New York – "Long live the Spanish army Who knows to regain The Gurugu and other towns know how to punish the Moor.This accursed Moor Who always deceives us. They will give him his punishment For the sake of our country."
New York – “Long live the Spanish army Who knows to regain The Gurugu and other towns know how to punish the Moor.This accursed Moor Who always deceives us. They will give him his punishment For the sake of our country.”
This poem, written almost 90 years ago after the defeat of the Spanish army in the Battle of Annual on July 22, 1921 (the Rif War), still resonates today with the Spanish public, especially those affiliated with the conservative Popular Party (PP).
Some former colonial powers have presented their mea culpa and official apology to the peoples of their former colonies for the abuses they perpetrated against them and the exploitation of their natural riches. This is the case of Italy with Libya. However, 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.
Spain has never officially apologized to the Moroccan people — in spite of studies showing 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 during the Rif War. Some Spanish leaders, especially those belonging to the ruling PP, go so far as to avail themselves of any opportunity to praise the bravery of their soldiers who fought against Moroccans throughout the Spanish protectorate.
Spanish Minister of Interior Jorge Diaz Fernandez expressed his admiration for Spanish soldiers who fought against Moroccans during a trip to the enclave of Melilla last week. He referenced Spain’s military strength during the Rif war, between 1921 and 1926, especially during the Battle of Annual. Most Moroccans were shocked to read this news.
How Spain depicts historical relations with Morocco
Studying how Spanish history books portray the country’s relations with and presence in Morocco is telling. It reveals to what extent the gratitude Fernandez expressed represents how the mainstream of Spaniards think of this period of their history.
The most pervasive feature of the way Spanish literature depicts these relations is the notion that Spaniards have never harmed Morocco. Another suggests it is Moroccans that have long inflicted great pain on their neighbors across the Strait of Gibraltar.
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 Battle of Annual
The surprising defeat the Spanish army suffered in the Battle of Annual caused great commotion in Spanish society. Since the early 20th century, Spanish society has never ceased to express its opposition to the militaristic policies pursued by its leaders in Morocco.
The military exerted great efforts to “sell” a good image of their work in their “private preserve.” However, 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 Spain’s military pursued in Morocco, the public met any misstep by the Spanish army in its protectorate with disapproval. This led to the radicalization of anti-military sentiment in Spain.
However, following the defeat at Annual and Jbel Arroui during the Rif War, and given the nature of the enemy that the Spanish soldiers were facing, the Spanish military had an opportunity to oppose this sentiment. It was able to take advantage of the degraded image of Moroccans in Spain to try to fend off the anti-military sentiment of public opinion and win its support and solidarity.
Spain’s military and media: All means are good to punish the ‘bloodthirsty’ Moroccans
To this end, military officials, political parties, and the conservative media, who supported the continuation of the Rif war against el Moro, had a common goal. They aimed to present to the public the alleged cruelty and treachery of Moroccans as the main cause of the tragedy which had just befallen their country.
The first step they took to achieve this goal was to refresh images of terror, which had passed on from generation to generation, about their southern neighbors. They aimed to justify the disaster their military experienced 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 Moroccans 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. They portrayed Moroccans as greedy, bloodthirsty, and 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 preferred to surprise the Spaniards from behind.
Propaganda flips Spaniards’ sentiments toward Moroccans
The public began to widely recognize the high number of Spanish casualties. Spanish public opinion then grew convinced that the only fruit of Spain’s penetration in Morocco was the massive death of its soldiers.
The certainty that Morocco had become a Spanish cemetery grew stronger. The press, using photos taken on site, began to show openly what awaited Spaniards there. Spanish propagandists even used cartoons 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 did this narrative question the cruelty of the Spanish military vis-a-vis the local population in Morocco. It also did not question the humiliation and abuses to which Spanish occupiers subjected Moroccans.
This information circulating in Spain about the “savagery” of the Moroccans could not leave the Spanish society indifferent. On the contrary, it led the public to change its attitude towards Spanish officials. It began to display a great sense of solidarity with Spain’s soldiers and to put aside, at least temporarily, the quarrels of the past.
If in the early 20th century the public had shown anti-militaristic sentiments, the shockwave caused by the disaster of the Rif War pushed it to show its determination to avenge the lives of its fellow citizens.
Some writers, who had never set foot in Morocco, exaggerated the cruelty of Moroccans and the extent of human suffering they inflicted upon Spain. These authors gave free rein to their imaginations to highlight Moroccans’ “thirst” for revenge 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 Spain’s centuries-old enemy.
Inciting a Spanish desire for revenge
The indignation and consternation of the public could not be greater. Besides the fact that Moroccans decimated the Spanish army, they set out to mutilate and behead Spanish soldiers. These atrocities, which the press relayed, 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.
Carried away by a strong sense of revenge, all components of Spanish society showed unwavering backing of the military, praised its bravery, and gave it their moral support in the fight against the Moroccans.
This support was so unwavering that no one challenged or criticized the methods used by Spanish soldiers. These methods included the destruction of entire villages; scorched earth policies; abuses against Moroccans, whether combatants or civilians; and the indiscriminate use of toxic gas against the entire population in order to annihilate its resistance. Spanish people wanted their soldiers to inflict due collective punishment on the Moroccans regardless of the means used to achieve that ignoble goal.
Worse still, the beheading and mutilation of the ears and genitals of Moroccans, among other practices, became common among the Spanish military. Spanish soldiers 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 fiancees or a member of their family the head or ears of a Moroccan.
For example, as highlighted by the historian Manuel Leguineche, Spanish 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. The basket contained 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”.
This text is but a small example of a whole propaganda machine that sought mainly to portray Moroccans as Spain’s main nemeses and a dangerous existential threat that ought to be subdued at any cost.
The consequences of this portrayal in Spain’s collective memory is one of the reasons that has prevented the people of both shores of the Mediterranean from genuinely building bridges of understanding.
It has also prevented Moroccans and Spaniards from moving past their mutual historical grievances, as well as the historical bias that has characterized the way in which Morocco has been portrayed in Spain since the fall of Granada in 1492.
Samir Bennis is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Morocco World News
 Eloy Martín Corrales, La Imagen del magrebí en España, una perspectiva histórica, siglos XVI- XX, Barcelona, Bellaterra, 2002, page 135.
 Manuel Leguineche, Anual 1921, el desastre de España en el Rif, Madrid, Alfaguara, 1996, page 126.