimes) murdering
them, while his guards helped him get rid of the bodies. Nevertheless, there is
absolutely no proof for this urban legend, and most historians suppose it was
Beria’s posthumous bad publicity that led to such rumors.
has been proved is that Beria had, in addition to his wife, an ‘unofficial’ one
– Valentina Drozdova, who was a 16-year-old schoolgirl when they met in 1949.
Their relations lasted until Beria’s death in 1953. Later, Drozdova claimed
that Beria raped her, but it’s unclear if it was true or whether she wanted to
distance herself from Beria’s legacy.
Stalin died on March 5, 1953, Beria became one of the most influential people
in the USSR, forming a ‘triumvirate’ with two other leaders – Nikita Khrushchev
and Georgy Malenkov. In that ‘collective ruling’ system Beria was in charge of
state security, which, along with his dark reputation, resulted in Khrushchev
and Malenkov fearing Beria and a possible plot against them.
So, they decided to strike first. In June 1953, Beria was detained, denounced as the architect of repressions and a British spy (a fabricated accusation) and executed the same year. Beria was Stalin’s only secret police chief to outlive his boss, but not for long.
a few indisputable reasons that led to the decline of the socialist state – and
its subsequent fall.
dawn of the USSR, hopes of the imminent global rule of communism soared high
among leftists of the world. But in a few decades, it became clear that the
socialistic ideals of Lenin had failed. How did this come to happen?
“It is important to distinguish socialism from communism,” says Elena
Malysheva, dean at the Division of Archival Studies at the Institute for
History and Archives. “While socialism was the formal type of state
administration of the USSR, communism was the ruling ideology. The project of
the socialist state was initially utopian and populistic.”
Rudolf Pikhoia, Doctor of historical science and the former State Archivist
of Russia, argues in
his paper ‘Why did the Soviet Union dissolve?’ that the main characteristic of
the Soviet state was the unity of government organs and the Communist Party.
The Soviet Constitution of 1977 defined the Party as “the core of the political
system”. What did it mean in practice?
Lenin argued that the Soviet – the elected organs of local
self-administration – was a direct democracy, so there was no need for
parliament or the separation of powers (legislature, executive, and judiciary).
Everything would be cared for by the members of the Supreme Soviet of the
Soviet Union, which comprised of electees from local Soviets. But the elections
of the Soviets were a sham. All officials were appointed by the Communist Party
of the Soviet Union, and its Central Committee was what really governed the
state. All military men, civil servants, the police and the secret services
belonged to the Party. State security was ensured by an army of KGB agents – in
a recent interview, General Philipp Bobkov (1925 – 2019), former Deputy head of
the KGB (1983-1991), estimated that in every region, there were about 300-500
undercover KGB agents, with up to 1,500-2,000 in major regions.
In such conditions, the discordant and the rebellious were intimidated
with jails and labor camps. The horrible GULAG system had over half a
million in camps in 1933; since 1936, there were over a million convicts,
reaching numbers of 2,5 million by the beginning of the 1950s. The atrocities
of the system were obvious, especially for foreign onlookers.
“The Soviet project contained elements of what we now call ‘a social state’:
social mobility, civil society institutes, social support, free health
services, etc. But, because of the utopian nature of the project, this all
couldn’t be implemented in full,” says Elena Malysheva. “Non-separation of
powers, self-administration of the people – all this demands high social
responsibilities that Soviet society didn’t have.”
Indeed, Lenin and his comrades might have believed that all Party and Soviet
officials would be fair and honest and wouldn’t bribe, steal or abuse their
official status. Unfortunately, the reality was far from the truth. Even at the
beginning of the Soviet state, the Bolsheviks would use inhumane methods to
extract grain from peasant farmers who produced it. They met with strong civil
resistance, sometimes bursting into rebellions like the Tambov rebellion of
1920-1921, where over 50,000 peasants were interred and tens of thousands were
killed by the Red Army.
Meanwhile, people who didn’t fit in the ‘new world’, most of all, former
bourgeoisie and landlords, were also to be destroyed: “Merciless extermination
is necessary,” Lenin wrote. “On foreigners, don’t rush with expulsion. Maybe a
concentration camp is better,” he argued. It was obvious Lenin was trying to
build an idealistic state of social justice and equality, but with atrocious
Eventually, to crush the peasants’ resistance, the state declared the
nationalization of private property, and collectivization of land and means of
agricultural production. Now, the peasants’ land, cattle, and agricultural tools
belonged to kolkhozes – collective farms. Peasants were
almost deprived of money. They worked for “day of labor” and were paid with
natural products for the number of days worked. If historians talk about the
abolition of serfdom in 1861, it had a revival in 1932-1937, when peasants were
banned from leaving the kolkhoz they were assigned to.
The collective farming system led to a sharp decline in grain production.
