Insofar as Americans know anything of the Spanish Civil War it is through the propaganda of Ernest Hemingway’s admittedly compelling For Whom the Bell Tolls, or through Pablo Picasso’s chaotic (and admittedly repellant) Guernica. That version goes something like this: an oppressed working class calling themselves republicans rose up against a tyrannical aristocracy allied with the Roman Catholic Church. Their people’s revolution was brutally suppressed by a fascist military dictator named Francisco Franco, who was a puppet of the German Nazi regime. The whole affair was a dress rehearsal for Nazi tyranny. For decades following the war this fascist dictator ruled Spain with an iron hand, invading private lives and suppressing individual liberties.
The truth of the Spanish Civil War, however, is that was a diabolical terror that seized Spain and waged war against the Roman Catholic Church and her Faithful. It was the greatest period of clerical bloodletting since the French Revolution and on a larger scale. It was a war waged to free Spain and the Church from the grip of Marxist tyranny. In the end the defenders of tradition, order, and Christianity won the war after which Spain enjoyed decades of prosperity and vitality and a culture in which, as Hugh Thomas (no Catholic propagandist) put it, “The Catholic Church permeated every aspect of Spanish … culture.”
The war was also the occasion of great acts of Catholic heroism, and on September 27 each year we should recall the thrilling conclusion of one of these and honor its heroes. The event was the siege of the Alcazar of Toledo.
Forty miles south of Madrid, the ancient city of Toledo dominates the vast Castilian plain, and on the highest point of the city stands the fortress castle, Alcázar, built by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and reinforced in 1887 as a military academy.
In July of 1936, Nationalist forces comprising Catholics and traditionalists under the command of General Francisco Franco rose up against Spain’s brutal Marxist government. At the time of the uprising most of the cadets of the Alcazar were on summer leave. Only the permanent staff remained along with the commandant of the academy, an aging Colonel, Jose Moscardó. Moscardó was a devout Catholic and a fine officer but not one of such significance that he had been advised of the uprising. When he heard radio reports of Franco’s invasion, he drove to Madrid to consult with officers there whom he trusted. When they revealed the coup to him, he joined without hesitation and sped back to Toledo to secure a nearby munitions factory for the Nationalist cause. His presence of mind and swift, decisive action would soon pay dividends for the forces of tradition and faith.
After rallying a group of officers in Toledo, Moscardó attended Mass at the Alcázar on the morning of July 19. It would be the last Mass the fortress would witness for 54 days.
The War Ministry in Madrid contacted Moscardó and ordered him to surrender the weapons in the Academy’s armory. To stall for time, he requested the order in writing. Members of the Toledo national guard and their families streamed into the Alcázar seeking protection and soon a force of about 1100 swearing their loyalty to Spain and the Church had mustered within the walls, along with some 700 women and children. Moscardó organized a convoy to transfer 700,000 rounds of ammunition from the nearby munitions factory. Not a moment too soon. As the convoy was returning from its final run, a Force of 3000 republican soldiers commanded by General Jose Riquelme surrounded the Alcázar and demanded surrender. Offered the chance to leave, not one of the fortress’s Catholic defenders defected.
Moscardó sent message to Riquelme: “Because I love Spain and have confidence in General Franco, we will not surrender. Further, it would be dishonorable to surrender the arms of gentlemen to Marxist rabble!”
Moscardó explained to his men that Franco was marching from the south to relieve the siege. They had ample stores and water, and thanks to his quick thinking, abundant ammunition. The one thing they did not have was a priest.
Over the next weeks the besieging force swelled to 15,000. Artillery shells rained down on the fortress and machine-gun fire swept its courtyard, but the defenders of the Alcázar put up a fierce resistance as did the castle’s 12 foot thick walls. To taunt the men in the Alcázar, the communist militia hurled blasphemies at them and threatened their families. A few republican soldiers dragged a priceless statue of our Lord from the Toledo Cathedral began to hack it to pieces with an axe. Then they threw it in a bonfire, but sharpshooters from the fortress’s ramparts felled the villains with one bullet each. Collapsing into their own fire they were consumed with the statue they had desecrated. Communist militia took their revenge on the Church in Toledo with diabolical rage: A Bible that had belonged to Saint Louis was destroyed. 105 priests and religious in Toledo and Madrid were brutally martyred. Ad hoc committees called checas, named after Stalin’s Secret Police, the Cheka, rounded up civilians and harassed them with interrogations.
