Spain’s very international civil war

Spain’s army rose up against its left-wing Republican government in July 1936. The civil war that ensued is often viewed as a precursor to the Second World War for the way it sucked in the wider international community. Best-selling military historian Antony Beevor talked to David Musgrove about the conflict and its wide-reaching consequences...

This article was first published in the July 2006 issue of BBC History Magazine

 

Monument to Spanish Civil War © Dreamstime

On 14 April 1931 Spain was declared a republic (for the second time – the first being 1873–4). King Alfonso XIII fled and the new government initiated a sweeping reform agenda, designed to redistribute social and economic power. There was considerable resistance to the reforms of the first Socialist government of the Republic, particularly based on its measures to divorce church from state. This resistance led, in November 1933, to a conservative government being returned to power, putting an end to the left-wing reform programme.

In October 1934, the left attempted to start a revolutionary general strike. This failed and an armed rebellion that resulted in Asturias was forcefully put down by General Franco and the Spanish army. Distrust between left and right grew, and when the left’s Popular Front won the elections of February 1936, with stated aims of re-introducing the reform programme of 1931–33, matters were coming to a head. In July of that year, the army launched a military coup against the Republican government, and thus the civil war began.

Though 27 countries, including Britain, France, the Soviet Union, Germany and Italy, signed a Non-Intervention pact in September 1936, the war did soon take on an international element. Despite signing the pact, the Soviet Union did provide military assistance to the Republicans, and the Nationalist rebels were similarly supported by Nazi Germany and fascist Italy. Britain and France remained theoretically neutral, though in practice Britain was more neutral to the Nationalists than it was to the Republicans. Fighting initially centred around the Nationalists’ attempts to wrest control of Madrid from the Popular Front.

The Republicans held Madrid, and from then the focus was on the Nationalist’s gradual conquest of the north of Spain. With greater international support, the war swung to the Nationalist side and, by February 1939, the Republic was in a state of collapse. In March 1939 the Nationalists finally entered Madrid and on 1 April the Nationalist leader Franco announced the end of hostilities. Following the victory, Franco went on to rule Spain as a ruthless dictator, suppressing all opposition, until his death in November 1975.

DM: It wasn’t long before the Spanish Civil War sucked in the wider international community. The Soviet Union openly supported the Republicans and Germany and Italy the Nationalists. But Britain’s role is less clear. How do you see it?

AB: To a certain degree, I see it as a betrayal of the Republicans. Britain did not have any treaty or moral obligation necessarily, but the behaviour of the non-intervention committee – which may not have been proposed by the British, but was certainly inspired by the British – was fundamentally dishonest. One can debate as to what degree that would actually have changed the outcome of the war. However, the British hypocrisy – pretending to be the international policeman, while flagrantly turning a blind eye towards the way that Germany and the Italians were helping Franco, and at the same time doing quite a lot to prevent the supply of Russian weapons to Republican Spain – was far from even-handed to say the least. Whenever Britain intervened it was not in a particularly fair way.

DM: How important was propaganda in influencing the actions of the international community?

AB: The left lost the propaganda battle at the beginning. Nobody had any idea in the early stages of the war quite how horrific the right was, and the killings that were going on in the right zone. Foreign journalists only tended to go to Barcelona or Madrid and, as their Spanish was never good enough to talk to peasants, they only heard the versions of middle class Spaniards fleeing from the Reds. And the loss of the propaganda war in the early stage was a terrible blow against the Republic.

Many of the early reporters in Spain just wanted to report the initial outbreak, and of course, horror stories sell newspapers. And they weren’t getting the horror stories from the other side of the lines, partly because Franco and his officers made sure that the journalists weren’t around when they took a town. But also because on the Republican side, it was quite obvious what was going on.

It was later in the war, just a few months later, that things started to become a bit more apparent. But by then, the initial effect had already taken hold. Of course, by the bombing of Madrid in the winter of 1936, and certainly after the bombing of Guernica in the following April, the Republic was winning the propaganda battle, but that was no damn good. It was too late; they’d missed the crucial moment. I don’t think that was necessarily a decisive element though.

I think that the Republic was doomed to lose the war anyway, because they could not have the political coherence or the military professionalism and effectiveness of the Nationalists.

DM: One of the most recognisable aspects of the civil war is the presence of the International Brigades, the volunteers who came from across Europe and America to fight for the Republican cause. How important were these troops militarily?

AB: They were significant, because they were given a leading propaganda role. In military terms, the poor guys were used as the spearheads in all the major attacks, which is why they suffered such appalling casualties, but this was purely a Communist propaganda action. So from that point of view, they didn’t achieve very much militarily, only glory, self-sacrifice and lots of suffering. But where they did have an impact – again, it was very much a propaganda effect, but it was still quite powerful in its own way – was in terms of morale.

