Spanish Civil War

views updated May 21 2018



The Spanish civil war (July 1936–April 1939) was a brutal fratricidal struggle. Representing the clash between diametrically opposed views of Spain, it was a battle to settle crucial issues that had divided Spaniards for generations: agrarian reform, recognition of the identity of the historical regions (Catalonia, the Basque Country), and the roles of the Catholic Church and the armed forces in a modern state.

Spain's tragedy, however, cannot be separated from the wider European picture. The London Times noted in September 1936 that the "Spanish Cockpit" was the distorting mirror in which Europe could see a reflection of its own tensions. In an interwar period marked by massive political polarization, the Spanish conflict became the fiercest battle in a European civil war that had included, among other events, the consolidation of Soviet Russia, the rise of fascism, and the establishment of authoritarian dictatorships throughout central and eastern Europe. However, Spain was exceptional. It aroused an unprecedented level of popular passion, and all of Europe's political leaders—Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Joseph Stalin, Neville Chamberlain, Léon Blum—played a crucial role.

There had been other conflicts in which the occasional volunteer or adventurer had taken part, but in Spain, the high number of intellectuals and, above all, ordinary citizens prepared to do so was startling. Some two thousand foreigners joined the rebels in the belief that theirs was the cause of Christian civilization against communist barbarism. Additionally, over thirty-five thousand volunteers fought for a republic that they regarded as the last-ditch stand against the seemingly invincible forces of fascism.


The Spanish civil war is deeply rooted in that country's history. Its religious fanaticism was borrowed from the legendary Reconquista, the almost eight-hundred-year struggle to expel the Moors from the peninsula. The clash between state centralism and peripheral nationalisms evoked the War of Succession of the early eighteenth century when Catalan autonomy was crushed. The cruelty displayed by both sides mirrored the brutality of the nineteenth-century civil wars fought between the supporters of the absolute monarchy (Carlists) and the Liberals. More recently, the origins of the war can be found in the political and social polarization of the Restoration Monarchy (1874–1931) and the Second Republic (1931–1936).

Despite all its democratic trappings, the regime ushered in by the restoration of the Bourbons in December 1874 was an oligarchic system in which two monarchist parties (Conservatives and Liberals) alternated in power by systematically rigging the ballot. By failing to initiate reform from within, this elitist order faced, as elsewhere in Europe, the mass mobilization and revolutionary upheaval that followed World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. With the southern countryside in revolt and the cities paralyzed by industrial unrest, the military, also involved in a cruel colonial adventure in Morocco, began to assume the role of "saviors" of social order and finally, with the consent of King Alfonso XIII, seized power in September 1923.

The military coup was Spain's authoritarian solution to the crisis of elitist politics in an era of mass mobilization. However, in contrast to other European dictatorships, the Spanish dictator, General Miguel Primo de Rivera, failed to create a viable order. His downfall brought about the collapse of the monarchy and made possible the advent of democracy. Following the adverse result of the municipal elections of April 1931, and with the officers unwilling to play again the role of the regime's praetorian guard, Alfonso XIII was forced into exile.

The Second Republic handed power to a coalition of Socialists, Republicans, and Catalans committed to a wide range of reform that included the long-awaited agrarian reform, far-reaching social legislation, Catalan home rule, the reconversion of the armed forces into an apolitical institution, and the secularization of society by curbing the privileged status of the Catholic Church. Unfortunately, against a background of world economic depression and political reaction, the Republic's reformist program led to the worst of both worlds. While lack of capital to finance the reforms produced disenchantment among aggrieved sectors of society, the traditional vested interests sought to overthrow a regime that endangered their previous unchallenged hegemony.

Sporadic revolutionary outbursts carried out by anarchosyndicalist groups as well as right-wing attempts to oust democracy by violent or legal means marked the Republican period. In August 1932 General José Sanjurjo rebelled in Seville. Following the rapid quelling of the coup, a new right-wing political coalition, the Spanish Confederation of Right-Wing Autonomous Groups (CEDA) emerged in February 1933. Embracing a legalist route, the CEDA's objective was to build a mass party with which to win elections and then once in government destroy the political system from within. Well-financed by the rural oligarchy and counting on the church's enthusiastic support, the CEDA sought to attract the officer corps, the urban middle classes, and the many Catholic farmers in northern and central Spain.

