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‘They Walked Towards Their Death As If to a Party.’ Martyrdom, Agency and Performativity in the Spanish Civil War


politics religion & ideologyJournal abstract

Despite the great number of articles and publications on anticlerical violence during the Spanish Civil War, this is the first to focus on the perceptions of its victims. In the documents they left behind, these imprisoned clergymen represented themselves as martyrs. With no influence from rebel propaganda, these statements provide evidence that the rhetoric of martyrdom was embedded in Spanish Catholic culture prior to the coup d’état against the Second Republic in 1936. Through a case study of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Barbastro, one of the districts most disrupted by anticlerical violence, this article explores the existence of a Catholic agency which transformed death in the name of God into a path of perfection; a path toward the improvement of oneself and of the whole of society. They thought of their martyrdom as a contribution to the victory of the rebels that would bring the Kingdom of God closer to Spain. Imbued by this ideal they performed their own martyrdom.

Dostoievski said once, ‘There is only one thing I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.’ These words frequently came to my mind after I became acquainted with those martyrs whose behaviour in camp, whose suffering and death, bore witness to the fact that the last inner freedom cannot be lost. It can be said that they were worthy of their sufferings; the way they bore their suffering was a genuine inner achievement. It is this spiritual freedom—which cannot be taken away—that makes life meaningful and purposeful.

(Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning)
The bloody and unusual violence which repressed the clergy during the summer of 1936 has been one of the areas that has drawn the greatest attention of researchers of the Spanish Civil war. Many studies have been devoted to explaining the reasons behind the massacre of around 6,000 clergymen in just a few months, and how it was commemorated by the Francoist regime. However, not a single research paper, apart from some hagiographic writings, has focused on how the clerical victims experienced and perceived this violence. Exploring the testimonies left by the murdered priests can help us to better understand the political dimensions of their experience, and how they perceived and accommodated the events that convulsed Spain’s social fabric during the 1930s within their worldview.

For the majority of Spanish Catholic priests, the fall of the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera in 1930 and the proclamation of the Second Republic in 1931 had entailed the renewal of a religious persecution that, from their perspective, they had endured since time immemorial. The most recent demonstration of this was government policies of laicization from the first decade of the twentieth century. They considered that Spain was ontologically a Catholic nation, and therefore any steps toward secularization added insult to injury, both as Spaniards and Catholics.

This feeling of persecution and hostility drove some of them to develop an increasingly positive idea of martyrdom. At the individual level, in addition to releasing them from their physical limitations, martyrdom in the name of Christ was by far the most perfect and absolute way of dying; a death which brought the individual closer to God. At the same time, the suffering they experienced epitomized a way of re-creating a time of purity of the primitive Church and the ill-treatment it suffered at the hands of the Roman Empire. Finally, such martyrdom was viewed positively because it would bring the Kingdom of God closer to Spain.

The purpose of this article is to look at how, from the standpoint of Catholic agency, suffering and death conveyed a sense of emancipation, and how these elements became a path to the perfection of oneself, and of society as a whole. Imbued by these ideals of martyrdom, the victims played a role they felt they had been chosen to perform until their last breath. To address these issues we will focus on the Diocese of Barbastro—one of the districts most disrupted by the anticlerical violence of the time—which has an archive of extraordinary documents concerning the final moments of the murdered priests. These documents were produced without any influence of rebel propaganda, showing that the rhetoric of martyrdom was embedded in Spanish catholic culture prior to the coup d’état.

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