Spanish Civil War. International Context.

Spanish Civil War: An International War.

The Spanish Civil War was the result of a clash of ideologies and social conflicts that had skirmished for five years during the Second Republic (1931-36) without being resolved peacefully.

The roots of these ideological and social differences go back to the 19th century when the rise of liberalism gave birth to new voices –the army, political parties, workers’ movements, anarchism, Republicanism– that challenged the three traditional powers that since medieval times had controlled the political and social scene: Monarchy, Nobility and Church.

Liberalism’s appeal to local traditions and freedom of expression also awoke the historic struggle between centralism (espoused by Castile) and regionalism, often submerged but never eradicated (especially in Catalonia and the Basque Provinces). The result was a century of political and social turbulence.

The early 20th century saw little improvement over the stormy 19th century with continuing political instability and social unrest.  From 1923 to 1930, widespread social dissatisfaction and political instability led to the creation of a curious hybrid of monarchy and dictatorship. Then in January 1930, the dictator, Miguel Primo de Rivera, resigned. In April of 1931, the king, Alfonso XIII, was dethroned in a popular plebiscite and within a few days the Second Republic was declared.

Spain’s Second Republic lasted five years (1931-36) before its perceived failings prompted some disaffected army generals to rebel. In mid July, 1936, garrisons rose up in Spanish Morocco and the mainland in an attempted coup.

The coup failed and the whole affair might have fizzled out but for foreign involvement from the very beginning of the uprising. An airlift of rebel troops by German and Italian planes from the Spanish protectorate of Morocco across the Straits of Gibraltar allowed General Francisco Franco and his African Army to establish a vital foothold in the south and provide an important logistical and psychological boost for those garrisons that had risen on the mainland.

The European Context and the Spanish Civil War.
In the first half of 1936, when the existence of the Second Republic was under pressure between right wing and left wing interests, other European countries were responding in various ways to political problems arising from ideological differences.

Generally speaking, three ideologies were at odds, each suspicious of the other. England, France and Spain were parliamentary democracies, Germany, Italy and Portugal had embraced fascism with its emphasis on ultra-nationalism while to the east communism had a firm grip in the Soviet Union.

The Russian revolution of 1917 and the successful establishment of communism had shown the danger of left-wing, egalitarian ideas. The European right reacted to the communist threat with increased authoritarianism, which was further bolstered by the uncertainties of the Great Depression following the collapse of the stock markets in 1929.

The political, economic and social uncertainties of the 1930s were made for the visionary “strongman:” in Germany Adolf Hitler, in Italy Benito Mussolini, in Portugal Antonio de Oliveira Salazar.

Interestingly Spain had earlier had its own strongman in Primo de Rivera (1923-30) whose dictatorship had been a military response to the threat of instability and revolution. Primo’s fall and the return to parliamentary democracy in Spain in 1931 was, in a way, an aberration, all the more remarkable when Germany, Italy, Portugal and others were embracing authoritarianism and fascist ideology. (Poland, Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia and Greece had also acquired fascist overtones or mouthed fascist slogans.)

Given the history of social unrest and political instability in Spain since the 19th century, and the prevailing mood in Europe, the cards were stacked against a successful outcome for the Second Republic. Predictably, there was little love lost between the left-wing governments of the Second Republic (1931-33, 1936-39) and the right wing government squeezed in between them (1933-35).

Inflamed rhetoric and increased violence finally provoked the military into rebellion against the legitimately elected government, and suddenly Spain’s fate was catapulted into the European arena. Britain and France (democracies), Germany and Italy (fascists) and the Soviet Union (communist) were more than interested in the outcome. How then did they react to General Francisco Franco’s insurrection?

Britain and France were the two major European democracies in the 1930s, but in the years of the Great Depression they were plagued by economic concerns and political sparring. With the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, it would seem in the interests of Britain and France to support the democratically elected Republican government and so offset the dangers of a dictatorship or autocratic rule posed by General Franco and his insurgents (who self-identified as Nationalists).

For Britain and France, the Spanish Civil War could herald yet another country to fall under the fascist yoke. But on the other hand, Communism was also a threat and the prospect of Spain becoming communist was equally unappealing.

The British conservative party generally supported the rebels against the “reds” i.e. communists. Britain had substantial business investments in Spain, in the sherry industry, mines, steel, shipping, textiles. Predictably, the business community, greatly unnerved by the revolutionary rhetoric heard during the Second Republic, sided largely with the conservatives. 

