Spanish Civil War Research Paper

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The Spanish Civil War broke out on July 17, 1936, as a result of the revolutionary process begun under the democratic Second Republic of Spain, which had been inaugurated in 1931. Democracy had brought large-scale political and social mobilization, while the left launched a series of four revolutionary insurrections between 1932 and 1934. In 1935 an alliance of the moderate and the revolutionary left formed a Popular Front that won the election of February 1936. This produced a weak minority government of the moderate left that could not restrain the revolutionaries, whose violence, disorder, seizure of property, and corruption of electoral processes provoked a military revolt.

Though Spanish political society was strongly polarized between right and left, each polarity was badly fragmented. The military revolt brought scarcely more than half the army out in revolt, though it was assisted by rightist militia. The leftist Republican government in power abandoned constitutional rule and engaged in what was called “arming the people,” which meant giving weapons and de facto power to the revolutionary organizations.

The result was the Spanish revolution of 1936-1937, the most intense and spontaneous outburst of worker revolution seen in modern Europe, not excepting the Russian Revolution of 1917. It collectivized much farmland and most of urban industry, and it was marked by an extensive Red Terror—the mass execution of political opponents, directed against all conservative organizations, and especially the Catholic Church—which destroyed countless churches. Nearly 7,000 clergy were killed, and at least 55,000 people perished in the Republican zone.

After two months, the military insurgents elected General Francisco Franco as their commander-in-chief. Franco also acted as dictator and permanent chief of state. By the second week of the Civil War, he had successfully sought military assistance from Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, and he mounted a military drive on Madrid. The rebels quickly termed themselves Nationalists and mounted a savage repression of their own, which was more concerted and effective than that of the Republicans and eventually claimed even more victims.

General Franco organized a single-party state, partially modeled on that of Fascist Italy, in April 1937. He combined the Spanish fascist party with rightist groups to form the Falange Espanola Tradicionalista (Traditionalist Spanish Phalanx, or FET). Franco succeeded in establishing almost complete political unity among the rightist forces, enabling him to concentrate almost exclusively on the war effort, and in the process he developed a more effective and professionally led military force than did his opponents.

The revolutionary Republic proved ineffective militarily, relying on disorganized revolutionary militia. After the first two weeks it lost battle after battle, resulting in the organization of a new Republican government on September 4, 1936, led by the Socialist Francisco Largo Caballero. It eventually included all the leftist forces in a single government and began the creation of a new centralized Ejercito Popular (People’s Army).

Though France was led by a Popular Front government at this time, it was becoming dependent on Great Britain, which counseled against involvement in Spain. The French government therefore took the lead in organizing the Non-intervention Committee, which gained the collaboration of nearly all European governments and took up deliberations in London in September 1936, though it was unsuccessful in ending the involvement in the war of the three major European dictatorships.

Germany and Italy were already intervening on behalf of Franco, and the Republicans urgently requested military assistance from the Soviet Union, the only other revolutionary state in Europe. Stalin finally decided to send assistance in September 1936, and Soviet military assistance began to arrive soon afterward. This assistance was paid for by shipping most of the Spanish gold reserve (the fifth largest in the world) to Moscow. Late-model Soviet planes and tanks, which arrived in large quantities, outclassed the weaponry provided by Hitler and Mussolini. These weapons, together with hundreds of Soviet military specialists, were accompanied by the first units of the International Brigades, a volunteer force organized by the Communist International, which eventually numbered approximately 41,000. By the end of 1936 the war was turning into a stalemate, and it promised to become a long struggle of attrition.

In this situation, the Spanish Communist Party, which had been weak prior to the war, expanded rapidly. Soviet assistance helped it become a major force on the Republican side, emphasizing the importance of restraining the revolution of the extreme left and concentrating all resources on the military effort. This provoked great tension, leading to the “May Days” of May 1937 in Barcelona, the center of the revolution. This was a mini—civil war within the civil war, with the extreme revolutionary left fighting the more disciplined forces of the Communists and the reorganized Republican state. The latter dominated, leading to the formation that same month of a new Republican government led by the Socialist Juan Negrin, which deemphasized the socioeconomic revolution and sought to concentrate all its activity on the military effort.

