It was the 26th of April 1937. Monday was market day in the small but bustling Basque town of Guernica, just east of the larger city of Bilbao. Traditionally, each Monday the population would swell in size as farmers and sellers brought in crops and other goods to sell at the local market – but this one was quiet.
The events going on around Spain at the time had meant that many markets and large gatherings had been halted as a way of preventing congestion in and around the towns and cities. It may have been quieter than normal, but it’s thought there were around 10,000 people in Guernica when the distant drone of aircraft could first be heard.
The attack on Guernica that day by German and Italian aircraft was the first large-scale bombing of a civilian population and it almost completely levelled the town, killing between 170 and 300 people in the process. It became one of the most notorious attacks in a conflict littered with atrocities.
The Spanish Civil War, principally an ideological battle fought between the Spanish left and right, but with a whole host of external powers behind the scenes, was a vicious campaign that lasted just shy of three years from 1936 to 1939. A war that carved Spain in two and one which the country still hasn’t completely come to terms with. This was a war of grand ideals that would play out to a much greater degree during the Second World War that followed, a conflict that saw Hitler’s Condor Legion and Mussonlini’s Aviazione Legionaria and Corpo Truppe Volontarie, face off against the International Brigade of foreign volunteers willing to fight in a distant land against the scourge of fascism.
According to the history books, fascism was finally crushed in 1945, but in one corner of Europe, the fascists not only won, they ruled for the next 36 years under an iron fist of repression.
Spain in the early 20th Century
There is an abundance of background information relating to the lead up to the Spanish Civil, most of which we don’t have nearly enough time to go through. The 19th Century had been a rocky one for Spain, as conservatives, loyal to the monarchy, and liberals who sought to curtail the powers of the king, locked horns over the Spanish soul.
Things swung back and forth, as the absurd see-saw of politics generally does, and the country managed to fit in not one, not two, but three civil wars during the 19th Century, known as the First, Second and Third Carlist Wars. Then followed a popular uprising that overthrew Queen Isabella II, the abdication of the next monarch, King Amadeo I, and the establishment of the First Spanish Republic in 1873, which lasted just shy of two years, before things reverted to a monarchy again.
As the 20th Century began, there were signs of deep-rooted mistrust and open hatred between the two sides – and even between groups that were supposed to be on the same side.
Spain remained neutral during the Great War but it emerged more divided than ever, with many determined to do away with the corrupt government and overreaching powers of the monarchy. But equally so, the powers that be dug their heels in and resisted change at all cost. A military coup in 1923 brought Miguel Primo de Rivera to power, said to have been inspired by Mussolini’s actions in Italy the year before.
Broadly right-wing, Rivera styled himself as being above the shambolic political situation that had enveloped Spain, but in reality, the man who promised to stay in power for just 90 days but ended up hanging around for 7 years, was nothing short of disastrous for the country as his policies lurched back and forth, seemingly leaving everybody unsatisfied. Yet it did galvanise the left more than ever and in 1931, under intense pressure, King Alfonso XIII abdicated the throne of Spain and the Second Spanish Republic was born. An election saw left-affiliated parties sweep to power across Spain and it appeared as if the nation was on the brink of a glorious period of liberal ideals.
But that didn’t last long. Rural Spain included some of the most poverty-stricken areas in all of Europe, and while the new government did what it could, for many they saw the misery continue but under different authoritarian rulers who still didn’t care about them. Several attempts at land reform, the secularisation of the country and army reform received fierce opposition and often failed to gain real traction. Another election in 1933 was won by the right-leaning parties, but the left-wing alliance, known as the Popular Front, narrowly won in 1936.
Spain had been lurching back and forth between the right and the left for decades now – even further depending on how far you want to go – but the feverish intensity of the left vs right argument had grown to dangerous proportions. Whispers of a civil war were now commonly heard on the streets throughout Spain.
Soon after the 1936 election, a group of generals met to discuss the possibility of a coup, with General Emilio Mola emerging as the leader. Over the coming weeks, several generals, who weren’t deemed vigorous enough to the cause, were fired or strategically moved to quieter areas – including a certain Francisco Franco who was moved to the Canary Islands.
