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The Spanish Civil War:  An Overview

Cary Nelson

In a longer historical perspective the Spanish Civil War amounts to the opening battle of World War II, perhaps the only time in living memory when the world confronted—in fascism and Nazism—something like unqualified evil. The men and women who understood this early on and who chose of their own free will to stand against fascism have thus earned a special status in history. Viewed internally, on the other hand, the Spanish Civil War was the culmination of a prolonged period of national political unrest—unrest in a country that was increasingly polarized and repeatedly unable to ameliorate the conditions of terrible poverty in which millions of its citizens lived. Spain was a country in which landless peasants cobbled together a bare subsistence living by following the harvests on vast, wealthy agricultural estates. The hierarchy of the Catholic Church, identifying more with wealthy landowners than with the Spanish people, was in full control of secondary education; education for women seemed to them unnecessary and universal literacy a danger rather than a goal. Divorce was illegal. The military, meanwhile, had come to see itself, rather melodramatically, as the only bulwark against civil disorder and as the ultimate guarantor of the core values of Spanish society.

When a progressive Popular Front government was elected in February 1936, with the promise of realistic land reform one of its key planks, conservative forces immediately gathered to plan resistance. The Spanish Left, meanwhile, celebrated the elections in a way that made conservative capitalists, military officers, and churchmen worried that much broader reform might begin. Rumors of plotting for a military coup led leaders of the Republic to transfer several high-ranking military officers to remote postings, the aim being to make communication and coordination between them more difficult. But it was not enough. The planning for a military rising continued.

The military rebellion took place on July 18, with the officers who organized it expecting a quick victory and a rapid takeover of the entire country. What the military did not anticipate was the determination of the Spanish people, who broke into barracks, took up arms, and crushed the rebellion in key areas like the cities of Madrid and Barcelona. It was at that point that the character of the struggle changed, for the military realized they were not going to win by fiat. Instead they faced a prolonged struggle against their own people and an uncertain outcome. They appealed to fascist dictatorships in Italy, Germany, and Portugal for assistance, and they soon began receiving both men and supplies from Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, and Antonio Salazar.

The 1936 Spanish election had already been widely celebrated as a great victory in progressive publications in Britain, France, and the United States. In the midst of a worldwide depression, the military rising was thus immediately seen as an assault against working people's interests everywhere. But the rapid intervention of German and Italian troops gave what might otherwise have remained a civil war a dramatic international character. Almost from the outset, then, the Spanish Civil War became a literal and symbolic instance of the growing worldwide struggle between fascism and democracy. Indeed, the Republic, the elected government, perceived the country as being invaded by foreign troops. By the time the pilots of Hitler's Condor Legion reduced the Basque's holy city of Guernica to rubble the following April, many in the rest of the world had come to share that opinion as well.

It is important to remember in this context the curiously contradictory character of life during the Great Depression. Hand in hand with widespread poverty and suffering went a certain fervent hope for change and a belief in the possibility of finding collective solutions to common economic problems. The government elected in Spain in 1936 seemed like it would contribute materially to those solutions.

Fascism, on the other hand, presented the forces of reaction in their most violent form. Its territorial ambitions became apparent when Japan invaded Manchuria in the winter of 1931-32 and when Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935. Meanwhile, Hitler elevated religious and racial hatred to national policy almost immediately after establishing his dictatorship in 1933. A relentless series of anti-Semitic campaigns, beginning with a 1933 boycott of Jewish firms and followed by the formal liquidation of Jewish businesses and a prohibition against Jewish doctors continuing their medical practices, culminated in 1935 when Jews were stripped of all rights of citizenship. When Hitler and Mussolini immediately allied themselves with Franco, and when Franco himself began to make pronouncements about conducting a holy war against a progressive conspiracy—rhetoric with long-standing anti-Semitic connotations—the cultural and political status of the Republic's enemies became clear.

