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Definition: Spanish Civil War from Collins English Dictionary


1 the civil war in Spain from 1936 to 1939 in which insurgent nationalists, led by General Franco, succeeded in overthrowing the republican government. During the war Spain became an ideological battleground for fascists and socialists from all countries

Summary Article: Spanish Civil War (1936–1939)
From The Encyclopedia of War

The Spanish Civil War was a prelude to the coming conflict of World War II. The hard ideological differences between the combatants, the heavy loss of life, and the extent of material destruction would mirror that which Europe would experience only a few months after the war's conclusion.

The causes of the Spanish Civil War were rooted in several problems that afflicted Spain at the beginning of the twentieth century. The nineteenth century witnessed the erosion of the Spanish Empire. By 1898, the Spanish-American War had whittled Spanish possessions down to a couple of enclaves in Africa. This loss was symptomatic of the impoverishment and general backwardness of Spain.

A constitutional monarchy, Spain could not escape the general political radicalization evident in the rest of Europe. The tensions between conservative and liberal groups became a volatile mix by the 1920s. On one side were arrayed those who wanted to maintain the monarchy and the traditional privileges that had been enjoyed by certain groups in Spanish society. The church, for instance, was sponsored by the state; it controlled education and held considerable economic interests. Critics believed that the only way that Spain could begin to modernize would be by the suspension of the church's privileges and by the confiscation of its considerable assets within Spain. In addition to the church, the army's officer class held a vested interest in the status quo. The ranks of the Spanish officer corps were bloated beyond the needs of an army its size. Any change or reform in the structure was regarded as a threat to their livelihood.

Economically, Spain was an agricultural nation. Most of the land was concentrated in the hands of fewer than 10,000 owners. Vast numbers of landless, ill-paid migrant workers (many from Andalusia) worked these farms, causing considerable class resentment. The industrial contribution to the economy was minor compared to agriculture. Most of the industry was located in two cities: Barcelona and Bilbao. The economic discrepancies in turn fueled separatist movements in the parent regions of these two cities: Catalonia and the Basque country. Both regions spoke a different native language and had divergent cultural traditions. Starting in the early 1900s, the Spanish began to extend their influence into Morocco. This sparked a series of wars against local tribesmen. The Rif Wars became a quagmire that exposed the corruption, inadequate training, and poor quality of the Spanish Army. Most of the soldiers were conscripts from the laboring classes who resented fighting a war for the benefit of the wealthier classes. The experiences of the war helped shape a new generation of Spanish officers, including Francisco Franco, the commander of the elite Spanish Legion.

The poor performance of the army at the start of the Rif War and labor unrest prompted a military coup by General Miguel Antonio Primo de Rivera. Primo de Rivera immediately engaged in a series of reforms to help modernize Spain. Beyond successfully concluding the Rif War, he began to reform Spain's transportation infrastructure, built hydroelectric dams, and provided incentives for industrial development. He also co-opted the labor movements by directly intervening in labor negotiations. Although well intentioned, Primo de Rivera was unable to tackle the three elements within Spain that needed to be reformed: the church, the army, and the agrarian sector. The coming of the Great Depression undid much of the good his economic policies had engendered and in 1930 he was forced to resign. King Alfonso XIII was forced to abdicate a year later as a consequence of having sided with the dictator against his own constitutional government.

Spain was reconstituted as a republic. The new left-leaning government immediately tackled the problems of the church and the army. The church's monopoly on education and marriage was dissolved and the Jesuits were disbanded. Divorce was made legal and the separation of church and state was passed into law, ending the government subsidies that the church had traditionally enjoyed. Thousands of military officers were forced into retirement, prompting a failed military revolt in 1932. In addition, Catalonia was granted some degree of autonomy. While the reforms were popular among the left, the conservative right saw the measures against the church as an attack on the soul of Spanish culture and civilization. Land reform efforts were seen as inadequate by the rural poor, while landowners were angered by this attack on their privileges. Others feared that the granting of autonomy to Catalonia signaled the future dissolution of Spain.

The elections of 1933 brought a conservative coalition government into power. This government immediately canceled the land reform efforts and the measures against the church. It also ended Catalan autonomy. The reversal of the reforms led labor parties to call on their confederates to engage in a strike. Anarchist miners in Asturias took this call a step further and led a violent revolt that included a takeover of the regional capital of Oviedo. General Franco was sent with an army and brutally crushed the revolt, earning the undying hatred of organized labor.

The unpopularity of the conservative coalition prompted leftists to set aside their differences and join with centrists to score a victory in the 1936 elections. The new administration immediately reinstated the earlier reforms, repolarizing Spanish society. Civility began to disintegrate as elements on both sides of the political divide resorted to street violence and murder. Certain military officers, whose loyalty was in question, were reassigned by Prime Minister Manuel Azanña (including Franco, who was exiled to the Canary Islands). By the summer of 1936, a cadre of officers including Franco, Emilio Mora, and José Sanjurjo were plotting with rightist groups for a military coup.

The murder of prominent monarchist José Calvo Sotelo left little doubt of the direction of Spanish politics and on July 18, 1936, Franco flew out to Morocco and reestablished command over the Spanish Legion. He issued a manifesto calling for a revolt against the government. Spain immediately splintered between those who supported the government and those who were in sympathy with the rebellion. Arrayed on one side were the Nationalists, a collection of monarchists, fascists, and center-right groups supported by most of the church, landowners, and a large percentage of the military. On the other side were the Republicans, composed of anarchists, socialists, communists, labor unionists, and pro-government centrists as well as Catalan and Basque separatists.

The coup attempt was only partially successful. In the regions where Nationalist sentiment was particularly strong, like western Andalucía, Galicia, Leon, and Navarre/ Aragon, the plotters and their supporters were able to take immediate control. They failed, however, to take Madrid and the important industrial cities of Barcelona and Bilbao. In addition, the Republicans began to arm their citizens and take firm control of the regions where sentiment was in their favor. Two days after the coup commenced, Sanjurjo, the nominal Nationalist leader, was killed in a plane crash. This death and the fact that Franco directly commanded the largest contingent of available troops placed the leadership of the coup firmly in his hands and would in time render him the undisputed leader of the rebellion.

At the start of the rebellion, Franco requested and received aid from both Germany and Italy. Adolf Hitler supplied Franco with transport planes, which allowed him to quickly ferry troops to Spain. In addition, both Hitler and Mussolini provided a considerable number of troops and arms to the Nationalists. Both would be crucial in the early days of the war, as German planes (the Condor Legion) would guarantee Nationalist air superiority and the Italian navy would provide an effective sea blockade of Republican ports.

The Republicans were also able to count on foreign aid, but it was considerably less useful than that received by the Nationalists. Several units of volunteers were organized to fight for the Republicans, the vast majority by foreign communist parties. These International Brigades would provide between 25,000 and 30,000 soldiers. The Soviet Union provided planes and other military equipment as well as advisors to the Republicans. Even though the Spanish Communist Party was rather small (and dwarfed by the much larger anarchist and socialist movements), its association with this major benefactor would increase its importance within the Republican fold. By the end of the war its domination of the Republican side would weaken the government and play a key role in its collapse.

The Initial Madrid Campaigns

Upon arriving in Spain, Franco initiated an offensive to capture Badajoz in order to connect Nationalist territory in the south with Nationalist gains in the north. His forces succeeded in August 1936 and then turned east toward Toledo to relieve a besieged proNationalist force. Republican forces failed to capture Toledo, leaving the western and southwestern approaches to Madrid open for Nationalist penetration. Before beginning the operation toward Madrid, Franco was recognized by the Nationalists as the undisputed leader of the rebellion. This unity of command would add a further impetus to the eventual success of the Nationalist cause.

On November 6, 1936, the Nationalists commenced their siege of Madrid. In anticipation of the collapse of the capital, the Republican government moved to Valencia that same day. Anarchists and the first International Brigades joined the local militia in the defense, repulsing an assault on November 8. Checked for the moment, Nationalist forces headed toward the northeast of Madrid in an effort to surround the city. The assault was blocked at the Corunña road, momentarily stabilizing the Madrid front. Franco, concerned over his mounting losses, halted direct frontal attacks and ordered a bombardment of Madrid.