The CEDA's strategy appeared to be vindicated. After returning the largest parliamentary minority in the elections of November 1933, its demands to be represented in government triggered a revolution in October 1934. The example of Mussolini in 1922 and Hitler in 1933, who had joined governmental coalitions and then destroyed democracy from within, fueled widespread fear that Spain was heading a similar way. The subsequent crushing of the Socialist-led revolution resulted in a period of CEDA supremacy. About forty thousand left-wing militants languished in prisons, wages were slashed, trade unions were disbanded, peasants were evicted, the church was restored to its prominent position, and Catalan autonomy was suspended. Unexpectedly, in the autumn of 1935 a series of financial scandals involving the Radical Party, the CEDA's main governmental partner, led to the dissolution of parliament and the summoning of new elections in February 1936.

The victory at the polls of the Popular Front (the electoral coalition including Liberal Republicans, Socialists, and Communists) shattered the CEDA's legalist strategy. Having lost the political argument, the Spanish Right saw no alternative but to resort to a military insurrection that began on 17 July 1936.


Confident that in a country with a long tradition of military intervention their uprising would lead to a relatively swift takeover, the conspirators had not anticipated massive popular resistance. The insurgents (Nationalists) gained control of roughly one-third of the country. It contained the traditionally conservative areas (Galicia, Old Castile, and Navarre), all the colonies, the Canary Islands, and the Balearics (with the exception of Minorca) as well as a few working-class strongholds such as Zaragoza and Oviedo and a small but vital strip of land in Andalusia that included Seville, Granada, Córdoba, and Cádiz.

However, in the rest of the country the determination of the trade unions and the loyalty of large numbers of the peninsular troops, police forces, and many senior officers resulted in the crushing of the insurrection. This territory was the most densely populated, including the main industrial areas of northern and eastern Spain (Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, Bilbao, and so on), the entire Mediterranean coast as far south as Málaga, and the vast rural areas of Estremadura, Murcia, New Castille, and Eastern Andalusia. Furthermore, Spain's air force (albeit tiny) and the country's huge gold reserves (the fourth-largest in the world) remained in the hands of the government. The Army of Africa, containing the fierce Foreign Legion and the regulares (indigenous Moorish troops commanded by Spanish officers), Spain's most battle-hardened professional military force, was unable to cross the Strait of Gibraltar after sailors stayed loyal to the Republic, overpowered their officers, and retained control of the fleet.


Describing Spain in the summer of 1936 as a country fiercely divided into two polarized camps is largely misleading. The overwhelming majority of Spaniards did not welcome the war but regarded the unfolding tragedy with horror. It was often geography that dictated the side for which people would fight. Nevertheless, the rebellion opened the gates to innate social hatreds, and Spain embarked upon an era of darkness and violence.

In Nationalist Spain, members of the Popular Front parties, trade union activists, and anybody deemed to be "red" were rounded up and executed. In turn, right-wingers, landowners, and employers were hunted down in Republican Spain. The Catholic Church, identified as the institution that had blessed the glaring social injustices of the past, was particularly singled out for popular hatred.

Nobody could plead total innocence in the slaughter. However, there existed an essential difference between the two sides. In Republican Spain, the orgy of killing was largely produced by the collapse of governmental authority. Popular crowds ran amok, unleashing their anger against those associated with years of oppression. Certainly all Popular Front groups contained exaltés who were convinced that the physical liquidation of class enemies was necessary. However, the atrocities were never condoned, let alone encouraged, by the Republican authorities. On the contrary, from the start they sought to end this indiscriminate system of mob justice, and eventually terror diminished proportionally to the gradual reconstruction of the Republican state. By contrast, there was very little spontaneity to the bloodbath taking place in Nationalist Spain. Most vigilantism could have been effectively limited, if not eliminated altogether, by the military commanders. They not only failed to do so but even encouraged the violence. The rebel leadership merely implemented the brutal methods that they had learned from years of vicious campaigns against the "heathen natives" in Morocco: the enemy had to be exterminated and the potentially hostile population paralyzed by sheer terror.


For weeks the war remained a series of disparate and fierce local clashes. The Nationalists had not prepared for a long conflict and soon found themselves without leadership. On 20 July the coup's nominal head, General Sanjurjo, died in a plane crash in Portugal; other leading rebel generals were also killed and most of the prewar right-wing political leaders were imprisoned, dead, or overwhelmed by events. Unclear as to whether it stood for a "rectified" Republic under the tutelage of a military junta, a monarchist restoration, or the establishment of a fascist order, the rebel camp was, in the summer of 1936, a motley collection of different warlords, separated geographically and supported by disparate paramilitary militias.

