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Spanish Civil War

Spanish Civil WarFrom 1936-1939, a civil war raged in Spain between those loyal to the newly- established Republican government and those who favored a conservative, militaristic system. The outcome of the Spanish Civil War altered the balance of power in Europe, tested the military power of Germany and Italy, and pushed ER "away from the peace movement and into the ranks of the anti-fascists" fighting for democracy.

In July 1936, military uprisings occurred throughout Spain and General Francisco Franco led a revolt of Spanish troops in Spanish Morocco. By September, Hitler agreed to aid the Nationalists, Franco and his troops returned to Spain, France and England decided to stay out of the war, and the first International Brigade (a multinational group of volunteers largely organized by France and consisting of many Communists and American liberals) arrived to bolster the strength of defenders of the Second Republic.

The Spanish Civil War was a struggle against the beast called "Fascism." That it lurked in Spain there could be no doubt. The Fascist movement there had styled itself the "Falange" and like its counterparts elsewhere in Europe had extolled political violence, imperialism, militarism, dictatorship, and totalitarianism. With Franco's victory, the Falange had become a part of the nation's political establishment and the regime borrowed freely from its symbols and slogans. Falangists occupied key posts in the Franco government and the movement's adherents were not at all shy about urging in great public demonstrations that Spain now join its former German allies and enter the war against France.

For a century and a half the Spanish people have struggled against oppression. Their history during this period is a record of poverty, insurrection, administrative incapacity, class warfare, declining world influence, and determined resistance to foreign domination: above all a conflict between authoritarians and liberals, between the desire of the Church, the Army, and the propertied classes to preserve the medieval Spanish Catholic tradition by the discipline of a powerful State machinery, and the wish of anti-clerical intellectuals and impoverished workers to free Spain from misgovernment and mass ignorance.

Since 1800, the Spanish people had undergone much brutalizing violence; they have fought two of the bloodiest civil wars of modern times. Although they stood apart from both the world wars of the 20th century, they had more years of fighting in the 19th century than any other people in Europe.

Spain was dealt a rude shock by the Spanish-American war in 1898, which arose out of the restlessness of ill-governed, mistreated colonials and the vigor of the United States interest in neighboring remnants of Spain's colonial empire. The loss of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines awakened the younger generation in Spain to critical analysis of their country's plight.

"The Generation of 98" produced the first large group of distinguished, progressive intellectuals and writers Spain had known since the great epoch. Meanwhile two industrial areas were developing, the populations of which were to expand considerably in the 20th century: the area in Catalonia centering on Barcelona, in which grew up a large textile industry, and the Bilbao area in the Basque country, where an iron and steel industry developed.

As both these regions were progressing more rapidly than the rest of Spain, they tended to develop, on the basis of ethnic and language differences, Basque and Catalan movements for autonomy in Catalonia, moreover, the anarchist ideas of Bakunin found wide response among the uneducated workers attracted to Catalonia from less prosperous provinces. In Madrid, at the same time, Pablo Iglesias, influenced by Karl Marx, was founding the Spanish Socialist movement. Both the anarchists and the socialists developed trade unionism. The Great War, although it did not directly involve Spain, affected Spanish life because it provided an artificial stimulus to industry. An expanding industrial economy widened the influence of the anarcho-syndicalists and the socialists, and accentuated the contrasts in Spanish Society. Leftist intellectuals began to point out that the monarchy rested on three pillars of reaction: the Church, the Army, and the aristocracy. These groups, they said, governed the country in their own interest. The people received neither education nor good wages. Capital was squandered abroad by rich ne'er-do-wells, while Spain was economically exploited by foreigners, and the Spanish wealthy classes devoted neither time nor enterprise to the utilization of Spain's rescurces. Property inheritance was very unequal.

One per cent of the population owned 50% of the land, while two million agricultural workers (2.0% of the total) owned no land at all. These problems were intensified by the economic bad times which followed the war boom. Matters were made even worse by the drain upon the treasury from the war against the Riffs in Spanish Morocco. The Army, top-heavy with officers since the loss of the American colonies, Wanted to exploit Morocco. Campaigns against the Moors satisfied Spanish traditions of military honor and provided officers opportunities for graft. However, the war in the 1920's was fraught with disaster for Spanish arms, and the people were angered by the high casualties.

