With all the various worthy and necessary commemorations about the centenary of the First World War, another anniversary has been sadly overlooked. The Spanish Civil War started in 1936, eighty years ago. It is hardly ever mentioned these days, and may well be in danger of being forgotten, and unknown to younger generations. Yet it could be seen as the first truly modern war, with civilians being bombed, towns and cities destroyed, and other countries sending support for both sides. It was a proving ground for new tactics, new aircraft, and the same old cruelties. A practice session for later wars, that would lead directly into the Second World War soon after its end.
The elected government of Republican Spain was attacked by some troops from its own army, including those led by Francisco Franco, in the rebellion of July 1936. Supported by Fascists, Right-Wing Militias, and the Catholic Church, they started a war that tore the country apart, until 1939. This military coup enjoyed some support in many parts of Spain, but was fiercely opposed by many workers, Trade Unions, and all the Left-Wing political parties. With help from the soldiers who had stayed loyal, the Republic organised resistance against the Nationalists, and a bitter war began.
This was a war of neighbour against neighbour, the Church against the workers, and even family against family. Old scores were settled, old enmities revived. Summary executions, atrocities from both sides, all were features of a war that ravaged the noble nation of Spain. The Republic was badly organised from the start. Their army was comprised of too many factions, many of them just as opposed to their ‘allies’ as to the Nationalists they were fighting. Anarchists distrusted Communists, some divisions refused to fight on certain fronts, and others insisted on electing their own commanders. As this confusion reigned on one side, the Nationalists and Fascists made significant military gains, besieging Madrid, and capturing much of the south of the country.
Under threat, the Republican government asked the outside world for help. Most countries looked away, but the Soviet Union sent arms and assistance, and foreign volunteers arrived from all over to enlist in the Republican Army to fight the rise of Fascism. They were formed into the legendary International Brigades, and thrown into action from the start with the most basic equipment, and little training. More than 40,000 volunteers from 53 countries served in these units. On the other side, foreign volunteers also fought for the Nationalists, in units formed by Fascist sympathisers or Catholic Church groups, and came from Ireland, Romania, Portugal, France, and even Norway.
The French government also sent weapons and aircraft, but stopped short of troops on the ground. Mexico gave sanctuary to refugees from Spain, as well as diplomatic and moral support too. Seeing an opportunity to engage in a war outside of their own territory, Nazi Germany added their new military might to the Nationalist cause. The aircraft and pilots of the Condor Legion flew missions over Republican cities, bringing indiscriminate bombing to add to the suffering of the civilians. They managed to practice tactics and theories that would stand them in good stead when they later attacked Poland, France, and Belgium, in 1939. The Fascists also received help from Mussolini’s Italy, and nearby Portugal.
What had started as a civil war had become a world war, in all but name.
After two years of this bitter fighting, the Republic was hanging on by a thread. The Nationalists had seized most of the country by the end of 1938, and only a few strongholds held out against them. With the Republican factions beginning to openly fight each other, as well as the enemy, Catalonia was lost in 1939, and the International Brigades were sent home, bowing to pressure from the League of Nations. Many stayed on, transferring into the regular army, and continuing to fight. On the 1st of April, the Republic surrendered, and although the war came to an end, the recriminations began. Labour camps, imprisonment, and mass executions accounted for an estimated 50,000 deaths of former Republicans. Some historians put this figure much higher. Over half a million fled the country, seeking sanctuary in France, and some as far away as Chile.
Despite some Republicans continuing a guerrilla war for many years afterwards, Spain was left with a Fascist dictatorship led by Franco, that lasted until the 1970s.
Five months after Franco’s victory, Hitler’s Germany invaded Poland.
I have written about this civil war before, and make no apology for doing so again. If the world had not turned its back on Republican Spain in 1936, it is likely that the Second World War would never have happened. We must learn from history.