Provision had to be bought abroad. Once one of the world’s leading exporters of
grain (as of 1913), Russia became one of its leading importers. Rudolf Pikhoia
presents the statistics that in 1973, the USSR imported 13.2% of the amount of
grain it was using, and in 1981 – already 41,4%.
And in 1987, only 24% of the country’s production was consumer goods: the
state had boosted its unprecedented militarization at the expense of its own
But where did the income come from? From 1970 to 1980, oil production in
Siberia increased 10 times (from 31 million tons to 312 million tons) while gas
production increased from 9,5 billion cubic meters to 156 billion cubic meters.
And this oil and gas were being exported to the West – the only lifeline for
the declining Soviet economy.
“The Party apparatus and the state apparatus had merged on all levels:
executive, administrative and communicative level,” Malysheva says. “In case of
any crisis in either one of them – the other one would go into decline, too.
So, when democracy started to develop in the late 1980s, the Party couldn’t
hold the power. Although the Communist ideology in itself had the capacity for
survival, the merging with the state apparatus doomed Communism.”
The Chernobyl catastrophe showed that the executive branch was rotten to the
core. After Mikhail Gorbachev started social and political reforms, the
unstable equilibrium of the Party and the State fell apart. After the
introduction of real elections, the peoples of the Soviet republics showed a
strong inclination for sovereignty and the opportunity to make their own
Meanwhile, the old Party apparatus mostly resigned: in 1986-1989, 90% of local Party officials in all republics resigned, and eventually, the Union fell apart. Unable to reform itself along with the demands of the era, the Soviet system proved to be unsustainable.
In 1991, just months before the collapse of the USSR, Soviet audiences witnessed a shocking scene on television program, Pyatoe Koleso (The Fifth Wheel). Two serious-looking men – Sergey Sholokhov, the host and his guest, an underground musician and writer introduced as “politician and actor,” Sergey Kurekhin were sitting in a studio discussing the October revolution of 1917.
Suddenly, Kurekhin offered a very interesting hypothesis – that Vladimir Lenin, the Bolshevik leader, was not a human being but a mushroom.
Kurekhin started with a rambling discourse on the nature of revolutions and his trip to Mexico where, in ancient temples, he had seen frescoes closely resembling the events of 1917. From there, he moved on to the author Carlos Castaneda who described the practices of Central American Indians of using psychotropic drinks prepared from certain types of cacti.
“Apart from cacti, Castaneda describes mushrooms as special products with a hallucinogenic effect,” Kurekhin continued and then quoted Lenin’s letter to leading Marxist Georgi Plekhanov: “Yesterday I ate many mushrooms and felt marvelously well”. Noting that Russia’s fly-agaric mushroom has hallucinogenic effects, Kurekhin assumed that Lenin was consuming these kinds of mushrooms and had some kind of psychedelic, mind-altering experience.
It was not only Lenin who dabbled in such fungi, but other Bolsheviks as well, Kurekhin claimed. “The October revolution was made by people who had been consuming hallucinogenic mushrooms for years,” he said with a poker face. “And Lenin’s personality was replaced with that of a mushroom because fly-agaric identity is far stronger than a human one.” Therefore, he concluded, Lenin became a mushroom himself.
After that sensational statement, the program went on for another 20 minutes, with Kurekhin and Sholokhov citing endless “evidence” of Lenin’s affinity for mushrooms, starting from his passion for collecting fungi and going so far as to compare a photo of an armored vehicle Lenin once posed on to fungal mycelium.
At some point, both couldn’t help but laugh after stating that the Soviet hammer and a sickle symbol was, in fact, combination of a mushroom and a mushroom picker’s knife. But even the laughter didn’t prevent thousands of people from taking the program seriously.
“Had Kurekhin been speaking of anyone else, his words would easily have been dismissed as a joke. But Lenin! How could one joke about Lenin? Especially on Soviet television,” Russian anthropologist Alexei Yurchak said to explain the gullibility of many Soviet viewers.. He emphasized that viewers didn’t necessarily believe that Lenin was a mushroom – but they treated Kurekhin as a serious researcher, calling the television and writing letters demanding that the station confirm or refute the idea of the Bolshevik leader being a fungus.
Sergei Sholokhov, who made the program together with Kurekhin, later said: “The day after the show aired, a delegation of old Bolsheviks went to our local Communist party boss who was in charge of ideology and demanded an answer – was Lenin a mushroom or not. She answered with a fierce ‘No!’ claiming that ‘a mammal cannot be a plant’.”
Both himself and Kurekhin were quite shocked by such an answer, Sholokhov notes. On the other hand, Sholokhov may have made the story up – just like he and Kurekhin (who died in 1996) did with the TV show.
It was Kurekhin, a humorous hoaxer who came up with the idea. In the late 1980s and early 1990s the world of Soviet media was changing, and as journalists enjoyed more freedom, some of them were talking nonsense.
