Spanish Civil War

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General map of the Spanish Civil War (1936–39).
  Initial Nationalist zone – July 1936
  Nationalist advance until September 1936
  Nationalist advance until October 1937
  Nationalist advance until November 1938
  Nationalist advance until February 1939
  Last area under Republican control

Solid blue.png Main Nationalist centres
Red-square.gif Main Republican centres
Panzer aus Zusatzzeichen 1049-12.svg Land battles
Vattenfall.svg Naval battles
Icon vojn new.png Bombed cities
City locator 4.svg Concentration camps
Gatunek trujący.svg Massacres
Red dot.svg Refugee camps
It never changes
Icon war2.svg
A view to kill
When one thinks of the cruelty, squalor, and futility of war - and in this particular case of the intrigues, the persecutions, the lies and the misunderstandings - there is always the temptation to say: 'One side is as bad as the other. I am neutral.' In practice, however, one cannot be neutral, and there is hardly such a thing as a war in which it makes no difference who wins. Nearly always one side stands more or less for progress, the other more or less for reaction. The hatred which the Spanish Republic excited in millionaires, dukes, cardinals, play-boys, blimps, and what-not would in itself be enough to show one how the land lay. In essence it was a class war. If it had been won, the cause of the common people everywhere would have been strengthened. It was lost, and the dividend-drawers all over the world rubbed their hands. That was the real issue; all else was froth on its surface.
George Orwell, "Looking on the Spanish War" (1942)

The Spanish Civil War was a conflict fought in Spain from 1936 to 1939, between the democratically-elected leftist Republicans and the right-wing Nationalist rebels under Generalissimo Francisco Franco. There was significant foreign involvement, with the governments of Italy under Mussolini, Portugal under Salazar, and Germany under Hitler supporting the Nationalists, and the Republicans getting support from foreign volunteers who formed the International Brigades, as well as from the Soviet Union (under Stalin). The Nationalists won, establishing the tyrannical fascist government of Francisco Franco, massacring some of their enemies, and sending a large number of socialist refugees into France and elsewhere.

In military terms, the war saw extensive use of warplanes and armor which would prefigure the heavy bomber raids and blitzkrieg tactics of World War Two, and turned another part of Europe into a fascist dictatorship by the end of the 1930s (along with Italy, Germany, Portugal, and Greece, plus authoritarian governments in Romania, Lithuania, etc). It increased the worldwide divisions between left and right, paving the way for later conflicts between socialism and fascism (as in the Eastern Front of World War Two), or between everyone else and fascism (as in the rest of World War Two), but also saw divisions on the left between Stalinist authoritarian socialists and anarcho-communists.

In summary, a lot of people died, the left got a new myth of glorious failure, and Spain got 35 years of stagnation and repression under Franco.

Historical outline[edit]

Aftermath of the bombing of Guernica

Spain had been in decline throughout the 19th century, with the loss of empire and a variety of coups. By the early 1930s, like many other places in mainland Europe, it was politically polarized between leftists (including communists and anarchists) and rightists (including the fascist-nationalist Falange, monarchists, aristocratic landowners, the army, and the Roman Catholic Church), with rapidly oscillating governments and street-fighting between the two sides.

In the general elections on 16 February 1936, the left-wing Popular Front came to power, combining center-left republicans, socialists, communists, and left-wing Catalan nationalists. The rightists responded in July 1936 with a coup that initially took Morocco (then a Spanish colony), Seville in the south, and conservative areas of central and western Spain. The Republicans moved to secure their strongholds in the east and north, in Catalonia, Aragon, the Basque Country, and the east coast; they also held most of the big cities, including the industrial centres of Valencia and Madrid.

The initial Nationalist leader José Sanjurjo was killed on 20 July 1936 in a plane crash, and Francisco Franco became chief commander and "generalissimo" on 21 September. The Nationalist troops were better organised and equipped and enjoyed early successes. In November 1936, they besieged Madrid, where professional Nationalist troops with significant air support were opposed by a makeshift army of working men and women. The Republican government fled to Valencia, but Madrid held out for more than 2 years. In early 1937, the Nationalists captured Malaga while the Republicans saw their only significant victory at the Battle of Guadalajara, near Madrid. Nationalist air superiority showed with the bombing of Guernica on 26 April 1937 and Nationalist offensives in the Basque country, fighting their way across northern Spain and putting pressure on Catalonia.

