Spanish Civil War. An Uncivil War.

Spanish Civil War (1936-39). A Vicious “Uncivil” War.
In early June 1937, Pablo Picasso completed his painting Guernica, a savage indictment of the ruthless destruction of the small Basque market town of Guernica (Gernika in Basque). 

This historical cradle of Basque nationalism was devastated by waves of aircraft from the German Condor Legion.  German (and Italian) airmen and soldiers were in Spain to assist General Francisco Franco, leader of the rebel Nationalist forces in their battle to overthrow the legitimately elected Popular Front government of the Second Republic.

Picasso’s Guernica.

Guernica is a painting like no other. It stripped away any historic notion of the nobility of war even more so than Francisco de Goya’s horrific paintings The Second of May, 1808 and The Third of May 1808. It has become the iconic depiction of the complete dehumanisation of war; its anguished cry uncovers the bestiality of “human” actions and tears away of any sense of humanity and civility.

Goya’s Third of May 1808. Painted 1814.

The Spanish Civil War (July 18, 1936-April 1, 1939) was in no way “civil,” in the everyday sense of “polite” or “courteous.” Nor was it, as might be expected, a war exclusively between citizens of the same country.  In many ways, it was an international war, with Germany and Italy supporting the rebellious Nationalists, and the Soviet Union and volunteer International Brigades backing the Popular Front government.

However, despite foreign intervention it was very much a national war pitting Spaniards against each other from the opening salvos. It tore apart cities, towns, villages, neighbourhoods and families. The verbal sparring and violent outbursts of the Republican years (1931-36) gave way now to all-out, vicious bloodletting.

The violence that erupted, especially during the summer months of 1936, reflected the deep felt hatred and contempt that each side held for the other.  Gruesome stories of atrocities circulated quickly and added to the terror: for example, of heretical reds running amok in Málaga and crushing naked nuns with steamrollers or of walls made of children’s’ bodies in Barcelona. But reality needed no embroidering.

On the Republican side, the military uprising unleashed an explosion of hatred fuelled by centuries of rural exploitation, religious authoritarianism and regional repression.

These were historic, internal matters which survived the convulsions of the 19th century and, mixed with the political and social signs of modernity –political parties, workers’ unions, professional soldiers–, produced the volatile combination that ultimately lead to the war.

Opposed to these radical political and social forces were the entrenched privileged, buttressed by traditions and a deeply ingrained fear and hate of anything that threatened their authority. 

These included the Catholic Church, monarchists, latifundio (large estate) landowners, bankers, industrialists, and disaffected generals.  At the same time, their cause also enjoyed the support of a substantial number of ordinary people, from the urban bourgeoisie to conservative peasant farmers in Old Castile and León, Galicia, and Navarre.

Both sides were capable of committing bestial acts of violence in the name of ideology, but often it was no more than local venom or vengeance, a vicious settling of accounts (ajuste de cuentas).

For example, in the village of Palma del Río (in the province of Córdoba), the local cacique** –with the help of the Civil Guards and the right-wing Falangists**– exacted revenge for the death of his fighting bulls by lining up the villagers and hand picking those who were to die.

**Cacique, a hold-over term from the 19th century: a
local boss involved in political corruption and
electoral fraud whereby he ensured that those in his
area voted in elections according to orders received
from Madrid.
**Falange: the closest Spanish equivalent to a fascist party.

Over two hundred were then herded together and massacred by machine guns!

There were macabre scenes of Nationalist sympathisers beaten to death with crucifixes, or rebellious peasants ordered to dig their own graves and then buried alive with a mocking farewell alluding to peasant push for agrarian reform: “Here is the piece of land you wanted, you son of a bitch” (Williams 198). Bodies of nuns were disinterred and mockingly displayed in areas of the Republic.

Neither friendship nor blood guaranteed safety as villages were split and families torn apart. At the highest level, for example, Franco refused to stop the execution of a cousin, Major Ricardo de la Puente Bahamonde, who had tried to hold the airport of Tetuán for the Republic at the outbreak of the war.

Although they were very close childhood friends, Franco and de la Puente had grown apart ideologically much to Franco’s disgust. In an argument between them, Franco was once heard to shout: “One day I’m going to have you shot” (Preston Franco 151). Prophetic words!