As Kurekhin’s widow Anastasia recalled, “Once we saw a TV show on the death of Sergey Yesenin (the Russian poet who committed suicide in 1925). The host built his “proof” that Yesenin had actually been killed on absolutely absurd arguments. They showed photos of the poet’s funeral and said: “Look, this man is looking this way and that man is looking the other way, so it means that Yesenin was killed.” Kurekhin saw it and said to Anastasia: “You know, you can prove anything using such “evidence”. And so he did.
Alexei Yurchak explains that the hoax and people’s reactions to it was a good illustration of how people, no matter where they live, tend to trust the media without checking facts. “If there’s something in the media, there must be something to it,” Yurchak wrote. Kurekhin’s provocation was a hilarious way to prove how easy it is to feed people with the most bizarre nonsense if you sound confident enough.
Oleg Yegerov writes for Russia Beyond, through whose courtesy this articles is provided.
The wicked reality of Communism has, over the past twenty-five years, been deliberately erased from Western education and, more broadly, from the Western mind. This was entirely predictable. The reasons behind the erasure are not complex. The ruling classes and social tastemakers in the West at the time that Communism fell, and for decades before and since, had and have a lot of sympathy for Communism.
They were appalled by efforts, like Reagan’s, to actually end Communism, and they had no real problem with it in practice. To nobody’s surprise, today they have no interest in admitting their support for evil, or in exposing their guilt to a new generation.
Moreover, as Ryszard Legutko has explained at length, Communism has much in common with modern liberal democracy—far more than liberal democracy has with pre-liberal forms of political thought. Education and the media are today controlled by these philo-Communists, throughout the West (with a few virtuous exceptions, notably Poland and Hungary).
As a result, from a combination of self-interest and ideological sympathy/compatibility, the vast majority of people under forty today have little idea that Communism was the most evil and most lethal political system ever derived, because the truth has been deliberately hidden from them.
Anna Funder’s Stasiland, written in 2002 but covering the author’s journeys through the former East Germany in 1996 and 2000, is a partial corrective to this erasure of memory. The Stasi, of course, were the East German secret police.
Stasiland is more of an introspective examination of individuals and their stories, heavy on emotions, including the author’s, than an abstract or statistical examination of tyranny. Certainly, tyranny is very evident in this book, but it is not a history of the horror of Communism in East Germany, it is a history of a handful of people who lived through that horror.
Perhaps, though, this is a more effective way of bringing home the reality of Communism. The Black Book of Communism documents precisely how Communism killed 100 million people, but the death of millions, as Joseph Stalin himself supposedly said, is a statistic, not a tragedy.
Stasiland vividly shows us the inescapable and inevitable reality of Communism that is almost never taught and rarely talked about in America today.
You will have to read the book to learn the stories told by Funder’s interlocutors. It is impossible to do the stories justice, both factually and to convey their emotional impact, in a summary. Not all of her interlocutors are those who were persecuted. Some of them are Stasi agents and Stasi informers. Funder even talked to Karl-Eduard von Schnitzler, famous as the rage-filled talking head on GDR (“German Democratic Republic,” for those who have forgotten) television given the task of countering facts in broadcasts from the West.
She quotes him at length justifying shooting anyone daring to try to escape from the GDR, as “humane” and necessary because “here in the GDR, peace has been elevated to a governing principle of the state.” That reasoning is pretty much par for the course for the former agents of the East German state that Funder interviews. But, aside from the stories themselves, several key points pop out to the reader.
One is that no Communists were ever punished in any meaningful way for their crimes. Funder chalks this up to a desire to forget on the part of the Germans. This is not correct, or rather it is incomplete. Doubtless some want to forget, but the Germans have not forgotten the Nazis, because they have not allowed themselves to forget.
The key principle at work, though, can be seen not in post-Nazi history, but in the more pedestrian history of the numerous leftist and rightist regimes that have ruled in various places over the past decades. When any right-wing authoritarian regime has ended in the past hundred years and been replaced with a more democratic regime, in which the Left is again allowed free reign, those in power under the prior regime, from the lowliest functionary to the maximum leader, are always persecuted around the globe until their death.
This is done regardless of any formal legislation to the contrary, the rule of law, the doctrine forbidding ex post facto laws, or any other principle that might limit the revenge of the Left on their enemies, and it is conducted globally by the well-funded, well-connected, tightly allied Left, rabid dogs to a man.
The best prominent recent example of this is Augusto Pinochet, and perhaps Alberto Fujimori. It is easy to adduce hundreds of examples, and when such men (often heroes, like Pinochet, who saved the lives of innumerable Chilean citizens) are not judicially persecuted, they are ostracized and humiliated, spat on and forbidden to travel.
But not a single example can be adduced of the reverse process, of the persecution of leftists formerly in power, anywhere on the globe, at any time, even though leftists have killed far, far, more people than rightist regimes. It is amazing, if you think about it. No Communist or leftist formerly in power in Central or South America, or Europe, or anywhere, has ever been punished with anything more than a slap on the wrist, no matter how many tens of thousands they killed.
