Spanish Civil War. Republican Disunity.

The Republic: Revolution, Fragmentation and Defeat.

Trying to understand how events unfolded on the Republican side during the Spanish Civil War is like trudging through sand. You get bogged down quickly under a confusing number of parties and unions with competing interests and different agendas, all gathered under the Republican banner.

George Orwell described the political situation as a “kaleidoscope of political parties and trade unions with their tiresome names –PSUC, POUM, FAI, CNT, UGT, JCI, JSU, AIT–…  It looked … as though Spain were suffering from a plague of initials” (Homage to Catalonia 188). “They… exasperated me,” he added, which probably goes for most readers.

For our purposes, the most significant Republican groups were:
The Socialist Party, PSOE (Partido Socialista Obrero Español) and its union affiliate, the UGT  (Unión General de Trabajadores);
The Anarchists and their union arm, the CNT (Confederación Nacional de Trabajo);
The Communists, split between pro-Trotskyists/anti-Stalinists POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista) and the pro-Stalin PCE (Partido Comunista de España);
PSUC (Partido Socialista Unificado de Cataluña)**.

**NB. There were also anti-fascist, conservative
Republicans with little stomach for the revolutionary
fervour of the far left Republicans, and regional
parties in Catalunya/Catalonia, Euskadi/the Basque
Provinces, and Galicia.

It was difficult enough for the Second Republic to run the country in peace time (1931-36), with a left leaning government followed by a right wing government before swinging back to a second left wing government.

The left sought widespread reforms: educational, agrarian, military, regional autonomy etc. The right resisted at every step, claiming an attack on tradition, the Catholic Church, national unity, and law and order by godless Marxism. It was a period of social upheaval, inflammatory rhetoric, and violence towards both individuals and property.

It was even more difficult to govern under wartime conditions. The Republic had only one president, Manuel Azaña, during the three-year war, but four different prime ministers were called to head the legitimately elected Popular Front government.

The first prime minister lasted for only one day (July 18-19), the second (José Giral) for a little under two months (July 19, 1936 – September 4, 1936), the third (Francisco Largo Caballero) for just over eight months (September 4, 1936 – May 17, 1937).

The longest serving prime minister, Dr. Juan Negrín, survived almost two years (May 1937 – March 1939). These changing faces at the head of the Republican government were indicative of the difficulties of governing the Republic, especially against a unified rebel opposition under the leadership of one individual, General Francisco Franco.

José Giral: Prime Minister July 19, 1936 – September 4, 1936.
José Giral took office a day after the military rebellion broke out in Spanish Morocco and on the mainland.  Unfortunately Giral was faced not only with military insurrection but also an explosion of popular resentment as workers and peasants within the Republic vented their frustration on all forms of authority. Giral was caught on the horns of a dilemma: to arm or not to arm the embittered workers in order to counter the military insurrection.

He decided in favour, a move which was crucial in helping the Republican defence of Madrid and other places.  Militias sprouted up, anarchists set up revolutionary committees, and anyone associated with right-wing ideology came under attack.

For the revolutionaries, the most visible and accessible symbol of right-wing repression was the Church.

Statue of Christ being “executed.”

Thousands of priests, monks and nuns were killed, often brutally and sadistically.  Religious statues were routinely “executed”, and churches and convents burned or converted into storage depots or stables.

The fate of the religious hierarchy was similar throughout the Republic, but the reaction to other symbols of authority varied, largely according to location. The most radical changes took place in Catalonia, and especially in Barcelona, the Republic’s industrial work horse and hotbed of anarchist activity. Here worker committees were formed and factories collectivised.

In virtually all urban centres in the Republican zone, symbols of hierarchical privilege or bourgeois pretensions disappeared overnight in pursuit of social equality.  The polite “Usted” form of address was dropped for the informal “Tú,” off went hats, ties and jackets, and briefcases disappeared.

Women –now wearing trousers– demanded information on birth control and venereal disease. Nevertheless, the revolutionary zeal was not uniform, and much depended on the fervour of local groups or political affiliation, the more radical changes taking place where the anarchist CNT held the upper hand.

Changes also occurred in rural areas. In La Mancha, Andalusia, and Extremadura latifundios (large estates) were collectivised and run by local committees, or distributed among the peasants. In many villages money was abolished and commerce carried out by barter or paper chits.

On the other hand, in Catalonia and especially Valencia, relatively prosperous small landowners resisted and collectivisation fizzled or –if imposed– was accompanied by violence, which disrupted commerce.

The picture that emerges of the Republican zone is one of disorder and lack of discipline, with most of the horrendous, uncontrolled killing of Nationalists carried out during the first few months of the war.

Although he had authorised the arming of workers, Prime Minister Giral did his best to halt indiscriminate violence setting up Popular Tribunals to check revolutionary excesses.  However, with Nationalist forces advancing rapidly on Madrid from the south-west and the north, his government was in effect struggling on two fronts: fighting the Nationalists and trying to curb rebellious workers and peasants within the Republican zone.

