Spanish Civil War
The Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) pitted the fascist forces of General Francisco Franco, which rallied the Catholics especially, against the leftists who formed the Republican government of Spain. The war was marked by extreme brutality against civilians. Franco won and forced his opponents into exile, as Spain was virtually ruined and remained economically weak for decades. Nazi Germany and fascist Italy supported Franco while the Communist Soviet Union supported the Republicans. Britain, France and the U.S. remained neutral, but sent numerous volunteers, primarily young leftists who aided the Republican cause. The war attracted leading artists and authors, such as Pablo Picasso, George Orwell, Laurie Lee and Ernest Hemingway.
- 1 Sources of Division
- 2 Background
- 3 Operations 1936
- 4 Operations 1937
- 5 Operations 1938
- 6 Operations 1939
- 7 Reasons for the Nationalist Victory
- 8 Women
- 9 Results of the Civil War
- 10 Memory
- 11 Notes
Sources of Division
Agriculture accounted for about two fifths of Spain's national income in the 1930s and almost half of the population lived on the land. The problem of agriculture was due partly to climatic conditions and lack of modern machinery. The situation was worsened by the Latifundia system, which maintained an uneconomic, inefficient, feudal type of land ownership by massive landowners in the countryside. Latifundia were huge farms owned by rich families and absentee landlords who paid their labourers very little for their work. More often than not, large tracts of land were left uncultivated. These conditions bred support for Anarchism, the creation of a world where those who worked the land owned it.
In some provinces, such as Castile or Galicia, Minifundia created a parallel problem. Tiny farms were owned by peasants (Some as small as two acres in size) who found it hard to make a decent living under such conditions, often working on a basis below Subsistence Agriculture. Rural violence was endemic between 1903-06 and 1917-20. Agrarian violence became especially problematic during the Spanish Second Republic and more than likely hastened the onset of the Civil War.
Industrialization had hit Spain in two major centres, The Basque region and Catalonia. In Barcelona, an important cultural and commercial centre, textiles, light industry and ship building were predominant. The Basques concentrated on ship building, in addition to having a large metallurgical industry. Bilbao, the capital of the Basque country, was a thriving port. Industrial development in these regions created workers movement which would accommodate the rural unrest during the Civil War. In Barcelona, workers were represented by the CNT, an Anarchist Trade Union. The Basques and coal miners of Asturias joined the socialist UGT Union. The former frightened the ruling class with its policy of violence and assassination. Syndicalism was an aspiration for these powerful unions. The UGT and CNT support for the Popular Front in 1936 was an important motive for the army's decision to rebel.
Both the Basque country and Catalonia differed culturally from the rest of Spain. The Catalans spoke a different language, had a popular literary culture and a tradition of independence going back to Medieval times. In 1931, a Catalan Republic was proclaimed and some prominent individuals called on Catalonia to declare 'war on Spain'.
The Basques were an ancient pre-Celtic people who had lived around the Western Pyrenees for thousands of years. Around 100,000 Basques were French, the rest being Spanish citizens. They were very religious and maintained an independent language. Although bitterly opposed to the Republican's anti-clericalism during the Civil War, they supported them due to their support for regional autonomy.
The Catholic Church
In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the Catholic Church was instrumental in uniting Spain's various regional and social classes. However, by the late nineteenth century the Church was a source of division. To the left and the Liberals it personified the reactionary elements of Spanish society. Catholicism was seen as an enemy of democracy and social change. Parliament was regarded by many Catholics with skepticism.
To the industrial workers fast coming under the influence of Marxist and anarchist ideas the Church was a bitter foe. The language and tactics of class conflict demonized organised religion. Respect for property and law and order put the Church on the side of the factory owner rather than the worker, or so it was perceived. A similar situation existed in the countryside where the church was unable to advocate any real solution to the Latifundia system due to its anti-socialist stance.
