The Spanish Civil War

The Spanish Civil War of 1936 to 1939 was one of the most significant conflicts of its kind in Europe ever. It can also be seen as a precursor to World War Two
It started at a time of great political turmoil and divisions in Spain, with right-wing Nationalists on the one side and left-wing Republicans made up of various anarchist and socialist factions on the other. Especially the latter also attracted a lot of outside support, including “international brigades” coming from Britain, the USA, Italy and numerous other countries. Political and military help also came from the Soviet Union (although this caused disastrous rifts within the Republican side – see below). The Nationalists, on the other hand, received crucial military support from Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. So it was really more than “just” a civil war. 
It started in the nascent Second Spanish Republic after an election victory by the leftist Popular Front when a group of Nationalist generals, under the emerging leadership of one Francisco Franco, launched a counter-revolutionary coup against the government in 1936. It began with an army uprising in Spanish Morocco and then spread over mainland Spain
Initially, the Republicans were able to defend their strongholds especially in the large cities Madrid and Barcelona as well as large parts of the eastern half of the country and parts of the Basque Country in the north (see Guernica). Gradually, however, the military superiority of the Nationalists/Francoists pushed the Republicans out of more and more areas. 
A large-scale last ditch offensive was made by the Republicans in the Battle of the Ebro from mid 1938. The defeat in this longest battle of the war spelled the death knell for the Republican efforts. 
Eventually the remaining pockets of Republican resistance, in Catalonia, collapsed in April 1939. This was followed by a mass exodus of Republican ex-soldiers and hundreds of thousands of civilians fleeing over the border to France, where many were housed in concentration-camp conditions.
The international involvement in the Spanish Civil War also included some prominent names from the Anglophone world of literature, such as Ernest Hemingway, who was a US war journalist at the time and visited the Ebro front – which inspired his novel “For Whom the Bell Tolls”. 
Another writer who was even more directly involved in the Spanish Civil War was George Orwell. He enthusiastically joined the socialist organization POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificacion Marxista) and briefly fought on the front line, where he was wounded (and was lucky to survive). 
However, what made the most profound impression on him was the experience of Stalinist manipulative propaganda during and in the wake of the so-called “May Days” in Barcelona in 1937. This was a period of infighting amongst the Republicans which resulted in the Soviet-supported socialists declaring POUM illegal and starting to purge its members. So Orwell suddenly found himself a target of political repression and was eventually forced to flee the country. 
His experience heavily influenced his subsequent work, most prominently his anti-Stalinist books “1984” and “Animal Farm”. But the book most directly linked to the Spanish Civil War is his earlier “Homage to Catalonia”, which was first published in 1938 shortly after Orwell's return to Great Britain. 
The end of the Civil War was followed by the long reign of the victorious Franco as Spain's dictator until his death in 1975, one of the longest lasting right-wing dictatorships in 20th century Europe (together with that of the Salazar regime in neighbouring Portugal). After Franco's death Spain began the process of restoring democracy. While this has been successful as such, the legacy of the Civil War is still lingering and many old wounds haven't healed. 
Moreover, Spain has rather followed a path of amnesty and amnesia rather than embarking on a full-on course of coming to terms with its dark past. Only now are efforts beginning to come to fruition for a better commemoration of the war. There is still no central Spanish Civil War Museum (although plans to establish one are progressing in Barcelona), but there are various smaller museums and memorial sites already dotted around parts of the country, especially in the north-eastern quasi-autonomous region of Catalonia (see under Ebro).  
I have heard it said often (and I'm prepared to believe it's true) that more has been written about the Spanish Civil War than about any other military conflict in history. Whole libraries have been filled with books about this significant chapter in history. I can obviously not compete with that, so please forgive the brevity and superficiality of the account of the war here. 
For those who want to dig deeper, a recommended starting point is the celebrated work “The Battle for Spain” by the British historian Antony Beevor published in 2006. It's a massive tome of 500+ pages (I'm still working my way through it), which is based on a wealth of original sources, including formerly secret KGB files that had only become available for scrutiny after the collapse of the Soviet Union.    
- back to Spain -

©, Peter Hohenhaus 2010-2019

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