A plan was slowly hatched to establish a “Republican Dictatorship” – an odd oxymoron I know, but then again, Republican France did have an Emperor. Most hoped that swift and decisive action centred around numerous uprisings around Spain, mainly in the larger cities, would be enough to bring about a quick end to hostilities – even if Mola estimated that only 12% of officers would support the coup. It was a plan fraught with problems and if it failed, it would set conservatism back by a generation.
But as the generals plotted and the day of reckoning neared, the murder of José Calvo Sotelo, a leading Spanish monarchist and a prominent parliamentary conservative by the police gave fresh impetus to the impending coup. For many, the murder of a parliamentarian by the police closely linked with the left-wing government proved that the country had reached the point of no return.
As the rebels tiptoed towards a military uprising there was some last-minute reorganising, which saw General Franco fly from the Canary Islands to Spanish Morocco where the famed, and much feared, Army of Africa were based. There is a slightly odd fact to this particular flight because the rebels chartered a private plane that was flown by two British intelligence agents Cecil Bebb and Hugh Pollard. Now, as we’ll get to shortly, the who’s who and who was supporting who during the Spanish Civil war became a murky quagmire, but this is one of the first instances where we can see a foreign power covertly assisting during the early days of the conflict.
The Coup Begins
What began on the 17th July 1936 was far from your standard smooth coup. Initially, the various uprisings around Spain and in Spanish Morocco were set to begin at the same time, but as the date neared, plans were changed. It was decided that those in Spanish Morocco should begin first, on the 18th of July, with the rest of Spain following the next day. The Morocco protectorate was seen as vital to the whole affair, with the Army of Africa representing some of the best, and most well-equipped soldiers in all of the Spanish army.
But as it happened, details of the coup were discovered in Morocco on the 17th, forcing things to begin a day earlier than planned and all at the same time. The results were patchy for the rebels to say the very least. Morocco fell quickly and without much fuss, while on the mainland the rebels were able to gain control of Seville, and parts of Old Castile and Leon in the north.
Other than that, the vast majority of the uprisings failed across mainland Spain, with most of the other significant cities remaining loyal to the Republican government. The first few days of what would evolve into a bloody civil war were chaotic as both sides fortified their positions and began grizzly retributions against supporters of the other side.
At this point, Spain was carved into different sections, with the bulk of Republican areas in the east and central regions, and the Nationalists with patches in the south and a larger area in the north, stretching from the Atlantic coast in the west to past Zaragoza in the east, but importantly, for the Republicans at least, the Basque region in the north remained under Republican control.
What’s remarkable about these early stages, especially when you consider the protracted carnage that was to come, was that both sides had opportunities to claim an early victory. The Republicans dragged their feet when it came to handing out weapons to the local population, especially to members of certain unions who the government eyed warily. Had this been done earlier, the rebellion may well have been crushed before it even got started.
On the Nationalist side, had they been able to capture more territory in the first few days and certainly more of the major cities, things would have been very different. The Republican government just about held on, but the army, police force and general population were broadly split 50-50 at this stage.
When we talk about the Spanish Civil War, for the sake of ease, we generally divide those fighting into two groups, the Republicans and Nationalists – but the reality was that both sides were composed of countless factions that often disagreed and at times even fought each other during the conflict. This was much more apparent on the side of the Republicans where a shaky coalition of centrists, anarchists, liberals, communists, trade unions, not to mention the more independent-minded Catalans and Basques, see-sawed between grand cooperation and even a civil war within a civil war – but more on that later. The Republican side was openly supported by only two countries, the Soviet Union and Mexico – both of whom were under far-left leadership.
The situation with the Nationalists was equally confusing. It included the Carlists and Alfonsists – two groups that aimed to preserve a more traditional and conservative approach and to outsiders may have seemed more or less the same but you wouldn’t have dared say that to them – Spanish nationalists, the fascist Falange, and most conservatives and monarchist liberals. The vast majority of the catholic clergy were also on the side of the Nationalists and the group also received support from two outside nations, Germany and Italy, both of whom were experimenting with far-right politics.