In most cases, like Fidel Castro, they have been globally lionized, free to travel in luxury anywhere, at any time, with no fear of criticism, much less punishment. While Funder does not draw this specific contrast between the treatment of Left and Right, she does cover how Erich Honecker, Erich Mielke, and other mass murderers, along with tens of thousands of other killers and torturers, received zero punishment. (Bizarrely, the only crime Mielke was convicted of was two murders of policemen committed in 1931).
In fact, all former Communists for the most part quickly became embedded in the new regimes, often personally greatly profiting, and not facing even social ostracism. Moreover, the higher profile Communists were, after their fall, openly celebrated around the world by the Left. Their lives were mostly awesome, post-Communism. Nice work if you can get it, I suppose, but a few more such bad men floating face-down in canals, if the law will not do its job, would have been, and still is, a good idea.
A second key point is the total corrosion of civil society that was created by the informer state set up by the Stasi. “Relations between people were conditioned by the fact that one or the other of you could be one of them. Everyone suspected everyone else, and the mistrust this bred was the foundation of social existence.”
This is not surprising, given that there was one informer in every seven citizens, and that the Left, unlike rightist authoritarian regimes, functions mostly on terror (rather than simple political repression), of which informants are a critical element.
Funder gives an excellent flavor of this corrosive terror, which is also well shown in The Lives of Others, the 2006 film about life in the GDR (although that film was criticized by some, including Funder, for inaccurately portraying the GDR and the Stasi as softer and more humanized than they really were).
A third point is that Funder explains why anyone would join the Stasi, or become an informant, at all. To us, living in a mostly free society, it seems like an odd choice to voluntarily become an agent of terror.
But, “In a society riven into ‘us’ and ‘them,’ an ambitious young person might well want to be one of the group in the know, one of the unmolested. If there was never going to be an end to your country, and you could never leave, why wouldn’t you opt for a peaceful life and a satisfying career?”
This strikes me as a cogent analysis, especially in a society where Christian morality has been erased and all that is left is self-interest, with no responsibility to one’s fellow man. And it is closely related to C. S. Lewis’s concept of the “Inner Ring”—that people will often compromise themselves without limit merely to obtain a sense of being in the ruling group.
In another passage in the book, Funder quotes a Stasi officer, asked “Why did [the informers] do it?,” as responding “Well, some of them were convinced of the [Communist] cause. But I think it was mainly because informers got the feeling that, doing it, they were somebody…They felt they had it over other people.”
This feeling of “having it over other people” is a key driver of the Left’s will to power, and a major reason why leftist regimes are able to maintain their power even when they are obvious criminal states not even bothering to pretend to adhere to their own ideological premises.
Most interesting, perhaps, is something not covered in the book at all, and that is the book’s reception in Germany. In 2016, in connection with the re-release of the book, Funder discussed at length that Germans received her book mostly with either active hostility, in the case of innumerable former Stasi agents or informers and their allies, or with icy silence, in the case of most other Germans.
In the latter category fit both West Germans who, for the most part (as Funder also notes in the book itself) don’t like to talk about Communism, probably for the same reasons that the American ruling classes don’t like to talk about Communism, some combination of shame at their own actions and active sympathy for Communism, and East Germans who want to believe that the GDR was somehow not all that bad.
Funder cited (in 2016) one of her interlocutors, “Miriam,” who now refused to give her real name publicly in connection with the book, because in her new job in public broadcasting her bosses were all former Stasi informers who loathed her for having been a political prisoner:
“[Her bosses] disliked, too, that she sometimes objected to the news directors relegating an item showing the GDR or the Stasi in a bad light to the end of the bulletin, or not broadcasting such pieces at all. [Miriam] objected to what she saw as strenuous efforts, in the public broadcaster, to show the GDR as a harmless, safe welfare state with high ideals; she objected to the rampant Ostalgie [simpering nostalgia for the GDR], the Verharmlosung (rendering harmless), and the Schönreden (whitewashing). Miriam had spent almost her whole life battling the Stasi, and they were still there. She was tired, on a short-term contract and vulnerable. It would simply have made her working life too difficult to publicly ‘out’ herself. She decided not to come on television.”
Funder chalks this up, with an analogy to those who fought Nazism, to the need for some decades to pass for heroes who resisted tyranny to be rewarded. Sadly, this is not correct. She says it will probably take twenty or even twenty-five years.
But that time has passed, and there is no such movement at all, as Funder’s 2016 discussions showed. I can confidently predict that in twenty years from now, or forty, or sixty, not only will there be no such recognition of heroism, but the heroes will be mostly forgotten, and when remembered, cast in a dubious light.
