Spanish Civil War. War Breaks Out.

THE SPANISH CIVIL WAR: War Breaks Out. Overview.

Salvador Dalí: Construcción blanda con judías hervidas. Premonición de la guerra civil (“Soft Construction with boiled beans. Premonition of the Civil War”).

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. It 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.

A brief Background:
The Second Republic was a valiant if misguided effort to come to terms with the country’s past. It sought to address long-standing historic problems which had gathered force and been added to in the turbulent 19th century. During that century new voices had joined the ancient, traditional powers of monarchy, church and nobility with the rise of the armypolitical partiesworkers’ movementsanarchism, 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 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 a left wing coalition government (June 1931 to November 1933), to a centre-right wing coalition government (November 1933 t0 Feb 1936), and finally to 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 educational reform (which brought it into direct conflict with the Church), agrarian reform (which threatened the landed oligarchy, especially in parts of Andalusia and of Extremadura), military reform (which challenged military control of its affairs) and regional autonomy (which undermined national unity). The Left also supported workers’ right to free assembly and 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 was 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. For the Left it was truth against obscurantism (opposition to modernisation and the spread of knowledge); for the Right it was the truth of traditional Catholic values against heresy.

Seen in other terms, the Republic viewed the struggle as one between democracy and tyranny; the military rebels saw it as the defence of Christian (Catholic) civilisation from the godless “reds” (communists) and the lawless anarchists.

A recent history of Spain in the twentieth century summarizes the conflict as “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).

1936. 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 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. It culminated with the assassination in Madrid on July 13th of José Calvo Sotelo, the monarchist 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 was the trigger that propelled the plotters 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 Tetuan. Early next day, Franco declared a state of war and that afternoon took a chartered plane from the Canary Islands to Tetuan.

By July 19th, several garrisons on the mainland had also fallen to the insurgents. In Andalusia, General Gonzalo Queipo de Llano –head of the frontier police– arrived at Seville on July 17th ostensibly on an inspection tour of the city’s customs offices. On the following day, the general –a former pro-Republican– supported by only some 200 rebels audaciously took over the garrison at gun point.  He then terrorised the working class by “recycling” his soldiers in rapid and brutal machine gun raids into various quarters of the city, which gave the impression of widespread attacks by a large military contingent. Queipo followed this with perhaps the first effective radio campaign of terror, in which he conjured obscene images of what his Moroccan mercenaries would do to republican women if there was any resistance. Within a few days other major southern cities –Córdoba, Granada, Cádiz, Huelva– fell, following swift and ferocious attacks on working class quarters. In the rural areas, however, where resentment was deeper and opposition fiercer and initially harder to pin down, the peasants quickly collectivised the land and prepared to defend it. The cities of western Andalusia (with the exception of Málaga) were firmly controlled by the rebels but the rural areas were dangerous territory for them.

In the conservative north the uprising encountered little opposition, except along a coastal fringe from Asturias to the Basque Provinces (Euskadi). Here, the rural areas supported the insurgents and in the ancient ecclesiastical cities of Old Castile –Burgos, Salamanca, León, Avila and Segovia—anti-republican hostility ensured enthusiastic support for the rebels.

In Carlist** Navarre, General Emilio Mola enjoyed widespread support and the streets of Pamplona rang to the joyful cries of Viva Cristo Rey! (Long live Christ the King!). There was brief union resistance in Valladolid and Zaragoza, and some heavy fighting in the larger towns of Galicia, but republican support was quickly and brutally crushed.

**Carlists: conservative supporters of the claims to the throne of the descendants of the 19th-century pretender, Don Carlos de Borbón. Don Carlos was excluded from succession after the death of King Ferdinand VII in 1833 in favour of Ferdinand’s three-year old daughter, Isabella (II).

By the end of July, some clear patterns were emerging from the attempted coup. For example, it was evident that a country-wide uprising had failed. Only a minority of the military high command and just over a half of the regular officers actually joined the coup. The navy (and much of the small air force) remained loyal to the Republic. Equally important, the well-armed Assault Guards and the Civil Guard (Guardia Civil) had split their allegiance. Where they joined the insurgents as, for example, in western Andalusia or Galicia, the government lost; where they remained loyal, the government generally prevailed.

At this point, the rebels controlled about one third of the country, primarily those northern, central and western areas with an historical affiliation to the church and a vision of a unified country: Old Castile, León, Aragón, Galicia, northern Extremadura.

Civil War Map: September 1936.
The failure to achieve a rapid, country-wide coup had the makings of an embarrassing military bungle. What saved it was the arrival of Franco’s army of legionnaires and Moroccan mercenaries (aka the Army of Africa), which had been isolated on northern Morocco by a navy blockade of the Straits of Gibraltar. Given the insurgents’ lack of naval power, the answer to the blockade was an airlift, but Franco had hardly any planes available to transport over 40.000 troops gathered in Morocco. The solution was found elsewhere, beyond Spain’s borders. Appeals were made to the German Chancellor Adolf Hitler and the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini for assistance, giving the conflict an international dimension. Both Hitler and Mussolini agreed, calculating that Europe’s other powers, Britain and France, were unlikely to intervene and that a right wing power at the doors of the Mediterranean would be a useful ally. On July 28th, Mussolini sent 12 bombers and 2 merchant ships (only 9 of the planes made it, with 3 crashing en route!). A day later, Hitler dispatched 20 transport planes, 6 fighter planes, pilots, and a supply of machine guns. It was the first step in foreign aid that would help transform a botched coup into a prolonged civil war.

In the first week of August, 1936, the first major airlift of men and equipment in history — some 20.000 soldiers– was under way. This was followed by a breach of the blockade off Gibraltar, allowing the rest of the African army to cross by boat.  The whole manoeuvre was a psychological boost for the insurgents, while news of the landing of the ferocious legionnaires (whose anthem was Los novios de la muerte “The bridegrooms of Death”) and the equally bloodthirsty Moroccan mercenaries sowed fear amongst republican supporters. By August 7, Franco was installed in Seville. The war was about to heat up.

Barton, Simon A History of Spain Basingstoke, Hampshire 2nd. ed. 2009
Carr, Raymond Spain 1808-1939  Oxford 1966
Casanova Julián & Andrés, Carlos Gil Twentieth-Century Spain: A History trans. Martin Douch Cambridge 2014
Ellwood, Sheelagh  Franco  London and New York: 1994
Hodges, Gabrielle Ashford Franco: A Concise Biography London 2000
Jackson, Gabriel A Concise History of the Spanish Civil War London 1974
Preston, Paul A Concise History of the Spanish Civil War London 1996
Salvador Dalí’s painting from
Map: “Map of the Spanish Civil War in September 1936” by NordNordWest, modifications by user:Sting, Grandiose (talk) – File:Iberian Peninsula location map.svg. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – Civil War map