Nationalist Spain

Red Terror (Spain)

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.


Regional, religious and ideological tension had been developing for decades and possibly centuries in Spain in the lead-up to the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. Since completion of the Reconquista at the end of the 15th century the Spanish monarchy had maintained a centralized, traditionalist, aristocratic and devoutly Catholic regime that became increasingly difficult to maintain as the country industrialized and anarchist, socialist, communist and nationalist thinking grew in popularity. The fall of the monarchy and establishment of the first and second Spanish Republics in 1873 and 1931 respectively exacerbated these tensions, between conservatives trying to maintain the old order and those demanding redistribution of wealth and retribution for the traditionally privileged and pro-hierarchical position of the landowning class and the Catholic church.

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”..

Red and White Terrors

1933 election and aftermath

Leading up to the Civil War, the state of the political establishment had been brutal and violent for some time. In the 1933 elections to the Cortes Generales, the Spanish Confederation of the Autonomous Right (Confederación Española de Derechas Autónomas or CEDA) won a plurality of seats. It was however not enough to form a majority. Despite the results, then President Niceto Alcalá-Zamora declined to invite the leader of the CEDA to form a government and instead invited the Radical Republican Party and its leader Alejandro Lerroux to do so. CEDA supported the Lerroux government; it later demanded and, on October 1, 1934, received three ministerial positions. Hostility between both the left and the right increased after the formation of the Government. Spain experienced general strikes and street conflicts. Noted among the strikes was the miners' revolt in northern Spain and riots in Madrid. Nearly all rebellions were crushed by the Government and political arrests followed.

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.)

1936 Popular Front victory and aftermath

In the 1936 Elections a new coalition of Socialists (Socialist Workers Party of Spain, PSOE), liberals (Republican Left and the Republican Union Party), Communists, and various regional nationalist groups won the extremely tight election. The results gave 34 percent of the popular vote to the Popular Front and 33 percent to the incumbent government of the CEDA. This result, when coupled with the Socialists' refusal to participate in the new government, led to a general fear of revolution. This was made only more apparent when Largo Caballero, hailed as "the Spanish Lenin" by Pravda, announced that the country was on the cusp of revolution. However these statements were meant only to remove any moderates from his coalition. Moderate Socialist Indalecio Prieto condemned the rhetoric and marches as provocative.

Aims of the Popular Front

From the Comintern's point of view the increasingly powerful, if fragmented, left and the weak right were an optimum situation. Their goal was to use a veil of legitimate democratic institutions to outlaw the right and to convert the state into the Soviet vision of a "people's republic" with total leftist domination, a goal which was repeatedly voiced not only in Comintern instructions but also in the public statements of the PCE (Communist Party of Spain).

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.

Death toll

Figures for the Red Terror range from 38,000 to 110,000, with most estimates closer to the former. In his recent, updated history of the Spanish Civil War, Antony Beevor "reckons Franco's ensuing 'white terror' claimed 200,000 lives. The 'red terror' had already killed 38,000. Julius Ruiz concludes that "although the figures remain disputed, a minimum of 37,843 executions were carried out in the Republican zone with a maximum of 150,000 executions (including 50,000 after the war) in Nationalist Spain.

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.

Toll on Clergy

It is estimated that in the course of the Red Terror, 6,832 members of the Catholic clergy were killed. Another source breaks down the figures as follows: Some 283 women religious were killed. Some of them were badly tortured. 13 bishops were killed from the dioceses of Siguenza Lleida, Cuenca, Barbastro Segorbe,Jaen Ciudad Real Almeria Guadix Barcelona Teruel and the auxiliary of Tarragona. Aware of the dangers, they all decided to remain in their cities. I cannot go, only here is my responsibility, whatever may happen, so the Bishop of Cuenca In addition 4172 diocesan priests, 2364 monks and friars, among them 259  Clarentians, 226 Franciscans, 204 Piarists, 176 Brothers of Mary, 165 Christian Brothers, 155 Augustinians, 132 Dominicans, and 114 Jesuits were killed. In some dioceses, the number of secular priests killed are overwhelming:

  • In Barbastro 123 of 140 priests were killed. about 88 percent of the secular clergy were murdered, 66 percent
  • In Lleida, 270 of 410 priests were killed. about 62 percent
  • In Tortosa, 44 percent of the secular priests were killed.
  • In Toledo 286 of 600 priests were killed.
  • In the dioceses of Malaga, Menorca andSegorbe, about half of the priests were killed"

In 2001 the Catholic Church beatified hundreds of Martyrs of the Spanish Civil War and beatified 498 more on October 28, 2007.