The effort did not soften Republican resolve and by the start of 1937 Franco was forced to revise his plans. He turned toward the south of Madrid and attempted to cut off the capital from Valencia. On February 6, 1937, the Nationalist forces crossed the Jarama River and began an assault upon its heights. Once again the Republicans fiercely resisted and by the end of the month the Nationalist offensive stalled. Franco redirected his attention northward; using large numbers of Italian troops, he ordered an offensive upon the city of Guadalajara, northeast of Madrid. The purpose was to effect a pincer movement on the Republican forces defending the Jarama line while at the same time encircling Madrid. The attack commenced on March 8, 1937, and the Nationalist forces had initial success in capturing key towns in the region. Poor weather, however, grounded the Nationalist air force and bogged down its tanks. The Republicans were able to take advantage and knocked out much of the Italian armored units. They then proceeded to counterattack and nearly routed the Italian troops, who were forced to retreat from their earlier gains. By March 23 the Republican forces had stabilized their lines northeast of Madrid.

The Northern Campaign

Simultaneously, Nationalist General Mola conducted a campaign in northern Spain to isolate both the Basque separatists and the pro-government areas of Cantabria and Asturias from the rest of Republican Spain. He captured the strategically important province of Guipuzcoa after the Battle of Irun on September 5, 1936, cutting off Asturias and Cantabria from the Basques. By the summer of 1937 Nationalist forces had surrounded the city of Bilbao. A Republican defector provided the Nationalist commander with the defensive plans of Bilbao, allowing for the quick capture of the strategically valuable city on June 18, 1937. During the Basque campaign, elements of the Condor Legion conducted an aerial bombardment of the cities of Durango and Guernica, the latter becoming the subject of the famous Picasso painting.

“No pasarán!” Spanish Civil War poster. White Images/Scala, Florence.

After the fall of the Basque country, the Nationalists turned westward toward Cantabria and Asturias. In a two-week campaign, the Republican forces were battered and overwhelmed and Cantabria fell on August 26, 1937. By the end of the summer of 1937 only Asturias remained as the last Republican stronghold in the north. Surrounded on three sides, the Republican forces defended the mountainous region tenaciously, but when the pass at El Mazuco fell to the Nationalists on September 22, the defenses collapsed. By October 21, Republican resistance had ceased in the north. The only consolation for the Republicans was that Mola had died in a plane crash on June 3, 1937.

Republican Offensives

The impending collapse of the north motivated Republican planners to engage in two offensive campaigns. The objective was to regain the initiative, to cut off the Nationalist forces besieging Madrid, and to draw off Nationalist forces from the northern campaign.

The first effort was conducted west of Madrid in July 1937. On July 6 the Republicans launched an assault on the town of Brunete. The initial assault was effective and the town fell, but the Nationalists reconstituted their forces south of the city and halted the advance. Attacks and counterattacks would continue in and around the surrounding villages, blunting the offensive's momentum. On July 18 the Nationalist forces mounted a counteroffensive and by July 25 the battle lines restabilized.

After the failure of Brunete, the Republican command initiated a second diversionary offensive southeast of the city of Zaragoza. The main strategic goal was to capture Zaragoza and disrupt the operations of the Nationalist forces in the eastern end of their northern offensive. As at Brunete, the Republicans managed to take key points but were eventually bogged down by stiff Nationalist resistance in the town of Belchite. This allowed the Nationalist forces to mount a counteroffensive. By September 6, 1937, the lines had stabilized and the offensive failed to achieve any of its goals.

Although the north was lost, the Republicans attempted another offensive south of Belchite in December 1937. The attack was aimed at capturing the provincial capital of Teruel. The Republicans brought overwhelming force on the town and in spite of a solid defense and air attacks by the Condor Legion, the Nationalist garrison surrendered after two weeks. By the start of January 1938, Franco had concentrated sufficient force to mount a counterattack. His army steadily whittled away the Republican forces and on February 7, 1938, his attack north of Teruel folded the Republican right flank. By February 20 Teruel was surrounded and the remaining Republican defenders either fled or surrendered.

