Spanish Civil War

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The Spanish Civil War (17 July 1936 – 1 April 1939) was a civil war between Spanish nationalists, traditionalists, Roman Catholics, and monarchists in a loose alliance on the one hand, against a loose alliance of leftists including communists and social anarchists on the other. The sides are generally referred to as the Nationalists and the Republicans. The latter, having taken control of the government, following a political decline associated with the Second Spanish Republic, which had been set up in 1931 following the decision of King Alphonso XIII to leave Spain, although without formal abdication.[1]

The conflict started after a revolt by a group of nationalist Spanish Army generals (notably Francisco Franco), supported by the conservative Confederatión Espanola de Derechas Autónomas (C.E.D.A), Carlist groups and the revolutionary Falange Española de las J.O.N.S..[2].

The Nationalists received help from Germany and Italy, and also by volunteers from other countries, while Soviet Union and other volunteers were giving support to the Republicans.


Civil War pictures
Spanish-Republicans (communists)
General Franco (centre) and the Chief of Staff of the German Condor Legion, Generalmajor Wolfram von Richthofen (right), 1937

Alfonso XIII, King of Spain, felt obliged to go into exile in April 1931 following Far-Left republican election victories in the cities and the illegal proclamation of a Second Spanish Republic. He was told at the time, wrongly, that the army would not support him. This was followed by a period of increasing leftist terror. The Catholic Church was a prominent target, with many churches being destroyed and individuals associated with the Church being killed. Many of the prominent leftists were Freemasons.[3][4]

The third General Election held under the Republican régime took place on February 16, 1936, resulting unexpectedly in an overwhelming victory for the parties of The Left, the so-called Popular Front led by Manuel Azana secured 256 seats, the Centre 52, and the Right 165. This was a reaction to the unpopularity of the previous government of Alejandro Lerroux, leader of the Radical Party, who had headed four governments from 1933 to 1935. Aazana's government, however, was dependent for its existence upon the support of the parties of The Far Left, including the Communists, Socialists and Syndicalists, with whom its members had little or nothing in common beyond a hatred of Fascism and Clericalism. Soon afterwards the Cortes (Spanish Parliament) removed President Zamora and Azana took his place.[5]

Following this election the situation throughout the country steadily deteriorated. Under pressure from The Far Left the government passed by Decree a number of laws which resulted in a state of chronic strikes and lockouts and a paralysis of the country's business. Civil unrest became widespread and 140 churches were burnt during the first six weeks after the election. Even the Law Courts fell into the hands of the Extreme Left. The Socialist Party then also passed into the hands of its extremist leader, Francisco Largo Cabalelro. The Communists were at the same time busy arming themselves and strengthening their organisation. Opposition was almost impossible: the Fascist leader, José Antonio Primo de Rivera, had been arrested and gaoled. The British Government reported in June 1936 that "with things developing as they are the chances of Parliamentary government surviving are becoming very slight. The financial position is also deteriorating rapidly, and a large black rate for the Pesata has made its appearance." Anti-Foreign feeling in official circles was evident and a left-wing book entitled Spain, to whom does she belong?, containing a violent attack on British businesses in Spain, was published on February 29 by Virgilio Sevillano Carbajal, a First Secretary at the Spanish Foreign Office![6]

The British and other Ambassadors relocated in June 1936 to San Sebastian. On July 3, at 3 a.m., units of the Republican Assault Guards kidnapped and murdered Don José Calvo Sotelo, the charismatic Monarchist leader and a former Minister of Finance. In revenge for this, the Captain of the 'Asaltos' was shot in Madrid on the night of July 12/13 by a few Monarchists. The Left used this as an excuse to round up fourteen of them in their revenge. On July 20 several churches were burnt in Barcelona, and serious riots continued for days mainly by anarchists.[7]

The civil and armed forces did nothing, and the Government appeared powerless to maintain order.

Civil War

Following the Popular Front victory in February 1936 General Francisco Franco y Bahamonde had been dismissed from his position in the Spanish War Office because of his part in the suppression by the Foreign Legion of the revolt of the Asturias' miners in 1934. He was then sent to be the Military Governor of the Canary Islands. On July 17 it was reported that the Foreign Legion in Spanish Morocco had revolted against the Madrid régime and that Franco had flown from Las Palmas that morning to Tetuan in Spanish Morocco, leaving almost at once for Ceuta. In addition, the Spanish fleet were now trapped in Tangier without oil. In San Sebastian in northern Spain clashes had taken place between armed police and "crowds of armed men in lorries, bristling with guns", trying to prevent soldiers joining the revolt. "Terrible excesses" took place there and diplomats' evacuated the town, the British Ambassador reporting to London saying: "I imagine that anyone who had experience of Russia at the beginning of the 1917 revolution would have found those conditions very faithfully reproduced here." Meanwhile, in Barcelona the garrison rose on July 20 against the Republican government. The government having wind of it employed shock police, Civil Guards, and a few loyal troops together with masses of armed workers, mainly anarchists and syndicalists, against them and there were heavy casualties.[8]