In retrospect, it seems possible that world history might have proceeded differently had the democracies taken a strong stand against fascism in Spain in 1936. But they did not. Despite almost universal support for the Republic amongst British intellectuals and widespread support amongst the working classes, the British government preferred not to act. It was not only that they feared anything that might lead to a wider war in Europe, a fear that would eventually lead to the infamous Munich appeasement policy of 1938, but also that British businessmen and a majority of the British Cabinet felt more sympathetic with Franco. Large corporations in America also worked on Franco's behalf. In France, the government's sympathies were with the Republic, but the government was weak and feared not only a wider war but also any acts that might alienate its own military.

After providing the Loyalist government with a score of planes, France decided instead to propose an international policy of Non-Intervention that would bar all foreign aid to Spain. In fact, if Franco and the rebellious generals had been denied Italy's and Germany's aid in the early days of the war, the rebellion might well have collapsed. But Hitler and Mussolini simply ignored the Non-Intervention agreement. Meanwhile, Mexico responded by shipping rifles to the Republic, and the Soviet Union sold the Spanish government arms in exchange for Spain's gold reserves. But it was not enough over time to counter-balance the men and supplies Franco received. Over and over again throughout the war government campaigns would be overwhelmed by superior arms. And just as frequently in the letters that follow you will hear the hope that non-intervention will be overturned. For the Americans this was not an abstract matter. Better machine guns would have kept some of them alive at Jarama. More planes and artillery would have made a difference at the Ebro.

On July 18, 1936, a carefully coordinated series of military uprisings were staged all across Spain. Success or failure sometimes depended on accident or clever strategy. In one small city the military commander pretended to support the Republic, armed the workers, and sent them to help secure Madrid; he then took over for the rebels. In Barcelona, on the other hand, anarchist workers seized arms and put down the rebellion with violent street fighting. After a few days, the rebels held about a third of the country, though there were large stretches of Spain under no real military control. Meanwhile, the government kept control of most of the navy when ships' crews rose up and threw their rebellious officers overboard. That left the rebel generals in serious difficulty, for their best troops, the Army of Africa, were in Morocco with no means of transport to the mainland. At that point Hitler and Mussolini provided support that proved critical—planes to move the Army of Africa, now under command of General Francisco Franco, to Seville. It would be the first major air-lift of troops in military history. Hitler would later observe that "Franco ought to erect a monument to the glory of the Junkers 52. It is this aircraft that the Spanish revolution has to thank for its victory" (Thomas, 370).

The first battles in the field, still in mid-July, took place over the mountain passes that would have given the rebels access to the capital city of Madrid. The people of Madrid had organized into militias based on political affiliation, and these untrained troops paid dearly to defend the passes through the Guadarrama mountains to the city's north. In any case, the battles resulted in a stalemate. The rebels, now calling themselves the Nationalists, began to organize to attack Madrid from the southwest. Four columns moved across the Spanish countryside, systematically murdering government supporters in each town they captured. On October 1 Franco took overall command of the rebel armies. Meanwhile, in the major cities a period of chaos was coming to an end. For a time the militias had carried out summary executions against their enemies, but gradually more centralized control prevailed.

As the rebel columns approached Madrid there was widespread expectation that the city would fall. The government fled to Valencia, leaving the city's defense to General Miaja. Then several remarkable events occurred. On November 7 Madrid's defenders found a highly detailed plan for the conquest of the city on the body of a fascist officer. The plan was so specific that the Loyalists concluded it could not be changed even if the rebels guessed it might have been captured, and it enabled the city to position its best forces exactly where they would do the most good. The following day the first International Brigades marched through the city, signalling world support for the city's defenders and placing a number of people with battlefield experience at key points. That night Fernando Valera, a Republican deputy, read this statement over the air:

Here in Madrid is the universal frontier that separates liberty and slavery. It is here in Madrid that two incompatible civilizations undertake their great struggle: love against hate, peace against war, the fraternity of Christ against the tyranny of the Church . . . . This is Madrid. It is fighting for Spain, for humanity, for justice, and, with the mantle of its blood, it shelters all human beings! Madrid! Madrid!

The Spanish capital had come to stand for something much more than itself; it was now the heart of the world. For a time, indeed, international volunteers often declared themselves off to defend Madrid.

