Project outline

Spanish Civil War – The objective is to examine the causes of the war, history of it and countries that sent volunteers in support.

Research Information

The Spanish Civil War

The Spanish Civil War started in 1936 and finished in 1939.

The forces on the right were lead by Generals Franco and Sanjurjo. They were known as Nationalists.

The forces on the left were lead by Azana and were known as Republicans.

At the start of the war, the cities of Cadiz, Saragossa, Seville and Burgos declared their support for the Nationalists.

Madrid, Barcelona, Bilbao and Valencia declared for the Republicans.

The Nationalists received help from Nazi Germany in the form of the Condor Legion from the Luftwaffe - Germany's air force. 50,000 "volunteers" from Mussolini's Italy also helped the Nationalists.

The Republicans received help from Russia. Stalin sent advisers and technicians. An International Brigade comprising of volunteers from all over the world also helped the Republicans.

However, the Nationalists held the advantage in the sense that those who fought for them were professionals – the "volunteers" from Italy went to fight with Mussolini’s approval and many of these volunteers had a military background. The Republicans relied on real volunteers; many held idealistic beliefs but had minimal military training.

At the start of the war, the military strength of the Nationalists gave them the upper hand. By the end of 1936, 50% of Spain was controlled by the military including the whole of the border with Portugal – a vital supply route.

In the east and north, the Basques and Catalans held out far more effectively and the impact of the Nationalists here was minimal.

Franco decided that the only way to succeed was to split the Republicans in half. The crucial battle here was the Battle of Guadalajara which the Nationalists lost. This ended their attempt to split the Republicans in half in that year. However, the capture of Bilbao in 1937 was an important victory for the Nationalists.

The Nationalists were far more successful in 1938. By August 1938, the Republicans had been split and by December the Nationalists had been successful in Catalan. However, throughout the whole of 1938, Madrid held out.

In 1939, Republican resistance all but collapsed. The various factions in the Republican movement were at odds as to what to do and Russia withdrew its support for them. By 1939, it was only a matter of time before the Nationalists won. Barcelona fell in January 1939, Valencia and Madrid surrendered in March 1939 and the Republicans unconditionally surrendered on April 1st.

The war is thought to have cost 500,000 lives though official figures have now put the casualty figure as high as 1 million.

The war also witnessed the first ever deliberate aerial bombing of a city. On April 27th 1937, the ancient city of the Basques – Guernica – was bombed and destroyed by the Condor Legion of Germany. For Hitler it was a useful experiment into the value of bombing civilian targets. For the Nationalists, it took out a city of spiritual importance for the Basques. For Europe, the warning posed by this bombing was obvious. Hence the attempts by Chamberlain and Daladier to create a formula for Europe to avoid any chance of a repetition of Guernica. Aerial bombing and its consequences were to terrify western Europe.

The Causes of the Spanish Civil War

What were the causes of the Spanish Civil War? Between 1936 and 1939 over 500,000 people were killed in the Spanish Civil War so this cannot be considered a 'little' war that was overshadowed by the problems that were occurring in Europe during these years.

In 1920, Spain was a constitutional monarchy. The king was Alfonso XIII.

However, the government was inefficient and corrupt. In 1921, an army was sent to Spanish Morocco to put down a rebellion. It was massacred but this defeat seemed to emphasise just how corrupt and incompetent Spain’s leadership was.

In 1923, Spain experienced a bloodless coup when Alfonso agreed that General Primo de Rivera should take control of Spain. He ruled as a military dictator until 1930. Rivera’s approach to leadership was fully supported by Alfonso.

However, Rivera did not display the classic features of a dictator. He introduced public works schemes building roads and irrigating the land. Industrial production increased by three times from 1923 to1930. Rivera also ended the rebellion in Morocco in 1925.

However, the depression of the 1930’s hit Spain hard. Unemployment rose and Rivera did not have the ability to sort out Spain’s financial mess. The army withdrew its support and Rivera had to resign.

In April 1931, elections were held in Spain which resulted in republicans winning all the major cities in Spain. Alfonso decided to abdicate as he feared that if he stayed on, Spain would plummet into turmoil. Those victorious at the election then declared Spain a republic and monarchy was abolished.

The new republic immediately faced a number of major problems: Two important regions in Spain wanted independence – Catalonia and the Basque region. Had their requests been successful, it would have lead to the break-up of Spain.

The Roman Catholic Church was hostile to the republic and the republic was hostile to the highly influential Roman Catholic Church.

The government believed that the army had too much say in politics and determined to reduce its influence.

Spain was primarily an agricultural nation and the 1930’s Depression had hit prices for crops. Prime exports such as olive oil and wine fell in value and previously used agricultural land fell into disuse.

The little industry that Spain had was also hit by the Depression. Iron and steel were especially hit as no-one had the money to pay for the products. Iron production fell by 33% and steel by 50%.

Unemployment in both agriculture and industry rose and those in work had to put up with a cut in wages as the economy struggled to survive the Depression.

The Republic faced losing the support of those whose support it desperately needed – the working class.

