Spanish Civil War’s Lesson for Israel, U.S.: Polarization, Incitement Paved Way to Hell

Marking rivals as traitorous enemies, as Trump and Netanyahu do, could have unforeseen and deadly consequences

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Tourists walk near the Valle de los Caidos (the Valley of the Fallen) monument that houses Francisco Franco's tomb near Madrid, Spain.
Tourists walk near the Valle de los Caidos (the Valley of the Fallen) monument that houses Francisco Franco's tomb near Madrid, Spain.Credit: Francisco Seco/AP

The towering 150-meter granite cross and massive underground basilica overlooking the Valley of the Fallen, 60 kilometers northwest of Madrid, is one of the most awesome yet despised monuments in the world. Fascist dictator Francisco Franco conceived the monument at the end of World War II, invested billions of dollars and thousands of slave laborers in its construction and inaugurated it in 1959. He is buried there in a marked grave, along with an estimated 40,000 victims of the Spanish Civil War, Nationalists and Republicans alike.

The Spanish parliament adopted a declaratory resolution two months ago to exhume Franco’s body from his grave, which has become a place of pilgrimage to what remains of “El Caudillo’s” fans. Over the past two to three years, several Spanish provinces have started to exhume some of the remains of the tens of thousands of people executed by both sides during and after the 1936-’39 Civil War. It could signal the beginning of the end of the collective repression that enabled Spain to smoothly convert from dark dictatorship to splendid democracy. The ruling conservative People’s Party prefers not to stir the hornet’s nest now, when Spain is finally emerging from the terrible economic decade it has endured since 2008.

Around the world, the trend is going in the opposite direction. The bloody Civil War that riveted the world’s imagination for a good part of the 20th century is receding in memory. The romance of the 40,000 volunteers who naively and tragically joined the International Brigade to fight the Fascist usurpers of Spanish democracy is dissipating as their generation passes. Ernest Hemingway’s “For Whom The Bell Tolls” and George Orwell’s “Homage to Catalonia” are no longer required reading. Israeli leftists often shout, “Fascism will not pass” in their lonely demonstrations, but few are aware that it was legendary Communist leader Dolores Ibárruri, widely known as La Pasionaria, who made it famous. When Franco took Madrid, he reportedly said, “We have passed.”

Many historians have focused on the international aspects of the civil war, widely seen as a practice run for World War II, which broke out five months after it ended. Britain abandoned the democratically elected government in Madrid just as it sold out Czechoslovakia a few years later. The Spanish conflict was war by proxy for the Soviet Union, which set up the International Brigade and mismanaged much of the Republican campaign, and Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, which forged their “axis” in Spain and supplied Franco with arms and fighting units. Berlin utilized the campaign to perfect its fighting methods in advance of its onslaught on Europe. Picasso’s “Guernica,” which depicts the German bombing of the Basque town in 1937, attracts masses of tourists to Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid.

But as British historian Anthony Beevor wrote in his book “The Battle for Spain,” the focus on the international elements of the Civil War underplays the ferocity of the national conflict, which, he asserts, would have erupted and ended exactly the same without it. And while Spanish history from the Inquisition to the abolition of the monarchy in the 1930s crafted the unique characteristics of the Civil War, its main cause seems particularly relevant today, especially in the United States and Israel. It was the acute polarization – the total religious, political, economic and social divide – that split Spanish society and drove each part to see the other as a mortal enemy, worthy of death.

The clash pitted capitalists against communists, monarchists against anarchists, conservatives vs. libertarians, fascists against democrats, religious fanatics against secular extremists, centralists against those who backed regional independence for Catalans, Basques and others. The tensions were fueled by the spread of Fascism and Communism, which undermined democracy and enabled each side to describe its enemy in demonic terms. “Both Stalin and Goebbels,” Beevor writes, “exploited, with diabolic ingenuity, that potent combination of fear and hatred. The process stripped their ‘traitor’ opponents of their humanity as well as their citizenship.”

