The Spanish Civil War 1936-39

The Polarization of Politics
Rapid polarization of politics in early-to-mid 1930s. The left saw the army, big business, the church and Spanish colonial armed forces ganging up with Nazism and Fascism to destroy democracy. Certainly the Church, the Civil Guard and the Army were major centralizing forces that wanted a united Spain under an authoritarian government. By contrast, the fascist right saw an increasingly desperate need to rid Spain of Bolshevism, Freemasonry, anarchism in the form of the FAI, separatism in Catalonia and the Basque country, an entrenched and corrupt class of democratic politicians and finally corrupt and exploitative businessmen who were causing social injustice.

Economically Spain underdeveloped. Some industry and hence liberal nationalist middle class in Barcelona (cotton) and Basque country (iron and steel). Agricultural smallholdings in centre and north, medium farms Catalonia, large estates in Castile, Extremadura, Analusia, with 75% population landless labourers or sharecroppers. World Depression from 1929 causes crisis in agriculture, heightened by 1935 drought and 1936 storms destroying new crops. Unemployment and radicalization of industrial workers.

Alongside this was a growing political crisis in Spain. Politically loss of colonies (Cuba) in Spanish-American War 1898 and Morocco (1921) heightened nationalism and search for scapegoats (democratic government). 1923 military dictatorship of Primo de Rivera, leading to reconquest of Morocco. Politicization of army esp victorious forces in Morocco. 1930 death of Primo de Rivera, elections and abdication of King Alfonso, blamed for dictatorship: republic declared, to widespread celebration on centre and left of politics.  1931 elections bring left wing coalition, attempts land reform and alienates landowners and leaves labourers dissatisfied; 1933 elections bring conservative government, puts down 1934 strike of coal miners in Asturias. Turn of Stalin and Comintern to alliances with socialists brings Popular Front election victory February 1936. Landowners fear expropriation: anti-clerical laws alienate the church; army reform with 8,000 officers forced into retirement offends army; concessions to Catalan autonomy appear to the right as thin end of wedge. July 1936 army uprising, begun in Morocco; fails to take over more than part of the country; some units stay loyal; civil war begins.

The Republican Forces
In Valencia and Catalonia industrial and landless labourers supported the POUM, Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification, a Trotskyite splinter-group from the Communists that quickly got more support than the Communists themselves.

Much more important was the CNT, a syndicalist trade union with industrial worker support especially in Barcelona, and its political wing the FAI, which had a lot of support among rural labourers and small farmers, especially in Andalusia. In effect these were anarchists, who believed in the destruction of the state by means of the general strike. In the countryside villagers believed this could be done locally, by throwing off the shackles of the local police, the local landowner and the local priest, after which peasant communities would live a simple life without exploitation or interference from outside. The anarchists saw the outbreak of the Civil War as the long awaited signal for a social revolution; in many villages landlords, priests and government officials were murdered, and churches and estate-owners houses burned in a wave of violence that caused fear and revulsion on the side of the conservatives and drove many of them into the arms of the military rebels. Altogether 7,000 priests and monks were killed, part of a total of 55,000 civilians massacred in this initial stage of the war. Some anarchist collectives abolished money and pooled property. But many small farmers and small businessmen were alienated by the violence. Anarchists were by definition averse to military organization and discipline, and their enthusiasm for the republican cause as the only way to maintain and push on the social revolution was not matched by their contribution to its military effort.

The Communist Party was a small organization wholly subservient to Moscow. The outbreak of the Civil War radicalized the mainstream trade union the UGT, General Union of Workers, which was taken over by the Communists with the support of landless labourers in the south, factory workers, miners and railwaymenn, all disappointed with the failure of the Republic to improve their lot during the Depression. The Communist Party too saw 1936 as an opportunity for revolution, where 1931 had only been a hope. The revolution was to create a Soviet Spain, along the lines of Stalin’s Russia. Well organized and disciplined, the Communists became increasingly important as the war went on, as the main conduit for arms and supplies from the Soviet Union.

The PSOE, the mainstream moderate Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, was the bedrock of the Popular Front government in coalition with a loose combination of moderate left-wing groups known as Republican Action. Tacitly supported by the Communists, these were the groups that alienated the right with their reforms, as they had already begun to do between 1931 and 1933. Azana hoped to unite all these disparate factions in the struggle against the rebels, portrayed as a coalition of fascists, clerics and businessmen with international backing, but it was inevitably an uphill struggle especially since the political forces of the republic also included liberal Catalan nationalists, conservative Basque separatists, and reactionary Carlists. The fundamental issue of reform, revolution or the social status quo divided the Republican forces as much as anything else.

The Republicans were poorly equipped and had to improvise in the face of professional soldiers on the rebel side. They cobbled together home-made armoured cars which typically also had their particular political allegiances. Manpower shortages were made good by the recruitment of women for the front.. And indeed women got military training and took up position on the front line

International Intervention on the Left
The war aroused widespread passions across Europe and the world, helped by the active efforts of both sides to win international support. An International Brigade was formed in which a total of 35,000 men from all over the world served, together with some 10,000 medical and other civilian volunteers from abroad. This did a lot for morale on the Republican side. 2,000 volunteers left Britain to fight. In practice the International Brigades were particularly poorly trained and equipped and were no substitute for professional soldiers. The war was widely reported by well known figures like Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell.

