With so much talk lately in the news about possible chemical weapons use in Syria, crossing “red lines,” and crimes against humanity, it seemed appropriate to explore such issues in their historical context. And there is hardly a better place (and collection) to do that with than that of the Wolfsonian-Florida International University.

While the controversy has raged as to whether or not the Syrian government has stooped to a new low in its war against its own population by using chemical weapons against the resistance fighters, I have been haunted by an image from our own collection in an apparent echo from another civil war. The cover illustration of Flecha, a periodical published by the Delegación Nacional de Prensa y Propaganda de F.E.R. y de las J.O.N.S. during the Spanish Civil War is an especially chilling one, but not because of any gruesome graphics of civilians killed by chemicals. Rather it is because the Fascists used images of adorable blonde children playing at war to sell the idea to children that the use of such weapons was perfectly rational—as normal, in fact, as using insecticide to kill bugs and other vermin.



In the course (and aftermath) of that bloody civil war, it has been estimated that close to 38,000 persons were executed during the “red terror” while another 110-150,000 died at the hands of Francisco Franco’s fascist forces. There were also reports, (though unconfirmed), that chemical and biological weapons were used during the Spanish Civil War—a possibility that doesn’t appear so far-fetched given that Spain was one of the first European powers to use chemical weapons against a civilian population in the aftermath of the First World War. During the Riffian Berber rebellion in Morocco, some 13,000 Spanish and colonial troops were killed in battle at Annual on July 22, 1921 by indigenous warriors fighting with Abd-El-Krim.


Translation: “1921: Abd-El-Krim defeats the Spanish Army, and thus ends in the African Protectorate the disgraceful exploitation of the workers and the traffic in soldiers’ lives.”

Following that embarrassing and crushing defeat, Spanish Moroccan High Commissioner Dámaso Berenguer telegraphed the Minister of War expressing a change of heart, noting that “I have been obstinately resistant to the use of suffocating gases against these indigenous peoples but after what they have done, and of their treasonous and deceptive conduct, I have to use them with true joy.” The following month, Spain asked Germany—prohibited from manufacturing chemical weapons by the Treaty of Versailles ending WWI—to send or help them produce mustard gas. With the assistance of German chemist Hugo Stolzenberg, mustard gas deliveries were made in 1923, and by 1924 the chemical was being manufactured at the Fabrica Nacional de Productos Quimicos plant at La Marañosa near Madrid and used in aerial attacks against Moroccan civilians, markets, and watering-holes. Although a year later, the League of Nations enacted the Geneva Protocol calling for the “Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or other Gases, and of Bacterialogical Methods of Warfare,” Spain continued its indiscriminate use of such weapons in Morocco through 1927.

Italian Fascists were the next to openly acknowledge their use of chemical weapons in 1936 during their invasion, conquest, and colonization of Ethiopia, Africa’s last independent state. To justify their invasion and resort to chemical weapons, Italian propaganda depicted the East Africans as barbarous murderers of Christians, with one postcard referencing the “martyrdom” of Padre Reginaldo Giuliani in 1936.


Italian propagandists also made use of “war as child’s play” imagery strikingly similar to that used in the Spanish Civil War periodical.



A series of postcards illustrated by Aurelio Bertiglia pictured Italian children in Balilla and colonial military uniforms “kicking ass” in Ethiopia, depicting bloodless victories and humanitarian acts of distributing food and liberating enslaved Africans.







In the actual course of the Second Italo-Abyssinian War (1935-1937), however, the Italian air force was engaged in dropping mustard gas onto Ethiopian soldiers in blatant violation of the Geneva conventions. One can only hope that the lessons of the past may be heeded and that the terrible conflict in Syria not be made all the more horrific by the use of chemical weapons.

~ by "The Chief" on May 9, 2013.


  1. Remember Akira Kurosawa in his movie “Dreams”….
    Great Blog at the pertinent moment!

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