The Spanish Civil War (Spanish: Guerra Civil Española) was a civil war in Spain fought from 1936 to 1939.
Republicans loyal to the left-leaning Popular Front government of the Second Spanish Republic, in alliance with anarchists, of the communist and syndicalist variety, fought against a revolt by the Nationalists, an alliance of Falangists, monarchists, conservatives and traditionalists, led by a military group among whom General Francisco Franco soon achieved a preponderant role. Due to the international political climate at the time, the war had many facets and was variously viewed as class struggle, a war of religion, a struggle between dictatorship and republican democracy, between revolution and counterrevolution, and between fascism and communism. According to Claude Bowers, US ambassador to Spain during the war, it was the “dress rehearsal” for World War II. The Nationalists won the war, which ended in early 1939, and ruled Spain until Franco’s death in November 1975.
The war began after a pronunciamiento (a declaration of military opposition, of revolt) against the Republican government by a group of generals of the Spanish Republican Armed Forces, with General Emilio Mola as the primary planner and leader and having General José Sanjurjo as a figurehead. The government at the time was a coalition of Republicans, supported in the Cortes by communist and socialist parties, under the leadership of centre-left President Manuel Azaña. The Nationalist group was supported by a number of conservative groups, including CEDA, monarchists, including both the opposing Alfonsists and the religious conservative Carlists, and the Falange Española de las JONS, a fascist political party. After the deaths of Sanjurjo, Emilio Mola and Manuel Goded Llopis, Franco emerged as the remaining leader of the Nationalist side.
The coup was supported by military units in the Morocco, Pamplona, Burgos, Zaragoza, Valladolid, Cádiz, Córdoba, and Seville. However, rebelling units in some important cities – such as Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, Bilbao, and Málaga – did not gain control, and those cities remained under the control of the government. This left Spain militarily and politically divided. The Nationalists and the Republican government fought for control of the country. The Nationalist forces received munitions, soldiers, and air support from Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, while the Republican side received support from the Soviet Union and Mexico. Other countries, such as the United Kingdom, the French Third Republic, and the US, continued to recognise the Republican government, but followed an official policy of non-intervention. Despite this policy, tens of thousands of citizens from non-interventionist countries directly participated in the conflict. They fought mostly in the pro-Republican International Brigades, which also included several thousand exiles from pro-Nationalist regimes.
The Nationalists advanced from their strongholds in the south and west, capturing most of Spain’s northern coastline in 1937. They also besieged Madrid and the area to its south and west for much of the war. After much of Catalonia was captured in 1938 and 1939, and Madrid cut off from Barcelona, the Republican military position became hopeless. Following the fall without resistance of Barcelona in January 1939, the Francoist regime was recognised by France and the United Kingdom in February 1939. On 05 March 1939, Colonel Segismundo Casado led a military coup against the Republican government. Following internal conflict between Republican factions in Madrid in the same month, Franco entered the capital and declared victory on 01 April 1939. Hundreds of thousands of Spaniards fled to refugee camps in southern France. Those associated with the losing Republicans who stayed were persecuted by the victorious Nationalists. Franco established a dictatorship in which all right-wing parties were fused into the structure of the Franco regime.
The war became notable for the passion and political division it inspired and for the many atrocities that occurred, on both sides. Organised purges occurred in territory captured by Franco’s forces so they could consolidate their future regime. Mass executions on a lesser scale also took place in areas controlled by the Republicans, with the participation of local authorities varying from location to location.
The 19th century was a turbulent time for Spain. Those in favour of reforming Spain’s government vied for political power with conservatives, who tried to prevent reforms. Some liberals, in a tradition that started with the Spanish Constitution of 1812, sought to limit the power of the monarchy of Spain and to establish a liberal state. The reforms of 1812 were overturned when King Ferdinand VII dissolved the Constitution and ended the Trienio Liberal government. Twelve successful coups were carried out between 1814 and 1874. Until the 1850s, the economy of Spain was primarily based on agriculture. There was little development of a bourgeois industrial or commercial class. The land-based oligarchy remained powerful; a small number of people held large estates called latifundia as well as all the important government positions.
In 1868, popular uprisings led to the overthrow of Queen Isabella II of the House of Bourbon. Two distinct factors led to the uprisings: a series of urban riots and a liberal movement within the middle classes and the military (led by General Joan Prim) concerned with the ultra-conservatism of the monarchy. In 1873, Isabella’s replacement, King Amadeo I of the House of Savoy, abdicated due to increasing political pressure, and the short-lived First Spanish Republic was proclaimed. After the restoration of the Bourbons in December 1874, Carlists and Anarchists emerged in opposition to the monarchy. Alejandro Lerroux, Spanish politician and leader of the Radical Republican Party, helped bring republicanism to the fore in Catalonia, where poverty was particularly acute. Growing resentment of conscription and of the military culminated in the Tragic Week in Barcelona in 1909.
Spain was neutral in World War I. Following the war, wide swathes of Spanish society, including the armed forces, united in hopes of removing the corrupt central government, but were unsuccessful. Popular perception of communism as a major threat significantly increased during this period. In 1923, a military coup brought Miguel Primo de Rivera to power; as a result, Spain transitioned to government by military dictatorship. Support for the Rivera regime gradually faded, and he resigned in January 1930. He was replaced by General Dámaso Berenguer, who was in turn himself replaced by Admiral Juan Bautista Aznar-Cabañas; both men continued a policy of rule by decree. There was little support for the monarchy in the major cities. Consequently, King Alfonso XIII gave in to popular pressure for the establishment of a republic in 1931 and called municipal elections for 12 April of that year. The socialist and liberal republicans won almost all the provincial capitals, and following the resignation of Aznar’s government, King Alfonso XIII fled the country. At this time, the Second Spanish Republic was formed. It remained in power until the culmination of the Spanish Civil War.
The revolutionary committee headed by Niceto Alcalá-Zamora became the provisional government, with Alcalá-Zamora as president and head of state. The republic had broad support from all segments of society. In May, an incident where a taxi driver was attacked outside a monarchist club sparked anti-clerical violence throughout Madrid and south-west Spain. The government’s slow response disillusioned the right and reinforced their view that the Republic was determined to persecute the church. In June and July the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo, known as the CNT, called several strikes, which led to a violent incident between CNT members and the Civil Guard and a brutal crackdown by the Civil Guard and the army against the CNT in Seville. This led many workers to believe the Spanish Second Republic was just as oppressive as the monarchy, and the CNT announced its intention of overthrowing it via revolution. Elections in June 1931 returned a large majority of Republicans and Socialists. With the onset of the Great Depression, the government tried to assist rural Spain by instituting an eight-hour day and redistributing land tenure to farm workers. The rural workers lived in some of the worst poverty in Europe at the time and the government tried to increase their wages and improve working conditions. This estranged small and medium landholders who used hired labour. The Law of Municipal Boundaries forbade the hiring of workers from outside the locality of the owner’s holdings. Since not all localities had enough labour for the tasks required, the law had unintended negative consequences, such as sometimes shutting out peasants and renters from the labour market when they needed extra income as pickers. Labour arbitration boards were set up to regulate salaries, contracts and working hours; they were more favourable to workers than employers and thus the latter became hostile to them. A decree in July 1931 increased overtime pay and several laws in late 1931 restricted whom landowners could hire. Other efforts included decrees limiting the use of machinery, efforts to create a monopoly on hiring, strikes and efforts by unions to limit women’s employment to preserve a labour monopoly for their members. Class struggle intensified as landowners turned to counterrevolutionary organisations and local oligarchs. Strikes, workplace theft, arson, robbery and assaults on shops, strikebreakers, employers and machines became increasingly common. Ultimately, the reforms of the Republican-Socialist government alienated as many people as they pleased.
Republican Manuel Azaña Diaz became prime minister of a minority government in October 1931. Fascism remained a reactive threat, helped by controversial reforms to the military. In December, a new reformist, liberal, and democratic constitution was declared. It included strong provisions enforcing a broad secularisation of the Catholic country, which included the abolishing of Catholic schools and charities, which many moderate committed Catholics opposed. At this point once the constituent assembly had fulfilled its mandate of approving a new constitution, it should have arranged for regular parliamentary elections and adjourned. However fearing the increasing popular opposition, the Radical and Socialist majority postponed the regular elections, prolonging their time in power for two more years. Diaz’s republican government initiated numerous reforms to, in their view, modernise the country. In 1932, the Jesuits who were in charge of the best schools throughout the country were banned and had all their property confiscated. The army was reduced. Landowners were expropriated. Home rule was granted to Catalonia, with a local parliament and a president of its own. In June 1933, Pope Pius XI issued the encyclical Dilectissima Nobis, “On Oppression of the Church of Spain”, raising his voice against the persecution of the Catholic Church in Spain.
In November 1933, the right-wing parties won the general election. The causal factors were increased resentment of the incumbent government caused by a controversial decree implementing land reform and by the Casas Viejas incident, and the formation of a right-wing alliance, Spanish Confederation of Autonomous Right-wing Groups (CEDA). Another factor was the recent enfranchisement of women, most of whom voted for centre-right parties. The left Republicans attempted to have Niceto Alcalá Zamora cancel the electoral results but did not succeed. Despite CEDA’s electoral victory, president Alcalá-Zamora declined to invite its leader, Gil Robles, to form a government fearing CEDA’s monarchist sympathies and proposed changes to the constitution. Instead, he invited the Radical Republican Party’s Alejandro Lerroux to do so. Despite receiving the most votes, CEDA was denied cabinet positions for nearly a year.
Events in the period after November 1933, called the “black biennium”, seemed to make a civil war more likely. Alejandro Lerroux of the Radical Republican Party (RRP) formed a government, reversing changes made by the previous administration and granting amnesty to the collaborators of the unsuccessful uprising by General José Sanjurjo in August 1932. Some monarchists joined with the then fascist-nationalist Falange Española y de las JONS (“Falange”) to help achieve their aims. Open violence occurred in the streets of Spanish cities, and militancy continued to increase, reflecting a movement towards radical upheaval, rather than peaceful democratic means as solutions. A small insurrection by anarchists occurred in December 1933 in response to CEDA’s victory, in which around 100 people died. After a year of intense pressure, CEDA, the party with the most seats in parliament, finally succeeded in forcing the acceptance of three ministries. The Socialists (PSOE) and Communists reacted with an insurrection for which they had been preparing for nine months. The rebellion developed into a bloody revolutionary uprising, against the existing order. Fairly well armed revolutionaries managed to take the whole province of Asturias, murdered numerous policemen, clergymen, and civilians, and destroyed religious buildings including churches, convents, and part of the university at Oviedo. In the occupied areas, the rebels officially declared the proletarian revolution and abolished regular money. The rebellion was crushed in two weeks by the Spanish Navy and the Spanish Republican Army, the latter using mainly Moorish colonial troops from Spanish Morocco. Azaña was in Barcelona that day, and the Lerroux-CEDA government tried to implicate him. He was arrested and charged with complicity. In fact, Azaña had no connection with the rebellion and was released from prison in January 1935.