Far more important was military aid from the Soviet Union, which supplied 1,000 aircraft – which the Republican government had to purchase, like all the other equipment – 900 tanks, maintained by Soviet advisers, 1,500 artillery pieces, half a million rifles, oil and other supplies. It did not however provide military personnel; around a thousand Soviet agents and advisers were in Spain during the war, and increasingly they devoted their attention to suppressing the Trotskyite POUM, murdering its leader Andres Nin in June 1937 following armed clashes between Communists and POUM forces in Barcelona in May, and closing down anarchist collectives. By the start of 1939 there was a virtual civil war within the civil war between these forces.

International Intervention on the Right
Was Republican propaganda correct to view the civil war as part of an international struggle against fascism? Certainly a home-grown fascist movement played an important part in the war on the rebel side. This was the Falange, a radical right-wing movement known officially as the Spanish Phalanz of the Assemblies of the National Syndicalist Offensive. Its ideology was anti-Bolshevist but it saw itself as forward-looking, modernist, and oriented towards the conquest of power through trade union activity, something in which it had very little success It was founded by José Antonio Primo de Rivera, son of the former dictator; José Antonio was captured and shot by Republican forces fairly early on in the conflict. Franco eventually brought the Falange under control and turned it into an arm of government, taking over the trade unions after the war was over. True fascism, even in its Spanish variant, did not triumph with Franco, who in some respects, notably his close allegiance to the church, was a conservative rather than a fascist himself. Nationalist propaganda emphasized the need to unify or reunite Spain on a centralized basis, with the fatherland, bread, and justice Its slogan was Arriba España, the Spain of tradition, God and the family. There were certainly elements of fascist style in all this, such as the fascist salute, but the emphasis was as much negative as anything else, on smashing socialism and communism on protecting Spanish society and traditions from the grasping hand of Bolshevism. Franco was depicted as the medieval knight El Cîd, saving Spain from the alien anti-Christian hordes. Unlike Hitler and Mussolini he did not attempt any foreign conquests or try to inaugurate a new society or a new kind of human being.

There were however alien hordes in Spain, which along with the International Brigade and the Russians internationalized the conflict on a major scale. The most numerous were the Italians, who provided 75,000 troops together with 660 aircraft, 150 tanks, 800 artillery pieces, a quarter of a million rifles, ten thousand machine guns, eight thousand motor vehicles of various kinds, and much more besides. all enough to allow the Republicans to portray their intervention as an Italian invasion. Mussolini saw intervention as an important way of securing Spain as an ally in his bid to found a new Roman Empire in the Mediterranean. Republican propaganda made the most of this, appealing to patriotic sentiment as well as revolutionary and democratic principles.

In fact the Italians were not very effective and were badly defeated in March 1937 at the Battle of Guadalajara. More important were the Germans, who intervened not only to gain an ally to the south of France, itself ruled at this time by a Popular Front, but also to try out its newly built planes and arms. 15,000 German troops fought on the Nationalist side, deploying 200 takns and 136 aircraft. Notoriously the German Condor Legion staged the first ever carpet-bombing of a European city, flattening the Baxque town ot Guernica on 26 April 1937 with 100,000 pounds of bombs, destroying 70 per cent of the houses and leaving more than a thousand civilians dead. Inspired by the horror of this spectacle, the Spanish artist Pablo Picasso, living in Paris, painted his famous Guernica which has become a lasting reminder of the event. In the short term, the bombing convinced many Europeans, rightly, that there would be massive civilian casualties and destruction of buildings in the next European war, fuelling efforts in Britain and France to avoid it. As far as the Spanish Civil War was concerned, however, Britain and France adopted a formal policy of neutrality, which in fact cloaked extensive behind-the-scenes efforts to ferry arms and supplies to the Nationalist side.

Guernica fuelled the will to resist in the Basque country. But with the extensive fighting it also fuelled a mass exodus of refugees across the French border where after an initial welcome by the Popular Front government, 160,000 were put into refugee camps, while 70,000 eventually returned. The refugees fell foul of the Vichy regime and tens of thousands were sent to concentration camps in France or North Africa, where many died under the harsh regime; some even ended up in Auschwitz and other German camps, especially if they were Communists.

The Republican slogan became ‘they shall not pass!’, but in fact the cards were stacked against them. As the Nationalist forces advanced, capturing Communist and other Republican fighters and shooting many of them after a brief formal trial; altogether some 200,000 Republicans were executed during the war and at least another 100,000 afterwards. The Nationalists used their greater professionalism, better equipment, centralized authoritarian military command, and central logistical and strategic position to roll the Republican forces up as the months went on. Franco celebrated his victory in March 1939 with a massive parade in Madrid. This inaugurated a dictatorship that lasted until 1975: the cautious Generalissimo had ultimately resisted the temptation, strong though it was, to enter the Second World War on the German side, and afterwards he gained the tacit support of the USA in the Cold War in return for moderating his fascist style and allowing US bases on Spanish soil. Hundreds of thousands of Republican prisoners were forced to construct Franco’s grandiose monument to the dead, where he himself was eventually buried. For the world at large, however, the most lasting image of the war is probably Robert Capa’s unforgettable photograph of a Repblican soldier caught in the moment of death, one of many in what became one of the iconic conflicts of the 20th century.