The Spanish Civil War, which lasted from 1936 to 1939, sparked passionate interest among the international intellectual and political communities. The Leftist government of the Spanish Republic was besieged by Nationalist forces headed by Gen. Francisco Franco, who was backed by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Though it had Spanish nationalist ideals as the central cause, the war was closely watched around the world mainly as the first major military contest between left-wing forces and the increasingly powerful and heavily armed Fascists. Here a republican soldier seeks cover on the Plaza de Toros, in Teruel, east of Madrid.
The Spanish Civil War was a civil war in Spain between rebels (known as Nacionales) and the Spanish Republic and its Republican government and supporters. It took place between July 1936 and April 1939, and ended in a defeat of the Republican cause, followed by the dictatorship of Francisco Franco. The number of victims has been long disputed, with estimates generally ranging between 500,000 and 1,000,000 people killed in the war. Many Spanish intellectuals and artists (including much of the Spanish Generation of 1927) either were killed or were forced into exile. The Spanish economy needed decades to recover (see the Spanish miracle).

The political and emotional repercussions of the war went well beyond one nation. From varying points of view, it was seen as a war between tyranny and democracy, fascism and liberty or communism and civilization. It was seen later as a prefiguration of World War II.

Table of contents
1 Introduction
2 The war: 1936
3 The war: 1937
4 The war: 1938
5 The war: 1939
6 Social Revolution
7 Figures identified with the Republican side
8 Figures identified with the Nationalist side
9 External link


From 1934 to 1936, the Second Spanish Republic was governed by a center-right coalition that included the conservative Catholic Confederación Española de Derechas Autónomas (CEDA). During this time, there were general strikes in Valencia and Zaragoza, street conflicts in Madrid and Barcelona, and a miners' uprising in Asturias, which was put down forcefully by the troops commanded by General López Ochoa and the Legionnaires commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Juan Yagüe, under the direction of Minister of War Diego Hidalgo. During this time, the government expended great efforts to annul the social gains that had been made in the previous years, especially in agrarian reform.

After a series of governmental crises, the elections of February 16, 1936, brought to power a Popular Front government supported by the parties of the left and opposed by those of the right and center.

On July 17, 1936, there was a conservative rebellion against the recently-elected leftist Popular Front government of Spain. The rebellion was not only a military coup, but it had a substantial civilian component. The rebels had hoped to gain immediate control of the capital, Madrid, and all the other important cities of Spain. Seville, Pamplona, A Coruña, Cádiz, Jerez de la Frontera, Córdoba, Zaragoza and Oviedo all fell under control of the rebels, also known as the Nationalists or the fascistss, but failed in Barcelona and Madrid. Because of this, a protracted civil war ensued.

The active participants in the war covered the entire gamut of the political positions and ideologies of the time. The Nationalist side included the fascists of the Falange, Carlist and Legitimist monarchists, and Spanish nationalists and most conservatives. On the Republican side were most liberals, Basque and Catalan nationalists, socialistss, Stalinist and Trotskyist communists, and anarchists of varying ideologies.

To look at the breakdown another way, the Nationalists included the majority the Catholic clergy and of practicing Catholics (outside of the Basque region), important elements of the army, the majority of landowners and many businessmen. The Republicans included most urban workers, peasants, and much of the educated middle class, especially those who were not entrepreneurs.

The leaders of the rebellion were the generals Francisco Franco, Emilio Mola and José Sanjurjo. Sanjurjo was the unquestioned leader of the uprising, but he was killed in a plane crash on July 20 as he was going to Spain to take control of the rebel side. Franco, the overall commander of the Spanish army since 1933 and already a noted pro-Fascist, flew from the Canary Islands to the Spanish colonies in Morocco and took command there. For the remaining three years of the war, Franco was effective commander of all the Nationalists, and he unassumingly arranged events (including assigning missions to political rivals that would likely get them killed) so that at the end of the war there would be no opposition to his rule.

One of the principal motives claimed at the time of the initial Nationalist uprising was to confront the anticlericalism of the Republican regime and to defend the Roman Catholic Church, which was censured for its support for the monarchy and which many on the Republican side blamed for the ills of the country. In the opening days of the war, churches, convents and other religious buildings were burnt without action on the part of the Republican authorities to prevent it. Articles 24 and 26 of the Constitution of the Republic banned the Jesuits, which deeply offended many of the Nationalists. Nothwithstanding these religious matters, the Basque nationalists, who nearly all sided with the Republic, were, for the most part, practicing Catholics. John Paul II has recently canonized several of these martyrs of the Spanish Civil War, murdered for being priests or nuns.