In turn, with the state machinery swept away by the ongoing revolutionary tide and the forces of public order outnumbered by armed militants, the Republican government's authority hardly reached beyond its ministerial offices. A myriad of popular committees took over the running of local economies, trade unions collectivized significant tracts of land and large sectors of industry and public services, and militias patrolled the streets. However, although badly mauled, the legitimacy of the Republican state was never in dispute. A bolshevik party seeking to generate an alternative revolutionary source of authority never existed.

As the war dragged on, both camps realized that total victory could only be achieved through a strong state in full control of a coordinated military strategy, diplomacy, public order, and war economy. Therefore, Francisco Largo Caballero and General Francisco Franco were catapulted to power in September 1936. Largo Caballero, the leader of the largest trade union, the Socialist General Union of Workers (UGT), formed the "government of victory," which included all the forces fighting for the Republic (Liberal Republicans, Basque and Catalan nationalists, socialists, communists, and anarchosyndicalists). In turn, the Nationalist generals appointed Franco, in charge of the Army of Africa, as commander in chief and head of state. With the endorsement of the church, he adopted the title of caudillo (leader), a name borrowed from the Christian medieval chieftains.

Historical and ideological reasons made it easier for the Nationalists to collaborate. They all shared a similar authoritarian and ultra-Catholic program, had participated in the military conspiracy, and readily accepted their subordination to the military command. Without much difficulty Franco created a dictatorial regime in which a militarized state, modern fascist values, and arcane religious traditions were the dominant features.

By contrast, the bickering that had traditionally marked the Republican forces was exacerbated by the new wartime framework: the central administration was faced with Catalan and Basque nationalist aspirations; bourgeois Republicans were overwhelmed by the leading role of the working-class organizations (themselves bitterly divided between socialists and anarchosyndicalists) and facing the rapid growth of the Communist Party. Even if the fear of defeat led them to rally around the Largo Caballero government, tensions persisted and often degenerated into violent clashes. An armed confrontation in Barcelona in May 1937 exploded into a mini civil war. The outcome of the May events represented a victory for those who demanded greater centralization of authority and welcomed the downfall of Largo Caballero and his replacement by another Socialist, Juan Negrín. Political infighting persisted until the end of the conflict. However, to explain the Republic's ultimate defeat in terms of its own internal squabbling only provides part of the story.


Lacking any important armament industry, both sides looked abroad for diplomatic and military support. The international response proved crucial in determining the course and outcome of the conflict.

Postrevolutionary Mexico was the only state that supported the Republic wholeheartedly from the beginning. It shipped arms and food and represented in many countries the diplomatic interests of the Spanish government. Nevertheless, geographical distance and scarcity of resources hampered Mexico's ability to play a major role. In fact, the Republic's hopes of foreign support rested on the Western democracies, particularly its sister Popular Front government in France.

Led by the Socialist Léon Blum, the French administration responded positively to the Republic's pleas for military aid. That decision was a result of ideological solidarity and the need for France to have a friendly state on its southern border. However, the initial French stance was to alter due to pressures both domestic—the fears within some government circles that intervention in Spain could widen the conflict to France—and foreign, chiefly the attitude of France's ally, Britain, toward the Spanish war.

The instructions given by the Conservative prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, to his foreign minister, Anthony Eden, described eloquently the British position: "On no account, French or other, must you bring us into the fight on the side of the Russians!" Indeed, Baldwin's administration and, from May 1937, that of Neville Chamberlain, were committed to the appeasement of the fascist dictators and regarded communism as the main enemy. Class, upbringing, and their vast financial interests in Spain led the British ruling elites to sympathize with the insurgents. The problem for British diplomacy was that the counterrevolution remained formally illegitimate. Consequently, since intervention in favor of the rebellion was unthinkable, the British government maintained for the home audience an image of scrupulous neutrality that was designed to harm the Republic.

Unlike the international ostracism faced by the Spanish government, from the start the rebels could rely on the support of the Portuguese dictator, Antonio Salazar. Portugal's proximity to the battleground was of inestimable value, particularly as a conduit for the delivery of foreign aid. Still more vital contributions came from the fascist powers.

Both Italy and Germany initially rebuffed the pleas of the Spanish rebels. However, realizing the potential advantages of the Spanish conflict, they soon reversed that decision. After meeting Franco's emissaries, Hitler concluded that backing the Nationalists was a limited risk that was worth taking: it would lead to France, Germany's continental enemy, being surrounded by potentially hostile neighbors. Furthermore, Spain's raw materials were a blessing to a Germany bent on rearming, and the war offered the perfect testing ground not only for men and equipment but also for the resolution of the Allies.

Mussolini's ego was flattered by being the recipient of pleas for help, and he was eager to assist the establishment of a potential ally in the Mediterranean. Knowledge of British hostility toward the Spanish government, including its opposition to French involvement, appeared to indicate that Britain would not object to discreet intervention in favor of the insurgents. Also, he was aware that the divided French cabinet had drawn back from open military support, leaving the Republic badly equipped. Finally, Italian diplomats in Morocco advised that once the rebels' colonial troops landed in the peninsula the war would soon be over.

Thus, fascist aid, together with British acquiescence and French paralysis, altered dramatically the course of the war. In August 1936 Italian and German transport planes carried out the first successful airlift of troops in modern warfare, enabling Franco's elite Army of Africa to land in the peninsula and initiate its inexorable advance toward Madrid. When in October they reached the gates of the capital, the war seemed to be reaching its end.


In late July 1936 the secrecy surrounding fascist involvement foundered when two Italian planes crash-landed in French North Africa. With Britain warning of an end to the alliance if French intervention led to continental war, the Blum government proposed that all European powers should accept a Non-Intervention Agreement (NIA) in Spain.

Twenty-seven European nations adhered to NIA in August 1936, and a working committee (NIC) was established in London one month later. In turn, the United States introduced a moral arms embargo on both Spanish parties in August 1936, formalized by the Spanish Embargo Act and the Neutrality Act of January and May 1937 respectively. Blum thought that an arms embargo offered the Republic a chance to crush the rebellion. In fact, nonintervention became a diplomatic farce. A legal government was on an equal footing with seditious generals while its military efforts were hindered by an arms embargo; for the fascist powers it provided a perfect cloak to conceal their flagrant involvement.

Awareness of fascist intervention cemented the Republic's romantic appeal. In the democratic nations there were huge rallies demanding the Spanish government's right to purchase weapons freely, and aid committees were established to raise money, medicines, and clothes to help the beleaguered Spanish people. Nurses, doctors, ambulance drivers, and others volunteered to travel to Spain.

Initially the Soviet Union adopted a cautious strategy. The Spanish war presented a dilemma: Stalin could not allow the emergence of another fascist state; however, a Republican victory, encompassing a social revolution, could result in driving the Allies away from the Soviet Union. He welcomed NIA, but its continual flouting by Germany and Italy changed his initial prudence. From mid-September, under the utmost secrecy, the Soviets began to dispatch weapons while the Communist International organized the recruitment and transport of volunteers (the International Brigades). Ensuring the Republic's survival (albeit a Republic in which revolutionary fervor was restrained) became central to Soviet designs to woo the Western democracies into an alliance with the Soviet Union against Nazi aggression.

The arrival of the first Soviet supplies and International Brigades in October 1936 proved crucial. Against all expectations Franco's troops were held at the gates of Madrid, crushing all hopes for the quick Nationalist victory upon which the fascist states had bet. In fact, with their elite troops badly crippled by casualties, the insurgents even contemplated defeat. In light of these new circumstances, Franco turned again to his fascist friends. Aware of NIC ineffectualness, Germany and Italy committed further reinforcements, thus attaching their prestige to the Spanish adventure.

Nearly twenty thousand German troops served in the Condor Legion, an air force that included the most modern bomber and fighter squadrons in the Nazi arsenal. Still, in 1936 Hitler was not prepared to frighten the Allies through excessive involvement and was happy to let Italy bear the brunt of the effort. Indeed, Mussolini was all but in name at war with the Republic, dispatching some eighty thousand troops (the Corpo di Truppe Volontarie) organized into mechanized divisions, with a permanent contingent of three hundred aircraft (La Aviazione Legionaria). In turn, Russia increased its military aid, and the flow of foreign volunteers continued unabated. By 1937 Spain was a veritable European battlefield, yet NIC continued to turn a blind eye to the flagrant violations of the agreement. Blum himself connived in the smuggling of armaments over the frontier in what was called "relaxed nonintervention."