On the other hand, the British labour party and most intellectuals were more inclined towards the Republic. There were exceptions in both camps. Notable leading conservative figures such Anthony Eden and Winston Churchill feared Britain’s loss of influence and power in the Mediterranean which would then be controlled by authoritarian regimes.

On the labour front, many trades unionists were hostile to the Republic, fearing that it would lead to a communist take-over in Spain. In such circumstances, neutrality seemed the only feasible outcome where Spain was concerned.

France too, was divided. A Popular Front government, headed by Prime Minister Léon Blum, supported the Republic, but it was opposed not only by the French president and the combined forces of the Right but even by some members within the Popular Front cabinet itself.

The French attitude was also conditioned by memories of the First World War and fear of German expansion. To officially support the Republic might provoke Germany; on the other hand to support the Nationalists might inflame the French left which had already led outbursts of strikes and riots in the country.

In view of the weakness of other non-authoritarian European countries, France was left to depend almost entirely on Britain. Once it became clear that Britain was going to remain neutral, France had little choice but to follow suit.

For both countries the idea of a general European war was fraught with danger. In an effort to ensure that the Spanish fire would not spread to the rest of Europe, the French –backed by Britain– proposed a policy of non-intervention.

On July 25, 1936, twenty-seven countries signed the agreement, among them Germany, Italy, Portugal and the Soviet Union. What the agreement amounted to was that the signatories would abstain strictly from all interference and would refuse to sell arms of any kind to both sides. This despite the fact that such a policy contravened international understanding that all legitimate governments had the right to make such requests.

Since both Nationalists and Republicans desperately needed all forms of armament, Britain and France hoped that by denying arms to both sides the war would be over quickly. The longer it lasted the greater the fear of wider conflict. But there was a stumbling block.

Although Germany and Italy were signatories to the non-intervention agreement they soon ignored the pact despite their rhetoric of neutrality. For Hitler –already emboldened by reoccupying and remilitarising the Rhineland unopposed in March 1936, it was a golden opportunity to strengthen Germany’s influence strategically at the same time that he dealt a deadly blow to the threat of Bolshevism, which he viewed as an essentially Jewish creation. For him it was the means of frustrating the creation of a “Soviet Spain.”

At the same time, the Spanish conflict gave Hitler the opportunity to carry out military experiments: to test both personnel and new machinery under combat conditions without officially involving his country in war. Still, he did not pour supplies into Spain; a speedy victory for Franco was not in his interest.  Hitler believed that the longer the war continued, the more demoralised the western democracies would become.

For Italy’s Benito Mussolini, the Spanish Civil War appealed to his vision of a greater Italy which would supplant France and Britain as a Mediterranean power. The annexation of Ethiopia by Italian forces between October 1935 and May 1936 encouraged Mussolini (aka Il Duce, “the leader”) to envision Italy was as a modern Roman Empire.

A new –and as he expected– quick adventure in Spain (even against the advice of the King and his military advisers) would confirm his vision and give him greater exposure in a European context as well. It also provided an opportunity to demonstrate to Germany Italy’s value as an ally. It seemed to pay dividends when Mussolini clinched a formal partnership with Germany in October 1936.

The Soviet Union was well aware of Hitler’s declared designs on Soviet territory and therefore had more than a passing interest in Germany’s role in the Spanish conflict. Stalin had already toned down the rhetoric of social revolution in Western “bourgeois” countries in order to form alliances with them against growing Nazi power. One such alliance was a pact signed with France in May 1935.

Soviet intervention in the Spanish Civil War was viewed through the same optic: it was in the interest of defending the Soviet Union more than an opportunity to spread the communist gospel, which would risk alienating those Western democracies whose alliance the Soviets sought. At the same time, Stalin did not want to provoke the Germans by eagerly rushing to the aid of the Republic.

On the other hand, to leave the Republic undefended would risk encouraging German expansionism and besides, to have Hitler embroiled in a side issue could keep him sufficiently distracted from Eastern expansion. The Spanish Civil War was, then, a delicate balancing act for the Stalin as much as it was a nuisance for Britain and France!

German and Italian aid came quickly in the opening days of the war, when Franco appealed for planes to help his African-based troops to cross the Strait of Gibraltar. Both countries continued to provide arms –planes, tanks, artillery–, especially after November 1936 when they officially recognised Franco as the Head of the Spanish State.