In sparking an uprising, the non-anarchist socialists, like the anarchists, manifested their conviction that the existing political order was illegitimate. The Spanish historian Salvador de Madariaga, an Azaña supporter and an exiled vocal opponent of Francisco Franco, wrote a sharp criticism of the left’s participation in the revolt: “The uprising of 1934 is unforgivable. The argument that Mr Gil Robles tried to destroy the Constitution to establish fascism was, at once, hypocritical and false. With the rebellion of 1934, the Spanish left lost even the shadow of moral authority to condemn the rebellion of 1936.”
Reversals of land reform resulted in expulsions, firings, and arbitrary changes to working conditions in the central and southern countryside in 1935, with landowners’ behaviour at times reaching “genuine cruelty”, with violence against farmworkers and socialists, which caused several deaths. One historian argued that the behaviour of the right in the southern countryside was one of the main causes of hatred during the Civil War and possibly even the Civil War itself. Landowners taunted workers by saying that if they went hungry, they should “Go eat Republic!” Bosses fired leftist workers and imprisoned trade union and socialist militants, and wages were reduced to “salaries of hunger.”
In 1935, the government led by the Radical Republican Party went through a series of crises. President Niceto Alcalá-Zamora, who was hostile to this government, called another election. The Popular Front won the 1936 general election with a narrow victory. Some scholars consider that election rigged. The revolutionary left-wing masses took to the streets and freed prisoners. In the thirty-six hours following the election, sixteen people were killed (mostly by police officers attempting to maintain order or to intervene in violent clashes) and thirty-nine were seriously injured. Also, fifty churches and seventy conservative political centres were attacked or set ablaze. Manuel Azaña Díaz was called to form a government before the electoral process had ended. He shortly replaced Zamora as president, taking advantage of a constitutional loophole. Convinced that the left was no longer willing to follow the rule of law and that its vision of Spain was under threat, the right abandoned the parliamentary option and began planning to overthrow the republic, rather than to control it.
PSOE’s left wing socialists started to take action. Julio Álvarez del Vayo talked about “Spain’ being converted into a socialist Republic in association with the Soviet Union”. Francisco Largo Caballero declared that “the organized proletariat will carry everything before it and destroy everything until we reach our goal”. The country rapidly descended into anarchy. Even the staunch socialist Indalecio Prieto, at a party rally in Cuenca in May 1936, complained: “we have never seen so tragic a panorama or so great a collapse as in Spain at this moment. Abroad, Spain is classified as insolvent. This is not the road to socialism or communism but to desperate anarchism without even the advantage of liberty”. The disenchantment with Azaña’s ruling was also voiced by Miguel de Unamuno, a republican and one of Spain’s most respected intellectuals who, in June 1936, told a reporter who published his statement in El Adelanto that President Manuel Azaña should commit suicide “as a patriotic act”.
According to Stanley Payne, by July 1936, the situation in Spain had deteriorated massively. Spanish commentators spoke of chaos and preparation for revolution, foreign diplomats prepared for the possibility of revolution, and an interest in fascism developed among the threatened. Payne states that, by July 1936:
“The frequent overt violations of the law, assaults on property, and political violence in Spain were without precedent for a modern European country not undergoing total revolution. These included massive, sometimes violent and destructive strike waves, large-scale illegal seizures of farmland in the south, a wave of arson and destruction of property, arbitrary closure of Catholic schools, seizure of churches and Catholic property in some areas, widespread censorship, thousands of arbitrary arrests, virtual impunity for criminal action by members of Popular Front parties, manipulation and politicisation of justice, arbitrary dissolution of rightist organisations, coercive elections in Cuenca and Granada that excluded all opposition, subversion of the security forces, and a substantial growth in political violence, resulting in more than three hundred deaths. Moreover, because local and provincial governments were forcibly taken over, decreed by the government in much of the country rather than secured via any elections, they tended to have a coercive cast akin to that of local governments taken over by Italian Fascists in northern Italy during the summer of 1922. Yet as of early July the centrist and rightist opposition in Spain remained divided and impotent.”
Laia Balcells observes that polarisation in Spain just before the coup was so intense that physical confrontations between leftists and rightists were a routine occurrence in most localities; six days before the coup occurred, there was a riot between the two in the province of Teruel. Balcells notes that Spanish society was so divided along Left-Right lines that the monk Hilari Raguer stated that in his parish, instead of playing “cops and robbers”, children would sometimes play “leftists and rightists.” Within the first month of the Popular Front’s government, nearly a quarter of the provincial governors had been removed due to their failure to prevent or control strikes, illegal land occupation, political violence and arson. The Popular Front government was more likely to persecute rightists for violence than leftists who committed similar acts. Azaña was hesitant to use the army to shoot or stop rioters or protestors as many of them supported his coalition. On the other hand, he was reluctant to disarm the military as he believed he needed them to stop insurrections from the extreme left. Illegal land occupation became widespread – poor tenant farmers knew the government was disinclined to stop them. By April 1936, nearly 100,000 peasants had appropriated 400,000 hectares of land and perhaps as many as 1 million hectares by the start of the civil war; for comparison, the 1931–33 land reform had granted only 6,000 peasants 45,000 hectares. As many strikes occurred between April and July as had occurred in the entirety of 1931. Workers increasingly demanded less work and more pay. “Social crimes” – refusing to pay for goods and rent – became increasingly common by workers, particularly in Madrid. In some cases this was done in the company of armed militants. Conservatives, the middle classes, businessmen and landowners became convinced that revolution had already begun.
Prime Minister Santiago Casares Quiroga ignored warnings of a military conspiracy involving several generals, who decided that the government had to be replaced to prevent the dissolution of Spain. Both sides had become convinced that, if the other side gained power, it would discriminate against their members and attempt to suppress their political organisations.
Background to the Coup
Shortly after the Popular Front’s election victory, various groups of officers, both active and retired, got together to begin discussing the prospect of a coup. It would only be by the end of April that General Emilio Mola would emerge as the leader of a national conspiracy network. The Republican government acted to remove suspect generals from influential posts. Franco was sacked as chief of staff and transferred to command of the Canary Islands. Manuel Goded Llopis was removed as inspector general and was made general of the Balearic Islands. Emilio Mola was moved from head of the Army of Africa to military commander of Pamplona in Navarre. This, however, allowed Mola to direct the mainland uprising. General José Sanjurjo became the figurehead of the operation and helped reach an agreement with the Carlists. Mola was chief planner and second in command. José Antonio Primo de Rivera was put in prison in mid-March in order to restrict the Falange. However, government actions were not as thorough as they might have been, and warnings by the Director of Security and other figures were not acted upon.
The revolt was remarkably devoid of any particular ideology. The major goal was to put an end to anarchical disorder. Mola’s plan for the new regime was envisioned as a “republican dictatorship”, modelled after Salazar’s Portugal and as a semi-pluralist authoritarian regime rather than a totalitarian fascist dictatorship. The initial government would be an all-military “Directory”, which would create a “strong and disciplined state.” General Sanjurjo would be the head of this new regime, due to being widely liked and respected within the military, though his position would be largely symbolic due to his lack of political talent. The 1931 Constitution would be suspended, replaced by a new “constituent parliament” which would be chosen by a new politically purged electorate, who would vote on the issue of republic versus monarchy. Certain liberal elements would remain, such as separation of church and state as well as freedom of religion. Agrarian issues would be solved by regional commissioners on the basis of smallholdings but collective cultivation would be permitted in some circumstances. Legislation prior to February 1936 would be respected. Violence would be required to destroy opposition to the coup, though it seems Mola did not envision the mass atrocities and repression that would ultimately manifest during the civil war. Of particular importance to Mola was ensuring the revolt was at its core an Army affair, one that would not be subject to special interests and that the coup would make the armed forces the basis for the new state. However, the separation of church and state was forgotten once the conflict assumed the dimension of a war of religion, and military authorities increasingly deferred to the Church and to the expression of Catholic sentiment. However, Mola’s programme was vague and only a rough sketch, and there were disagreements among coupists about their vision for Spain.
On 12 June, Prime Minister Casares Quiroga met General Juan Yagüe, who falsely convinced Casares of his loyalty to the republic. Mola began serious planning in the spring. Franco was a key player because of his prestige as a former director of the military academy and as the man who suppressed the Asturian miners’ strike of 1934. He was respected in the Army of Africa, the Army’s toughest troops. He wrote a cryptic letter to Casares on 23 June, suggesting that the military was disloyal, but could be restrained if he were put in charge. Casares did nothing, failing to arrest or buy off Franco. With the help of the British intelligence agents Cecil Bebb and Hugh Pollard, the rebels chartered a Dragon Rapide aircraft (paid for with help from Juan March, the wealthiest man in Spain at the time) to transport Franco from the Canary Islands to Spanish Morocco. The plane flew to the Canaries on 11 July, and Franco arrived in Morocco on 19 July. According to Stanley Payne, Franco was offered this position as Mola’s planning for the coup had become increasingly complex and it did not look like it would be as swift as he hoped, instead likely turning into a miniature civil war that would last several weeks. Mola thus had concluded that the troops in Spain were insufficient for the task and that it would be necessary to use elite units from North Africa, something which Franco had always believed would be necessary.
On 12 July 1936, Falangists in Madrid killed police officer Lieutenant José Castillo of the Guardia de Asalto (Assault Guard). Castillo was a Socialist party member who, among other activities, was giving military training to the UGT youth. Castillo had led the Assault Guards that violently suppressed the riots after the funeral of Guardia Civil lieutenant Anastasio de los Reyes (Los Reyes had been shot by anarchists during 14 April military parade commemorating the five years of the Republic).
Assault Guard Captain Fernando Condés was a close personal friend of Castillo. The next day, after getting the approval of the minister of interior to illegally arrest specified members of parliament, he led his squad to arrest José María Gil-Robles y Quiñones, founder of CEDA, as a reprisal for Castillo’s murder. But he was not at home, so they went to the house of José Calvo Sotelo, a leading Spanish monarchist and a prominent parliamentary conservative. Luis Cuenca, a member of the arresting group and a Socialist who was known as the bodyguard of PSOE leader Indalecio Prieto, summarily executed Calvo Sotelo by shooting him in the back of the neck. Hugh Thomas concludes that Condés intended to arrest Sotelo, and that Cuenca acted on his own initiative, although he acknowledges other sources dispute this finding.
Massive reprisals followed. The killing of Calvo Sotelo with police involvement aroused suspicions and strong reactions among the government’s opponents on the right. Although the nationalist generals were already planning an uprising, the event was a catalyst and a public justification for a coup. Stanley Payne claims that before these events, the idea of rebellion by army officers against the government had weakened; Mola had estimated that only 12% of officers reliably supported the coup and at one point considered fleeing the country for fear he was already compromised, and had to be convinced to remain by his co-conspirators. However, the kidnapping and murder of Sotelo transformed the “limping conspiracy” into a revolt that could trigger a civil war. The arbitrary use of lethal force by the state and a lack of action against the attackers led to public disapproval of the government. No effective punitive, judicial or even investigative action was taken; Payne points to a possible veto by socialists within the government who shielded the killers who had been drawn from their ranks. The murder of a parliamentary leader by state police was unprecedented, and the belief that the state had ceased to be neutral and effective in its duties encouraged important sectors of the right to join the rebellion. Within hours of learning of the murder and the reaction, Franco changed his mind on rebellion and dispatched a message to Mola to display his firm commitment.