Buoyed by the Axis reinforcements, the Nationalists captured throughout 1937 the key northern industrial provinces of Asturias, Vizcaya, and Santander and in the spring of 1938 stormed through Aragon, reaching the Mediterranean and splitting the Republic in two. By then the chaotic Republican militias of the first months had been transformed into an efficient Popular Army capable of mounting well-planned offensives. However, small gains in the battlefields, followed by bloody stalemates and painful losses, revealed that the sheer material superiority of the Nationalists ultimately prevailed over the Republicans' courage and even tactical cunning. Furthermore, as Franco held the agrarian heartland, the Republic's population suffered from growing food shortages. However, defeat was above all the result of NIC's crippling embargo, unevenly enforced, which prevented the Republic from engaging on an equal military footing with the Axis-equipped enemy.

Nearly eighty thousand Moroccan mercenaries and thousands of German and Italian professional soldiers, constantly reequipped with the best available matériel, joined the Nationalists. By contrast, excluding the two thousand Soviet pilots and technicians, the Republican foreign troops were genuine volunteers who had to be armed, trained, and fed. While Franco always obtained promptly and on credit crucial oil deliveries from the main Anglo-American companies and weapons from the dictatorships, the Spanish government had to send its gold reserves abroad (to France and the Soviet Union) to finance the war effort and, due to the international boycott, had to rely on the intrigues and inflated prices of the black market for mostly obsolete equipment. Unlike the reliability of the Nationalist supplies, the long distance between the Soviet Union and Spain and the dependence on contraband meant irregular deliveries. Furthermore, the deadly attacks of Italian submarines and aviation effectively closed the Mediterranean supply route. From late 1937 the Republic depended on deliveries to French Atlantic ports that then had to be smuggled into Spain.

Negrín's slogan—"resisting is winning"—encapsulated alternative strategies. At best, victory could be achieved by linking the Spanish conflict with a European war or by persuading the Allies either to enforce nonintervention or to abandon it altogether and give the Republic the military supplies to defend itself; at worst, the mounting of an effective war effort would force Franco to negotiate a compromise peace. Negrín's calls for resistance appeared justified as Nazi aggression in central Europe seemed to be about to plunge the Continent into an all-out confrontation.

Indeed, the worsening of the international situation offered the Republic some glimmer of hope. On 12 March 1938 Germany annexed Austria (the Anschluss) and made plans for the next prize, the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia. It was an opportunity for the Republic to embark upon a parallel diplomatic and military offensive. On 1 May, Negrín published a thirteen-point declaration stating his government's desire both to reach a negotiated peace and to attain a democratic postwar Spain independent of foreign interference. On 25 July the Republican army crossed the river Ebro, taking the Nationalists by surprise and establishing a bridgehead forty kilometers into enemy territory. The Battle of the Ebro became the longest and bloodiest of the entire war. However, the ultimate fate of the conflict was decided in the European chancelleries rather than on the blood-soaked sierras of eastern Spain.

On 21 September 1938 Negrín traveled to the League of Nations in Geneva to announce the unilateral withdrawal of foreign soldiers. The loss of the remaining twelve thousand International Brigadiers was not of any serious military consequence. However, it could bring about international pressure to force the Nationalists to follow suit. Of course, Franco, if bereft of Axis aid, could not pursue the war. As Republican optimism surged, the other camp was plagued by gloom. After much hesitation, on 27 September Franco reassured the Allies of his neutrality in the event of a European conflict. However, the Allies could not ignore the vast amount of Axis matériel and troops in Spain. Franco's headquarters could not but dread that as soon as hostilities broke out on the Continent the Republic would declare war on Germany and link its fortune to that of the Western democracies. The insurgents would then find themselves geographically isolated from their friends and starved of military supplies, if not at war with the Allies.

In fact the international situation could not have evolved more favorably for Franco. On 29 September the British and French prime ministers, Neville Chamberlain and É douard Daladier, agreed in Munich to browbeat the Czechs into surrendering the Sudetenland. It was the final nail in the Republic's coffin.

