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Crisis and Conflict: Unveiling the Events of the Spanish Civil War

Summer of 1936

During the Spanish Civil War, a clash unfolded between two formidable forces: the Ejército Nacional (Rebel forces) with 1,260,000 fighters and the Ejército Popular (Republican forces) comprising 1,700,000 combatants (Hernández, 2016, pp. 449-450). The Republican forces rallied their supporters around the banner of "national values" and antifascism, while the Rebels or Nationalists mobilized their followers using religious rhetoric, framing the conflict as "Crusades" aimed at restoring Spain to the principles of conservatism, tradition, and Catholicism as the main tenets of society before the emergence of the Second Spanish Republic in 1931 (Hernández, 2016, p. 455). 

The Spanish Civil War erupted on July 17, 1936, sparked by a Nationalistic rebellion or coup in Spanish Morocco (Cennaro, 2018, p. 82). Generals Emilio Mola and Francisco Franco spearheaded the uprising, leading garrisons with the aim of encountering minimal resistance (Cennaro, 2018, p. 82). Their objective was to establish a "military directory" in Spain that would overthrow the existing government (Cennaro, 2018, p. 82). Support for these generals came from monarchist parties and the anti-republican right, specifically Falange Española and Carlist Comunión Tradicionalista (Cennaro, 2018, p. 82). On July 24, 1936, another influential figure in the Spanish Civil War, General Miguel Cabanellas, established the Junta de Defensa Nacional in Burgos, Spain (Cennaro, 2018, p. 82). This force, aligned with a faction of the Nationalist party, promptly declared martial law in Burgos (Cennaro, 2018, p. 82). Notably, the success of these revolts that began from Northern Morocco into the country of Spain varied, with the traditionalistic Catholic farmland regions witnessing greater triumph such as Burgos compared to areas with a prominent industrial base, including Madrid, Barcelona, Bilbao, Valencia, and Malaga (Cennaro, 2018, p. 82).

Generals Emilio Mola and Francisco Franco in Burgos, Spain (1936) (Wikimedia Commons, n.d.).
Figure 1: Generals Emilio Mola and Francisco Franco in Burgos, Spain (1936) (Wikimedia Commons, n.d.).

Rebels and forces initiated their takeover across key regions, including Galicia, Aragon, and vast territories in Andalucia, La Coruna, Zaragoza, and Seville (Cennaro, 2018, p. 83). Interestingly, a notable shift occurred within police, security, and various establishments as they began to align with the rebels (Cennaro, 2018, p. 83). However, a significant divide emerged within the army, where the majority of divisional leaders were reluctant to see the republic replaced (Cennaro, 2018, p. 83). It was only a fraction, precisely 4 out of 18 divisional generals, including figures like Cabanellas, Quiepo de Llano, Goded, and Franco, who supported the rebellion (Cennaro, 2018, p. 83). The split deepened as half of the officers opted to join the uprising, shifting to the majority within the next year (Cennaro, 2018, p. 83).

During the summer months of July and August in 1936, violence was rampant in Spain (Cennaro, 2018, p. 85). Spain found itself in the grip of the ominous "Red Terror" (Cennaro, 2018, p. 85). The Nationalist forces, propelled by a fervent ideology, targeted not only the existing state but also those who opposed their vision and posed a threat to their religious beliefs. For the rebels, violence transcended mere tactics: it became a method of asserting control and dominance (Cennaro, 2018, p. 85). The atmosphere of violence manifested in widespread massacres and rebel bombings that occurred across the nation (Cennaro, 2018, p. 85). The summer of 1936 witnessed the "red terror" in many cities, including not but limited to bodies strewn across the streets in Salamanca and Vigo (Hernández, 2016, p.459). The Arguelles district of Madrid became a victim of relentless bombings by the rebels. The Modelo Prison incident, unfolding on August 22-23, marked a chilling shift in this wave of brutality between both sides (Cennaro, 2018, p. 85). Republican authorities stormed through the Modelo prison in Madrid and executed "important right-wing leaders" and over 30 individuals (Cennaro, 2018, p. 85). This resulted in a tragic massacre of prisoners representing diverse political backgrounds (Cennaro, 2018, p. 85).

