Eight Things To Know About The Spanish Civil War

The Spanish Civil War erupted on July 19, 1936 when the Spanish military attempted to overthrow the Second Republic.  The Church, landowners, and large industrialists bristled at the reforms undertaken by the Second Republic.  The army, meanwhile, humiliated by the loss of Cuba, a setback in Spanish Morocco, and the continued British presence at the Rock of Gibraltar, opposed the separatist demands of Spain’s Catalan and Basque regions, demands that were supported by the Republic. The assassination of a right-wing politician in apparent retaliation for the murder of a leftist Assault Guard lieutenant by members of the  fascist Falange sparked the military revolt. The attempted coup failed, with the military in control of only about one-third of Spain at the end of July, 1936. The result was a bloody three-year civil war that installed Francisco Franco as dictator for thirty-six years.

  1. El Caudillo–Germany had its Fuhrer, Italy its Duce, and Spain had its Caudillo. Francisco Franco en 1964.jpgFranco rose rapidly in the Spanish military, acquiring considerable experience with Spain’s Army of Africa and its Foreign Legion. Franco’s career stalled during the Second Republic, where he was shipped out to serve as military commander of the Canary Islands, a post Franco saw as a demotion.  When the military coup began, Franco returned to Africa and brought the African Army, Spain’s most experienced and battle-tested troops, back to Spain.  These events, which ultimately proved decisive, depended upon a couple of major breaks: Franco being able to get to Africa and then his getting the army back to Spain.  A Spanish monarchist arranged for the charter of a British plane, which was disguised as a tourist flight, complete with fake tourists to get Franco to Africa.  With the Spanish navy remaining largely in control of the Republic, Franco requested and received air transport for the African troops from Germany and Italy.  German and Italian provision of weaponry and troops tipped the scales in favor of Franco. Only the Soviet Union aided the Republic.  The British and French were onlookers, more terrified by the possibility of communism than the prospect of fascism.
  2.  The Symbol–The symbol of the Falange, and ultimately the Dictatorship, was a yoke and arrows.  The yoke and arrows  originally formed the shield of Ferdinand and Isabella–yes, that Ferdinand and Isabella–and represented a united Spain. The Falange was in the long run absorbed into Francoism. Franco’s success owed much to his ability to unite disparate right-wing forces ranging from clerics to fascists to monarchists.  The Republic, in contrast, was hobbled by persistent disagreement among moderate liberals, socialists, communists,  Trotskyites, and anarchists.  Symbolism and fascism went hand in hand.  Hitler had his swastika and Mussolini had his fasces. So, too, Franco had the yoke and arrows.
  3. The Brave Intellectual–The University of Salamanca is the third oldest university in the world, founded in 1134.  In 1936 its rector was Miguel de Unamuno, a philosopher and writer.  Appalled by the blood lust of one of Franco’s subordinates, Unamuno reproached the fascists, “You will win but you will not convince.  You will win because you have more than enough brute force; but you will not convince because to convince means to persaude.  And to persuade you need something which you lack: right and reason.”  Unamuno was removed from his post, confined to house arrest, and died some weeks later.
  4. The Cruel Irony–The Francoists portrayed the war as a Christian crusade against the godless left and frequently invoked the Reconquista, the Spanish defeat of the Islamic Moors who occupied parts of Spain until 1492.  Ironically, over 100,000 Moorish soldiers joined Franco’s Army of Africa and participated in Franco’s second reconquista.
  5. Art and Atrocity–The Spanish Civil War was marked by atrocities committed by both sides.  Following the military coup, the breakdown of law and order spawned a backlash against clergy, land and factory owners, and other members of the right. When the battle for Madrid began, the Republic evacuated right-wing political prisoners. Around one to two thousand of these were massacred in November, 1936 at Paracuellos.  In all, about 50,000 died in what Francoist portrayed as the “red terror.”  However, repression on the right was largely short-lived, halted when the government regained control, and paled in comparison to Francoist terror.  Massacre was official policy on the right.  Between 150,000 to 200,000 leftists died in Francoist massacres.  The exact number is unknown because unlike the Republic, which generally registered deaths, the Francoists buried their victims in unmarked mass graves.  Tens of thousands of people simply “disappeared” and their remains are being exhumed  to this day.  One of the most “famous” atrocities was the Massacre of Badajoz.  After occupying  the city of Badajoz, Francoist forces rounded up prisoners, predominately civilians, in a bull ring, and massacred between two to four thousand people.  On April 26, 1937, German planes, at Franco’s behest, bombed Guernica, the center of Basque culture, destroying the city.  It was the first town in history to be destroyed by aerial bombardment.  Basque morale was shattered, and the region was rapidly taken by Francoist forces.  Pablo Picasso immortalized the bombing in his mural.
  6. Coinage Of The Fifth Column–In October, 1936, General Emilio Mola led four columns of Francoist troops toward Madrid.  Mola optimistically insisted that a “fifth column” of civilians would rush to the Francoist cause.  Events did not transpire as Mola predicted, and Madrid did not fall to Franco until March, 1939. But a new term referring to secret behind the lines supporters entered the lexicon.
  7. There’s Got To Be A Morning After–No there doesn’t.  The Spanish Civil War concluded in March, 1939. When Lee surrendered to Grant, the former Confederate troops returned home unmolested.  Not so in Spain. Death and imprisonment awaited the republicans. Many republicans fled abroad, chiefly to France, where they were interned in concentration camps.  After the Nazi invasion of France, with Franco’s encouragement, a few republican leaders were returned to Spain for execution.  Tens of thousands of the exiles were condemned to forced labor by the Nazis.  Tens of thousands more were transported to Nazi death camps. Tens of thousands republicans who remained in Spain were executed following hasty judicial trials. And hundreds of thousands of others were imprisoned and provided slave labor to the Dictatorship.
  8. Happy Irony–Before his death, Franco named Juan Carlos as his successor.  Juan Carlos was the grandson of Alfonso XIII, Spain’s last king before the Second Republic abolished the monarchy in 1931.  Following Franco’s death in 1975, Juan Carlos assumed the throne as Juan Carlos I.  Far from continuing the policies of the Franco regime as Franco had expected, Juan Carlos I transitioned the country to democracy.

For  more see, Paul Preston, The Spanish Civil War: Reaction, Revolution, and Revenge (2006)


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