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Spanish Civil War

Spanish Civil War


The Spanish Civil War broke out on July 17, 1936, as a result of the revolutionary process begun under the democratic Second Republic of Spain, which had been inaugurated in 1931. Democracy had brought large-scale political and social mobilization, while the left launched a series of four revolutionary insurrections between 1932 and 1934. In 1935 an alliance of the moderate and the revolutionary left formed a Popular Front that won the election of February 1936. This produced a weak minority government of the moderate left that could not restrain the revolutionaries, whose violence, disorder, seizure of property, and corruption of electoral processes provoked a military revolt.

Though Spanish political society was strongly polarized between right and left, each polarity was badly fragmented. The military revolt brought scarcely more than half the army out in revolt, though it was assisted by rightist militia. The leftist Republican government in power abandoned constitutional rule and engaged in what was called arming the people, which meant giving weapons and de facto power to the revolutionary organizations.

The result was the Spanish revolution of 19361937, the most intense and spontaneous outburst of worker revolution seen in modern Europe, not excepting the Russian Revolution of 1917. It collectivized much farmland and most of urban industry, and it was marked by an extensive Red Terrorthe mass execution of political opponents, directed against all conservative organizations, and especially the Catholic Churchwhich destroyed countless churches. Nearly 7,000 clergy were killed, and at least 55,000 people perished in the Republican zone.

After two months, the military insurgents elected General Francisco Franco as their commander-in-chief. Franco also acted as dictator and permanent chief of state. By the second week of the Civil War, he had successfully sought military assistance from Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, and he mounted a military drive on Madrid. The rebels quickly termed themselves Nationalists and mounted a savage repression of their own, which was more concerted and effective than that of the Republicans and eventually claimed even more victims.

General Franco organized a single-party state, partially modeled on that of Fascist Italy, in April 1937. He combined the Spanish fascist party with rightist groups to form the Falange Española Tradicionalista (Traditionalist Spanish Phalanx, or FET). Franco succeeded in establishing almost complete political unity among the rightist forces, enabling him to concentrate almost exclusively on the war effort, and in the process he developed a more effective and professionally led military force than did his opponents.

The revolutionary Republic proved ineffective militarily, relying on disorganized revolutionary militia. After the first two weeks it lost battle after battle, resulting in the organization of a new Republican government on September 4, 1936, led by the Socialist Francisco Largo Caballero. It eventually included all the leftist forces in a single government and began the creation of a new centralized Ejército Popular (Peoples Army).

Though France was led by a Popular Front government at this time, it was becoming dependent on Great Britain, which counseled against involvement in Spain. The French government therefore took the lead in organizing the Non-Intervention Committee, which gained the collaboration of nearly all European governments and took up deliberations in London in September 1936, though it was unsuccessful in ending the involvement in the war of the three major European dictatorships.

Germany and Italy were already intervening on behalf of Franco, and the Republicans urgently requested military assistance from the Soviet Union, the only other revolutionary state in Europe. Stalin finally decided to send assistance in September 1936, and Soviet military assistance began to arrive soon afterward. This assistance was paid for by shipping most of the Spanish gold reserve (the fifth largest in the world) to Moscow. Late-model Soviet planes and tanks, which arrived in large quantities, outclassed the weaponry provided by Hitler and Mussolini. These weapons, together with hundreds of Soviet military specialists, were accompanied by the first units of the International Brigades, a volunteer force organized by the Communist International, which eventually numbered approximately 41,000. By the end of 1936 the war was turning into a stalemate, and it promised to become a long struggle of attrition.

In this situation, the Spanish Communist Party, which had been weak prior to the war, expanded rapidly. Soviet assistance helped it become a major force on the Republican side, emphasizing the importance of restraining the revolution of the extreme left and concentrating all resources on the military effort. This provoked great tension, leading to the May Days of May 1937 in Barcelona, the center of the revolution. This was a mini-civil war within the civil war, with the extreme revolutionary left fighting the more disciplined forces of the Communists and the reorganized Republican state. The latter dominated, leading to the formation that same month of a new Republican government led by the Socialist Juan Negrín, which deemphasized the socioeconomic revolution and sought to concentrate all its activity on the military effort.

