Book Review: The Faith and the Fury
Maria Thomas, The Faith and the Fury: Popular Anticlerical Violence and Iconoclasm in Spain, 1931-1936. Brighton, Portland, and Toronto: Sussex Academic Press, in collaboration with the Cañada Blanche Centre for Contemporary Spanish Studies, 2013. xxi + 269 pp.
Of all the issues attending the Spanish Civil War, none has received so little attention in proportion to its actual importance than the assaults on the Catholic Church in July 1936 in those cities where Franco’s forces were defeated. Many churches were burned in those turbulent days, precious cult objects destroyed, religious personnel subjected to humiliation, brutality, and murder. Martyrological publications of the Church in subsequent decades sought to tally the damage and even when they avoided exaggeration, the numbers they cite and the stories they tell are shocking.
Such atrocities provided the fascist insurgents with material for their best propaganda. In truth, this was the only issue that gained them sympathy from people not already their supporters. For that reason, perhaps, this is a topic that the Republic’s advocates have generally sought to avoid, acknowledging these ugly events only when necessary, but dismissing them as regrettable and uncharacteristic excesses. Serious historians, however, know better, for anticlerical violence has a deep history in Spain. A few writers have given serious attention to the question, including Gerald Brenan, who understood the anticlericalism of Anarchists as a centerpiece of their opposition to the established order. On the other side, William Christian studied the way the Church used claims of visions and miracles, pilgrimages and ritual celebrations, to mobilize opposition to the Republic in its early years. Until recently, however, only one author has made the religious aspect of the Civil War his central concern. Writing from a distinctly Christian position, José Sánchez acknowledged serious failings in the Church, attempted to understand the motives and forgive those who attacked it, and construed the anticlerical violence as an opportunity – only partially realized – for renewal of the faith and the Church through sacrifice and suffering.
The superb new book by Maria Thomas is thus particularly welcome, as it provides our first, most complete, and most critical look at the broader struggles of which the anticlerical outburst of July 1936 was only a small, if intense and dramatic part. As Thomas makes clear, anticlericalism has a deep history in Spain, given the strong support the Church provided for the monarchy, landed gentry, and other elites prior to proclamation of the Republic in 1931. Given attempts to restrict the Church’s influence and privileges that were inscribed in the new constitution, a bitter struggle ensued. Concerned to maintain its control over education, morality, marriage and family formation, the ceremonies of birth and death, the Church used its rituals, festivals, public processions, and the like to assert its control over public space, each event providing the opportunity to mobilize its followers and flex its muscles. In response, the institutions that workers and other dissidents had painstakingly built – leftist parties, trade union confederations, secular schools and study groups – staged their own mass demonstrations, claiming the same public space for their own, while developing a potent repertoire of dissident symbology and practice.
In most of the cities where Franco’s pronunciamiento failed, the armed militants who defeated his troops quickly moved against the Church, which they rightly perceived as sympathetic to his cause and a bastion of the old order. Past discussions have tended to attribute this violence to anarchists and uncontrollable extremists. Detailed study of the records from Almeria and Madrid (which may not be typical, as she admits), permits Thomas to challenge that view, for participation in the violence was fairly broad (by gender, age, level of income and education, as well as ideology and political affiliation). Further, a good number of those involved were previously apolitical or worse. To deflect potential (and possibly justified) suspicion of fascist sympathies, they seized this moment to enact violence against the Church in highly vocal and visible fashion.
Thomas explores the formation of the committees and action groups that organized anticlerical assault as it moved from the urban centers where it began to other communities, where it could meet a mixed reception. In most contexts, violence was not indiscriminate and activists made choices about how far it would be carried, against whom and what it would be enacted, whom and what should be saved. Female religious, for instance, were rarely harmed and almost never killed, although they were often “liberated from,” i.e. forced to abandon their convents. She also studies the conversion of Church buildings to schools, hospitals, and other secular functions and she gives careful attention to the symbology, dynamics, and effects of iconoclasm.
Ultimately, Thomas treats anticlericalism as a longstanding part of opposition politics in Spain. Its nature became more radical in the wake of the First World War, however, as workers and the poor challenged the Church’s control over their everyday lives. The Republic gave them the opportunity to mount that challenge in open, rather than covert ways, via rallies, demonstrations, participation in parties and unions independent of and actively hostile to the Church. The failed coup of July 1936 further accelerated this process. In her concluding pages, Thomas summarizes.
After the July 1936 coup, when diverse social actors took advantage of the radically expanded horizon of political opportunity generated by the paralysis of the Republican state to stage a spontaneous revolution, anticlericalism became the common language of the revolt, and the cornerstone of that revolution. All this means that popular anticlericalism — far from being the pre-political “anachronism” described by numerous contemporary observers and historians — was in reality a constantly evolving phenomenon which constituted a new political mode in July 1936.
These are important conclusions that emerge from Thomas’s careful research. Her book deserves to be read widely, for it will change our understanding, not just of the brief intense anticlerical assault, but of the Civil War, and of Spanish history, society, and politics in general.
Bruce Lincoln is the Caroline E. Haskell Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago.