In 1923, King Alfonso XIII copied Italy and called on his confidante General Miguel Primo de Rivera to establish an authoritarian corporate state. When this failed to solve problems by 1930, Alfonso XIII dismissed Primo de Rivera, recalled the Spanish parliament (Cortes), and allowed elections. Municipal elections of the spring of 1931 were such a repudiation of the king that he went into exile that year, and Spain became a republic.
The period that followed was marked by continuous unrest. When the leftist Republicans were in power, they pushed through reforms to benefit the workers and the peasants. The Republicans also moved to curtail the special privileges enjoyed by the church and the wealthy. Then, in 1933, when the center and the right won a majority in the Cortes, they curtailed the reforms and restored special privileges enjoyed by the establishment. They also purged leftists and liberals, and they carried out a purge in the army of those not sympathetic with their cause. Both sides grew increasingly intolerant, and it was clear that the power struggle would not be resolved at the polls.
The Republicans won the hotly contested February 1936 elections. The Left parties (Republicans, Socialists, Syndicalists, and Communists) had combined in a Popular Front and beat the Nationalist coalition of Conservative Republicans, Clericals, and Monarchists. Demonstrations and political violence on both sides increased. The Nationalists began a rebellion on 18 July 1936, launched prematurely because the government headed by President Manuel Azaña learned that something was afoot. The rebellion began in a revolt of army regiments in Spanish Morocco and was led by the top echelons in the army, notably Generals José y Sacanell Sanjurjo, Emilio Mola Vidal, Juan Yagüe, and Francisco Franco.
At the outset of the Civil War, the Nationalists, also known as the Fascists, had support from perhaps two-thirds of the army and 90 percent of its officers, the church, the die-hard monarchists, and the conservative old-line families who controlled the majority of the wealth of Spain. It also had support from the Foreign Legion and the many powerful armies of the paramilitary groups, the Carlists and the Falange. The government side, known as the Republicans or Loyalists, could count on the navy, which was solidly Republican, and the bulk of the air force; the peasants and workers; and the most industrialized part of Spain, the Madrid-Valencia-Barcelona triangle. The loyalties of the middle class were fairly evenly divided.
Opinions differ as to which side would have won had it been left to the Spaniards themselves to decide, but the Republicans would have to be given the edge. Certainly, the war would have been much more quickly settled; foreign intervention merely heightened and prolonged the suffering.
The question of which side would have won is academic, because the war did not remain localized. German and Italian aid came early. Only a week into the fighting, Adolf Hitler agreed to supply the Nationalists with transports and fighter escorts to ferry Franco's troops from Morocco to Spain. This was crucial to Nationalist hopes because the Republicans controlled the navy. The Nationalist side pressed half a dozen planes into this service, but beginning on 29 July, the Germans aided in the transport of 13,000 crack Spanish and Moroccan troops to Nationalist-controlled Seville in southern Spain. By intervening in Spain, Hitler hoped to tie the western democracies down and distract attention from his arms buildup. A Fascist victory would also guarantee a supply of Spanish iron ore and other strategic materials. Spain could also prove a testing ground for new weapons. By the end of September, Germany had supplied 73 aircraft to assist the Nationalists; Italy had sent 56.
In November 1936 the Germans formed the Kondor (condor) Legion of some 5,000 men and more than 100 aircraft. Ultimately, some 19,000 men and 300 to 400 planes served in Spain during the course of the war. Spain provided a training school for the coordination of ground troops and tactical air forces that would be so devastatingly effective in Poland and France during World War II. Clearly, it was the German military intervention, providing air cover for Franco's forces, that proved decisive to the outcome.
Italian dictator Benito Mussolini also wanted to participate. The Italian intervention was both larger and less effective than that of the Germans. Perhaps 48,000 Italian soldiers went to Spain in the Italian Corpo Truppe Volontarie (CTV), along with several hundred aircraft. During August and September 1937, Mussolini dispatched Italian submarines to the Mediterranean to attack Spanish Republic warships as well as merchant shipping from other nations that was supplying the Republican side.
The Soviet attitude toward the Spanish Civil War was curious. Stalin wished to simulate commitment while believing that an all-out victory by either side was undesirable. A Republican victory would most likely produce a left-wing government unresponsive to Kremlin control. Yet success by Franco would weaken France and free Hitler to concentrate on aggression in the east. Simple continuation of the war might even lead to a wider conflict in which France, Britain, Germany, and Italy would destroy one another and the Soviet Union would emerge as the arbiter of Europe. In any case, Soviet aid was always limited in scope and subject to many restrictions, and no Soviet fighting units were ever dispatched to Spain, although Stalin did send equipment and instructors. The Soviets insisted on payment in cash for goods rendered, and the Republican government shipped several hundred million dollars in gold to Odessa.
The sympathies of the French government and the majority of its people were with the Republicans. Initially Premier Léon Blum promised to supply the Republican government with aircraft and other military equipment. Some aid was sent, but the British government, led by Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin and then in 1937 by Neville Chamberlain, pursued appeasement and insisted on embargoing military supplies to either side. London made it clear to Blum that if French aid led to an enlarged struggle involving Germany, Britain might not honor its pledge to defend France. France desperately needed British support against Germany, and Blum reversed policy and halted aid to the Spanish Republic.
Ultimately, 27 nations, including all the great powers, signed a nonintervention agreement pushed by London. Yet men and supplies continued to flow to the Fascist side from Germany and Italy. It was only relatively late that significant military aid reached the Republican side from the Soviet Union. The Franklin D. Roosevelt administration in the United States had no wish to offend the large Catholic vote and adhered to a noninterventionist position, a stance supported by strong congressional and popular support that opposed any overseas involvement. Mexico was the only western country to help the Loyalist side, sending 18,000 rifles.
There were those in the west who were appalled by the attitude of their governments, and many volunteered to fight in Spain. The vast majority of these fought on the Republican side, and most were Communists. Some 40,000 men came from 54 nations, and 8,000 of them died in Spain.
It was rather miraculous that the Republican side managed to hold as long as it did. Battles raged everywhere. Wherever the Nationalists were in control, they slaughtered members of the Popular Front as a matter of official policy. A Red terror also broke out in Republican Madrid, as self-appointed "chekas" set about trying rebels and suspected rebels. Thousands, including many of the rich, were summarily executed after drumhead trials. President Azaña and other leaders were aghast but powerless to stop it; Franco did not lament the deaths of tens of thousands of innocents executed by his troops, which the authorities organized and directed. The militia killings on the Republican side were the work of men running wild without authority.
The rebels had hoped to take Madrid at the offset of the war. Mola's plans had hinged on speed—on storming into Madrid and ending the war quickly. In this he failed. Mola's supply of weapons and ammunition dwindled rapidly as the militia on the Republican side gained in experience. Franco perhaps missed an opportunity to win the war early when he turned away from Madrid, which was still unfortified, to try to relieve Nationalists besieged in the Alcazar in Toledo. The siege there, which lasted for 72 days, was one of the most dramatic episodes of the Civil War. As it transpired, the Alcazar, which had no strategic significance, fell to the Republicans before the Nationalist relief force arrived.
Madrid's resistance became legendary. When General Mola was informed that the resistance was much more stubborn than anticipated, he indicated that the four Nationalist columns converging on Madrid from different directions would be joined by a "fifth column"—that is, secret sympathizers or supporters of an enemy who would engage in sabotage or spying within defense lines or national borders. The expression entered the vocabulary. The inhabitants of Madrid vowed, "No pasarán" (they shall not pass). Madrid blunted a series of Nationalist attacks between November 1936 and March 1937.
Generals Franco and Mola moved their troops toward Andalusia and Extremadura, depriving the Republican forces of the most important wheat-growing and cattle-raising regions in Spain. On 8 February 1937, the Nationalists took Málaga, although the Loyalists repulsed two Italian divisions at Guadalajara in mid-March.
In the spring of 1937, Franco began the Great Northern Campaign, a two-staged attack that caused the surrender of Asturias and then the Basque area. On 1 April, the Nationalists invested Bilbao, crushing the remaining Basque Loyalist resistance. On 18 June, Bilbao fell to the Nationalists, who then moved against Santander. By the end of the year, the Nationalists controlled all of northwestern Spain. In despair, the Republicans turned increasingly to the Soviets, who, as virtually the Nationalists' only source of help, therefore steadily won greater influence. Gradually, the more moderate leaders were bypassed and ousted, until eventually the Communists took control under Largo Caballero.
In April 1937, the world was horrified when German and Italian aircraft bombed Guernica into rubble. The Germans used a new technique known as carpet bombing, which claimed 7,000 civilian casualties. The attack gave an exaggerated impression of the destructiveness of airpower, but it inspired Spanish artist Pablo Picasso to dramatize the event in a famous painting. Italian planes also attacked long columns of refugees headed north to France from the stricken cities of Spain. As part of their offensive in the Basque region, the Nationalists captured Bajadoz on 4 August and Santander on 25 August 1937.
On concluding the campaign in the north, Franco turned his attention east toward Aragon and Catalonia. The battles were hard fought, but Nationalist forces reached the coast and split Republican-held territory. Before the Nationalist forces could exploit their victories, Republican troops under new Republican leader Juan Negrín staged a great offensive along the Ebro River beginning on 24–25 July 1938. The Republicans committed 100,000 of 400,000 men in their army. Caught by surprise, Franco halted operations in Catalonia. Fascist airpower and artillery, which gave the margin of difference throughout the Civil War, halted the Republicans and cost them 70,000 casualties. The failure of this summer offensive spelled the beginning of the end for the Republic.
On 10 October, Franco launched an all-out counteroffensive along the Ebro. The Nationalists quickly regained all territory lost there and followed up by crushing remaining Republican forces in Catalonia. By December, Nationalist forces surrounded Barcelona, causing its capitulation on 26 January. The final blow came with the capture of Madrid on 27 March and of Valencia on 30 March. The Civil War was over.
The toll of the Spanish Civil War has never been accurately determined. The most careful estimates are that about 600,000 Spaniards were killed on both sides, and after the war, another 100,000 were executed by the victorious Nationalists. Half a million more lived on as refugees in camps on the French side of the Pyrenees.
Spain was left with deep wounds that many decades later still had not healed. The west did not come off well in Spain, and its failure to stand up for democracy encouraged other demands by the dictators elsewhere. Perhaps the most important effect internationally of the Civil War in Spain was to bring Germany and Italy together in what came to be known as the Rome-Berlin Axis. Roger L. Rice and Spencer C. Tucker
Brome, Vincent. The International Brigades: Spain 1936–1939. New York: William Morrow, 1966.; Coverdale, John F. Italian Intervention in the Spanish Civil War. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1975.; Graham, Helen. The Spanish Republic at War, 1936–1939. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.; Matthews, Herbert L. Half of Spain Died: A Reappraisal of the Spanish Civil War. New York: Charles Scribner's, 1973.; Preston, Paul. Franco: A Biography. New York: Basic Books, 1994.; Thomas, Hugh. The Spanish Civil War. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1961, rev. ed. 2001.; Whealey, Robert H. Hitler and Spain: The Nazi Role in the Spanish Civil War, 1936–1939. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1989.
Roger L. Rice and Spencer C. Tucker