The Soviet escalation of military intervention in October 1936 was quickly countered by a counter-escalation from Mussolini and Hitler, who sent an Italian army corps of nearly 50,000 men and a 90-plane German aerial unit, the Condor Legion, to Spain. This guaranteed that Franco would continue to receive the support necessary to maintain the military initiative. In 1937 he conquered the Republican northern zone, and in April 1938 his army sliced through Aragon to the Mediterranean, dividing the remaining Republican zone in two. During the conquest of the northern zone, the most famous (and infamous) incident of the war occurred. This was the bombing of the Basque town of Guernica by German and Italian planes in April 1937.

Though Mussolini desired a quick and complete Nationalist victory to strengthen Italys position in the Mediterranean, Hitler was in no hurry. He preferred that the Spanish war continue for some time. It had become the main focus of European diplomacy during 19361937, and it served to distract attention from the rearmament of Germany and the beginning of its expansion in central Europe. The French government covertly supported the Republican cause in a policy of relaxed nonintervention, which served as a conduit for military supplies from the Soviet Union and other countries. By 1937, Stalin was in turn increasingly distracted by the Japanese invasion of China. In 1938 he sought disengagement from Spain, but he could find no terms that would not involve a loss of face.

Francos forces slowly but steadily gained the upper hand. His government in the Nationalist zone maintained a productive economy and a relatively stable currency. The revolutionary Republican zone, by contrast, was wracked with inflation and suffered increasingly severe shortages, producing widespread hunger by 1938. The Communists, in turn, developed a political and military hegemony under the Negrín government, though never complete domination. The policy of both Negrín and the Communists was to continue resistance to the bitter end, hoping that a general European war would soon break out, during which France would come to the relief of the Republicans. This was increasingly resented by the other leftist parties, however, who finally rebelled in Madrid in March 1945, overthrowing Negrín and the Communists, and then soon surrendering to Franco, who declared the end of the war on April 1, 1939.

The Spanish Civil War was a classic revolutionary-counter revolutionary civil war, somewhat similar to those that occurred in eastern and southeastern Europe after each of the world wars. It became a highly mythified event, often presented as a struggle between fascism and democracy, fascism and communism, or Christian civilization and Asian barbarism. It has also been viewed as the opening battle of World War II (19391945). All such epithets are exaggerated, however. While there was fascism on the side of Francos Nationalists, there was no democracy on the Republican side. In Spain, Hitler and Stalin were on opposite sides, but they joined forces in August-September 1939 to begin World War II in Europe. Germany and Italy did gain their goals in Spain, however, while Soviet policy failed.

Militarily, the war was notable for the introduction of late-model weaponry, especially new warplanes and tanks. The Soviet military studied the war with great thoroughness, but they sometimes drew the wrong conclusions from it, as did some other countries. Germany learned important lessons on the use of combined arms and air-to-ground support, but it failed to improve its armored forces. The victorious Franco regime skirted with involvement in World War II, but it never entered that conflict and endured until Francos death in 1975.

SEE ALSO Civil Wars; Fascism; Franco, Francisco; Hitler, Adolf; Mussolini, Benito; Stalin, Joseph; World War II


Bolloten, Burnett. 1991. The Spanish Civil War: Revolution and Counterrevolution. Durham: University of North Carolina Press.

Coverdale, John F. 1975. Italian Intervention in the Spanish Civil War. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Payne, Stanley G. 1987. The Franco Regime 19361975. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Payne, Stanley G. 2003. The Spanish Civil War, the Soviet Union, and Communism. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Payne, Stanley G. 2006. The Collapse of the Spanish Republic, 19331936. Origins of the Civil War. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Preston, Paul. 1993. Franco. A Biography. London: HarperCollins.

Thomas, Hugh. 1986. The Spanish Civil War. New York: Harper & Row.

Whealey, Robert H. 1989. Hitler and Spain. The Nazi Role in the Spanish Civil War. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press.

Stanley G. Payne

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"Spanish Civil War." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . 16 Dec. 2017 <>.

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Spanish civil war

Spanish civil war, 1936–39, conflict in which the conservative and traditionalist forces in Spain rose against and finally overthrew the second Spanish republic.

The Second Republic

The second republic, proclaimed after the fall of the monarchy in 1931, was at first dominated by middle-class liberals and moderate socialists, among them Niceto Alcalá Zamora, Francisco Largo Caballero, and Manuel Azaña. They began a broad-ranging attack on the traditional, privileged structure of Spanish society: Some large estates were redistributed; church and state were separated; and an antiwar, antimilitarist policy was proclaimed. With their interests and their ideals threatened, the landed aristocracy, the church, and a large military clique, as well as monarchists and Carlists, rallied against the government, as did the new fascist party, the Falange.