The Socialists and Communists, led by Indalecio Prieto, demanded that arms be distributed to the people before the military took over. The prime minister was hesitant.
Beginning of the Coup
The uprising’s timing was fixed at 17 July, at 17:01, agreed to by the leader of the Carlists, Manuel Fal Conde. However, the timing was changed – the men in the Morocco protectorate were to rise up at 05:00 on 18 July and those in Spain proper a day later so that control of Spanish Morocco could be achieved and forces sent back to the Iberian Peninsula to coincide with the risings there. The rising was intended to be a swift coup d’état, but the government retained control of most of the country.
Control over Spanish Morocco was all but certain. The plan was discovered in Morocco on 17 July, which prompted the conspirators to enact it immediately. Little resistance was encountered. The rebels shot 189 people. Goded and Franco immediately took control of the islands to which they were assigned. On 18 July, Casares Quiroga refused an offer of help from the CNT and Unión General de Trabajadores (UGT), leading the groups to proclaim a general strike – in effect, mobilising. They opened weapons caches, some buried since the 1934 risings, and formed militias. The paramilitary security forces often waited for the outcome of militia action before either joining or suppressing the rebellion. Quick action by either the rebels or anarchist militias was often enough to decide the fate of a town. General Gonzalo Queipo de Llano secured Seville for the rebels, arresting a number of other officers.
The rebels failed to take any major cities with the critical exception of Seville, which provided a landing point for Franco’s African troops, and the primarily conservative and Catholic areas of Old Castile and León, which fell quickly. They took Cádiz with help from the first troops from Africa.
The government retained control of Málaga, Jaén, and Almería. In Madrid, the rebels were hemmed into the Cuartel de la Montaña siege, which fell with considerable bloodshed. Republican leader Casares Quiroga was replaced by José Giral, who ordered the distribution of weapons among the civilian population. This facilitated the defeat of the army insurrection in the main industrial centres, including Madrid, Barcelona, and Valencia, but it allowed anarchists to take control of Barcelona along with large swathes of Aragón and Catalonia. General Goded surrendered in Barcelona and was later condemned to death. The Republican government ended up controlling almost all the east coast and central area around Madrid, as well as most of Asturias, Cantabria and part of the Basque Country in the north.
Hugh Thomas suggested that the civil war could have ended in the favour of either side almost immediately if certain decisions had been taken during the initial coup. Thomas argues that if the government had taken steps to arm the workers, they could probably have crushed the coup very quickly. Conversely, if the coup had risen everywhere in Spain on the 18th rather than be delayed, it could have triumphed by the 22nd. While the militias that rose to meet the rebels were often untrained and poorly armed (possessing only a small number of pistols, shotguns and dynamite), this was offset by the fact that the rebellion was not universal. In addition, the Falangists and Carlists were themselves often not particularly powerful fighters either. However, enough officers and soldiers had joined the coup to prevent it from being crushed swiftly.
The rebels termed themselves Nacionales, normally translated “Nationalists”, although the former implies “true Spaniards” rather than a nationalistic cause. The result of the coup was a nationalist area of control containing 11 million of Spain’s population of 25 million. The Nationalists had secured the support of around half of Spain’s territorial army, some 60,000 men, joined by the Army of Africa, made up of 35,000 men, and just under half of Spain’s militaristic police forces, the Assault Guards, the Civil Guards, and the Carabineers. Republicans controlled under half of the rifles and about a third of both machine guns and artillery pieces.
The Spanish Republican Army had just 18 tanks of a sufficiently modern design, and the Nationalists took control of 10. Naval capacity was uneven, with the Republicans retaining a numerical advantage, but with the Navy’s top commanders and two of the most modern ships, heavy cruisers Canarias – captured at the Ferrol shipyard – and Baleares, in Nationalist control. The Spanish Republican Navy suffered from the same problems as the army – many officers had defected or been killed after trying to do so. Two-thirds of air capability was retained by the government – however, the whole of the Republican Air Force was very outdated.
The war was cast by Republican sympathisers as a struggle between tyranny and freedom, and by Nationalist supporters as communist and anarchist red hordes versus Christian civilisation. Nationalists also claimed they were bringing security and direction to an ungoverned and lawless country. Spanish politics, especially on the left, was quite fragmented: on the one hand socialists and communists supported the republic but on the other, during the republic, anarchists had mixed opinions, though both major groups opposed the Nationalists during the Civil War; the latter, in contrast, were united by their fervent opposition to the Republican government and presented a more unified front.
The coup divided the armed forces fairly evenly. One historical estimate suggests that there were some 87,000 troops loyal to the government and some 77,000 joining the insurgency, though some historians suggest that the Nationalist figure should be revised upwards and that it probably amounted to some 95,000.
During the first few months, both armies were joined in high numbers by volunteers, Nationalists by some 100,000 men and Republicans by some 120,000. From August, both sides launched their own, similarly scaled conscription schemes, resulting in further massive growth of their armies. Finally, the final months of 1936 saw the arrival of foreign troops, International Brigades joining the Republicans and Italian CTV, German Legion Condor and Portuguese Viriatos joining the Nationalists. The result was that in April 1937 there were some 360,000 soldiers in the Republican ranks and some 290,000 in the Nationalist ones.
The armies kept growing. The principal source of manpower was conscription; both sides continued and expanded their schemes, the Nationalists drafting more aggressively, and there was little room left for volunteering. Foreigners contributed little to further growth; on the Nationalist side the Italians scaled down their engagement, while on the Republican side the influx of new interbrigadistas did not cover losses on the front. At the turn of 1937/1938, each army numbered about 700,000.
Throughout 1938, the principal if not exclusive source of new men was a draft; at this stage it was the Republicans who conscripted more aggressively, and only 47% of their combatants were in age corresponding to the Nationalist conscription age limits. Just prior to the Battle of Ebro, Republicans achieved their all-time high, slightly above 800,000; yet Nationalists numbered 880,000. The Battle of Ebro, fall of Catalonia and collapsing discipline caused a great shrinking of Republican troops. In late February 1939, their army was 400,000 compared to more than double that number of Nationalists. In the moment of their final victory, Nationalists commanded over 900,000 troops.
The total number of Spaniards serving in the Republican forces was officially stated as 917,000; later scholarly work estimated the number as “well over 1 million men”, though earlier studies claimed a Republican total of 1.75 million (including non-Spaniards). The total number of Spaniards serving in the Nationalist units is estimated at “nearly 1 million men”, though earlier works claimed a total of 1.26 million Nationalists (including non-Spaniards).
Only two countries openly and fully supported the Republic: Mexico and the USSR. From them, especially the USSR, the Republic received diplomatic support, volunteers, weapons and vehicles. Other countries remained neutral; this neutrality faced serious opposition from sympathizers in the United States and United Kingdom, and to a lesser extent in other European countries and from Marxists worldwide. This led to formation of the International Brigades, thousands of foreigners of all nationalities who voluntarily went to Spain to aid the Republic in the fight; they meant a great deal to morale but militarily were not very significant.
The Republic’s supporters within Spain ranged from centrists who supported a moderately-capitalist liberal democracy to revolutionary anarchists who opposed the Republic but sided with it against the coup forces. Their base was primarily secular and urban but also included landless peasants and was particularly strong in industrial regions like Asturias, the Basque country, and Catalonia.
This faction was called variously leales “Loyalists” by supporters, “Republicans”, the “Popular Front”, or “the government” by all parties; and/or los rojos “the Reds” by their opponents. Republicans were supported by urban workers, agricultural labourers, and parts of the middle class.
The conservative, strongly Catholic Basque country, along with Catholic Galicia and the more left-leaning Catalonia, sought autonomy or independence from the central government of Madrid. The Republican government allowed for the possibility of self-government for the two regions, whose forces were gathered under the People’s Republican Army (Ejército Popular Republicano, or EPR), which was reorganised into mixed brigades after October 1936.
A few well-known people fought on the Republican side, such as English novelist George Orwell (who wrote Homage to Catalonia (1938), an account of his experiences in the war) and Canadian thoracic surgeon Norman Bethune, who developed a mobile blood-transfusion service for front-line operations. Simone Weil added herself for a while to the anarchist columns of Buenaventura Durruti, though fellow fighters feared she might inadvertently shoot them because she was short-sighted, and tried to avoid taking her on missions. By the account of her biographer Simone Petrement, Weil was evacuated from the front after a matter of weeks because of an injury sustained in a cooking accident.
The Nacionales or Nationalists, also called “insurgents”, “rebels” or, by opponents, Franquistas or “fascists” – feared national fragmentation and opposed the separatist movements. They were chiefly defined by their anti-communism, which galvanised diverse or opposed movements like Falangists and monarchists. Their leaders had a generally wealthier, more conservative, monarchist, landowning background.
The Nationalist side included the Carlists and Alfonsists, Spanish nationalists, the fascist Falange, and most conservatives and monarchist liberals. Virtually all Nationalist groups had strong Catholic convictions and supported the native Spanish clergy. The Nationals included the majority of the Catholic clergy and practitioners (outside of the Basque region), important elements of the army, most large landowners, and many businessmen. The Nationalist base largely consisted of the middle classes, conservative peasant smallholders in the North and Catholics in general. Catholic support became particularly pronounced as a consequence of the burning of churches and killing of priests in most leftists zones during the first six months of the war. By mid-1937, the Catholic Church gave its official blessing to the Franco regime; religious fervour was a major source of emotional support for the Nationalists during the civil war. Michael Seidmann reports that devout Catholics, such as seminary students, often volunteered to fight and would die in disproportionate numbers in the war. Catholic confession cleared the soldiers of moral doubt and increased fighting ability; Republican newspapers described Nationalist priests as ferocious in battle and Indalecio Prieto remarked that the enemy he feared most was “the requeté who has just received communion.”
One of the rightists’ principal motives was to confront the anti-clericalism of the Republican regime and to defend the Catholic Church, which had been targeted by opponents, including Republicans, who blamed the institution for the country’s ills. The Church opposed many of the Republicans’ reforms, which were fortified by the Spanish Constitution of 1931. Articles 24 and 26 of the 1931 constitution had banned the Society of Jesus. This proscription deeply offended many within the conservative fold. The revolution in the Republican zone at the outset of the war, in which 7,000 clergy and thousands of lay people were killed, deepened Catholic support for the Nationalists.