By April 1938, Republican territory was divided into Catalonia in the northeast and another in the southeast that stretched from Madrid to the coastal region from Almeria, through Cartagena and Alicante, to Valencia. That autumn, attempts to reunite the Republican territory were defeated in the Battle of the Ebro and in December Franco attacked Catalonia. Barcelona fell on 26 January 1939 and the rest of Catalonia soon after. Madrid was taken on 28 March and the final Republican forces surrendered on 1 April 1939.

Foreign state involvement[edit]

Britain and France promoted an arms embargo to both sides, which was ineffective. The League of Nations tried to be neutral but ended up favoring the Nationalists. The socialist government in France initially provided a little aid to the Republicans but France (which was itself highly polarized politically) generally preferred neutrality rather than risk its own civil war.

Mexico and the Soviet Union were the only two nations to provide lasting support to the Republicans though even they preferred not openly violating the arms embargo; Stalin attempted to ship weapons covertly but they did not arrive very speedily. A small number of Soviet military advisors were sent and some volunteer troops. The Soviets demanded payment in gold from the Spanish government, which they received. The gold has since been lost or spent elsewhere and is the subject of diverse conspiracy theories of what happened to it.

On the Nationalist side, Germany didn't yet want to risk a European war by directly participating, but sent 5,000 air force personnel, as well as warplanes and armoured units; Fascist Italy sent 75,000 troops fresh from victories in Africa.[1] Portugal's authoritarian government also provided support including supplies and a few troops.

On the left[edit]

The Republican side had a wide variety of members, which reflected the division in Marxism between the authoritarianism of the Soviet Union (Lenin and Stalin), and the anarcho-communism of Bakunin; Trotsky was associated with the latter although people argue just how libertarian he was. The main political groupings were:

  • Communist Party of Spain (PCE - Partido Comunista de España) — in the mainstream of European communism, affiliated to the Stalinist Comintern
  • Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia (PSUC — Partit Socialista Unificat de Catalunya) — the equivalent of the Communist Party of Spain in Catalonia, where the PCE did not organise
  • Workers' Party of Marxist Unification (POUM — Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista) — like any other Trotskyist movement, the POUM would have been a footnote in history if it wasn't for the fact that George Orwell fought with them and wrote a now-famous book about his experiences with the party
  • National Confederation of Labour (CNT — Confederación Nacional del Trabajo) — anarcho-syndicalist trade union
  • Iberian Anarchist Federation (FAI — Federación Anarquista Ibérica) — A loose federation of affinity groups, closely related to the CNT.

These organisations were all on the same side against the Nationalists, but there were often separate military groupings with different political beliefs, with the POUM fielding its own units, and Catalonian anarchists from the CNT forming the Durruti Column under Buenaventura Durruti.[2] Durruti initially proved successful, fighting in Aragon and helping lift the siege of Madrid, but he was shot dead on 20 November 1936.

In anarchist-controlled Catalonia and Aragon, property was collectivized and workers councils set up; this has since become a model of earthly paradise for anarchists, along with the short-lived anarchist states in the former Russian Empire after 1917. As in the Soviet Union, authoritarian communists swiftly stepped in to oppose this freedom, and in Spain they denounced the CNT and POUM as fascist. In 1937, while the fascists battled through northern Spain, anarchists and communists actually fought each other for control of Barcelona. Surprise, clamping down on a successful revolution is a self-defeating petty move, particularly if it's supplying your most vigorous fighters. While Stalin was supplying the Republicans' guns, many were defective,[3] and he was focused only on his own short-term interests (i.e. murderingWikipedia non-communist republican leaders). The number of volunteers was also a joke compared to the German and Italian troops, who had tanks and airplanes. No contest.

International brigades[edit]

In the polarized politics of the 1930s, the conflict was viewed as the first pitched war between fascism and socialism. It thus attracted a lot of idealistic liberals, socialists, communists, and left-anarchists to Spain, where they fought in the International Brigades against the Nationalists. A much smaller number of right-wing volunteers also arrived.