Given the chaotic conditions during the summer of 1936, Giral felt that he lacked authority or support to continue as prime minister, and so resigned in early September, leaving the position to the socialist Francisco Largo Caballero.

Franciso Largo Caballero Prime Minister September 4, 1936 – May 17, 1937.
In an attempt to provide some consensus, Franciso Largo Caballero formed a coalition government which included five republicans, two communists and a Basque nationalist. On November 4, 1936, he added four anarchists from the CNT whose surprising acceptance was based on the hope that revolutionary change could be achieved from a position of power (however, not all anarchists agreed with this move).

By this time, the Nationalists were camped on the outskirts of Madrid. On November 6, 1936, the government after some heated discussion decided to evacuate Madrid for Valencia, a move that was divisive and widely interpreted as cowardly.

Done secretly, the flight deprived the government of much needed moral authority.  Before leaving the capital, Largo Caballero arranged for a Junta de Defensa (Defence Committee) to be set up under General José Miaja.

With Madrid under siege, the Nationalists predicted an early and triumphant entry into the capital. However, under the morale-boosting leadership of General Miaja, and the tactical skills of Colonel Vicente Rojo and other loyalist officers, and strengthened significantly by the first shipment of arms from the Soviet Union and the arrival of members of the International brigades, Republicans of all stripes rallied to the cause.

The city, coming together under the slogans No pasarán (“They shall not pass”) and Madrid será la tumba del fascismo (“Madrid will be the tomb of Fascism”), withstood infantry bombardment and heavy air strikes by General Franco’s German allies. Women took up arms and children helped by running messages and giving out food.  By November 22, 1936, rebel advances had ground to a halt and Franco was forced to withdraw his forces.

Nevertheless, the threat to Madrid remained, with Franco now concentrating on encircling the city and cutting off land supplies from the east, still in Republican hands. The Republicans held their ground, denying Nationalist forces control of the Madrid–Valencia road in February 1937, and routing Franco’s Italian allies at the Battle of Guadalajara between March 12th and 17th.  Republican resolve forced Franco to do an about turn and direct his army to the conquest of the north coast where the Nationalist rebellion had failed.

The defence of Madrid was heroic, but there was also a dark side which cast a shadow on Republican achievements. Nationalist sympathisers in the city lived in fear and with reason. Seen as potential fifth columnists (the term was coined during this period) thousands were imprisoned and then taken on what were euphemistically called sacas (“removals”).

Between November 7 and December 3, thousands (disputed numbers range between 2,000 and 12,000) were bussed or trucked to the villages of Paracuellos de Jarama and Torrejón de Ardoz, just east of Madrid, shot and buried in communal graves.

Importantly, the Battle of Madrid also saw the dramatic rise of the communists from relative obscurity once Russian aid started to appear in October 1936. Their support of the Junta de Defensa challenged both socialists and anarchists in the political struggle for power in the capital and elsewhere.

But the communists had a problem that turned out to be fatal to the Republic: they were divided into two hostile camps, the Stalinist and official Russian mouthpiece, the PCE (Partido Comunista de España), and its rival and pro-Trotsky, Marxist POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista).

Unfortunately, hostility was not limited to verbal attacks. Dolores Ibarruri (aka La Pasionaria), the firebrand PCE leader believed that the POUM should be exterminated like beasts of prey (Carr 235). The hostility between both camps reached its climax in Catalonia where local PCE members had joined with Catalan socialists to form the PSUC (Partido Socialista Unificado de Cataluña).

Although nominally socialist, the PSUC was dominated by communists.  The POUM, on the other hand, was allied to the anarchist CNT. The crucial difference between the PSUC/PCE and the POUM/CNT was that the former argued for greater central government control and advocated a greater say for Soviet advisers in the war. The latter still thought in revolutionary terms and viewed the PSUC/PCE call for centralisation as anti-revolutionary and the pro-Stalinist advisers as their enemies. 

The PSUC/PCE called for “Discipline, Hierarchy and Organisation” and wanted to halt the revolution and concentrate first on defeating the Nationalists. The POUM/CNT was caught trying to do two things at the same time: fight the Nationalists and proceed with the revolution.

The PSUC/PCE’s appeal to order was the key to its success, especially in Catalonia and Valencia where there was a solid middle class which had been frightened by the revolutionary terrorism of the CNT in the summer of 1936. As a result, the PCE ironically enjoyed the support of small businesses and ensured that support by accepting the principles of private property and profit.

In the ensuing struggle, the advantage lay with the PCE. Since the Battle of Madrid (October – November 1936), communist discipline had allowed PCE members to infiltrate the Republican army. Their own Fifth Regiment became the backbone of the Popular Army and was predictably the favoured recipient of Soviet arms.