The army regarded itself as a protector of Spanish culture and national integrity. Their oath was to 'maintain the independence of the country and defend it from its enemies within and without'. The enemies within Spain were the anarcho-socialist movements and regionalists' demands. The former was seen as a challenge to law and order, the latter a threat to Spanish national unity. In addition, both working class and regionalist movements were usually anti-militarist and urged strong civilian checks and balances over the military.
Aware of their position of influence in Spanish society, the army reacted to military reforms with distaste. Many historians feel that the army reforms of Manuel Azana between 1931 and 1933 were another important motive in the army's rebellion in 1936.
Spain witnessed a clash of ideologies that characterized Europe in the inter-war period. On the authoritarian right there were three major groups:
- The Falange, (Spain's official Fascist party) was founded by Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera. Jose Antonio was heavily influenced by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. His movement stressed Spanish nationalism. Antonio was executed by the Republicans in November 1936 and his movement was incorporated into Franco's traditional Spanish Falange. Franco later took the title of Caudillo (Leader)
- In the early 1930s the Falange was a minor party. The CEDA, or Catholic Party of Spain was the true fascist menace of the Republic. Their leader was Gil Robles, who visited Germany in 1938 and was very impressed by Adolf Hitler's Nazi Party. Robles was virulently anti-democratic. When he failed to implement a counter revolution in 1934 after joining the government, many of his supporters deserted him for the Falange or Calvo Sotelo's Nationalist Bloc.
- Calvo Sotelo became leader of the Spanish Nationalist Bloc in 1934. The objective of the bloc was to unite all those who rejected parliament and universal suffrage. He also proposed to limit profits, plan industry and destroy trade unionism. His assassination in 1936 helped trigger the Civil War.
The emergence of left wing groups in opposition to the authoritarian right caused greater division. The major leftist forces in the Spanish Republic where:
- The Anarchists, who aimed to abolish the state, private property and organized religion. This was to be achieved by education of the masses, a massive syndicalist strike overthrowing capitalism; or by individual acts of violence. In 1927 the Federacion Anarquista Iberica (FAI) was founded and became the dominant force in Spanish anarchism. It advocated immediate revolution in strikes and violence.
- There were several Marxist parties in Spain. Largo Callero was the leader of the socialists and the UGT. In the years before the Civil War, he began to move these two moderate organizations into a more revolutionary stance. After 1934, the small communist party of Spain called for a united front against the fascist threat. There was also the POUM, a revolutionary Marxist party with Trotskyist influences. They argued that the workers should immediately seize political power. This polarisation of Spain into two diametrically opposed political groups heightened the tension and ultimately led to the Civil War.
Queen Isabella II, Spain's Bourbon monarch, was deposed by a military uprising in 1868. This was followed by the Carlist War, where supporters of Don Carlos failed in their attempt to restore the system of absolute monarchy. A republic was proclaimed in this period, but quickly collapsed. In 1874, Alfonso XII, son of Isabella II was restored to the throne by another military rising. The restoration monarch was constitutional in theory, but severely flawed in practice. Local political leaders had far more power than the Cortes, or parliament. Alfonso XII died in 1902 and was succeeded by his son Alfonso XIII.
A series of disputes weakened the rule of Alfonso XIII. Working class resentment at lack of real democracy in Spain prompted several outrages. Later, between 1923 and 1927, a street war existed between the CNT and the employers' gunmen. Growing nationalist sentiment in the Basque country and Catalonia made for political disunity, much to the irritation of Alfonso.
Public esteem for the monarch and Cortes rapidly declined. Consequently Alfonso encouraged General Primo de Rivera to seize power in a coup d'état in 1923.
Dictatorship of Primero de Rivera
Primero de Rivera was a military general who came to power in a 1923 coup. He was a political improviser who believed that his mission was to save Spain from the politicians and after a period of personal rule, hand back government to the ‘Patriots’. He failed in his task however, since his regime became increasingly unpopular, specifically among the Catalans and intellectuals. The 1923 coup had been welcomed in Catalonia mainly because as Captain general of the army, de Rivera had been sympathetic to Catalan aspirations. Soon after taking power however he permitted an ‘anti-Catalan Crusade’. His follower’s attempts to build a political party (The Patriotic union) later failed.
