written by: P. Andrew Powe
• edited by: Ronda Bowen
• updated: 1/5/2012
The Spanish Civil War was a brutal conflict that created a fascist state of Spain that lasted until the 1970s. To truly understand the conflict and its ramifications you have to look back into Spanish history. The war was a culmination of almost a century of deterioration in the state.
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The Spanish Civil War lasted from June of 1936 until April of 1939. It was one of the most destructive and violent revolutions of the post-World War I era worldwide. The interesting aspect is the revolution is observed in two very significant ways. The first is as a pre-cursor for the Second World War. The second is the establishment of one of the two remaining fascist governments in Europe.
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The origins of the war reach back almost 125 years prior to the conflict. The French invaded Spain during the Napoleonic Wars in the early 19th century. Napoleon placed his brother, Joseph, on the throne of Spain. He ruled from 1808 to 1814. It was during his rule that the Spanish fought their French occupiers.
With the help of the British, the Spaniards eventually took control of the cities and ousted Joseph. During this time, politicians in Spain clamored for a constitutional monarchy. Under this kind of system, the king's rule is not absolute and has to defer his decision to a parliament. This did not succeed, but the underpinnings for a change in government were established.
A short-lived First Republic was established in 1873, but it was chased out in 1874 with the return of a Bourbon King. Poor economics and a diminishing empire further exacerbated the problem.
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After the Napoleonic Wars, what remained of the once-glorious Spanish Empire of the 16th through 18th centuries had fallen into disarray. Infighting and politics had caused a series deterioration of the tools of the state. This allowed other nations to prey upon a weakening empire and select the choicest lands for their own colonies.
The Spanish lost the entirety of Mexico and South America to new countries and other major areas to warfare in less than a century. The damage to the Spanish economy was pronounced. With the loss of the gold and silver, there was no new money coming in and the Spanish economy did not locate new markets.
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What small pieces of the Spanish Empire left were taken by the United States in the Spanish-American War. The war, which was fought during the year of 1898, had a two-fold effect on the Spanish psyche. After a bitter 10-year revolution in Cuba to suppress an independence movement, Cuba found herself dragged into a war with an aspiring world power. The United States had an interest in Cuba and supported the revolution and landed forces on the island. This war cost the remaining aspects of an overseas empire including Guam, Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Philippines.
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Morocco and the Second Republic
In 1912, Morocco was divided between the French and the Spanish. The purpose was to avoid conflict between them with the signing of the Treaty of Fez. Spain was given traditionally Spanish possessions of Locus, Yebala, Xauen, Rif and Kert. These are directly south of the Iberian Peninsula.
In 1921, Rif Berber tribesmen began attacking the Spanish. The Spanish were defeated on a regular basis and eventually required assistance from the French in 1924. The French used foreign legion troops to assist the Spanish in maintaining control and then eventually crushing the rebellion in 1926.
It was during the later phase of the war that Francisco Franco took over the Spanish Foreign Legion. This was a unit that was not well supplied but gained a great notoriety in their harsh dealings with enemy combatants. By 1931 Alfonso the XIII final gave to pressure for free elections forming the Second Republic.
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Election of 1936
The general elections of 1936 in Spain were a battle of two parties. Manual Azana organized a coalition of the republicans, communists and socialists. This became known as the Popular Front. These were left-leaning groups, and they ended up coalescing into a singular unit to maintain the republic. The Popular Front wanted Catalan autonomy and agrarian reform. Countering them in the elections were the Nationalists. This included those loyal to the monarchy and CEDA (Confederatión Espanola de Derechas Autónomas).
Although the Falange did not officially join the Nationalists, many of their members voted for the Nationalist candidates. This was a collection of far right groups, who all intended to deal more with conservative or the traditional powers in Spain. In the election, both sides garnered large percentages of the vote with the Popular Front receiving 4,700,000 votes and the Nationalists 4,000,000 votes. After the February elections, both sides seemed to be happy with the outcome. Less than four months later, the country was plunged into a bloody civil war.
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July 17, 1936 marked the beginning of the Spanish Civil War. It was intended to be a simple military coup that was to be followed by those involved and then a new Spain was to evolve. This was not to be the case. During the first portion of the war the major cities were in the hands of Republicans consisting of the groups that formed the Popular Front. This changed as time went on with more conservative cities such as Pamplona begin to join the Nationalists.
The Republicans had the advantage of holding the centers of industry which provided them a boost. What occurred from this split wars very similar to the split in the election. Republicans had around 60 percent of the populace on their side and the Nationalist held the rest. The army was split nearly split in half in the conflict. The Nationalists held the north and west while the Republicans held the center of the country and the eastern coast of the Mediterranean.
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The Spanish Civil War drew combatants from many different nations to fight on both sides. In one sense it was a prelude to the Second World War. The combatants on the Republican side were mainly from the United States, Soviet Union and Mexico. There were various international brigades from other democratic countries. There were also secret arms shipments from France to the Republicans. France did not want to have two Fascists states on its borders.
The Nationalists were supported by the Fascists regimes of Italy, Nazi German and neighboring Portugal. During the conflict, the Germans sent in the Condor legion. This squadron from the Luftwaffe gained valuable experience in direct ground support for Nationalist troops. Although the Nazis were technically neutral, they were still able to provide an influx of supplies. The Italian navy was successful at blockading the Republican Ports. Portugal is Spain's other neighbor and shares a long eastern border. The Portuguese were able to send a group of volunteers numbering around 20,000 men and assisted with supplies and logistics.
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Franco's Army declared victory on April 1, 1939. The course of the war over four terrible years was an almost continuing assault from Nationalist forces starting in the west and ending with only a few small Republican strongholds in Cartegena, Valenci and Madrid left by the start of 1939.
The war was unusually brutal. Atrocities occurred on both sides. The reason for this was the deep divide between the two sides and a century of fomenting dissent for each other. On the Republican side, you had a highly liberal, socialist anti-church group who felt the Church had actually caused Spain to evolve slowly. The Nationalists were on the opposite side of the spectrum. They tended toward conservatism and also supported the Church. They tended to associate themselves with more right-wing extremists and fascists.
In the end, nearly 400,000 military and civilians were killed. Over 100,000 of these deaths occurred as retribution and atrocities. Many of the cities were bombed to ruins. Franco remained in power for over thirty years and was the last of the Fascist dictators to be removed from power.
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Effect on World War II
Nazi Germany and the Italians gained a great deal of experience fighting in Spain. The Luftwaffe gained valuable tactical experience in close air support that proved invaluable during the early phases of the Second World War. The Italian Navy entered into the Second World War with a four-year experience advantage on the allied navies. Another advantage for the Italians was a free passage through large sections of the Mediterranean. The Fascist victory also eliminated a potential combat theater as well as adding a neutral ally.
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Payne, Stanley G. "Fascism in Spain 1923 to 1977". University of Wisconsin Press, 1999.
Beever, Antony. "The Battle for Spain: 1936 to 1939" Penguin, 2006.
Francis, Lannon, "The Spanish Civil War". Osprey Publication, 2002.
Kershaw, Ian, "Hitler: 1936 to 1945: Nemesis". W.W. Norton and Company, 2001
Car, Raymond, "Spain: A History". Oxford University Press, 2001.