The first volunteers came spontaneously, though their individual decisions were often based in antifascism. A number of foreign nationals were in Barcelona for the "Peoples' Olympiad," scheduled in protest against the 1936 Olympics to be held in Berlin. When the Olympiad was cancelled by the outbreak of war, some of these men and women stayed on to fight. British painter Felicia Brown joined the street fighting in Barcelona and was killed in August. Two British cyclists in France crossed the border and volunteered. André Malraux, the French novelist, organized a squadron of a dozen pilots, the "Escuadrilla España," based first in Barcelona and then in Madrid. Before long, American volunteers were in the skies over Madrid as well.

But perhaps most telling of all decisions to volunteer were those by German and Italian exiles from fascism, some of them escapees from Nazi concentration camps. Some were already living in Barcelona; others made their way to Spain from elsewhere in Europe. It was thus in Spain that German and Italian antifascists in significant numbers took up arms against the fascist powers they could not fight at home. German volunteers formed the Thaelmann Centuria; Italians organized themselves into the Gastone-Sozzi Battalion and the Giustizia e Libertà Column. In all, perhaps 1,000-1,500 foreign volunteers fought in the Barcelona area in the opening two months of the war. Not many lived to see the war's end. Two years later, in September of 1938, other German volunteers, now members of the Thaelmann Battalion in the International Brigades, were occupying a hill of unforgiving rock in the Sierra Pandols west of the Ebro river. They faced a vastly superior fascist force in full counterattack and were ordered to retreat. Their reply came back, saying, in effect, "Sorry, we've retreated before fascism too many times. We're staying." Shortly thereafter their positions were overrun.

The International Brigades themselves became a reality when the Moscow-based Comintern (Communist International) decided to act on Spain's behalf. Negotiations with the Spanish government took place in late October. Stalin's motivations, no doubt, were pragmatic. He probably hoped, for example, to use an alliance to help the Spanish Republic as a way of building a general antifascist alliance with the Western democracies. But it was too soon. That alliance would come, but only after Munich, after Spain had fallen, and after the West tried every imaginable means of appeasing Hitler. In any case, early in November, about the time the attack on Madrid commenced, word reached New York to begin recruiting Americans for service in Spain.

Although the task had to be carried out in secret, it was less difficult than one might think, for antifascism was already intense among the American Left. Indeed, future Lincoln Battalion members were already taking public stands. Poet and journalist Edwin Rolfe began publishing newspaper articles attacking Nazism in 1934. In Philadelphia, Ben Gardner was arrested for disorderly conduct at a demonstration at the German consulate. A pro-German judge sentenced him to a year in the county jail. And in New York harbor in 1935 seaman Bill Bailey scaled the mast of a German passenger ship, the Bremen, that was flying the swastika. With the enraged crew shouting beneath him, Bailey cut the black flag loose and flung it into the water. Two years later these men would all be in Spain.

Despite the diversity of their backgrounds, one may make some generalizations about the Americans who volunteered. The youngest were three eighteen-year-olds, the oldest were fifty-nine and sixty. Over eighty of the volunteers were African Americans, and the International Brigades were entirely integrated. In fact, the Lincoln Battalion was commanded for a time by Oliver Law, an African-American volunteer from Chicago, until he died in battle. It was the first time in American history that an integrated military force was led by an African American officer. Most of the American volunteers were unmarried, although, as their letters reveal, many had relationships back home they tried to sustain by correspondence. Their median age was twenty-seven, their median birth date 1910. About eighteen percent came from New York and most of the rest came from other cities. Perhaps a third were Jews.

By the time large numbers of American volunteers began to arrive in Spain early in 1937, the flamboyant early days of the militias were over. The militias had been reorganized into Mixed Brigades more firmly under government control. In those first months untrained and lightly trained men and women had held the fascist advance at the very outskirts of the capital. Barricades had been thrown up across Madrid's streets in anticipation of fighting in the city itself. As the front stabilized, the University campus overlooking the wooded Casa de Campo on the city's western edge was heavily entrenched, with both sides holding some of the shattered buildings. Mount Garibitas, the highest point in the area, was taken by the fascists and provided a good site from which to shell the city. But the Republic's fully organized People's Army was yet a dream; it would take the bloodletting at Jarama, described in Chapter 3, to persuade many of its necessity. Meanwhile, most Americans passed through the massive fort at Figueras near the border and headed on to Albacete, a provincial capital midway between Madrid and Valencia that was the administrative center for the International Brigades. From there they moved to one of several nearby villages where individual battalions trained.

