October 12, 1909, Francisco Ferrer y Guardia was shot in the trenches of the Montjuich Fortress at Barcelona. A Military Council had found him guilty of being “head of the insurrection” which had, a few months before, lit the flame of civil war in the city and province. The clergy had openly petitioned the Spanish Premier, when Ferrer was arrested, to look to the Modern School and its founder for the source of the revolutionary feeling; and the Premier had, instead of rebuking them, promised to do so. When Ferrer was arrested the prosecution spent many weeks in collecting evidence against him, and granted a free pardon to several men who were implicated in the riot, for testifying against him. These three or four men were the only witnesses out of fifty who would have been heard patiently in a civil court of justice, and even their testimony would at once have crumbled under cross-examination. But there was no cross-examination, and no witnesses were brought before the court. Five weeks were occupied in compiling an enormously lengthy indictment of Ferrer; then twenty-four hours were given to an inexperienced officer, chosen at random, to analyse it and prepare a defence. Evidence sent in Ferrer's favour was confiscated by the police; the witnesses who could have disproved the case against him were kept in custody miles away from Barcelona; and documents which would have tended to show his innocense were refused to the defending officer against the brutal injustice of the proceedings, the military judges found Ferrer guilty, and he was shot.
Within a month of the judicial murder of Ferrer I put the whole abominable story before the British public. I showed the deep corruption of Church and politics in Spain, and proved that clergy and politicians had conspired to use the gross and pliable machinery of “military justice” to remove a man whose sole aim was to open the eyes of the Spanish people. A prolonged and passionate controversy followed. That controversy has not altered a line of my book. Mr. William Archer, in a cold and impartial study of the matter, has fully supported my indictment of the prosecution of Ferrer; and Professor Simarro, of Madrid University, has, in a voluminous study of the trial (El Proceso Ferrer-two large volumbes), quoted whole chapters of my little work. When, in 1912, the Supreme Military Council of Spain was forced to declare that no single act of violence could be directly or indirectly traced to Ferrer (whereas the chief witness for the prosecution had sown that he saw Ferrer leading a troop of rioters), and ordered the restoration of his property, the case for his innocence was closed. It remains only for Spain to wipe the foul stain from its annals by removing the bones of the martyred teacher from the trenches of Montjuich, and to declare, with real Spanish pride, that a grave injustice had been done.
Meantime, the restoration of Ferrer's property has enabled his trustees to resume his work. Among his papers they found a manuscript account, from his own pen, of the origin and ideals of the Modern School, and their first act is to give it to the world. In 1906 Ferrer had been arrested on the charge of complicity in the attempt of Morral to assassinate the King. He was kept in jail for a year, and the most scandalous efforts were made, in the court and the country, to secure a judicial murder; but it was a civil (or civilised) trial, and the charge was contemptuously rejected. Going to the Pyrenees in the early Summer of 1908 to recuperate, Ferrer determined to write the simple story of his school, and it is this I now offer to English readers.
In this work Ferrer depicts himself more truly and vividly than any friend of his has ever done. For my part, I had never seen Ferrer, and never seen Spain; but I was acquainted with Spanish life and letters, and knew that there had been committed in the twentieth century one of those old-world crimes by which the children of darkness seek to arrest the advance of man. I interpreted Ferrer from his work, his letters, a few journalistic articles he had written — he had never published a book — and the impressions of his friends and pupils. In this book the man portrays himself, and describes his aims with a candour that all will appreciate. The less foolish of his enemies have ceased to assert that he organised or led the riot at Barcelona in 1909. It was, they say, the tendency, the subtle aim, of his work which made him responsible. It may be remembered that the Saturday Review and other journals published the most unblushingly mendacious letters, from anonymous correspondents, saying that they had seen posters on the walls of Ferrer's schools inciting children to violence. As the very zealous police did not at the trial even mention Ferrer's schools, or the text-books used in them, these lies need no further exposure. But many persist in thinking, since there is now nothing further to think to the disadvantage of Ferrer, that his schools were really hot-beds of rebellion and were very naturally suppressed.
Here is the full story of the Modern School, told in transparently simple language. Here is the whole man, with all his ideals, aims, and resentments. It shows, as we well knew, and could have proved with overwhelming force at his trial had we been permitted, that he was absolutely opposed to violence ever since, in his youth, he had taken part in an abortive revolution. It tells how he came to distrust violence and those who used it; how he concluded that the moral and intellectual training of children was to be the sole work of his career; how, when he obtained the funds, he turned completely from politics, and devoted himself to educating children in knowledge of science and in sentiments of peace and brotherhood.
It tells also, with the same transparent plainness, why his noble minded work incurred such violent enmity. He naively boasts that the education in the Modern School was free from dogmas. It was not, and cannot be in any school, free from dogmas, for dogma means “teaching,” and he gave teaching of a very definite character. Mr. Belloc's indictment of his schools is, like Mr. Belloc's indictment of his character and guilt, evidently based on complete ignorance of the facts and a very extensive knowledge of the recklessly mendacious literature of his opponents. Even Mr. Archer's account of his school is grossly misleading. The Modern School was “avowedly a nursery of rebellious citizens” only in the same sense as is any Socialist Sunday-school in England or Germany; and the Spanish Government has never claimed, and could not claim, for a momentthe right to close it, except in so far as it falsely charged the founder with crime and confiscated his property.
Ferrer's school was thoroughly rationalistic, and this embittered the clergy-for his system was spreading rapidly through Spain-without in the least infringing Spanish law. Further, Ferrer's school explicitly taught children that militarism was a crime, that the unequal distribution of wealth was a thing to be abhorred, that the capitalist system was bad for the workers, and that political government is an evil. He had a perfect right under Spanish law to found a school to teach his ideas; as any man has under English or German law. The prohibited and damnable thing would be even to hint to children that, when they grew up, they might look forward to altering the industrial and political system by violence. This Ferrer not only did not teach, but strenuously opposed. We have overwhelming proof of this at every step of his later career. But he was a child of the workers, and he had a passionate and noble resentment of the ignorance, poverty, and squalor of the lives of so large a proportion of the workers. He was also an Anarchist, in the sense of Tolstoi; hebelieved that liberty was essential to the development of man, and central government an evil. But, as rigorously as Tolstoi, he relied on persuasion and abhorred violence. I would call attention to Chapter VI of this book, in which he pleads for “the co-education of the rich and poor”; and there were children of middle-class parents, even of university-professors, in his school. Most decidedly he preached no class-hatred or violence. I do not share his academic and innocent Anarchist ideal — which is far nearer to Conservatism than to Socialism — but I share to the full that intense and passionate longing for the uplifting and brightening of the poor, and for the destruction of superstition, which was the supreme ideal of his life and of his work. For that he was shot.
Finally, the reader must strictly bear in mind the Spanish atmosphere of this tragedy. When Ferrer describes “existing schools” he means the schools of Spain, which are, for the most part, a mockery and a shame. When he talks of “ruling powers” he has in mind the politicians of Spain, my indictment of whom, in their own language, has never been questioned. When he talks of “superstition” he means primarily Spanish superstition; he refers to a priesthood that still makes millions every year by the sale of indulgences. If you remember these things, you will, however you dissent from his teaching in parts, appreciate the burning and unselfish idealism of the man, and understand why some of us see the brand of Cain on the fair brow of Spain for extinguishing that idealism in blood.