Aragon Offensive

Although Franco was forced to cancel a new offensive toward Madrid and Guadalajara, his victory at Teruel marked the final turning point of the war. The losses sustained by the Republicans were irreplaceable and encouraged Franco to engage in an offensive toward Barcelona.

The new offensive began on March 7, 1938. The attack was so successful that the Republican forces disintegrated in the face of the advancing Nationalists. Political dissensions within Republican ranks exacerbated the retreat. By March 17 the Nationalists had driven a wedge that left them less than 100 miles from the Mediterranean coast. They paused to reform their lines and reinitiated the attack on March 22. Nationalist troops captured the eastern portions of Aragon and reached the coast on April 8. Catalan resistance stiffened considerably and halted the offensive but by April 19 the Nationalist strategy had split Catalonia from the rest of Republican Spain.

Toward Valencia and the Battle of the Ebro

Franco turned his attention southward after the Aragon offensive. His objective was to capture Valencia and the resident Republican government. Standing in his way was a system of fortifications dubbed the XYZ Line. Starting on July 18, 1938, Franco hurled his forces against the lines. The Republicans gave way at first, but their resistance stiffened until the Nationalists were halted in the rough mountainous terrain 70 miles north of Valencia.

Immediately afterwards, the Republicans initiated their final major offensive of the war in the direction of the Ebro River, north of Valencia. The hope was to reconnect Catalonia to Republican Spain and perhaps prolong the war sufficiently to allow for a peace settlement. On July 25, the Republicans launched a surprise attack across the Ebro River. The Republicans made modest gains at the beginning but did not have sufficient airpower, armor, or artillery to dislodge Nationalist strongpoints or appropriately consolidate their gains. The battle bogged down into a stalemate. The Republican leadership was aware that the attack was a failure but was unwilling to call off the operation. The remnants of the Republican army were destroyed and this reality ended the offensive on November 16, 1938.

The Fall of Barcelona and Madrid

Franco rested his forces for a month before launching the final two campaigns of the war. On December 23, 1938, he began the invasion of Catalonia. Infighting between communists and anarchists within Catalonia had severely weakened the defenses of the Republican forces and by 1939 they were in no position to successfully defend themselves against Franco. By the end of January Barcelona had fallen and by the middle of February the last pockets of resistance in Catalonia had been subdued.

By 1939, Madrid and Valencia were the sole enclaves held by the Republicans. On March 26 Franco made his final offensive toward Madrid. Republican resistance quickly collapsed and on March 28 the Nationalists took possession of the city. The next day Valencia capitulated and the last Republican forces in Spain surrendered on April 1, 1939.

The end of the war completed the reunification of Spain under an ultraconservative government. Franco restored most of the privileges of the Catholic Church and eventually set up Spain to once again become a monarchy. Reprisals had taken place on both sides during the war and continued under Franco, prompting a largescale emigration of leftists and intellectuals from Spain. Franco suppressed liberal and leftist parties and essentially outlawed non-government-sponsored trade unions. In addition, Franco endeavored to erase Catalan, Basque, and other regional separatist movements by creating a Spanish nationalist identity. This included the appropriation and Hispanicization of some regional customs, the promotion of Castilian as the national language, and the suppression of minority languages. He also commissioned and built a gigantic monument to the victims of the war. This monument, El Valle de los Caídos, entombed the remains of both Nationalists and Republicans and was intended by Franco to be a project of national reconciliation. Franco would serve as dictator until his death in 1975. Spain sat out the World War II and would remain a pariah state until the Cold War made it a useful ally to the United States.

SEE ALSO: Aerial warfare; Franco, General Francisco (1892–1975); Hitler, Adolf (1889–1945); League of Nations; Militia; Mussolini, Benito (1883–1945); Rif Wars (1893, 1909, 1920); Saturation (carpet) bombing; Spanish-American War (1898); Spanish Foreign Legion; Stalin, Joseph (1878–1953); Tanks.

Further Reading
  • Beevor, A. (1982) The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939. Penguin London.
  • Forrest, A. (2000) The Spanish Civil War. Routledge London.
  • Graham, H. (2005) The Spanish Civil War: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press Oxford.
  • Thomas, H. (2001) The Spanish Civil War. Modern Library New York.
  • José María Herrera
    Wiley ©2012

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