Moroccans On Both Sides In Spain’s Civil War

TALIM blog Caitlyn Olson
The author on a research trip near Al-Hoceima in the Rif Mountains

Caitlyn Olson, writing the guest post below, tells of her 2010 Fulbright fellowhip in Tetouan (near Tangier), and meeting a young Spanish artist also working in the city. “I requested some feedback on the project abstract I’d translated to Spanish. It provided background on my Fulbright topic (Moroccan soldiers in the Spanish Civil War) and described the particular angle of my research, i.e. the religious rhetoric used by the Spanish to recruit these soldiers.”

Caitlyn’s artist friend opined that Spain and Morocco still need to pry open their recent history, and that foreigners were well suited to the task. “Most Spanish people don’t want to talk about the Civil War at all,” she said, “and those that do typically fall into polarizing categories of liberal and conservative. Foreign historians can act as a more neutral push toward confrontation with the past and hopefully toward reconciliation with it.”

What follows is TALIMblog's first guest post, by Caitlyn Olson.

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We are in the early 1930s. Tensions in Spain, between urban cosmopolitanism and rural tradition, between secular and religious, between central and periphery, between authoritarian and liberal political beliefs. 1931, elections ring in the Second Republic (the first having been in 1873-4). The government is center-left, a hodge-podge of mainly communists, socialists and anarchists. It struggles to get reform off the ground.

The conservative sectors of society and especially the military grow restive. This latter stages a coup in July of 1936, launched in large part from the Spanish Protectorate in northern Morocco, a military stronghold. Leaders of the Moroccan nationalist movement (Note: nationalist with a small “n” – not to be confused with Franco’s Spanish Nationalists) had tried to warn the Spanish Republican government of the imminent rebellion but without response. Despite their surprise attack, it did not proceed as quickly as the self-designated “Nationalists” (broadly: conservative, pro-Church, pro-monarchy) anticipated. They turn for backup to the Army of Africa.

A fighting force of Spanish colonial officers and Moroccan soldiers, the Army of Africa was initially created to subdue the defiant Rifian tribes in the first decade or so following the Protectorate’s establishment in 1912. Its experience and professionalism is now turned on the Republicans. Over the next three years, more than 70,000 Moroccan troops do battle in Spain. They enlist primarily out of economic desperation, although their involvement is made noble by Nationalist-led propaganda describing them as monotheistic brothers-in-arms, united with their Spanish brethren against the threat of Soviet atheistic communism.

The Nationalists, with Generalissimo Francisco Franco at their head, declare victory on April 1, 1939. Historians today specializing in the Protectorate consider the role of the Moroccan soldiers to have been decisive in this triumph.

Franco’s repressive rule continues until his death in 1975. One of the legacies he bestows on the constitutional monarchy that succeeds him is the difficulty of dealing with history and memory of the Civil War and dictatorship. Essentially, the new government decides not to confront it; in exchange for the cooperation of the Francoist elite, it agrees to a “pact of silence,” in which perpetrators of crimes receive total amnesty. The pact remains very much in effect today.

On a personal as well as a political level, confrontation with this history is problematic. My artist friend told me that it was taboo to speak of the Civil War in her home, and that her father became a stone wall at any mention of it.

My friend briefed me that stereotypes about the Moroccan soldiers in Franco’s army are still rampant in Spain. The Republicans demonized them during the war – they even show up as boogey men in a lullaby or two – and she reports that many Spanish today will readily tell you how the Moroccans raped and pillaged their way through the country.

My work in Morocco wasn’t to apologize for those soldiers. Certainly some of them engaged in horrific acts. But we have to view them in a larger context – of that particular war, of the prior colonizing wars in Morocco, of colonization itself, of Moroccan poverty, of forced recruitment, of propaganda. So many issues become forgotten when we don’t examine history. The sheer intertwining of these two countries falls out of consciousness.

Memory matters: that we remember, but also, importantly, what we remember and how we remember it.

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Caitlyn Olson’s research focuses primarily on Moroccan involvement on Franco’s side. But in Morocco’s glossy new historical monthly Zamane, the March issue carries an article by Adnan Sebti “Moroccans Against Franco.” Illustrated with rare photographs showing Moroccans in the International Brigades, Sebti tells the stories of the smaller number of Moroccans, often from the ranks of nationalists fighting Spanish and French occupation, who joined the Republican side.

1 thought on “Moroccans On Both Sides In Spain’s Civil War”

  1. Hello Ms Olson. In February and March 2011 I was in Tetouan as part of my PhD research into the same topic. I was told then at the Tetouan library about an american lady that was doing research on the Moors of the Spanish Civil War. I wonder whether you managed to have a look into the archives. These were inaccessible I was told since they were not cataloged. I still managed, somewhat unorthodoxedly to have a peek into some of the documents there but on a random basis.
    Have you managed to interview any surviving veterans in Al Hoceima? I did so in some other cities but I have not been to Al Hoceima. Have you published anything on this subject yet?

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