They will be viewed as men and women of mixed character, who, because the evils of Communism have been mostly or totally forgotten and suppressed, will be criticized for extremism and failure to recognize the supposed good aspects of Communism, which resisters to Communism will be seen as having undercut by their opposition. Thus, they will receive no honor at all.
In Hungary and Poland, which have, fortunately, already partially broken the power of the Left, such recognition has occurred and is continuing, suggesting I am right, and Funder is wrong.
In fairness, though, Funder does acknowledge the possibility of recognition never coming, though under a different mechanism: “There may never be [such recognition], if the Stasi win the PR war they have been waging, a war apparently supported by a general public that does not want to have to acknowledge this second lot of twentieth-century-German evildoers.”
But it is not just the former Stasi—it is their allies and comrades in arms, the Left in general, both in Germany and globally. They are responsible for the evils of Communism, not, as they would have it, some unspecified, vague set of forgotten men and women, more sinned against than sinning, misled by their desire to achieve human happiness. All of them should be held to account, and punished accordingly.
Charles is a business owner and operator, in manufacturing, and a recovering big firm M&A lawyer. He runs the blog, The Worthy House.
The photo shows, “Requiem” by Werner Tübke, painted in 1965.
When we think of the Soviet Union, we mostly think of it as a fully realized totalitarian state. We think of Stalin, of World War II and of the Cold War. Lenin is a shadowy figure to most of us, usually lumped in with the chaos that preceded and surrounded the Russian Revolution.
As a result, biographies of Stalin and histories of the Cold War are a dime a dozen, but there are few objective biographies of Lenin. Lenin, though, was the true author of Soviet totalitarianism, and, more importantly, he, and he alone, was the indispensable man to the creation of Communism as a realized state, even if he did not live to see it.
His life, therefore, is important, in that it illuminates history, and also in that it provides, in some ways, an instruction book for those seeking change today.
You would think I, at least, would know more about Lenin that I do. My father was a professor of Russian history, my mother’s family fled Communist domination in 1945, and I grew up through the ending stages of the Cold War.
But really, until I read this book, by Victor Sebestyen, I knew very little, other than that Lenin was the fulcrum around which Communism turned from a mere extremist ideology of babblers and dreamers to an iron hand that nearly crushed the world. (And also that his body was, oddly, still embalmed and on display twenty-five years after Communism itself died.)
Sebestyen’s book does an excellent job of covering Lenin’s life, in highly readable prose and without getting too bogged down in details. This book also has the advantage of being written after many archives were opened following the fall of Communism.
Although those archives didn’t change the major outlines of Lenin’s life and career, Sebestyen adds quite a bit of personal flavor about Lenin that was missing until those archives became available, especially regarding his irregular relationship with his quasi-mistress, Inessa Armand.
I find myself finding Lenin strangely attractive, in these latter days, when everything old is new again. Not his goals, which are silly and pernicious, or his fanatical devotion to an ideology, which, no matter the ideology, is always a mistake.
But his discipline and his methods of acquiring power show a purity and consistency of purpose which is totally lacking among conservatives today, who instead spend their days on the disorganized defensive, and he always demonstrated a grasp of reality which is totally lacking among progressives today. (Lenin also loathed modern art, and always dressed nattily, both to his credit).
I don’t think I’ll be putting up a portrait of Lenin anytime soon, or ever, but after reading this book, I am beginning to think his personality and methods will reward close study (although, as with Milton’s Satan, one must be on his guard not to be seduced).
Pre-Revolutionary Russia seems very far away from us. Poor, corrupt, and intensely authoritarian, wracked by violence on a scale incomprehensible to us (tens of thousands of government officials were assassinated in the last few years of the Romanovs’ rule, and then there was the whole World War I thing), it is difficult at first to see many parallels to our time.
Still, there are more than a few, and even where there are no parallels, there may still be lessons. Sebestyen agrees, citing the loss, then as now, of “confidence in much of the West in the democratic process itself,” “Lenin would very probably have regarded the world of 2017 as being on the cusp of a revolutionary moment. . . .
The phrases ‘global elite’, and ‘the 1 per cent’ are now used in a decidedly Leninist way. It is unlikely that Lenin’s solutions will be adopted anywhere again. But his questions are constantly being asked today, and may be answered by equally bloody methods.”
Lenin (that is, Vladimir Ulyanov, his real name) was born in 1870 and died in 1924, at only 53. He was born in Simbirsk, a sleepy provincial town, to bourgeois parents—his father was a successful civil servant in the education ministry, a moderate liberal whose attempts at education reform were largely frustrated by the 1881 accession of Alexander III (whose more lenient predecessor was assassinated).
Lenin’s father died in in 1886, when Lenin was only 16, and the following year, his brilliant and idolized older brother, Sasha, was hanged for his role in an assassination plot against the new Tsar. This, along with the social isolation that descended as a result on the family, gave Lenin a lifelong hatred of the Tsars and the bourgeois, before he became a Marxist ideologue.