After this there was too much at stake to allow the Nationalists to lose. But there were differences in the approach taken by the Axis allies (i.e. Germany and Italy). Hitler was pragmatic and all aid was essentially a business venture arranged and channelled through trading companies. The impetuous Mussolini poured in generous amounts of arms and personnel and benefitted by presenting Italian assistance as a noble gesture to a fellow anti-communist, Franco.

European Logistical Support; Manpower.
The German contribution in personnel probably did not surpass 19,000: soldiers, pilots, tank commanders and instructors, who slipped into the country with as little publicity as possible. These included eight air-force squadrons which arrived in Spain in November 1936. 

The best organised of the German combatants was probably the crack Condor Legion, made up of both soldiers and airmen. The Legion became notorious for the massive bombing raid that destroyed the centre of the sleepy Basque market town of Guernica and killed hundreds of civilians on April 26th, 1937. Although German airstrikes have received most attention, ground troops using flak guns also played an important role in the Nationalist war effort.

The Italian contingent was much larger. Mussolini sent a total of over 78.000 men, many being members of the Black Shirt Fascista Militia. Portugal pitched in with 10,000 soldiers, and an often overlooked group, the Moroccans, provided 70,000 combatants.

In addition, there were some volunteers on the Nationalist side who tend to get overlooked because they were far fewer than the volunteers in the International Brigade fighting for the Republic.

Volunteers for the Nationalists were mostly Catholics sprinkled with fascists and anti-communists from other countries. The only group of organised volunteers was an Irish brigade of Blue Shirts, about 700 recruits inflamed by press accounts of atrocities committed by communists and eager to undertake a crusade to save Christian civilisation from destruction.

Glory eluded them, however. Their first casualties were inadvertently at the hands of the Nationalists at the battle of the Jarama valley (February 1937) where they were mistaken for International Brigades. Poorly commanded (their leader drank heavily), things did not improve for them, and by the summer of 1937 they were back in Ireland, chastened and disenchanted.

European Logistical Support: Armament.
The Nationalists: Equally important as manpower was the material aid given to the rebels; this was instrumental in giving the Nationalists a significant advantage in battle. Both Germans and Italians sent airplanes, tanks, anti-aircraft guns, machine guns, and spare parts. In the case of the Germans, many of the supplies were experimental and later returned to Germany for examination and analysis.

German military leaders also sent back arms captured from Republican forces. As a recent historian has commented regarding tanks: “it seems the Germans profited as much from observing Russian tanks in action as they did from identifying the technical problems of their own vehicles” (Searle in The International Context of the Spanish Civil War 134). This all helped Germany’s plans for its massive war machine already poised for wider European use.

The Republic: The kind of aid the Republic received from the Soviets — tanks, planes, artillery, pilots and military advisers etc. — was similar to that provided by Germany and Italy for the rebels. However, Soviet arms did not arrive until around October 6, 1936, just in time to make their presence felt in the defence of Madrid.

Although Stalin had approved aid in early September 1936, by the time the first shipment arrived two precious months had passed that allowed the Nationalists to solidify their territorial gains in the south and west of the country. Throughout the war, the Republic sent repeated requests for weaponry which, given the large distances involved and the presence of German and Italian ships in the Mediterranean, required elaborate plans for delivery.

Code-named “Operation X,” the delivery of armament was carried out in strict secrecy. With no overland delivery possible ships were disguised in all manner of ways to enable crossing the Mediterranean or the Baltic and North Seas.

The quality of Soviet weaponry sent to the Republic has often been considered inferior compared to that received by the Nationalists.  It is true that large amounts of small arms (rifles, machine guns) were useless or outdated, some even being left-overs from the First World War.