Within days, Spain was divided in two: the Second Spanish Republic (within which were pockets of revolutionary anarchism and Trotskyism), and a Nationalist and traditionalist Spain under the generals, and, eventually, under the leadership of General Francisco Franco. In the early days of the war, it is said that over 50,000 people who were caught on the "wrong side" of both lines were assassinated or summarily executed. In these paseos (promenades), as the executions were called, the victims were taken from their refuges or gaols by armed vigilante squads to be shot outside of town. Probably the most famous such victim was the poet and dramatist Federico García Lorca. The outbreak of the war provided an excuse for settling accounts and resolving long-standing feuds. Thus, this practice became widespread during the war across Spain.

Any hope of a quick ending to the war was dashed on July 21 when the Nationalists captured the main Spanish naval base at Ferrol in north-western Spain. This encouraged other sympathetic regimes of Europe to aid Franco, who had already contacted the governments of Germany and Italy the previous day. On July 26, Italy and Germany agreed to assist the Nationalists.

In the north, a Spanish army unit under Colonel Beorlegui, sent by General Emilio Mola, advanced on Gipuzkoa. On September 5, after heavy fighting, it took Irún, closing the French border to the Republicans. On September 13 the Basques surrendered San Sebastián to the Nationalists, who then advanced toward their capital, Bilbao. The capture of Gipuzkoa had isolated the Republican provinces in the north. Aircraft of the Spanish Air Force bombed Madrid in late November 1936.

Nationalist forces under Franco won a great symbolic victory on September 27 when they relieved the besieged Alcázar fortress at Toledo. Two days after relieving the siege, Franco proclaimed himself Generalísimo and Caudillo ("chieftain"); he would unify the various elements of the Nationalist cause.

In October, the Nationalists launched a major offensive toward Madrid, reaching it in early November and launching a major assault on the city on November 8. The Republican government, rapidly losing control on all fronts, was forced to shift from Madrid to Valencia on November 6. However, the Nationalists' attack on the capital was repulsed in fierce fighting between November 8 and 23. A contributory factor in the successful Republican defence was the arrival of the communist International Brigades, though only around 3,000 of them participated in the battle. Having failed to take the capital, Franco bombarded it from the air and, in the following two years, mounted several offensives to try to encircle Madrid.

Foreign aid

Meanwhile, the League of Nations were busy attempting to enforce a non-intervention policy in the rapidly escalating war. But on July 22, 1936, General Franco had sent a letter via Diplomatic Bag to Adolf Hitler asking for transport planes and other assistance. Hitler received the letter while at Bayreuth on the 26th and he agreed immediately to give aid without consulting the German Foreign Office. Thirty Junkers 52 transport planes were immediately sent to Spanish Morocco, solving the vital problem of getting troops onto the Spanish mainland. Other help followed. On November 18, Germany and Italy officially recognized the Franco government, and on December 23, Italy sent volunteers of its own to fight for the Nationalists.

On July 25 the French had announced that they would not furnish planes or munitions to the Spanish Republican Government. Meanwhile, Franco reported a Soviet oil tanker was heading for the stranded Spanish fleet (denied by the Moscow press).[9]

Republicans (republicanos) received the support of the Soviet Union and Mexico, while the Nationalists (nacionales) received the support of Italy and Germany, as well as neighbouring Portugal.[10]


The advent of the mass media allowed an unprecedented level of propaganda to be spread (Ernest Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn, George Orwell and Robert Capa all covered it) and so the war became notable for the passion and political division it inspired. Like other civil wars, the Spanish Civil War often pitted family members and trusted neighbours and friends against each other.


The war ended with the victory of the Nationalist side and the founding of an authoritarian nationalist government led by General Francisco Franco. In the aftermath of the civil war, all major patriotic parties were fused into the state party led by Franco.[11]

The Spanish Civil War contributed to political tensions in the lead-up to World War II and has been seen by some as part of the conflict between the Communist Soviet Union and Italy and Germany.

