The Spanish poet and playwright, famous for his evocative and mysterious renditions of Andalucía, was shot dead on August 19, 1936, a month after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. His fame made him an emblematic martyr for the Republicans' cause, but Lorca was but one of the 80,000 victims of the repression wrought by Francisco Franco's Nationalist forces.

Golden Age

Lorca was born in the village of Fuente Vaqueros in 1898, but when he was nine years old his family moved to Granada, the city which had been the last capital of Moorish Spain. Although he preferred to set his work in the countryside, he believed he had a special connection with historic Granada.

Indeed, he once wrote that his Granadine origin "gives me a sympathetic understanding of those who are persecuted", as the 500,000 Moors had been when they were expelled in 1492 as the culmination of the Spanish kings' centuries-long reconquest of the country from Muslim rule. Lorca was homosexual, and perhaps identified the treatment the Moors suffered with the hostility he suffered in a culture that valued virility.

Coincidentally, Lorca was born in a traumatic year for Spain, at the time of the Spanish-American War in which she lost her colonies in Cuba and the Philippines. The Desastre, or Disaster, as it was widely known in Spain, made many Spaniards reflect on how far their country had declined since the supposed Golden Age in the sixteenth century, and liberals and right-wingers both proposed schemes to regenerate Spain.

Liberals, such as Manuel Azaña, hoped that Spain would approach the republican, secular model suggested by the French Revolution. The reactionary right, however, denounced such a programme as contrary to the Catholic traditions which had made Spain great in the first place, and overly reminiscent of the old French enemy to boot: Spain's last great military stand was remembered as the 1808 uprising against Napoleon Bonaparte, sanctioned by priests at the time as a second Reconquista.

The Second Republic

Lorca was no politician, but he still associated himself with the liberalism and socialism of the Second Republic, which was proclaimed in 1931 after the military dictatorship of Miguel Primo de Rivera had proved calamitous for Primo and King Alfonso XIII. He belonged to the Generación del 27, a loose group of pro-European intellectuals; and the 1921 visit he paid to New York, inspiring his volume Poet in New York, was made with his old friend Fernando de los Ríos, a moderate socialist who became Azaña's minister of education and presided over the exclusion of priests, monks and nuns from Spanish primary schools.

Azaña's enthusiasm for such reforms, at the expense of alleviating the plight of landless labourers in the countryside, alienated Spain's Catholic right while giving the urban and rural working class little stake in the urban intellectuals' government. In November 1933, the republican-socialist coalition had disintegrated sufficiently for the elections to be won by a right-wing alliance which proceeded to reverse most of Azaña's work as triumphantly as Azaña had attacked the vested interests of the Church and army.

The political pendulum swung back in February 1936, when the so-called Popular Front - essentially a revival of the old republican-socialist coalition, plus Spain's minuscule Communist Party - shaded electoral victory and a springtime of public disorder broke out, extremist socialists and fascist Falangists engaging in a spiral of revenge attacks. Some rightists had never accepted the Republic, but even those who had, such as José María Gil Robles who led the major party on the legalist right, now declared that Spain was descending into imminent civil war.

When the monarchist leader José Calvo Sotelo was shot dead by socialist policemen in July 1936, the attack triggered a military rebellion which had been in preparation for some time. All the garrisons of Spain were supposed to rise up against the Republic; in the event, the uprising failed in half of Spain, mostly the areas which had voted for the Popular Front, and civil war indeed ensued. Andalucía quickly became a theatre of war, when General Gonzalo Queipo de Llano took over Seville and quickly extended control over the rest of the province.

An Impoverished, Cowed Town

The rebel officers had overwhelmingly served in Spain's Army of Africa, putting down colonial revolts in Morocco, and their military background had grave consequences for Republican sympathisers who happened to find themselves in a Nationalist zone or a conquered city. From cadet school onwards, soldiers like Queipo de Llano or Franco himself had been trained to defend Spain from the internal, as well as the external, enemy, and looked upon even liberal Republicans as the advance guard of Soviet invasion.

During the turbulent spring of 1936, Lorca had participated in several gatherings of artists supporting the Popular Front, including a protest meeting organised by International Red Aid which demanded the release of the Brazilian Communist leader, Luis Carlos Prestes. After Calvo Sotelo's murder, Lorca returned from his home town of Madrid to Granada, on the assumption that unrest in the capital would boil over. In the event, Granada fell within a few weeks; Madrid weathered the Nationalists' siege and held out until the last days of the civil war.

Granada, too, had experienced disturbances that spring, and passions on both sides had been inflamed since the 10 March riots in which crowds burned two churches, the local Falange headquarters, and other buildings they saw as symbolic of the right-wing - including a chocolate factory belonging to a local dignitary. While Lorca waxed lyrical about Moorish Granada, he believed that its fall in the Reconquista had been a cultural disaster, and that the small-minded Spanish bourgeoisie had turned it into "an impoverished, cowed town".

Such a statement was sure to have upset Granada's great and good, and similar slights against the legendary Reconquista attacked the Nationalists on their own territory. For several decades, the army had been upset by left-wing anti-militarism, and in 1905 a large gang of junior officers had ransacked the offices of a Catalan magazine which ran a cartoon satirising their campaign in Morocco. This resentment had festered during the Second Republic, and the section of the army who had fought in Morocco shared a hyper-heroic martial ethos which disdained intellectuals.

