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My Father Fled Fascism in Spain—and Taught Me How Lies Can Destroy a Democracy

10 minute read
Junger is the author of the new book Freedom. He is also the author of Tribe, War, A Death in Belmont, Fire, and The Perfect Storm, and co-director of the documentary film Restrepo, which was nominated for an Academy Award.

The truth can’t destroy a democracy but lies can. At age thirteen my father was awoken by machine gun fire in the streets of Madrid. It was 1936, and a coalition of progressive groups had just swept the national elections, infuriating the Spanish right-wing. Soldiers in the Montana barracks, under Colonel Francisco Serra, begun trading fire with pro-government civilians that had massed in the surrounding streets. Holed up with the insurrectionists were civilian fascists called Falangists as well as a general who falsely claimed the national election had been stolen. (“The rebellion? We planned it the day we lost the election,” another fascist leader later admitted to the American consul in Madrid.) Once that lie was accepted, everything else in Spain—life, death, truth, reality itself—seemed to be up for grabs.

Even longtime democracies like America are vulnerable to fascist takeovers because fascists tend to threaten civil war when they lose elections, and democracies will do almost anything to avoid civil war. Fascists rely on a tight coterie of corrupt loyalists to take over the government and impose control. Fascists promote a mythology of both victimhood and invincibility to justify their excesses. Fascists demonize their enemies, arrest or kill their critics, glorify their supporters and often use religious figures to legitimize their power. Groups such as Al Qaeda and the Islamic State are just as fascistic as dictators like Josef Stalin, Adolf Hitler and Augusto Pinochet. Despite the fascist obsession with power and control, such regimes rarely last long. “Dictators look good until their last five minutes,” Czech president Tomas Masyrk observed during the build-up to World War Two.

The rise of fascism in Spain followed a classic trajectory that can serve as a blueprint for how to destroy a democracy. After the liberal victory in 1936, an army officer named Francisco Franco declared himself to be the only person who could save the country from dishonor and ruin. He announced a “national campaign in defense of Western Civilization and against Communist barbarism”—a broad array of enemies that included Jews and Freemasons. In a dizzying inversion, Francoist courts found that it was the liberal government, not the insurrectionists, who had betrayed Spain, and that supporting the government was illegal. The penalty for such treason, of course, was death.

Miguel Chapiro Junger in Truro, Mass., circa 1972.
Miguel Chapiro Junger in Truro, Mass., circa 1972.Ellen Junger

My father’s name was Miguel Chapiro Junger. His mother was an Austrian socialite from Salzburg and his father was a left-wing journalist of Jewish ancestry. (Though Franco was rumored to be Jewish, his willingness to do business with Hitler apparently put him beyond recrimination by his fellow fascists.) It was widely assumed that if Germany won the war, they would invade Spain and round up all the Jews. Shortly after the attack on the Montana barracks, my father’s family tied a horsehair mattress to the roof of their car to protect themselves from shrapnel and fled to France.

Whenever I asked my father why they left Spain, he simply said, “Because of the fascists.” He always spat out the word as if he didn’t want it in his mouth any longer than necessary. According to him, fascists don’t want freedom, they want power. They don’t want knowledge, they want faith. They don’t want loyalty, they want obedience. They are the exact opposite of everything that is good and noble about America, which was the country that eventually took my father in and gave him a home, a family and a career.

Things unraveled quickly after my father escaped. A lighting offensive by fascist rebels in the south failed to reach Madrid in time, and the Montana barracks was overrun by troops loyal to the elected government. Most of the insurrectionists were lined up and machine gunned, though one group of right-wing officers managed to retreat to a back room and ceremonially shoot themselves while seated around a table. But almost everywhere else, Franco’s forces proved hard to stop. Combat troops stationed in Morocco were airlifted back to the mainland in transport planes provided by Hitler and Mussolini, and they quickly routed loyalist troops and rural militias armed with shotguns and farm implements.

Republican troops standing in the recently seized Montana Barracks in Madrid, on July 19, 1936.
Republican troops standing in the recently seized Montana Barracks in Madrid, on July 19, 1936.ullstein bild/Getty Images

And in an odd historical twist, special units of Rif tribesmen from Morocco were unleashed on Andalucia and told to rape, plunder and kill as much as they pleased. Almost 500 years after the expulsion of the Moors from Spain, Franco managed to arrange for a reconquista of his own country by an estimated 60,000 Moroccan irregulars who were so feared, civilians sometimes committed suicide rather than face them.

Regular Spanish units that joined Franco’s army were little better. Traumatized by a decades-long war in Morocco—they once lost 8,000 men in a single battle—combat veterans saw themselves as the last bastion of Spanish honor, which made them feel entitled to decide what kind of country Spain would become. In their eyes, the leftwing Popular Front could be slaughtered with impunity because they had rejected both the Catholic church and the feudal hierarchy that had long dominated Spain. In fact, the Popular Front had won the election handily, and their platform was consistent with broad economic reforms that were sweeping the world after a global depression. Among other things they sought the emancipation of women and the right to civil divorce; land reform; wage increases; and the separation of Church and State.

“Because the election results represented an unequivocal statement of the popular will, they were taken by many on the right as proving the futility of legalism,” writes historian Paul Preston. “The destruction of the republic by armed violence was justified by the claim that it was illegitimate, based on electoral falsification, and that its political leaders were thieving parasites who had brought only anarchy and crime.”

