The Spanish Civil War

The Spanish Civil War, which lasted from 1936 to 1939, is largely remembered today, if at all, merely as a military prelude to the Second World War, in which the newly-rearmed Nazi Germany was able to test out its weapons and military tactics. But the Spanish Civil War was also a social revolution, and marks the first time that anarchists were able to maintain political control over a large territory.


Flag of the CNT

In 1931, the Spanish King Alfonso XIII was deposed and fled the country, and Spain became a Republic. After years of political infighting, the political sphere separated into two poles: the Popular Front was an alliance of democratic republicans and leftists, including the Esquerra (Left Republican) Party, the Socialist Party, the stalinist-aligned Communist Party, and the trotskyite Workers Party of Marxist Unity (POUM). On the right, the National Front was a collection of royalist Carlists, the Confederation of Autonomous Rightist Groups (CEDA), the Falange Fascists, and the Catholic Church. The leftist labor unions in the General Workers Union (UGT) supported the Popular Front. The much larger anarchist-oriented National Confederation of Labor (CNT), allied with the Anarchist Federation of Iberia (FAI), refused to participate in the elections.

In February 1936 the Popular Front won the elections, and introduced a program of land reform along with attempts to limit the power of the Catholic Church. The province of Catalonia was granted autonomy, and formed its own regional government under Luis Companys.

Fearing a military coup (there had already been a number of attempts), the Popular Front republican government also outlawed the Falange Fascist party and transferred a number of suspect military officers to posts in North Africa, including the former commander of the military academy, General Francisco Franco.

It was not enough. On July 18, 1936, a group of military officers led by General José Sanjurjo launched a rebellion, first in Morocco under General Franco, then across Spain. A week later, Sanjurjo was killed in a plane crash, and Franco assumed leadership of the coup. While Franco was successful in controlling the Spanish military forces in Morocco, the Fascist uprisings in Spain itself were nearly all beaten back by a hastily-organized force of militias led by the leftist parties, including the anarchist CNT. The Fascists managed to capture the city of Seville, but the rest of Spain was still under the nominal control of the republican government (though in reality actual power on the ground was held by whatever local militia happened to be in control of a particular area). Franco, with the help of Nazi Germany, airlifted troops from Morocco to invade southern Spain, beginning the Civil War. Within a few weeks, the Fascists controlled about one-third of Spain.

During the war, the Spanish Fascists received military and economic aid from Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. The Germans sent in about 20,000 troops and the Italians about 50,000, under the guise of “volunteers”. In addition to troops, Hitler and Mussolini sent tanks and airplanes to Franco. The Germans established the Condor Legion, consisting entirely of Luftwaffe personnel and including the new Messerschmitt fighters and Heinkel bombers.

The Soviet Union provided military aid to the republican side, but never at as high a level as the Nazis were providing to the Fascists, and Stalin limited his aid for the most part to Communist-controlled groups within Spain. Globally, the Spanish Civil War became a galvanizing event for the radical left, and volunteers from around the world flocked to Spain to join “International Brigades” to help defend democracy and socialism from the Fascists. The American contingent in Spain was known as the “Abraham Lincoln Brigade”. British writer and socialist George Orwell also fought in Spain with the International Brigades, later documenting the experience in his book Homage to Catalonia. In all, over 40,000 volunteers from 52 countries, including almost 3000 Americans, fought for the republicans in Spain. Meanwhile, France, Britain and the United States all declared their non-intervention.

Although in theory the republican forces were all unified into a single Popular Front commanded by the government in Valencia, under the socialist Francisco Largo Caballero, in reality the leftist groups in the Popular Front could not get along with each other; stalinists feuded with trotskyites, who both feuded with anarchists and democratic republicans. Each faction tended to impose its own programs and policies in whatever area they controlled. This lack of unity crippled the republican side throughout the war, and contributed greatly to its ultimate defeat.

The largest of the militias was that of the anarchist CNT, which controlled the province of Catalonia. The Anarchists organized local Anti-Fascist Militias to defend against attack, with about 100,000 men in total. One of the largest of these was the 3,000 men in Aragón led by Buenaventura Durutti. In Madrid, the CNT militia was commanded by Cipriano Mara.

Unlike most of Europe, where the labor movement was dominated by Marxist socialists and communists, in Spain it was the anarchists who had built up the most powerful trade unions. In the areas under its authority, then, the CNT was the best-organized and most strongly supported political group, and it carried out its own social and economic revolution, nationalizing the economy and replacing the governmental structure with a network of elected councils and committees, all organized on anarchist principles. It was remarkably successful.

In May 1937, in what became known as the “May Riots”, open fighting broke out between the communists and the anarchists when troops tried to seize the telephone exchange on Barcelona which was held by the CNT. Fighting quickly spread throughout the city, several prominent CNT supporters were killed by the communists, and government troops from Madrid were sent in to restore calm. After that, Largo Caballero was replaced as Prime Minister by communist sympathizer Juan Negrin, and the Communist Party, bolstered by aid from the Soviet Union, began to increase its power within the republican government, using its position to cripple its anarchist and trotskyite political opponents. On orders from Moscow, Negrin put the CNT and POUM militias under government control, and unilaterally withdrew all of the International Brigades and removed them from the country.

The Nazis, meanwhile, began to use the tactic of carpet-bombing civilian cities, beginning with an air attack on the city of Guernica in April 1937. In February 1937 the city of Malaga was captured by Franco, with Bilbao, Santander and Gijon following in June, August and October. By the end of 1938, the Fascists had retaken most of Spain. In January 1939, the republican stronghold of Barcelona fell. In February, the British Prime Minister officially recognized the government of Franco. In March 1939, the remnants of the republican government tried to negotiate a ceasefire, but Franco declared he would accept only an unconditional surrender. On March 27 the Fascist troops entered Madrid, and the republicans surrendered four days later.

In the aftermath of the war, Franco established a brutal dictatorship that would rule Spain for almost forty years. Immediately after the civil war, some 100,000 republican prisoners, mostly anarchists, socialists and communists, were summarily executed, and another 35,000 died in prison camps. About 5,000 were deported to Germany, where most of them died in concentration camps.

When the Second World War broke out in September 1939, Spain was still shattered from the Civil War, and declined to join on the side of the Axis. Franco did send a group of soldiers, the Blue Division, to fight alongside the Nazis on the Russian front. But in 1943, when the Nazis began to lose the war, Franco, ever the opportunist, began to lean to the Allies, where his staunch anti-communist stand won him friends in the US and Europe during the Cold War. When Spain allowed NATO to maintain military bases on its territory, the US in turn kept silent about Franco’s brutal human rights violations. Democracy was not restored to Spain again until after Franco’s death in 1975.

4 thoughts on “The Spanish Civil War”

  1. “This machine kills Fascists” summarizes pretty much all I know about the ground war in Spain. But years ago I came across an account of the air war that was one of the most brutal, horrific descriptions of modern combat I’ve read.

    Apparently, when it started their was briefly a delusion that it would be prosecuted with the overly romanticized (and largely fictitious) chivalry of WWI fliers. That quickly descended into capturing enemy pilots and dropping their dismembered corpses on the other guys’ airfield.

  2. I do wonder, seriously, how many Americans first heard of Franco on “Weekend Update.” Some of those original writers were angry hippies who weren’t about to pass up the chance to kick him when he was (finally) down.

    Fortunately, my 1960’s suburban Chicago public elementary education included a decent amount of art history (and visits to the Art Institute), so we learned about “Guernica” fairly young.

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