De Rivera ruled as one of the army’s men. In spite of early quarrels with the African Commanders, whom he forced to retreat to Morocco, the Military Directory was responsible for the victory in the protectorate. The Spanish collaborated with the French, landing at Alhucemas in September 1925 and defeated the most successful tribal leader, Abd el-Krim. Spanish authority had been imposed on Morocco by 1927.
The Civil Directory (1925-30) was responsible for an overhaul of local government and for an ambitious public works programme to increase irrigation, hydraulic power and road building. Primo’s economic nationalism brought with it strict protectionist policies and an attack on foreign oil companies. The extensive bureaucratic control of industry did not endear him to the business community following 1926 but he did work successfully with the powerful Spanish UGT and CNT trade unions. However, de Rivera failed in its main task; to win sufficient political support in the National Assembly summoned in 1928 to return quasi constitutional government.
Throughout his early years Rivera’s economic policies were aided by a favourable terms of trade for Spanish exports. However, by 1929 the Peseta began to fall in value in spite of desperate measures to save it. The economic recession brought on by this ruined de Rivera, who had already at this time lost the support of the army and King. The army had turned against him in his attempts to abolish the privileges of the artillery and engineer corps. The King had turned against him in the wake of student protests, growing Catalonian discontent and the growing conspiracy theories emerging from the ousted politicians. Fearing for the very existence of his dynasty, he forced de Rivera out of office on January 28th, 1930.
Alfonso XIII acted too late. His active support of the dictatorship had angered the enlightened class of Spain as well as the general public. The weak governments of General Dámaso Berenguer and Admiral Juan Bautista Aznar struggled to maintain order. At San Sebastián (August 17, 1930) an alliance of former Liberal monarchists, Catalan politicians and Republicans agreed to overthrow the monarchy. The failure of the military uprising at Jaca (December 12, 1930) saved them having to establish the Republic by force. The municipal elections of April 12, 1930 proved the cities were overwhelmingly Republican. Rather than face Civil war, Alfonso XIII left Spain.
The Second Republic
The various governments that emerged from the three elections held during the lifetime of the Second Republic - 1931, 1933 and 1936 - all hastened the drift to civil war. The first government of Left Republicans and socialists was under the premiership of Manuel Azana. He was a declared opponent of the church and army, and he concentrated his tenure on reducing the power of these two bodies. He stopped government pay of priests, suspended religious education and abolished some monastic orders. His remark that All the convents of Spain are not worth the life of a single Republican inspired the extremists, who went on a campaign of church burning in 1931. Therefore, defense of the church became a rallying cry of the right and a motive to overthrow Azana and his government.
The Prime Minister also antagonized the army by introducing legislation to reduce the officer corps. Azana's decision to grant autonomy to Catalonia seemed to many army officers a great threat to national unity. In protest against the reforms of the government, General Sanjurjo staged an abortive coup d'état in 1932.
Attempts at land reform were a failure. The Agrarian law of 1932 only affected ten per cent of latifundia. Disputes within the coalition led to a right wing government being elected in 1933.
Under a government headed by Alejandro Lerroux García, much of Azana's legislation was repealed. When the quasi-fascist CEDA was included in the government in 1934, it seemed to socialists that the government was now in the hands of its enemies. Insurrections in Madrid, Barcelona and the mining districts of Asturias occurred. Only in the latter area was there any success for the rebels. Co-operation between the anti-fascists led to the creation of a 30,000 strong Red Army, which took control of the entire region. Franco was called in to quell the disturbance. His Foreign Legion and Moroccan troops behaved in a ruthless manner killing almost 2,000 people and jailing 30,000.
The example of Asturias helped bring about left wing solidarity in the form of the Spanish Popular Front, which included all anti-fascist forces. In the election of February 1936, they won a majority of seats in the Cortes. Immediately an amnesty to all political prisoners was granted. Peasants began to seize land, churches were burned and violence escalated. In the early hours of 13th July, the major right wing politician Calvo Sotelo was murdered, setting the wheels of the Civil War in motion.
