Franco’s Recruitment of Moroccans in Spanish Civil War: the Forgotten Injustice (Part I)
By Samir Bennis
Morocco World News
New York, July 9, 2012
By the early twenties, after the emotion that the Annual War created in the Spanish people, the Spanish military found themselves in an uncomfortable position vis-à-vis public opinion. This situation was particularly delicate, given that since the early twentieth century, Spanish public opinion had begun to show its adamant opposition to sending troops to Morocco, already regarded by many as a cemetery.
From that time, with the aim of sparing the lives of their nationals and calming the discontent of the public, the Spanish military, like other colonial powers, would gradually establish a native army under Spanish command. The latter would play a crucial role both in stifling the Moroccan resistance and later in intimidating supporters of the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War.
It is worth recalling that prior to their participation in the Civil War, Moroccans were involved, two years earlier, in the crushing of the uprising of Asturias.
Those who were known as los militares interventores (military commissioners), played a leading role in the recruitment of Moroccans. To succeed in attracting more recruits, the military commissioners made use of force and pressure to force young Moroccan men to take up arms to join the regular forces.
Moreover, the Spanish military officials counted on the complicity of caides and tribal leaders to achieve this objective. If at first this policy was met with the refusal of a majority of Moroccans, who showed no interest in heeding the call of the Spanish leaders, recruitment increased considerably in the early 1930s, and then even more after the start of the Spanish Civil War. During Spain’s three-year long fratricide, Franco’s authorities found themselves obliged to enlarge the number of soldiers in their ranks to overcome Republican resistance. Two factors played in favor of Franco in enlisting more Moroccans.
First, the repression exerted against recalcitrant Moroccans caused many of them to bow to the will of the Spanish Caudillo, especially since a secret directive of General Mola regarding the military uprising stipulated that anyone, whether Spanish or Moroccan, opposed to or suspected of being opposed to the uprising, would be shot immediately. In the same vein, the Spanish soldiers proceeded to the imprisonment of many Moroccan nationalists, tribal leaders and religious leaders accused of being opposed to the repressive policies of Franco, who was the military governor of Spain’s Moroccan territories.
Secondly, was the more crucial factor of the extreme poverty of much of the population of the Rif that caused the accession of Moroccans to fight for Franco. As was the case in other regions and other poor countries, economic factors forced many Moroccans to join Franco’s ranks. This was all the more so since the region of northern Morocco was devoid of any economic infrastructure capable of meeting the needs of the local population and reduce its dependence on traditional agriculture, which relied on the whims and mercy of climatic fluctuations.
Indeed, the two years preceding the war, along with the first year of the conflict were marked by worsening drought and poor agricultural harvests in the Rif region. This circumstance caused the impoverishment of thousands of Moroccan families in the north. To find a livelihood and put an end to their suffering, the latter were forced to join the regular army, considering this choice as a lesser of evils.
In the words of María Rosa de Madariaga in his book Los Moros que Trajo Franco: la intervención de las tropas colonial la guerra civil española, “it is not surprising that hundreds of Moroccans rushed in the first few weeks to join Franco’s army to escape poverty.”
Despite these factors, some of the colonial resistors, who had fought beside Mohammed Ben Abdelkrim El Khattabi against Spanish rule, refused to join the rebel army. This attitude was strongly suppressed by caides supportive of Franco’s “cause”. These caides ( heads of tribes who were loyalists to the Spanish Adminstration)used expeditious and brutal methods to tame these Moroccans and force them to sign the “loyalty” document.
Furthermore, mindful of the illiteracy and ignorance of the majority of Moroccans living in the Rif, Franco’s officials promoted an “alliance” against nature with their “protected” in order to obtain greater support from them to their cause. To exacerbate the hatred of the people of the Rif towards the Republicans, they emphasized the “brotherhood” between the people of Morocco and the Spanish people while accusing their opponents of being “godless,” “atheists”, and “enemies “of civilization.
In some cases, the military nationalists used false promises to win the sympathy of young Moroccans. For example, they made many fighters believe that they should go to Spain for a limited time to suppress, as in 1934, an insurrection and that once their task was accomplished, they would be given land as a reward in the cities of Andalusia, Murcia and Valencia. In the majority of cases, Moroccan fighters were taken against their will, torn from their homes and their families and then sent to the battlefields, where they were used as canon fodder.
Despite these two main factors that favored the recruitment of a greater number of soldiers, and despite the false promises and the harsh methods employed by the military to kill in the bud any opposition to their policies and force the Riffains to join their ranks, the grumbling and discontent of Moroccans were spreading throughout the Protectorate and were felt gradually as the families of the soldiers realized that the war would be long. In response to the increasing discontent among Moroccan tribes, Franco’s authorities proceeded to make many arrests, repression and collective punishment of the insurgents.
This attitude of Franco’s authorities in a territory that had always been hostile to them, did nothing but alienate a population that had not forgotten past repression and abuses. The repressive methods used by the Nationalists and their silence regarding the fate of soldiers that went to Spain led to an upsurge in unrest, especially since the families of the Moroccans involved in the war were still without news of their relatives.
The duration of the war, the failure of Franco to fulfill his fallacious promises, the repression and intimidation its forces exerted against those who protested Spanish polices, in addition to the effort made by some followers of Abdelkrim El Khattabi to oppose recruitment, finally put end to the initial enthusiasm for the war. It started to fuel trouble in the Moroccan territories controlled by rebels, and an increase in incidents and demonstrations against Franco authorities.
Moreover, many desertions occurred among the fighters who were preparing to leave for Spain. To avoid being exposed to Franco reprisals, most of them fled to the French zone.
The discontent of the Moroccans would be amplified by the deteriorating economic situation of the Rif, which was felt during the three years of war, affecting the entire population. This economic deterioration resulted from two main factors.
On the one hand, scarcity of basic foodstuffs led to higher prices that the majority of the poor population could not afford. Moreover, since the recruitment of soldiers drew men who were between 16 and 50 years old, and most families in northern Morocco lived mainly from agriculture, their arable lands became increasingly deserted due to the lack of men to work them. This lack of hands led to more impoverishment of much of the population of the region. It should be noted that the number of Moroccans sent to the front in Spain reached 10% of a population estimated at 750,000 inhabitants. Most of those sent to the front never returned home.
Given the difficulties experienced by Franco’s authorities to mobilize new recruits, they proceeded to recruit from the Ifni area in southern Morocco, which was occupied by Spain in 1934. Spanish militaries managed to attract 9,000 fighters, most of whom were from the Rif and had been sent previously to the Ifni area by force.
Moreover, the Franco authorities even sought to recruit Moroccans from the French zone. Indeed, despite efforts made by the French authorities and disincentives they took to prevent this recruitment, the Spanish military, with the help of their recruiters living in the area, in addition to the poor economic situation of most people from the poorest regions of southern Morocco, managed to deceive French vigilance and recruit a considerable number of combatants in the French zone..?In particular, Spanish nationalists drew from Moroccans from the region of Marrakech and the neighboring region of Ifni.
Given the exasperation expressed by the Riffians against the duration of the war and the deteriorating economic situation, Franco’s authorities would seek to appease the population and to reassure it by donating money and distributing basic foodstuffs.
Te be continued…
Samir Bennis is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Morocco World News