Those who governed Spain had differing views on what to do. The wishes of the left alarmed those on the right and vice versa. Political infighting was in danger of pushing Spain into social revolution.

The middle ground in Spain’s parliament – the socialists and middle-class radicals – did try to resolve outstanding problems. Catalonia did receive some degree of self-government.

The historic privileges of the Roman Catholic Church were attacked. Priests were no longer paid by the state. Their salaries now came out of the Roman Catholic Church’s purse. The government and the Roman Catholic Church were made two separate entities. Jesuits – seen as hard line Roman Catholics - were expelled from Spain – ironically the country that had founded the movement. Religious education in schools was stopped.

Many army officers were made to retire early. The huge estates in Spain were nationalised i.e. taken over by the government which would control what was done on them etc.

The wages of those who worked in industry were increased but they were to be paid by the owners of those industries not by the government.

The government tried to attack those it deemed as having too many privileges in society. But by doing this it angered all those sectors in society that had the potential to fight back – the military, industrialists, land owners and the Roman Catholic Church.

These four (potentially very powerful bodies) were unwilling to support the republican government in Madrid. They were also aware that there were countries in Europe that would be willing to give support to their plight as many nations in Europe were scared of communism and Stalin’s Russia. Fascist Italy under Mussolini would be an obvious ally as would Germany once Hitler had got power in January 1933.

In January 1932, a number of army officers tried to overthrow the government lead by Manuel Azana, the prime minister. The attempt was unsuccessful as the army, for now, was loyal to the government – after all, it had won the elections fairly and, therefore, had legitimacy. However, a new political party was formed called the Ceda. This was a right wing party dedicated to protecting the authority of the Roman Catholic Church and landlords.

The government of Azana, having lost support from the right, also lost support from the left. Two powerful left wing political parties, the anarchists and syndicalists (powerful trade union groups), felt that Azana’s government was too middle of the road.

Both wanted a more communistic state and the overthrow of capitalism. Above all, Azana was despised for forming a political union with the middle ground in Spain’s political life. He was deemed to have betrayed the working class. The extreme left organised strikes and riots in an effort to destabilise the government of Azana.

Matters came to a head when in January 1933, 25 people were killed by government troops who were attempting to catch some anarchists near Cadiz. This lost the government a great deal of support among the working class and the socialists withdrew their support from the government. Azana resigned as prime minister and elections were called for November 1933.

In this election, the right wing won a majority of support and the largest party in the parliament (known as the Cortes), was the Ceda lead by Gil Robles.

The new right wing government immediately over-turned all of the changes brought in by the Azana government. This angered many but especially the Catalans who had their privileges withdrawn. This was a serious error of judgement as the Catalans and Basques had supported the government in the elections. The way ahead for Robles became clear to many – an attack on the left wing parties of Spain.

It forced the many parties of the left to come together to form the Popular Front. They organised strikes, riots and took part in acts of violence such as derailing main line trains. In 1934 there was a general strike. Coal miners in the Asturias went on strike but were ruthlessly put down by the army lead by General Franco. Spain appeared to be heading for all out chaos. In a last minute attempt to avoid serious trouble, a general election was called for February 1936. In this election, the Popular Front won and Azana, once again became prime minister.

However, the government of the Popular Front was a farce after the socialists withdrew their support from it; more and more public disturbances occurred and the government had clearly lost control of Spain. In July 1936, a leading right wing politician, Sotelo, was murdered and the right wing politicians and their supporters believed that they were now in serious danger. They wanted to put their faith in a military dictatorship.

The military had, in fact, already made preparations for a takeover of Spain. General Franco assumed control of the military. He took control of Spanish Morocco after overthrowing the civilian government there. His next target was to invade mainland Spain, establish a military government there and rid the country of all those involved in left wing politics. The left would have to fight for survival. The civil war started in July 1936.

Spanish Civil War.


1936 to 1939: A military rising originating in Morocco, headed by General Francisco Franco, spreads rapidly all over the country, thus starting the Spanish Civil War.

After a number of bloody battles in which fortunes changed from one side to the other, the 'nacionales' finally prevailed and made a victorious entry into Madrid (March 28th, 1939).

Significant Events:

1936: The tragic death of Calvo Sotelo had the effect of accelerating a military coup that had been under preparation for a long time. Actually, the conspirators had been awaiting General Franco's decision to begin the uprising. On July 18th it spread to other garrisons in metropolitan Spain and the following day Franco took command of the army in Morocco. The rising was succesful in Seville (directed by General Queipo de Llano), the Balearic Islands (General Goded), the Canary Islands and Morocco (Franco), Navarra (Mola), Burgos and Saragossa. General Yague advanced through Extremadura and Mola took Irun. By the end of 1936 the Nationalist troops controlled the greater part of Andalucia, Extremadura, Toledo, Avila, Segovia, Valladolid, Burgos, Leon, Galicia, a part of Asturias, Vitoria, San Sebastian, Navarra and Aragon, as well as the Canary and Balearic Islands with the exception of Menorca. Castilla la Nueva, Catalunya, Valencia, Murcia, Almeria, Gijon and Bilbao remained in Republican hands.