Prior to the war, during the Asturian miners’ strike of 1934, religious buildings were burnt and at least 100 clergy, religious civilians, and pro-Catholic police were killed by revolutionaries. Franco had brought in Spain’s colonial Army of Africa (Spanish: Ejército de África or Cuerpo de Ejército Marroquí) and reduced the miners to submission by heavy artillery attacks and bombing raids. The Spanish Legion committed atrocities and the army carried out summary executions of leftists. The repression in the aftermath was brutal and prisoners were tortured.
The Moroccan Fuerzas Regulares Indígenas joined the rebellion and played a significant role in the civil war.
While the Nationalists are often assumed to have drawn in the majority of military officers, this is a somewhat simplistic analysis. The Spanish army had its own internal divisions and long-standing rifts. Officers supporting the coup tended to be africanistas (men who fought in North Africa between 1909 and 1923) while those who stayed loyal tended to be peninsulares (men who stayed back in Spain during this period). This was because during Spain’s North African campaigns, the traditional promotion by seniority was suspended in favour of promotion by merit through battlefield heroism. This tended to benefit younger officers starting their careers as they could, while older officers had familial commitments that made it harder for them to be deployed in North Africa. Officers in front line combat corps (primarily infantry and cavalry) benefited over those in technical corps (those in artillery, engineering etc.) because they had more chances to demonstrate the requisite battlefield heroism and had also traditionally enjoyed promotion by seniority. The peninsulares resented seeing the africanistas rapidly leapfrog through the ranks, while the africanistas themselves were seen as swaggering and arrogant, further fuelling resentment. Thus, when the coup occurred, officers who joined the rebellion, particularly from Franco’s rank downwards, were often africanistas, while senior officers and those in non-front line positions tended to oppose it (though a small number of senior africanistas opposed the coup as well). It has also been argued that officers who stayed loyal to the Republic were more likely to have been promoted and to have been favoured by the Republican regime (such as those in the Aviation and Assault Guard units). Thus, while often thought of as a “rebellion of the generals”, this is not correct. Of the eighteen division generals, only four rebelled (of the four division generals without postings, two rebelled and two remained loyal). Fourteen of the fifty-six brigade generals rebelled. The rebels tended to draw from less senior officers. Of the approximately 15,301 officers, just over half rebelled.
Catalan and Basque nationalists were divided. Left-wing Catalan nationalists sided with the Republicans, while Conservative Catalan nationalists were far less vocal in supporting the government, due to anti-clericalism and confiscations occurring in areas within its control. Basque nationalists, heralded by the conservative Basque Nationalist Party, were mildly supportive of the Republican government, although some in Navarre sided with the uprising for the same reasons influencing conservative Catalans. Notwithstanding religious matters, Basque nationalists, who were for the most part Catholic, generally sided with the Republicans, although the PNV, Basque nationalist party, was reported passing the plans of Bilbao defences to the Nationalists, in an attempt to reduce the duration and casualties of siege.
The Spanish Civil War exposed political divisions across Europe. The right and the Catholics supported the Nationalists to stop the spread of Bolshevism. On the left, including labour unions, students and intellectuals, the war represented a necessary battle to stop the spread of fascism. Anti-war and pacifist sentiment was strong in many countries, leading to warnings that the Civil War could escalate into a second world war. In this respect, the war was an indicator of the growing instability across Europe.
The Spanish Civil War involved large numbers of non-Spanish citizens who participated in combat and advisory positions. Britain and France led a political alliance of 27 nations that pledged non-intervention, including an embargo on all arms exports to Spain. The United States unofficially adopted a position of non-intervention as well, despite abstaining from joining the alliance (due in part to its policy political isolation). Germany, Italy and the Soviet Union signed on officially, but ignored the embargo. The attempted suppression of imported material was largely ineffective, and France was especially accused of allowing large shipments to Republican troops. The clandestine actions of the various European powers were, at the time, considered to be risking another world war, alarming anti-war elements across the world.
The League of Nations’ reaction to the war was influenced by a fear of communism, and was insufficient to contain the massive importation of arms and other war resources by the fighting factions. Although a Non-Intervention Committee was formed, its policies accomplished little and its directives were ineffective.
Support for the Nationalists
As the conquest of Ethiopia in the Second Italo-Ethiopian War made the Italian government confident in its military power, Benito Mussolini joined the war to secure Fascist control of the Mediterranean, supporting the Nationalists to a greater extent than the National-Socialists did. The Royal Italian Navy (Italian: Regia Marina) played a substantial role in the Mediterranean blockade, and ultimately Italy supplied machine guns, artillery, aircraft, tankettes, the Aviazione Legionaria, and the Corpo Truppe Volontarie (CTV) to the Nationalist cause. The Italian CTV would, at its peak, supply the Nationalists with 50,000 men. Italian warships took part in breaking the Republican navy’s blockade of Nationalist-held Spanish Morocco and took part in naval bombardment of Republican-held Málaga, Valencia, and Barcelona. In total, Italy provided the Nationalists with 660 planes, 150 tanks, 800 artillery pieces, 10,000 machine guns, and 240,000 rifles.
German involvement began days after fighting broke out in July 1936. Adolf Hitler quickly sent in powerful air and armoured units to assist the Nationalists. The war provided combat experience with the latest technology for the German military. However, the intervention also posed the risk of escalating into a world war for which Hitler was not ready. Therefore, he limited his aid, and instead encouraged Benito Mussolini to send in large Italian units.
Nazi Germany’s actions included the formation of the multitasking Condor Legion, a unit composed of volunteers from the Luftwaffe and the German Army (Heer) from July 1936 to March 1939. The Condor Legion proved to be especially useful in the 1936 Battle of the Toledo. Germany moved the Army of Africa to mainland Spain in the war’s early stages. German operations slowly expanded to include strike targets, most notably – and controversially – the bombing of Guernica which, on 26 April 1937, killed 200 to 300 civilians. Germany also used the war to test new weapons, such as the Luftwaffe Junkers Ju 87 Stukas and Junkers Ju-52 transport Trimotors (used also as Bombers), which showed themselves to be effective.
German involvement was further manifested through undertakings such as Operation Ursula, a U-boat undertaking; and contributions from the Kriegsmarine. The Legion spearheaded many Nationalist victories, particularly in aerial combat, while Spain further provided a proving ground for German tank tactics. The training which German units provided to the Nationalist forces would prove valuable. By the War’s end, perhaps 56,000 Nationalist soldiers, encompassing infantry, artillery, aerial and naval forces, had been trained by German detachments.
Hitler’s policy for Spain was shrewd and pragmatic. His instructions were clear: “…A hundred per cent victory for Franco was not desirable from a German point of view; rather were we interested in a continuance of the war and in the keeping up of the tension in the Mediterranean.” Hitler wanted to help Franco just enough to gain his gratitude and to prevent the side supported by the Soviet Union from winning, but not large enough to give the Caudillo a quick victory.
A total of approximately 16,000 German citizens fought in the war, with approximately 300 killed, though no more than 10,000 participated at any one time. German aid to the Nationalists amounted to approximately £43,000,000 ($215,000,000) in 1939 prices, 15.5% of which was used for salaries and expenses and 21.9% for direct delivery of supplies to Spain, while 62.6% was expended on the Condor Legion. In total, Germany provided the Nationalists with 600 planes and 200 tanks.
The Estado Novo regime of Portuguese Prime Minister António de Oliveira Salazar played an important role in supplying Franco’s forces with ammunition and logistical help.
Salazar supported Francisco Franco and the Nationalists in their war against the Second Republic forces, as well as the anarchists and the communists. The Nationalists lacked access to seaports early on, so Salazar’s Portugal helped them receive armaments shipments from abroad, including ordnance when certain Nationalist forces virtually ran out of ammunition. Consequently, the Nationalists called Lisbon “the port of Castile”. Later, Franco spoke of Salazar in glowing terms in an interview in the Le Figaro newspaper: “The most complete statesman, the one most worthy of respect, that I have known is Salazar. I regard him as an extraordinary personality for his intelligence, his political sense and his humility. His only defect is probably his modesty.”
On 08 September 1936, a naval revolt took place in Lisbon. The crews of two naval Portuguese vessels, the NRP Afonso de Albuquerque and the NRP Dão, mutinied. The sailors, who were affiliated with the Portuguese Communist Party, confined their officers and attempted to sail the ships out of Lisbon to join the Spanish Republican forces fighting in Spain. Salazar ordered the ships to be destroyed by gunfire.
In January 1938, Salazar appointed Pedro Teotónio Pereira as special liaison of the Portuguese government to Franco’s government, where he achieved great prestige and influence. In April 1938, Pereira officially become a full-rank Portuguese ambassador to Spain, and he remained in this post throughout World War II.
Just a few days before the end of the Spanish Civil War, on 17 March 1939, Portugal and Spain signed the Iberian Pact, a non-aggression treaty that marked the beginning of a new phase in Iberian relations. Meetings between Franco and Salazar played a fundamental role in this new political arrangement. The pact proved to be a decisive instrument in keeping the Iberian Peninsula out of Hitler’s continental system.
Despite its discreet direct military involvement – restrained to a somewhat “semi-official” endorsement, by its authoritarian regime – a “Viriatos Legion” volunteer force was organised, but disbanded, due to political unrest. Between 8,000 and 12,000 would-be legionaries did still volunteer, only now as part of various Nationalist units instead of a unified force. Due to the widespread publicity given to the Viriatos Legion previously, these Portuguese volunteers were still called “Viriatos”. Portugal was instrumental in providing the Nationalists with organisational skills and reassurance from the Iberian neighbour to Franco and his allies that no interference would hinder the supply traffic directed to the Nationalist cause.
The Conservative government of Britain maintained a position of strong neutrality and was supported by British elite and the media, while the left mobilised aid to the Republicans. The government refused to allow arms shipments and sent warships to try to stop shipments. It was theoretically a crime to volunteer to fight in Spain, but about 4,000 went anyway. Intellectuals strongly favoured the Republicans. Many visited Spain, hoping to find authentic anti-fascism in practise. They had little impact on the government, and could not shake the strong public mood for peace. The Labour Party was split, with its Catholic element favouring the Nationalists. It officially endorsed the boycott and expelled a faction that demanded support for the Republican cause; but it finally voiced some support to Loyalists.
Romanian volunteers were led by Ion Moța, deputy-leader of the Iron Guard (“Legion of the Archangel Michael”), whose group of Seven Legionaries visited Spain in December 1936 to ally their movement with the Nationalists.
Despite the Irish government’s prohibition against participating in the war, about 600 Irishmen, followers of the Irish political activist and co-founder of the recently created political party of Fine Gael (unofficially called “The Blue Shirts”), Eoin O’Duffy, known as the “Irish Brigade”, went to Spain to fight alongside Franco. The majority of the volunteers were Catholics, and according to O’Duffy had volunteered to help the Nationalists fight against communism.
According to Spanish statistics, 1052 Yugoslavs were recorded as volunteers of which 48% were Croats, 23% Slovenes, 18% Serbs, 2.3% Montenegrins and 1.5% Macedonians.
