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September 12, 2014

A Spanish `Biffer`

On August 26 I told of  a strange ritual which takes place in Malaga every Holy Thursday,  when the Spanish  Legion goose-step slowly around a square outside a church, carrying a huge and realistic crucifix, and singing  the anthem El Cristo de la Buena Muerte  (Christ of the Good Death).

The Legion was founded by  the extraordinary General José Millan-Astray, who based it on the original Spanish regiments, the Tercios,  who acquired  a reputation for invincibility throughout  Western and Central Europe during much of the 16th and 17th centuries.  It has much in common  with the French foreign legion, but these days all its members are Spaniards.

Millan-Astray was known as El Mutilado. Like the British naval hero Horatio Nelson, he lost both an eye and an arm in battle. Another bullet had pierced his cheek.  Evelyn Waugh’s character Brigadier Ritchie-Hook, whose favourite activity was “biffing” the enemy, could easily have been based on him.  Millan-Astray told his first recruits in North Africa, most of whom had disgraced themselves in one way or another in civilian life, that the only way they could redeem themselves was by a good death in combat.

Jose Millan-Astray

Shortly after the outbreak of the Spanish civil war, Millan-Astray  had a confrontation with a leading academic, Miguel de Unamuno, at a rally in Salamanca university. Unamuno was one of the few Spanish intellectuals to realise that the Marxist-dominated Spanish Republic was a busted flush and could never save the country from anarchy, so he had decided very reluctantly to support General Franco’s Nationalists. Annoyed by Millan-Astray’s paradoxical shout of of ¡Viva la Muerte! (long live death) the elderly Unamuno rose to his feet and publicly deplored this “senseless and necrophilous oath”. The mood of the Nationalist crowd was ugly, and Unamuno might have been quite badly beaten up had he not, at Millan-Astray’s insistence, taken the arm of General Franco’s wife and made his getaway.

Incidentally, if you want to hear El Cristo de la Buena Muerte sung quite charmingly (in contrast to the rather raucous tones of the legionaries) you can google  “Sheila Solis  Buena Muerte”.

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