History - Spanish Civil War

Spanish Civil War

The Spanish Civil War was triggered by a complex range of events that were highly significant not only for the future of Spain, but also for the development of European politics in 20th century. Far from being just an internal event, the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939 also had a great deal of global influence, attracting left-wing volunteers from all over the world to help defend the constitutionally-elected Second Republic government from the coup d'etat of nationalists led by General Francisco Franco, who was supported by Hitler and Mussolini. Franco's eventually victory established him as Europe's longest ruling dictator until his death in 1975.



Briefly summarising the causes of the Spanish Civil War is not easy. It stemmed from a socio-political stew that could only have been made in Spain. King Alfonso XIII of Spain assumed power in 1902, becoming increasingly autocratic, and in 1909 was condemned for ordering the execution of the radical leader, Ferrer Guardia, in Barcelona. He also prevented liberal reforms being introduced before the First World War.

Blamed for the Spanish defeat in the Moroccan War (1921) Alfonso was in constant conflict with liberal Spanish politicians. His anti-democratic views encouraged General Miguel Primo de Rivera, a right-wing political leader, to stage a military coup in 1923. Primo de Rivera promised to eliminate corruption and to regenerate Spain. In order to do this he suspended the constitution, established martial law and imposed a strict system of censorship.

Alfonso XIII was opposed by numerous groups in early 20th century Spanish society. These included politically-driven ideologists from the left wing - liberal democrats, communists, socialists, and anarchists; Catalan, Basque, and Galician Spaniards who sought more autonomy (or in some cases, outright independence) from the federal government; and landless peasants who tilled the soil for a starvation existence. These disparate groups would later become the backbone of the Republican side during the war.

Supporters of Alfonso XIII were traditionalists and as the term implies, their beliefs stemmed from the traditionally conservative sectors of Spain. One group was the landowners, a small, privileged, aristocratic elite who owned a great deal of the country's landed wealth, to the detriment of the landless farm labourers, many of whom lived in abject poverty working on the landowners' properties.

Traditionalists were also comprised of supporters of the monarchy, who viewed the early 20th century movement toward liberalism as a threat to the absolute monarchy and therefore, a threat to the natural order and stability of traditional Spain. Members of the Catholic Church where also part of the traditionalist ideology, seeing in it not only a support for conventional Spanish Catholicism but also the privileged place within that society held by the church. To this group were added the centralistas and fascist falange members, who actively fought for a strong central government control of the economy and the state. They would unite under the banner of Nacionalistas during the Civil War..

In 1936 Francisco Franco Bhamonde had reached the age of 43 and had distinguished himself as a soldier, having been promotion up the ranks at remarkable speed. Son of a naval family, he had only become a soldier due to the lack of vacancies in the navy at the admission age of 15. His academic ranking at Toledo Infantry Academy was poor but his Moroccan service won him 13 medals for leadership, discipline and bravery. He reached the rank of general at the early age of 33 which made him the youngest to have achieved this position in Europe after Napoleon Bonaparte.


At the outbreak of the revolt, Spanish Morocco, the Canary Islands, Galicia, Navarra and parts of Castille and Aragón immediately sided with the new military rebels. However, due to either lack of communication or division of thought, not all the garrisons and their officers joined.

In Madrid the intervention of the public kept the garrison loyal to the left-wing government. General Goded failed equally in Barcelona and was shot, whils  Sanjurjo died when his plane crashed on take-off in Portugal. This situation left in the field three very independent leaders, the Generals Franco, Mola and Queipo, who by not winning or losing created a division in Spain's population, forcing it to either support the elected government or the army uprising.

The rebel army now only held five large cities and a quarter of the mainland. The government had the backing of about 75 per cent of the industry and commerce sectors, plus a sizable section from the rest of the army and the important security forces. Fortunately for Franco and his fellow conspirators, the government leaders in Madrid failed to arm its civilian supporters, or maintain a united policy. The reaction was typical of Spain's recent history, with each party or Union taking power into their own hands.

Catalonia came under the rule of both the Generalitat and the CNT party; the Basques were as divided as elsewhere, and at the same time considered once again that they were a state independent from Madrid. Confusion led to wild propaganda, with the result that people took to the streets keenly fuelled with horrific stories and half-truths. One true story about the appalling death of 500 inhabitants of Ronda in Andalucía was made famous by Ernest Hemingway in his book For Whom the Bell Tolls. Within days some hundreds of churches were burnt or ransacked and it is estimated that over 7,000 priests, monks, nuns, and even bishops were horrifically slaughtered. But this was only the beginning of the indiscriminate or mass killingscommitted by both sides in this Civil War .

The key to advancement from Franco's view was to transport his Moroccan Legionnaires into Spain. In this aspect Germany decided to join his side and lent him 20 transport planes which throughout August and September brought the troops across to Algeciras. Their well-trained force contained soldiers with many years of fighting experience in Africa. However, as a counterweight, the enthusiasm of the Republican street militia helped to balance this armed force. At first the Nacionalistas, as General Franco's army became known, quickly captured eastern Andalusia and Extremadura. In Madrid the Republican militia stopped their steady advance with a heroic stand. At this time international support was forthcoming for both sides as the idealism of youth was roused in their defence.

Germany, Italy and Portugal, sent troops, much-needed arms and planes to assist General Franco. The Italian leader Mussolini claimed his 70,000 troops were just volunteers, and the Germans' 100 planes based in Salamanca had a decided effect on the outcome.

Russia was the principal supporter of the Republicans and sent arms and some much-needed other equipment and military advisers. The fighting men were forthcoming for the Republicans as the famous "International Brigades" which were drawn from ardent left-wing idealistic supporters from the entire world.

Franco's African Army moved successfully north from Andalucía close to the border of Portugal taking Badajoz in a bloody manner that outraged many to the north in Europe. The old city of Toledo was to prove too strong in its defence when some 2,000 inhabitants retreated into the old Alcázar fortress against the besieging Republican army. Franco appreciating the propaganda value of the situation in Toledo marched across and broke the siege.


By the end of 1937 much of the action had moved to the northern coast where the iron and ship building industry fell into the hands of the Nationalists. The death of General Mola in a plane accident that year left the centre stage clear with one leader, General Francisco Franco. Almost by coincidence in May of the same year a crisis occurred in Barcelona amongst the Republicans and the Communists. The end result was that leadership fell firmly in the hands of the Communists.


In spring of 1938 the Nationalists drove through the defence line in Aragón and ended up on the east coast of Spain. Ignoring the problem of Barcelona, the army marched south to unsuccessfully attach Valencia. Seizing the moment the Republicans attacked Franco's rear with an offensive in the River Ebro valley which cost in total over 50,000 casualties and 20,000 dead. In December Franco marched on a virtually undefended Barcelona and the Republicans fled north to France.

The final theatre was in 1939 in Madrid with the Nationalist forces posed on the outskirts a Colonel Casado staged a coup within the Republic defenders in the hope of better surrender terms. On 28 March Francisco Franco's army marched into Madrid and on 1 April the war was declared officially over. Franco would maintain an iron grip on Spain - its civil liberties, women's rights, jobs and religious practice - until his death in 1975. Many Republican supporters would flee, and many of those who were captured would be executed. In all over 500,000 Spaniards lost their lives in the conflict. Spain would not enter the Second World War - as a country they had already done enough. It would take generations to recover, if Spain ever can.