The Photo of an Unknown War

We like to think that there is some truth in seeing and in photography. This blog sometimes support, often refute that notion. What better photo to illustrate the latter point than this one used in propaganda by both Communists and Fascists, and in two wars a decade apart. 

In the late 1970s, as the gerontocractic fascism of Francisco Franco drew to a close, historians revisited his arrival onto the world stage during the Spanish Civil War, now viewed in retrospect as a dress rehearsal for the Second World War. They pointed out the above photo as an evidence of atrocities committed by Franco’s troops on their prisoners of war during the Civil War, an eerie precursor of Fascist crimes to come.

Throughout the Civil War, both sides exploited the power of news media and newly-popular photography, at times using the same photographs. Back in 1938, the above photo was used by the Falange – the Spanish Fascists – to denounce the barbarous nature of the Spanish Republicans. In Corriere della Sera (which toed Mussolini’s line after the removal of its editor Luigi Albertini), it was labelled as the communist International Brigaders holding the heads of Spainish patriots.

The photo, which looked like a poor Photoshop attempt, was often attributed to David Seymour, the future co-founder of Magnum who made his name during the Spanish Civil War. It was not clear who actually took it and it was not even clear when it was taken. In 1938, when L’Humanité, an organ of the French Communist Party, saw the photo, it used it to denounce the French colonial empire in North Africa. This canard still persisted to this day, when on social media, you would see the Arabs and the Africans denoucing France, their former colonial master, as the perpetrator behind the atrocities depicted.

In fact, L’Humanité was closer to the truth. The photo was perhaps taken during the Rif War (1921-1927), when Spanish and French Foreign Legions brutally put down a Berber rebellion in Morroco led by Emir Abd-El-Krim.

The photo first appeared in Memoires d’Abd-el-Krim, a book whose pedigree was also in doubt. Jacques Roger-Mathieu claimed that the book was dictated to him by Abd-el-Krim onboard the vessel Abda which was to transport the defeated emir to his exile on the island of Réunion. Although, it appeared with a grand subtitle of “la confession ou les confidences”, many now doubt the book’s authenticity, noting it was filled with “absurdities of all sorts, lies, and anachronisms”. As per Roger-Mathieu, the photo depicted Spanish Legionaires with the heads of Rif fighters.


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0 thoughts on “The Photo of an Unknown War

  1. Muy propio de españoles: usar un blog extranjero, escrito en inglés, para lanzarse insultos, amenazas y barbaridades varias.
    Eso si: cuando de verdad hay que luchar, exceptuando a los psicopatas varios que hay en cada pueblo, el resto, a hacer de carne de cañon sin decir ni mú.

    En cuanto a la foto, está muy claro que está retocada y falseada. Lo cual no quita que fuera cierto el que las tropas españolas cortaran cabezas en la Guerra del Rif… de la misma forma que tropas españolas fueron decapitadas y salvajemente mutiladas premortem y postmortem en esa misma guerra, tal y como quedó demostrado cuando se recogieron los cadaveres del desastre de Annual.
    La guerra es así: dolorosa, sangrienta, cruel. Muy diferente a lo que se ve en la tele, en los videojuegos o en las peliculas, pues en ellas se muere “de verdad”.

  2. I must say that *every* photo I’ve ever seen depicting beheaded… well, heads, looks photoshopped. (On a sidenote, every photo of beheaded heads I’ve seen is one too many). It might have something to do with our perception of heads being always perched on top of bodies. So about the “photoshopped” part: that might be your preconceptions playing tricks on you, I’m sorry to say.

  3. Alguien que cree en el infierno, es capaz de creer cualquier cosa, y demuestra que su cerebro tiene la misma actividad que los que sostienen los soldados en el interior de las cabezas cortadas.
    En españa, los nazis autóctonos, La Falange con Franco como líder del nuevo partido, La Falange de las JONS, gobernaron en España como cualquier otro dictador. Los tribunales escarmentaron a los que no murieron o se exiliaron.
    Somos creo el segundo país del mundo con más muertos en las cunetas. Y como dijo, todo atado y bien atado, puso un rey y este una “timocracia” y gracias a ella los asesinos han gozado de impunidad.
    Ppepemix, tienes mi más grande desprecio. Pero sólo eso, yo no soy muy de fusilar.

  4. Nos hace falta otra guerra para olvidar la anterior. Se ve que esa es nuestra solución. Somos fundamentalmente imbéciles.

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