Social status or party affiliation could condemn an individual out of hand. In the Republican zone, for example, the highly visible clergy were hated symbols of oppression and suffered accordingly.

It is estimated that about 7,000 priests and members of the religious orders (monks and nuns) were murdered, many cruelly tortured in the process. In one instance, rosary beads were stuffed into a monk’s ears until the drums perforated; in another, priests were mowed down by gunfire as they fled from a church set ablaze by a furious mob.

In Nationalist territory, members of the coalition Popular Front or trades unions, anarchists, socialists and communists were routinely taken out on paseos (“walks”), lined up, shot and dumped in ditches, mines, rivers etc. Freemasons were regularly murdered as were left wing intellectuals or teachers.

Women sympathisers of the Republic or wives of Republicans were particularly subjected to horrific treatment. Viewed as whores or “free” women, they were regularly humiliated: They had their heads shaved or their breasts branded or were force-fed castor oil and paraded in public where they were mocked as they soiled themselves. 

Gang rape followed by murder was common, after which soldiers might troop through towns waving their victims’ underwear like trophies on their rifles. In one reported case, two teen age girls were handed over to forty Nationalist soldiers. “They’ll not live more than four hours,” a Francoist officer is reported to have said (Tremlett Review 3).

Rank and fame meant nothing. Perhaps the most celebrated victim of the Nationalist rebels was the Andalusian poet from Granada, Federico García Lorca, killed in August of 1936. Although the Franco regime was later to seize upon the theory that his murder was the result of homosexual rivalry, it is now commonly accepted that Lorca was one of up to 5,000 political victims killed in Granada during the war years.

Although born into a well-off, middle-class family, Lorca was a social maverick who –perhaps because of his homosexuality– sympathised with the socially marginalised and the poor (e.g. the gypsies).

Federico Garcia Lorca

Intellectually he was left wing, and infuriated Nationalists and many granadinos with his subversive views of Spanish history: e.g. he believed the conquest of Granada by the Catholic Monarchs was a disaster which had produced the worst bourgeoisie in Spain.

Strong words in the political context of the day! But to add fuel to the fire, he also angered the church with writings and comments that it perceived as undermining its authority. For example, in his rural tragedy Yerma (first staged in Madrid in December 1934), the Old Woman advises the infertile Yerma not to ask God for help. “When are people going to realise that there’s no such person?” she concludes.

The reaction in the right-wing press following the work’s debut was vitriolic, condemning the work as homosexual filth, full of repellent scenes “incompatible with human dignity … an offence against public decency” (Gibson 213). Any author capable of provoking such deep feelings of hatred ran considerable risks in the heated climate of those times.

Lorca paid for it with his life. According to his most authoritative biographer, Lorca was “victim … to the hatred of the Catholic Church and those whom he had termed ‘the worst bourgeoisie in Spain’” (Gibson 182).

José Antonio Primo de Rivera

On the Nationalist side, the rebels were to find plenty of ammunition in the execution of José Antonio Primo de Rivera, son of the former dictator, and founder of the Spanish Falange.

Arrested by the Popular Front in March of 1936 in Madrid, the charismatic José Antonio was later transferred to Alicante where he was executed by local officials on November 20, 1936. Franco –whose support of attempts to liberate José Antonio was tepid at best– was later to exploit cynically the death of a potential rival for the leadership of the Nationalists by subscribing to the cult of the fallen hero.

The name of José Antonio ausente (“absent”) became ritually intoned at all roll calls and José Antonio, presente (“here“) was painted or carved prominently on church walls and other public areas.**

**Even after the passing of a controversial law, the Ley de la Memoria Histórica (Historical Memory Law) in 2007 –aimed at removing such propaganda from churches and public areas— the exaltation of Nationalist“martyrs” can still be seen widely.

The viciousness of the war did not allow for delicate sentiments or generosity of spirit. Prisoners were rarely exchanged but summarily shot or hanged. In perhaps the first celebrated reprisal of the war to reach an international audience, in August 1936 Nationalist soldiers rounded up about 2,000 Republican militiamen and civilians in the bullring of Badajoz and slaughtered them in a hail of machine gun fire.

