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Observations on Paracuellos

The attribution of responsibility for the executions to Santiago Carrillo was used to distract attention from a far bloodier and longer-lasting terror: that of Franco. By Fernando Hernández, José Luis Ledesma, Paul Preston and Ángel Viñas

An image from the exhumation of those killed at Paracuellos.
An image from the exhumation of those killed at Paracuellos.EFE

Among the numerous obituaries that have been appearing since the death of Santiago Carrillo, some still place emphasis on Paracuellos. Readers of this newspaper may be interested to know the results of our investigations, which enable us to cast doubt on the validity of the Franco regime's canon of history. They can be grouped under three headings: context; spark for action; responsibilities and supervision.

1. In early November of 1936 Franco's army had reached the outskirts of Madrid, sowing corpses all the way. His air force was dropping bombs on the city. In the jails there were hundreds of Army officers who had been imprisoned as fascists, and were prepared to join the rebels. Their liberation seemed imminent.

2. The spark that set off Paracuellos came from an agent of the Soviet security apparatus, the NKVD, who had arrived in Madrid six weeks earlier. The massive liquidation of enemies had been a common practice in the Russian civil war. In the extreme situation of Madrid, the NKVD did not hesitate to recommend the same practice. At the end of October 1936 the Soviet ambassador suggested that those among the prisoners who were prepared to serve the Republic should be utilized, as the Bolsheviks had previously done with such czarist officers who were prepared to join them.

3. The military attaché, colonel/general Goriev, cryptically informed Moscow of the work done by the NKVD in the siege of Madrid, and mentioned a name, that of "Alexander Orlov." This message was found by the researcher Frank Schauff in Moscow before 2004. There is a draft of it in the historical archive of the PCE (Spanish Communist Party) in the Complutense University. Of the various writers who keep the Franco regime's version of Paracuellos alive, we know of none who have bothered to consult this document. If they wished to do so now, however, they would come up against a door shut in their faces, for the page referring to the NKVD is now missing. A mischance. We have been told that when a Russian researcher sought to consult the dispatch in the archives in Moscow, the whole dossier had been declared inaccessible. Another mischance.

4. The NKVD'S recommendation was implemented by Pedro Fernández Checa, the PCE's organization secretary. The operative aspects were the work of communist and anarcho-syndicalist militants: the first under the General Security Directorate (DGS); the second, as they were in effective control of the unbesieged zones of the Madrid outskirts. Both groups collaborated in the liquidation of the presumed "fifth columnists" who, according to the boasts of General Mola, would rise for Franco within Madrid.

5. The first few sacas (literally, the taking out of prisoners) were discussed in one of the periodical meetings of the Madrid Defense Council. No one present could claim ignorance of what had happened. Given that General Miaja presided the meeting, it would be hard to exonerate him, or indeed anyone there, of responsibility. One person present, the councilor for public order, Santiago Carrillo, received instructions which were not written. Like other young socialists, he had applied for membership in the PCE. The sacas were stopped by the intervention of the anarchist Melchor Rodríguez, but resumed when he was overruled by the justice minister, the former CNT gunman García Oliver.

6. Supervision was in the hands not of the DGS, but of the most prominent Politburo member in Madrid: Fernández Checa. One policeman, Ramón Torrecilla Guijarro, later declared that he regularly informed the Organization on how each operation had gone. This is strictly in line with the Communist modus operandi. The organization secretary was, in various national Communist parties, the liaison with the Soviet intelligence services. In the Communist concept of struggle against reaction, the NKVD was to the party what the party was to the masses: its vanguard.

7. Fernández Checa was also head of a section consubstantial with any Leninist organization: the secret or illegal apparatus, made up of "special cadres" that were activated or not, depending on the context. One of the military advisors in Spain, Mansurov (alias "Xanti") recalled working with him in training such cadres. Some were trained in situ, such as Santiago Álvarez Santiago (present at the DGS Council meetings in November 1936, and one of those who collaborated with the delegates in the prisons in selecting prisoners for the firing squads) received instruction in the Leninist School in Moscow or in its political seminary. This was the case of Isidoro Diégez, leader of the Madrid Communist Party; Lucio Santiago (chief of the Rearguard Vigilance Militias, mobilized for the sacas; Andrés Urrésola (who carried out the shootings in Porlier); Agapito Escanilla (secretary of the Communists' Radio Oeste); and Torrecilla (a member of the DGS and liaison with the Politburo). The apparat had taken over the DGS well before November. All these men were hardened to the work of eliminating fascists.

8. The name and dual role of Fernández Checa have never, to our knowledge, appeared in any of the reams of text written about Paracuellos by pro-Franco writers. But his responsibility in the initiation and supervision of the operation is undeniable. The duality of chains of command never existed for those who carried out the orders: their loyalty was owed not to the Defense Council but only to the party, the conscious vanguard of the anti-fascist struggle. The operation was a Communist one, with anarchist auxiliaries.

9. Both from the viewpoint of Franco's apologists, and from that of later writers in search of mere notoriety, it was more "productive" to focus attention on Santiago Carrillo. Fernández Checa died in Mexico in 1940. Most of the men from the "special cadres" died before Franco's firing squads in Spain in 1941-42. None of these people were of much value as an anti-Republican propaganda weapon. The absolution granted to Miaja comes as something of a surprise. No doubt, there was not much propaganda value to be obtained by vilifying him. The same is not true of Carrillo, to the point that we must read even now a crude deformation of the references made to him by Félix Schlayer, Norwegian honorary consul and German subject, who published his memoirs during the regime of his teacher Goebbels.

It is also odd that mentions of Carrillo's name are more numerous in the later glosses and addenda to the Causa General (the Franco regime's general indictment of "crimes committed under Red domination") than in the documentation of the proceedings themselves. Carrillo did not even have a dossier of his own in the Causa General until his 1946 promotion to minister in Giral's government-in-exile.

Even a cursory look at the digital archive of the newspaper Abc will lead the reader to the conclusion that his name appears more and more often in connection with Paracuellos as the Franco regime approaches its end, and the transition to democracy looms on the horizon. A battle of the past was being waged in terms of the present.

10. The emphasis that is still being placed on Paracuellos fulfills two essential functions. In the first place, it serves to epitomize the "Red terror." Paracuellos appears as the norm of life in Republican Spain, instead of what it was: a dramatic exception which is still being portrayed as something for which the Republican government was directly responsible.

In the second place, it serves as an admirable smokescreen to conceal, or distract attention from the repression carried out by the Franco regime, which was far more bloody and lasted far longer. The mini-Paracuellos liquidations that happened in every town in Spain where the rightwing rising prevailed, do not count. Their memory is to be obliterated with smoke and incense.

It is sad to read, particularly in this newspaper, how the skeletons in this country's closet keep cropping up -- in highway ditches, in pits outside the cemeteries, sometimes in excavations for suburban developments. The "pits of oblivion," they have rightly been called.

In this oblivion to which a tragic chapter of our past has been consigned, Spain is a unique case in western Europe, and a really shameful one. Paracuellos has become the magic word that serves to obscure a far more brutal terror.

Fernando Hernández Sánchez, José Luis Ledesma, Paul Preston and Ángel Viñas are contributors to the book En el combate por la historia (Published by Pasado y presente, 2012).

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