Black and white image of Modelo Prison, Madrid, Spain (1940) (Fidel, 2008).
Figure 2: Modelo Prison, Madrid, Spain (1940) (Fidel, 2008).

As the summer drew to a close, Germany and Italy made a strategic decision to forge an alliance and extend support to the nationalist forces, further shaping the dynamics of the conflict (Cennaro, 2018, p. 83). Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler backed the nationalist cause in the Spanish Civil War, offering unwavering support to Franco throughout the conflict (Frank, 1987, p. 368). On the other side, several countries aligned with the republic/republicans signed a nonintervention agreement. Despite this, European states such as France and Great Britain leaned towards providing support without direct involvement in the Spanish state during the civil war: a strategy that ultimately proved unsuccessful (Frank, 1987, p. 368).

In 1936, Hitler and Mussolini began offering assistance to the Spanish Nationalists, intertwining their support with the pursuit of their own geopolitical interests in Europe through Spain (Frank, 1987, pp. 377-380). Although Hitler and Mussolini supported Franco in his quest, their true reason for involving themselves in the war was to enhance their chances of gaining more power in their own countries (Frank, 1987, pp. 375-376). Hitler viewed Spain as a way to "threaten British interests," while also explicitly referencing the "disorder in Spain" to buttress his own interests for his plans in Germany and Europe (Frank, 1987, pp. 375-376). On the other hand, Mussolini perceived Spain as a region through which Italy could expand its influence beyond the Mediterranean (Frank, 1987, pp. 375-376).

Fall 1936 - Spring 1937

In October 1936, General Francisco Franco declared himself the head of the armed forces and government of the Spanish state, asserting "all-inclusive powers" (Cennaro, 2018, p. 87). On October 1, 1936, Franco was appointed Generalissimo and de facto head of state, establishing the Nationalist General Headquarters (GHQ) in Salamanca (Hooton, 2019, p. 4).  

By April 1937, Franco consolidated power further by merging the Falange with the Carlist Comunion Tradicionalista, forming a new organization that he designated as the leader: Falange Española y Tradicionalista de las Juntas de Ofensiva Nacional-Sindicalistas (FET-JONS) (Cennaro, 2018, p. 87). Further, Franco eradicated all other political organizations, establishing FET-JONS as the sole legal government in Spain until his death in 1977 (Cennaro, 2018, p. 87). Throughout this period, the Catholic Church aligned itself with the nationalists, viewing the war as an opportunity to establish a new religious state. In contrast, the Republicans and the previous Second Spanish Republic sought to eliminate all forms of Catholicism from the land, acknowledging the conflict as a "Crusade" aimed at renewing faith (Cennaro, 2018, p. 87). Also at this time, concentration camps in Spain began to pop up by the nationalists; they held over 700,000 prisoners or perceived enemies of the state across fifty camps  (Holgún, 2015, p. 1773). Republicans found themselves ensnared, tortured, and killed by the nationalists who established these camps (Holgún, 2015, p. 1773).

Black and white image of the Day of unification where Francisco Franco united the Falangists and the Carlists while declaring himself head of Spain on April 19, 1937 (Wikipedia, 2023).
Figure 3: Day of unification where Francisco Franco united the Falangists and the Carlists while declaring himself head of Spain on April 19, 1937 (Wikipedia, 2023).

