Den Spanske Borgerkrig

The Spanish Civil War

The Spanish Civil war (1936-1939) and its significance for today's Spain

Kasper Christiansen
Text: Kasper Christiansen
6. June 2021

If you want to understand modern Spain, you must understand the Spanish Civil War. The Spanish Civil war had an enormous impact on Spanish history and in many ways it explains the divisions of modern Spain.

The war left a divided and poor country, and the long dictatorship that followed with General Franco in power is still an open wound in modern Spain. Furthermore, many of the tensions and division that caused the Civil War are still unresolved.

The war came to divide friendships and families. Many friends and families ended up on their respective sides during the war and came to fight on their respective sides in the trenches. At the same time, the country was divided into geographical areas dominated by the two sides of the war: the Nationalists and the Republicans.

The Spanish Civil War quickly developed into an international conflict. The war was followed with great attention throughout the world and eventually involved several great powers, even though a non-intervention pact had been signed, and many historians see the Spanish Civil War as a precursor to World War II. . When the war ended in 1939, Francisco Franco y Bahamonde came to power, where he sat until his death in 1975.

Remains from the Civil War
Remains from the Civil War - the holes in the walls in the center of Barcelona date from the Spanish Civil War. Photo: Kasper Christiansen.

Reasons behind the civil war

18th and 19th century

To understand the Spanish Civil War, we must go back in time and take a closer look at the previous political and historical conditions in Spain.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, the Spanish army had been closely linked to political conditions, and there was a tradition of so-called pronunciamientos (coups with the military in the back): in the period 1814 - 1981, Spain thus experienced more than 25 coup attempts. This tradition did not end with Franco's death.

Much of the 19th century had witnessed numerous political, constitutional, and social crises. Several of them bound in the Carlist Wars that arose after the Spanish King Ferdinand VII changed the Salian law, making his daughter heir to the throne (under the title Isabel II).

The First Republic: 1873-1874
The great crises led to the First Republic. King Amadeus I of Spain resigned in February 1873, but the following year (December 29), General Martinez Campos came to power through a coup and restored the power of the bourbons when Alfonso XII came to power.

The prelude to the civil war

1923-1930: The dictatorship of Primo de Rivera

To understand the Spanish Civil War, we must go back in time and look at 1923, when Primo de Rivera came to power with the help of King Alfonso XIII of Spain during a coup that took place during a bloodless coup. Primo de Rivera was dictator for a period of 7 years, but gradually lost the support of both the population and the army.

The elections of 1931 - and the Second Republic 1931-1939

On April 12, 1931, there were elections, and the Monarchists got the majority of votes, but the Republicans got the most votes in big cities like Barcelona and Madrid. This caused Alfonso XIII to flee Spain. Thereafter, the Second Republic was proclaimed on April 14 (read more about the First Republic above). The republic was in power until the end of the civil war in 1939.

1931 - 1936 political and social tensions

The new liberal and democratic constitution of the republic, adopted by the government, meant a great secularization of the Catholic country. The country's new president, Niceto Alcalá Zamora, was himself a Catholic, but large sections of the population had strong opposition to the church. Several churches were attacked across the country, burial sites were opened, and there were many wounded and killed.

Niceto Alcalá Zamora left as president and a new president came to power: Manuel Azaña. He wanted to modernize the country during his presidency from 1931 to 1933. During this period, August 10, 1932, a failed military coup took place, pointing to the start of the Civil War in 1936. General José Sanjurjo Sacanell staged a military coup, which failed. Sanjurjo was sentenced to death but pardoned and instead sent into exile in Portugal (Estoril), and later came to play a major role in the start of the Civil War along with General Mola.

The 1933 election and the Conservatives in power 1933-1936

In the 1933 general election, Alejandro Lerroux came to power for a right-wing government, but social tensions continued. In October 1934, there was an uprising in the town of Mieres ('La insurrección de Asturias'), in which 34 priests and several businessmen were killed.

The showdown had the support of several left-wing parties and the socialists Largo Caballero and Indalecio Prieto. Francisco Franco was, as a general, set to put down the rebellion with a hard hand. The fighting developed into bloody fighting that lasted two weeks and cost up to 2,000 lives.

At the same time in the northeast of Barcelona, ​​the nationalist leader, Lluis Companys, proclaimed an independent Catalan state - but it lasted only 10 hours and the Companys were imprisoned.

These incidents caused the Conservatives to lose faith in the Socialists and the government. They believed that it was the military that had given stability back to the country.