According to a recent study, “the Soviets delivered rifles of at least eight different nationalities, ten different types, and six different calibers. Nearly a quarter of all rifles supplied to the Republic were 11-mm French and Austrian pieces dating from the 1880s; the 11-mm caliber had been obsolete worldwide since the turn of the (19th) century.”   However, tanks and aircraft were the most advanced the Soviets had. In particular, “the Soviet T-26 tank … quickly emerged as the most formidable armored vehicle in the war(  Section 10)

Soviet aid was both a military and commercial transaction.  There was, however, the matter of payment, which has elicited a lot of comments. Fearing that the Nationalists would get their hands on the Spain’s gold reserves if they took Madrid, the Republican government arranged for its removal to some caves near a naval base in Cartagena.
With Britain and France’s non-intervention and a declaration of neutrality by the United States, the Republic had little choice but to turn to the Soviet Union for loans or credit.  In October 1936, the Republic went as far as to send 510 tons of its gold reserves (the fourth largest in the world) to Moscow to be converted, as necessary, into hard cash to pay for arms purchases. A portion was also sent to a Soviet bank in Paris to buy arms elsewhere in the world.
The whole venture turned out to be a complicated scam whereby the Soviets overcharged the Republic for almost all the arms it purchased by fiddling the exchange rates.  General Franco later made much of the “Moscow gold,” alleging that it should be returned to Spain. The Soviets responded that it had all been spent by the Republic purchasing arms for its defence. They even claimed that the Republicans still owed $50 million of a loan of $85 million extended by the Soviet Union.

The International Brigades.
The International Brigades have acquired something of a legendary reputation. Organised by the Communist International in Paris in September 1936, thousands of volunteers from all over the world went to fight for the Republic. It is estimated that some 35.000 from over 50 countries saw action in Spain over the course of the war, although there were probably no more than 20.000 there at any one time.

Many were refugees from fascist states (including Italy and Germany), some were committed communists or workers infused with the ideas of brotherhood and justice, some out of work, and some simply adventurers. Many went against the express wishes of their own government, e.g. Britain made it a crime to volunteer to fight in Spain.

Although numbers vary considerably, there is agreement that the largest contingent went from France (around 9,000), followed by Italy and Germany. Other significant numbers were from Poland, the Soviet Union, the United States (the Abraham Lincoln battalion), the Balkan countries, Britain, and Canada (the MacKenzie-Papineau battalion).

A small number of women also volunteered for the Republican cause. Some fought (the first British volunteer to die in the war was Felicia Browne, a member of a communist militia), but most provided vital service as nurses. Some even collaborated in innovative medical procedures carried out on the front. Others organised and distributed food and relief supplies or cared for refugees and orphans.

There were also some women journalists who reported on the war in the hope of encouraging their home readers to support the Republic.

Ten thousand volunteers are estimated to have died in the fighting. With individual exceptions, those who survived did not remain to the close of the war. At the end of October 1938 they were retired from service at the urging of the Soviet Union, now anxious to reach an accommodation with Nazi Germany.

They departed with a farewell parade through a cheering, tearful Barcelona. In a passionate speech, the communist leader Dolores Irráburi, popularly known as La Pasionaria, reminded them of their sacrifices: You can go with pride, she told them. You are history. You are legend. You are the heroic example of the solidarity and the universality of democracy … We will not forget you; and when the olive tree of peace puts forth its leaves, come back! Come back to us and here you will find a homeland (Preston 210).

And some survivors did “come back” in 1995 finding at least a figurative homeland when they were granted Spanish citizenship by the socialist government of Felipe González.

From its earliest days, the Spanish Civil War drew in the European powers, each with its agenda.  According to a recent history of the conflict, it was “really a European civil war” (Casanova 182). Others have alluded to it as a preamble to the Second World War, or a European war by proxy.

Whatever the description, the Spanish Civil War cast a long shadow over 20th-century European history. Thousands of books and articles have been written about it. Already by 1996, the historian Paul Preston calculated that 15,000 books had been published, more than enough for a lifetime of reading!


Barton, Simon A History of Spain Basingstoke, Hampshire 2nd.  ed. 2009
Carr, Raymond Spain 1808-1939 Oxford 1966
Casanova Julian & Andres, Carlos Gil Twentieth-Century Spain: A History trans. Martin Douch Cambridge 2014
Jackson, Angela “For Us It Was Heaven:” The Passion, Grief and Fortitude of Patience Darton  Eastbourne, England 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
Searle, Alaric “The German Military Contribution to the Spanish Civil War 1936-39” in The International Context of the Spanish Civil War ed. Johnston, Gaynor Newcastle 2009 pp. 131-50 . Excellent and detailed ebook study on the role of the Soviet Union in the Spanish Civil War, entitled Stalin and the Spanish Civil War in 16 chapters. A very useful article on the Spanish Civil War.
For the story of Felicia Browne, see