The Spanish Civil War lasted for three years from 1936 to 1939 and was ultimately won by the Nationalists. This victory was far from certain at various points of the conflict and this essay shall explore the many factors that actually contributed to the ultimate outcome and that which paved the way for almost 4 decades of the authoritarian Franco régime in Spain.
The single most important factor, in my opinion, which led to the Nationalist victory in the Civil War, was the international support that was offered to Franco’s troops. The Republican side became an international pariah, with only Russia substantially offering support, yet on the Nationalist side a coalition of Axis dictators paved the way for Franco with both Hitler and Mussolini readily providing matériel.
‘International participation and the ideological zeal which surrounded both sides conferred upon the war the character of a crusade.’ (Romero Salvadó 1999:94)
Indeed, the whole military uprising, in the first place, couldn’t have succeeded without the Germans successfully transporting Franco’s Army of Africa across the Straits of Gibraltar.
‘Reinforcements were needed urgently on the mainland and, since the rising in the fleet had failed, aeroplanes were essential to carry the Army of Africa to Spain.’ (Beevor 2006:71)
They were stranded and the whole pronuncamiento might have failed completely had Hitler’s Luftwaffe never intervened. Franco’s army provided the most crucial backbone for the Nationalist army.
‘In any case, the decisive factor in the power stakes was Franco’s control of the 47,000 well-armed and well-trained men of the Moroccan Army. The battle-hardened colonial army, consisting of the professionals of the Spanish Foreign Legion and Arab mercenaries of the Regulares Indígenas (native regulars), was to be the cornerstone of Nationalist success. (Preston 1996:83)
The Arab mercenaries went on to strike terror into all they came across, in particular the civilian populations who they brutalised. Indeed the use of terror was about three times more prevalent in the Nationalist Zone. Despite the presence of the backbone of the Catholic Church in Nationalist Spain, discipline was strict. This was a military area and reprisals for the enemy were widespread and brutal.
‘Although figures are very unreliable and open to controversy about 55 000 Rightists were murdered, mostly in the first months of war, for over 200 000 leftists.’ (Romero Salvadó 1999:113)
The theatre of Spain was a testing ground for new military tactics and equipment. We saw firsts in the Spanish Civil War. We were introduced to carpet bombing by the Condor Legion in Guernica, when German planes completely flattened the historic Basque town. This was a scary new development in modern warfare and the civilian population were shocked and outraged that they should be so viciously attacked. Even in WW1, civilians weren’t attacked. The Spanish Civil War thus signifies the end of the ‘Gentleman’s Agreement’ in warfare. The Spanish Civil War became a theatre for advanced mechanised warfare, seen never before.
Matériel from the Nationalist allies was forthcoming. The Germans commited the Condor Legion with 10,000 troops, 800 aircrafts and 200 tanks. Italy commited 70,000-75,000 troops, 750 planes and 150 tanks. All equipment sent to the Nationalists was much more advanced than that sent by the USSR to the Republicans.
The cost of Russian support came indeed at a great price for the Republican government, as they had to sacrifice their entire gold reserves to pay for the arms and advisors. Early in the war the entire gold stock was sent out to Moscow in advanced payment. Whether or not a decent return was ever provided for this cost is debatable but it certainly tied up a lot of money that could have been used elsewhere in the overall war effort.
It wasn’t so much international support that was given that proved the key factor in the Spanish Civil War, but rather that international support that was withheld.
‘While the Republic was being ostracized in the international arena, the response received by the Nationalists was entirely different.’ (Romero Salvadó 1999:97)
At the initial outbreak of war, arms were being trafficked from France into Spain, but the insistence of the British and French governments on the signing and sticking to of the Non-Intervention Pact, dried these supplies up. Germany and Italy were also signatories to the Non-Intervention Pact but openly flouted the conditions, sticking rigorously to their private agreements with Franco. Western views on war in Europe was that it was ultimately inevitable but that they were not yet prepared, unlike in the Fascist zones were militaries had been steadily being reinforced for years. Neville Chamberlain, Prime Minister of Great Britain was in the era of appeasement. In 1938, he had his famous moment with Adolf Hitler, signing the Munich Agreement and declaring it ‘Peace for our Time.’ The French and British governments were too weak to prop up the democratically elected Republicans of Spain and they didn’t want to embroil themselves in what would inevitably have turned into a wider European conflict. The aim of non-intervention and appeasement were to contain the Spanish Civil War within the Iberian Peninsula and thus delay the breakout of a war in Europe. It was turning a blind eye to curiously see what would happen. These countries wanted to see what Germany and Italy were prepared to do in full-scale war and with Guernica and the mechanised nature of the warfare the omens were dark. Ultimately wider European politics distracted the Russians from their support of the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War. Stalin was equally trying to prevent an outbreak of war with Germany in the East and the signing of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Nazi-Soviet Pact brought Germany and Russia together in an agreement to carve up Poland between them. Stalin was less keen on fighting the Condor legion in distant Spain when he could diplomatically affect his own neighbourhood with appeasement policies.