When questioned about the massacre, Colonel Yagüe, the officer in charge, bluntly retorted “Of course we shot them…. Was I supposed to take 4,000 reds with me…? Was I supposed to turn them loose in my rear and let them make Badajoz red again?” (Preston Franco 89).

It was a cleansing, terrorist tactic deliberately adopted as policy and meant to instil fear in any who might oppose the Nationalist forces. It was, furthermore sanctioned at the highest level as necessary to overcome the so-called forces of evil.

For the Republicans, their lack of expansion into insurgent territory meant that they did not commit that kind of “captured-territory” cleansing. But within Republican zones, a breakdown of order and loss of governmental control often gave way to revolutionary violence that targeted conservatives of all stripes (politicians, monarchists, farmers, landowners, shopkeepers, bankers, industrialists) and Catholics.

Perhaps the most egregious was the systematic killing of Nationalist sympathisers during the siege of Madrid in the fall of 1936. 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, then shot and buried in communal graves. Nationalist propaganda seized on this massacre and inflicted serious damage to the Republic’s reputation on the international stage.

What differentiated the atrocities committed by both sides was the deliberate policy of elimination of the enemy articulated and pursued by the Nationalists and the scale of their brutality, “perfected” in many ways by Spain’s military actions in Morocco in the 1920s.

Almost immediately following the Nationalist uprising, the army declared martial law which meant that all those who opposed the military insurgents were effectively deemed to be the “rebels!” With sweeping powers, law and order were now in the hands of the army. General Emilio Mola, joint leader of the rebellion initially with Franco, was clear about Nationalist intentions: “We have to create the impression of mastery, eliminating without scruples or hesitation all those who do not think as we do ….All those who oppose the victory of the movement will be shot” (Preston Spanish Holocaust xiii). 

“Saving” or “cleansing” la patria (“fatherland”) from republicanism, liberalism, Marxism, freemasonry, socialism, communism or any reformist idea was the overriding goal of the Nationalists. General Queipo de Llano, whose troops terrorised Seville and the south-western Spain in the early days of the insurrection, called it “the purification of the Spanish people” (Graham review 3).

It was, in essence, a return to the past, and fundamentalist in its simplistic view of good versus evil, us against them. For the Nationalists, the priorities were loaded with traditional values: together with la patria (a unified Spain) were religion (Catholic, of course), family (the family unit headed by the father), order (subservience to social hierarchy, with no protests), work (dutiful obedience by the workers), and property (reaffirmation of the rights of the landowners) (Preston Spanish Holocaust xv).

Unlike the Nationalists, the Republican government did not subscribe to a deliberate policy of elimination. Most Republican atrocities were the result of mob violence, triggered by historical suppression and exploitation, class hatred and in many cases as responses to news of Nationalist brutality.

The anarchists and communists were particularly savage in their killings, and news of their atrocities had serious repercussions for the Republic when it sought international help. Although European democracies (principally Britain and France) feared the spread of German and Italian fascism, communism was also a major threat and the prospect of Spain falling under Soviet control was equally unappealing.

The extermination of right-wing sympathisers in Madrid (as in the Paracuellos massacre, above) was instigated by the communists, and received wide circulation by the Nationalist propaganda machine. Nevertheless, even under war conditions, the Republican government did save as many as “10,000 business men, priests and other right-wingers thought to be at particular risk;” no similar action came from the Nationalist side (Hochschild Review 3).

By the time the war was over, about 200,000 had died in combat and perhaps another 200,000 civilians murdered or executed. About 20,000 Republicans were executed immediately following the end of the war (April 1, 1939).

According to perhaps the most authoritative historian of the Spanish Civil War, Paul Preston, “it is possible to state that, broadly speaking, the repression by the rebels was about three times greater than that which took place in the Republican zone” (Preston Spanish Holocaust xvii-xviii).

Post Script.
The Civil War still casts its shadow in the 21st century. After Franco’s death in 1975, there was a transitional period during which political parties maintained a tacit silence over the war in order to avoid inflaming passions and igniting long suppressed anger.