In the February 1936 election, the Popular Front (the left-wing coalition Frente Popular, which consisted of socialists, communists and anarchists), led by Manuel Azaña, had won over the National Front (the right-wing coalition Frente Nacional). However, both sides were divided, and in the ensuing months a peaceful solution to the conflict seemed impossible. Several people in both camps saw violence as a necessary means and there were many armed uprisings.

Franco held the monarchist magazine Acción Española, and was convinced that Jews, Freemasons and Communists were trying to destroy Christian Europe.

New parties had emerged: the fascist party La Falange, founded by Primo de Rivera's son, José Antonio Primo de Rivera. This new party merged with the Junta Ofensiva Nacional-Sindicalista (abbreviated JONS). The Communist Partido Comunista Española was also founded.

The unstable situation meant that the country's president, Niceto Alcalá-Zamora, was deposed and Manuel Azaña came to power, but passed it on to Casares Quiroga.

Later in February 1936 Franco was sent to the Canary Islands and General Emilio Mola was sent to Pamplona, ​​which was the headquarters of the Carlist movement and the militia los Requetés, giving Mola a perfect base to organize a military coup. Franco and Mola planned the military coup in July together with a number of officers, and thus the starting shot was given for the Spanish Civil War.

Division in Spain

  • Centralization vs. self-government (especially for the Basque Country and Catalonia).
  • Reform vs. conservatism
  • Catholicism vs. secularization
  • Fascism vs. socialism, anarchism & communism

Overview of the course of the war

Summary of the Spanish Civil War

The Civil War lasted 33 months between July 17, 1936 and April 1, 1936. With the victory of the Nationalists, the war led to the dissolution of the Second Republic and 40 years of dictatorship under Francisco Franco.

The start date of the war is usually set for July 17, 1936, but some historians define the beginning earlier and set the beginning of the conflict in Asturias in 1934, which cost several thousand lives. Similarly, the end of the Civil War is up for discussion, as some historians see it as a direct course of World War II.

The republic received support from social democrats, communists and anarchists. In the fall of 1936, the Soviet Union launched a covert operation that provided support for Republicans.

The Nationalists were supported by conservative forces, the Falangists, the Catholic Church and several groups of royalists (both groups supporting Alfonso XIII and the Carlists), and from the beginning of the Civil War received support from Nazi Germany and Mussolini's Italy.

Under the leadership of Generals Emilio Mola, José Sanjurjo, and Francisco Franco, on July 17, 1936, the Nationalists launched a military coup in Spanish Morocco. The coup was supported in the south-west of Spain, and from here the nationalists spread to the north and east. In mid-1937, the nationalists occupied the North Coast, gaining control of the area's industry and mines. In the spring of 1939 the nationalists occupied Valencia and Barcelona and on March 28, 1939, Madrid fell. On April 1, 1939, the Nationalists were able to declare victory and the 40-year dictatorship under Francisco Franco began.

Morocco and the African Army

Franco was given responsibility for the African Army, Spanish elite forces that had worked in Spanish Morocco. In all, more than 150,000 Spaniards were stationed, and Franco gained leadership over 30,000 armed and trained soldiers. A private plane, 89 De Havilland Dragon Rapide, flew from England to Tenerife on 11 July.

The days before the Civil War

On July 12, 1936, an event took place that became detonating for events that started the Civil War: the Republican José de Castillo was killed by a number of fascists / phalangists. They sought revenge, and arrested José Calo Sotello, but during the arrest, he was shot. This incident convinced Franco to support the uprising planned by Generals Mola and Sanjurjo.

The Civil War begins

The African Army rebels - but is blocked

On July 17, the African Army revolted. The army was led by Franco and on July 18, Franco was flown to Morocco from the Canary Islands (on the island of Las Palmas). Several areas in the Iberian Peninsula joined the uprising, and it was not long before almost a third of the country was in the hands of the nationalists.

However, both Madrid and Barcelona remained in the hands of the Republicans. In Madrid, construction was stopped by General Anguren, and in addition Franco's troops were cut off from access to the Iberian Peninsula by navy, as most units in the navy remained under Republican control. The Strait of Gibraltar was thus blocked by order of the Minister of the Navy, José Giral.