The Nationalists approached the outskirts of Madrid from the west by the end of October 1936 (Hooton, 2019, p. 4). Meanwhile, the Spanish government (republican government) had relocated to Valencia, seeking Soviet military assistance (Hooton, 2019, p. 4). The urban structure of Madrid constrained the military power of the rebels, particularly in urban areas. In Casa de Campo in Madrid, the rebels were halted before crossing the River Manzanares, despite initial success in this park area (Hooton, 2019, p. 4). In November 1936, Franco, Mola, and Colonel Joes Varela engaged in a crucial two-day conference in Leganes (Hooton, 2019, p. 4). They decided to envelop the city rather than directly advance on the capital, Madrid (Hooton, 2019, p. 4). Recognizing the importance of the Extremadura Highway, they agreed to secure control over it (Hooton, 2019, p. 4).

On November 28, Varela undertook the task of moving to a line from Pozuelo de Alarcon to Aravaca (Hooton, 2019, p. 5). The northern edge of the battlefield expanded along the Corunna Highway, connecting major regions outside the city (Hooton, 2019, p. 5). Varela faced the Central Army under Republican Major General Sebastian Pozas, who, by the end of November, commanded 35,800 army men and 134 guns (Hooton, 2019, pp. 5-6). On November 29, Varela attacked Lieutenant Colonel Francisco Galan's 3 Mixed Brigade, resulting in the Nationalist army gaining control of the Extremadura Highway after a counterattack on December 3 (Hooton, 2019, p. 6). On December 7, Franco ordered a swift surprise attack, isolating Madrid from Pozas's troops in the Sierra de Guadarrama (Hooton, 2019, p. 7). From December 13 to December 19, thick fog covered the battlefields of Madrid, diminishing the element of surprise for Varela, who withdrew his troops successfully retaining Boadilla and Villanueva de la Canada (Hooton, 2019, p. 9).

Black and white image of Soldiers engaging in trench warfare in the outskirts of Madrid, November 1936 (Community of Madrid, n.d.)
Figure 4: Soldiers engaging in trench warfare in the outskirts of Madrid, November 1936 (Community of Madrid, n.d.).

On December 19, Franco demanded the encirclement of Madrid from the north, leading to a new advance on the Corunna Highway on January 1 with 12,000 men, 40 tanks, and 80 guns (Hooton, 2019, p. 9). By January 9, the Nationalists had established a line from Las Rozas to the outskirts of Madrid, along with 10 km of the Corunna Road and Aravaca (Hooton, 2019, p. 13). Despite freezing temperatures and thick mist on January 11, both sides prepared for further advances (Hooton, 2019, p. 13). The outcome of the battles along the Corunna Highway proved unfavorable for Franco and his forces, prompting a strategic shift toward a new encirclement strategy for the capital city through the Jarama Valley (Hooton, 2019, p. 14). On February 14, the chief of staff under Varela dubbed the day of attacks as "El Dia Triste de Jarama" or "The Jarama's Sorrowful Day" (Hooton, 2019, p. 20).

On February 18, Italian troops supporting the Nationalists received orders to charge upon Guadalajara (Hooton, 2019, p. 21). However, they encountered delays related to weapons issues, resulting in substantial casualties (Hooton, 2019, p. 21). Leading the series of battles in February was Orgaz, who faced removal by Franco due to the high number of casualties suffered by the Nationalists  (Hooton, 2019, p. 21). However, on March 25, 1937, Franco, demonstrating loyalty to Orgaz, appointed him head of MIR (Movilizacion, Instruccion y Recuperacion), a recruiting and training organization that significantly aided Franco (Hooton, 2019, p. 23).

Additionally, the battles from November 1936 to March 1937 underscored the superiority of Soviet aircraft and pilots supporting the Republicans compared to the less formidable machinery and air prowess of the Nationalists on the Madrid front (Hooton, 2019, p. 23). Consequently, the Nationalists lamented the limited number of aircraft fighters and sought assistance from the Italians (Hooton, 2019, p. 23). As the war unfolded, the Rebels alongside their allies introduced air raids, targeting Alicante in January 1937 and Malaga in February 1937 (Hernández, 2016, p. 459). In January 1937, the city of Malaga in Andalusia succumbed to the Nationalist forces, reinforced by the Italian army (Southworth, 1977, p. 7). Despite their failure to capture Madrid in February and March, the Nationalists decided to redirect their efforts entirely toward gaining control of the Basque front and Bilbao in the north of Spain (Southworth, 1977, p. 7).

