To say that the late English soldier and journalist Peter Kemp (1913-1993) led an unusual life would be an understatement. In the summer of 1936, he was studying to be a barrister when the Spanish Civil War broke out. Like many English idealists, he decided to take up arms in the struggle.
Unlike almost all of them, he chose the Nationalist side.
While it is true that most Western Catholics sympathized to one degree or another with the rising in July 1936, Kemp was not Catholic, and to my knowledge never became one. The simple fact was, Kemp was genuinely appalled by anti-Catholic atrocities and loathed communism.
And that was enough for him to forsake a promising career path and his upper middle class lifestyle to take up arms in Spain--despite having no military training nor any knowledge of Spanish. In his memoir of the War (written in 1957), Kemp is circumspect about his motivations, but his sympathies are always clear--e.g., his stifled rage as his recounts a Republican militia's literal crucifixion of a local priest in a village liberated by his unit is obvious.
At the same time, he does not heartily endorse Franco-led Spain. At one point, he speculates that the untimely death of Nationalist General Emilio Mola was a great loss, depriving the victors of a man who could have blunted the regime's worst features.
He announced his plans to his parents and, to his surprise, his father helped him buy clothing and gear that would be useful in his expedition. He said goodbye to his parents, and never saw his father alive again--the latter died of heart failure several months after Kemp embarked. With the assistance of a sympathetic English journalist, he obtained a visa into Nationalist Spain, himself posing as a journalist. He then immediately sought out a unit to join and was directed to the red-beret-wearing Carlist Requetes.
Spanish Carlism is a fascinating phenomenon, and one that endures to this day in northern Spain. It has its roots in the Spanish War of Independence against Napoleon, and acquired its "Carlist" moniker during the first of Spain's 19th Century civil wars, a succession crisis between the deceased King Ferdinand's brother Carlos (styled the Fifth) and his daughter Isabel II. The Carlists supported the former, but despite coming close to victory on a couple of occasions, were defeated in a fierce seven year war between 1833 and 1840. Isabel II is a minor character in Amistad, and it's actually a fair depiction: the puppet of her mother and her mother's advisors, she remained disconnected and willful when she came into her own.
The disastrous reign of Isabel ended in 1868, and a second Carlist War, led by Carlos VII, followed from 1872-1876. Carlos VII was the most impressive of the pretenders in virtue and intellect. Alas, the Carlists again were defeated and Carlos went into exile. The direct Carlist line went extinct with Carlos' son Jaime, but the movement lived on, strong in Navarre, the Basque country and other parts of northern Spain.
Carlism is often described as "reactionary" and "absolutist," contrasting it with the various constitutional monarchies and short-lived Spanish republics. To which I can respond:
"Eh. 'Reactionary' is an overloaded term. 'Absolutist'? If you squint too much, maybe. But not really."
Carlists advocate, albeit a bit inconsistently, the return to the "Kingdom of the Spains." What many Anglosphere readers forget--assuming they ever understood it in the first place--is that Spain was a collection of historic kingdoms and regions, officially united by the marriage of Isabella the Catholic and Ferdinand. But even after the marriage, the rights of the lesser kingdoms and regions, called fueros, were respected. Which is likely one of the reasons why the "expulsion" of Muslims in 1611 was very much a patchwork affair that ranged from wholesale deportation in some regions to minimal efforts in others (and much hiding of or quick returns by Moriscos in the latter).
This regionalism was a strong counterbalance to the authority of the monarch in Madrid, and was very attractive in places like the Basque region and Navarre. Whereas the European liberal constitutionalism embraced by the supporters of Isabel was very much a centralizing/nationalizing process which made Madrid much more important.
And it has been pointed out by one of the few scholars who have written about Carlism in English that the northern Carlist heartlands were among the most decent places to live in 19th and early 20th Century Spain. Land ownership was fairly widespread, and landowners who rented out typically gave their tenants generous terms. The cities were smaller, but reasonably prosperous and not wracked with labor grievances--charitable efforts were not lacking. And, crucially, the Church was very much grounded in the lives of the people: clerics came from the region, lived among the flock and were not distant episcopal princes.
The downside to this was that Carlists tended to be uncomprehending of the problems in other areas of Spain--especially the larger industrializing regions. They naively assumed that their model could transfer seamlessly to other areas of Spain and be a quick fix.