General Miguel Primo de Rivera, Captain General of Catalonia, with the King's connivance, took control of the government in September l923 from the constitutional prime minister. This markcd the end of the parliamentary system established by the Constitution of l875. The Primo de Rivera dictatorship had a certain success. During the world boom Spain was prosperous. New highways were built. Like Mussolini, Primo de Rivera got the trains to run on time.

Being a dictator, he handled Spain's fundamental problems by eliminating opposition criticism and imprisoning subversive elements. The great CNT anarcho-syndicalist trade union, for example, formally dissolving itself in anticipation of forcible suppression, maintained its existence only in secrecy. But although this Andalusian general had a flamboyance and moral laxness that somewhat endeared him to the people, he had no constructive political ideas. The intellectuals attacked and ridiculed him.

In 1931, the Spanish monarchy fell and was replaced by a democratically elected government dedicated to major social reforms. The newly elected government, called the Second Republic, was largely middle class and promoted policies that attacked the traditional privileged structure of Spanish society. Their reforms included the redistribution of large estate lands; the separation of church and state; and an antiwar, antimilitarist policy dedicated to undermining the power of the aristocracy, the Catholic Church, and the armed forces. The right (landed aristocracy, the Catholic Church, a large military clique, the monarchists, and the new fascist party, the Falange) resented this attack on their authority, and united and rebelled against the government reforms. Meanwhile, the government's idealistic reforms failed to satisfy the left-wing radicals or gain the support of workers, who increasingly engaged in protest movements against it. The Second Republic struggled to stay in power by forming a series of weak coalition governments from the 1933 election until 1936, when the Popular Front swept them from office.

The 1936 electoral victory of the Popular Front (a coalition of Liberals, Socialists, and Communists) underscored both the hope for social reforms for those neglected by the Second Republic and the fears reform posed to the right. The Nationalists (the rightist opponents of the Second Republic government) soon took up arms against the Republicans (the antimonarchist supporters of the Second Republic).

The National Block, a smaller coalition of monarchists and fascists, who had sought the army's cooperation in restoring Alfonso XIII, was led by Jose Calvo Sotelo. Sotelo was murdered in July 1936, supposedly in retaliation for the killing of a police officer by fascists. Calvo Sotelo's death was a signal to the army to act on the pretext that the civilian government had allowed the country to fall into disorder. The army issued a pronunciamiento. A coup was expected, however, and the urban police and the workers' militia loyal to the government put down revolts by army garrisons in Madrid and Barcelona. Navy crews spontaneously purged their ships of officers. The army and the left rejected the eleventh-hour efforts of Indalecio Prieto (who had succeeded Azana as prime minister) to arrive at a compromise.

The army was most successful in the north, where General Emilio Mola had established his headquarters at Burgos. North-central Spain and the Carlist strongholds in Navarre and Aragon rallied to the army. In Morocco, elite units seized control under Franco, Spain's youngest general and hero. Transport supplied by Germany and Italy ferried Franco's African army, including Moorish auxiliaries, to Andalusia. Franco occupied the major cities in the south before turning toward Madrid to link up with Mola, who was advancing from Burgos. The relief of the army garrison besieged at Toledo, however, delayed the attack on Madrid and allowed time for preparation of the capital's defense. Army units penetrated the city limits, but they were driven back, and the Nationalists were able to retain the city.

A junta of generals, including Franco, formed a government at Burgos, which Germany and Italy immediately recognized. Sanjurjo, who had been expected to lead the army movement, was killed in a plane crash during the first days of the uprising.

In October 1936, Franco was named head of state, with the rank of generalissimo and the title el caudillo (the leader). When he assumed leadership of the Nationalist forces, Franco had a reputation as a highly professional, career-oriented, combat soldier, who had developed into a first-rate officer. Commissioned in the army at the age of eighteen, he had volunteered for service in Morocco, where he had distinguished himself as a courageous leader. Serious, studious, humorless, withdrawn, and abstemious, he had won the respect and the confidence of his subordinates more readily than he had won the comradeship of his brother officers. At the age of thirty-three, he had become the youngest general in Europe since Napoleon Bonaparte.

