During the turbulent years of the Spanish Civil War, between 1936 and 1939, the Nationalists saw the conflict as a kind of crusade against all those who plotted to destroy the Church. Thus it was that the reports of the atrocities committed by the Republicans against priests, nuns and sacred buildings, led many European Catholics to mobilize in favor of the soldiers of Francisco Franco.
In the United Kingdom, Catholic supporters of the Nationalists were numerous (only Graham Greene and a few others were exceptions). The British government itself, although officially neutral, secretly sided with the Nationalists, eager to stem the Communist threat at all costs.
Among the most active “papist” polemicists in support of Franco’s cause was the journalist Douglas Francis Jerrold, a supporter of Italian fascism. Jerrold had been personally involved in the plans leading up to the events of July 1936, when two British intelligence agents, friend Hugh Pollard and Captain Cecil Bebb, flew Franco from the Canary Islands to Morocco, so as to set in motion the coup d’etat. In the autobiography Georgian Adventure (1938), Jerrold recounts the enterprise with the gusto of a daredevil young man, plus the added zest of numerous and amusing anecdotes. The indefatigable journalist, who wrote dozens of articles on the events in Spain, was a lover of invectives. He once wrote that the volunteers who went to fight for the Republicans were supporting a repugnant cause, not only for the consciences of all Catholics in the Empire, but also for the majority of English Christians of any denomination.
Such ideas were shared by Charles Petrie, Arnold Lunn, Father Francis Woodlock SJ, Bernard Wall, Michael de la Bédoyère and many other Catholic intellectuals. Moreover, it should not be forgotten that sympathy for Mediterranean fascisms was very widespread among the British “papist” circles of the 1930s (Nazism, by contrast, was despised for its manifest neo-paganism). Beyond the hatred for communism and secularism, support for the Spanish and Italian regimes was also motivated by anti-capitalism promoted by, among others, by Hilaire Belloc and G. K. Chesterton. The future sister-in-law of Evelyn Waugh, Miss Gabriel Herbert, for her part represented the enthusiasm for Franco’s crusade that infected many young people of the time: she left for Spain and lent her help to the Nationalists who worked as ambulance staff (like Cordelia of Brideshead Revisited). Even the Labor Party, which had many members among Catholic immigrant workers from Ireland, regarded Republicans with suspicion.
The “Friends of National Spain” committee, founded at the outbreak of the conflict and almost exclusively religious in nature, flourished even in Scotland thanks to the efforts of General Walter Maxwell-Scott and Colonel Rupert Dawson. Throughout the course of the war, this association never stopped expressing its closeness to the Spanish confraternity which was suffering prolonged martyrdom due to tyranny, anarchy and communism. Also according to the intentions of the committee, the enemies were of necessity eliminated to ensure the triumph of unity, order, freedom and religion.
The Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, Arthur Hinsley, wanted to form another organization to provide humanitarian aid to the Nationalists. On the board, among others, were Lord Fitzalan of Derwent and Lord Howard of Penrith. There was also Evelyn Waugh, although his enthusiasm for Franco was rather limited (the partiality he had shown towards Mussolini had already alienated the sympathies of many of his writers who were friends of his; it was useless, therefore, to go too far).
The other English bishops also did not fail to do their part. At the outbreak of the Civil War they had addressed a heartfelt letter of support to the Spanish hierarchy, and in the following years they continued to do their utmost to help the victims. Even George Orwell – who volunteered on the Republican side and then returned home defeated and disillusioned – was forced to admit that the British Catholic Church was united in its sympathies for Franco.
Finally, thanks to the efforts of the Spanish soldiers and international aid, the fight against the Republicans was successful. In that terrible year of 1939, however, the troubles for Europe were only just beginning …
Sources: R. GRIFFITHS, Fellow Travellers of the Right, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1983; R. GRIFFITHS, The Pen and the Cross, Continuum, London, 2010; J. PEARCE, Catholic Literary Giants, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2014; J. PEARCE, Literary Converts, Harper Collins, London, 2000.