The Rising began in Spanish Morocco on 17th July, 1936. Soon Cadiz, Zaragossa, Seville and Burgos declared for the insurgents. Seeing itself under threat, the government of Jose Giral decided to arm the workers. This led to the important cities of Barcelona and Madrid being held for the Republic. In the former, General Goded was captured and forced to appeal to his followers to surrender. A month later he was subsequently executed.
Franco's army made swift headway; by mid-September his forces took Talavera, the last important town before Madrid. General Mola did not move at the same speed, as his troops were less experienced than Franco's. Nonetheless, he captured the important Basque industrial centers of Irun and San Sebastian in September. This also enabled the Nationalists to block the French supply route to the Republic through the Western Pyrenees.
The first months of the war saw two military engagements that caught the world's attention. In July, the massive stone fortress of Alcazar in Toledo was besieged by Republicans. Its 2,000 defenders held out until Franco relieved them in September. It became a readily identifiable propaganda piece for the Nationalists. By making a detour to Toledo, Franco gave the inhabitants of Madrid time to improve their defenses. The arrival of the International Brigades boosted morale in the capital so much, that by the end of the Battle for Madrid, November 1936, the Nationalists controlled only the outer suburbs of the city. Bombing attacks then began as Franco realized that the failure to capture Madrid meant that the war would continue for a very long time.
During the first months of the war, repression, murder and torture occurred on both sides. Nationalists, intending to terrify their opponents, shot up to 50,000 supporters of the Popular Front. In the Republican controlled parts of the country, around 75,000 Nationalists were executed, including many religious. As 1936 ended, both sides felt foreign aid could tip the balance in their favor.
Foreign involvement in Spain
The motives for foreign intervention in Spain varied from country to country. In France, the Popular Front government of Léon Blum was anxious to supply their counterparts in Spain with the arms necessary to defeat Franco. However, under pressure from Britain, Blum agreed to follow a policy of non-intervention, and a non-intervention committee was established. The United States stayed strictly neutral despite pressures from both directions on President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Meanwhile, Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union was responding by sending advisers and supplies to the Republicans. The Republicans received about 1,000 aircraft and a similar number of tanks from the Soviet Union. Stalin's goal was to maintain the Soviet leadership of the international proletariat movement and to intensify his struggle against left-wing Trotskyism and anarchism. The Spanish government paid the Soviets in gold.
The Comintern was also behind the establishment of International Brigades. They had a very heavy turnover and represented in all about 40,000 men and a few women. They mainly comprised Communist party volunteers from across the globe, who started arriving in Spain from November 1936 onwards.
The Communists, because of their military efficiency and as they were the means by which Soviet aid was channeled to the Republicans, soon became the dominant group on the government side. In 1937 they systematically expelled the anarchists from leadership roles in the war, and killed many. The creation and support for the International Brigades was part of Stalin's goal of linking the Spanish Loyalist cause with that of the Soviet Union and international communism, a component of a larger geostrategic gamble that sought to create united opposition to fascist aggression that might eventually bring Moscow and the West into a closer alliance. Furthermore, the deployment of the brigades, like the broader projection of Soviet power and influence into the Spanish theater, was an overly ambitious operational failure whose abortive retreat is indicative of the basic weakness of the Stalinist regime in the years prior to World War II.
Mexico, then under a leftist leadership that admired the Republicans, was the only Latin American regime to support the Republic, and it encouraged volunteers. The Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion consisted of 1300 Canadians who served in medical corps, armor, and artillery units between 1936 and 1939.
Writers, artists and intellectuals
Some of the non-Communists who came, including several famous writers, were motivated by the opportunity to combat fascism.
The 2d International Congress for the Defense of Culture was held in Madrid in July 1937. Ostensibly called up to explore such topics as humanism, the writer and society, and cultural heritage, the meeting actually served as a call for support of the Loyalist government and a condemnation of fascism. Of the democratic nonfascist nations, only the Soviet Union had actively supported the Loyalists, but Stalinist agents attempted to subvert the conference and promote a Stalinist political agenda. The idealism of the writers at the meeting did little to deter the Nationalist advances in the Spanish Civil War, but many of them came to realize that Stalinism threatened democracy as much as did fascism. Democratic discourse was undermined by the propaganda war that undercut the intentions of the congress.