Beevor notes that it is difficult today to appreciate the totality of the ideological conflict and the perceptions that defeat could spell extinction. When he rewrote his 1982 book for 2006 publication, Beevor could not have known that two years later the world would experience an economic meltdown resembling the Great Depression, which paved the way for the forces of evil. He could not have foreseen the hunger in Africa, the Arab Spring, the emergence of ISIS or the civil war in Syria, which created waves of refugees that sparked the same kind of nationalistic, racist and often anti-Semitic reaction that pushed 1930s fascists to the forefront, including Franco, the Spanish Phalanges and the Catholic Church, which saw a Jewish-Freemason conspiracy behind every corner. Beevor could not know that within a decade, social media would revolutionize personal and political communications, accelerating polarization, empowering the extremes and erasing the moderate middle ground. He could not foresee that disgust with George W. Bush would bring Barack Obama and that hatred towards Obama would spawn Donald Trump, who makes the apocalypse seem real.

Trump didn’t have a particular ideology when he decided to run for office but he has embraced the dark recesses of the American right to achieve victory, and he returns there in times of trouble, which for him are a 24/7 condition. The numerous missteps, failures, controversies and scandals of his presidential tenure, which will mark 200 days on Monday, are sparking growing opposition but his monumental ego prevents him from mending his ways. Instead, he heats up his base even more, incites against concocted enemies, divides America into “us” and “them.”

When Trump pushes a ban on Muslims entering America, he marks those already there as dangerous. When he announces that transgenders won’t serve in the army, he signals that LGBTs are tainted as well. When the Justice Department probes whether colleges are discriminating against whites, it’s a sign that affirmative action for blacks is over. When the White House presents immigration reform that’s focused on bringing skilled, English-speaking immigrants in but keeping unskilled, low-wage laborers out, it’s a return to the good old days when even so-called Southern Europeans, including Jews, were better left out. And when Trump blames Congress rather than Vladimir Putin for tensions with Russia, he is assuming his followers would prefer to despise enemies within than to waste their energy on dictators far away.

By the same token, when Yair Netanyahu, the prime minister’s son, describes the New Israel Fund as the Destroy Israel Fund, he is marking it and its supporters as existential threats. When his father warns about Arabs swarming to the ballot boxes, he casts them as a fifth column, a term that originated with the Fascist invasion of Madrid and the help it would get from supporters in the city. When Netanyahu talks about European funding for human rights NGOs, he wants to paint them as agents of hostile powers.

It’s all aimed at dispelling any illusion that the political battle pits two legitimate ideologies one against the other. Rather, it’s a fight to the death, all or nothing, pride or shame, prosperity or ruin. With a knife at the country’s throat, what are trivial allegations of corruption if not a sinister plot by the enemy, and what are democracy and the rule of law compared to the preservation of life and the country’s honor?

Of course, there are only a few similarities between 20th-century Spain and 21st-century Israel or the U.S., both of which have a long tradition of democracy and an army that’s loyal to the state. But both have also enjoyed extended periods of relative security and economic stability, which prevent hatred and strife from getting the oxygen that would make them more dangerous.

Yet make no mistake. The two countries might not handle new crises or catastrophes, God forbid, as they have before. The atmosphere is more tense. The alienation is greater. The hate is more intense. The dialogue is more venomous. When conflict comes, the mob will vent its rage against immediate suspects, those that have been marked so well in recent years.

In the end, Franco’s Fascists won because they had several inherent advantages. They were united, disciplined and focused on victory and revenge while their rivals were anarchic and divided, in the conduct of their war as well. The Monarchists and authoritarians yearned to obey one supreme leader, while the Republicans argued, voted, disputed and split into 10 more pieces.

And while the Republicans carried out their fair share of cruel massacres against Catholic clerics and other enemies, their hatred for Fascists could never match the loathing of Franco’s men for the heathen Communists. After years of being told their enemies were traitors out to kill them, it was easier for the Fascists to slaughter them by the tens if not the hundreds of thousands. On their anonymous and often unmarked graves, they built one of the most despicable regimes of the 20th century.