I suppose this is yet another example of how personal events often shape great men, from Alexander Hamilton’s illegitimate birth on Nevis to Donald Trump’s poverty-wracked upbringing in Appalachia.
Lenin’s education was somewhat irregular, since he was denied the usual university placements due to his brother’s politics, and due to his own, which quickly became radical, although he was not a leader of any groups at this time.
Still, he managed to become highly educated, while being formed by books like Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s What Is to Be Done?, a strident work of fiction about an iron-willed revolutionary, which Sebestyen says is nearly unreadable today but which greatly affected Lenin, who consciously modelled himself on the book’s hero.
Not that he completely ignored pleasures—his greatest was nature, especially walks in nature. (It is strange in these days of constant connectivity to read how Lenin, even at busy and critical times in his life, would take multi-week vacations in the country, doing nothing and being functionally unreachable by other Bolsheviks).
Naturally, he practiced as a lawyer for some time (successfully getting the necessary certificate of loyalty and good character from the Okhrana, the cruel but buffoonish Tsarist secret police, in 1891), but quickly became a full-time Communist agitator, a job he kept for the rest of his life.
Unlike most cult leaders, Lenin lacked interest in vices of the flesh. He was not corruptible by money, women, or, really, power. He didn’t smoke or party. His forte was discipline and focus. No doubt connected to this, from the beginning Lenin betrayed zero human sympathy beyond his immediate family circle.
In 1892 he opposed famine relief in the Volga, because the famine was desirable to show that capitalism was incompetent and dying—never mind that thousands of peasants were dying too. This well illustrates ones of Lenin’s guiding principles, that “Our morality is new, our humanity is absolute, for it rests on the ideal of destroying all oppression and coercion.”
As Ryszard Legutko has pointed out, there is a very significant overlap of theory and practice among so called “liberal democracy” and Communism, and one reason Communists were never punished is that the “liberal democrats” currently in control of most of the West had much more sympathy for Communism than for traditional currents of thought.
More broadly, across the West today, any action, however damaging to real human beings, is justified by the Left by a call to “emancipation,” identical to Lenin’s, with the same disregard for actual people. Certainly, the Left would love to take advantage of a famine or any human disaster even now, if it could be tied to increased emancipation.
Their disinterest in the epidemics of opioid addiction, dependency, and despair afflicting the deplorable, Trump-voting white lower classes is evidence enough of that. If they could cause a famine among those people, they would, and laugh.
Much of the book is taken up with narration of Lenin’s combat with other elements of the Left, tied to a never-ending whirl of conspiratorial international meetings, avoidance of arrest by various police forces, struggles for control of newspapers, and hard work to smuggle into Russia and distribute those newspapers.
Those newspapers had a great effect within Russia and gave the Bolsheviks much of the power they accumulated. Such media not only sways opinion, but can create opinion from whole cloth, and also provide readers with a sense of comradeship and non-isolation, which is why today’s Left so aggressively and increasingly censors conservatives online.
Naturally, Lenin was eventually arrested, and as was usual under the Tsars, merely sentenced to a few years of internal exile, which he used to study hard.
As Sebestyen notes, “The Tsarist penal regime was far more benign for political prisoners than it would be in later years under the Soviets, where torture and summary execution were the norm.” (Not that it was all fun and games—plenty of people died as a result under the Tsars, especially those exiled to less salubrious places than Lenin was).
Eventually Lenin left Russia, moving to Germany, then England, then Switzerland, all the while continuing revolutionary activities. He worked incessantly, primarily on writing, both journalism and books.
As always, he stayed focused. Most of all, he consistently offered a simple message of “optimism and hope. He told his followers that they could change the world in the here and now, if they followed a set of essentially easy-to-comprehend steps and believed in a few fairly straightforward propositions.”
Along the way Lenin collected various followers and allies (most of whom he later broke with), from Leon Trotsky to Grigory Zinoviev. Sebestyen covers all this with verve, adding bits and pieces of interesting information. For example, I did not know that that suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst, lionized today, was a Communist, and a vicious one at that.
And, then, came Lenin’s moment, created by World War I and the incompetence of Nicholas II (whom Sebestyen regards with very strong distaste for his ineptitude).
The economic collapse and dissatisfaction of the masses of peasant soldiers created the conditions without which the Bolsheviks would never have had the chance to grasp power (not that the soldiers had any interest whatsoever in Bolshevism—what they wanted was “anarchistic freedom,” and Lenin had that on offer, or so it appeared).
But they, in the person of Lenin, did have that chance, and they grasped it. Not to overthrow the Tsar, as many ill-informed people think, but to overthrow the democratic successor government, in a coup vividly covered by Sebestyen, which succeeded even though its imminence was the worst-kept secret in Russia and it was incompetently executed.