The sight of the International Brigades marching through Madrid on 9 November brought huge confidence and determination. And this is one of the fascinating things about courage and cowardice – both are infectious in their own way. You can suddenly have mass cowardice which spreads like wildfire, but you can also have mass courage, and that suddenly appeared at Madrid. But in fact it was an absolute con trick because although that first International Brigade was pretty tough – it was, after all, mainly German and very well-disciplined – they weren’t very well-trained. And the subsequent International Brigades were not much better at mounting attacks than the militia were.

DM: It’s very difficult for us here in Britain today to understand how a European country can descend so fully into civil war. Have you been able to get an idea of what was going through the mind of the average Spaniard at the time?

AB: Spaniards would be horrified by the notion that there is such a thing as an average Spaniard. There was no average Spaniard. There were the deeply committed on both sides. But here we’re only talking about a very small proportion of the population. The point is that the system failed – the democratic system by then wasn’t working – and violence in the air became oppressive, particularly in that spring of 1936. At this point, the people, even the moderates, were saying, well something’s got to happen, we can’t go on in this particular limbo.

But the vast majority were horrified, many of them simply couldn’t believe what was happening. Many certainly didn’t realise that the choice of where they were going to spend their summer holidays was quite often a decision of life or death – if they were left-wingers and ended up in right-wing Spain, they were going to be geographically done for, and vice versa.

The mentality of the non-average Spaniard at the time was dismay, fear, a comprehension of the dangers, but a belief that somehow sanity has got to re-establish itself. One of the debates is, was the civil war inevitable after October 1934 and the revolution of the Asturias? Well there is a very good rule in history that nothing is inevitable, and that’s absolutely right and one must always respect that. But if you turn the question round and ask, what were the chances of re-establishing a functioning democracy after that, the answer is, it’s pretty hard to imagine.

Once you get a cycle of fear it’s even more difficult to picture how democracy could have reasserted itself. This was particularly the case here with the background of the Russian Revolution, at which the right was always looking over its shoulder with trepidation while the left was looking back at it as a symbol of hope and of fundamental change in all the injustices in Spanish society. Plus, you also have to add the international context of fascist Italy and Nazi Germany.

DM: You say that the conflict started off more like a First World War battle but by the end was a precursor to techniques used in the Second World War. How did the change come about?

AB: Right at the start, it wasn’t like the First World War. It was totally disorganised. Basically unarmed peasants grabbed hunting rifles and guns wherever they could and dashed out to try to oppose the army, while the army itself was full of reluctant conscripts. Then you get a process of militarisation on both sides, where instead of having columns of totally unorganised militia on the Republican side, and columns of legionnaires on the other, you start getting battalions, brigades and divisions. But that very process was bound to be reactionary in military terms because people will look back to the most recent conflict.

That was what made the fighting similar to the First World War. The battle for Madrid was the first example, where they were starting to dig trenches. These are an effective way of stopping soldiers from running away – they’re in a hole in the ground and they feel slightly more secure because they’ve got buddies to the left and right.

By the Battle of the Jarama, and this is only February 1937, you’re starting to get air-ground co-ordination. It might not have been very good, but it’s starting, particularly on the Nationalist side. The Nationalists were much better at this, largely because of the support of the Germans.

The Republicans tried to co-ordinate their forces, but simply weren’t anywhere near so effective. It’s at this point that one’s starting to see the first hints of the Second World War, even though they’re basically fighting trench warfare with attacks across open ground against machine gun positions. It may have lacked the barbed wire, but everything else is more or less there. And that’s true of most of the battles – it was basically trench warfare.

The problem for the Republic was that, having created quite an effective military operation, it then went and destroyed its own army with a series of ridiculous set-piece offences. This is one of the main reasons why it lost so rapidly. Worse still, the Republicans didn’t learn their lesson, and that is quite astonishing.

The reason why they carried on in this blind obstinacy was because of the influence of Soviet Communist policy. This was based on the need to prove that the Republic was a conventional state and the Republican army was a conventional army using conventional tactics. Their only chance really was effective defence with semi-guerrilla type offences to distract Nationalist attacks. This whole idea of launching spectacular offences was simply disastrous. When your geopolitical strategy – if that’s not too grand a term for it – is to survive until the Second World War breaks out because that’s the only hope for the Republic, it’s a huge gamble to go on the offensive.

That was the way that political ideology destroyed the Republican strategy. Very clearly, it was the Republicans who lost the civil war rather than the Nationalists who won. Franco’s generalship was probably no better than that of the Republicans. He was a brilliant politician, a real Machiavellian statesman, but as far as the organisation of major formations on the battlefield goes, he was useless.

Antony Beevor is the author of the prize-winning histories Crete – the Battle and the Resistance, Paris After the Liberation and Stalingrad. His The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939 was published in Spain in September 2005. The English edition was released in 2006. 

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