Support for the Republicans
On July 26, just eight days after the revolt had started, an international communist conference was held at Prague to arrange plans to help the Republican Government. It decided to raise an international brigade of 5,000 men and a fund of 1 billion francs. At the same time communist parties throughout the world quickly launched a full scale propaganda campaign in support of the Popular Front. The Communist International immediately reinforced its activity sending to Spain its leader Georgi Dimitrov, and Palmiro Togliatti the chief of the Communist Party of Italy. From August onward aid started to be sent from Russia, over one ship per day arrived at Spain’s Mediterranean ports carrying munitions, rifles, machine guns, hand grenades, artillery and trucks. With the cargo came Soviet agents, technicians, instructors and propagandists.
The Communist International immediately started to organize the International Brigades with great care to conceal or minimize the communist character of the enterprise and to make it appear as a campaign on behalf of progressive democracy. Attractive misleading names were deliberately chosen, such as “Garibaldi” in Italy or “Abraham Lincoln” in the US.
Many non-Spaniards, often affiliated with radical communist or socialist entities, joined the International Brigades, believing that the Spanish Republic was a front line in the war against fascism. The units represented the largest foreign contingent of those fighting for the Republicans. Roughly 40,000 foreign nationals fought with the Brigades, though no more than 18,000 were in the conflict at any given time. They claimed to represent 53 nations.
Significant numbers of volunteers came from France (10,000), Nazi Germany and Austria (5,000), and Italy (3,350). More than 1000 each came from the Soviet Union, the US, the UK, Poland, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Canada. The Thälmann Battalion, a group of Germans, and the Garibaldi Battalion, a group of Italians, distinguished their units during the Siege of Madrid. Americans fought in units such as the XV International Brigade (“Abraham Lincoln Brigade”), while Canadians joined the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion.
More than 500 Romanians fought on the Republican side, including Romanian Communist Party members Petre Borilă and Valter Roman. About 145 men from Ireland formed the Connolly Column, which was immortalised by Irish folk musician Christy Moore in the song “Viva la Quinta Brigada”. Some Chinese joined the Brigades; the majority of them eventually returned to China, but some went to prison or to French refugee camps, and a handful remained in Spain.
Although General Secretary Joseph Stalin had signed the Non-Intervention Agreement, the Soviet Union contravened the League of Nations embargo by providing material assistance to the Republican forces, becoming their only source of major weapons. Unlike Hitler and Mussolini, Stalin tried to do this covertly. Estimates of material provided by the USSR to the Republicans vary between 634 and 806 aircraft, 331 and 362 tanks and 1,034 to 1,895 artillery pieces. Stalin also created Section X of the Soviet Union military to head the weapons shipment operation, called Operation X. Despite Stalin’s interest in aiding the Republicans, the quality of arms was inconsistent. Many rifles and field guns provided were old, obsolete or otherwise of limited use (some dated back to the 1860s) but the T-26 and BT-5 tanks were modern and effective in combat. The Soviet Union supplied aircraft that were in current service with their own forces but the aircraft provided by Germany to the Nationalists proved superior by the end of the war.
The movement of arms from Russia to Spain was extremely slow. Many shipments were lost or arrived only partially matching what had been authorised. Stalin ordered shipbuilders to include false decks in the design of ships and while at sea, Soviet captains used deceptive flags and paint schemes to evade detection by the Nationalists.
The USSR sent 2,000-3,000 military advisers to Spain; while the Soviet commitment of troops was fewer than 500 men at a time, Soviet volunteers often operated Soviet-made tanks and aircraft, particularly at the beginning of the war. The Spanish commander of every military unit on the Republican side was attended by a “Comissar Politico” of equal rank, who represented Moscow.
The Republic paid for Soviet arms with official Bank of Spain gold reserves, 176 tonnes of which was transferred through France and 510 directly to Russia, which was called Moscow gold.
Also, the Soviet Union directed Communist parties around the world to organise and recruit the International Brigades.
Another significant Soviet involvement was the activity of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD) inside the Republican rearguard. Communist figures including Vittorio Vidali (“Comandante Contreras”), Iosif Grigulevich, Mikhail Koltsov and, most prominently, Aleksandr Mikhailovich Orlov led operations that included the murders of Catalan anti-Stalinist Communist politician Andrés Nin, the socialist journalist Mark Rein, and the independent left-wing activist José Robles. Another NKVD-led operation was the shooting down (in December 1936) of the French aircraft in which the delegate of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Georges Henny, carried extensive documentation on the Paracuellos massacres to France.
Unlike the US and major Latin American governments, such as the ABC nations and Peru, Mexico supported the Republicans. Mexico abstained from following the French-British non-intervention proposals, and provided $2,000,000 in aid and material assistance, which included 20,000 rifles and 20 million cartridges.
Mexico’s most important contributions to the Spanish Republic was its diplomatic help, as well as the sanctuary the nation arranged for Republican refugees, including Spanish intellectuals and orphaned children from Republican families. Some 50,000 took refuge, primarily in Mexico City and Morelia, accompanied by $300 million in various treasures still owned by the Left.
Fearing it might spark a civil war inside France, the leftist “Popular Front” government in France did not send direct support to the Republicans. French Prime Minister Léon Blum was sympathetic to the republic, fearing that the success of Nationalist forces in Spain would result in the creation of an ally state of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, an alliance that would nearly encircle France. Right-wing politicians opposed any aid and attacked the Blum government. In July 1936, British officials convinced Blum not to send arms to the Republicans and, on 27 July, the French government declared that it would not send military aid, technology or forces to assist the Republican forces. However, Blum made clear that France reserved the right to provide aid should it wish to the Republic: “We could have delivered arms to the Spanish Government [Republicans], a legitimate government… We have not done so, in order not to give an excuse to those who would be tempted to send arms to the rebels [Nationalists].”
On 01 August 1936, a pro-Republican rally of 20,000 people confronted Blum, demanding that he send aircraft to the Republicans, at the same time as right-wing politicians attacked Blum for supporting the Republic and being responsible for provoking Italian intervention on the side of Franco. Germany informed the French ambassador in Berlin that Germany would hold France responsible if it supported “the manoeuvres of Moscow” by supporting the Republicans. On 21 August 1936, France signed the Non-Intervention Agreement. However, the Blum government provided aircraft to the Republicans covertly with Potez 540 bomber aircraft (nicknamed the “Flying Coffin” by Spanish Republican pilots), Dewoitine aircraft, and Loire 46 fighter aircraft being sent from 07 August 1936 to December of that year to Republican forces. France, through the favour of pro-communist air minister Pierre Cot also sent a group of trained fighter pilots and engineers to help the Republicans. Also, until 08 September 1936, aircraft could freely pass from France into Spain if they were bought in other countries.
French novelist André Malraux was a strong supporter of the Republican cause; he tried to organise a volunteer air force (Escadrile Espana) on the Republican side, but as a practical organiser and squadron leader he was somewhat idealistic and inefficient. The Regular Spanish Air force commander Andrés García La Calle was openly critical of Malraux’s military efficiency but recognised his usefulness as a propagandist. His novel L’Espoir and the film version he produced and directed (Espoir: Sierra de Teruel) were a great help for the Republican cause in France.
Even after covert support by France to the Republicans ended in December 1936, the possibility of French intervention against the Nationalists remained a serious possibility throughout the war. German intelligence reported to Franco and the Nationalists that the French military was engaging in open discussions about intervention in the war through French military intervention in Catalonia and the Balearic Islands. In 1938, Franco feared an immediate French intervention against a potential Nationalist victory in Spain through French occupation of Catalonia, the Balearic Islands, and Spanish Morocco.
Many Americans volunteered and arrived in Spain in 1937. Utilising the name of Abraham Lincoln, the communist supporting men from the US formed the Lincoln Battalion, organised in January 1937 as part of the XV International Brigade. The Lincoln Battalion initially fielded three companies, two infantry and one machine gun. Included were sections of Latin American and Irish volunteers, organised as the Centuria Guttieras and the Connolly Column, respectively. After less than two months of training, the Lincolns went into action in February 1937. Many of the volunteers recalled that training as, “They give me a gun and they give me 100 bullets and they send me to fight.”
The International Brigade was usually used as shock troops, and as a result they suffered high casualties. By the end of the war the Lincoln Battalion had lost 22.5% of its strength.
In 1985 in an interview with Scripps-Howard editors, President Ronald Reagan said that most Americans believed that their fellow Americans who fought with the Loyalist forces were on the wrong side.
Due to the geographic and linguistic proximity, most Portuguese volunteers to the Republican side joined their forces directly and not as part of the International Brigades. In the 1936 Naval Revolt, Portuguese mutineers unsuccessfully attempted to take their ships to join with the Spanish Republicans and were arrested. It is estimated that about 2,000 Portuguese fought on the Republican side, spread throughout different units.
Course of the War
A large air and sealift of Nationalist troops in Spanish Morocco was organised to the southwest of Spain. Coup leader Sanjurjo was killed in a plane crash on 20 July, leaving an effective command split between Mola in the North and Franco in the South. This period also saw the worst actions of the so-called “Red” and “White Terrors” in Spain. On 21 July, the fifth day of the rebellion, the Nationalists captured the central Spanish naval base, located in Ferrol, Galicia.
A rebel force under Colonel Alfonso Beorlegui Canet, sent by General Mola and Colonel Esteban García, undertook the Campaign of Gipuzkoa from July to September. The capture of Gipuzkoa isolated the Republican provinces in the north. On 05 September, the Nationalists closed the French border to the Republicans in the battle of Irún. On 15 September San Sebastián, home to a divided Republican force of anarchists and Basque nationalists, was taken by Nationalist soldiers.
The Republic proved ineffective militarily, relying on disorganised revolutionary militias. The Republican government under Giral resigned on 04 September, unable to cope with the situation, and was replaced by a mostly Socialist organisation under Francisco Largo Caballero. The new leadership began to unify central command in the republican zone. The civilian militas were often simply just civilians armed with whatever was available. Thus they fared poorly in combat, particularly against the professional Army of Africa armed with modern weapons, ultimately contributing to Franco’s rapid advance.
On the Nationalist side, Franco was chosen as chief military commander at a meeting of ranking generals at Salamanca on 21 September, now called by the title Generalísimo. Franco won another victory on 27 September when his troops relieved the siege of the Alcázar in Toledo, which had been held by a Nationalist garrison under Colonel José Moscardó Ituarte since the beginning of the rebellion, resisting thousands of Republican troops, who completely surrounded the isolated building. Moroccans and elements of the Spanish Legion came to the rescue. Two days after relieving the siege, Franco proclaimed himself Caudillo (“chieftain”, the Spanish equivalent of the Italian Duce and the German Führer – meaning: ‘director’) while forcibly unifying the various and diverse Falangist, Royalist and other elements within the Nationalist cause. The diversion to Toledo gave Madrid time to prepare a defence, but was hailed as a major propaganda victory and personal success for Franco. On 01 October 1936, General Franco was confirmed head of state and armies in Burgos. A similar dramatic success for the Nationalists occurred on 17 October, when troops coming from Galicia relieved the besieged town of Oviedo, in Northern Spain.