Franco opposed Sanjurjo in 1932; still, Azana considered Franco unreliable and made him captain general of the Canaries, a virtual exile for an ambitious officer. Though by nature a conservative, Franco did not wed himself to any particular political creed. On taking power, he set about to reconcile all right-wing, antirepublican groups in one Nationalist organization. The Falange, a fascist party founded by Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera (the dictator's son), provided the catalyst. The Carlists, revived after 1931, merged with the Falange in 1937, but the association was never harmonious. Jose Antonio's execution by the Republicans provided the Falange with a martyr. The more radical of the early Falange programs were pushed aside by more moderate elements, and the Nationalists' trade unionism was only a shadow of what Jose Antonio had intended. The Nationalist organization did keep its fascist facade, but Franco's strength lay in the army.

Nationalist strategy called for separating Madrid from Catalonia (which was firmly Republican), Valencia, and Murcia (which the republic also controlled). The Republicans stabilized the front around Madrid, defending it against the Nationalists for three years. Isolated Asturias and Vizcaya, where the newly organized Basque Republic fought to defend its autonomy without assistance from Madrid, fell to Franco in October 1937. Otherwise the battlelines were static until July 1938, when Nationalist forces broke through to the Mediterranean Sea south of Barcelona. Throughout the Civil War, the industrial areas--except Asturias and the Basque provinces--remained in Republican hands, while the chief food-producing areas were under Nationalist control.

When the communists were garnering considerable political strength in the tangled web of Spanish politics of that era, there was a strong anti-Comintern bias to the coalition of the left. Just to the left of center, the major element, the socialists were strongly anti-communist until the pressures of the Civil War drove them into the arms of their former rivals. To the far left, the anarchists of the FAI [Federación Anarquista Ibérica - Iberian Anarchist Federation] were militantly anticommunist. And within the Communist Party itself, anti-Comintern forces long dominated those elements that favored the Russian brand of communism. This bias was again ameliorated by the necessities of war, although even in the worst of times during the struggle of 1936-1939, a strong anti-Comintern element known as the POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificacion Marxista) gained many advocates within the Republican ranks.

The republic lacked a regular trained army, though a number of armed forces cadres had remained loyal, especially in the air force and the navy. Many of the loyal officers were either purged or were not trusted to hold command positions. The workers' militia and independently organized armed political units like those of the Trotskyite Workers' Party of Marxist Unification (Partido Obrero de Unificacion Marxista--POUM) bore the brunt of the fighting in the early months of the Civil War. For example, the anarchist UGT militia and the Assault Guards (the urban police corps established by the Republic to counterbalance the Civil Guard -- Guardia Civil -- the paramilitary rural police who were generally considered reactionary) crushed the army garrison in Barcelona. Moscow provided advisers, logistics experts, and some field-grade officers. Foreign volunteers, including more than 2,000 from the United States, formed the International Brigade. The communists pressed for, and won, approval for the creation of a national, conscript Republican army.

The Soviet Union supplied arms and munitions to the republic from the opening days of the Civil War. France provided some aircraft and artillery. The republic's only other conduit for arms supply was through Mexico. The so-called spontaneous revolutions that plagued the industrial centers hampered arms production within Spain.

Some 3,000 American communists volunteered to serve in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade during the Spanish Civil War. The Abraham Lincoln Brigade was a volunteer unit comprised of American citizens from all ethnic and religious backgrounds and walks of life, all equal in their resolve to stem the tide of fascism. The Abraham Lincoln Brigade had 900 Jewish soldiers and under 100 Black soldiers. Together with the British, Irish, Canadian, and other nationals they formed the 15th International Brigade. The Black soldiers were the only ones with experience, mostly as World War I veterans. This brigade served at the front lines of key Spanish Republican victories against the Nationalist Fascist Army under General Francisco Franco. In the month-long Battle of Jarama, Madrid was temporarily saved. In the losing battle of Brunete, the Americans suffered 50% casualties.