Aid to Nationalists
Germany initially sent 10,000 men, including the 5,000 strong Condor Legion. This was an experimental and highly efficient tank and aircraft unit. It is estimated that Hitler sent up to 600 planes to Spain for bombing and reconnaissance work. He also gave the Nationalists a credit of ten million reichmarks a month. Mussolini's Italy sent about 75,000 men, 100 aircraft and a good deal of military equipment.
Several thousand volunteers came from Portugal to help the Nationalists, in addition to a small number of soldiers from Ireland under Eoin O'Duffy, leader of the quasi-Fascist (But more predominantly anti-communist and partisan Catholic) Blueshirts group there.
Apart from leftist Mexico, the other nations of Latin America, especially Argentina, favored the Nationalists. They sent few volunteers.
Until March 1937, Madrid remained the most active front in the Civil War. In February the Nationalists attempted to cut the supply line from Valencia to Madrid in the Jarama Valley, and at first they swept all before them. However, with the assistance of the International Brigades and Russian aircraft and tanks the road was kept open. The Republicans suffered 10,000 casualties, the Nationalists 6,000.
In March, Franco decided to attack Madrid from the northeast at Guadalajara. An Italian contingent, with an array of tanks and mobile artillery expected to spearhead an easy victory. Their early Blitzkrieg-like tactics were halted by snow, ice and fog. A subsequent Republican counter offensive routed the Italians.
The end of the Basque Republic
The main Nationalist effort then switched to the northern front at Vizcaya, the remaining Basque stronghold. Its iron ore deposits and chemical factories proved to be very tempting for General Mola. The Basque troops differed from the rest of the Republicans in their staunch Catholicism and refusal to fight outside their own territory. This distinctiveness came at the price of a lack of co-ordination, especially with the nearby provinces of Asturias and Santander. Mola's forces outnumbered the poory equipped Basque troops, and in addition, German aerial bombardment weakened Basque resistance.
On 26th April, the Germans dropped 100,000 pounds of explosives on Guernica. Over 1,000 civilians were killed in an action that shocked the world and became immortalized in Picasso's Guernica. By June, Bilbao had fallen and the Basques were defeated. Many of their priests were persecuted and the Basque language was banned. General Mola had died during the campaign in a plane crash, thus making Franco the undisputed leader of the Nationalist forces.
Internal Conflict in the Republican sector
In July the Republicans launched offensives at Brunette and Belchite. Very little ground was gained at a huge cost in human life and equipment. In Barcelona, in May, a Civil War within a Civil War was fought (The Barcelona May days). The Communists killed over 1,000 Anarchists and declared the POUM illegal. They were the power brokers in the new government of Juan Negrin. He knew he needed communist help to win the war and that without them the Republican forces would collapse.
The Nationalists began a new offensive through Aragon and Catellòn in March, 1938. Along with German and Italian aircraft and tanks, the Nationalists exploited the ill-prepared and poorly equipped Republicans, who were demoralized after their defeat at Teruel. Franco's troops marched down the Ebro Valley, cut off Catalonia from the rest of the Republic and by April 15th, reached the Mediterranean Sea.
In July, Franco attacked Valencia instead of the alluring target of Barcelona. The Republicans rugged defenses made the advance slow and exhausting for the Nationalists, but superior organization, numbers and weaponry finally ground down the defenses. By late July 1938, the Nationalists were less than forty kilometers from Valencia. In desperation, the Republicans under Rojo launched a diversionary assault over the River Ebro in the hope of restoring contact with Catalonia. His forces reached Gandesa, but were bogged down by Nationalist reinforcements.