General Francisco Franco swearing allegiance to Spain in Oct. 1936.
General Francisco Franco swearing allegiance to Spain in Oct. 1936.Mondadori/Getty Images

But Franco’s coalition was unstoppable. It was comprised of some of the most powerful sectors of society and enjoyed the loyalty of most of the army and police. Industrialists and large landowners were terrified of economic reforms and allied themselves with Franco because they thought—correctly—that he would keep Spain in its semi-feudal state. (Wealthy people saw themselves as so far above the law, in fact, that during the first days of the insurrection, a landowner outside Salamanca lined up the workers of his estate and shot six of them just to make sure they knew their place.) The Catholic Church was also deeply threatened by the secular goals of the Popular Front and offered a kind of blanket dispensation for the use of violence in exchange for maintaining their moral monopoly over society. And regular frontline soldiers were so contemptuous of civilians that many rejected the very idea of an elected government. “Those who don’t wear uniforms should wear skirts,” they were fond of declaring.

Once your opponent has been classified as not just wrong but evil, a kind of moral inversion occurs where the worse you act, the more noble you are. An American journalist in Badajoz named Jay Allen saw 1,800 men herded into a bullring and machinegunned at dawn. South of Madrid, twenty pregnant women were taken from a maternity ward, driven to a cemetery and shot. In Toledo, an American journalist named John Whitaker watched a pair of belt-fed machine guns dispatch 600 men in minutes. He also saw two teenage girls pushed into a schoolhouse where 40 Moroccan troops awaited them. “Oh, they’ll not live more than four hours,” the commander assured Whitaker as the troops began ululating in excitement.

Nationalist troops advance through the debris of houses wrecked in air raids in Madrid, on April 2, 1937.
Nationalist troops advance through the debris of houses wrecked in air raids in Madrid, on April 2, 1937.Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Rather than make the clergy rethink its commitment to the fascist cause, the carnage just seemed to confirm their view that civilization itself was under threat. If it weren’t, why were so many people dying? In Navarre, a Capuchin monk delivered a mass confession to a crowd of men standing in their own grave. In the Sierra Guadarrama, a Jesuit priest personally led an infantry charge while waving a crucifix. In Murchante, a deputy parish priest carried a pistol so that he could dispatch the wounded at mass executions. The wife of a falangist officer in Talavera had a similar predilection, though she also shouted “Viva Franco” as she fired.

If local priests had any reservations about the bloodlust they had sanctified, higher authorities provided guidance. German bishops issued a collective pastoral applauding Hitler’s support of Franco, and the Vatican sent an Apostolic Delegate to Spain that was soon reciprocated with a fascist ambassador to the Holy See. Once the purity of the fascist endeavor was established, a kind death cult seemed to take hold. Fascist infantry charged machineguns screaming, “Viva la muerte”— Long live death! People gathered every morning in towns across Spain to enjoy the executions and see if the condemned would cry or beg or soil themselves. A union card could get you killed, or a misidentification, or nothing at all. Some Falangists liked to kill people on their saint’s day, regardless of their politics, just to inspire terror and obedience.

There were massacres on the government side, to be sure, but they were stopped within months and did not represent government policy. Almost one percent of the Spanish population was executed for their political beliefs during the civil war and afterward. Throughout this horror, my father was safely ensconced in Paris, learning French and making his way through the French school system. The German Army invaded the Netherlands on May 10, 1940 and was standing on French soil within days. My father escaped Paris a few days before the German army entered the city and relocated to Biarritz, where he saw advance units of the German army patrolling the streets. When a German officer standing at the front of a tank column asked how to get to the city center, my father pointed the wrong way and said in German, “That direction.”

Cadets from the Francoist army swearing allegiance in the Alcazar in Toledo, Spain, after it was destroyed by bombing, in 1937.
Cadets from the Francoist army swearing allegiance in the Alcazar in Toledo, Spain, after it was destroyed by bombing, in 1937.De Agostini/Getty Images

By then the Spanish civil war was over, and Franco had won. In order to escape the Nazis, my father’s family had to exchange their old Republican passports for new Nationalist ones, which they managed to do at the Spanish consulate in Bayonne. By the time they drove across the border into Spain, the German swastika had already replaced the French tricolore. Eventually my father, now aged 18, boarded a Portuguese freighter named the Sao Tome bound for Baltimore with a hold full of cork. Several weeks later, the Sao Tome steamed into Chesapeake Bay and my father stepped shore onto American soil.

My father had come to America because he knew fascism never would. He tried to join the U.S. Navy but was turned down because of his asthma; instead, he did technical work on jet engines and submarine propellors. Much later he would work on the Apollo space program. The U.S. is not always on the right side of history—we supported Franco and ignored Hitler for far too long—but eventually, we sent hundreds of thousands of men overseas to defeat fascism. After the war my father never went home; he married an American woman and spent the rest of his life in this country.

The first time that fascistically minded people tried to attack the U.S. Capitol, on September 11, a few brave souls forced their own plane down into a Pennsylvania field. The second time, on January 6, more brave souls stood firm in the building’s marble hallways and saved our government yet again. We are blessed with an abundance of courage in this country, it seems. Over and over, people risk their lives for the rights of others. That may be the ultimate reason my father never left.

May that always be true.

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