Helping modern Spain understand the meaning and legacy of its Civil War


Successfully challenging long-held beliefs about one of the most controversial atrocities in Spanish living memory, research has shifted the terms of widespread public debate on the Paracuellos massacres.

What was the problem? 

The bitter controversy within Spain about some of the country’s most notorious Civil War atrocities shows no sign of abating eighty years after the conflict began in 1936. The recent deaths of the last remaining key figures, and the release of previously unavailable archival material, keep the events very much in the public consciousness.

Debate is frequently acrimonious, necessitating that any scholarly contribution should be as objective as possible, and presented in a highly accessible way. This is especially true of arguments around Paracuellos, the massacre of thousands of prisoners in Madrid in November 1936.

What did we do? 

Widely praised for his 2012 book on the ‘Red Terror’, which looked at Republican complicity in early Spanish Civil War violence, Dr Julius Ruiz was approached by the publisher, Espasa Libros, to write another volume on the conflict.

It was around the time of the death of Santiago Carrillo, the Communist leader who played a crucial role in Spain’s peaceful transition to democracy in the 1970s.

Previously unacknowledged, the role of Carrillo in Paracuellos formed a key theme of Ruiz’s analysis of the atrocity, which also dispelled the myth that the Republican government had little or no knowledge of the killings, and provided evidence that it was leftist Popular Front militants, not Soviet advisors, who were largely responsible for them.

Published in 2015, Ruiz’s extensive monograph, Paracuellos: Una verdad incómoda, was the culmination of many years’ research into the massacres, drawing on material from state, party and military archives and the personal papers and notes of key political figures, including Manuel Azaña who was President of the Republic when Civil War broke out.

Ruiz has carried out a splendid reconstruction… with the erudition and knowledge that has made him the key author of reference for studies of the repression of those years. This is a study that will not be surpassed for some time.
Octavio Ruiz-Manjón, writing in El Cultural, January 2016
What happened next? 

Paracuellos: Una verdad incómoda was the first full-length, scholarly biography of the Paracuellos massacres in over thirty years. Such is Ruiz’s reputation in Spain as an expert on the Civil War that, a month before the book’s publication, El Mundo newspaper asked the author to write an extended article on the atrocity for its Sunday 25 October edition (the paper is Spain’s second largest daily).

Despite not being the paper’s lead article, Ruiz’s piece was the most read and commented on article of the day on El Mundo’s website and was shared over 7,000 times on social media. When publication of the book followed two days later, the author was met with a flurry of requests for media interviews and features.

Coverage of the book’s publication and key messages ranged from extended features on popular national television programmes, to interviews in regional newspapers distributed through state press agency, EFE. Although there was some criticism from bloggers at the political fringes, the popular view was that Ruiz had once again made a distinctive and objective contribution to contemporary Spain’s understanding of its recent past, and book sales soared.

The work has now become an easily understood reference in news stories linked to the Civil War, for example, in a recent El Mundo obituary of Ricardo de la Cierva, a Francoist politician and son of a Paracuellos victim, and in the reporting of news that anarchist, Melchor Rodríguez García, was to have a Madrid street named after him. An English-language version will be released later in 2016.

About the researcher(s)

Research unit

Subject area:
  • Centre for the Study of Modern Conflict


  • The University of Edinburgh

Related study programmes