Why the Spanish Civil War is Still Important

The history of the Twentieth Century is one written in blood.  Between two world wars, the procession of genocides from Armenia to Stalin to the Holocaust, China and the Killing Fields, millions seemed to vanish for causes that are better hated than understood.  Is there one conflict that we can look at than encapsulates the century better than others?  Although it’s forgotten outside its home country today, I think it’s fair to say that the Spanish Civil War should top the list.  Just about every ideology that dominated the century was represented there, either by Spanish adherents, foreign ones, or both.  And the combination of the conflict’s intensity and the tendency of the participants to romanticise their own cause and demonise their opponents’ certainly has lessons for our own polarised society today.

Probably the best single volume work on the subject in English is Hugh Thomas’ The Spanish Civil War.  He later acted as an adviser to Margaret Thatcher.  Most of what follows is derived from this work.

The existence of Spanish Latin America, from the Rio Bravo del Norte to the Tierra del Fuego–and beyond–is a testament to Spain as a world power for three centuries.  Napoleon’s invasion, with the loss of most of the American colonies, put it into more than a century of instability, ranging from absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy to succession disputes (the Carlists) to the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera and finally to the Spanish Republic, which was established in 1931.

Through all of this, like France and Italy, Spain was a country with a wide variety of political parties, a system which tended towards fragmentation.  On the left were the Socialists, Anarchists, Communists (whose role increased as the war progressed) and other parties supporting the Republic.  On the right were Catholic parties (CEDA,) Monarchists and Carlists, Falangists and Agrarians.  There were some parties in the centre.  Complicating the scene (then and now) were the regional parties, primarily the Catalan and Basque parties, which themselves had an ideological range.  The one thing that Spanish parties had in common was a intensity of commitment to their cause that was extremely bore-sighted, first figuratively and soon literally in the war.

Most Americans will be surprised that Anarchism was a serious political movement, associating it as a fringe terrorist group involved with the assassination of President William McKinley.  In Spain it certainly was serious; the idea that we didn’t have to have a government had traction.  As Thomas explains:

To these a great new truth seem to have been proclaimed.  The State, being based upon ideas of obedience and authority, was morally evil.  In its place, there should be self-governing bodies–municipalities, professions, or other societies–which would make voluntary pacts with each other.  Criminals would be punished by the censure of public opinion.

The last point indicates that they were waiting for the advent of social media…the Anarchists on the one hand and the Socialists and Communists on the other had a great deal of bad blood between them going back to Marx and Bakunin, and this conflict bedeviled the Republic’s war effort when crunch time came.

With a Republic came a constitution, and at this point the Republican-Socialist majority made a strategic error: they decided to make the document a political one, embodying their own idea rather than creating a document acceptable to a broad range of Spaniards.  No where was that more evident than in its anticlerical clauses regarding the Catholic Church: religious education was ended, the Jesuits were banished, no more payment of salaries to priests (which were compensation for the seizure of the Church’s lands in the last century,) etc.   Overplaying one’s hand is a hallmark of religious conflicts; that was certainly the case in France, but in Spain the shoe was on the other foot.  One tireless advocate of these measures–even in face of opposition in his own coalition–was Prime Minister Manuel Azaña, who would play such a large role in the coming civil war.

Some of Azaña’s confidence that he would succeed in his quest–a quest whose genesis came from his own bad experiences in the Catholic educational system–came from the desultory way in which Spaniards related to the Church.  In 1931 only about a third of Spaniards were practicing Catholics, this in the home country of the Inquisition.  But under that low level, Spaniards wrapped their identity as such with the Church, and same Church was an instrument of social justice in many instances.  In their hard-line anti-clerical policies Azaña and his allies made unnecessary enemies which would come back to haunt them on the battlefield.

The next four years were times of conflict and instability that rivalled France’s Fourth Republic (to say nothing of postwar Italy.)  The elections of February 1936 brought a strong majority to the Republican Popular Front.  The right felt it had been cornered.  In July, part of the military rose at two ends of the Republic: in Spanish Morocco and the Canary Islands, under Francisco Franco, and in the North, under Emilio Mola.  The Spanish Civil War had begun.

From a military standpoint, as was the case with its American counterpart, the war was the steady advance of one side (in this case the Nationalists, eventually under Franco) and the steady retreat of the other (the Republicans, with Azaña as its president at the start.  As also with that war, the details in between were complicated, and only a cursory summary can be done here.

The basic reason why the Nationalists won the Spanish Civil War was that their military organisation was superior and coherent.  The Nationalists had a real army; in the early stages, the Republicans had a collection of political militias.  Only as the war progressed did Soviet and Communist influence help to weld the Republican military together, and by then it was too late.  This was also reflected politically; the Anarchists, Socialists, Communists, Catalan and Basque nationalists and other made for a fragmented scene that consistently undermined the Republic’s attempts at a united front.  They spent a great deal of energy fighting each other, and this contributed to the Republic’s defeat.  That result is always the great “Antifa” fear, one that dominates their thinking to this day.

