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Spanish Civil War

Press image (1938) from Teruel
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The Spanish Civil War was a civil war in Spain between rebels (known as Nationalists) 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.

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 fascists, but failed in Barcelona and Madrid. Because of this, a protracted civil war ensued.

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, Franco 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.

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 and weapons to support Franco. In addition, there were a few volunteer troops from other nations who fought with the Nationalists, such as Francis 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.

Table of contents

The war: 1936

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 help paid off for 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 Generalíssimo and Caudillo (head of state) 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.

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 Malaga was taken on February 8, and on April 28, Franco's men entered Guernica, in the Basque Country, two days after the infamous 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.

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.

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.

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 infamous 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

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