The rebellion was opposed by the government (with the troops that remained loyal), as well as by Socialist, Communist and anarchist groups. The European powers such as Britain and France were officially neutral but still imposed an arms embargo on Spain, and actively discouraged the anti-fascist participation of their citizens. Both fascist Italy under Benito Mussolini and Nazi Germany violated the embargo and sent troops (Corpo Truppe Volontari and Legión Cóndor) and weapons to support Franco. In addition, there were a few volunteer troops from other nations who fought with the Nationalists, such as Eoin O'Duffy of Ireland.

The Republicans received limited support from the Soviet Union as well as from individual idealistic volunteers from many countries, collectively known as the International Brigades. American volunteers formed the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and Canadians formed the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion (the "Mac-Paps"). Among the more famous foreigners participating in the efforts against the fascists were Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell, who went on to write about his experiences in Homage to Catalonia. Hemingway's novel For Whom the Bell Tolls was inspired by his experiences in Spain. Norman Bethune used the opportunity to develop the special skills of battlefield medicine. As a casual visitor Errol Flynn used a fake report of his death at the battlefront to promote his movies.

However, though the Nationalists were receiving overt aid in the form of arms and troops from Germany and Italy, the Republicans received no aid from any major world powers (e.g. Britain or France or the United States). Many of these powers were still practising a policy of appeasement towards Fascist regimes, or they viewed social revolutionary elements within the anti-fascist forces with distaste, or they believed that the Republicans were Communists.

Germany used the war as a testing ground for faster tanks and aircraft that were just becoming available at the time. The Messerschmidt Me-109 fighter and Junkers Ju 52 transport/bomber were both used in the Spanish Civil War. In addition, the Soviet I-15 fighter and I-16 fighters were used. The Spanish Civil War was also an example of total war, where the bombing of the Basque town of Guernica by the Luftwaffe foreshadowed episodes of World War II such as the bombing campaign on Britain by the Nazis and the bombing of Dresden by the Allies.

The war: 1936

In the early days of the war, over 50,000 people who were caught on the "wrong" side of the lines were executed or assassinated. In these paseos ("promenades"), the victims were taken from their refuges or jails and taken by armed people to be shot out of town. The war provided a excuse for many neighborhood hatreds. Probably the most famous of these was the poet and dramatist Federico García Lorca. The numbers were probably comparable on both sides of the lines.

Any hope of a quick ending to the war was dashed on July 21, the fifth day of the rebellion, when the Nationalists captured the main Spanish naval base at El Ferrol in northwestern Spain. This encouraged the Fascist nations of Europe to help Franco, who had already contacted the governments of Germany and Italy the day before. On July 26, Germany and Italy cast their lot with the Nationalists.

Axis helped pay off Franco from the very beginning. His Nationalist forces won another great victory on September 27, when the city of Toledo was captured. (A Nationalist garrison under Colonel Moscardo had held the Alcazar in the center of the city since the beginning of the rebellion). Two days later, Franco proclaimed himself Generalísimo and Caudillo ("chieftain") while unifying the various Falangist and Royalist elements of the Nationalist cause in one movement. In October, the Nationalists launched a major offensive toward Madrid, but increasing resistance by the government and the arrival of "volunteers" from the Soviet Union halted the advance by November 8. In the meantime, the government shifted from Madrid to Valencia, out of the combat zone, on November 6.

On November 18, Germany and Italy officially recognized the Franco regime, and on December 23, Italy sent "volunteers" of its own to fight for the Nationalists.

