The 2023 Len Crome Memorial Conference, which took place on 11 November 2023, is now available to watch online.

The conversation between leading historians on the Spanish Civil War Helen Graham and Paul Preston, with Richard Baxell in the chair, charts the long roots of the Spanish Civil War.

Helen, Paul and Richard trace the conflict's origins back to the First World War – not only with attempts to wipe out the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 but also to double down on any socially levelling reform inside the developed industrial heartlands of Europe, including Britain.

Paul Preston is one of the world’s foremost historians of the causes, course and consequences of the Spanish Civil War. He is the IBMT’s Founding Chair.

Helen Graham is Emeritus Professor of modern European history at Royal Holloway University of London and is the author of ‘Interrogating Francoism' and ‘The Spanish Civil War: A Very Short Introduction’. She is also an IBMT Patron.

Richard Baxell is the author of 'Forged in Spain'. He is a research fellow at the LSE and the IBMT's Historical Consultant.

The video also features Peter Crome, who discusses his father’s life and legacy.

To watch the previous Len Crome Memorial Conferences online, go to the IBMTNews Len Crome playlist on YouTube.

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This year’s Len Crome Memorial Conference will be an online conversation between leading historians of the Spanish Civil War, Helen Graham and Paul Preston, with Richard Baxell in the chair.

Organised by the IBMT, the free event takes place on Saturday 11 November 2023 from 2pm-3.30pm. Register here.

It is generally understood that the war of 1936-9 in Spain was a Europe-wide conflict, in terms of state power politics, the rise of fascism and ordinary people’s anti-fascist engagement. This phenomenon has been explained by a number of historians, including Paul Preston and Helen Graham as a ‘European civil war’. 

In this conversation with Richard Baxell, they chart the war’s long roots. These go back at least to the First World War – not only with attempts to wipe out the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, but also to double down on any socially levelling reform inside the developed industrial heartlands of Europe, including Britain. 

From left: Helen Graham, Paul Preston and Richard Baxell.

The First World War had meant the massive mobilisation of ordinary people across the continent as soldiers and home-front workers, and afterwards they demanded not only political change but also levelling social change. New industrial cities were growing up or expanding everywhere and were perceived as a  threat to the pre-1914  power elites of Europe/Britain, who still hoped for ‘business as usual’ after 1918.  

It is this picture which explains why, when Spain’s military tried to stifle the country’s new, democratically elected and socially reforming government, it wasn’t only Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany that wanted them to win, but also the British establishment and much of France’s too.

Paul Preston and Helen Graham and Richard Baxell will trace these developments to show how they led to a situation where not only fascist dictatorships but also democratic states in Europe largely preferred a Franco victory in the Spanish war. 

In the end this would come with a Nazi price tag, one that soon forced Britain and France to fight another world war, the one that completed the destruction of their imperial pre-eminence in the world. 

Given that the Second World War might potentially have been avoided, had Britain especially made different decisions over Spain, then we can also say that the war of 1936-39 wasn’t only European in its reach, but global too.

Len Crome, born Lazar Krom in 1909 in Latvia, then part of Imperial Russia, trained as a doctor in Edinburgh and was a GP in Blackburn in 1936 when he volunteered to go to Spain. He rose to the rank of major in the Spanish People’s Army and headed the medical services of the mainly English-speaking 15th Brigade and the mainly German-speaking 11th Brigade. He served in the British Army during the Second World War, earning a Military Cross for his bravery at Monte Cassino. After the war he became an eminent pathologist in London and, until his death in 2001, was the chair of the International Brigade Association.

Jim Jump reviews ‘Architects of Terror: Paranoia, Conspiracy and Anti-Semitism in Franco’s Spain’ by Paul Preston (HarperCollins, 2023). The review appears in the current issue of the IBMT magazine ¡No Pasarán!

Before the Spanish Civil War began in July 1936 there were no more than 6,000 Jews living in Spain and the Communist Party was tiny. Yet the plotters who launched the coup that started the war declared they were fighting, not the Spanish Republic’s elected government, but a Jewish-masonic-Bolshevik conspiracy. Their enemy was an ‘Anti-Spain’ responsible for every disaster that had beset the fatherland, from the Muslim invasion to the loss of empire.

Such an interpretation of Spanish history may have been chronologically bizarre, as Paul Preston notes in this characteristically powerful and chillingly entertaining book*. But it proved highly effective in justifying and generating enthusiasm for the uprising that brought General Franco to power and in the process killed half a million Spaniards and inflicted misery and exile on countless more.  

Antisemitism has deep roots in Spanish history, going back to the expulsion of the Jews in 1492 and the Catholic Church’s efforts in the Inquisition to ‘cleanse’ the country of non-believers. Then, early in the 1930s came the publication of the fabricated antisemitic text, ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion’, which supposedly showed Jewish plans for world domination. The forgery found fertile ground among the enemies of the newly installed Republic, having already been seized upon by Hitler and the Nazis to underpin their antisemitic creed. Its influence in Spain outlived the Third Reich. Twelve editions were published, alongside many other antisemitic tirades, during the Franco dictatorship that lasted until the generalísimo’s death in 1975. 