In short, what the Carlists hearkened back to was definitely a pre-Enlightenment conception of Spain, admittedly not 'constitutional' but far from "absolutist." And they were flexible enough to recognize the newer problems experienced by the working class, glomming on to Rerum Novarum--even if they did not see that the leaven would not magically-percolate. However, it is worth noting that the Carlists' greatest political theorist, Juan Vasquez de Mella, was a major influence on the draft of Quadragesimo Anno.
While they had minimal love for the official Bourbon monarchy, the birth of the Second Spanish Republic was an apocalyptic moment for the Carlists. They began to prepare for the worst, arming and training Requete militias in the north. They would also never fully trust or be trusted by what became the Franco regime, with rebellions by and political persecution of Carlists being a lesser-known feature of the Caudillo's Spain. But that's for another post.
So in July 1936 when the Generals launched the coup, the Requetes rallied to the rising and played a key role in securing north central Spain. However, despite drills, they were not professional soldiers, and their suicidal courage won victories--at unnecessary cost.
This lack of professionalism probably made the red berets the ideal start for a young foreigner with no military experience or grasp of the language. Kemp was gladly welcomed to their ranks--if not his surname, which proved to be difficult to pronounce en castellano. Instead, he was "Mr. Peter"--or "[Rank] Peter" when he was promoted.
His Anglicanism was the subject of frequent questions, not least of which was the presumption that as a Protestant he also simply had to be a Freemason. Kemp was not, but that question would be periodically asked throughout the rest of his service in the War--at least until his near-death from a mortar attack. But the Requetes were mollified by his regular attendance at Mass and obvious dedication and courage, and patiently remedied his lack of Spanish.
His assignment to a Requete unit also brought him into full contact with the crusader-Catholic mindset of the Carlists--especially the clerics. The Carlists were quite motivated to fight against the Reds, as they described all Republicans--increasingly accurately, as the War dragged on. But the Chaplain of Kemp's unit was unusually bloodthirsty, and was gently upbraided for it by the unit's Colonel, who pointedly reminded the Requetes that the average Republican soldier could be made a good Spaniard again after the War. So, yes, we should definitely take prisoners, Padre.
[As it turned out, many Republican prisoners of war were considered reliable enough to be offered the opportunity to serve in Nationalist units, and thousands did. They generally were not given elite-level duties, but each one freed up another Nationalist soldier.]
So Mr. Peter was given his rifle and marched into a divided village, with the opposing forces a few feet apart in some places.
The next installment will look at the rest of his service with the Carlists and his subsequent enlistment in the Spanish Foreign Legion.
Bibliographical Note on Carlismo
While there is no shortage of literature (of wildly-varying quality) in English on the Spanish Civil War, books on the phenomenon of Carlism can be safely counted on one hand.
The best is Martin Blinkhorn's Carlism and Crisis in Spain: 1931-1939. While focusing on the crisis of the Second Republic and the Civil War, Blinkhorn does a superb job of describing the roots of the phenomenon in the 19th Century, giving the best summary history of the movement in English. It is the essential work.
Also useful is the anthology Spanish Carlism and Polish Nationalism: The Borderlands of Europe in the 19th and 20th Centuries. It contains a helpful introductory essay by Alexandra Wilhelmsen, daughter of the late, great Frederick Wilhelmsen and another useful one surveying de Mella's work.
The only history of the 19th Century Carlist Wars is Edgar Holt's The Carlist Wars in Spain. Hard to find, and thus hideously-expensive, your best bet is an inter-library loan. Very much a popular history, Holt writes an engaging, flowing narrative. Alas, the bulk of the book is on the first war, and gives short shrift to the second.
Finally, there is a fascinating post-SCW pamphlet written by an unidentified Carlist for an American audience: The Future of Spain: Spanish Carlism Before the World. It tries way, way, way too hard to ingratiate itself to an American audience, klutzily invoking George Washington and rather ludicrously suggesting the Constitution may have been inspired by the fuero traditions of the old Spanish monarchy. Yeah. But it does provide a valuable summary of Carlist ideals by a Carlist writer. And also a gritted-teeth acknowledgment of Franco that is more interesting for what it does not say.