George Orwell went there to fight for socialism and joined up with the POUM in Catalonia, witnessing its repression by Stalinist forces as well as its fight against the Nationalists. He described his experiences in Homage to Catalonia; these heavily influenced his rejection of communism and his later books such as Animal Farm. Other famous foreign fighters on the Republican side included British actor James Robertson Justice, British writer Laurie Lee, French philosopher Simone Weil (an anarchist who later converted to Catholicism), and British historian Ralph Winston Fox (who was killed at Lopera).

The South African poet Roy Campbell was a rare instance of a right-wing foreigner who went to Spain,[4] where he reported on the war from the Nationalist side but did not fight (contrary to some claims). Campbell was a devout Catholic, but reportedly otherwise liberal (by South African standards) and he opposed Hitler.[5] Other conservative writers supported Franco but didn't go to Spain: J.R.R. Tolkien as a Catholic was pro-Nationalist though he doesn't seem to have been strongly committed to Fascist politics and later opposed Hitler.[6]

Journalists covering the Republican side (but not fighting) included future German chancellor Willy Brandt, novelist Ernest Hemingway, and photographers Robert Capa and Gerda Taro. Taro was killed in an accident in July 1937,[7] although a few people suggest she was murdered by Stalinists to cover up the defeat at Brunete.[8]

Human rights abuses[edit]

During and after the war, the Nationalists performed mass killings to consolidate their power, with historian Antony Beevor suggesting 200,000 were killed in the "white terror".[9]

The Republicans also carried out atrocities on a smaller scale; Beevor (2006) estimated 38,000 dead. In particular, many Roman Catholic clergy were killed owing to their perceived right-wing sympathies as well as mass rapes of nuns, though the Nationalists also killed leftist priests (particularly Basques supporting separatism). The anti-clericalism of the Republicans was used in propaganda efforts by the Nationalists in the very Catholic Spain. Although the clergy murdered and raped by left-wing militants have been honored as martyrs by the Church, those whom the right murdered have not, primarily owing to Catholic martyrdom requiring voluntary enduring or tolerating of death on account of the Faith of Christ or another act of virtue in reference to God[10] and not merely being killed as a cleric. This doesn't, however lessen the sense of rank hypocrisy in Spain and around the world.


Five months after the Nationalists' victory, Hitler invaded Poland, kicking off a whole new war against fascism. Spain was a non-belligerent throughout World War Two, meaning it was not a recognized neutral country but was effectively so. Nonetheless, Spain did supply material and military support to the Axis powers.

Many Spanish Republicans who fled to France after the Spanish Civil War were held in camps, and were ultimately forced to labor for the Nazis. About 30,000 were deported to Germany; of those, about 4,500 died in the Holocaust at the Mauthausen concentration camp.[1][11][12] The fascism of Hitler and Mussolini was defeated in 1945 and half of Europe fell under Stalin's control.

Franco remained in power in Spain until his death in 1975, when the country eventually became a modern democracy. He is still dead. Ironically, this was thanks in part to the return of the monarchy under Juan Carlos I.


  1. 1.0 1.1 "Spanish Civil War". United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
  2. About Buenaventura Durruti, University of Illinois
  3. Kowalsky, Daniel, Stalin and the Spanish Civil War - Soviet Hardware Supplied to the Republic, Guternberg-e via Columbia University press 22 January 2004.
  4. "The poet who saved a saint’s priceless letters", Catholic Herald, 4 May 2012
  5. "Soldier of Franco, Soldier of Christ: Roy Campbell and Spain in the 1930s", Mayte Gómez, English in Africa, Vol. 34, No. 1 (May, 2007), pp. 21-41
  6. J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment, ed Michael D. C. Drout, p 455
  7. Gerda Taro: The forgotten photojournalist killed in action, Alison Gee, BBC, 27 Dec 2013
  8. Accidental Heroine, Robin Stummer, New Statesman, 9 October 2008
  9. The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939, Antony Beevor, 2006
  10. De Servorum Dei beatificatione et Beatorum canonizatione, Prato 1839-1841, book III, chap. 11, 1
  11. Nicolás Pan-Montojo and Guiomar del Ser (August 9, 2019). "Remembering the 4,427 Spaniards who died at the Mauthausen concentration camp". El País.
  12. (August 29, 2018). "Spanish forced workers of Hitler. Recognized as victims of Nazism by the German democracy".