The government's idealistic reforms failed to satisfy the left-wing radicals and did little to ameliorate the lot of the lower classes, who increasingly engaged in protest movements against it. The forces of the right gained a majority in the 1933 elections, and a series of weak coalition governments followed. Most of these were under the leadership of the moderate republican Alejandro Lerroux, but he was more or less dependent on the right wing and its leader José María Gil Robles. As a result many of the republican reforms were ignored or set aside. Left-wing strikes and risings buffeted the government, especially during the revolution of Oct., 1934, while the political right, equally dissatisfied, increasingly resorted to plots and violence.

Outbreak of War

When the electoral victory (1936) of the Popular Front (composed of liberals, Socialists, and Communists) augured a renewal of leftist reforms, revolutionary sentiment on the right consolidated. In July, 1936, Gen. Francisco Franco led an army revolt in Morocco. Rightist groups rebelled in Spain, and the army officers led most of their forces into the revolutionary (Nationalist or Insurgent) camp. In N Spain the revolutionists, under Gen. Emilio Mola, quickly overran most of Old Castile, Navarre, and W Aragon. They also captured some key cities in the south.

Catalonia—where socialism and anarchism were strong, and which had been granted autonomy—remained republican (Loyalist). The Basques too sided with the republicans to protect their local liberties. This traditional Spanish separatism asserted itself particularly in republican territory and hindered effective military organization. By Nov., 1936, the Nationalists had Madrid under siege, but while the new republican government of Francisco Largo Caballero (to which the anarchists had been admitted) struggled to organize an effective army, the first incoming International Brigade helped the Loyalists hold the city.

Foreign Participation

The International Brigades—multinational groups of volunteers (many of them Communists) that were organized mostly in France—represented only a small part of the foreign participation in the war. From the first and throughout the war, Italy and Germany aided Franco with an abundance of planes, tanks, and other materiel. Germany sent some 10,000 aviators and technicians; Italy sent large numbers of "volunteers," probably about 70,000. Great Britain and France, anxious to prevent a general European conflagration, proposed a nonintervention pact, which was signed in Aug., 1936, by 27 nations. The signatories included Italy, Germany, and the USSR, all of whom failed to keep their promises. The Spanish republic became dependent for supplies on the Soviet Union, which used its military aid to achieve its own political goals.

Nationalist Victory

As the war progressed the situation played into the hands of the Communists, who at the outset had been of negligible importance. The Loyalists ranks were riven by factional strife, which intensified as the Loyalist military position worsened; among its manifestations was the Communists' suppression of the anarchists and the Trotskyite Partido Obrero de Unificacion Marxista (POUM). On the Nationalist side internal conflict also existed, especially between the military and the fascists, but Franco was able to surmount it and consolidate his position. Gradually the Nationalists wore down Loyalist strength. Bilbao, the last republican center in the north, fell in June, 1937, and in a series of attacks from March to June, 1938, the Nationalists drove to the Mediterranean and cut the republican territory in two. Late in 1938, Franco mounted a major offensive against Catalonia, and Barcelona was taken in Jan., 1939. With the loss of Catalonia the Loyalist cause became hopeless. Republican efforts for a negotiated peace failed, and on Apr. 1, 1939, the victorious Nationalists entered Madrid. Italy and Germany had recognized the Franco regime in 1936, Great Britain and France did so in Feb., 1939; international recognition of Franco's authoritarian government quickly followed.


For Germany and Italy the Spanish civil war served as a testing ground for the blitzkrieg and other techniques of warfare that would be used in World War II; for the European democracies it was another step down the road of appeasement; and for the politically conscious youth of the 1930s who joined the International Brigades, saving the Spanish republic was the idealistic cause of the era, a cause to which many gave their lives. For the Spanish people the civil war was an encounter whose huge toll of lives and material devastation were unparalleled in centuries of Spanish history.


See F. Borkenau, The Spanish Cockpit (1937); G. Orwell, Homage to Catalonia (1938); G. Brenan, The Spanish Labyrinth (1943); H. Thomas, The Spanish Civil War (1961); G. Jackson, The Spanish Republic and the Civil War (1965); R. Rosenstone, Crusade of the Left (1969); R. Carr, ed., The Republic and the Civil War in Spain (1971); R. Fraser, Blood of Spain (1979); P. Preston, The Spanish Holocaust (2012); S. G. Payne, The Spanish Civil War (2012).