As the war began, most nations declared neutrality and eventually agreed to not arm either side, but such honourable actions were almost immediately broken as German and Italian equipment quickly began pouring in, as did military hardware from the Soviet Union.
The International Brigade
When the Spanish Civil War erupted it immediately began an ideological battle between left and right that appealed to many around the world. It’s important to remember that this war was fought before World War II sank the idea of the far-right to unimaginable depths. Before the Holocaust and the days of the screeching methamphetamine fuelled rabble-rouser preaching hatred, the idea of conservatism still appealed to many. It goes without saying, had the Spanish Civil War occurred after the Second World War, it’s entirely likely that foreign intervention on the Republican side would have been significantly greater.
Foreign volunteers joined both sides during the war. By far the most famous was the International Brigade that fought for the Republicans and was formed of foreign fighters from countless countries, including France, Britain, the U.S, the Soviet Union and the list is so long I’ll just stop there.
The International Brigade was a highly romanticized group whose actions have long passed into legend, but the reality was often very different. Communist groups around the world launched a widespread propaganda campaign for volunteers to travel to Spain and it was incredibly successful, with up to 60,000 foreign men joining the fight. Many signed up for the sense of adventure as well as the ideological battle, but actions on the ground were frequently disorganised and the reality was that, for several reasons, the Republicans never fully had faith in their ragtag band of foreign fighters.
Foreigners joining the Nationalists ranks may have been less, but were still substantial nonetheless. A little known band of 600 Irishman joined the Nationalists, as did substantial volunteers from Italy, Germany and many of the Slavic nations.
In the early stages of the conflict, things hung in the balance, but once a huge airlift to bring troops into Spain from Morocco had been completed, the tide soon turned against the Republicans – and from there it was an almost constant rearguard action as their territory was gradually eroded.
The two most prominent leaders of the coup General Emilio Mola and General José Sanjurjo both died early in the conflict – both in air accidents – which paved the way for Francisco Franco, supported by the powerful Army of Africa, to assume full command and even bestowed upon himself the title of Generalissimo, followed by the even grander Caudillo – a word that married military and political dominance into one convenient title, a little like Fuhrer in Germany and Duce in Italy.
In October 1936, Nationalist forces began their attacks on Madrid and on 6th November, the Republican government, expecting the city to soon fall, moved south to Valencia. But fall it did not – well at least not yet. One of the defining tales of the entire war was the spirited defence of the Spanish capital that didn’t let up until the final weeks of the war, despite near incessant pressure. This was immortalised by a phrase said by Dolores Ibárruri Gómez, a member of the Communist Party of Spain in a speech in July 1936 – “No pasarán” – they shall not pass – became an iconic rallying call that appeared on banners across Madrid. The phrase was first used during the Battle of Verdun in the First World War by French General Robert Nivelle, but if you’re wondering why it might sound more recent, in the Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings, Gandolf roars ‘You shall not pass’ before slamming his staff down on the floor in front of the Balrog.
The successful defence of Madrid was one of the few positives for a Republican government that quickly began to unravel. Time and time again, poor battlefield management meant massive losses as the Republican territory shrank at a steady and alarming rate. I mentioned earlier the idea of a civil war within the civil war, and the absolute failure of the different factions within the Republican collision to coexist not only contributed to their downfall, but it may also have even been one of the biggest factors in the Republican collapse.
A significant part of this was the large number of military advisors who arrived from the Soviet Union, all of course staunchly communist and unable to see beyond their little ideological bubble. As would later happen in the Soviet Union, communist leaders sometimes fabricated events – or shall we say massaged the truth – to prevent the situation from appearing overly negative and so reflecting badly on them. And when things began to really go wrong, they were some of the first to point fingers and blame other factions.