As the tide of the Second World War turned against the Axis powers, efforts were made to deny that antisemitism had been central to Francoist propaganda. Preston demolishes the myth that paints Franco as a saviour of Jews during the Holocaust. Up to 35,000 Jewish refugees did manage to pass through Spain to safety during the Second World War, many of them clandestinely. Others were turned away at the border or imprisoned, and Jewish relief organisations were banned. A few heroic Spanish diplomats – in Berlin, Bucharest, Budapest and Sofia – took unilateral initiatives to save hundreds of Jewish lives. But consular protection for Sephardic Jews in Greece was refused (at least 45,000 were sent from Salonica to Auschwitz), Franco did nothing to save hundreds of Jews with Spanish nationality in Nazi concentration camps and German Jewish refugees were handed over to the Gestapo.

Several prominent Republican politicians were freemasons. The Catholic Church hated them and so did Franco, though for him it was personal. They were ‘the great invasion of evil’ and, he wrote in 1962, ‘atheistic traitors in exile, delinquents, swindlers, men who betrayed their wives’, the latter categorisation a thinly concealed swipe at his father, who was a mason and a womaniser.

His antipathy to the left was just as pathological. In 1938, with the civil war still raging, the Caudillo authorised funding for Dr Antonio Vallejo Nágera, head of the military psychiatric services, to find the ‘red gene’ that linked Marxism with mental disorders and moral degeneracy. The premise was that left-wingers were polluting the pure Spanish race with Jewish strains. Nágera’s team of investigators included two German scientific advisers and tests were carried out on captured International Brigaders and Republican women prisoners.

The foul lunacy of the Jewish-masonic-Bolshevik conspiracy theory – a classic case of ‘fake news’, according to the author – is brought to life via mini-biographies of six of its ardent adherents, each with their own chapter. They are a motley and unsavoury crew. There is the police chief and intelligence agent Mauricio Carlavilla, who kept a portrait of Hitler on his desk until retirement in 1957 and who was the author of several diatribes, including ‘Sodomitas’, which set out to link homosexuality with communism. 

The influential priest and author Juan Tusquets began compiling lists of Jews and Freemasons well before the Civil War and, at the cost of innumerable lives lost and ruined, continued his work within the Sección Judeo-Masónica of Franco’s military intelligence agency. Just as well-placed in Francoist circles was the poet José María Pemán, who extolled the brutal murder of Republican supporters in the reign of terror that followed the 1936 uprising. The war was necessary to protect the Virgin from being Russian or Jewish and ‘had been sent by God to teach Spaniards a lesson, to permit them to purify themselves, to leave behind their past sins and errors, and to reach the end pure and cleansed’.

Perhaps even more crazed was the aristocratic, polo-playing sadist Gonzalo de Aguilera who, as Franco’s press officer during the civil war, would explain to foreign correspondents in perfect English (his mother was Scottish) that, like plague-ridden rats, the Spanish masses had been infected with the virus of Bolshevism. He blamed this on sewers and modern plumbing, which had allowed too many of these ‘animals’ to survive. A vicious bully and toadying snob, he almost certainly sexually abused his daughter Magdalena over several years. The end of his life was fittingly and gruesomely tragic. By 1964 he was seriously paranoid and liable to fits of wild rage. In one of these, he shot dead his two sons at the family estate. He was locked up in an asylum in nearby Salamanca, where he died in the following year.

The final profiles are of two generals in Franco’s rebel army: Emilio Mola and Gonzalo Queipo de Llano. Both professed to be waging a crusade to save Spain from, as Queipo de Llano put it, ‘Marxist hordes’ and ‘the [Jewish] race that propagates communism, hoards gold and aspires to subjugate the world’. Mola was cold-bloodedly responsible for the murders of some 40,000 civilians in northern Spain. Queipo de Llano, Franco’s corrupt military strongman in Seville, was a bombastic psychopath who oversaw the murder and rape of thousands of Republican supporters in the working-class districts of the city. 

Mola died in a plane crash during the Civil War, while Queipo de Llano lived until 1951. Of the trio profiled by Preston who survived until Spain’s return to democracy, only Carlavilla seems to have stuck to his ideological guns, though his final years were spent in a sordid room in a Madrid lodging house. Tusquets and Pemán by contrast tried with some success to deny and downplay their pasts. Preston’s devastating new book will hopefully make sure that, in posterity at least, they won’t get away with it.

Main picture: Franco and Hitler meet in Hendaye in 1940. Photo: Heinrich Hoffmann/Cc-by-sa-3.0-de

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