Two figures dominate the skyline in Toledo, Spain—one is the strikingly beautiful thirteenth century Gothic Cathedral, and the other is the Alcázar, a massive square shaped building with four stout towers. The word “alcazar” means castle or fortress, and the Alcázar of Toledo was built on the same hill where the Romans had built a stronghold when they occupied this ancient city. The Alcázar was empty in the summer of 1936 when the Spanish Civil War began, but it would soon become the site of a ten-week siege, which began with an act of unparalleled heroism by a father and his son.
By the early 1930s the Second Spanish Republic had showed itself to be deeply anti-Catholic. They had closed Catholic schools, forbidden priests and nuns to teach, and seized Church property. Supporters of the Second Spanish Republic had burned Catholic churches and killed priests. In these years labor strikes were frequent and political violence was commonplace. On July 13, 1936, a conservative politician named Calvo Sotelo was assassinated. Days later on July 17 General Francisco Franco led a military rebellion (Franco’s side was known as the Nationalists) against the Second Spanish Republic (this side is often called the Republican side, but was at that time called “the reds” because of heavy communist influence). The Republicans fought back and a bloody civil war began.
Because it had long been the center of the Catholic Church in Spain (the bishop of Toledo is the primate of Spain), no city saw more bloodshed than Toledo. Thousands were killed on both sides of the war in Toledo, but in the midst of all of this violence an act of heroic sacrifice occurred which came to symbolize what the Nationalists were fighting for.
In the summer of 1936 the senior military official in Toledo was fifty-eight-year-old Colonel José Moscardó e Iriarte. When Franco and his men initiated the rebellion Colonel Moscardó summoned all the military personnel in the area into the Alcázar. On July 21 approximately 2,000 men, women, and children entered the fort, not knowing that they would remain there for ten weeks. They had ammunition and some horses, but they were outnumbered would soon be under constant attack. On July 23, the third day of the siege, a Republican official called Colonel Moscardó on the phone. He told him that they had his sixteen-year-old son, and if he did not surrender the Alcázar, his son would be shot. The following conversation ensued:
REPUBLICAN: Do you perhaps think my statement is untrue? You are now going to speak with your son.
MOSCARDÓ: What’s happening, son?
LUIS: They say they’re going to shoot me if you don’t surrender.
MOSCARDÓ: Then commend your soul to God, shout “¡Viva España!” and “¡Viva Cristo Rey!” and die like a hero.
LUIS: A very strong kiss, Papa.
MOSCARDÓ: Goodbye, my son, a very strong kiss. (1)
Moscardó did not surrender and later his son was shot. It has been said that this event fortified those who were in the Alcázar to face starvation and even death, “because who could go to the colonel and complain about what the siege was costing him when the colonel had given his son?” (2) One can visit the room where the conversation took place, and read it on the walls, where it has been translated into different languages.
When the Republicans realized they would not be able to coerce Moscardó into surrendering they tried everything they could think of to bring down the Alcázar—heavy artillery, airplane bombing, they even brought coal miners from the north of Spain to dig a tunnel underneath the building, which they filled with explosives. On the morning of the sixtieth day of the siege, September 18, the Republicans detonated the explosives, and the blast could be heard forty miles away in Madrid. The explosion destroyed the southwest tower, but in order to take the Alcázar the Republican forces would have had to climb the hill and take it at bayonet point. Moscardó and his men were able to hold on, against all odds and under relentless attack, long enough for Franco’s troops to arrive. By the time the Nationalists reached Toledo on September 28 many of the defenders of the Alcázar had died in the fighting, and others had died of causes related to starvation, but they had succeeded in holding the Alcázar for seventy days. (3)
One can only imagine that it was the memory of Colonel Moscardó’s son Luis that inspired them to face starvation and death, rather than surrender. This story is one of many accounts of heroism that took place during the Spanish Civil War, a war in which 7,000 priests and religious (including 13 bishops who refused to leave the country) were murdered, and thousands of Catholic churches were destroyed by the Republican army. One thousand martyrs from the Spanish Civil War have been beatified or canonized, and the process is underway for 2,000 more. Both the Nationalists and Republicans committed atrocities and by the end of the war 500,000 people had been killed, including 20% of the Catholic clergy.
Stanley Payne, an American historian who has specialized in Spain and European fascism since the 1960’s, and whose books were banned under Franco, wrote that the Spanish Civil War saw “the most extensive and violent persecution of Catholicism in western history, in some way even more intense than that of the French Revolution.” (4) Since the war took place only 75 years ago, and because so many families were affected by the violence, there is still a great need for forgiveness and reconciliation in Spain. Since, as Catholics, we believe in the communion of Saints, and in the spiritual solidarity that binds us with the souls in purgatory and the saints in heaven, we can ask the martyrs of the Spanish Civil War to pray for us, and for reconciliation in Spain and in the world.
(1) James A. Michener, Iberia (New York: Random House, 1968), 140.
(2) Michener, Iberia, 140.
(3) Ibid., 141.
(4) Victor Gaetan, “Spanish Civil War: 75 Year Later,” National Catholic Register, July 24, 2011, http://www.ncregister.com/daily-news/spanish-civil-war-75-years-later/.