Home Morocco World News The Rif War: Spain Haunted by Its Inglorious Occupation of Morocco

The Rif War: Spain Haunted by Its Inglorious Occupation of Morocco

Spanish Dictator Franco starb. Spain

Long live the Spanish army

Who knows to regain

The Gurugu and other towns

knows how to punish the Moor

This accursed Moor

Who always deceives us

They will give him his punishment

For the sake of our country[1]

This poem, which was written almost 90 years ago, after the defeat of the Spanish army in the Battle of Annual on July 22, 1921, still resonates nowadays with the Spanish public, especially those affiliated with the conservative Popular party (PP). While some former colonial powers (the case of Italy with Libya) have presented their mea culpa and their official apology to the peoples of their former colonies for the abuses they perpetrated against them and the exploitation of their natural riches, the Spanish establishment still harbors some nostalgia for its notorious occupation of northern Morocco from 1912 to 1956, and southern Morocco from 1884 until 1975.

Not only has Spain never officially apologized to the Moroccan people- in spite of the studies that have shown the disastrous aftermath of its presence in Morocco and its use of toxic gas against the population of the Rif in the wake of the Battle of Annual- but some of their leaders, especially those belonging to the ruling PP, avail themselves of any opportunity to praise the bravery of their soldiers who fought against the Moroccans throughout the Spanish protectorate in Morocco.

Most Moroccans were shocked when they read in the news that the Spanish Minister of Interior, Jorge Diaz Fernandez, during a trip to the enclave of Melilla last week, expressed his admiration for Spanish soldiers who fought against the Moroccans during the Rif war between 1921 and 1926, especially during the Annual battle.

It suffices to read the way in which Spanish history books have always portrayed their relations with Morocco and their presence in the latter, to understand to what extent the gratitude expressed by the Spanish Minister represents how the mainstream of Spaniards think of this period of their history.

The most pervasive feature of the way Spanish literature depicted these relations is that Spaniards have never done any harm to Morocco, and that Moroccans are the ones who have always inflicted great pain on their northern neighbors. The most cited examples to support these claims are the crushing defeat of the Spanish army in the Battle of Annual in July 1921, as well as the participation of Moroccans in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939).

The Defeat of the Spanish army in the Annual Battle: All means are good to punish the “bloodthirsty” Moroccans

The surprising defeat suffered by the Spanish army in the Annual Battle caused great commotion in Spanish society. Since the early twentieth century, Spanish society never ceased to express its opposition to the militaristic policies pursued by its leaders in Morocco.

Despite all efforts exerted by the military to “sell” a good image of their work in their “private preserve”, the anti-militarism of Spanish society deprived them of the popular base and legitimacy they needed to carry out their territorial control in Morocco. In light of this opposition to the belligerent policies pursued by their military in Morocco, any misstep by the Spanish army in its protectorate could be met with disapproval by the public and lead, therefore, to the radicalization of anti-military sentiment in Spain. However, following the defeat at Annual and Jbel Arroui, and given the nature of the enemy that the Spanish soldiers were facing, the Spanish military was able to take advantage of the degraded image of Moroccans in Spain to try to fend-off the anti-militarism sentiment of public opinion and win its support and solidarity.

To this end, military officials, political parties and the conservative media, who supported the continuation of the war against el Moro, had the common goal of presenting to the public the alleged cruelty and treachery of Moroccans as the main cause of the tragedy which had just befallen their country.

To achieve this goal, the first step they had to take was to refresh the images of terror that had passed on from generation to generation about their southern neighbors, with the aim to finding a reason to justify the disaster experienced by their military in Morocco. The task of the military and opinion public shapers who were aware of the unenviable image of Moroccans in their country was easy. They knew in advance that their smear campaign against the latter would find a favorable echo in a society whose collective memory was conditioned by its country’s hostility toward Morocco.

To obtain the solidarity of the public, the propaganda machine of the Spanish military insisted on the alleged “savage” instinct of Moroccans, whom they portrayed as being greedy, bloodthirsty, imbued with the spirit of “treason”, “hypocrisy” and “cowardice”.

According to this disingenuous description, Moroccans tended to seize every opportunity to betray their “masters” and take them by surprise. To emphasize the alleged cowardice of Moroccans and their treachery, military propaganda insisted that Moroccans had a preference to surprise the Spaniards from behind.

As the high number of Spanish casualties became more widely recognized, Spanish public opinion grew convinced that the only fruits borne by the penetration of its country in Morocco was the massive death of its soldiers. The certainty that this country had become a Spanish cemetery grew stronger as the press, using photos taken on site, began to show openly what awaited Spaniards there. Even cartoons were used to show the tragedy that had just befallen Spain.

The common feature of these photos and cartoons was the fact that they associate Morocco with the death and the suffering of Spaniards. At no moment was the cruelty of the Spanish military vis-à-vis the local population in the Morocco questioned, nor was the humiliation and abuses they were subjected to.

This information circulating in Spain about the savagery of the Moroccans could not leave the Spanish society indifferent. On the contrary, it led it to change its attitude towards Spanish officials, to display a great sense of solidarity with their fellow soldiers and to put aside, at least temporarily, the quarrels of the past. Thus, if in the early twentieth century the public had shown anti-militaristic sentiments, the shockwave caused by the disaster of Annual pushed it to show its determination to avenge the lives of its fellow citizens.

The cruelty of Moroccans and the extent of human suffering they inflicted upon Spain were exaggerated by some writers who had never set foot in Morocco. These authors gave free rein to their imaginations to highlight the thirst for revenge of the Moroccans and their “savagery”.

These representations were mainly intended to touch the emotional fiber of public opinion, to awaken its patriotism and solidarity with its fellow citizens abused by the secular enemy of Spain. The indignation and consternation of the public could not be greater, since besides the fact that Moroccans decimated the Spanish army, they set out to mutilate and behead Spanish soldiers. These atrocities, which were relayed by the press, gave rise to a considerable production of poems and songs that emphasized the treachery of the Moroccans and their morbid inclination to desecrate Spanish corpses.

Being carried away by a strong sense of revenge, all components of Spanish society showed an unwavering support to the military, praised its bravery and gave it their moral support in the fight against the Moroccans. This support was so unwavering, that the methods used by Spanish soldiers (destruction of entire villages, scorched earth policies, abuses against Moroccans, whether combatants or civilians, and the use of toxic gas indiscriminately against the entire population in order to annihilate its resistance) were not challenged or criticized because the Spanish people wanted their soldiers to inflict due collective punishment on the Moroccans, and regardless of the means used to achieve that ignoble goal.

Worse still, the beheadings, mutilation of the ears and genitals of Moroccans, among other practices, became a common practice among the Spanish military, that went as far as offering the heads of their enemies as gifts. In this morbid atmosphere, it was not shocking to see images in which the military offered their fiancées or a member of their family the head or ears of a Moroccan.

For example, as highlighted by the historian Manuel Leguineche, the daily El Sol published in October 1921 a chronicle according to which a Spanish duchess received from the Spanish legionnaires a basket as a gift, in which there were the heads of two Moroccans:

“This morning the Duchess of Victoria received from the Legionnaires a basket of roses. In the center … two-heads were shining, the most beautiful among the two hundred captured yesterday”[2].

Samir Bennis is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Morocco World News


[1] Eloy Martín Corrales, La Imagen del magrebí en España, una perspectiva histórica, siglos XVI- XX, Barcelona, Bellaterra, 2002, page 135.

[2] Manuel Leguineche, Anual 1921, el desastre de España en el Rif, Madrid, Alfaguara, 1996, 126.

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