Spanish Civil War

The Fractured Soul of a Nation

The Spanish Civil War, a devastating conflict that tore Spain apart from 1936 to 1939, was not just a precursor to World War II but also a deeply transformative period for Spain itself. The war’s roots were deep, with its origins intertwined with political, social, and economic turbulence of early 20th-century Spain.

In 1931, Spain made a dramatic shift from a monarchy to a republic. Spanish King Alfonso XIII allowed voters to choose their government, and they decisively voted out the monarchy, ushering in the Second Republic. This new Republican government, led by liberals and moderate socialists, implemented significant reforms and gave regions like Catalonia and the Basque provinces considerable autonomy. However, the Nationalist opposition from the aristocracy, the church, and military factions led to conservative forces regaining power in 1933. This triggered uprisings suppressed by General Francisco Franco, who would later emerge as a key military leader.

Francisco Franco, 1930

Francisco Franco, 1930

By 1936, the leftist party won the elections, and Franco, a monarchist, was marginalized with a lesser command in the Canary Islands. Concerned about a potential Marxist takeover, army officers, including Franco, conspired to stage a coup. The plan, starting in Morocco on July 18 and moving to Spain a day later, aimed to secure rapid military dominance with naval support. However, the coup failed to achieve complete control and resulted in a split nation: the Republicans, who managed to hold onto about two-thirds of Spain, and the Nationalists, led by Franco.

Spain in September 1936: Areas controlled by Nationalists (pink) and Republicans (purple)

Spain in September 1936: Areas controlled by Nationalists (pink) and Republicans (purple)

When the Spanish Civil War erupted, both the Nationalist and Republican sides immediately sought international assistance. Given that this conflict arose less than two decades after World War I, world leaders, eager to avoid another global catastrophe, were reluctant to intervene.

In the United States, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was unable to persuade Congress to back the Spanish Republic. Instead, Congress enacted several Neutrality Acts reinforcing America’s isolationist policy during the 1930s.

Meanwhile, European leaders, particularly from the UK and France, advocated for a non-intervention pact. They urged European nations to refrain from participating in Spain’s civil strife. Ultimately, 27 countries, including Germany, Italy, and the USSR, signed this neutrality agreement. Nevertheless, Germany and Italy soon breached the pact by providing troops, tanks, and planes to support the Nationalists. On the other hand, the Soviet Union supplied the Republicans with equipment and supplies, with additional aid coming from the Mexican government.

German officer from the Condor Legion instructing Nationalist infantry soldiers

German officer from the Condor Legion instructing Nationalist infantry soldiers

Around 5,000 German air force personnel served in the Condor Legion, which supported ground attacks against Republican forces and conducted aerial bombings on Republican cities. The most infamous attack happened on April 26, 1937, when German and Italian aircraft devastated the Basque town of Guernica, destroying three-quarters of the ancient city over the course of three hours and killing and wounding hundreds. 

Ruins of Guernica, 1937

Ruins of Guernica, 1937

With Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini already holding power in Germany and Italy, anti-fascists worldwide feared that Spain would be the next country to fall under fascist control, posing a severe threat to the future of European democracy.

While global powers hesitated, over 35,000 anti-fascist volunteers from 52 countries gathered in Spain to fight the Nationalists. This diverse group included Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany, idealistic intellectuals like the young George Orwell, and communists determined to defeat an ideological foe. The most significant achievement of these International Brigades was their successful defense of Madrid until the end of the war.

Polish volunteers in the International Brigades

Polish volunteers in the International Brigades

Both the Nationalists and Republicans repressed suspected opposition in their controlled territories. Republican violence mainly occurred in the early stages of the war before the restoration of the rule of law, while Nationalist violence was a deliberate policy of terror. 

In June 1938, the Nationalists advanced to the Mediterranean Sea, splitting Republican territory in two. Later that year, Franco launched a major offensive against Catalonia. By January 1939, they had captured its capital, Barcelona, and shortly thereafter, the rest of Catalonia fell. With the Republican cause nearly defeated, its leaders sought to negotiate peace, but Franco refused. 

Spain in February 1939: Areas controlled by Nationalists (pink) and Republicans (purple)

Spain in February 1939: Areas controlled by Nationalists (pink) and Republicans (purple)

On March 28, 1939, Madrid fell to the Nationalists, marking the end of the Spanish Civil War. Franco established a dictatorship that would last until his death in 1975, suppressing all opposition through severe repression, censorship, and the establishment of a one-party state.

The Franco regime also effectively made Catholicism the only tolerated religion, banned the Catalan and Basque languages outside the home, prohibited Catalan and Basque names for newborns, outlawed labor unions, enforced policies of economic self-sufficiency, and established a vast secret police network to monitor citizens.

The total number of deaths in the Spanish Civil War can only be roughly estimated, with recent figures suggesting approximately 500,000. This estimate does not account for additional deaths caused by malnutrition, starvation, and diseases related to the war.

Guernica by Pablo Picasso, 1937

Guernica by Pablo Picasso, 1937

The political and emotional impact of the Spanish Civil War extended beyond a national conflict, as many around the world viewed it as part of a broader international struggle between tyranny and democracy, fascism and freedom, or communism and civilization, depending on their perspective. For Germany and Italy, Spain served as a proving ground for new tank and air warfare tactics. Meanwhile, for Britain and France, the conflict posed a new threat to the fragile international balance they were trying to maintain, which ultimately collapsed into World War II in 1939.

Words of wisdom

“The only way to have a friend is to be one.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson

“The only limit to our realization of tomorrow will be our doubts of today.” —Franklin D. Roosevelt

“The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.” —Ernest Hemingway

“Do not let the behavior of others destroy your inner peace.” —Dalai Lama

Bibliography

How did you like the episode?

Login or Subscribe to participate in polls.