Castigo Ejemplar

The officers' uprising had broken out on July 18, and by July 23 rebel troops sent into Granada by Queipo de Llano had eliminated the last resistance in the old workers' quarter, the Albaicín. The local governor, César Torres Mártinez, had obeyed the government's ordered and refused to arm the workers' militias, who were no match for the machine-guns and aerial bombardments that the Nationalists could deploy. Granada was immediately placed under martial law, and all offences were to be tried by military tribunals.

The subsequent Nationalist repression took a similar course in Granada to the other areas taken by the Nationalists over the course of the war. Local politicians and trade union leaders were always among the first to be killed, and other high-profile figures who owed their predominance to the Republic were not far behind. In Granada, the early dead included a renowned paediatrician. Typically, the targets were arrested late at night and driven to a secluded location where they would be shot - euphemistically known as a paseo, or being taken for a walk.

Franco preferred not to comment on such deaths, but when challenged would attribute them to 'uncontrollable elements' (incontrolados) in the local areas who had later been restrained by military authorities. Indeed, it appears that between 50% to 70% of Nationalist victims died before the end of September 1936, and the highest intensity of terror in Asturias and Catalonia was similarly inflicted in the first few months after these provinces fell.

Yet, even if violence was not perpetrated by soldiers alone, it may still have corresponded to principles already set down by the Nationalist generals: on May 25, 1936, the uprising's co-ordinator Emilio Mola had decreed "exemplary punishment (castigo ejemplar)... to strangle the rebel movements", referring to the resistance he envisaged.

Franco had similarly promised castigo ejemplar in one of his first radio broadcasts on 21 July, and the Nationalist general Juan Yagüe - yet another of the Moroccan band of brothers - declared himself pleased with the war's slow progress, which was allowing him to eliminate the "red elements" he came across. The Nationalist repression was not born of simple anarchy, but had sympathisers at the highest level of command: it may have been intended to sow terror and reduce opposition to the Nationalist advance, or may even have been 'political cleansing', a war of purification which would pave the way for the construction of the Nationalist state.

The Black Squad

In Granada, the repression was organised by Queipo de Llano's subordinate José Valdés Guzmán, and perpetrated by a motley group of ex-policemen, rich landowners' sons, Falangists and plain thugs. One of Valdés' henchmen, Ramón Ruiz Alonso, had formerly been a deputy for CEDA, the right-wing party which had professed its legalism during the Republic to the point of protesting too much.

Prisoners underwent violent interrogation in the Civil Government building before they were passed over to the so-called Black Squad, who took responsibility for their executions but could be explained away as incontrolados and dissociated from Valdés himself. Lorca's brother-in-law, who worked at the town hall, was arrested on 20 July, and the family villa was visited by uniformed men a few days later, although they did not seem to know that Lorca was there until encountering him: they may have been searching for evidence to connect the family with the socialist minister de los Ríos.

Lorca thought it prudent to keep an even lower profile, and contacted a fellow poet, Luis Rosales, who sheltered him at his family's house in a room belonging to his aunt Luisa. Rosales' father and two of his brothers belonged to the Falange, but the family still hid Lorca from the authorities, and apparently warned several other Republicans that summer that they were on Valdés's hit-list.

On 16 August, Lorca was arrested at the Casa Rosales by Ruiz Alonso, and taken to the Civil Government building where he spent the next two and a half days. By this time, the condemned used only to spent a few days in the Civil Government, but Valdés may have been considering the political implications that Lorca's death might have, and probably referred the matter upwards to Queipo de Llano in Seville, with whom he was in frequent radio contact.

On the night of 19 August, the Black Squad drove Lorca to the nearby village of Viznar, where he was shot and buried in an olive grove close to a spring known as the Fuente Grande which had been praised by Granada's Islamic poets. The news reached the Republican press on 30 August, but met with such disbelief that the Nationalists' chief paper, the Diario de Burgos, was able to spread the misinformation that he had been assassinated by Communists in, variously, Barcelona or Madrid.

War of Words

Across Europe, the Spanish civil war had provoked as much excitment as would Vietnam thirty years later, and the death of the internationally renowned poet caused outrage among Republican sympathisers. During and after the war, Franco recognised the incident's value as adverse propaganda, and blamed either the incontrolados or, eventually, members of CEDA, which had been dissolved in February 1937.

In 1956, an article published by Jean Louis Schonberg argued that Ruiz Alonso had ordered the arrest out of homosexual jealousy. Not unsurprisingly, Franco's regime seized upon this thesis, which denied that the killing had been political, but Lorca's biographer Ian Gibson believes that the military authorities' chain of command in Granada was too deeply implicated in the August repression for the buck to be passed to any individual.

The fame Lorca had acquired in his lifetime, and his incompatibility with the bases of the rebels' nationalism, might appear to establish him as a Republican poster boy, but it is still perhaps inappropriate to single out one person as the symbol of the Nationalist repression. Many others among the victims whose beliefs equally offended Nationalist sensibilities could certainly be found, and others yet would be known only to their families. The Nationalist medicine for Spain rejected these individuals equally, making Lorca's death just one of many illustrations of the Nationalists' tactics and the principles for which they fought.

Read more:
Ian Gibson, The Assassination of Federico García Lorca
Santos Juliá et al, Víctimas de la guerra civil
Stanley G Payne, The Franco Regime 1936-1975
Michael Richards, A Time of Silence: Civil War and the Culture of Repression in Franco's Spain, 1936-1945