America's reluctance to aid the Spanish Republican government did not deter these brave people who understood what the consequences were if a legitimately elected government were to fall. They, along with 35,000-45,000 volunteers from over 50 different countries, fought side by side during the early struggle against fascism. Their foresight in recognizing the rising tyranny of fascism was a call to arms that went unheeded by the free world. Latter the veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade were termed "premature anti-fascists" for having opposed facism prematurely. Historians estimate that about 1,000 Americans died in the Spanish Civil War. Some notable Americans who fought in Spain include Ernest Hemmingway and Paul Robeson.

Most war correspondents observe wars and then tell stories about the battles, the soldiers and the civilians. George Orwell -- novelist, journalist, sometime socialist -- traded his press pass for a uniform and fought against Franco's Fascists in the Spanish Civil War during 1936 and 1937. He put his politics and his formidable conscience to the toughest tests during those days in the trenches in the Catalan section of Spain, affiliated with the POUM, a far-left revolutionary Marxist party led by Andres Nin. Then, after nearly getting killed, he went back to England and wrote Homage to Catalonia, a gripping account of his experiences, as well as a complex analysis of the political machinations that led to the defeat of the socialist Republicans and the victory of the Fascists.

Nationalist strength was based on the regular army, which included large contingents of Moroccan troops and battalions of the Foreign Legion, which Franco had commanded in Africa. The Carlists, who had always maintained a clandestine militia (requetes), were among Franco's most effective troops, and they were employed, together with the Moroccans, as a shock corps. Italian dictator Benito Mussolini (Fascist premier, 1922- 45) dispatched more than 50,000 Italian "volunteers" (most of them army conscripts) to Spain, along with air and naval units. The German Condor Legion, made infamous by the bombing of Guernica, provided air support for the Nationalists and tested the tactics and the equipment used a few years later by the Luftwaffe (German air force). Germany and Italy also supplied large quantities of artillery and armor, as well as the personnel to use this weaponry.

A nonintervention commission, including representatives from France, Britain, Germany, and Italy, was established at the Lyon Conference in 1936 to stem the flow of supplies to both sides. France and Britain were concerned that escalating foreign intervention could turn Spain's Civil War into a European war. The commission and coastal patrols supplied by the signatory powers were to enforce an embargo. The net effect of the nonintervention agreement was to cut off French and British aid to the republic. Germany and Italy did not observe the agreement. The Soviet Union was not a signatory. By 1938, however, Stalin had lost interest in Spain.

While the Republicans resisted the Nationalists by all available means, another struggle was going on within their own ranks. A majority fought essentially to protect republican institutions. Others, including the communists, were committed to finishing the Civil War before beginning their anticipated revolution. They were, however, resisted by comrades-in-arms -- the Trotskyites and anarchists -- who were intent on completing the social and political revolution while waging war against the Nationalists.

Largo Caballero, who became prime minister in September 1936, had the support of the Socialists and of the communists, who were becoming the most important political factor in the republican government. The communists, after successfully arguing for a national conscript army that could be directed by the government, pressed for elimination of the militia units. They also argued for postponing the revolution until the fascists had been defeated and encouraged greater participation by the bourgeois parties in the Popular Front. The UGT, increasingly under communist influence, entered into the government, and the more militant elements within it were purged. POUM, which had resisted disbanding its independent military units and merging with the communist-controlled national army, was ruthlessly suppressed as the communists undertook to eliminate competing leftist organizations. Anarchists were dealt with in similar fashion, and in Catalonia a civil war raged within a civil war.

Fearing the growth of Soviet influence in Spain, Largo Caballero attempted to negotiate a compromise that would end the Civil War. He was removed from office and replaced by Juan Negrin, a procommunist socialist with little previous political experience.

Throughout the autumn, the Nationalists won major battles and consolidated their power. Germany and Italy quickly recognized the new Nationalist government and provided Franco's troops with planes, tanks, and other materiel. Unable to match the Nationalist war machine, the Spanish republic sought outside support and turned to the Soviet Union for military supplies. The Soviet aid increased internal divisions between Communist and non-Communist supporters of the republic and the anti-Nationalists began to splinter into factions tied to differing political goals.