The connection between Africa and Andalusia

Franco asked for help from Benito Mussolini, who sent both crew, weapons and planes. In Germany, Wilhelm Canaris, a German naval officer, admiral and head of the German counterintelligence (Abwehr) persuaded Hitler to support the nationalists. From July 20, 1936, Franco was able to form an air bridge between Morocco and Spanish Seville with 22 Junkers aircraft and thus fly around the naval blockade.

Seville was captured with the help of Savoia-Marchetti 81, flown by pilots from the Italian Air Force (Aviazione Legionaria) and Junker Ju 52 flown by Luftwaffe pilots. Mussolini provided financial assistance with 1.5 million pesetas and 20,000 rifles, 20,000 grenades and 200 submachine guns coming through Tripoli and Portugal.

On 5 August the blockade was broken and from August Franco had control of a column of about 15,000 men in Seville who could begin the march through Extremadura towards Madrid. On August 11, they captured Merida and on August 15, Badajoz. The part of the army commanded by Colonel Juan Yagüe was particularly barbaric, committing looting and rape in Badajoz on its way north.

Franco's rivals fall away and Franco becomes head of state

Franco was not originally one of the main forces behind the uprising that started the Civil War, but other generals such as Sanjurjo, Goded and Fanjul were killed in the period July-August 1936, thus paving the way for Franco to take control of the Nationalists. Franco was proclaimed Head of State on October 1, 1936, a post he was to retain until his death in 1975.

Non-intervention pact - but Germany and Italy were participating

In August, a number of countries even signed a non-intervention agreement and a committee was set up to monitor the situation. The agreement was primarily made on the initiative of France and Britain, but included as many as 27 countries, including the Soviet Union, Italy and Nazi Germany.

But the agreement was broken and especially Germany and Italy came to participate more or less directly in the war: both Mussolini and Hitler gave Franco financial and military support: they actively participated in the war with weapons, planes, tanks and crew. England and the United States also helped the Nationalists with fuel. The Soviet Union, on the other hand, supported the Republicans.

In particular, the Soviet Union on the one hand and Italy and Nazi Germany on the other became deeply involved in the war. France, too, was little involved, while Britain largely complied with the agreement. Towards the end of the war, Negrín hoped at last that the republic would get help from France, Britain and Russia against Germany and Italy, but the help did not come and fascism won.

The Soviet Union enters the war

In October 1936, despite the international non-intervention agreement, the Soviet Union also decided to launch Operation X to help Largo Caballero and the Republicans. But the help was not free. Largo Caballero and Juan Negrín sent 3/4 of Spain's total gold reserves (510 tons!) To Moscow to pay for Stalin's help. The gold reserves were then calculated at a value of approx. 750 million $

Militia and international support under the radar

On the Republican side, unprofessional militias and paramilitary movements came to play a major role. They consisted of civilians who joined the war - many of them for ideological reasons, and the majority on the left to support the Republican government.

The militias cracked down hard on the people of the church, and they were behind the killing of up to 8,000 priests during the Civil War. Conversely, this meant that the war for the nationalists took on a religious tinge: the armed conflict turned into a crusade against the Republicans, and the Spanish bishops gave their support to the nationalists.

Franco hesitates and the Russians arrive
Franco's reluctance to attack Madrid allowed Soviet aircraft and tanks to arrive in November 1936, along with columns of volunteers (the International Brigades).
The conflicts among Republicans in Barcelona

In July 1937, an armed conflict arose in Barcelona during an anarchist uprising. The anarchists came into conflict with supporters of the Marxist party POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista) and the workers' union CNT (Confederación Nacional del Trabajo). The uprising was stopped by the army, but by then 400 had died and several thousand had been wounded.

Juan March, The 'Pirate'

The rich man Juan March, nicknamed the 'pirate', was a corrupt Spanish politician who had a major influence on Spanish politics in the first decades of the 20th century. He played a major role during the Spanish Civil War, after working as a smuggler since 1911. March smuggled i.a. tobacco, and there was money in it. As Richard Ford put it: A cigarette is a sine qua non in any Spaniard's mouth, for otherwise he would look like 'a house without a chimney'.

In 1931, March's companies were examined in the Spanish Parliament. The socialist Teodomiro Menéndez made a presentation of his corruption from 1911 until the late 1920s. But Juan March escaped and became one of the richest people in the world when the Spanish Civil War began - and he quickly gained the role of nationalist banker.

It is estimated that March covered as much as 10% of Franco and the Nationalists' total expenses in connection with the Civil War.