Detailed chronology: 1936

;February 16: Popular Front electoral victory ;July 17 : Army uprising in Morocco. ;July 18 : Uprising extends to Iberian Spain. ;July 19 : Franco flies from the Canary Islands to Tetuán and takes command of the army in Africa.
Santiago Casares Quiroga resigns as chief of the Republican government.
Diego Martínez Barrio tries to form a new government, but cannot obtain broad enough parliamentary support.
José Giral forms a government, which orders that arms be issued to the general populace. ;July 20 : Start of the siege of the Alcázar de Toledo. ;July 21 : The Nationalist insurgents have control of the Spanish zones of Morocco, the Canary Islands, the Balearics (except Minorca), the part of Spain north of the Sierra de Guadarrama and the Río Ebro (except Asturias, Santander, the north of the País Vasco (Basque Country), and Catalonia). Among the major cities, the insurgents hold Seville, but the Republicans retain Madrid and Barcelona. ;July 23 : The nationalist declare a government in the form of the Junta de Defensa Nacional, which meets for the first time in Burgos. ;July 24 : Start of French aid to the Republican side. ;July 28 : First arrival of German and Italian planes in aid of the Nationalist side. ;July-August : The "spontaneous" social revolution, collectivizations. ;August 8 : France closes its border with Spain. ;August 14 : Nationalist forces under Colonel Yagüe take Badajoz, uniting the two parts of the Nationalist territory. ;September 4 : The Socialists take over leadership of the Republican government under Francisco Largo Caballero. ;September 9 : London Conference on non-intervention in Spain. ;September : Comintern approves the creation of the International Brigades. ;October 1 : Franco declares himself head of state and Generalísimo.
The Republican government concedes autonomy to the Basque Country (in practice, Biscay and Guipúzcoa) as Euzkadi, with José Antonio Aguirre as its president. ;November 4 : With the Nationalists at the gates of Madrid, the anarchist CNT joins the Largo Caballero govermnent. ;November 6 : The defense of Madrid is organized under the newly created Junta de Defensa directed by General Jose Miaja.
The Republican government moves to Valencia. ;November 8 : Start of the battle of Madrid.
Arrival of the first International Brigades. ;November 18 : Italy and Germany recognize the Franco government. ;November 19 : Anarchist leader Buenaventura Durruti is gravely wounded during the fighting in Madrid. He dies the next day. ;November 20 : José Antonio Primo de Rivera, son of dictator Miguel Primo de Rivera and founder of the Falange, is executed in a jail in Alicante, where he had been held prisoner since before the insurgency. ;November 23 : Battle of Madrid ends; with both sides exhausted a front stabilizes.

The war: 1937

With his ranks being swelled by Italian troops and Spanish colonial soldiers from Morocco, Franco made another attempt to capture Madrid in January and February of 1937, but failed again. The large city of Málaga was taken on February 8, and on April 28, Franco's men entered Guernica, in the Basque Country, two days after the bombing of that city by the German Condor Legion equipped with Heinkel He-51 biplanes (the legion arrived in Spain on May 7). After the fall of Guernica, the government began to fight back with increasing effectiveness.

In May, the government made a move to recapture Segovia, forcing Franco to pull troops away from the Madrid front to halt their advance. Mola, Franco's second-in-command, was killed on June 3, and in early July, the government actually launched a strong counter-offensive in the Madrid area, which the Nationalists repulsed with some difficulty.

After that, Franco regained the initiative, invading Aragon in August and taking the cities of Santander and Gijón. On August 28, the Vatican recognized Franco under pressure from Mussolini, and at the end of November, with the Nationalists closing in on Valencia, the government moved again, to Barcelona.

Detailed chronology: 1937

;January 17 : The Nationalists begin the battle to take Málaga. Three Nationalist columns converge on the city from Seville and Granada. ;February 6 : The Republican troops arrive in Almería, after a badly organized retreat from Málaga under continuous bombardment by German artillery. ;February 6-24 : The Nationalist offensive of Jarama, by the forces under General Orgaz, attempts to isolate Madrid. In heavy combat, Republican forces under Generals Pozas and Miaja prevent them from achieving this objective. ;March 8-18 : The Battle of Guadalajara, another attempt to isolate Madrid. After a rapid advance of Nationalist and Italian troops, the Republicans counterattack, aided by Soviet tanks and airplanes; the Italians suffer a serious defeat. ;March 31 : Start of General Mola's Nationalist offensive to take Bilbao, defended by forces under the command of General Llano de la Encomienda. ;April 19 : Decree of Unification: Franco declares the amalgamation of the Falange and the Carlists, creating the Falange Española Tradicionalista y de las Juntas de Ofensiva Nacional-Sindicalista (FET y de las JONS). ;April 26 : Bombardment of Guernica by the Luftwaffe's Condor Legion. ;May 3-8 : revolt by the anarchist POUM and CNT in Barcelona. ;May 17 : The government of Largo Caballero falls. Doctor Juan Negrín, socialist, becomes head of the government. ;June 3 : Nationalist General Mola dies in an airplane accident. Fidel Dávila takes over as commander of his troops attacking Bilbao. ;June 16 : The POUM is outlawed and its leaders are arrested. ;June 17 : The Jaime I, one of the Republican's best ships, is sunk in Cartagena. ;June 19 : Bilbao taken by the nationalist, causing the collapse of the defensive system knonw as the "Cinturón de Hierro" ("Belt of Iron"). ;June 21 : Soviet agents assasinate POUM leader Andreu Nin. ;July 7-26 : The Battle of Brunete. Attempting to reduce the Nationalist pressure on Madrid, General Miaja orders an ofensive directed by Generals Juan Modesto and Enrique Jurado. They take Brunete, moving the front some eight kilometers. The Nationalist counterattack directed by General José Enrique Varela almost completely wipes out this gain. ;November 31 : The Republican government abandons Valencia for Barcelona. ;December 15 : Start of the Battle of Teruel

The war: 1938

The two sides clashed over possession of the city of Teruel throughout January and February, with the Nationalists finally holding it for good by February 22. On April 14, the Nationalists broke through to the Mediterranean Sea, cutting the government-held portion of Spain in two. The government tried to sue for peace in May, but Franco demanded unconditional surrender, and the war raged on.