The Republican government formed a coalition Cabinet headed by Giralt which was succeeded by another one under Largo Caballero. It brought the CNT (Confederacion Nacional de Trabajo, the anarcho-syndicalist union) into the Cabinet and moved to Valencia. On September 29, the Junta de Defensa Nacional named Franco head of the government and commander of the armed forces. To offset these circumstances, the Republican government created a Popular army and militarized the militia. Both sides were soon receiving aid from abroad: the International Brigades were supporting Republican Spain and Italian and German troops, Nationalist Spain.

Jarama, Brunete, Quinto, Belchite, Fuentes de Ebro, Teruel, The Retreats and The Ebro are the battlegrounds of the Spanish Civil War in which over twelve hundred Canadian soldiers supporting Republican Spain took part. These men created the most unique military unit in the history of Canada: the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion of the XVth International Brigade of the Spanish Republican Army: 'the Mac-Paps.'

1937: The year 1937 was characterized by fighting in the north of the country: Guernica was bombed in April, Bilbao taken in June, Santander in August, and Gijon in October. The reaction of the Republicans was to open fronts in Guadalajara (March),Brunete (July), and Belchite (August). The Battle of Teruel was launched at the end of the year.

1938: The Nationalist transferred their efforts to Aragon, recovered Teruel and divided the Republican zone in two parts after entering Castellon in July 1938. The government replied with the so-called Battle of the Ebro (July-November 1938) which ended with a Republican defeat and 70,000 casualties.

1939: Once government resistance was exhausted, the Republican exile began with many Spaniards fleeing accross the border into France. Catalunya fell on February 10, 1939. Madrid was the only city still resisting, and the proposals of peace made by its Junta de Defensa (headed by Casado and Besteiro) were useless. Nationalist forces occupied the capital on March 28, 1939, and on April 1, General Franco officially ended the war.


Monument to Spanish Civil War volunteers to be dedicated Oct.14

The first major monument in the United States to American volunteers in the Spanish Civil War will be dedicated at 2 p.m., Oct. 14 in the auditorium of the Husky Union Building (HUB) at the University of Washington.

The monument, which was privately financed, is located just to the west of the HUB. It consists of a block of granite on which a sculpted bronze plaque has been mounted. The plaque honors the 11 University of Washington students, 3,000 Americans and 40,000 international volunteers who fought in the International Brigades between 1936 and 1939. The plaque was executed by sculptor David Ryan of Oakland, Calif.

The dedication of the monument culminates a local effort, spearheaded by the Veterans of the American Lincoln Brigade and Friends in Washington, to honor the Americans who volunteered to fight fascism on the battlefields of Spain in what turned out to be the prelude to World War II.

The Spanish army, led by Francisco Franco, rebelled against the elected Spanish government in July 1936. The regular army was met with resistance by a quickly organized defense force consisting of workers, peasants, students and intellectuals. Though poorly armed, the defenders of the Republic defeated the army in the major cities of Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia.

Germany and Italy intervened in support of the rebellion. The first military airlift ever occurred when Nazi planes transported Franco's troops to battle. Italy sent airplanes, tanks, trucks and some 47,000 ground troops. Nazi planes conducted the first saturation bombing of a defenseless civilian target when they obliterated the town of Guernica.

England and France, hoping to appease Hitler, adopted a policy of non-intervention and instituted an arms embargo against Republican Spain. The U.S. also denied arms to the Republic, while oil supplied by American companies fueled rebel tanks and planes.

The world communist movement, pursuing the policy of a popular front against fascism, recruited and organized volunteers. Anti-fascist volunteers of all political persuasions volunteered for the International Brigades; 40,000 volunteers from 53 countries traveled to Spain to defend the Republic. Among these volunteers were 3,000 Americans, who had to travel first to France and then by boat or by foot to Spain, where their passports were not valid.

Nearly half of the volunteers in what became known as the American Lincoln Brigade died in battle. When the U.S. entered World War II, nearly every able-bodied veteran of the brigade volunteered again for military service.

Only 5 percent of Lincoln Brigade are still alive. In 1996, the Spanish government granted honorary citizenship to the surviving volunteers of the International Brigades.

Monuments to members of the International Brigades are found throughout Europe, but recognition in America has been absent. The only notoriety many brigade members received was being subjected to investigations in the 1950s for participation in leftist organizations.

"Seattle is an appropriate place for this monument because of its long history as the home of progressive movements," said Anthony Geist, UW associate professor of Spanish and Portuguese studies.

"But the greatest amount of credit should go to the local Lincoln Brigade veterans, who have continued to be active in social movements and who have worked to hard to make sure this monument was built."

Bob Reed, who has headed up the local veterans' group, said, "I am proud and happy that this is finally happening here." Several years ago, Reed donated his personal papers from the Spanish Civil War era to the UW Libraries.

The veterans also have been interested in passing on their experiences through education. Abe Osheroff, who also has been involved in establishing the monument, has taught in several UW classes about his experiences in the Spanish Civil War and will be teaching again this spring. "I think the participation of young people in our ceremony is especially important," he said.