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Spain's Civil War

In February 1936 an election gave rise to a "Popular Front" government in Spain, ending two years of rule by a coalition of center and rightist parties. Poor peasants and Spain's labor movement felt empowered by the new government. Peasants began seizing land, and, in the first four months of the new government, 331 strikes erupted. Anarchists now also felt empowered, and they opened prisons.

Anarchists were particularly strong in Barcelona – which had been a refuge for independent-minded people during World War I,  some of them "artistic" types like those who had tried to rule Munich in 1918-19. To many anarchists the Church epitomized oppression and manipulation of the poor. Anarchists set fire to some 70 churches, while attempts to set fires were made against 250 other churches. Seminaries, monasteries and the homes and offices of capitalists were also set aflame. Armed robberies against common people skyrocketed in Barcelona as some felt free to exercise their belief in an immediate distribution of wealth.

Francisco Franco

Francisco Franco

Employers retaliated against strikes by locking out their workers.  And just as chaos had brought support of Italy's fascist movement, people flocked to Spain's fascist movement – the Falangists. Running battles erupted in the streets of Spain between Falangists and Leftists, and peopled died.

Spain's Popular Front prime minister, Santiago Quiroga, was unable to cope with the chaos. Conservatives in Spain feared the fate of Russia's conservatives. Conservatives dominated the officer corps in the military, and from within the military came a move to overthrow the Popular Front. This followed an incident on July 13, 1936, in which a rightwing economist, jurist and politician, José Calvo Sotelo, was murdered by a leftist force – the Assault Guards, Unified Socialist Youths and the government's Civil Guard. Sotelo was dragged from his home and killed in a police truck. The government failed to pursue an investigation of the matter, and for some conservative generals it was the last straw. Before the month was over, officers led military garrisons in an uprising in Spanish Morocco and across southwestern Spain. In Spain's two greatest cities, Madrid and Barcelona, their rising against the government failed. Here industrial workers, the labor movement and support for the Popular Front were strong. And the Popular Front continued to control eastern Spain and much of the south. Meanwhile, Basque provinces sat on the fence, wanting autonomy above all else.

Leading the rebel forces was Spain's most respected general, Francisco Franco. He had been reared believing in discipline, hierarchy and order. He believed that liberalism had spawned the ultimate anathema to his Catholic conservatism: communism. He believed that overthrowing the Popular Front was a duty.

Franco won the support of Hitler and Mussolini, and the government of Spain won the support of the Soviet Union. Help from Hitler's Germany started in August, the same month that the 1936 Olympics began in Berlin. Hitler saw advantage for Germany in a regime in Spain that would be at odds with the Leftist regime in France. He saw the civil war in Spain as a convenient sideshow, distracting the world while he advanced Germany's interests in Central Europe. And the war in Spain would be a convenient testing ground for his airforce.

It is said that the anti-Franco forces had the best songs. But Franco's rebels had the advantage in equipment, an airforce, plus aircraft and pilots from Germany and Italy. Franco's forces included 24,000 of Spain's toughest troops – Spanish legionnaires and Moroccan regulars. The conservative and authoritarian regime in Portugal, led by António de Oliveira Salazar, was sending arms to Franco's forces, while the Communist parties in the United States and elsewhere were organizing volunteers to fight on the side of the Popular Front government.

From Ireland more men went to fight on the side of Franco than joined the fight for Popular Front. One of the few nations that gave assistance to Spain's Popular Front government was Mexico, Mexico sending 1000 guns and cartridges. The Soviet Union sent arms and a few planes – purchased by Spain's government – and these arrived in late October, 1936. The Soviet Union sent some food, and Stalin also sent advisors and some his police, the NKVD. He still wanted friendship with anti-fascist democracies and did not want to alienate them by supporting revolution – which put him at odds with a few on the Left in Spain who were hoping to turn the civil war into a social revolution – and Stalin was especially hostile toward Spain's Trotskyist revolutionaries in Spain. Stalin was interested in security for the Soviet Union. He was worried that his alliance with France would be weakened by France having a fascist Spain on one border and a fascist Germany on the other.

The United States remained neutral, as did Britain and the Popular Front government in France. Members of Britain's government looked with disdain upon the chaos that had accompanied the Popular Front coming to power in Spain. They viewed Spain's Popular Front as stepping stone toward a Bolshevik-style revolution. Franco, moreover, maintained good relations with Britain's government, assuring it that he would make no territorial agreements with Italy or Germany and that he would leave Britain secure in holding its navy base at Gibraltar. The British government believed that a regime under Franco would be more stable than one under Spain's Leftists.

Churchill agreed with his government's neutrality toward Spain, and he favored France remaining neutral, stating that if France sided with Spain's Popular Front it would be a godsend to the pro-Germans in France. The Popular Front government in France feared that if it gave more help to the government in Spain, the civil war there might spill into France. France supplying Spain's government with aircraft created a strong protest from the British government, and France refrained from any additional help to Spain's government.

On November 6, 1939, Franco's forces captured Madrid, forcing the government to flee to Valencia (war map), at the middle of Spain's Mediterranean coastline. Franco believed that a slow and thorough victory was the best means of ridding Spain of socialism, anarchism, communism, liberal democracy and Free Masonry. He hoped that those Leftists not killed in the war would be forced into exile and that enemies remaining in Spain after the war would be too traumatized and too weak to offer opposition to his regime.

The forces under Franco committed atrocities, but so too did the forces fighting for the Popular Front. It is no longer disputed that by the end of 1936 between seven and ten thousand members of the Catholic clergy met violent deaths. This included hundreds of nuns and over a dozen bishops. note42

Ernest Hemingway, who was sympathetic toward the government side in the war was, however, inspired to describe some of their atrocities in his novel For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Pope Pius XI was inspired to speak out not only against Spain's Popular Front government but also against what he described as the Bolshevism behind it, which he said "had already given proof of its will to subvert all orders, from Russia to China, from Mexico to South America."

The burning of churches and killing of nuns and other acts inspired by passion and hate failed. It had become the turn of the Right to act with ferocity. Thousands of supporters of democracy and the Popular Front government were imprisoned, and according to conservative estimates between 10,000 and 28,000 were executed. Others have calculated these deaths at from 50,000 to 200,000 – what became known as the Fierce Slaughter (la Feroz Matanza). note43

Sources

Homage to Catalonia, by George Orwell, 1952

Franco: a Concise Biography, Gabrielle Ashford Hodges, 2002

Between Two Fires, Chapter VI, "Death in the Afternoon," by David Clay Large, 1990

The Spanish Civil War as a Religious Tragedy, by J.M. Sánchez, 1987

Copyright © 2010-2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.

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