In 1937, the United States forbade exports of weapons to Spain, Germany conducted large-scale aerial bombings on undefended civilian targets (the most famous of which was Guernica, immortalized by a painting by Pablo Picasso), and the Nationalists conquered the last Republican center in the north.

In a series of attacks from March to June 1938, the Nationalists drove to the Mediterranean and cut the Republican territory in two. The Republican army, its attention diverted by internal political battles, was never able to mount a sustained counteroffensive or to exploit a breakthrough such as that on the Rio Ebro in 1938. Negrin realized that Spaniards in Spain could not win the war, but he hoped to prolong the fighting until the outbreak of a European war, which he thought was imminent. The last Republican hopes for a military victory that might have produced a negotiated settlement to the Spanish Civil War evaporated in November 1938, as General Franco's armies beat back a desperate Republican offensive on the Ebro River and stood poised to invade Catalonia, a former bastion of the Second Republic. Twenty thousand Republican soldiers had perished in the operation and perhaps another fifty-five thousand were wounded or captured.

In the early years of the war, the Soviet influence grew, as Russia provided much needed material assistance and as the Russian-backed elements demonstrated the only truly cohesive political force in the still fragmented Republican ranks. However, from this position of strong advantage, the Russians and their surrogates overplayed their hand by a cold-blooded suppression of the other leftist elements in the coalition. Anarchists, POUMistas, and even some who simply showed anti-Comintern leanings found themselves jailed and often executed alongside Franco supporters who had fallen into the hands of the Republican forces. Seeds of mistrust and even hatred were thus sewn in the leftist ranks that later were to bloom in the rich soil of abject defeat.

Late in 1938, Franco mounted a major offensive against the anti-Nationalist stronghold of Catalonia. Christmas 1938 brought a Nationalist counter-offensive, which within a month captured the Catalan capital, Barcelona, and on February 18, 1939, carried the Generalísimo's forces to the French border, and after months of fighting, Barcelona finally fell in January 1939.

The Nationalist capture of Catalonia sealed the republic's defeat. Barcelona fell to the Nationalists in January 1939, and Valencia, the temporary capital, fell in March. Republican efforts for a negotiated peace failed in early 1939. Great Britain and France recognized the Franco regime in February and international recognition quickly followed. When factional fighting broke out in Madrid among the city's defenders, the Republican army commander seized control of what remained of the government and surrendered to the Nationalists on the last day of March, thus ending the Civil War. Finally, on April 1, 1939, the victorious Nationalists entered the final Republican stronghold of Madrid and received the unconditional surrender of the conquered Republican army in Madrid.

There is as much controversy over the number of casualties of the Spanish Civil War as there is about the results of the 1936 election, but even conservative estimates are high. The most consistent estimate is 600,000 dead from all causes, including combat, bombing, and executions. In the Republican sector, tens of thousands died of starvation, and several hundred thousand more fled from Spain.

Across the globe, the conflict was portrayed by those who sympathized with the Spanish Republic as an epic duel between the force of democracy (the "Popular Front") and the proponents of Fascism. "Madrid shall be the Graveyard of Fascism," the proud banners of the Republic had proclaimed in the autumn of 1936 as the Spanish capital successfully resisted bombardment by German planes, Italian tanks, and Franco's legions.

This Manichaean appreciation of the civil war in Spain was abetted by Soviet propaganda since the USSR was the only great power openly to support the Republic. The fact that General Franco's cause was sustained by German aviation and Italian armor seemed only to validate the view that for some reason Spain had been chosen as the battlefield between two of the twentieth century's most powerful ideas. The Hitler-Stalin Pact of August 1939 shattered that simplistic interpretation of events. By that instrument, the Soviet Union joined Nazi Germany in partitioning Poland and in echoing Hitler's propaganda against the "plutocratic democracies." The Popular Front ideal had perished and now England and France stood alone against "the beast."

Though Hitler and Mussolini had been crushed, the fascist dictatorship they had fostered in Spain remained in power. The victorious Western democracies eschewed intervention in his homeland to bring down the Franco dictatorship.



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