On March 31, General Mola decided to secure Bilbao, concluding his campaign in the Basque Country (Southworth, 1977, p. 7). Mola's forces were comprised of Italians with their planes and pilots, the German army with their aircraft, the Foreign Legion, and the Moroccan troops (Southworth, 1977, p. 7). Initially, the Nationalists initiated bombings in Durango and implemented a sea blockade along the Basque coast. On April 20, Mola advanced towards Bilbao, passing through the typical Basque town of Guernica, located about 20 miles from Bilbao on the Bay of Biscay (Southworth, 1977, p. 7).

Bombing of Guernica

In April 1937, amidst the tumult of the Spanish Civil War, German bombers acting under Franco's approval, rained down relentless devastation upon the town of Guernica in the northern part of Spain (Frank, 1987, p. 374). The first instance of terror bombing unfolded in Guernica on April 26, 1937 (Huylebrouck, 2023, p. 21). The ominous specter of a Nazi air raid cast its shadow over the northern Basque city, leaving a tragic impact on the people (Huylebrouck, 2023, p. 22). This marked the involvement of Germany's Luftwaffe, where direct endorsement of Franco's wishes was seen through this act of terror bombing (Huylebrouck, 2023, p. 22).

Pablo Picasso's famous painting, Guernica, highlighting the tragic events surrounding the Bombing of Guernica & the Spanish Civil War (Zinn Education Project, 2023). 
Figure 5: Pablo Picasso's famous painting, Guernica, highlighting the tragic events surrounding the Bombing of Guernica & the Spanish Civil War (Zinn Education Project, 2023). 

News of Guernica's destruction broke late on April 26, 1937, with Bilbao, the seat of the Basque government, being the first to hear about it (Southworth, 1977, p. 11). The Times reported the story on April 27, bringing the horrifying events at Guernica to the attention of the world (Southworth, 1977, pp. 13-14). The reports detailed the relentless bombing and the extreme weight of the bombs dropped by German airplanes; global media also depicted civilians fleeing into the fields of Guernica who were also gunned down by the Nationalist troops (Southworth, 1977, p. 14).

Pablo Picasso captured the horrors of Guernica through his famous painting (Frank, 1987, p. 374). Picasso's artwork, Guernica, skillfully reflects the tragic scenes he witnessed, vividly emphasizing the heartbreaking impact of the devastating event on the town, its people, and Spain as a whole (Frank, 1987, p. 374). One month after the event, Picasso’s painting hung in Paris for all to see the horror of what was going on in Spain (Frank, 1987, p. 374). Shortly thereafter, various countries reported on and newspapers highlighted the tragic events at Guernica. In England, sentiments expressed in the newspapers conveyed horror and sadness, with one stating, "the destruction of Guernica and the annihilation of its population remains the most hateful" (Southworth, 1977, p. 26).

Last Efforts, 1937-1939

The collaboration with Spain, Italy, and Germany extended in 1938 when Mussolini deployed Italian troops to Majorca, Spain, strategically countering French routes (Frank, 1987, p. 380). Notably, on May 29, 1937, Soviet troops backing the Republican cause attacked the German ship Deutschland in Ibiza (Frank, 1987, p. 380). In retaliation, Hitler ordered a naval bombing in Almería, Spain, a Republic seaport (Frank, 1987, pp. 377-380). This devastating attack resulted in the loss of 24 lives, the destruction of approximately 40 buildings, and injuries to around 100 people (Frank, 1987, p. 380). These events underscored the international interests and complex dynamics at play in the Spanish Civil War (Frank, 1987, p. 380).

