The Spanish Civil War

The_International_Brigade_during_the_Spanish_Civil_War,_December_1936_-_January_1937_HU71509There were many conflicts throughout European History. An often overlooked on is the Spanish civil war as it fell between the First World War and the Second World War. This article takes a brief look at the conflict and the reasons why it ended the way it did.

The Spanish civil war was a conflict that took place between 1936 and 1939. The conflict is often seen as a war between right wing and left wing ideologies although this may be a simplified surface view due to Spain’s recent history at the time which included several military dictatorships.

The conflict started when a number of Generals declared opposition to the republican government. Some of these had been involved in previous political conflicts within Spain. The military dictators that I mentioned above still had support and many of the officers in the Spanish army sided with the nationalist forces when the Spanish civil war broke out. One of the leading figures in the initial uprising was General Franco who would become the leader of the Spanish government after the Spanish civil war had ended.

The uprising was led largely from the south of the Spanish territories. Notably, the uprising centred in Spain where it was set to start slightly earlier than the uprisings on the mainland. This was in part due to the rebellious generals mainly commanding forces on the Spanish islands in the Mediterranean and in the Spanish territory of Morocco. While the uprising drew a large amount of the officer corps of the Spanish military the forces that backed either side at the outset of the Spanish civil war were relatively even with the Republican government forces controlling a slight majority.

The equipment that was seized led to the nationalists gaining the most advanced equipment in the Spanish forces. The two best ships and also the majority of the modern tanks although there were less than 20 of these to start off with. The majority of Spanish equipment was outdated compared to the standards of the time although both sides were in effect using comparative equipment as they drew from the same sources.

The initial rebellion resulted in a large amount of land going to the nationalist forces in the first couple of months. The west of mainland Spain and the territories to the south of the mainland were all in the rebels’ hands. The government managed to retain control over the major urban centres on the whole. This was not particularly surprising as this is where their main political support had come from.

When the Spanish civil war broke out there were several different political groups in the country who aligned with each side. On the whole, the Catholics and the fascist groups joined the nationalist forces while the left-leaning groups moved to support the government. One of the groups which became important was the anarchists. The anarchists did not support the government ideologically but they did join forces with them. This was an alliance of convenience as they were strongly opposed to the nationalist forces.

Internationally there were mixed reactions to the outbreak of the Spanish civil war. The League of Nations tried to set up a non-interference pact which was joined by many of the nations especially those who had been hard hit by the First World War. This has been suggested to be a fear of the Spanish civil war leading to the outbreak of a second world war which none of the nations of Europe could afford at that time. While there were many nations who signed up to the non-intervention pact the League of Nations had very little clout and each individual country focused on its own actions. Notably, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, as well as fascist Italy, involved themselves in the war quite heavily. Other nations such as France and the UK officially did not intervene although many volunteers did come from these countries even though in the case of Britain it was illegal. France actively aided the republican government near the end of the conflict. This was a small amount of aid in planes and was kept relatively quiet.

The nations that actively declared involvement were the Soviet Union and Mexico on the side of the republican government; and, Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy on the side of the nationalists. Portugal also supported the Nationalist side.

The Soviet support sent to the Republican forces was larger than that sent by the Nazi’s in terms of material. The issue was that the small arms and artillery pieces were often out of date although the aircraft and tanks were modern. The Soviet Union also sent relatively few military personnel to the Spanish civil war. Mexico diplomatically held itself as the place where refugees from the conflict could escape to. They also sent an amount of small arms and ammunition as well as loaning some money.

The support for the nationalist side in the Spanish civil war came from both Nazi Germany and Italy. Hitler didn’t want the Second World War to break out this early as he was not prepared and also needed to test the new military equipment that Germany had produced. The infamous Stuka dive bomber and the aerial bombardment tactics that were used by the Nazi’s in their blitzkrieg operations were tested during this conflict. The tanks and tactics were also tested. One of the worst atrocities carried out in the conflict was at Guernica where the Condor legion (the name for the Nazi forces fighting in the Spanish civil war) killed several hundred civilians with a sustained bombing. The Italians sent more troops to the conflict than the Germans did. This was partly because of the political and military dynamics in the western Mediterranean. The amount of tanks and aircraft sent to the nationalist forces equalled that of the amount sent by Nazi Germany but they also sent large amounts of small arms and ammunition as well as a greater number of troops.

Both sides in the conflict conscripted troops from the local populations but the Republicans conscripted more heavily. The support that had been sent from Italy and Germany in the form of manpower was not able to be contracted though and by the end of the conflict the nationalist forces were around 10% larger than those of the republicans.

Militarily the Spanish civil war was hard fought with the total casualties reaching around 500,000 by the end of the conflict. This number is an estimate and does not include those killed by executions and other similar atrocities as there is little to no data on large amounts of those killed by the winning side. The large amount of executions is indicative of the political and ideological nature of the conflict or at least the ideologies that underlay the conflict.

The Nationalist forces increased the land they had grabbed in the opening months of the conflict slowly pushing the republicans into the South east of the Iberian Peninsula. The republicans were defeated in early 1939 which led to Franco ruling over nationalist Spain until his death in 1975.

There are many reasons for the outcome of the conflict. One of the likely reasons that the conflict went against the republican forces was the unity of the people that were on its side. The nationalist forces were united with very little difference in their ideologies. The forces were all conservatives. While there were some with stronger nationalist views and further right ideologies they were focused on their main ideology of having a conservative government. The republican forces were, however, quite divided. As I have already mentioned they were in an alliance of convenience with anarchist groups. The ideologies of the state government did not fit with the ideology of the capitalists. The communists on the ranks of the republican forces were looked down on and politically smeared by their erstwhile allies within the more centrist elements of the Republican government that still existed. The only focus of the republican side was to fight against Franco’s nationalist forces. They did not have a more overall unifying purpose internally. When you add to this the support that was given from across the world the support for the republican side of the conflict was a patchwork and not all from the same place. While both Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy had sent organised troops with the latest weapons of war the Soviet Union only supported the republicans with equipment and relatively few military personnel. When you add in the difficulties that this support had in arriving in Spain and the poor nature of large amounts of the equipment it can be seen that the nationalists had a clear advantage from a purely hardware perspective. The attitude towards the communists amongst the centrist and centre-left elements was likely a large part of the reason why this pact never truly worked.

The Spanish Civil war was won by the nationalist forces under General Franco who, as mentioned above ruled Spain for over 35 years after they won the conflict. The conflict was also the scene of many atrocities. Those that were committed by the nationalist forces were often covered up lest the government post Spanish civil war were made to look bad. The amount of people executed by the nationalists is disputed although it seems to be a minimum of around 150,000 people. When this is added to the nearly half a million people who fled Spain during and after the war the impact of the conflict can clearly be seen. The Spanish civil war is much like any of the civil wars that we see in the disastrous outcome especially in death toll and to the national psyche. This can be compared to the effects of the English civil war or that of the US.


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