I think that tactically, Franco’s side were better prepared militarily. They were fighting a war of attrition and were not over-rushing to grab land and get quick victories. Franco left the conquest of the big cities, Madrid and Barcelona, until the final stages of the war. By owning most of the rural hinterlands, Franco could ensure that the Nationalists has ready access to food and supplies whereas he could starve out the populations in the industrial centres of Barcelona and Madrid.
‘Lack of food was one of the major factors in war-weariness that overtook Catalonia.’ (Fraser 1979: 376)
Often militarily Franco was better prepared. He would sometimes sacrifice, like a good general, to the greater good. He could have taken Madrid and focussed on the final goal but en route, instead, he decided to relieve the siege of the Alcázar. It would prove to be of propaganda value and the population of Madrid would eventually succumb. Franco was in no real rush to end the war. As far as he was concerned, as a victorious general, heading the Army of Africa, he was in his element. He was slowly carving his own future empire and visions of himself heading it.
The areas Franco governed in the Nationalist zone were the traditional conservative heartlands of Spain. In these areas all was subordinated to the Military. There was a ready infrastructure of support already in place by one of the Nationalists’ key allies: The Catholic Church. Next to the military the support of the Catholic Church was critical to Franco’s cause. The Pope was one of the first international bodies to officially recognise the Nationalist government and provided key backing to the military regime. In the church the Nationalists has what was already the cornerstones of the education system and also church attendance. In Nationalist areas there would be less dissidence if the social structure was intact and supportive of the military. The third key body that supported Franco in addition to the Military and the Church was the Falange. This youthful keen far-right political movement gave Franco his dictatorial credentials when dealing with Hitler and Mussolini. They were a political establishment that had been cutting their teeth in the street violence in the build up to the outbreak of hostilities. This Falange became the FET y de las JONS and survived many years into Francoism.
‘Franco had accumulated in his hands more power than the medieval monarchs. He was the Generalissimo of the armed forces, head of the government and of the state, Caudillo of the crusade with the enthusiastic blessing of the Church, and chief of the only political party. The hesitant rebel had obtained in eighteen months practically absolute control over every aspect of Spain’s political life. (Romero Salvadó 1999:112)
Franco was the head of a strong, united, unassailable pyramid. This was in stark contrast to the political frailty of the Republicans.
We can see that in the Nationalist zone there was more organisation and less spontaneity than in the Republican zone.
The Civil war was won by the Nationalists not just by the strength of Franco’s troops but by the disunity often demonstrated by the Republican side. There was a Civil War within a Civil War with reds turning on reds, in particular in the city of Barcelona in April 1937.
‘For four days, members of the CNT-FAI and the POUM fought a mini war against the PSUC and the left-wing Catalan Nationalists, leaving hundreds of casualties.’ (Romero Salvadó 1999:116)
‘Franco was, of course, delighted with the turn of events in Barcelona, even though the nationalists had not profited from it in military terms.’ (Beevor 2006:300)
Indeed, a war was fought within the Communist ranks itself, the Trotskyist POUM being purged at the orders of Stalin who was rallying to unite the Communist party internationally. We were living in the era of purges and many of the best Russian military advisors were recalled to Moscow on suspicion of being Trotskyist agents.
‘…the communists had concentrated upon the persecution of the POUM. Its leaders were accused of fascism and of conspiring with Franco.’ (Thomas 2001:680)
The war brought much foreign attention to Spain but that soon petered out after it had ended and Franco’s Spain began its long journey as an international pariah state.
‘For three years, Spain had been front-page news in the world’s papers. The name of Spain had been a rallying cry in the streets of great cities; it had served as a banner to intellectuals everywhere; it was a symbol of hope. Then, when Madrid had fallen, Spain faded out: just a few articles remained on a back page describing some ceremony or military parade.’ (Gallo 1973:64)
During the course of this essay we have heard many different views accounting for the Nationalist victory in the Spanish Civil War. I think that overall it has been demonstrated that the unity on the Nationalists’ side was paramount in defeating the disunited leftists. International support was the obvious overwhelming factor that enhanced the Nationalists’ victory odds. Franco was a lucky general but he had made the callous decisions to verify his luck. He was a military man, fighting a military campaign with a more powerful military apparatus at his hands. The Nationalists’ victory was inevitable and only by the Spanish Civil War escalating into a full-scale global conflict, could the outcome have ever been reversed. Of course, the other European powers and the USA wished to keep the Iberian conflict contained and ultimately it was settled months before the outbreak of World War 2 in 1939.
Beevor, A 2006 The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939, London: Orion
Fraser, R 1979 Blood of Spain: An Oral History of the Spanish Civil War, New York: Pantheon Books
Gallo,M 1973 Spain Under Franco: A History, London: Cox & Wyman
Preston, P 1996 A Concise History of the Spanish Civil War, London: Fontana Press
Romero Salvadó, Francisco J. 1999 Twentieth-Century Spain, London: Palgrave Macmillan
Thomas, H. 2001 The Spanish Civil War, London: Penguin