It is a commonplace that the Kerensky government was run by fools, and that is very evident in the account given here. They responded, when the British offered to stop Lenin from returning on the “sealed train” provided by the Germans, that since Russia’s new government “rested on a democratic foundation . . . . Lenin’s group should be allowed to enter.”
And rather than seizing Lenin when he arrived, killing him and throwing his body into a canal, as had been done with Rasputin and should have been done with him, they dithered. They did not know their enemy. This is not surprising, though.
As history repeatedly shows, the vast majority of those who are threatened by bad people in any way, rather than meeting the threat with action, prefer to retreat into half-, or quarter-, measures, or into fantastical hopes that somehow they will be rescued by an external agency.
As Benjamin Franklin, and not the Bible, said, “The Lord helps those who help themselves.” But helping themselves is something people usually find hard to do.
My main interests in Lenin are two, although they are closely related. My first interest is that Lenin shows us how the Left always thinks and operates, then and now, since Lenin first established the template for successful Left dominance.
Therefore, studying Lenin has tactical value in the wars to come. We can closely examine how and why this is so through a particular ideological obsession of the modern Left, which this week has yet again raised its ugly head—gun control. (It is also an obsession of the past Left—one of the Bolsheviks’ first edicts was to confiscate all privately held guns, under penalty of summary execution for failure to comply, something that the odious Shannon Watts and Michael Bloomberg would, if they were being honest, doubtless completely endorse).
For the Left, gun control is justified not by its demonstrated, or even possible, benefits to society (though laughable claims along those lines are mouthed for propaganda purposes). Rather, it is justified by its purposes, which are to ensure that the ruled know that they are ruled, to ensure they continue to be ruled, and to signal to the rulers, the Left classes, their supposed moral superiority.
Gun control is not a policy choice; it is the opium of narcissistic tyrants.
So, to take one example of Left tactics, Lenin continuously used violent language which, in his own words, was “calculated to evoke hatred, aversion, contempt . . . not to convince, not to correct the mistakes of the opponent, but to destroy him, to wipe him and his organization off the face of the earth.”
Or, as Sebestyen characterizes it, “Communist Parties everywhere, even following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, learned that it made sense to play the man, not the ball—and how to do it with ruthless efficiency.”
But Sebestyen is wrong—it’s not Communist Parties, it’s also the entire progressive Left, and has been since Lenin (whose broad program they have always supported). These tactics of “hatred, aversion, contempt” continue to be on full gruesome display at this very moment in the disgusting, hate-filled propaganda campaign being waged by the Left (who totally control the news-setting media, and thus the narrative, by deciding what constitutes “news”), to demand mass gun confiscation, in response to school shootings that occur largely because of their social policies.
The good news, I suppose, is that Lenin was using a new tactic, successful largely because nobody knew how to respond to such tactics—either his Left opponents, whom he steamrolled, or his Right opponents. We do know how, and that’s to hit back twice as hard.
We just have trouble executing the right tactics, because the Republicans are run by weak men who are happy to bow and scrape to their betters as long as they are thrown a few crumbs and invited occasionally to the right parties.
To take a second example, during a 1922 famine, “Lenin deliberately used the famine as an excuse to launch an assault on the clergy [to seize liturgical vessels and other metals]. . . . ‘We must seize the valuables now speedily; we will be unable to do so later because no other moment except that of desperate hunger will give us support among the masses.’ ”
This use of unrelated, manufactured or fictional crises as the moment of action, whether because the masses are desperately occupied with their own concerns (as Rahm Emanuel famously openly admitted under Obama) or in order to propagandize the masses by manipulating irrational and immature emotions (as with gun control) is also a universal tactic of the Left, also largely invented by Lenin.
Its modern counter is less obvious than the counter to violence in language and action, and probably requires structuring and maintaining permanent and binding organizational brakes on rapid legislative or executive action, the opposite of the “more democracy” constantly called for by the Left.
And to take a third, closely related but distinct, example, the Left does love themselves a good Reichstag fire.
The Bolsheviks used a 1918 assassination attempt on Lenin by a (non-Bolshevik) leftist as an excuse to eliminate opponents and generally consolidate their power through a wave of mass terror.
With gun control, the exact same tactic is used—not by killing opponents, or not yet, but by suspending all normal processes of republican debate and decision-making, demanding that “something must be done”—naturally, something that aligns perfectly with their pre-existing ideological goals and plans, no possible deviation from which can be discussed, much less implemented, and which must be implemented immediately, though no reason for the urgency is given, or can be given, other than the need to impose their desires on the rest of the nation.
The classic example of this is the repeated use in state legislatures of “emergency” procedures to pass gun control measures after a shooting, formally eliminating any debate or public input, and demands for similar action at the federal level.
So far, so generic, really. The modern Left is unscrupulous and often evil, no doubt, but this is not news, and I am being repetitive, if you look at other writings of mine. More interesting, I think, is my second interest in Lenin—as a model for how a reactionary movement might acquire power in America.