In March 1937, Juan March gave Francisco Franco and Emilio Mola a loan of £ 500,000. This loan was increased to £ 942,000 in December 1937. Juan March also financed the Savoia-Marchetti aircraft staged by the Italian government and transported Franco's troops from Morocco to Seville at the start of the Civil War. But the Civil War did not only mean expenses for March: he earned huge sums on exporting food to both fronts.

After the Spanish Civil War

2. World War

The relationship between Franco and Hitler during World War II

It is a widespread myth that Hitler was desperate to get Franco and Spain dragged into World War II. On the contrary, Hitler knew that it would be problematic to have Spain on the side of the Axis powers, as the vast Spanish coastlines would be difficult to defend. Moreover, the personal relationship between Franco and Hitler was extremely bad.

After Hitler had been in Franco's company for almost 9 hours, he told Mussolini that he would 'prefer to have 3 or 4 teeth taken out than to live through it again'
The attack on the city of Guernica and Picasso's famous painting

Atrocities were committed on both fronts, including those of the Republicans. According to English historian Paul Preston, the Republicans' greatest atrocity was the murder of 2,500 prisoners in the village of Paracuellos de Jarama just outside Madrid, committed by anarchists and communists.

On the nationalist side, the attack on the village of Guernica in northern Spain has gone down in history as a cruel attack on civilians.

The bombing of Guernica was designed to result in as many civilian casualties as possible: a combination of explosive bombs and light firebombs was used. The first targets were water tanks and the fire station, so it was ensured that the fires could not be extinguished.

The attack on Guernica, as is well known, reached the Spanish artist, Pablo Picasso, who lived in Paris. He painted his famous painting Guernica over the next 5 weeks.

De big battles during the Spanish Civil War
1. The battle of Guadalajara

The Battle at the Spanish city of Guadalajara in March 1937 was a battle between 35,000 of Franco's troops, mostly Italians, who suffered a defeat against the Republicans.

2. The battle of Jarama

The battle took place in February 1937, after the Franco troops in the autumn of 1936 had failed to occupy Madrid. General José Enrique Varela tried to attack the Republicans on the Jarama River, but lost the battle. The Soviet T-26 tanks and the Republican Air Force, as well as the international brigades caused the battle to fall to the side of the Republicans. Up to 20,000-25,000 people died on each side.

3. The battle of Brunete

A big blow 25 km. west of Madrid with 80,000 Republicans with 60,000 nationalists in July 1937. Both sides suffered heavy losses.

4. The battle of Teruel

Battles lasted from September 1937 to February 1938. The Republicans attacked the city of Teruel and gained control of the area in January 1938, but the Nationalists regained the city on February 22, 1938. The Republicans lost over 60,000 people, while the Republicans lost about 40,000 people.

5. The battle of the Ebro-river

The longest and bloodiest battle of the Spanish Civil War, which lasted from late July 1938 to early November of that year. The battle began with a surprise attack from the Republican side. Franco's forces were regrouped and began a counter-offensive, in which Franco exploited the superiority of artillery and aircraft.

Casualties during the Spanish Civil War

According to historians Paul Preston and Stanley G. Payne, there were between 650,000 and 750,000 casualties in the Spanish Civil War: 150,000 people died from shootings and bombings during the war itself. About 30,000 were killed in the post-war period during the nationalist persecutions.

More than 350,000 people died of starvation and disease. Thus, almost 3% of Spain's population, which by the middle of the 20th century was just 25 million people, died. persons as a result of the Civil War.

In addition, up to 500,000 people fled during or after the Civil War to countries such as France and Mexico (see below).

The Paintings from the Prado Museum are transported to France-
The Paintings from the Prado Museum are transported to France- at the photo it is seen how photos from the Prado Museums are moved in 1936. Photo: WikiPedia.

Spain under Franco

Up to 500,000 people left Spain in the first months of 1939. France, Mexico, the Soviet Union, Argentina, Venezuela and Britain received most of the Spanish exiles.

Armed insurgency and ETA

The Catalan politician Fransesc Cambó registered during the war an 'animal' anticatalanism, which he foresaw would make the relationship of the future relations between Catalonia and Spain. He was right.

For many Spaniards, the war was not over in 1939. Until the 1950s, there were numerous armed attacks on Franco's regime, and in 1959, the terrorist organization ETA (Euskadi ta Askatasuna = "Basque Country and Freedom") was founded against the regime. ETA officially killed over 850 people until the movement disbanded itself in 2018. Among the bloodiest assassinations was the Hipercor assassination attempt in Barcelona in 1987, which killed 21 people in a shopping mall. In 1973, ETA killed Prime Minister Carrero Blanco with a car bomb.