The Soviet escalation of military intervention in October 1936 was quickly countered by a counter-escalation from Mussolini and Hitler, who sent an Italian army corps of nearly 50,000 men and a 90-plane German aerial unit, the Condor Legion, to Spain. This guaranteed that Franco would continue to receive the support necessary to maintain the military initiative. In 1937 he conquered the Republican northern zone, and in April 1938 his army sliced through Aragon to the Mediterranean, dividing the remaining Republican zone in two. During the conquest of the northern zone, the most famous (and infamous) incident of the war occurred. This was the bombing of the Basque town of Guernica by German and Italian planes in April 1937.

Though Mussolini desired a quick and complete Nationalist victory to strengthen Italy’s position in the Mediterranean, Hitler was in no hurry. He preferred that the Spanish war continue for some time. It had become the main focus of European diplomacy during 19361937, and it served to distract attention from the rearmament of Germany and the beginning of its expansion in central Europe. The French government covertly supported the Republican cause in a policy of “relaxed nonintervention,” which served as a conduit for military supplies from the Soviet Union and other countries. By 1937, Stalin was in turn increasingly distracted by the Japanese invasion of China. In 1938 he sought disengagement from Spain, but he could find no terms that would not involve a loss of face.

Franco’s forces slowly but steadily gained the upper hand. His government in the Nationalist zone maintained a productive economy and a relatively stable currency. The revolutionary Republican zone, by contrast, was wracked with inflation and suffered increasingly severe shortages, producing widespread hunger by 1938. The Communists, in turn, developed a political and military hegemony under the Negrin government, though never complete domination. The policy of both Negrin and the Communists was to continue resistance to the bitter end, hoping that a general European war would soon break out, during which France would come to the relief of the Republicans. This was increasingly resented by the other leftist parties, however, who finally rebelled in Madrid in March 1945, overthrowing Negrin and the Communists, and then soon surrendering to Franco, who declared the end of the war on April 1, 1939.

The Spanish Civil War was a classic revolutionary-counterrevolutionary civil war, somewhat similar to those that occurred in eastern and southeastern Europe after each of the world wars. It became a highly mythified event, often presented as a struggle between “fascism and democracy,” “fascism and communism,” or “Christian civilization and Asian barbarism.” It has also been viewed as the “opening battle of World War II (1939-1945).” All such epithets are exaggerated, however. While there was fascism on the side of Franco’s Nationalists, there was no democracy on the Republican side. In Spain, Hitler and Stalin were on opposite sides, but they joined forces in August-September 1939 to begin World War II in Europe. Germany and Italy did gain their goals in Spain, however, while Soviet policy failed.

Militarily, the war was notable for the introduction of late-model weaponry, especially new warplanes and tanks. The Soviet military studied the war with great thoroughness, but they sometimes drew the wrong conclusions from it, as did some other countries. Germany learned important lessons on the use of combined arms and air-to-ground support, but it failed to improve its armored forces. The victorious Franco regime skirted with involvement in World War II, but it never entered that conflict and endured until Franco’s death in 1975.


  1. Bolloten, Burnett. 1991. The Spanish Civil War: Revolution and Counterrevolution. Durham: University of North Carolina Press.
  2. Coverdale, John F. 1975. Italian Intervention in the Spanish Civil War. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  3. Payne, Stanley G. 1987. The Franco Regime 1936-1975. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
  4. Payne, Stanley G. 2003. The Spanish Civil War, the Soviet Union, and Communism. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  5. Payne, Stanley G. 2006. The Collapse of the Spanish Republic, 1933-1936. Origins of the Civil War. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  6. Preston, Paul. 1993. Franco. A Biography. London: HarperCollins.
  7. Thomas, Hugh. 1986. The Spanish Civil War. New York: Harper & Row.
  8. Whealey, Robert H. 1989. Hitler and Spain. The Nazi Role in the Spanish Civil War. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press.

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