The transition from summer to winter was positive at first for the Republicans; on December 22, 1937, the Republicans celebrated a hard-fought victory in the Teuruel offensive (Cennaro, 2018, p. 90). However, Franco "retook" the city in February 1938, casting a shadow over the initial triumph (Cennaro, 2018, p. 90). Additionally, the Munich Pact of September 1938 painted a bleak and unfortunate picture for the Republican cause, casting doubt on the support from democratic powers in Europe Cennaro, 2018, pp. 90-91. The Munich Pact declared France and Great Britain's approval of Hitler's domination of part of Czechoslovakia further dimmed the prospects for the beleaguered Republic (Cennaro, 2018, p. 91).

Black and white photograph of Nationalists invade Madrid on March 28, 1939; by April 1, 1939, the Spanish Civil War ends with Republican defeat (Focus Storio, 2019).
Figure 6: Nationalists invade Madrid on March 28, 1939; by April 1, 1939, the Spanish Civil War ends with Republican defeat (Focus Storio, 2019).

As the war raged on from 1938-1939, shortages and starvation became the harsh reality in places like Malaga and Barcelona. The war's impact began to impact Spain, affecting refugees and locals alike. In response, Francoists and other institutions attempted to establish refugee organizations to alleviate the suffering (Cennaro, 2018, p. 92). In the midst of these hardships, from July 1938 to November 1938, General Vicente Rojo orchestrated the Battle of the Ebro, a Republican effort to counter the Nationalist advance on Catalonia (Cennaro, 2018, pp. 94-95). Despite planning tailored around Madrid and Catalonia, the offensive met its unfortunate end in failure for the republications (Cennaro, 2018, pp. 94-95). The turning tides of support added to the Republic's woes, as the Soviets began to lessen their aid and assistance. In January 1939, the Francoists capitalized on the vulnerability of Catalonia and invaded it entirely (Cennaro, 2018, p. 95). The relentless push by Francisco Franco culminated in triumph when he and the rebels conquered Madrid; as a result, the opposing forces succumbed to an "unconditional surrender" on April 1, 1939, solidifying his victory in the tumultuous saga of the Spanish Civil War (Holgún, 2015, p. 1772).

Bibliographical References

Cennaro, A. (2018). The Spanish Civil War, 1936-39. In Shubert, A. & Álvarez Junco, J (Eds.), The History of Modern Spain. New York, NY: Bloomsbury.

Frank, W. C. (1987). The Spanish Civil War and the Coming of the Second World War. The International History Review, 9(3), 368–409.

Hernández Burgos, C. (2016). Bringing back Culture: Combatant and Civilian Attitudes during the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939. History101(346), 448–463.

Holguín, S. (2015). How Did the Spanish Civil War End? . . . Not So Well. The American Historical Review, 120(5), 1767–1783.

Hooton, E.R. (2019). Spain in Arms: A Military History of the Spanish Civil War, 1936–1939. Casemate Publishers.

Huylebrouck, D. (2023). Guernica. Dark and Bright Mathematics, 21-28.

Southworth, H. (1977). Guernica! Guernica!: A Study of a Journalism, Diplomacy, Propaganda, and History.  University of California Press.

Visual Sources

Cover Image: Zinn Education Project. (2023). April 26, 1937: The Bombing of Guernica. [Photography] Zinn Education Project.

Figure 1: Wikimedia Commons. (n.d.). File:Franco y Mola (Burgos, 1936).jpg. [Photography] Wikimedia Commons.,_1936%29.jpg

Figure 2: Fidel, E. (2008). Old Madrid Model Prison. [Photography]  Urban Idade.

Figure 3: Wikipedia. (2023). Unification Decree (Spain, 1937).  [Photography]  Wikipedia.,_1937%29

Figure 4: Community of Madrid. (n.d.). Virtual exhibition "Between forts and trenches.” [Photography]   Community of Madrid.

Figure 5:  Zinn Education Project. (2023). April 26, 1937: The Bombing of Guernica. [Photography]  Zinn Education Project.

Figure 6: Focus Storio (2019). Il 28 marzo 1939. [Photography] Facebook.


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Alexandra Gimpel

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