Strength of the different sides

Leftists like to depict the Republican side as being hopelessly outnumbered by a reactionary military and foreign fascists. However, the Spanish officer corps has been argued to at this time to be influenced by Freemasons even at its highest levels. Only 17 generals sided with the rebels, whereas 22 stayed loyal to the Leftist regime. Most of the country was initially under Republican control, including Spain’s main industrial centers. The Republicans also had the support of the worldwide media, which was heavily biased against everything that traditional Spain represented.[3][4]

The Nationalists received support mainly from Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany, while the Republicans were backed by the Soviet Union, and more discreetly by France, ruled by Jewish Prime Minister Léon Blum’s socialist/Communist Popular Front government. The foreign military support has been argued to have been about equal for both sides.[3][4]

Foreign volunteers

The Communist International, or Comintern, opened recruiting offices all over the world. Between 30,000 and 35,000 volunteers, mostly Communists, enlisted with the International Brigades.[3][4] The International Brigades were originally proposed by the Soviet Union and closely associated with Communism through Soviet controlled organizations, such as the Comintern and the NKVD. Foreign pro-Soviet Communist Parties were used to recruit for volunteers. As a security measure, non-Communist volunteers would first be interviewed by an NKVD agent.

Jews were hugely over-represented in the International Brigades, with between 3,000 to 10,000 of the volunteers estimated to have been Jewish.[12][13] See also Jews and Communism

The anarchist CNT and the Trotskyist POUM were not part of the International Brigades, but also had foreign volunteers (notably George Orwell).

Three times as many volunteers fought on the Nationalist side. They were from countries such as Italy, Germany, Ireland, and Romania.[3][4]

The "Republican" side as a defender of liberal democracy

The civil war is often depicted as a liberal democracy being overthrown by non-democrats. Critics of this view point to the increasing Red Terror, lawlessness, and chaos before the war, the 1936 election being marked by several irregularities, the Left only gaining a minority of the votes (but a majority of seats in the Parliament), the Nationalists seeing themselves as preventing a totalitarian communist regime, and, after the war having started, the Jewish Soviet ambassador to Spain, Marcel Rosenberg, in reality having the real power (and thus ultimately Stalin controlling "Republican" Spain). An event related to this was most of the Spanish gold reserve being transported to the Soviet Union and never returned.[3][4] The Spanish gold reserve had been one of the largest in the world.

Red and white repressions

Killings and other repressions of political opponents occurred before, during, and after the war, with both sides being involved in such repressions. Descriptions of these repressions may be influenced by the leftist or even the far leftist sympathies of many politically correct historians. Both sides have been accused of blaming the other side for atrocities committed by the own side. Estimates of the number of deaths and argued responsibilities have varied widely.

Nationalist supporters have seen the Nationalist revolt as a response to the earlier and increasingly severe Red Terror before the war and fear of a Communist coup, accompanied by much larger communist mass killings, similar to those occurring in the Soviet Union.[3][4]

Another aspect is the communist Soviet Union sending people to assist the Red Terror in Spain. One prominent example is the Jewish secret police officer Aleksandr Orlov.[3][4] He has been argued to have been responsible for various internal purges, persecutions, and killings affecting various leftists disliked by Soviet Union.

Social anarchists like to depict the areas that social anarchists briefly controlled as a utopia. This ignores, for example, the numerous atrocities committed by social anarchists.[14]

See also the article on Guernica for revisionist criticisms of the politically correct view on the events there.

See also

External links


  1. Medlicott, W.N., Dakin, Douglas, & Bennett Gillian, editors, Documents on British Foreign Policy 1919-1939, Second Series, vol.xvii, Her Majesty's Stationary Office, London, 1979, p.1n.
  2. Payne, Stanley Fascism in Spain, 1923-1977, pp. 200-203, 1999 Univ. of Wisconsin Press
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 3.7
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 4.6 4.7 The Spanish Civil War: A Successful Nationalist Revolution, Part 2
  5. Medlicott, et al,1979, p.1 and notes.
  6. Medlicott, et al,1979, p.2-3 and notes.
  7. Medlicott, et al,1979, pps:4-6 and 8-10 and notes.
  8. Medlicott, et al,1979, pps:4-6 and 8-11 and notes.
  9. Medlicott, et al,1979, pps: 21/30n/36.
  10. Medlicott, et al,1979, p.31-2.
  11. Payne, Stanley G., Fascism in Spain, 1923-1977 University of Wisconsin Press, 10 Jan. 2000.
  12. Thomas, Hugh, The Spanish Civil War, 1st edition, 1961, p.637.
  13. Sugarman, Martin. Against Fascism – Jews who served in The International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War. Jewish Virtual Library/Jewish Military Museum.
  14. The Anarcho-Statists of Spain