The Spanish Civil War was a tragic tearing apart of a society where civil discourse had failed and given way to violence. The war lasted from July 1936 to April 1939, and was initiated by a rebellious group of disaffected army generals frustrated by what they saw as the failure of Spain’s Second Republic, 1931-36.
The Second Republic was a valiant if misguided effort at coming to terms with the country’s past. It sought to address long-standing historic problems/struggles which had gathered force and been added to throughout the turbulent 19th century.
During that century new voices had been added to the ancient, traditional powers of monarchy, church and nobility with the rise of the army, political parties, workers’ movements, anarchism, Republicanism. To these we can add a reborn and revitalised historical reality, regionalism, with demands for some form of recognition in the Basque Provinces and especially in Catalonia.
In attempting to satisfy/resolve the interests of all these voices, the Second Republic attempted to do too much, too quickly and with too much passion. As a result the political pendulum swung, with increasing instability, from:
1. a left wing coalition government (June 1931 to November 1933);
2. a centre-right wing coalition government (November 1933 t0 Feb 1936);
3. another left wing coalition government (Feb 1936 to July 1936).
The push to reform was central to the left wing agenda; resistance was equally paramount to the right wing. The left favoured:
1. educational reform (which brought it into direct conflict with the Church);
2. agrarian reform (which threatened the landed oligarchy, especially in parts of Andalusia and of Extremadura);
3. military reform (which challenged military control of its affairs);
4. regional autonomy (which undermined national unity);
5. free assembly and the right to strike (which subverted employer power).
By the first half of 1936, the rhetoric on both sides had become more strident and inflammatory and violence more frequent, e.g. assassinations, the torching of churches. The left accused the right of obstructionism and fascism; the right countered that they were fighting the forces of godless Marxism. To the left it was truth against obscurantism; to the right it was the truth of traditional Catholic values against heresy.
It was, as a recent history of Spain in the twentieth century summarizes succinctly, “a class war, between differing conceptions of social order; a war of religion, between Catholicism and ant-clericalism; a war revolving around the idea of patria (i.e. regionalism) and nation…. In short, the Spanish Civil War was a melting pot of universal battles between employers and workers, Church and State, obscurantism and modernization….” (Casanova 161).
The Military Moves In.
Soon after the elections of February 1936, right wing politicians and some anti-republican army generals began to plot a coup against the left-wing government. The Right tried and failed to overturn the election results and the most “difficult” generals were transferred to distant posts and replaced by loyalist officers.
Amongst the former was General Francisco Franco (later Commander-in-Chief –Generalísimo– of the rebellious armed forces), who was posted to the Canary Islands, a transfer which he viewed as demotion.
The next few months saw a spiraling collapse of social order. The social dissatisfaction of the left was channeled into strikes, churches were burnt and there were threats of revolution. The right responded with its own creed of violence with gangs wearing paramilitary uniforms cruising Madrid on the lookout for the enemy.
The point of explosion came with the assassination in Madrid on July 13th of José Calvo Sotelo, leader of the far right Bloque Nacional. His murder was a tit-for-tat response by republican police officers for the slaying the day before by right wing gunmen of a police guard known for his socialist sympathies.
Calvo Sotelo’s death propelled the hard line, traditionalist generals to action. On the evening of July 17th, rebel soldiers in the Spanish protectorate of Morocco (aka the Rif) –fearing that loyalist troops were about to arrest them– seized control of their garrisons in Ceuta, Melilla and Tetuán.
Early next day, Franco declared a state of war and that afternoon took a chartered plane from the Canaries to Tetuán. The objective at this point was Madrid. In the north, General Emilio Mola (who coined the phrase “fifth column”) headed the northern army, with the same objective as Franco: Madrid. There was no turning back.
Barton, Simon A History of Spain Basingstoke, Hampshire 2nd. ed. 2009.
Casanova Julián & Andrés, Carlos Gil Twentieth-Century Spain: A History trans. Martin Douch Cambridge 2014.
Jackson, Gabriel A Concise History of the Spanish Civil War London 1974.
Preston, Paul A Concise History of the Spanish Civil War London 1996.