In March an overconfident Italian-Spanish force commanded by one of Mussolini's Generals, Mario Roatta, suffered an embarrassing defeat at the battle of Guadalajara, northeast of Madrid. That, for all practical purposes, put an end to major assaults on the capital, though it continued to be shelled throughout the war. The next important battles took place in northern Spain, as Franco set out to overrun the isolated Basque provinces loyal to the Republic. On April 26 Hitler's Condor Legions firebombed the ancient Basque town of Guernica, a place of no military importance, and reduced it to rubble. It was the single most telling indication of fascist ruthlessness toward civilians to date, a lesson residents of cities in Europe and England would themselves learn in time. It led Picasso to produce his massive painting "Guernica," perhaps the most famous work of graphic art to come out of the war. Meanwhile, the Spanish government attempted to take pressure off the north with a major offensive west of Madrid in the summer of 1937. It was called the battle of Brunete. Though Franco's northern campaign was delayed, it did not stop. After eighty days of fighting, Bilbao was taken on June 19th, Santander on August 26th.

Meanwhile, the Popular Front government (a coalition of middle-class republicans, moderate socialists, and communists) had endured a civil war within the civil war in Catalonia. The government was about to integrate the remaining Catalan militias into the People's Army, a step the radical Left regarded as "a euphemism for disarmament and repression of the class-conscious revolutionary workers" (Jackson, 119). Believing that the government was exclusively concerned with defeating Franco and indifferent or antagonistic toward the major social revolution needed in Spain, an anti-Stalinist Marxist group, the POUM, provoked several days of rioting and sporadic fighting in early May of 1937 in Barcelona. They were joined by the more radical contingents of Catalonian anarchists. This gave the Spanish communists—a rather small party at the outset of the war that had gained membership and prestige in the months since—the excuse they needed to crush the POUM, a group they reviled beyond reason. In the ensuing crackdown the POUM leader Andrés Nin was taken prisoner and murdered, and other enemies of the Communist Party were tortured. By mid-June the POUM had been declared illegal. For some, this meant the betrayal of all the more utopian aims of the Spanish Left and a certain disillusionment with the cause of the Republic. For others, a crackdown seemed essential because a unified leadership focused on winning the war was indeed necessary; a full social revolution would have to wait until fascism was defeated. What is clear is that the internal dissension on the Left damaged the spirit of resistance in Catalonia. Negotiation and compromise, rather than violence, would have served all parties better in the face of Franco's armies.

Although International Brigade members did not have fully detailed knowledge of events in Barcelona, their letters show consistent antagonism toward the POUM. Moreover, since they were being bombed, strafed, and shot at by Franco's troops, they certainly considered winning the war the first priority. And their own experience confirmed the need for a unified military command that could train recruits; coordinate troop movements with aircraft, artillery, and tanks; and supply food, ammunition, and medical services, tasks that were quite beyond the Catalonian militias.

In any case the ensuing months were taken up for the Lincolns not in intrigue but in battle. Like the perspective of Spanish soldiers in the field, the Lincolns' view of the war was thus quite different from that of those Spanish nationals who were occupied with political struggles in Madrid and Barcelona. The battle of Brunete in the unbelievable heat of July of 1937 was followed by Quinto and Belchite in August and Fuentes de Ebro in October. Then, after a brief period of training, the Lincolns faced the snows of Teruel in January and February of 1938. Taken by the Republic for a time, Teruel was recaptured by a massive Nationalist counterattack in February.

