The Red Terror in Spain is the name given to various acts committed by Spanish Republicans during the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s, including desecration and burning monasteries and churches and killing of 6,832 members of the Catholic clergy, as well as attacks on landowners, industrialists, and politicians. The Spanish historian Montero notes, that on the cusp of the civil War, and before its actual beginning, “a program of systematic persecution of the Church was planned to the last detail” Various methods of assault were used by the Republican forces, including shooting, burning, crucifixion, and dismemberments.
Following the general election of February 16, 1936, political bitterness grew in Spain. Violence between the government and its supporters, the Popular Front, whose leadership was clearly moving towards the left (abandoning constitutional Republicanism for leftist revolution.), and the opposition accelerated, culminating in a military revolt of right-wing generals in July of that year. As the year progressed Nationalist and Republican persecution grew, and republicans began attacking churches, occupying land for redistribution and attacking nationalist politicians in a process of tit-for-tat violence.
One scholar noted that despite the fact that "the Church...suffer[ed] appalling persecution" behind Republican lines, the events have been met by much silence and even attempts at justification by some scholars and memoirists.
Many historians have attempted to shed some light on this issue by exploring the clergy's ties to the rebels and their seditious activities against the Republican government. One of the most notable of these was Cruz Laplana y Laguna, bishop of Cuenca, a well-known supporter of the monarchic regime, who since the proclamation of the Second Republic had carried out a number of notorious political, pro right-wing campaigns throughout the province and had established close contacts with military officials such as general Joaquín Fanjul, who would lead the Madrid military uprising on the 18th of july of 1936 in support of Franco's coup. The bishop of Cuenca is described by his biographer as "supreme advisor" to the general, as well as being closely involved with the fascist political party Falange. In 1936 he personally endorsed José Antonio Primo de Rivera, the leader of this party, as a candidate to the 1936 local elections. When the pro-coup uprising in Cuenca failed, the bishop was arrested by Republican militiamen for collaborationism. He was tried for conspiring against the Republican government and executed on the 8th of August.
Fulgencio Martínez, a priest in the village of La Paca in Murcia who was shot after the uprising, was reported by many locals to be closely allied to the local landowners. Over several days before the uprising, father Fulgencio met with these landowners in the village casino -the hub of social life for the local elites in rural Spain- to organise the support for the military coup by offering guns and money to any of those who would join an improvised militia. On the 18th of July, the day of the uprising, father Fulgencio was among the armed thugs who were going through the village streets on lorries rallying support for the uprising under shouts of "Long live the army!" and "Long live general Queipo de Llano!" .
Another priest from Murcia was murdered for his alleged molestation of a number of local young women. He was well known in the city of Lorca for practicing extortionate moneylending among the workers in the impoverished mining barrios, and who made business out of stocking food and reselling it at inflated prices at a time where one of the main causes of death among the worker classes was malnutrition .
Public statements by some of the high ranking clergy shed some light over the perception many republicans had of the role of the Church during the civil war. Rigoberto Domenech, archbishop of Zaragoza, declared publicly on the 11th of August of 1936- barely 20 days after General Franco's coup- that the military uprising was to be supported, and its violent actions approved, because "... it is not done in the service of anarchy, but in the benefit of order, fatherland and religion". Another notorious and polemic statement was that given in November 1938 by Leopoldo Eijo Garay, bishop of Madrid-Alcalá, on the topic of a possible truce or peace agreement between the Republicans and Franco; “To tolerate democratic liberalism… would be to betray the martyrs”..
Lerroux's alliance with the right, his harsh suppression of the revolt in 1934, and the Stra-Perlo scandal combined to leave him and his party with little support going into the 1936 election. (Lerroux himself lost his seat in parliament.)
Following the outbreak of full-scale civil war there was an explosion of atrocities in both the Nationalist and Republican zones. The bloodiest days of the red terror were at the beginning of the civil war, when the government failed to control of much of its forces in the aftermath of the generals' rising, and large areas of the country fell under the control of local loyalists and militias. A large part of the terror consisted of a perceived settlement of accounts against bosses and clergy as they lost their powerful position in the social revolution and move towards extremism that took place in the first months of the civil war. Stanley Payne claims, "during the first months of the fighting most of the deaths did not come from combat on the battlefield but from political executions in the rear—the 'Red' and 'White' terrors. Payne claims that the terror consisted of semi-organized actions perpetrated by almost all of the leftist groups, Basque separatists being an exception. Stanley Payne has claimed that ,unlike the repression by the right which "was concentrated against the most dangerous opposition elements," the Republican attacks were more irrational, "murdering innocent people and letting some of the more dangerous go free. Moreover, one of the main targets of the Red terror was the clergy, most of whom were not engaged in overt opposition."
Describing specifically the Red Terror, Payne suggests that this "began with the murder of some of the rebels as they attempted to surrender after their revolt had failed in several of the key cities. From there it broadened out to wholesale arrests, and sometimes wholesale executions, of landowners and industrialists, people associated with right-wing groups or the Catholic Church." Payne claims that this was "not an irrepressible outpouring of hatred by the man in the street for his 'oppressors,' but a semi-organized activity carried out by sections of nearly all the leftist groups.. The Basque nationalists, largely Catholic but still aligned with the Republicans, did not largely participate in the Red Terror, particularly against the Church.