By definition, nearly, a reactionary movement contemplates a formal concentration and reallocation of power, rather than a formal diffusion, as some conservatives would have it.
That is, if the Enlightenment project of ever greater autonomy and atomization is defective, and as part of that project the Left has consistently advanced their goal of concentrating power to themselves while pretending to increase democracy (that is, allowing democracy as long as it reaches the correct conclusions), breaking both the Left concentration of power and the forms of sprawling, ever-expanding democracy is necessary to remake the political system.
Presumably this would involve some form of restricted franchise and a return to a mixed form of government (e.g., returning to the Senate being elected by state legislatures), but the details do not matter here. We can simply call it the “Program,” for now. The question is, how is the Program to be accomplished? And here Lenin is instructive.
I don’t mean Lenin in the substance of his ideas, essentially 100% of which were pernicious, and the vast majority of which were outright evil. Nor do I mean Lenin in the substance of his implementation, which, flowing from his ideas, necessarily implied and required terror and mass murder.
Rather, I mean Lenin in his efforts to gain power so that he could implement his program, which is just about 180 degrees from the Program.
So, how is Lenin instructive? Here, a few thoughts. Lenin thought long term, but with an eye to the main chance, which he took when he got it, unlike most men in his position, who would have dithered. “There are decades when nothing happens—and there are weeks when decades happen.” “Timing is all.”
But without his discipline and focus, he would have had no chance at all, willingness to risk everything or not. And, while an ideologue, he was willing to be flexible in his interpretation of theory, rather than getting bogged down in debating ideological purity (as Communist splinter groups, as well as conservatives, have always been prone to do, while the successful Bolsheviks, like today’s Left, paper over differences to achieve power).
All these practices allowed Lenin to seize opportunities created by chance the mistakes of his enemies. “We made the Bolsheviks masters of the situation,” said Sukhanov, an opponent of Lenin [on the Left]. “By leaving the  Congress [of Soviets] we gave them a monopoly on the Soviets. Our own irrational decisions ensured Lenin’s victory.”
Yes, but only Lenin’s ability to take advantage made the Mensheviks’ mistakes matter.
These are all mental tactics. Practical tactics are just as important, and often just as difficult to execute. I mentioned newspapers, the media, above—not its control, which Lenin grasped as soon as he took power, but the earlier dissemination of ideas through media, both for their own contagion, and to buck up your allies.
Behind newspapers, behind organization, behind everything, though, is funding—obtaining, and keeping on obtaining, cold, hard, cash. Far more than other Left groups, the Bolsheviks were able to scoop up enormous amounts of money from a huge range of sources—not just the bank robberies famously conducted by Stalin, but from a mélange of non-radical liberals hoping to show their bona fides, cynical business magnates covering all the bases (they thought), and the German government.
According to Niall Ferguson, the Germans alone supplied Lenin with the modern equivalent of $800 million, in gold currency. The Program requires cash, not some mutterings on little-trafficked websites like this one, and principle only takes you so far. And, of course, the Program requires people, who are organized, both by the desire for common participation in a goal, and by that cash. Lenin excelled at all these practical tactics, and he was indefatigable.
How exactly to fit these tactics into the implementation of the Program I am working on, and will discuss in detail on another day. But certainly the tactics of today’s American conservatives bear no relation to Leninist tactics, which is to say, they bear no relation to the tactics necessary to break the autocracy of the Left. (This is doubtless why Steve Bannon referred to himself as a Leninist, or so it is said, which the ignorant took to mean that he was referring to himself as a Communist).
Continuing what we are doing will not result in anything but the continued domination of the Left over American life and culture, and the necessary degradation and diminution of America, and the West in general. Thus, I will offer a full solution, and it will not be ideological. But you will have to wait a while.
What I will not do is write persuasive arguments about policy. Not so long ago I regularly engaged the Left in discussion, primarily through Facebook (since the New York Times has not come knocking on my door). As far as gun control arguments go, I always decisively won every argument.
This is not because I am so awesome, but because gun control proponents, with zero exceptions, have no idea what they are talking about, and rely exclusively on shrill emotion, backed up by lies. I am off Facebook, for the most part, and totally off for Lent and Eastertide.
But today, in order to push back slightly against the organized flood of violent hatred directed at gun owners, I changed my profile picture to the NRA symbol. Two Left friends of mine immediately commented. What they said, I don’t know, except that one mumbled something about “blood money” (today’s meme, organized and distributed centrally to the drones like my friend).
I don’t know what they said because I deleted both comments without reading them. What profit to talk, since they are not interested in reasoning, but in moral preening and tyranny?
On many issues, such as guns, and perhaps on the most central social issue of all, how we shall be governed, the time for talking is over, on Facebook and elsewhere, with friends or with enemies. The time for action is here. The only question is how much chaos will result before the world is remade.