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Spanish Civil War


In July 1936, after months of unrest and politically motivated assassinations, a junta of nationalist generals, including Francisco Franco, led an uprising against the Spanish Republic. When Franco had difficulty transporting his forces from Africa to Spain, he appealed for aid from Germany and Italy. Hitler and Mussolini were only too happy to oblige. The Republicans also asked for help from the Western powers and the Soviet Union. Britain, France, and the United States decided to adopt a strict policy of nonintervention, but Josef Stalin began secretly supplying the Republic with the weapons it needed to survive.

Soviet aid, however, came with a price. Stalin provided thousands of Red Army, NKVD, and GRU (secret police) officers who often furthered his aims while acting as advisers for the Republicans. Meanwhile the Spanish government shipped its vast gold reserves to Moscow, where the Soviets deducted the cost of armaments for the war, at exorbitant prices, from the bullion. Yet without Soviet tanks and airplanes it is certain that the Republic would have fallen much more quickly than it did.

Stalin and the Stalinist Spanish Communist Party wanted a say over the political future of Spain. From the start of the war, the Soviets pushed the Republicans to eliminate anyone who did not follow the party line. This hunt for Trotskyists was tolerated by the Republican governments in order to retain the favor of their only great power supporter. Most Spanish leaders, however, were able to resist Soviet attempts to interfere in the internal affairs of their country, and steered their own course during the war.

The Soviet Union and the Comintern also took a direct hand in combat. The European Left sent more than 30,000 enthusiastic volunteers to fight for the Republicans, some of whom came to Spain to support a revolution, on the model of the Soviet Union, while others wanted only to defend democracy. A large number of the commanders for these International Brigades were regular Red Army officers, although their origins were disguised and never acknowledged by the Soviet Union. The Internationals, and armaments sent by the Soviets, were critical for the Republicans' successful defense of Madrid in December 1936. The Republican cause also benefited from Soviet and International participation in other engagements, including the battle of Jarama in February 1937 and the defeat of Italian troops at Guadalajara in March 1937, while Soviet tank operators and pilots were of crucial importance throughout the war.

Of the Soviet soldiers who saw action in the Spanish arena, dozens were recalled to Moscow and executed during the military purges of 19371939. At the same time others, such as Konstantin Rokossovsky, Ivan Konev, Alexander Rodimtsev, and Nikolai Kuznetsov, had brilliant careers during World War II and after.

In the end, Soviet aid could not alter the outcome of the war. As the international climate worsened, Stalin decided to withdraw support for the Spanish government in 1938 and by the end of the year could only offer his condolences as the Republic faced utter defeat.

See also: communist international; stalin, josef vissarionovich


Alpert, Michael. (1994). A New International History of the Spanish Civil War. Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan.

Howson, Gerald. (1998). Arms for Spain: The Untold Story of the Spanish Civil War. London: J. Murray.

Radosh, Ronald, and Habeck, Mary R., eds. (2001). Spain Betrayed: The Soviet Union in the Spanish Civil War. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Thomas, Hugh. (1977). The Spanish Civil War. New York: Harper and Row.

Mary R. Habeck

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Civil War, Spanish

Civil War, Spanish (1936–39) Conflict developing from a military rising against the republican government in Spain. The revolt began in Spanish Morocco, led by General Franco. It was supported by conservatives and reactionaries, collectively known as the Nationalists and including the fascist Falange. The leftist Popular Front government was supported by republicans, socialists and various ill-coordinated leftist groups, collectively known as Loyalists or Republicans. The Nationalists swiftly gained control of most of rural w Spain, but not the main industrial regions. The war, fought with great savagery, became a serious international issue, representing the first major clash between the forces of the extreme right and the extreme left in Europe. Franco received extensive military support, especially aircraft, from the fascist dictators Mussolini and Hitler. The Soviet Union provided more limited aid for the Republicans. Liberal and socialist sympathizers from countries such as Britain and France fought as volunteers for the Republicans, but their governments remained neutral. The Nationalists extended their control in 1937, while the Republicans were increasingly weakened by internal quarrels. In 1938, despite some Republican gains, the Nationalists reached the Mediterranean, splitting the Republican forces. The fall of Madrid, after a long siege, in March 1939 brought the war to an end, with Franco supreme. More than one million Spaniards died in the conflict.

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