The government now launched an all-out campaing to reconnect their territory in the Battle of the Ebro, beginning on July 24 and lasting until November 26. Their failure all but determined the final outcome of the war. Eight days before the new year, Franco struck back by throwing massive forces into an invasion of Catalonia.

Detailed chronology: 1938

; January 8 : Republican troops commanded by Generals Hernández Sarabia and Leopoldo Menéndez take the city of Teruel, surrendered by Colonel Rey d'Harcourt. The hard winter conditions prevent the timely arrival of troops sent by Franco under the command of Generals Varela and Aranda. ; February 20 : Republican troops are forced to abandon Teruel and follow the highway to Valencia, under ante la pressure of Moroccan troops commanded by General Yagüe. End of the Battle of Teruel. ; March 13 : France reopens its borders for the transit of arms to the Republican zone. ; April 5 : Socialist minister of defense Indalecio Prieto quits in protest of the level of Soviet influence over the army. ; April 15 : The Nationalists reach the Mediterranean at Vinaroz, dividing the Republican zone in two. ; June : France once again closes the border. ; July 24 : Start of the Battle of the Ebro. Republican forces attempt to divert the Nationalists from attacking Valenciaand to diminish the pressure on Catalonia. At first, the Republican troops, commanded by General Modesto, achieve considerable success, but were limited by superior Nationalist air power. Heavy combat continued into November ; September 21 : Doctor Negrín, head of the Republican government, in a speech to the League of Nations, announced that the International Brigades will be pulled from the combat zones. ; October 30 : The Nationalists counterattack, forcing Republican troops back across the Ebro. ; November 18 : End of the Battle of the Ebro ; December 23 : The battle for Barcelona begins. A six-pronged Nationalist attack is launched, with separate defiles from the Pyrenees to the Ebro. They take Borjas Blancas, surround Tarragona and reach the outskirts of Barcelona. The Republican government retreats from Barcelona to Gerona, although troops continue to maintain the defense of the city.

The war: 1939

The Nationalists conquered Catalonia in a whirlwind campaign during the first two months of 1939. Tarragona fell on January 14, Barcelona on January 26 and Girona on February 5. Five days after the fall of Girona, the last resistance in Catalonia was broken.

On February 27, the governments of Great Britain and France reluctantly recognized the Franco regime.

Only Madrid and a few other strongholds remained for the government forces. On March 28, with the help of pro-Franco forces inside the city (the infamous "fifth column" General Mola had mentioned in propaganda broadcasts in 1936), Madrid fell to the Nationalists. The next day, Valencia, which had held out under the guns of the Nationalists for close to two years, also surrendered. Victory was proclaimed on April 1, when the last of the Republican forces surrendered.

Detailed chronology: 1939

; January 15 : France once again allows arms to flow to the Republic. ; January 26 : Barcelona falls into Nacionalist hands. ; February 5 : The Nationalists take Gerona, the Republican army in Catalonia has virtually disintegrated. ; February 27 : France and the UK recognize the Franco regime. ; February 28 : Manuel Azaña resigns as President of the Republic ;March 4-12 : Anti-communist coup by Colonel Segismundo Casado. In the streets of Madrid, there is a Civil War within the Civil War. The Consejo de Defensa Nacional, headed by Colonel Casado, tries without success to negotiate with Franco.
The Republican government goes into exile in France. ;March 28 : With the virtual disintegration of the Republican army, the Nationalists take Madrid. ;March 29 : Effective end of hostilities. ;April 1 : Franco announces the end of the war.

Social Revolution

In the anarchist-controlled areas, (Aragon and Catalonia), in addition to the military success, there was a vast social revolution in which the workers and the peasants collectivised land and industry, and set up councils parallel to the (non-functioning) government. This revolution was opposed by both the Soviet-supported communists and the democratic republicans. As the war progressed, the government and the communists were able to leverage their access to Soviet arms to restore government control over the war effort, both through diplomacy and force. In the May Days of 1937, many hundreds or thousands of anti-fascist soldiers killed one another for control of strategic points in Barcelona, as George Orwell relates in Homage to Catalonia.

See also: Guernica, History of Spain, History, Military history, War

Figures identified with the Republican side

Figures identified with the Nationalist side

  • Francisco Franco
  • Miguel Cabanellas
  • José Sanjurjo
  • Emilio Mola
  • Gonzalo Queipo de Llano
  • Juan Yagüe
  • José Enrique Varela

External link