Spain Table of Contents
Figure 4. Territorial Control During the Spanish Civil War, 1936-37
Civilians observing an aerial dogfight during the Civil War
Courtesy Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
Gil Robles's influence, as a spokesman for the right in the new parliament, waned. The National Block, a smaller coalition of monarchists and fascists led by Jose Calvo Sotelo, who had sought the army's cooperation in restoring Alfonso XIII, assumed CEDA's role. Calvo Sotelo was murdered in July 1936, supposedly in retaliation for the killing of a police officer by fascists. Calvo Sotelo's death was a signal to the army to act on the pretext that the civilian government had allowed the country to fall into disorder. The army issued a pronunciamiento. A coup was expected, however, and the urban police and the workers' militia loyal to the government put down revolts by army garrisons in Madrid and Barcelona. Navy crews spontaneously purged their ships of officers. The army and the left rejected the eleventh-hour efforts of Indalecio Prieto (who had succeeded Azana as prime minister) to arrive at a compromise.
The army was most successful in the north, where General Emilio Mola had established his headquarters at Burgos (see fig. 4). North-central Spain and the Carlist strongholds in Navarre and Aragon rallied to the army. In Morocco, elite units seized control under Franco, Spain's youngest general and hero. Transport supplied by Germany and Italy ferried Franco's African army, including Moorish auxiliaries, to Andalusia. Franco occupied the major cities in the south before turning toward Madrid to link up with Mola, who was advancing from Burgos. The relief of the army garrison besieged at Toledo, however, delayed the attack on Madrid and allowed time for preparation of the capital's defense. Army units penetrated the city limits, but they were driven back, and the Nationalists were able to retain the city.
A junta of generals, including Franco, formed a government at Burgos, which Germany and Italy immediately recognized. Sanjurjo, who had been expected to lead the army movement, was killed in a plane crash during the first days of the uprising. In October 1936, Franco was named head of state, with the rank of generalissimo and the title el caudillo (the leader).
When he assumed leadership of the Nationalist forces, Franco had a reputation as a highly professional, career-oriented, combat soldier, who had developed into a first-rate officer. Commissioned in the army at the age of eighteen, he had volunteered for service in Morocco, where he had distinguished himself as a courageous leader. Serious, studious, humorless, withdrawn, and abstemious, he had won the respect and the confidence of his subordinates more readily than he had won the comradeship of his brother officers. At the age of thirty-three, he had become the youngest general in Europe since Napoleon Bonaparte.
Franco opposed Sanjurjo in 1932; still, Azana considered Franco unreliable and made him captain general of the Canaries, a virtual exile for an ambitious officer. Though by nature a conservative, Franco did not wed himself to any particular political creed. On taking power, he set about to reconcile all right-wing, antirepublican groups in one Nationalist organization. The Falange, a fascist party founded by Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera (the dictator's son), provided the catalyst. The Carlists, revived after 1931, merged with the Falange in 1937, but the association was never harmonious. Jose Antonio's execution by the Republicans provided the Falange with a martyr. The more radical of the early Falange programs were pushed aside by more moderate elements, and the Nationalists' trade unionism was only a shadow of what Jose Antonio had intended. The Nationalist organization did keep its fascist facade, but Franco's strength lay in the army.
Nationalist strategy called for separating Madrid from Catalonia (which was firmly Republican), Valencia, and Murcia (which the republic also controlled). The Republicans stabilized the front around Madrid, defending it against the Nationalists for three years. Isolated Asturias and Vizcaya, where the newly organized Basque Republic fought to defend its autonomy without assistance from Madrid, fell to Franco in October 1937. Otherwise the battlelines were static until July 1938, when Nationalist forces broke through to the Mediterranean Sea south of Barcelona. Throughout the Civil War, the industrial areas--except Asturias and the Basque provinces--remained in Republican hands, while the chief food-producing areas were under Nationalist control.
