In 1931, Spain had become a democracy, the Second Republic, when King Alfonso had gone into exile. The government enacted legislation to reduce the power of the church by bringing its finances under state control. They also tried to reduce the power of the army by reducing its numbers and by offering early retirement. Few realized that the seeds of the Spanish Civil War were already taking root.
The government instituted a broad program on the left. Land reform to help the plight of the peasants, subsidizing schools to increase education. The government also gained the loyalty of Catalonia and the Basque provinces by satisfying their long-standing demands of some local control over many of their functions.
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However, the Republican government was not able to bring stability to Spain. It faced opposition from all sides of the political spectrum. On the right, a new party. The Falange was founded by Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera. The son of the former dictator, Miguel Primo de Rivera. The Falange was influenced by the Italian fascist party founded by Mussolini, and it stood for Catholic identity, authority, hierarchy, and order.
The Falange believed that only a strong leader could resolve the chaos they thought had been created by communism, democracy, and liberal principles. The Falange received a lot of support from the church, the military, and the traditional nobility. Political parties on the left also gathered into a coalition. It was called the Frente Popular or Popular Front. These parties included a diverse group, socialists, communists, Republicans, and supporters of Galician and Catalan Nationalists.
The Falange and the Popular Front couldn’t have represented more differing approaches to governing Spain. When the election of 1936 delivered a victory to the Popular Front, a group of Falangist generals led by Francisco Franco launched an armed rebellion against the new government.
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The Rebellion Becomes the Spanish Civil War
In 1936, the rebellion became a civil war that swept through Spain from 1936 to 1939 when Franco finally took power as a dictator. All the anger, frustration, and class antagonism that had eaten away at Spanish society for at least a century formed the backdrop to the conflict making the Spanish Civil War one of the worst internal confrontations in European history.
Individuals based their loyalties on traditional values and positions, but many citizens had little choice but to adapt to the side that held control of the town where they lived.
Like civil wars everywhere, the Spanish Civil War shattered families and communities and turned neighbors against each other. The Republican government appealed to democracies around the world, but the situation in the rest of Europe made governments unwilling to intervene in the local war. In 1936, 27 nations signed a non-intervention agreement.
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Even though governments claimed to stay out of Spain’s civil war, the peninsula’s position on a crossroad between the Mediterranean, the Atlantic, and Africa was too important for the rest of the world to ignore. The ideological battle between fascism and Republicans that was raging in Spain drew the world’s attention.
All Eyes on Spain
Although fascist Italy and Nazi Germany had signed the non-intervention pact, they openly supported Franco’s Nationalists. German and Italian planes carried troops from Morocco to Spain, and both Italy and Germany sent troops, weapons, and supplies to support Franco. Both German and Italian planes bombed Spanish cities in a preview of the devastation that would come during World War II.
Russia was the other state that officially intervened in the conflict sending aid and about 2,000 men to Spain to fight on the Republican side. However, Soviet aid was not free. In 1926, the Republic sent all the gold in the Bank of Spain to Moscow, both for safe keeping and to pay for the Russian aid.
The democratic states officially remained neutral but watched the conflict closely. Unofficial Republican supporters came from democratic countries including United States. Ultimately, they provided some 40,000 idealistic volunteers to fight in the battle. These soldiers from many different countries fought in what was called the Brigades Internacionales, the International Brigades.
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The death rate among these soldiers of these brigades were strikingly high. Some estimates suggest as high as almost 30% due to lack of training, poor leadership, and their placement in the front of the battles. There are monuments to these fallen in many of the great cities of Europe, Canada, and United States like Stockholm, London, Paris, San Francisco, Seattle, and many others. These fallen idealists have not been forgotten.
Western reporters who accompanied and fought in these brigades were horrified at the brutality of the war and the bombing of civilians, a new tactic that would become tragically common during World War II. Among of the most famous chroniclers of this war was George Orwell whose Homage to Catalonia offered his first-hand account of the fight. In 1997, a square in Barcelona was named for George Orwell, and Spaniards today remember his contribution to their struggle.
More familiar among American readers is Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. A fictionalized account of the Spanish Civil War with all its violence and disillusionment. Hemingway fought in the war and observed the bombing of Madrid, and his sympathetic portrayal of the combatants in the International Brigades was made into a movie in 1943 starring Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman.
Through book and movie, Hemingway’s work, published in 1940, brought this horrible civil war to life for American audiences and generated retroactive sympathy for the Republicans.
During the war, newspaper reporting helped keep penalty of sympathy for the Republican cause alive in the west, but it brought no official help. In fact, then as now, there were companies in the West who saw war as a way to make a profit.
Private companies such as Texaco, then called the Texas Company, continued to sell petroleum products to Franco’s Nationalist armies. And other companies gladly sold weapons to whichever side had the money to pay. Many of these sales included modern weapons that would appear later throughout Europe in the conflict that was to come.
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A Turning Point for Franco’s Forces
A crucial turning point in the northern offensive for Franco’s forces came on April 26th, 1937 when the small Basque town of Guernica was bombed by the Germans flying their new airplanes on behalf of Franco’s Nationalists. The town of around 5,000 inhabitants held a munitions factory and a strategic bridge on the way to Bilbao.
It also held enormous historical significance for the Basque people because it was the location of the Gernikako Arbola, a great oak tree which was a symbol of Basque identity. The newly developed incendiary bombs destroyed 70% of the town and killed well over a hundred people, though, the exact number is disputed due to the different reporting by both sides.
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The bridge, munitions factory, and the oak tree remain standing as the Nationalist forces have requested so Franco’s armies could use the resources as they marched in. This was a new technique in warfare, reigning destruction on civilians to weaken morale, and it wouldn’t be the last time it was used. The bombing of Guernica designed to weaken resistance succeeded. The Basque territory in the north fell.
By 1939, Franco’s armies had won, and Spain’s Republic had fallen. England, France, and the United States recognized the Franco government. A sort of peace descended on the battered Spain, but the new weapons of war that the fascists tested in Spain did not take a break. At dawn on September 1st, 1939, the Germans launched an all-out attack on Poland. Hitler was convinced that France and Britain would not go to war with Poland. He was wrong. Two days later, Great Britain and France declared war on Germany. World War II had begun.