The Spanish civil war was a major conflict between the Republicans and Nationalists, which was fierce and bloody as over 500,000 people were killed. It began in July of 1936, and waged on until April of 1939. Although later conflicts have overshadowed it, the Spanish civil war remains one of the bloodiest conflicts of our modern era as well as one of the most consequential as resulted in a brutal dictatorship that lasted for almost forty years after. Aside from the dead, the war left thousands of citizens homeless and persecuted; no living Spanish citizens were left unaffected by the war.
Aside from the consequences that came after the war, this essay will also cover the most significant causes of it that came beforehand. As Forrest (2000) tells us, the background narrative of the war go far back to the year of 1898 when Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines – each economically valuable Spanish colonies – were lost to the United States. This led to still-grudging army officers to set up their own unions in 1917, the year in which there was a general strike in response to the inflation and internal conflict which had come to the country.
Anarchism was growing fast, and Forrest lists the unrests there were between workers and capitalists, catholic and atheists, anarcho-syndicalists and conservatives, regionalists and centralists, and landless labourers and landowners. Industry captains resented the landowners’ hold on political power and landless labourers were brutally repressed by the Civil Guard and hated the conservative small holders, Catholics, and allies of landowners. Then also came the movement of ‘regenerationism’ as a reaction against the local political corruption (such as rigged elections), the followers of which sought to restore justice to Spain.
Then in 1921 came a military defeat in Morocco, which cost the Spanish forces over 10,000 men (Sheelagh 1991). Sheelagh describes how, in the succeeding events, military governor General Miguel Primo de Rivera was summoned by King Alfonso XIII to form a government after Rivera intervened to safeguard the throne once rumours circulated that the Moroccan offensive had been undertaken on Alfonso’s personal initiative without the approval of the Minister for War. Although the monarchy remained intact, power passed to Rivera and his cabinet of military men.
He closed the parliament and banned political parties, but in the following years there came increasing demand for a return to constitutional government. In 1930, he found himself to be alienated from even those who had initially collaborated with him. He resigned and withdrew from politics into exile in France (Sheelagh 1991). Forrest (2000) details what happened in the short while after: Rivera’s successor General Berenguer restored political parties but resisted the increasing pressure for restoration of democracy, continuing the unpopularity which the monarchy faced.
The elections of 1931 showed overwhelming support for Republicans and Socialists, and Alfonso XIII stepped down. As a result, the Second Republic was born; it was ‘one of the few occasions in Spain’s history until then that change had been effected without military intervention’ (Sheelagh 1991). The Second Republic aimed to modernize the Spain by transforming the social, political, and economic structures associated with the old regime (Esenwein 2005). In two years the left-wing governments had expanded education, reduced the Church’s role in social affairs and restructured the military.
Esenwein explains how the left-wing orientated liberal Republic’s greatest challenge came from the Spanish right, especially the Catholic community following the government’s anti-clerical orientation. Defenders of religion and traditional social values formed political parties such as the CEDA (Spanish Confederation of Autonomous Rightists Parties) which worked within the bounds of a legal framework, unlike the far right groups like Carlists and Alfonsine monarchists – these aimed to overthrow the Republic and replace it with an authoritarian government.
The general elections in 1933 showed that the right was now in the ascendant (Esenwein 2005). Sheelagh (2001) informs of the period between November 1933 and February 1936, which was dubbed the ‘Black Biennium’ by the left wing: protests to the harsh conditions in rural areas were met with armed force. Anarchist risings in Catalonia were put down by force, and an agricultural workers’ strike was brutally crushed by the police and Civil Guard.
The government declared an October strike as state of war and called in the army so that the strike could be put down quickly and the leaders rounded up, but in the Asturias mining area there was strong resistance from the miners which turned the strike into a desperate battle. One of the army’s highest regarded officers whom had also served in Asturias during the repression of the 1917 strike and had a reputation for brutality, General Francisco Franco, was called in by the Minister of War to handle things (Sheelagh 2001).
He coordinated the Spanish Foreign Legion and Moorish troops onto the Asturias to a ruthless effect which left many dead and arrested – a fierce blow to the labour movement. After that, Franco was made Commander-in-chief of Spanish Armed Forces in Morocco, and soon became Chief of the General Staff (Forrest 2001). An alliance known as the ‘Popular Front’ was formed at the beginning of 1936 by Spanish socialists, communists and left-Republicans who were convinced the unity of left and centre would effectively oppose the right. This secured a win for the left in 1936, and immediately released all left-wing prisoners.
Left-wing Manuel Azana became president for a second time (following his previous stint and resignation in 1932 and resigning in 1933). The Popular Front soon became a farce though, as Preston (1986) explains the withdrawing of the Socialists; an increasing occurrence of public disturbances suggested the government had lost control of Spain. Calvo Sotelo, a leading right-wing politician, was kidnapped and murdered, leading to the panicked right-wing politicians and supporters (believing to be in real danger) to desire a military dictatorship to put their faith into.
The military had already made preparations to take over Spain, controlled by Franco. He overthrew the civilian government of Spanish Morocco and took control of it. The then targeted to invade mainland Spain and establish a military government there and finally get rid of all left wing politics. He took control of Spanish Morocco after overthrowing the civilian government there. His next target was to invade mainland Spain, establish a military government there and rid the country of all those involved in left wing politics. Once they took over Las Palmas, the civil war had started (Preston 1986).
The war lasted for nearly three years and Franco keeping his side more or less united helped him win, as well as agreements with Hitler and Mussolini and receiving military support (in exchange for handing over quantities of material for their countries’ own weapons such as iron and copper) (Preston 1986). It is interesting to note that this war brought Hitler and Mussolini together into cooperation, so a consequence of this war is that it formed the alliance between the two that pitted them against the other European powers in World War II.
After Franco’s victory and establishment as dictator of Spain, all those opposed to his views were killed, imprisoned, or exiled. Many actually hid in their own homes, and for many years did not emerge from attics, cellars, and other hide-out holes. More left the country into exile. But their spirits remained unbroken, even those in prison kept their faith alive and produced hand-written secret editions of their pre-war newspapers (Sheelagh 1991). Sheelagh describes the hardships of the war that affected even the Francoists: that of shortages of food, clothing and housing, as well as lack of medicines and supplies of fuel and other kinds.
There was also widespread unemployment, as well as many suicides. ‘Franco explained these problems as being the result of the chaos brought by the Republic, or as the work of ‘anti-Spain’ subversives’ (Sheelagh 1991). Franco had set himself the task of transforming the social, political, and economic structures of Spain so that they conformed to the fascist Europe. However, the Allied Victory of World War II forced Franco to soften his fascist features (and some to fully abandon). By the time he died in 1975, most of the Spanish did not want to identify themselves with his regime. Foundations were laid for a democratic government, and Spain has since become one of the most dynamic countries and has demonstrated the wounds affected have well healed (Esenwein 2005).
Ellwood, Sheelagh M. , 1991 The Spanish Civil War (Historical Association Studies) Basil Blackwell Ltd Esenwein, G. R. , 2005 The Spanish Civil War: A Modern Tragedy Routledge Forrest, A. , 2000 The Spanish Civil War (Questions and Analysis in History) Routledge Preston, P. , 1986 The Spanish Civil War 1936-39 Butler & Tanner Ltd