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Pius XI and the Rise of General Franco
Roman Catholic Popes series by William P. Meyers

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Pope Pius XI was born on May 31, 1857 in Desio, Italy as Ambrogio Damiano Achille Ratti. He became Pope of the Roman Catholic Church on February 6, 1922 and died February 10, 1939. His reign as Pope coincided with the rise of fascism in Europe. This essay examines the relationship between the rise of fascism in Spain and the Vatican.

By the time the Spanish Civil War was launched by fascist elements in Spain's military on June 16, 1936, fascism, with the Catholic Church as the state's preferred religion, was well-established in Europe. Italy, Germany, Austria and Poland had such regimes, and fascists were strong and influential in France and Czechoslovakia. Even the United States and Great Britain had significant fascist organizations in place.

Spain, though a Catholic nation by tradition, had rebelled against the Catholic Church repeatedly beginning in the 19th century. Rather than taking a Protestant Christian turn, this rebellion was largely secular. In turns during this period control of the government swayed back and forth between Catholic monarchs and dictators and largely non-Catholic republican and democratic institutions. In the mid-1930's Spain's government was an elected Democratic Republic. The right-wing parties in Spain were not popular enough to win much representation in the parliament (Cortes). In addition to parties that we we describe as mainstream democratic, socialists (of the democratic variety) had done well in the elections. There was a minor (at that time) communist presence in Spain. Outside of electoral politics there was a very large anarchist movement, with anarcho-syndicalists predominant, who did not want a central government in Madrid at all. Though there were regions where the Catholic Church was popular, less than 5 % of the overall population attended Mass regularly.

Spain was viewed as a key prize by the Catholic Church, including Pius XI. Working to restore Spain to Catholic control was not a new thing. On June 3, 1933, for instance, Pius XI issued a papal encyclical inviting Spanish Catholics to join "a holy crusade for the integral restoration of the Church's right." Bishops called open revolt against the government [Manhattan p. 91]. The Church also engaged in electoral politics through Accion Catolica, or Catholic Action. Gil Robles was the main Catholic, proto-fascist political leader at first. He visited Adolf Hitler and envisioned a unified, exclusively Catholic state in Europe with economics on the model of Italy and Pius XI's Quadragesimo Anno.

Francisco Franco was a very conservative Catholic general who controlled the army in Morocco (then a Spanish colony) that included many native Moroccan soldiers, usually called Moors. The Catholics, by threatening to revolt, obtained cabinet posts in the government. Gil Robles became Minister of War and made Franco his chief subordinate. In the general elections of 1936 the Catholic hierarchy of course pushed Catholic Action, but the center-left won 329 seats against 132 for right wing, mostly Catholic parties. By this time the main Catholic, openly fascist political organization was the Falange. The entire Catholic Youth Organization joined the Falange. General Franco's brother in law, Serrano Suner, was the Catholic Youth secretary, and most of Robles followers also joined. The Falange employed the successful tactics of the Italian fascists and Nazis: physical violence. However, the Republicans fought back. [Manhattan p. 92-94]

The Army chiefs, including Francisco Franco, had their own plans. Their representatives had met the Italian Government. They were confident of their position. Pius XI and his Secretary of State Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli (later Pius XII) were in communication with the rebels and were informed of the revolt months before it took place [Manhattan p. 97]. When the revolt was launched by Franco in Morocco on July 16, 1936, General Franco arranged for a message to that effect to the Pope [p. 95].

When the people of Spain resisted the fascist takeover, Pius XI spoke out strongly, calling everyone who was not a fascist a Bolshevik, and blessing "all those who have taken the difficult and dangerous task to defend and reinstate the honor of God and Religion." [Manhattan p. 97] Urged by Cardinal Pacelli, German bishops issued a pastoral letter praying that "Chancellor Hitler could succeed with the help of God to solve this terrible issue [Spain] with firmness and with the most faithful cooperation of all citizens." . Another German pastoral (january 3, 1937) said "The German Bishops think it their duty to support the Reichschancellor in this war of defense." [p. 98] Hitler sent bombers, tanks and soldiers to Spain to aid the Catholic side in the civil war. So did Benito Mussolini. Franco's banner was raised over the Vatican [p. 99].

In France, Great Britain, and the United States, the Catholic Church and its political operatives worked hard to prevent military or economic aid from being sent to the Republic. It should be recalled that President Franklin Roosevelt, as leader of the Democratic Party, was very dependent on the Catholic vote in the United States of America for his being in power.

Pius XI died on February 10, 1939, just before the final victory of General Franco, now the supreme leader and dictator, in the Spanish Civil War. Cardinal Pacelli became pope as Pius XII. He congratulated Franco: "With great joy we address you, dearest sons of Catholic Spain, to express our paternal congratulations for the gift of peace and victory, with which God has chosen to crown the Christian heroism of your faith and charity ... As a pledge of the bountiful grace which you will receive from the Immaculate Virgin and the Apostle james, patrons of Spain ... we give to you, our dear sons of Catholic Spain, to the Head of State and his illustrious Government, to the zealous Episcopate and its self-denying clergy, to the heroic combatants and to all the faithful, our apostolic benediction."

The Holocaust, in its most general sense, began in Spain. During the Civil War people were murdered by Franco's troops simply for not being Catholic. After Franco's victory priests made lists of citizens who did not attend mass. They were rounded up for questioning and, often, execution. Hitler's concentration camps, after 1939, evolved into Spanish-style death camps that liquidated not only Communists, but the Catholic Church's ancient enemies, the Jews.

See also:

Pius XI and the Rise of Benito Mussolini
Pius XI and the Rise of Adolf Hitler
Pius XI and the Rise of Philippe Petain
General Francisco Franco and Fascism in Spain
Spanish Beatified Priests, Nuns, and the Nazi Luftwaffe

Further reading:

The Vatican in World Politics by Avro Manhattan, published in the U.S. by Gaer Associates, 1949.