Franco followed up that victory with a major offensive aimed toward the Levante and Catalonia. Launched on March 9, 1938, it involved 100,000 men and over six hundred Italian and German planes. In the histories of the American role in Spain the events are known as "The Great Retreats," for that is what the Republic's forces had to do. They were faced with continuous bombing from the air and a Panzer-style massed tank assault at key points. At the end of the month El Campesino's division made a last stand before the city of Lérida, but Franco's offensive continued. It was to prove the single worst blow against the Republic in nearly two years of war, for on April 15 the rebels reached the Mediterranean and cut the Republic in two. By the end of the month Franco held a fifty-mile stretch of coast. Some felt the war was over, but the Republic held on, buoyed by a brief resupply of arms and by the hope that the democracies would surely now repeal the Non-Intervention policy, for Germany had invaded Austria on March 12. Did the world need still more evidence of fascism's ambitions?

To resist, to hold on, was in part to buy enough time for the world to confront reality. Unfortunately, the British commitment to an appeasement policy was already in place. The Republic now had enough arms for one last great campaign, training and planning for which began immediately. It was to be a crossing of the Ebro in July of 1938, into territory lost in March and April. Initially successful, the Republic's forces were gradually pressed back by the rebel counter-offensive. Even in August or September, arms might have made a difference, but the watershed event of the fall of 1938 was not to be the resupply of Spain's democracy. It was to be Munich.

At the end of September, British and French representatives met with Hitler and Mussolini and granted Hitler Czechoslovakia. Shamefully, Czech representatives were not invited. Meanwhile, with that agreement another unrepresented nation's fate was effectively sealed, for with the signing of the Munich Accord it was clear that the democracies would not stand against fascism in Spain. The Internationals were withdrawn, and Spain fought on alone for several more months. In late November Hitler resupplied the Nationalists with arms. Franco started his final offensive, taking Barcelona in January. At the end of March, Madrid fell. On April 1, 1939, the Spanish Civil War officially came to an end.

For many, however, the suffering was not over. It was not to be a civil war ending in reconciliation, for Franco began a reign of terror aimed at the physical liquidation of all his potential enemies. Concentration camps were set up. Tens of thousands were shot. Mass executions would continue until 1944. Meanwhile, World War II was under way, and many of the volunteers took up arms against fascism again.

References and Recommended Reading

Alvah Bessie, ed. Heart of Spain (New York: Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, 1952). Perhaps the best anthology of poems and short prose pieces about the war.

Peter N. Carroll, The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade: Americans In the Spanish Civil War (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1994). The first book to give a detailed account of the Lincolns' postwar experience, it includes new insights into the civil war as well.

Carl Geiser, Prisoners of the Good Fight (Westport, Conn.: Lawrence Hill & Company, 1986). The story of the Americans who were captured in Spain.

Gabriel Jackson, A Concise History of the Spanish Civil War (New York: John Day, 1974). The best short history of the war as a whole.

Arthur H. Landis, The Abraham Lincoln Brigade (New York: Citadel Press, 1967). Not the most readable book on the Lincolns but immensely valuable as a source of detailed information available nowhere else.

Cary Nelson, ed. Remembering Spain: Hemingway's Civil War Eulogy and the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994). Previously unreleased tape of Hemingway reading his famous eulogy to the American dead, with explanatory essays.

Cary Nelson and Jefferson Hendricks, eds. Madrid 1937: Letters of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade from the Spanish Civil War (New York Routledge, 1996). The first and only major collection of letters written by American volunteers. With color illustrations.

Edwin Rolfe, Collected Poems, ed. Cary Nelson and Jefferson Hendricks (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993). Rolfe was the Lincoln Battalion's poet laureate and the American poet who did the most sustained work on the Spanish Civil War.

Robert A. Rosenstone, Crusade of the Left: The Lincoln Battalion in the Spanish Civil War (New York: Pegasus, 1969). The best narrative account of the Lincolns in battle.

Hugh Thomas, The Spanish Civil War (Revised and enlarged edition, New York: Harper and Row, 1977). The most thorough one-volume general history of the war.

Milton Wolff, Another Hill: An Autobiographical Novel about the Spanish Civil War. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994). Wolff was the Lincoln Battalion's last commander.

Copyright © 2001 by Cary Nelson

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