In October, the Francoist troops launched a major offensive toward Madrid, reaching it in early November and launching a major assault on the city on 08 November. The Republican government was forced to shift from Madrid to Valencia, outside the combat zone, on 06 November. However, the Nationalists’ attack on the capital was repulsed in fierce fighting between 08 and 23 November. A contributory factor in the successful Republican defence was the effectiveness of the Fifth Regiment and later the arrival of the International Brigades, though only an approximate 3,000 foreign volunteers 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, beginning the three-year Siege of Madrid. The Second Battle of the Corunna Road, a Nationalist offensive to the northwest, pushed Republican forces back, but failed to isolate Madrid. The battle lasted into January.
With his ranks swelled by Italian troops and Spanish colonial soldiers from Morocco, Franco made another attempt to capture Madrid in January and February 1937, but was again unsuccessful. The Battle of Málaga started in mid-January, and this Nationalist offensive in Spain’s southeast would turn into a disaster for the Republicans, who were poorly organised and armed. The city was taken by Franco on 08 February. The consolidation of various militias into the Republican Army had started in December 1936. The main Nationalist advance to cross the Jarama and cut the supply to Madrid by the Valencia road, termed the Battle of Jarama, led to heavy casualties (6,000-20,000) on both sides. The operation’s main objective was not met, though Nationalists gained a modest amount of territory.
A similar Nationalist offensive, the Battle of Guadalajara, was a more significant defeat for Franco and his armies. This was the only publicised Republican victory of the war. Franco used Italian troops and blitzkrieg tactics; while many strategists blamed Franco for the rightists’ defeat, the Germans believed it was the former at fault for the Nationalists’ 5,000 casualties and loss of valuable equipment. The German strategists successfully argued that the Nationalists needed to concentrate on vulnerable areas first.
The “War in the North” began in mid-March, with the Biscay Campaign. The Basques suffered most from the lack of a suitable air force. On 26 April, the Condor Legion bombed the town of Guernica, killing 200-300 and causing significant damage. The destruction had a significant effect on international opinion. The Basques retreated.
April and May saw the May Days, infighting among Republican groups in Catalonia. The dispute was between an ultimately victorious government – Communist forces and the anarchist CNT. The disturbance pleased Nationalist command, but little was done to exploit Republican divisions. After the fall of Guernica, the Republican government began to fight back with increasing effectiveness. In July, it made a move to recapture Segovia, forcing Franco to delay his advance on the Bilbao front, but for only two weeks. A similar Republican attack, the Huesca Offensive, failed similarly.
Mola, Franco’s second-in-command, was killed on 03 June, in an airplane accident. In early July, despite the earlier loss at the Battle of Bilbao, the government launched a strong counter-offensive to the west of Madrid, focusing on Brunete. The Battle of Brunete, however, was a significant defeat for the Republic, which lost many of its most accomplished troops. The offensive led to an advance of 50 square kilometres (19 sq mi), and left 25,000 Republican casualties.
A Republican offensive against Zaragoza was also a failure. Despite having land and aerial advantages, the Battle of Belchite, a place lacking any military interest, resulted in an advance of only 10 kilometres (6.2 miles) and the loss of much equipment. Franco invaded Aragón and took the city of Santander in Cantabria in August. With the surrender of the Republican army in the Basque territory came the Santoña Agreement. Gijón finally fell in late October in the Asturias Offensive. Franco had effectively won in the north. At November’s end, with Franco’s troops closing in on Valencia, the government had to move again, this time to Barcelona.
The Battle of Teruel was an important confrontation. The city, which had formerly belonged to the Nationalists, was conquered by Republicans in January. The Francoist troops launched an offensive and recovered the city by 22 February, but Franco was forced to rely heavily on German and Italian air support.
On 07 March, Nationalists launched the Aragon Offensive, and by 14 April they had pushed through to the Mediterranean, cutting the Republican-held portion of Spain in two. The Republican government attempted to sue for peace in May, but Franco demanded unconditional surrender, and the war raged on. In July, the Nationalist army pressed southward from Teruel and south along the coast toward the capital of the Republic at Valencia, but was halted in heavy fighting along the XYZ Line, a system of fortifications defending Valencia.
The Republican government then launched an all-out campaign to reconnect their territory in the Battle of the Ebro, from 24 July until 26 November, where Franco personally took command. The campaign was unsuccessful, and was undermined by the agreement signed in Munich between Hitler and Chamberlain. The Munich Agreement effectively caused a collapse in Republican morale by ending hope of an anti-fascist alliance with Western powers. The retreat from the Ebro all but determined the final outcome of the war. Eight days before the new year, Franco threw massive forces into an invasion of Catalonia.
Franco’s troops conquered Catalonia in a whirlwind campaign during the first two months of 1939. Tarragona fell on 15 January, followed by Barcelona on 26 January and Girona on 02 February. On 27 February, the United Kingdom and France recognized the Franco regime.
Only Madrid and a few other strongholds remained for the Republican forces. On 05 March 1939 the Republican army, led by the Colonel Segismundo Casado and the politician Julián Besteiro, rose against the prime minister Juan Negrín and formed the National Defence Council (Consejo Nacional de Defensa or CND) to negotiate a peace deal. Negrín fled to France on 06 March, but the Communist troops around Madrid rose against the junta, starting a brief civil war within the civil war. Casado defeated them, and began peace negotiations with the Nationalists, but Franco refused to accept anything less than unconditional surrender.
On 26 March, the Nationalists started a general offensive, on 28 March the Nationalists occupied Madrid and, by 31 March, they controlled all Spanish territory. Franco proclaimed victory in a radio speech aired on 01 April, when the last of the Republican forces surrendered.
After the end of the war, there were harsh reprisals against Franco’s former enemies. Thousands of Republicans were imprisoned and at least 30,000 executed. Other estimates of these deaths range from 50,000 to 200,000, depending on which deaths are included. Many others were put to forced labour, building railways, draining swamps, and digging canals.
Hundreds of thousands of Republicans fled abroad, with some 500,000 fleeing to France. Refugees were confined in internment camps of the French Third Republic, such as Camp Gurs or Camp Vernet, where 12,000 Republicans were housed in squalid conditions. In his capacity as consul in Paris, Chilean poet and politician Pablo Neruda organised the immigration to Chile of 2,200 Republican exiles in France using the ship SS Winnipeg.
Of the 17,000 refugees housed in Gurs, farmers and others who could not find relations in France were encouraged by the Third Republic, in agreement with the Francoist government, to return to Spain. The great majority did so and were turned over to the Francoist authorities in Irún. From there, they were transferred to the Miranda de Ebro camp for “purification” according to the Law of Political Responsibilities. After the proclamation by Marshal Philippe Pétain of the Vichy regime, the refugees became political prisoners, and the French police attempted to round up those who had been liberated from the camp. Along with other “undesirable” people, the Spaniards were sent to the Drancy internment camp before being deported to Nazi Germany. About 5,000 Spaniards died in the Mauthausen concentration camp.
After the official end of the war, guerrilla warfare was waged on an irregular basis by the Spanish Maquis well into the 1950s, gradually reduced by military defeats and scant support from the exhausted population. In 1944, a group of republican veterans, who also fought in the French resistance against the Nazis, invaded the Val d’Aran in northwest Catalonia, but were defeated after 10 days.
Evacuation of Children
The Republicans oversaw the evacuation of 30,000-35,000 children from their zone, starting with Basque areas, from which 20,000 were evacuated. Their destinations included the United Kingdom and the USSR, and many other countries in Europe, along with Mexico. The policy of evacuating children to foreign countries was initially opposed to by elements in the government as well as private charities, who saw the policy as unnecessary and harmful to the well-being of the evacuated children. On 21 May 1937, around 4,000 Basque children were evacuated to the UK on the aging steamship SS Habana from the Spanish port of Santurtzi. Upon their arrival two days later in Southampton, the children were sent to families all over England, with over 200 children accommodated in Wales. The upper age limit was initially set at 12, but raised to 15. By mid-September, all of los niños, as they became known, had found homes with families. Most were repatriated to Spain after the war, but some 250 were still in Britain by the end of the Second World War in 1945. Some chose to settle down in Britain, while the remaining children were eventually evacuated back to Spain.
During the Civil War the Nationalist and Republican military expenditures combined totalled some $3.89bn, on average $1.44bn annually. The overall Nationalist expenditures are calculated at $2.04bn, while the Republican ones reached ca. $1,85bn. In comparison, in 1936-1938 the French military expenditure totalled $0.87bn, the Italian ones reached $2.64bn, and the British ones stood at $4.13bn. As in the mid-1930s the Spanish GDP was much smaller than the Italian, French or British ones, and as in the Second Republic the annual defence and security budget was usually around $0,13bn (total annual governmental spending was close to $0.65bn),[note 6] wartime military expenditures put huge strain on the Spanish economy. Financing the war posed enormous challenge for both the Nationalists and the Republicans.
The two combatant parties followed similar financial strategies; in both cases money creation, rather than new taxes or issue of debt, was key to financing the war.
Both sides relied mostly on domestic resources; in case of the Nationalists they amounted to 63% of the overall spendings ($1.28bn) and in case of the Republicans they stood at 59% ($1.09bn). In the Nationalist zone money creation was responsible for some 69% of domestic resources, while in the Republican one the corresponding figure stood at 60%; it was accomplished mostly by means of advances, credits, loans and debit balances from respective central banks. However, while in the Nationalist zone the rising stock of money was only marginally above the production growth rate, in the Republican zone it by far exceeded dwindling production figures. The result was that while by the end of the war the Nationalist inflation was 41% compared to 1936, the Republican one was in triple digits. The second component of domestic resource was fiscal revenue. In the Nationalist zone it grew steadily and in the 2nd half of 1938 it was 214% of the figure from the 2nd half of 1936. In the Republican zone fiscal revenues in 1937 dropped to some 25% of revenues recorded in the proportional area in 1935, but recovered slightly in 1938. Neither side re-engineered the pre-war tax system; differences resulted from dramatic problems with tax collection in the Republican zone and from the course of the war, as more and more population was governed by the Nationalists. A smaller percentage of domestic resources came from expropriations, donations or internal borrowing.
Foreign resources amounted to 37% in case of the Nationalists ($0,76bn) and 41% in case of the Republicans ($0,77bn). For the Nationalists it was mostly the Italian and German credit; in case of the Republicans it was sales of gold reserves, mostly to the USSR and in much smaller amount to France. None of the sides resolved to public borrowing and none floated debt on foreign exchange markets.
Authors of recent studies suggest that given Nationalist and Republican spending was comparable, earlier theory pointing to Republican mismanagement of resources is no longer tenable. Instead, they claim that the Republicans failed to translate their resources into military victory largely because of constraints of the international non-intervention agreement; they were forced to spend in excess of market prices and accept goods of lower quality. Initial turmoil in the Republican zone contributed to problems, while at later stages the course of the war meant that population, territory and resources kept shrinking.