On the morning of Thursday the twenty-third of July they captured a real prize: the son of Colonel Moscardó, Luis. The head of Toledo’s checa was a lawyer named Candido Cabello, who thought he saw a way to bring about the surrender of the Alcázar. At ten o’clock in the morning, he called Moscardó on the phone:
After identifying himself, Cabello said, “You are responsible for all the crimes and everything else that is happening in Toledo. I give you ten minutes to surrender the Alcázar. If you don’t I’ll shoot your son Luis who is standing here beside me.”
“I believe you,” Moscardó calmly replied.
“And so that you can see it’s true,” Cabello continued, “he will speak to you.”
Luis was then given the phone.
“What is happening my boy?”
“Nothing at all” Luis said. “They say that they are going to shoot me if the Alcázar does not surrender. But do not worry about me.”
“If it is true,” replied Moscardó, “Commend your soul to God, shout Viva España! and die like a hero. Goodbye my son, a kiss.”
“Goodbye, Father, a very big kiss.”
When Cabello was on the phone again, Moscardó said, “you might as well forget the ten minutes you gave me. The Alcázar will never surrender!”
Cabello slammed down the receiver. Turning to the Republican militia he said, “Do what ever you will with him.” Luis Moscardó was led out.
In the Alcázar, Moscardó’s fellow officers stood in silent astonishment unable to console their heroic leader. He quietly walked to his quarters, and closed the door.
Luis Moscardó was killed, though his execution came a month later.
And the siege of the Alcázar continued as revolutionary troops dug tunnels under the castle in an effort to explode it with mines. A former colleague of Moscardó who had taught at the Alcázar, but now fought for the communists, was permitted to visit his old commander to persuade him to surrender. Major Vincente Rojo was blindfolded and brought to Moscardo’s office, where he was told the Alcázar would never surrender. Rojo was filled for admiration for his former Commandant and seeing that he would not move his Catholic heart, asked, “is there anything that I can do for you?”
“You can send us a priest!” Moscardó answered. “We want nothing else from you.”
The priest who was sent was of a stripe that today we would kindly call “progressive.” Canon Enrique Vasquez Camarasa had made his peace with the Communists and enjoyed their protection. Exchanging the communist clenched-fist salute with the troops at the siege lines as he approached the Alcázar, the priest came with specific orders from his handlers to encourage surrender. Moscardó told him, “We asked for you so you could hear confessions and offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.” Father Camarasa used his sermon to scold the defenders of the Alcázar.
By this point food had nearly run out, they were reduced to eating horses and barley paste, and two women who were pregnant when the siege began had delivered children. Nonetheless, the women of Alcázar informed the priest they would die beside their men before they would leave them. After giving a general absolution and taking Communion to the wounded, Fr. Camarasa quietly left.
At last the republicans detonated several tons of dynamite and breached the fortress walls. But in the 11th hour, the Alacazar’s bugler—a fifteen year old boy—signaled the approach of Franco’s army. Franco relieved the siege on September 27, 1936. Bloody internecine fighting continued in Spain for three more years before Franco was victorious.
The Spanish Civil War was nothing less than the gates of hell opened in Spain. 7000 priests and religious, including 13 Bishops, and thousands of laymen and women, whose number will likely never been known were brutally martyred, many as they prayed for their killers. Nearly 1000 of these were beatified by Blessed John Paul II and by Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis will beatify another 522 next month.
May the blood of the Martyrs of the Spanish Civil, be once more the seed of the Church in Spain. And may the heroic defenders of the Alcazar, doubtless tonight celebrating their great victory before the Eternal Throne intercede for the soldiers of the Church militant here on earth.
Editor’s note: The author would like to acknowledge his heavy reliance on Warren Carroll’s The Last Crusade in preparing this article.