On 16 November 1938 the Battle of the Ebro concluded. It had taken the Nationalists almost four months to regain the territory lost in July. Despite their material inferiority the Republicans had avoided being routed, but morale had plummeted. Hopes of being rescued by the Western democracies—or, at the very least, of the implementation of genuine nonintervention—had been shattered in Munich. While the Republic could never replace its massive losses, the Nationalists, promptly rearmed by Germany, conquered Catalonia in two months. Despite all military adversities, Negrín was determined to hold onto the 30 percent of Spain still in Republican hands. However, spurred by a combination of irresponsibility, delusion, and treachery, several political and military figures revolted against the government. Their leader, the Republican commander in the central zone, Colonel Segismundo Casado, claimed he could deliver a honorable peace. Instead his coup led to clashes between rival Republican forces and ruined the possibility of further resistance. Franco, who had always insisted on unconditional surrender, ordered a new offensive against Madrid on 26 March 1939. The war officially concluded on 1 April.

After thirty-three months of steadfast struggle, the Republic collapsed. A red but democratic Spain was sacrificed on the altar of Western appeasement before fascist aggression. However, Western appeasement only made war in Europe more likely. During their common Spanish adventure, Germany and Italy sealed the Axis Pact, perfected their military techniques, and were emboldened by the impunity with which they acted despite the existence of NIA. Its Spanish experience also encouraged the Soviet Union to play the appeasement game, which led to the Non-Aggression Pact with Germany in August 1939. As Spain was immersed in Franco's brutal pacification, Europe was about to be plunged into the horrors of World War II.

See alsoAntifascism; Appeasement; Fascism; Franco, Francisco; Spain.


Alpert, Michael. A New International History of the Spanish Civil War. Basingstoke, U.K., 1994.

Esenwein, George, and Adrian Shubert. Spain at War: The Spanish Civil War in Context, 1931–1939. London, 1995.

Graham, Helen. The Spanish Republic at War, 1936–1939. Cambridge, U.K., 2002.

——. The Spanish Civil War: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford, U.K., 2005.

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

Jackson, Gabriel. The Spanish Republic and the Civil War, 1931–1939. Princeton, N.J., 1972.

Moradiellos, Enrique. 1936: Los mitos de la guerra civil. Barcelona, 2004.

Preston, Paul. The Coming of the Spanish Civil War: Reform, Reaction and Revolution in the Second Republic. 2nd ed. London, 1994.

——. A Concise History of the Spanish Civil War. London, 1996.

Romero Salvadó, Francisco J. The Spanish Civil War: Origins, Course, and Outcomes. Basingstoke, U.K., 2005.

Thomas, Hugh. The Spanish Civil War. 3rd ed. Harmondsworth, U.K., 1986.

Francisco J. Romero SalvadÓ

Spanish Civil War

views updated Jun 27 2018

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

Spanish Civil War

views updated May 18 2018


The Spanish Civil War of 1936 to 1939 was the culmination of a prolonged period of national political unrest in a country that was increasingly polarized and unable to ameliorate the poverty in which millions of its citizens lived. In Spain at the time, landless peasants cobbled together a bare subsistence as migrant laborers, following the harvests on vast agricultural estates. The hierarchy of the Catholic Church, identifying with wealthy landowners, was in full control of secondary education; education for women seemed to the Church unnecessary, and universal literacy a danger rather than a goal. The military, meanwhile, had come to see itself, rather melodramatically, as the only bulwark against civil disorder and as the ultimate guarantor of the core values of Spanish society.

When a progressive Popular Front government was elected in February 1936 with the promise of realistic land reform as one of its key planks, conservative forces immediately gathered to plan resistance. The Spanish left, meanwhile, celebrated the elections in a way that made conservative capitalists, military officers, and churchmen worried that broader reform might begin. Rumors of a military coup led leaders of the Spanish Republic (the elected government) to transfer several high-ranking military officers to remote postings, with the aim of making communication and coordination between them more difficult. But the planning for a military uprising continued.

The military rebellion began on July 18, 1936, with the officers who organized it expecting a quick victory and a rapid takeover of the entire country. What the military did not anticipate was the determination of the Spanish people, who broke into barracks, took up arms, and crushed the rebellion in such key areas as Madrid and Barcelona. At that point, the character of the struggle changed, for the military realized that it was not going to win by fiat. Military leaders faced a prolonged struggle against their own people and an uncertain outcome. They appealed to fascist dictatorships in Italy, Germany, and Portugal for assistance, and they soon began receiving both men and supplies from Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, and Antonio Salazar.