Matters between the PCE and the POUM came to a head in May 1937.  Following the deaths of several anarchists in northern Catalonia and the murder of a prominent communist in Barcelona, a small-scale civil war broke out in the streets of the Catalan capital between members of the PSUC/PCE and the POUM/CNT. The communists prevailed and when the dust had settled the POUM was reduced to a clandestine organisation, the CNT emasculated and Catalan autonomy lost to the control of the central government.

Flexing their power the communists now called on Prime Minister Largo Caballero to dissolve the POUM. The Prime Minister refused, however, determined to check the communist initiative and Soviet control of the Republican army –and by extension of the Republic itself.

Following the Barcelona debacle, and after a communist political offensive, Largo Caballero lost the support of his government and resigned to be replaced by the socialist Dr. Juan Negrín.

Juan Negrin Prime Minister May 18, 1937 – March 1939.
A change of government helped consolidate power under a socialist central authority, but dependent on close collaboration with the communists (PCE).

Communist power in Spain was tied to the materials provided by Russia, and Negrín was persuaded that Republican hopes lay in cooperation with the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. Within the Republic, the aims of both Negrín and the PCE coincided: centralisation and a strong government in order to better organise the fight against Franco.

PCE members were particularly aggressive in their aims, organising the International Brigades, suppressing anarchist collectives, infiltrating the army and police, wiping out enemies whenever and wherever possible, and stifling the revolutionary spirit instead of channeling it effectively against the Nationalists.

But PCE fervour for centralisation and power carried with it seeds of its own destruction. Intolerance led to confrontations which only increased as the fortunes of the Republic sank and food and arms shortages increased dissatisfaction.

Although Soviet aid became less dependable after the defeat of the Republican army (under communist command) in November 1938, the PCE –encouraged by their Soviet advisers– hung on and opposed any talk of a negotiated peace with the Nationalists.

PCE control in the army finally led to an internal revolt in the last days of resistance in Madrid.  Convinced that the Negrín government no longer represented the will of the people and that it was being propped up by  communists, Colonel Segismundo Casado rebelled. His purpose was not to take charge of the war effort, but to end senseless killing by coming to some terms with the Nationalists. It was a hopeless situation. Casado had nothing to bargain with.

Soon Madrid fell, and Republicans and communists poured out of the capital to the Mediterranean ports of the south east in an effort to escape. Franco’s final bulletin Today, with the Red Army captive and disarmed, our victorious troops have achieved their objectives. The war is over (Preston 215) with its reference to the Red Army may have been an exaggeration, but it contained a substantial grain of truth regarding the infiltration of the communists into the leadership of the Republican army.

Despite the brave words of the banner above: “They shall not pass…. Madrid will be the tomb of fascism,” Madrid did fall. Franco’s troops entered Madrid on March 27, 1939.

The Civil War was over and it was time to turn the page.  However, what Franco did not do was write a new chapter, but to turn Spain back to the past, to those pages of glory written by the Catholic Monarchs and their immediate successors, Charles V and Philip II.

For Franco, Spain was now united and under the Catholic banner; what remained was to wipe out any vestige of dissent.

The Republic’s war effort failed through lack of cohesion and internal rivalries. Pro-Stalinist communists and pro-Trostkyites, socialists and anarchists… they simply could not agree on a unified vision of how the war was to be carried out. Such fragmentation inevitably had an effect on the battlefront.

In fact, the Republic suffered a series of defeats throughout the civil war without a single, lasting victory and without retrieving any land from the Nationalists.  True, there were moments when Republican forces stalled Nationalist advances (e.g. Battle of Madrid October – November, 1936, Battles of the Jarama and Guadalajara, February and March 1937) and took pro-active diversionary tactics (Brunete July 1937, Belchite August 1937).

They even succeeded in ousting the Nationalists from Teruel (January 8, 1938), but it was a short-lived victory and the town was soon back in Nationalist hands (February 22, 1938). The decisive and bloody Battle of the Ebro (July –November 1938) spelled the end for the Republic. See Objective Madrid.

Barton, Simon A History of Spain Basingstoke, Hampshire 2nd. ed. 2009
Carr, Raymond The Spanish Tragedy: The Civil War in Perspective London 1993 (First pub. 1977)
Casanova Julian & Andres, Carlos Gil Twentieth-Century Spain: A History trans. Martin Douch Cambridge 2014
Jackson, Gabriel A Concise History of the Spanish Civil War London 1974
Orwell, George Homage to Catalonia. London 1986 (First pub. 1938)
Preston, Paul A Concise History of the Spanish Civil War London 1996
Execution of statue of Christ: 
Image of No Pasaran: Banner in Madrid: “¡No pasarán! Madrid” by Mikhail Koltsov – Оригинал (1936) сделан фотоаппаратом “ФЭД”. Own work photo. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons –!_Madrid.jpg#/media/File:%C2%A1No_pasar%C3%A1n!_Madrid.jpg