The huge hillside cross in the background is clearly visible to anyone flying into or out of Madrid’s international airport less than ten kilometres away. It presides over the Cemetery of the Martyrs of Paracuellos. Built over the seven mass graves of the approximately 2,500 people who had been imprisoned as suspected Nationalist sympathizers and were murdered between 7 November and 5 December 1936, the cemetery was opened in October 1941.
With rebel forces on the outskirts of Madrid, on 6 November the government of the Republic moved to Valencia, leaving the Madrid Defence Committee headed by General José Miaja in charge of the capital. The members of the committee came from all the political organizations that supported the government. 21-year-old Santiago Carrillo, leader of the United Socialist Youth (JSU) who would become the leader of the Communist Party between 1960 and 1982, was in charge of the Department of Public Order.
Starting on 7 November, prisoners were removed from prisons and told they were being evacuated from Madrid. Instead, they were taken by truck to Paracuellos de Jarama, about 25 kilometres away, and shot in fields just outside the town. At one point, the prisoners arrived to find the bodies of those killed before them still lying unburied. The killings were interrupted on November 10 by the new director of prisons, the anarchist Melchor Rodríguez, who Francoists later nicknamed the “Red Angel”. They resumed after he was dismissed by Justice Minister Juan García Oliver, himself an anarchist, but came to an end when he returned to the position in early December.
The killings were carried out by the Provincial Committee of Public Investigation (CPIP), one of the revolutionary tribunals that emerged in the aftermath of the military revolt and the disruption of normal state structures. The members of the CPIP were a mixture of workers and middle-class men, mostly in their 20s and 30s, belonging to a number of the political organizations in Republican Spain, including anarchists, Communists, Socialists. The CPIP had been carrying out executions before November 1936, but Paracuellos represented a huge increase in the scale of killing.
The Paracuellos massacres were the worst atrocity committed in Republican Spain. They have long been hugely controversial. Right-wing writers have even compared them to the Katyn massacre of World War II and called them the “genocide of the left”. But controversy also exists among academic historians far removed from any suspicion of Francoist sympathies. There are a number of key questions. Were the killings planned or an improvised reaction to the Francoist attack on the city and the fear of a “fifth column” within? Was the decision to kill limited to the leaders of the JSU and anarchists? Were Soviet agents involved? What were the exact roles of Santiago Carrillo and his right-hand man José Cazorla, the Madrid Defense Committee, and the Republican government?