The Spanish Civil War, which took place between 1936 and 1939, occurred in a climate of internal turmoil and tension due to the economic, political and social situation of the country. In this period, Spain had almost 25 million inhabitants, of whom 30% were illiterate, and big social divides existed. It was a fratricidal conflict between two sides (the rebels and the Republicans) which caused more than half a million deaths.

The background to the war was:

  • The end of the dictatorship of General Primo de Rivera, which lasted from 1923 to 1930, and later that of General Berenguer.
  • The result of the municipal elections that resulted in the proclamation of the Second Republic by a revolutionary Republican committee on 14th April 1931; on this same day King Alfonso XIII abandoned Spain.
  • The failed coup d’état of 1932, led by General Sanjurjo against the Republic.
  • The elections of November 1933, when the Catholic right was defeated by the CEDA, led by Jose Maria Gil Robles, and by the centre right Republican party led by Alejandro Lerroux. These were the first elections in which women could vote.
  • In October 1934 an uprising by the miners in Asturias against the government of Lerroux took place, whose suppression caused more than 1,300 deaths and 30,000 arrests; its outcome increased the social and political tension and instability.
  • The elections of February 1936 produced the victory of a coalition of the left called the Popular Front, who formed a government led by Manuel Azaña. The social and popular unrest increased with the clash between a revolutionary, strongly anti-clerical left, and a right wing sustained by tradition and religion.

On the 12th of July 1936 the lieutenant of the assault guard, José Castillo, known for his left-wing activities, was murdered, probably by the Falangists. The retaliation wasn’t slow in coming and on 13th July, José Calvo Sotelo, parliamentary leader of the opposition party to the Popular Front, was taken from his house and also murdered.

These episodes and the climate of disorder they created were the trigger for the coup d’état which had been brewing since March 1936. In this so-called “Revolt”, several military leaders and officers participated, led by the Generals Mola and Sanjurjo.

On the 17th of July the Africa Corps in Melilla, led by General Franco, the military governor of the Canaries, revolted. Three days later the rebels had taken control of the area of Morocco, the Canaries, the Balearics and the Spanish peninsula to the north of the Guadarrama mountains and the Ebro River, with the exception of Asturias, Cantabria, the Basque Country and Catalonia. The Republicans kept control of the capital, Madrid, and the main cities, except Seville.

In November of 1936, the execution of the lawyer and congressman José Antonio Primo de Rivera, leader of the Falange party and son of General Primo de Rivera, took place in the prison in Alicante. In August of the same year the poet Federico Garcia Lorca had been murdered in Granada by the Nationalists.

For the Republicans the supreme authority was, up until the end of the war, the President of the Republic, Manuel Azaña, who was the leader of the Left-wing Republican party. In the first part of the war, the government was led by the leader of the PSOE, Francisco Largo Caballero, who from May 1937 was substituted by Juan Negrín as Prime Minister. At the end of the war, in March 1939, the Republican Coronel Casado led a coup d’état against Negrín, ordering his surrender to the army of General Franco.

As far as outside support was concerned, General Franco’s army counted on the help of Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy, who sent their own military units like the German Condor Legion and the Italian Voluntary Troop Body, along with modern combat equipment. The main source of support for the Republicans was from the Soviet Union, who sent planes, tanks and machine guns, and from Mexico who took Spanish refugees in.

Faced with the non-intervention policy of the main Western democracies such as France, the United Kingdom or the United States, the so-called International Brigades were created, operated by the European and North American Communist parties and made up of some 40,000 anti-fascist volunteers from all over the world who fought on the side of the Republicans. Nevertheless, it is believed that this war was a kind of rehearsal for the Second World War which started later that year in September 1939.

  • In the first months of the conflict, the Nationalists led by General Queipo de Llano took Seville and General Mola Navarra y Burgos and General Yagüe gained terrain in Extremadura.
  • In March of 1937 the Republicans resisted in Madrid through their victory in the Guadarrama mountains and the stabilization of the frontline in the University Campus.
  • In April of 1937 the German airforce bombed and destroyed the Basque village of Guernica, which was considered a massacre and a testing ground for the massive bombing campaigns of the Second World War.
  • At the end of 1937 with the victory at the Battle of Teruel, the rebels managed to reach the Mediterranean Sea and divide in two the territory controlled by the Republic.
  • Between July and November of 1938 the Battle of the Ebro took place, the most bloody and decisive battle of the whole war and which finished with the definitive defeat of the Republicans.
  • In the first months of 1939 the main cities that had resisted the rebels fell: Barcelona, Valencia and finally, on the 28th March, the rebel troops entered Madrid. Three days later, on April 1st, General Franco officially declared the end of the war.

The consequences of the Spanish Civil War were terrible:

  • More than 500,000 deaths, including soldiers and victims of reprisals, who were often neighbours and even members of the same family.
  • Some 450,000 exiles, above all to France and Mexico, of whom 200,000 never returned.
  • The division of many families due to hatred and resentment.
  • A huge economic crisis, with food rationing which lasted 10 years.
  • International isolation. Spain didn’t join the UN until 1955.

The reconciliation between the victors and the vanquished didn’t happen until 40 years later, with the death of Franco, the proclamation as King of Juan Carlos I and the overwhelming acceptance of the Constitution of 1978, so starting the transition from an authoritarian regime to a full democracy.