The construction of the Valle de los Caídos

North of Madrid is the huge burial ground (1360 hectares) Valle de los Caídos, built from 1940 to 1958 for the fallen during the Spanish Civil War. At the top of the burial mound, where more than 33,000 people are buried, stands a huge cross that shoots 150 meters into the air.

Francisco Franco himself was buried in the tomb monument, as was the case with José Antonio Primo de Rivera, the founder of the Spanish Falangist Party. The vast majority, however, are buried without a name and many even used the corpses as building material, to fill cavities in the construction of what is described as 'Spain's largest mass grave'.

According to the pastor who worked in the church at Valle de los Caídos, the monument was erected by volunteers. This was disproved in the program broadcast by La Sexta in 2019. The vast majority of workers were penal workers who could reduce their sentence by 2 days by 1 day of work. On October 24, 2019, Franco was dug up and moved to the Mingorrubio Cemetery, along with his wife Carmen Polo.

Suppression of Catalan and Basque languages

Until Franco's death in 1975, speaking Catalan and Basque was forbidden. In schools, Spanish was the only official language, and one could go to jail for speaking Catalan and Basque.

The coup attempt in 1981

On February 23, 1981, Spain witnessed a coup attempt for rolling cameras in the Spanish Congress. The coup is also called 23-F (after the date) or Tererazo after Antonio Tejero, who was the main character of the coup. At the head of the coup was Antonio Tejero, and with the help of approx. 200 officers and Guardia Civil troops stormed the Tejero Congress in Madrid, during the election of Leopoldo Calvo Sotelo as Prime Minister on 23 February 1981.

Politicians in Congress were held hostage for 18 hours. At the same time, about 2,000 military men took control of Valencia. At night at just over 1am, Spanish King Juan Carlos went on national television and distanced himself from the coup. Thus, the coup was over.

However, the coup attempt was far from the only one since Franco's death. The Spanish intelligence service (CESID) bombed an assassination attempt on June 2, 1985. The plan was to detonate a bomb under the podium where the royal family and the President of Spain were sitting in Coruña.

Widespread corruption

A bad habit in modern Spanish politics can be traced back to Franco's regime. Under Franco, it was normal to use official cars for private use under the idea of 'now it's our turn'. In recent years, several books have been written on the subject.

Valle de los Caídos
Valle de los Caídos - Francisco Franco Monument to the Fallen during the Spanish Civil War. Photo: Kasper Christiansen.

'No Pasarán', 'Ni un Paso más'...

Dolores Ibárruri Gómez used the phrase "No pasarán" in a speach. and the phrase was made famous in Ramón Puyol Román's poster with the same name.

Read more

Many books have been written on the Spanish Civil War. Below you will find a list of some of the most important:

History books on the Spanish Civil War
Litterature on the Spanish Civil War


Expert Travel advise on Group Tours

Private Group Tours

Whether you are traveling with a group of friends, with family or a corporate group, we offer a wide range of tours in and around Madrid, Bilbao, Barcelona or Seville
Expert Travel Advise on Wine Tours

Wine Tours in Spain

Get out of the city on a wine tour to one of the wine regions south of the city, like Ribera del Duero or Priorat.
Read more from City Tours Spain

Articles on Spain

10 excellent paintings El Prado
Art & Culture
Read about some of the very best paintings in the Prado Museum in Madrid, by masters like El Greco, Velázquez and Rubens
The 25 most important sights in Spain
La Sagrada Familia, Alhambra, The white villages and the Guggenheim Museum are included in our selection of must-sees in Spain
Den mauriske arkitektur i Spanien
Art & Culture
Read about 12 masterpieces of Islamic Architecture in Spain, like Granadas' Alhambra and Córdobas' Mezquita.
Best wineries to visit in Spain
Read about must-visit wineries in Spanish wine regions like Ribera del Duero, Rioja, Priorat, Montsant and Ribeira Sacra
Architecture and art in romanesque art
Art & Culture
14 highlights of Romanesque architecture spread out over the country
10 sights to see in Lisbon
Selection of 10 important sights to visit in Lisbon, hereamong the Jerónimos Museum, the São Jorge Castle and Lisbon's cathedral

Corporate travel

We organize company tours and incentives to Barcelona, Madrid, Andalucía, The Balearic Islands and the Basque Country for corporate groups of minimum 8 people .