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The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth-Century Spain.

The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth-Century Spain. By Paul Preston. (New York, NY: W. W. Norton, 2012. Pp. xx, 671. $29.95.)

The Spanish Civil War broke out in July 1936 after a failed military coup quickly split the country into two zones--one loyal to the fractious liberal-left governing coalition, the other joining the military insurgents led by Francisco Franco. The ensuing three-year struggle included regular armies and front lines, but its most striking feature was the considerable violence perpetrated within each zone on "internal enemies." Political executions and massacres accounted for the lion's share of the war's roughly two hundred thousand deaths, some three-fourths of which were inflicted by the insurgents.

In recent decades, Spanish historians have made extensive use of archives, testimonies, and forensic archaeology to unearth details of the atrocities committed during the war and its aftermath. From this mountain of research, Paul Preston, a distinguished British historian of twentieth-century Spain, has assembled a chilling portrait of the wanton persecution, torture, rape, and murder rampant in both zones. After an introductory survey of Spanish political rhetoric and violence in the years before the war, Preston strings together hundreds of stories of wartime persecution and atrocity, ending with an account of the repression of Republican captives that followed Franco's triumph. Preston contends that massacres carried out by the insurgents were premeditated and encouraged by the leadership, while those committed in the Republican zone were reactive and mainly independent acts of extremists. Yet this probably reflects the plural and disputed nature of the Republican leadership. After considering the evidence, there can be little doubt that the political violence produced during the war was not the spontaneous byproduct of some power vacuum but central to the war effort on both sides.

If Preston compellingly renders the terror of civil war in human terms, he fails to deliver meaningful analysis. This flaw is significant, particularly in view of the comparative implications of the term "holocaust" in the book's title. Preston seems uninterested in serious interrogation of this term, despite a declared intention to do so in the prologue. The grim arithmetic of body counts augurs against genocide in this case. The total number of deaths on both sides from the war and postwar repression did not exceed two hundred thousand, or 0.8 percent of the Spanish population, a much smaller proportion than, say, the Finnish Civil War of 1918, let alone the major genocidal episodes of the twentieth century. Moreover, Preston affirms that the insurgents claimed most of their victims during the initial stages of occupation, suggesting an extreme terror campaign rather than a methodical "final solution" operation. Preston's accounts are riveting, but his stirring rhetoric can obfuscate as much as clarify. In one passage, Preston describes the working-class district of Seville being "stripped" of its male population, yet further along we learn the executions totaled seven hundred--a terrible figure but hardly a wholesale elimination (142).

A more appropriate paradigm might be a version of "total war" theory, emphasizing the blurred distinction between civilians and combatants and the relentless rhetorical dehumanization of the enemy. Frequent references to a Judeo-Bolshevik-Masonic conspiracy on the part of the nationalist Right hint at this model (analogous discourse among some Republicans is largely ignored), though, at least theoretically, the possibility of redemption distinguished this from genocide. In the absence of serious inquiry into this problem, one can only conclude that the author applies the term "holocaust" for emotive rather than analytical purposes.

Sasha D. Pack

University of Buffalo
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Author:Pack, Sasha D.
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2013
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