The death toll of the Spanish Civil War is far from clear and remains – especially in part related to war and post-war repression – a very controversial issue. Many general historiographic works – notably in Spain – refrain from advancing any figures; massive historical series, encyclopaedias or dictionaries provide no numbers or at best propose vague general descriptions; more detailed general history accounts produced by expert Spanish scholars often remain silent on the issue. Foreign scholars, especially Anglo-Saxon historians, are more willing to offer some general estimates, though some have revised their projections, usually downward, and the figures vary from 1 million to 250,000. Apart from bias/ill will, incompetence or changing access to sources, the differences result chiefly from categorisation and methodology issues.
The totals advanced usually include or exclude various categories. Scholars who focus on killings or “violent deaths” most typically list:
- Combat and combat-related deaths; figures in this rubric range from 100,000 to 700,000.
- Rearguard terror, both judicial and extrajudicial, recorded until the end of the Civil War: 103,000 to 235,000.
- Civilian deaths from military action, typically air raids: 10,000 to 15,000. These categories combined point to totals from 235,000 to 715,000. Many authors opt for a broader view and calculate “death toll” by adding also
- Above-the-norm deaths caused by malnutrition, hygiene shortcomings, cold, illness, etc. recorded until the end of the Civil War: 30,000 to 630,000. It is not unusual to encounter war statistics which include:
- Post-war terror related to Civil War, at times up to the year of 1961: 23,000 to 200,000. Some authors also add
- Foreign combat and combat-related deaths: 3,000 to 25,000.
- Spaniards killed in World War II: 6,000,.
- Deaths related to post-war guerrilla, typically the Valle de Arán invasion: 4,000.
- Above-the-norm deaths caused by malnutrition, etc., recorded after the Civil War but related to it: 160,000 to 300,000.
Demographers take an entirely different approach; instead of adding up deaths from different categories, they try to gauge the difference between the total number of deaths recorded during the war and the total that would result from applying annual death averages from the 1926-1935 period; this difference is considered excess death resulting from the war. The figure they arrive at for the 1936-1939 period is 346,000; the figure for 1936-1942, including the years of post-war deaths resulting from terror and war sufferings, is 540,000. Some scholars go even further and calculate the war’s “population loss” or “demographic impact”; in this case they might include also (10) migration abroad: 160,000 to 730,000 and (11) decrease in birth rate: 500,000 to 570,000.
Death totals remain debated. British historian Antony Beevor wrote in his history of the Civil War that Franco’s ensuing “white terror” resulted in the deaths of 200,000 people and that the “red terror” killed 38,000. Julius Ruiz contends that, “Although the figures remain disputed, a minimum of 37,843 executions were carried out in the Republican zone, with a maximum of 150,000 executions (including 50,000 after the war) in Nationalist Spain”. Historian Michael Seidman stated that the Nationalists killed approximately 130,000 people and the Republicans approximately 50,000 people.
In 2008 a Spanish judge, Baltasar Garzón, opened an investigation into the executions and disappearances of 114,266 people between 17 July 1936 and December 1951. Among the executions investigated was that of the poet and dramatist Federico García Lorca, whose body has never been found. Mention of García Lorca’s death was forbidden during Franco’s regime.
Recent research has started to locate mass graves, using a combination of witness testimony, remote sensing and forensic geophysics techniques.
Historians such as Helen Graham, Paul Preston, Antony Beevor, Gabriel Jackson and Hugh Thomas argue that the mass executions behind the Nationalist lines were organised and approved by the Nationalist rebel authorities, while the executions behind the Republican lines were the result of the breakdown of the Republican state and chaos:
Though there was much wanton killing in rebel Spain, the idea of the limpieza, the “cleaning up”, of the country from the evils which had overtaken it, was a disciplined policy of the new authorities and a part of their programme of regeneration. In republican Spain, most of the killing was the consequence of anarchy, the outcome of a national breakdown, and not the work of the state, although some political parties in some cities abetted the enormities, and some of those responsible ultimately rose to positions of authority. Hugh Thomas.
Conversely, historians such as Stanley Payne, Julius Ruiz and José Sánchez argue that the political violence in the Republican zone was in fact organized by the left:
In general, this was not an irrepressible outpouring of hatred, by the man in the street for his “oppressors”, as it has sometimes been painted, but a semi-organised activity carried out by sections of nearly all the leftist groups. In the entire leftist zone the only organised political party that eschewed involvement in such activity were the Basque Nationalists.
Nationalist atrocities, which authorities frequently ordered so as to eradicate any trace of “leftism” in Spain, were common. The notion of a limpieza (cleansing) formed an essential part of the rebel strategy, and the process began immediately after an area had been captured. According to historian Paul Preston, the minimum number of those executed by the rebels is 130,000, and is likely to have been far higher, with other historians placing the figure at 200,000 dead. The violence was carried out in the rebel zone by the military, the Civil Guard and the Falange in the name of the regime. Julius Ruiz reports that the Nationalists killed 100,000 people during the war and executed at least 28,000 immediately after. The first three months of the war were the bloodiest, with 50 to 70 percent of all executions carried out by Franco’s regime, from 1936 to 1975, occurring during this period. The first few months of killings lacked much in the way of centralisation, being largely in the hands of local commanders. Such was the extent of the killings of civilians that General Mola was taken aback by them, despite his own planning emphasising the need for violence; early in the conflict he had ordered a group of leftist militiamen to be immediately executed, only to change his mind and rescind the order.
Many such acts were committed by reactionary groups during the first weeks of the war. This included the execution of schoolteachers, because the efforts of the Second Spanish Republic to promote laicism and displace the Church from schools by closing religious educational institutions were considered by the Nationalists as an attack on the Roman Catholic Church. Extensive killings of civilians were carried out in the cities captured by the Nationalists, along with the execution of unwanted individuals. These included non-combatants such as trade-unionists, Popular Front politicians, suspected Freemasons, Basque, Catalan, Andalusian, and Galician Nationalists, Republican intellectuals, relatives of known Republicans, and those suspected of voting for the Popular Front. The Nationalists also frequently killed military officers who refused to support them in the early days of the coup. Many killings in the first few months were often done by vigilantes and civilian death squads, with the Nationalist leadership often condoning their actions or even assisting them. Post-war executions were conducted by military tribunal, though the accused had limited ways to defend themselves. A large number of the executed were done so for their political activities or positions they held under the Republic during the war, though those who committed their own killings under the Republic were also amongst executed as well. However, during the war, executions declined as the Francoist state began to establish itself.
Nationalist forces massacred civilians in Seville, where some 8,000 people were shot; 10,000 were killed in Cordoba; 6,000-12,000 were killed in Badajoz after more than one thousand of landowners and conservatives were killed by the revolutionaries. In Granada, where working-class neighbourhoods were hit with artillery and right-wing squads were given free rein to kill government sympathizers, at least 2,000 people were murdered. In February 1937, over 7,000 were killed after the capture of Málaga. When Bilbao was conquered, thousands of people were sent to prison. There were fewer executions than usual, however, because of the effect Guernica left on Nationalists’ reputations internationally. The numbers killed as the columns of the Army of Africa devastated and pillaged their way between Seville and Madrid are particularly difficult to calculate. Landowners who owned the large estates of Southern Spain rode alongside the Army of Africa to reclaim via force of arms the land given to the landless peasants by the Republican government. Rural workers were executed and it was joked that they had received their “land reform” in the form of a burial plot.
Nationalists also murdered Catholic clerics. In one particular incident, following the capture of Bilbao, they took hundreds of people, including 16 priests who had served as chaplains for the Republican forces, to the countryside or graveyards and murdered them.
Franco’s forces also persecuted Protestants, including murdering 20 Protestant ministers. Franco’s forces were determined to remove the “Protestant heresy” from Spain. The Nationalists also persecuted Basques, as they strove to eradicate Basque culture. According to Basque sources, some 22,000 Basques were murdered by Nationalists immediately after the Civil War.
The Nationalist side conducted aerial bombing of cities in Republican territory, carried out mainly by the Luftwaffe volunteers of the Condor Legion and the Italian air force volunteers of the Corpo Truppe Volontarie: Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, Guernica, Durango, and other cities were attacked. The Bombing of Guernica was the most controversial. The Italian air force conducted a particularly heavy bombing raid on Barcelona in early 1938. While some Nationalist leaders did oppose the bombing of the city – for example, Generals Yagüe and Moscardó, who were noted for being nonconformists, protested against the indiscriminate destruction – other Nationalist leaders, often those of a fascist persuasion, approved of the bombings which they saw as necessary to “cleanse” Barcelona.
Michael Seidman observes that the Nationalist terror was a key part of the Nationalist victory as it allowed them to secure their rear; the Russian Whites, in their respective civil war, had struggled to suppress peasant rebellions, bandits and warlordism behind their lines; British observers argued that if the Russian Whites had been able to secure law and order behind their lines, they would have won over the Russian peasantry, while the inability of the Chinese Nationalists to stop banditry during the Chinese Civil War did severe damage to the regime’s legitimacy. The Spanish Nationalists, in contrast, imposed a puritanically terrorist order on the populace in their territory. They never suffered from serious partisan activity behind their lines and the fact that banditry did not develop into a serious problem in Spain, despite how easy it would have been in such mountainous terrain, demands explanation. Seidman argues that severe terror, combined with control of the food supply, explains the general lack of guerrilla warfare in the Nationalist rear.
Scholars have estimated that between 38,000 and 70,000 civilians were killed in Republican-held territories, with the most common estimate being around 50,000.
Whatever the exact number, the death toll was far exaggerated by both sides, for propaganda reasons, giving birth to the legend of the millón de muertos. Franco’s government would later give names of 61,000 victims of the red terrors, but which are not considered objectively verifiable. The deaths would form the prevailing outside opinion of the republic up until the bombing of Guernica.
The leftist Revolution of 1936 that preceded the war was accompanied since the first months by an escalation of leftist anticlerical terror that, between 18 and 31 July alone, killed 839 religious, continuing during the month of August with 2055 other victims, including 10 bishops killed, that was 42% of the total number of registered victims in that year. Particularly noteworthy repression was conducted in Madrid during the war.
The Republican government was anticlerical, and, when the war began, supporters attacked and murdered Roman Catholic clergy in reaction to the news of military revolt. In his 1961 book, Spanish archbishop Antonio Montero Moreno, who at the time was director of the journal Ecclesia, wrote that 6,832 were killed during the war, including 4,184 priests, 2,365 monks and friars, and 283 nuns (many were first raped before they died), in addition to 13 bishops, a figure accepted by historians, including Beevor. Some of the killings were carried out with extreme cruelty, some were burned to death, there are reports of castration and disembowelment. Some sources claim that by the conflict’s end, 20 percent of the nation’s clergy had been killed. The “Execution” of the Sacred Heart of Jesus by Communist militiamen at Cerro de los Ángeles near Madrid, on 07 August 1936, was the most infamous of widespread desecration of religious property. In dioceses where the Republicans had general control, a large proportion – often a majority – of secular priests were killed. Michael Seidman argues that the hatred of the Republicans for the clergy was in excess of anything else; while local revolutionaries might spare the lives of the rich and right-wingers, they seldom offered the same to priests.