The Spanish Civil War became a proxy war for the various powers in Europe, themselves preparing for the much greater war that was coming.  It wasn’t a straightforward or uniform process.  Starting with the Nationalists, the one power that was “all in” for Franco was Italy, who contributed more support than just about anyone else.  Much of this support left something to be desired of; Franco, for example, wished that he could sent the Italian ground troops back, finding them as useless as Hitler shortly did.  Hitler and the Germans used the Condor Legion as a military experiment for their equipment and strategy, which they put to use in Poland and France.  Their support of the Nationalists was not entirely enthusiastic; at one point Hitler wished that the Republicans would win to crush the Catholic Church, for him a desired result.

The Republic’s foreign aid was, if anything, more desultory than the Nationalists.  The power that corresponded to Italy for the Republic was the Soviet Union, although their aid was sidetracked from time to time by events at home, namely Stalin’s purges and then the pact with Germany.  They also used that aid to forward the Communist’s status in the Republic, usually at the expense of the Anarchists.  As far as Britain and France were concerned, the 1930’s were the “decade of indecision.”  As one right-wing French paper observed, how was France (then under Leon Blum) supposed to help the Spanish Republic if they couldn’t keep the Germans from reoccupying the Rhineland?  Ultimately these two lead the Non-Intervention movement, which included Germany and Italy, and this amounted to having two foxes guard two chicken coops.  In any case their lack of support for the Republic was one cause of its defeat.

But the Spanish Civil War was the golden age of “volunteers,” from all over Europe and the US.  Not even World War II excited intellectuals and writers from these places like this conflict did, and many of them fought–and died–for the Republic.  The International Brigades were the stuff of legend, a phenomenon recently replicated in Syria (which is a good recent analogy for the brutality of the Spanish conflict, at the opposite end of the Mediterranean.)

Mentioning brutality brings up the subject of the atrocities, and there were plenty.  Most people think of Guernica, whose bombing was a complete waste in every sense of the word.  (Guernica is the sacred city of the Basques, with its tree, the way the Basques look at it echoes something out of J.R.R. Tolkien.)  The majority of the brutality, however, was more direct and personal.  The rule on both sides was to shoot first, no questions later.  The difference between the two sides was the context of the brutality.  The Republicans kicked off things with a massacre of Catholic religious and the destruction of churches.  Later the Communists would import techniques of torture and execution from the Soviet Union.   In executing most of the pre-war right-wing leadership, the Republicans did Franco a favour by clearing the field of most of his potential political rivals when the war was done.  The Nationalists did their dirty work, as with the fighting, in a more methodical manner.  The brutality of each side sickened their respective intellectuals, which is more than one could say for their foreign counterparts.

Although the Nationalists became the champions of Catholic religion in Spain, that process was not instantaneous.  Franco was indifferent to the faith (his wife, however, was not.)  The Falange was largely secular; the existence of a secular right was certainly a reality in those days and is becoming one again with the alt-right movement.  The use of Catholicism to bind the Nationalists together was a process encouraged by the conflict, another by-product of the Republic’s overreach in that regard.

Franco’s ultimate victory–just before the outbreak of World War II–was followed by his neutrality.  For all of his faults, Franco had no territorial ambitions beyond Spain and its existing colonies (Morocco had furnished him some of his toughest fighters) and was a profoundly cautious man.  Hitler tried to get him to join the Axis, but his was one of the few people who stiffed Hitler and got away with it.

After Franco’s death, Spain finally got a constitutional monarchy with a Republican political bent.  Franco got what the Romans called damnatio memoriae, he cannot be mentioned.   For the most part the social issues that helped push Spain leftward have been resolved in the modern welfare state, with the good and bad that goes with that.  But issues such as Basque and Catalan separatism–and of course the perennial issue of the Catholic Church–still remind us that the issues for which 600,000 people died are still very much with it.

And not just for Spain either.  It is hard to convey the relevance of the Spanish Civil War in a piece this short.  The polarisation, the heated rhetoric, the refusal for anyone to see the broader picture–all of these things are very much with us, and if we do not take some lessons from Spain’s experience–the most riveting single story of the Twentieth Century–than we risk having our own nation go down the same road.

One Reply to “Why the Spanish Civil War is Still Important”

  1. Hi Don, as an Anglican priest serving in Spain I want to thank you for sharing this. It is a great effort to pack a whole bunch of info into a small place. Yet you manage to do it while still enunciating the complexities and long term effect of the event. Thanks so much.

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