The terror has been called the "most extensive and violent persecution of Catholicism in Western History, in some way even more intense than that of the French Revolution", driving Catholics, left then with little alternative, to the Nationalists even more than would have been expected.
Previously, Payne had suggested that, "The toll taken by the respective terrors may never be known exactly. The left slaughtered more in the first months, but the Nationalist repression probably reached its height only after the war had ended, when punishment was exacted and vengeance wreaked on the vanquished left. The White Terror may have slain 50,000, perhaps fewer, during the war. The Franco government now gives the names of 61,000 victims of the Red Terror, but this is not subject to objective verification. The number of victims of the Nationalist repression, during and after the war, was undoubtedly greater than that. In Checas de Madrid (ISBN 8497931688), César Vidal comes to a nationwide total of 110,965 victims of Republican repression; 11,705 people being killed in Madrid alone.
Julius Ruiz goes on to note, however, that "not cited [. . .] are El Socialista’s regular reports extolling the work of the Atadell brigade", a group of Republican agents who engaged in detentions and frequently murders of (in the end) up to 800 Nationalists. "On 27 September 1936", Ruiz continues, "an editorial on the brigade stressed that its ‘work, more than useful, is necessary. Indispensable.’ Similarly, the Prieto-controlled Madrid daily Informaciones carried numerous articles on the activities of the Atadell brigade during the summer of 1936."
The nationalists were terrified by the many terror attacks, which had taken place in prior years (1934-1936), especially the revolt in Asturia, October 1934, which tried to erect a Dictatorship of the Proletariat. It lasted only a few days, during which 34 clerics were murdered and 58 churches burned. The red terror was largely viewed as an indication of what was to come, in case of a red victory in Spain.
The attitudes of the Catholic side towards the government and the ensuing Civil War was expressed in a joint Episcopal letter from July 1, 1937. It was drafted by Isidro Cardinal Goma y Tomas and the Spanish bishops to all bishops of the Catholic world. Spain so the bishops is divided into two hostile camps, of which one side expresses anti-religious and anti-Spanish terror, and the other side upholding the respect for the religious and national order. The Church is pastorally oriented and not willing to sell its freedom to politics. But under these circumstances , she has not option but to side with those who started out, defending her freedom and right to exist. The tone of the letter was balanced, describing the realities of 1937.
The attitudes of the people in the national zone were characterized fear, hope and by religious revival. Victories were celebrated with religious services, the separation of Church and State was abolished and religious education was reintroduced into the schools. Catholic chaplains were re-introduced into the army. The attitudes towards the Church had changed from hostility to admiration.
Although rare, it was reported that some nuns were raped by militiamen before they were shot. However, according to Antony Beevor, the 1946 nationalist indictment of Republican atrocities contained no evidence for any such incident.
With the total 1939 victory of the Nationalists over the Republicans in the the Civil War in Spain, the Red Terror ended in that country, although individual terror attacks seem to have continued sporadically, carried out by remnant Communists and Socialists, hiding in French border regions, but without great results. The Spanish people rejoiced about what was perceived as a glorious victory and the ensuing peace. Throughout the country, the Catholic Church held Te Deum's to thank God for the outcome. Numerous left-wing personalities were tried for the Red Terror, not all of them were guilty. Others fled to the Soviet Union to "Uncle Joe" , where a number of them "disappeared" in Stalin's Gulags. Franco's victory was followed by thousands of summary executions (from 15,000 to 25,000 people ) and imprisonments, while many were put to forced labour, building railways, drying out swamps, digging canals (La Corchuela, the Canal of the Bajo Guadalquivir), construction of the Valle de los Caídos monument, etc. The 1940 shooting of the president of the Catalan government, Lluís Companys, was one of the most notable cases of this early repression. Although leftists suffered from an important death-toll, the Spanish intelligentsia, atheists and military and government figures who had remained loyal to the Madrid government during the war were also targeted by the repression.
The new Pope Pius XII sent a radio message of congratulation to the Spanish Government, clerics and people on April 16, 1939. He referred to the denunciationas of his predecessor, Pope Pius XI, who described past horrors and the need to defend and restore the rights of God and religion. The pope stated that the victims of terror died for Christ. He wished peace and prosperity upon the Spanish people, appealing to them to punish criminals but to exercise leniency and Spanish generosity against the many who were on the other side. He asked for their full participation in society and entrusted them to the compassion of the Church in Spain.
The Red Terror in Spain was from the Vatican perspective only one part of a Terrible Triangle of Red Terror, whose goal was the eradication of religion, involving Mexico and the Soviet Union as well. Pope Pius XI complained about Conspiracy of Silence on all Church persecutions The Red Terror continued in Mexico for about one year, when in 1940 the new President Manuel Ávila Camacho,restored the rights of the Church in that country. In the Soviet Union, the terror against religion and the Church was greatly reduced in 1941, after Germany attacked in June of 1941. The Soviet persecution resumed however at the end of World War Two, when the Soviet Union incorporated former Polish territories with 4.5 million Catholics and arrested over 1000 Catholic priests and archbishop Joseph Slipyi