The silence was legally sanctioned in 1977 when a Ley de amnistía (Amnesty Law, also known as the Pact of Silence) was passed protecting individuals from crimes committed during the war or during Franco’s. In 2007, another law, the Ley de la Memoria Histórica (Law of Historical Memory) opened a chink in the Amnesty Law. The Law of Historical Memory dealt specifically with the Franco regime and amongst its provisions sought to remove all public symbols and statues of that regime as well as giving all grandchildren of Spaniards exiled during the Civil War or Franco’s time the right to Spanish nationality.

In addition, the government offered to provide maps of mass graves so that the remains of the victims might be exhumed and reburied if relatives wished.

A mass grave of 26 Republicans discovered at Estépar (Burgos). See note in Source below.

In 2008, Judge Baltasar Garzón, a champion of human rights, opened enquiries into the disappearance of thousands of victims of the Franco regime. A year later, a right-wing group ironically named Manos Limpias” (“Clean Hands“) brought charges against Garzón for disregarding the Amnesty Law. Garzón was finally acquitted in February 2012. In the same month, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights weighed in, arguing that the Amnesty Law should be repealed.

The exhumation of numerous mass burial sites in the past few years has kept the issue very much in the public eye. In May 2011, the Spanish government published an on-line map of 2,000 mass graves from the civil war 

Nevertheless, getting permission to exhume bodies is still difficult within Spain, and descendants of victims have recently turned to lawyers in Argentina to apply pressure on Spanish courts. In February 2016, a mass grave in Guadalajara unearthed twenty-two skeletons, victims of a Francoist purge in the months after the end of the war. See 

June 8, 2018: The Civil War and the Franco years still resonate and there are still those who search for the graves of victims killed by the Franco regime. There are many, too, who search for “stolen babies” removed immediately after birth and placed with “decent” families.

A new documentary The Silence of Others argues that it is no longer good to forget but that it is time for the voices, so long silent, to be heard. See the article:

January 2019. Recently a hornests’ nest has been opened following government approval for the exhumation and removal of General Franco’s body  from The Valley of the Fallen (Valle de los Caídos), a massive mausoleum cum basilica built about 55 kilometres (34 miles) north west of Madrid. For more, see:

An immense amount has been written about the Spanish Civil War by both pro-Republic and pro-Nationalist sympathisers. The following authors belong largely to the former group.
Barton, Simon A History of Spain Basingstoke, Hampshire 2nd.  ed. 2009
Casanova Julian & Andres, Carlos Gil Twentieth-Century Spain: A History trans. Martin Douch Cambridge 2014. See especially “The faces of terror” pp. 168-75.
Gibson, Ian The Death of Lorca Chicago: J.Philip O’Hara 1973
Preston, Paul Franco: A Biography London 1995
”              ”  A Concise History of the Spanish Civil War
 London 1996

   ”              ” The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth-Century Spain London 2012 For those who might find the 500+ detailed pages daunting, the Prologue, pp. xi-xx, offers a succinct summary of the brutality of the war.
NB The argument that the Nationalists adopted a deliberate policy of extermination as opposed to the Republic’s spontaneous acts of atrocities has long been promoted by Republican sympathisers and is a basic argument in The Spanish Holocaust…. For a critique questioning this assertion, see Stanley G Payne’s review of Preston’s book in the Wall Street Journal 
For those who might find the 500+ detailed text pages daunting, the Prologue, pp. xi-xx, offers a succinct summary of the brutality of the war. There are also many reviews of the book that give a good idea of its content. Here are three: Giles Tremlett 
Adam Hochschild: 
Helen Graham: 
A somewhat more critical review can be found in Jeremy Treglown:
Williams, Mark The Story of Spain Fuengirola, Malaga, Spain 1990

Image of Picasso’s Guernica:
Photo of Federico García Lorca: :
Photo of Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera: By Fondo Marín. Pascual Marín –, CC BY-SA 3.0, 
Image of mass grave: By Mario Modesto Mata – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, 
According to an accompanying note in English, the photo shows a mass grave of twenty-six Republicans killed by Nationalists at Estépar (Burgos) in August-September 1936. The grave was discovered in July 2014.