Catholicism, Spain, The Crusades

Crusading Ideology and the Spanish Civil War: The Persistence of an Idea

Spanish militiamen fighting for the Republic stage a mock execution of the statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus at Cerro de los Ángeles.

In Guillermo del Toro’s 2006 film Pan’s Labyrinth set in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, there is a scene where a man who has been detained by the military for hunting rabbits in the woods and his adult son are brought before a military officer to give an account for firing a rifle.  When the officer searches the hunter’s satchel, he discovers a pamphlet entitled Ni Dios, ni patria, ni amo (“No God, No Fatherland, No Master”).  “Propaganda roja (red) mi capitán” says one of the soldiers, and the officer subsequently murders both son and then father.[1]  The violent repression and the pamphlet’s title are reflective of a struggle between two opposing world views; a Crusade against Marxist atheism and its allies fought in defense of civilization and religion.  So, the Spanish Episcopate believed.

This paper is the product of a brief survey of mostly secondary works in English.  The historiography of the role of religion in the Spanish Civil War has been characteristically polemical, to the extent that Hilari Raguer could write in 2001 that “the lances are still held high”.[2]  His book Gunpowder and Incense strives to present a balanced account of how religion influenced Catholics on each side of the conflict.[3]  Though a Benedictine monk, he is not shy to criticize the Spanish Church, which overwhelmingly supported the ‘Crusade’.  The same concern with fairness is characteristic of José M. Sánchez’s The Spanish Civil War as a Religious Tragedy.  A prominent theme in this work is the juxtaposition of the anticlerical violence committed by allies of the Republic, with the silence of the Church regarding the violent repression perpetrated in the Nationalist zone throughout the struggle and beyond.  According to Sánchez, defenders of each side have been remiss in adequately addressing these subjects.[4]  Stanley Payne’s The Spanish Civil War does not approach the subject through the perspective of religion per se, but it is integral to the work and he dedicates a chapter to the conflict as a war of religion.  Payne puts the event within the context of twentieth-century revolutionary wars, especially that of Russia, and tends to be critical of the Republic.  Julián Casanova’s La Iglesia de Franco begins with the turbulent relationship between the Second Republic and the Spanish Church, focusing on the alliance between the latter and the Franco regime from its inception through the first two decades following the war.  It explores the “causes and consequences” of the war and is generally critical of its subject, without being hostile.[5]

The views of these authors on certain points as well as those of other historians will be brought out, but my aim is to tell a story through the lens of Iberian crusading with an emphasis on the Spanish Bishops.  Due to space and time I have left out topics I had planned on covering – “the Basque problem”, the experience of Franco’s Moroccan troops, religiosity in the Republican zone, and the Church’s concern with Nazism – which in the end became more peripheral to my focus.[6]  What remains is my conviction that most of the Spanish Episcopate and countless numbers of clergy and lay Catholics on the Nationalist side sincerely believed that they were fighting a holy war.  Though the language of crusading saw a resurgence in the years leading up to World War II and beyond, nowhere did it resonate as deep as it did in Spain.  In order to provide a clearer picture, it is incumbent to first give the backdrop to the conflict.

Read the full paper here.


[1] Pan’s Labyrinth, Guillermo del Toro, featuring Ivana Baquero and Sergi López, Warner Bros. Pictures, Amazon Prime Video.

[2] Hilari Raguer, Gunpowder and Incense: The Catholic Church and the Spanish Civil War, trans. Gerald Howson, (New York: Routledge, 2007): 1-2.

[3] Ibid, 14. 

[4] José M. Sánchez, The Spanish Civil War as a Religious Tragedy (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1987): (Juxtaposition and historiography): xiv, 199-205. (Balance): xv.

[5] Julián Casanova, La Iglesia de Franco (Barcelona: Crítica, 2005): 21, “causas y consecuencias”.

[6] “The Basque problem” is integral to all of the works previously mentioned, but Sánchez dedicates a whole chapter to the topic.  Both he and Raguer have chapters dealing with religiosity in the Republican zone.  For the Moroccan troops see Ali al Tuma, “Moros y Cristianos: Religious Aspects of the Participation of Moroccan Soldiers in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939),” in Muslims in Interwar Europe: A Transcultural Historical Perspective, ed. Bekim Agai, Umar Ryad and Mehdi Sajid, (Leiden: Brill, 2015), 151-176.  For the Church and Nazism see Santiago Martínez Sanchez, “The Spanish Bishops and Nazism During the Spanish Civil War,” The Catholic Historical Review 99, no. 3 (July, 2013): 499-530.

3 thoughts on “Crusading Ideology and the Spanish Civil War: The Persistence of an Idea

  1. Thank you for a brilliant perspective. It lays the groundwork for a discussion of history repeating itself. This is happening again today in a different guise.

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