Franco responded by grinding out a three month long war of attrition, despite the fact that the territory taken held little strategic value for either side. Rather, at this stage of the war, Franco was desperate to completely break the Republican army, and he aimed to do this by crushing their morale and taking the lands they reclaimed.
Withdrawal of the International Brigades
November 1938 saw the withdrawal of the International Brigades from Spain. Stalin realized after the Munich Conference that he would have to form a non-aggression pact with Hitler. In order to facilitate this and remove any potential areas of disagreement, he agreed to a recommendation by the Non-Intervention committee that the International Brigades be withdrawn.
On the other hand, Franco received extra aid from Hitler. In return for a 40% share in Spanish mines, much equipment was sent to the Nationalists as they prepared their final offensives.
With the retreat over the River Ebro, it became clear the Republican cause was doomed. Franco's armies quickly conquered Catalonia and entered Barcelona on 26th January. About a half million people left the city for France and, as had happened in the Basque country, the Catalan language was banned and revolutionary social experimentation (such as workers councils, etc.) was reversed.
Madrid, too, soon fell to the Nationalists. An uprising of officers who thought they could get better terms from Franco than the communists, hastened the end of the defenses. The city fell on 28th March and fighting ended three days later.
Reasons for the Nationalist Victory
The Nationalists were far better organized than the Republicans. They didn't suffer the same political disunity as the Republican camp, and Franco had absolute control of the army, while the Republicans were disorientated and disorganized. Their military officers were of a better standard (being middle class men, usually well educated) than the average Republican ones.
Furthermore, the Nationalists received much more foreign aid than the Republicans. This proved to be exceptionally important, as the deficiency in arms and equipment among the Republicans proved to be one of their greatest shortcomings against the better equipped Nationalist forces.
Women's experiences during the Civil War were determined not only by the projects imposed by the republican and Francoist governments but also by the logic of "total war." The elements that influenced female mobilization in both rear guards include: the political organization for women's cadres, the activities that women carried out to contribute to the war effort, and the different gender models built during the war. Female mobilization for total war had modernizing consequences for gender relations, regardless of whether the political projects involved pursued female emancipation or subordination.
Results of the Civil War
The war carried a sizeable human and material cost, in casualties and exiles. Some 50,000 died and 300,000 went into permanent exile. Spain's economic situation worsened with the famine of 1941/42 as well as the European continent being engulfed in a war directly after the conclusion of the Civil War.
The Italians and Germans learned lessons in Spain that were later put to use in World War II. The German Luftwaffe s especially perfected the air tactics they had experimented with in Spain. Furthermore, the war was seen as a victory for fascism over democracy. Franco maintained strong ties with Hitler in the early years of the war (yet acted as a non-beligerent in the conflict), but around 1942, when the tide of the war began to turn against Hitler, Franco broke off most ties with him.
A vast body of literature emerged from the war. Ernest Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls was based on his experiences in Spain, as was George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia and Laurie Lee's A Moment of War.
Francoist propaganda hinged on only a few basic concepts and rhetorical devices: faith, heroism, and demonization of the enemy. The Falange during the war and Franco's regime in the 1940s used the experience to redefine masculinity. Considering war a means of national and personal renovation, the Falange built on the image of the soldier to promote physical strength, self-control, and domination as male attributes within a discourse emphasizing discipline, sacrifice, and comradeship. In front of many wounded and disabled veterans, the Falangist rhetoric was substituted after war by a paternalist discourse from the Carlist tradition, favoring family hierarchies and historical continuity over violence.
In Britain for two decades the International Brigade Association (IBA) provided the most significant center of opposition to Francisco Franco's regime. The IBA was founded in 1939 to capture the widespread admiration on the left for the brigader's courage and sacrifice in the antifascist cause and to turn it to political purpose in the continuing struggle against the Franco regime. The work of the IBA was both helped and hindered by its intimate relationship with the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB); despite the CPGB's paramount position within the IBA, the relationship was a surprisingly complex one. From a vociferous association that tried to keep public concern about fascist Spain alive in the immediate postwar years, the IBA gradually evolved into a focus for political and moral condemnation of Franco's regime.
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