Republican side

Attitudes to the "red terror" varied on the Republican side. President Manuel Azaña made the well-publicized comment that all of the convents in Madrid were not worth one Republican life. Yet equally "commonly cited, for example, is the speech by the Socialist leader Indalecio Prieto on Madrid radio on 9 August 1936 pleading that Republican militiamen should not ‘imitate’ the murderous actions of the military rebels" and also "the public condemnation of arbitrary ‘justice’ by Julián Zugazagoitia, the editor of El Socialista, the Socialist Party newspaper, on 23 August."

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."

National Side

José Calvo Sotelo told the Spanish Parliament in April of 1936, that in six week of popular front government, from Mid-February 15 to April 2, 1936, some 199 attacks were carried out, 36 of them in Churches. He listed 136 fires, and fire bombings, which included 106 burned and Catholic Churches and 56 Churches otherwise destroyed. He claimed 74 persons dead and 345 persons injured. Shortly afterwards, José Calvo Sotelo was shot himself, allegedly by a socialist gunman, Luis Cuenca, who was known as bodyguard of the Socialist Party leader Indalecio Prieto.

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.

Reported Atrocities

  • An eye witness to some of the persecution, Cristina de Arteaga, who was soon to become a nun, commented that they "attacked the Salesians, people who are totally committed to the poor. There was a rumor that nuns were giving poisoned sweets to children. Some nuns were grabbed by the hair in the streets. One had her hair pulled out ..."
  • On the night of July 19, 1936 alone, 50 churches were burned. In Barcelona, out of the 58 churches, only the Cathedral was spared, and similar atrocities occurred almost everywhere in Republican Spain.
  • All the Catholic churces in the Republican zone were closed, but the attacks were not limited to Catholic churches, as syagogues were also pillaged and closed, but some small protestant churches were spared.
  • The parish priest of Navalmoral was put through a parody of Christ's Crucifixion. At the end of his suffering the militiamen debated whether actually to crucify him or just shoot him. They finished with a shooting.
  • The Bishop of Jaen and his sister were murdered in front of two thousand celebrating spectators by a special executioner, a woman nick-named La Pecosa, the freckled one.
  • The Bishop of Almeria was murdered while working on a history of Toledo. His card index file was destroyed.
  • In Madrid, a nun was killed because she refused a proposition of marriage from a militiman who helped storm her convent.

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.

  • The priest of Cienpozuelos was thrown into a corral with fighting bulls where he was gored into unconsciousness. Afterwards one of his ears was cut off to imitate the feat of a matador after a successful bullfight.
  • In Ciudad Real, the priest was castrated and his sexual organs stuffed in his mouth.
  • There are accounts of the people connected to the Catholic church being forced to swallow rosary beads, being thrown down mine shafts and of priests being forced to dig their own graves before being buried alive.

Conclusion and aftermath

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



  • .
  • De la Cueva, Julio Religious Persecution, Anticlerical Tradition and Revolution: On Atrocities against the Clergy during the Spanish Civil War, Journal of Contemporary History Vol XXXIII - 3, 1998
  • August Franzen, Remigius Bäumer, Papstgeschichte Herder Freiburg, 1988 (Papal history) (cit Franzen)
  • August Franzen, Remigius Bäumer, Kirchengeschichte, Herder Freiburg, 1991 (Church history) (cit Franzen II)
  • Anastasio Granados, El Cardinal Goma, Primado de Espana, Espasa Calpe Madrid. 1969
  • Hubert Jedin, Konrad Repgen and John Dolan, History of the Church: The Church in the Twentieth Century Burn& Oates London, New York (1981) 1999 Vol X ((cit Jedin)
  • Frances Lennon Privilege, Persecution, and Prophecy. The Catholic Church in Spain 1875-1975. Oxford 1987
  • Seppelt Löffler, Papstgeschichte, von den Anfängen bis zur Gegenwart, Verlag Josef Kösel & Friedrich Pustet, München, 1933 (Papal history)
  • Antonio Montero Moreno, Antonio, Historia de la persecución religiosa en España 1936-1939, La Editorial Católica, 1961
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    • .
    • Josef Schmidlin, Papstgeschichte der neuesten Zeit, Vol IV, Pius XI, 1922-1939, Verlag Josef Kösel & Friedrich Pustet, München, 1939 (Papal history)
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