Like clergy, civilians were executed in Republican territories. Some civilians were executed as suspected Falangists. Others died in acts of revenge after Republicans heard of massacres carried out in the Nationalist zone. Air raids committed against Republican cities were another driving factor. Shopkeepers and industrialists were shot if they did not sympathise with the Republicans, and were usually spared if they did. Fake justice was sought through commissions, named checas after the Soviet secret police organisation.
Many killings were done by paseos, impromptu death squads that emerged as a spontaneous practice amongst revolutionary activists in Republican areas. According to Seidman, the Republican government only made efforts to stop the actions of the paseos late in the war; during the first few months, the government either tolerated it or made no efforts to stop it. The killings often contained a symbolic element, as those killed were seen as embodying an oppressive source of power and authority. This was also why the Republicans would kill priests or employers who were not considered to personally have done anything wrong but were nonetheless seen as representing the old oppressive order that needed to be destroyed.
As pressure mounted with the increasing success of the Nationalists, many civilians were executed by councils and tribunals controlled by competing Communist and anarchist groups. Some members of the latter were executed by Soviet-advised communist functionaries in Catalonia, as recounted by George Orwell’s description of the purges in Barcelona in 1937 in Homage to Catalonia, which followed a period of increasing tension between competing elements of the Catalan political scene. Some individuals fled to friendly embassies, which would house up to 8,500 people during the war.
In the Andalusian town of Ronda, 512 suspected Nationalists were executed in the first month of the war. Communist Santiago Carrillo Solares was accused of the killing of Nationalists in the Paracuellos massacre near Paracuellos de Jarama. Pro-Soviet Communists committed numerous atrocities against fellow Republicans, including other Marxists: André Marty, known as the Butcher of Albacete, was responsible for the deaths of some 500 members of the International Brigades. Andrés Nin, leader of the POUM (Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification), and many other prominent POUM members, were murdered by the Communists, with the help of the USSR’s NKVD.
The Republicans also conducted their own bombing attacks on cities, such as the bombing of Cabra, and in fact conducted more indiscriminate air raids on cities and civilian targets than the Nationalists.
Thirty-eight thousand people were killed in the Republican zone during the war, 17,000 of whom were killed in Madrid or Catalonia within a month of the coup. Whilst the Communists were forthright in their support of extrajudicial killings, much of the Republican side was appalled by the murders. Azaña came close to resigning. He, alongside other members of Parliament and a great number of other local officials, attempted to prevent Nationalist supporters being lynched. Some of those in positions of power intervened personally to stop the killings.
In the anarchist-controlled areas, Aragon and Catalonia, in addition to the temporary military success, there was a vast social revolution in which the workers and peasants collectivised land and industry and set up councils parallel to the paralysed Republican government. This revolution was opposed by the Soviet-supported communists who, perhaps surprisingly, campaigned against the loss of civil property rights.
As the war progressed, the government and the communists were able to exploit their access to Soviet arms to restore government control over the war effort, through diplomacy and force. Anarchists and the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista, POUM) were integrated into the regular army, albeit with resistance. The POUM Trotskyists were outlawed and denounced by the Soviet-aligned Communists as an instrument of the fascists. In the May Days of 1937, many thousands of anarchist and communist Republican soldiers fought for control of strategic points in Barcelona.
The pre-war Falange was a small party of some 30,000-40,000 members. It also called for a social revolution that would have seen Spanish society transformed by National Syndicalism. Following the execution of its leader, José Antonio Primo de Rivera, by the Republicans, the party swelled in size to several hundred thousand members. The leadership of the Falange suffered 60% casualties in the early days of the civil war, and the party was transformed by new members and rising new leaders, called camisas nuevas (“new shirts”), who were less interested in the revolutionary aspects of National Syndicalism. Subsequently, Franco united all fighting groups into the Traditionalist Spanish Falange and the National Syndicalist Offensive Juntas (Spanish: Falange Española Tradicionalista de las Juntas de Ofensiva Nacional-Sindicalista, FET y de las JONS).
The 1930s also saw Spain become a focus for pacifist organisations, including the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the War Resisters League, and the War Resisters’ International. Many people including, as they are now called, the insumisos (“defiant ones”, conscientious objectors) argued and worked for non-violent strategies. Prominent Spanish pacifists, such as Amparo Poch y Gascón and José Brocca, supported the Republicans. Brocca argued that Spanish pacifists had no alternative but to make a stand against fascism. He put this stand into practice by various means, including organising agricultural workers to maintain food supplies, and through humanitarian work with war refugees.
Art and Propaganda
Throughout the course of the Spanish Civil War, people all over the world were exposed to the goings-on and effects of it on its people not only through standard art, but also through propaganda. Motion pictures, posters, books, radio programs, and leaflets are a few examples of this media art that was so influential during the war. Produced by both nationalists and republicans, propaganda allowed Spaniards a way to spread awareness about their war all over the world. A film co-produced by famous early-twentieth century authors such as Ernest Hemingway and Lillian Hellman was used as a way to advertise Spain’s need for military and monetary aid. This film, The Spanish Earth, premiered in America in July 1937. In 1938, George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, a personal account of his experiences and observations in the war, was published in the United Kingdom. In 1939, Jean-Paul Sartre published in France a short story, “The Wall” in which he describes the last night of prisoners of war sentenced to death by shooting.
Leading works of sculpture include Alberto Sánchez Pérez’s El pueblo español tiene un camino que conduce a una estrella (“The Spanish People Have a Path that Leads to a Star”), a 12.5 m monolith constructed out of plaster representing the struggle for a socialist utopia; Julio González’s La Montserrat, an anti-war work which shares its title with a mountain near Barcelona, is created from a sheet of iron which has been hammered and welded to create a peasant mother carrying a small child in one arm and a sickle in the other. and Alexander Calder’s Fuente de mercurio (Mercury Fountain) a protest work by the American against the Nationalist forced control of Almadén and the mercury mines there.
Salvador Dali responded to the conflict in his homeland with two powerful oil paintings in 1936: Soft Construction with Boiled Beans: A Premonition of Civil War (Philadelphia Museum of Art) and Autumnal Cannibalism (Tate Modern, London). Of the former, the art historian Robert Hughes stated, “Salvador Dali appropriated the horizontal thigh of Goya’s crouching Saturn for the hybrid monster in the painting Soft Construction with Boiled Beans, Premonition of Civil War, which rather than Picasso’s Guernica – is the finest single work of visual art inspired by the Spanish Civil War.” On the later, Dali commented “These Iberian beings mutually devouring each other correspond to the pathos of civil war considered as a pure phenomenon of natural history as opposed to Picasso who considered it a political phenomenon.”
Pablo Picasso painted Guernica in 1937, taking inspiration from the bombing of Guernica, and in Leonardo da Vinci’s Battle of Anghiari. Guernica, like many important Republican masterpieces, was featured at the 1937 International Exhibition in Paris. The work’s size (11 ft by 25.6 ft) grabbed much attention and cast the horrors of the mounting Spanish civil unrest into a global spotlight. The painting has since been heralded as an anti-war work and a symbol of peace in the 20th century.
Joan Miró created El Segador (The Reaper) in 1937, formally titled El campesino catalán en rebeldía (Catalan peasant in revolt), which spans some 18 feet by 12 feet and depicted a peasant brandishing a sickle in the air, to which Miró commented that “The sickle is not a communist symbol. It is the reaper’s symbol, the tool of his work, and, when his freedom is threatened, his weapon.” This work, also featured at the 1937 International Exhibition in Paris, was shipped back to the Spanish Republic’s capital in Valencia following the Exhibition, but has since gone missing or has been destroyed.
The Army of Africa would feature a place in propaganda on both sides, due to the complex history of the Army and Spanish colonialism in North Africa. Both sides would invent different characters of the Moorish troops, drawing on a wide range of historical symbols, cultural prejudices and racial stereotypes. The Army of Africa would be used as part of a propaganda campaign by both sides to portray the other side as foreign invaders attacking from outside the national community, while portraying their own as representing “true Spain.”
Payment for the war on both sides was very high. Monetary resources on the Republican side were completely drained from weapon acquisition. On the Nationalist side, the biggest losses came after the conflict, when they had to let Germany exploit the country’s mining resources, so until the beginning of World War II they barely had the chance to make any profit. Spain was devastated in many areas, with completely destroyed towns. The Spanish economy took decades to recover.
The number of civilian victims is still being discussed, with some estimating approximately 500,000 victims, while others go as high as 1,000,000. These deaths were not only due to combat, but also executions, which were especially well-organised and systematic on the Nationalist side, being more disorganised on the Republican side (mainly caused by loss of control of the armed masses by the government). However, the 500,000 death toll does not include deaths by malnutrition, hunger or diseases brought about by the war.
Francoist Repression after the War and Republican Exile
After the War, the Francoist regime initiated a repressive process against the losing side, a “cleansing” of sorts against anything or anyone associated with the Republic. This process led many to exile or death. Exile happened in three waves. The first one was during the Northern Campaign (March to November 1937), followed by a second wave after the fall of Catalonia (January to February 1939), in which about 400,000 people fled to France. The French authorities had to improvise concentration camps, with such hard conditions that almost half of the exiled Spaniards returned. The third wave occurred after the War, at the end of March 1939, when thousands of Republicans tried to board ships to exile, although few succeeded.
The political and emotional repercussions of the War transcended the national scale, becoming a precursor to World War II. The war has frequently been described by historians as the “prelude to” or the “opening round of” World War II, as part of an international battle against fascism. Historian Stanley Payne suggests that this view is an incorrect summary of the geopolitic position of the interwar period, arguing that the international alliance that was created in December 1941, once the US entered World War II, was politically much broader than the Spanish Popular Front. The Spanish Civil War, Payne argues, was thus a far more clear-cut revolutionary and counter-revolutionary struggle between the left and right wings, while World War II initially had fascists and communist powers on the same side with the combined Nazi-Soviet invasion of Poland. Payne suggests that instead the civil war was the last of the revolutionary crises that emerged from World War I, observing it had parallels such as the complete revolutionary breakdown of domestic institutions, the development of full-scale revolutionary and counter-revolutionary struggles, the development of a typical post-WW1 communist force in the form of the People’s Army, an extreme exacerbation of nationalism, the frequent use of WW1-style military weapons and tactics and the fact that it was not the product of the plan of any of the major powers, making it more similar to the post-WW1 crises which arose after Versailles.
After the War, Spanish policy leaned heavily towards Germany, Portugal and Italy, since they had been the greatest Nationalist supporters and aligned with Spain ideologically. However, the end of the Civil War and later the Second World War saw the isolation of the country from most other nations until the 1950s, in which the American anti-Communist international policy favoured having a far-right and extremely anti-communist ally in Europe.