The chaos going on within Republican ranks was perhaps best highlighted by the events in April and May 1937 in Catalonia, when left battled left on the streets of Barcelona and other towns. The roots of this had begun with the coup back in 1936. Once the uprising had been suppressed, anarchist leaders had established the Central Committee of Antifascist Militias of Catalonia, which collectivised many industries and largely remained out of the control of the central government. As things went from bad to worse for the larger Republican cause, the climate of distrust grew to dangerous levels that finally exploded on 3rd May 1937 when police officers, loyal to the government, attempted to take control of the telephone exchange.
It seems astonishing that during a civil war that threatened the very existence of left-wing thinking, groups such as the anarchist CNT and Anti-Stalinist POUM, fought pitched street battles against the Republican government and Communist forces, resulting in between 500 and 1000 deaths. These events appeared in George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, and the author, who had volunteered for the International Brigade, experienced them first hand during a break from the front due to injury.
On the other side, confidence was gradually building. The use of the German Condor Legion, the air force unit that helped to obliterate Guernica in April 1937 proved hugely successful and many believe that the Spanish Civil War was seen as a training ground for what Hitler would do during World War II.
By May 1938, the Republican territory had been cut in two and the government made its first attempt to sue for peace. Franco was having absolutely none of it, and insisted on nothing short of unconditional surrender – the war stumbled wearily on.
But it was clear Republican hope was circling the drain. One consistent rumour that played to Republican faith was that an alliance of anti-fascist Western European nations were preparing to intervene on behalf of the Spanish government. In hindsight, it’s clear that this never got anywhere near to happening but sadly for nearly two years, many believed it would.
Catalonia was taken by the Nationalists during a ferocious campaign that swept through the area in the first couple of months of 1939 and from there, things rapidly collapsed. Madrid was taken on 28th March 1939 and a few days later, the Nationalists had control over all of Spain. The Civil War that had carved Spain in two, was finally over.
The Fascist Regime
As we all know, 1939 saw the start of another war on the other side of the continent as the ideological battle exploded into a global conflict. One would have assumed Franco would have been chomping at the bit to join Hitler, Mussolini and other like-minded individuals, but the truth was Spain was an absolutely shattered nation, economical, structurally and emotionally.
Spain officially remained neutral during World War II as it attempted to rebuild itself from the ashes of the Civil War, but like any ideological battle, the loser paid an awful price. Repercussion for those who had fought for or aided the Republicans was frequently vicious and often lasted for years, if not decades. Thousands were executed after the war, while Republican families essentially had a black mark placed against them which could affect job possibilities and any kind of social progression.
With the rest of Europe collapsing into war, Franco quietly set about creating a Fascist regime that he would head until his death in 1975. Even after the conclusion of the Second World War, while many assumed Spain would be next, there was no real appetite to begin fighting again and fascist Spain was conveniently overlooked.
No Civil War is pleasant, but there was a real nastiness to the Spanish conflict. Even to this day, the numbers of those who died fighting or who were executed by either side, remains highly controversial, not least because Spain remains deeply polarized over the issue. It’s thought that a minimum of 37,843 executions were carried out in the Republican zone, with a maximum of 150,000 executions (including 50,000 after the war) in Nationalist Spain – that’s on top of the combined 285,000 who were killed fighting from both sides.
When Franco died the country saw a peaceful transition to democracy but also a ‘pact of forgetting’ which essentially instructed all Spaniards to get on with things and forget about the Civil War and years of right-wing repression that followed. Obviously that didn’t work and the last few decades have seen gradual steps to address the wounds that remain, including moving Franco’s body from the uber-fascist monument outside Madrid – the Valley of the Fallen – and the recovery of bodies from mass graves around Spain.
The Spanish Civil War is often seen as a precursor for what was to come. A conflict that fell between the First and Second World Wars that saw left and right ideologies pitted against one another in a way that hadn’t been done on such a scale before. It saw the military might of the new Germany appear on the battlefield for the first time, but also the long tentacles of Communism that caused so many problems and certainly heavily contributed to the Republican downfall. This was the war that is often completely overshadowed by what began just as it was finishing. A conflict that saw fascism not only prevail, but lead to decades of right-wing totalitarian rule, even as the rest of Western Europe surged forward with democracy and liberal ideals.