The 1936 election in Spain had been widely celebrated in progressive publications in Great Britain, France, and the United States. In the midst of the worldwide Depression, the military uprising was thus seen as an assault against the interests of working people everywhere. Moreover, the rapid intervention of German and Italian troops gave what might otherwise have remained a civil war a dramatic international character. Almost from the outset, the Spanish Civil War became a literal and symbolic instance of the growing worldwide struggle between fascism and democracy. Indeed, the Republic perceived the country as being under invasion by foreign troops. By the time the pilots of Hitler's Condor Legion reduced the Basque holy city of Guernica to rubble in April 1937, many in the rest of the world had come to share that opinion.

Yet the Spanish Republic faced the difficult task of defending itself against a substantial portion of its own military. Local militias worked well in inner city skirmishes but were of little use against mechanized battalions in the field. The Republic needed to raise an army, having lost most of its own to the rebel generals. After General Francisco Franco took command of the rebel army, he mounted an assault on the capital city of Madrid, hoping to end the war with one bold stroke. The situation looked desperate enough that the government fled to Valencia. Yet the capital held, with the small Spanish Communist Party playing a key role in the city's defense. Other Western powers signed a pact agreeing to abstain from arming either side, a pact that Hitler immediately violated. Only the Soviet Union was willing to sell quantities of arms to the Republic, a decision that helped gain the Communists increasing influence in the Spanish government. In addition, the Comintern, the international coalition of Communist parties, organized the International Brigades, with forty thousand people from fifty countries volunteering to fight on the side of the Republic. Among the International Brigades was the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, made up of volunteers from the United States.

Yet neither Soviet arms nor the international volunteers ever matched the arms supplied by Hitler and Mussolini. And the Spanish Left was deeply divided, with anarchists and anti-Soviet Marxists seeking a fundamental social revolution, while the Spanish Communist Party urged only moderate reform and cooperation with liberal parties as a way of winning the war. Despite winning occasional battles, the Republic steadily lost territory until it fell to Franco's forces in the spring of 1939.



Jackson, Gabriel. A Concise History of the Spanish Civil War. 1974.

Nelson, Cary. The Wound and the Dream: Sixty Years of American Poems about the Spanish Civil War. 2002.

Thomas, Hugh. The Spanish Civil War (1961), 3rd rev. edition. 1986.

Cary Nelson

Spanish Civil War

views updated May 23 2018


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

Spanish Civil War

views updated Jun 11 2018

Spanish Civil War

The Spanish Civil War was a domestic war in Spain from 1936 to 1939. On one side was the Republic of Spain, the government that had come to power in 1931 when King Alfonso XIII (1886–1941) left the country. Supporters of the Republic were called Loyalists. On the other side were the revolting Nationalists, led by the Spanish military under General Francisco Franco (1892–1975). The Nationalists won by April 1939.

The Spanish Civil War was the result of government policies that were unpopular with powerful parts of Spanish society. After coming into power in 1931, the Republic confiscated land owned by the Roman Catholic Church in Spain. The Church accused the government of violence against Catholic priests and nuns. The Republic also imposed government policies that threatened landowners and other wealthy Spaniards.

Precursor to world war

Europe was divided over the war. England and France tried to remain neutral. Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) in Germany and Benito Mussolini (1883–1945) in Italy supported the revolting Nationalists, which some feared wanted to impose a fascist government on the country. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin (1878–1953) supported the Republic, which made the Republic's opponents fear that Spain would follow the Soviet Union and become a one-party Communist state.

The Spanish Civil War affected American society in a number of ways. At the time, the United States had a neutrality law that barred arms shipments to nations at war with one another. Technically, the law did not apply to the Spanish conflict, so American manufacturers sold aircraft and other supplies to the Loyalists. Congress reacted in January 1937 with a law imposing the restrictions on the Spanish conflict, broadening the neutrality act to cover civil wars, too. President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945; served 1933–45) and Congress wanted to stay out of the conflict, as did most Americans.

The Abraham Lincoln Brigade

The United States remained officially neutral throughout the Spanish Civil War. Many Americans, however, fought in the conflict in support of the Republic as part of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. The brigade was raised, trained, and transported to Spain by the Communist Party of America. Out of approximately twenty-eight hundred men, eight hundred died in the fighting.

The arms question and the politics surrounding the whole conflict led to division in American society. Most American Roman Catholics, appalled by the Republic's treatment of the Church, supported the Nationalists. Many of them feared Communism in the ranks of the Loyalists. Most American Protestants and Jews supported the Republic as the legitimate government of the country and feared the fascists among the Nationalists.

Civil War, Spanish

views updated May 17 2018

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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