Torture in the Spanish Civil War

(Soldiers on their way to the front during the Spanish Civil War, c. 1936-1939, [Pubic Domain] via Creative Commons and Flickr)

A Horrid War

The Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) was an astoundingly brutal war. Fueled by a frenzied hate between opposite political spheres, the civil war was filled with torture, executions and all sorts of ugly atrocities on both sides of the conflict. For those who have not studied the Spanish Civil War, here is a brief description of the sides involved in the conflict. The war began when a large conservative contingent of the Spanish military (eventually led by Generalissimo Francisco Franco) rebelled against the left-wing government of the Second Spanish Republic. To the confusion of many readers from the United States, historians often label the supporters of the left-wing government in the war as ‘Republicans’ and Franco’s forces are often called the ‘Rebels’ or the ‘Nationalists.’

While hardly any war can be called pleasant to study, the Spanish Civil War is an especially discouraging topic. Some historians and statisticians propose that around the same number of people died off the battlefield as those who fell on the war front. Possibly 200,000 deaths were caused by regular warfare, and another 200,000 caused by execution, terror and reprisals. While unimaginable violence, murder and post-mortem mutilation was prevalent in the Spanish Civil War (again, on both sides) this short article will focus on another gruesome topic—torture.

The first problem posed by this undertaking is how to define torture. That is a question still very much in debate, today. For the purpose of this article, an act will be labeled as ‘torture’ when violence and pain was inflicted on a victim with an intention of not merely causing punishment or death, but of a prolonged, unjustifiable suffering, both physically and mentally. Fair warning: some of the acts described below will likely be disturbing. They will escalate from the least gruesome to the most horrific, some ending in a slow, drawn-out death.

Humiliation and Beatings

Franco’s forces had a standard torture that was used prevalently throughout the war—victims were forced to drink castor oil (often mixed with sawdust or dry crumbs) to cause severe abdominal pain. After the victims drank the oil, they were usually beaten, shot, or both. Another common torture used by Franco’s troops involved shaving women’s heads, sometimes leaving only a tuft on which they would tie a ribbon. Many of these women would also be forcibly separated from their children—a simple, but extremely effective torture.

Sexual and Psychological Torture

In Republican territory, religion came under heavy attack. Priests and military officers were frequent victims of torture and execution. Monks and priests were often stripped naked and paraded around, or driven through rough and jagged terrain. There are many accounts of priests being tortured through mutilation and castration of the genitals. Nuns, for the most part, were spared horrific death—but that did not mean they were safe. There were multiple (but fairly rare) accounts of nuns being sexually tortured, raped and murdered. In one of the worst incidents, five nuns were attacked in Riudarenes village, Girona. Three other holy women suffered at Peralto de la Sal in 1936.

Franco’s soldiers surpassed the Republicans in rape. There are accounts of captured women being locked in rooms with twenty-to-fifty hardened, merciless soldiers who had lost any sense of morality in Spain’s brutal colonial wars in Morocco. John T. Whitaker recorded one soldier’s observation after two captured women were handed over to around 40 soldiers from Morocco: “Oh, they’ll not live more than four hours” (Whitaker, We Cannot Escape History). The soldiers also seemed to use some intense psychological torture, as there are reports of victims being driven to commit suicide.

Dismemberment And Graves

The Republicans, too, would inflict psychological terror on their victims. There are accounts of prisoners being forced to dig their own graves, after which they would be killed with their own pickaxes or shovels. The Republican executioner, Santiago Aliques Bermúdez, is known to have used this particular method of execution. There was also at least one account of nuns being dismembered, and priests, as said earlier, often were put under the knife, with the extreme being the amputation of their genitalia and the possibly of decapitation.

Franco’s troops matched the Republicans here, too. In one instance, a military chaplain named Juan Galán Bermejo captured five people (one was a woman) in a cave. Convinced they were Republicans, the chaplain—who was a deputy priest of the Church of La Candelaria—had his captives dig their own graves. When the graves were dug, he shot them and buried his victims while they were still alive. As for dismemberment, the execution of Juan Sosa Hormigo in January of 1937 demonstrates the brutality of the Spanish Civil War. He had basically been drawn and quartered—his arms and legs had been ripped from his body.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Sources:

  • The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth-Century Spain by Paul Preston. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012.
  • Franco: A Personal and Political Biography by Stanley Payne and Jesús Palacios. Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 2014.
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