The republic lacked a regular trained army, though a number of armed forces cadres had remained loyal, especially in the air force and the navy. Many of the loyal officers were either purged or were not trusted to hold command positions. The workers' militia and independently organized armed political units like those of the Trotskyite Workers' Party of Marxist Unification (Partido Obrero de Unificacion Marxista--POUM) bore the brunt of the fighting in the early months of the Civil War. For example, the anarchist UGT militia and the Assault Guards (the urban police corps established by the Republic to counterbalance the Civil Guard--Guardia Civil--the paramilitary rural police who were generally considered reactionary) crushed the army garrison in Barcelona. Moscow provided advisers, logistics experts, and some field-grade officers. Foreign volunteers, including more than 2,000 from the United States, formed the International Brigade. The communists pressed for, and won, approval for the creation of a national, conscript Republican army.
The Soviet Union supplied arms and munitions to the republic from the opening days of the Civil War. France provided some aircraft and artillery. The republic's only other conduit for arms supply was through Mexico. The so-called spontaneous revolutions that plagued the industrial centers hampered arms production within Spain.
Nationalist strength was based on the regular army, which included large contingents of Moroccan troops and battalions of the Foreign Legion, which Franco had commanded in Africa. The Carlists, who had always maintained a clandestine militia (requetes), were among Franco's most effective troops, and they were employed, together with the Moroccans, as a shock corps. Italian dictator Benito Mussolini (Fascist premier, 1922- 45) dispatched more than 50,000 Italian "volunteers" (most of them army conscripts) to Spain, along with air and naval units. The German Condor Legion, made infamous by the bombing of Guernica, provided air support for the Nationalists and tested the tactics and the equipment used a few years later by the Luftwaffe (German air force). Germany and Italy also supplied large quantities of artillery and armor, as well as the personnel to use this weaponry.
A nonintervention commission, including representatives from France, Britain, Germany, and Italy, was established at the Lyon Conference in 1936 to stem the flow of supplies to both sides. France and Britain were concerned that escalating foreign intervention could turn Spain's Civil War into a European war. The commission and coastal patrols supplied by the signatory powers were to enforce an embargo. The net effect of the nonintervention agreement was to cut off French and British aid to the republic. Germany and Italy did not observe the agreement. The Soviet Union was not a signatory. By 1938, however, Stalin had lost interest in Spain.
While the Republicans resisted the Nationalists by all available means, another struggle was going on within their own ranks. A majority fought essentially to protect republican institutions. Others, including the communists, were committed to finishing the Civil War before beginning their anticipated revolution. They were, however, resisted by comrades-in-arms--the Trotskyites and anarchists--who were intent on completing the social and political revolution while waging war against the Nationalists.
Largo Caballero, who became prime minister in September 1936, had the support of the Socialists and of the communists, who were becoming the most important political factor in the republican government. The communists, after successfully arguing for a national conscript army that could be directed by the government, pressed for elimination of the militia units. They also argued for postponing the revolution until the fascists had been defeated and encouraged greater participation by the bourgeois parties in the Popular Front. The UGT, increasingly under communist influence, entered into the government, and the more militant elements within it were purged. POUM, which had resisted disbanding its independent military units and merging with the communist-controlled national army, was ruthlessly suppressed as the communists undertook to eliminate competing leftist organizations. Anarchists were dealt with in similar fashion, and in Catalonia a civil war raged within a civil war.
Fearing the growth of Soviet influence in Spain, Largo Caballero attempted to negotiate a compromise that would end the Civil War. He was removed from office and replaced by Juan Negrin, a procommunist socialist with little previous political experience.
The Republican army, its attention diverted by internal political battles, was never able to mount a sustained counteroffensive or to exploit a breakthrough such as that on the Rio Ebro in 1938. Negrin realized that Spaniards in Spain could not win the war, but he hoped to prolong the fighting until the outbreak of a European war, which he thought was imminent.
Barcelona fell to the Nationalists in January 1939, and Valencia, the temporary capital, fell in March. When factional fighting broke out in Madrid among the city's defenders, the Republican army commander seized control of what remained of the government and surrendered to the Nationalists on the last day of March, thus ending the Civil War.
There is as much controversy over the number of casualties of the Spanish Civil War as there is about the results of the 1936 election, but even conservative estimates are high. The most consistent estimate is 600,000 dead from all causes, including combat, bombing, and executions. In the Republican sector, tens of thousands died of starvation, and several hundred thousand more fled from Spain.
Data as of December 1988
Spain Table of Contents