Comparing the Spanish and Chinese Civil Wars

Past Questions:

  • With reference to two civil wars, compare and contrast the importance of ideology in (a) causing the civil war, and (b) attracting outside involvement. (Nov 2010)
  • Compare and contrast the causes of two twentieth century civil wars. (May 2009)
  • To what extent did outside intervention contribute to the outcome of two civil wars, each chosen from a different region? (Nov 2008)
  • Compare and contrast the reasons for, and impact of, foreign involvement in two of the following: Russian Civil War; Spanish Civil War; Chinese Civil War (Nov 2005).


NB. the Russian civil war is no longer a 'named example' in the syllabus, so this will not be referred to in an exam question on Paper 2 - though you can still use it as an example if the question simply refers to an unnamed 'civil war'.

A question of definition: what is a 'civil war'?


Comparisons - key similarities
Contrasts - key differences
Causes of CCW and SCW

  • End of Monarchy
SCW: The weaknesses of the Spanish monarchy, and the political instability this promoted, was fundamental in laying ground war for the Spanish Civil War including deep division in a vast spread of regionalism. Essentially, the Spanish dictator Primo de Rivera (1923-1930) does not succeed in securing political instability. Consequently, the political division intensifies after his death and ultimately this long term issue leads to the outbreak of civil war between opposing sides fighting for power.
CCW: As with Spain, the collapse of imperial power in China was crucial in establishing the political instability that contributed to the civil war. This includes the collapse of a 300 year dynasty, the 1911 Revolution of Double Tenth, and the failure of Yuan Shikai to deal with long term foreign intervention. Additionally, this political vacuum causes a “warlord area” from 1916 to 1927, with no central government. The KMT and the CCP emerge as a result of this, hence battle for rule begins.
  • Political instability
SCW: The political instability and the frequent shift in “central control” – After Primo de Rivera’s death, Spain was politically polarized. The country was divided between theleft and the right and throughout the early 1930s this polarization intensified and resulted in Franco's military coup that led to war in 1936. CCW: In much the same way as with Spain, China was deeply between nationalists and communists seen as both sides wanted as much territory after the Japanese withdrawal. Despite of US effort of negotiating peace with the opposing sides in China, by February in 1946 both sides were fighting again as they moved troops into Manchuria (northern China).
Economic+ social causes
In both SCW and CCW, the long-term economical and social factors contributed o the outbreak of the war. Spain and China were both
agricultural economies. In both countries peasants lived in abject poverty as a result of the feudalistic structure of the agrigarian society, in which the peasants were supressed. The plight of the peasants in both countries contributed to social tension + contributed to establishment of rivalling political parties that wanted on the hand improve the conditions of the workers and peasants (CCP + Popular front parties) and on the other hand maintain the power of the landlords (KMT + CEDA). It were these paties, which later fought each other in the respective civil wars.
  • Foreign involvement

CCW: The failures of US diplomacy lead to the ultimate outbreak of the Chinese Civil War. The United States intervened to break the tension between the Nationalists and the Communists. They did so by promoting a coalition government between the two parts. Yet, Chiang Kai-Shek and Mao were not willing to appreciate the terms of the agreement, and the US was not able to uphold its diplomatic relations, which ultimately lead to the outbreak of the civil war as both sides began to battle.

SCW: Dissimilar to the Chinese outbreak of civil war, the immediate cause to the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War was the victory of the Popular Front, who caused much distress the Right-Winged. Consequently, Franco began to plan a military coup, which was to be funded by Robles. On June 17th 1936, Franco and his crew murder the Christian-right leader Sotelo. Franco’s rebellion was successful in some parts including northern Spain and Andalusia, yet less successful in major industrial spaces and in Madrid. Consequently, both sides reached a deadlock following the outbreak of the civil war.

Reasons for foreign intervention in CCW and SCW

  • The USSR's support for both Civil Wars was limited due to fear of other Great Powers turning against them, however did support to some extent in both wars!
SCW: Stalin was afraid that Communist victory would panic Britain and France into an alliance with Hitler.
CCW: Afraid that USSR support for Communists would draw the US into the conflict.

  • In both wars, the foreign support for the nationalist parties came from a fear of the spread of Communism:
SCW: Italy and Germany wanted to secure fascist governments in Spain and eliminate and crush all Communism.
CCW: Initially, US support in the Civil War was to stabilize China but came to support the nationalists in the fear of another Communist state.
  • b

  • b
Factors determining Mao and Franco's victories in 1949 and 1939

  • Strong leadership
SCW: Franco was an intelligent leader and field commander, who were clever in his maneuver and cautious in this tactics. This was an asset to the Nationalists, as they could take advantage of weaknesses of their opponents and use it against them. In other words, Franco’s leadership skills helped to secure Nationalist victory.

CCW: As with Franco, Mao was known for his leadership qualities and his decisive character that enabled Communist win. Allegedly, Mao was the greatest military strategist in the history of China.

  • "Lack of unity"

SCW: Both Franco and Mao used their opponents’ lack of unity to their favor. The Republicans in Spain suffered from internal divisions including the question of rule and power. This resulted is a civil war within a civil war in Barcelona were the Socialists and the Communists battled in bloody street fights with Anarchists and Trotskyists. The lack of Republican unity enabled Franco to unite the Carlists, the Falange and other groups into a single party, the National Movement, given that the Nationalists were more compact and precise in their struggle, which contrasted with the internal instability the Republican side.

CCW: Just like Franco, Mao recognized the internal weaknesses of the Chinese Nationalists, the KMT, who were differed on ideology and way of rule, very much like the Spanish Republicans. Despite extreme foreign aid, the Nationalists were not able to defeat the inadequate Communists, thus failed to unite the whole of Russia under a single party state. Whilst the KMTs were occupied with inner conflicts, the CCPs built up its strength and emerged as much stronger in the “United Front” of 1937, together with the KMT against the Japanese invasion of China. After 1937, Mao was strong enough to wage war against the KMT and to secure victory.
  • Foreign involvement
SCW: During the course of the Spanish Civil War, the Nationalists were aided with war supplies and military equipment from Germany (16,000 troops and the Condor Legion) and Italy (75,000 men). Hitler’s support for Franco enabled the Nationalists to attain air dominance over the Republicans, i.e. the bombing of Guernica. Historian Anthony Beevor argues that the Condor Legion was “the most efficient and influential assistance in Spain.”

CCW: Dissimilarly to the successful outcome of direct foreign involvement for Franco, Mao’s Communists succeeded in their battle for victory due to the flaws of indirect foreign intervention. Mao received limited support from his Russian counterparts in comparison to the amount of financial and military aid the Chinese Nationalists received from the US. Nevertheless, it was Mao’s portrayal as the “victim of western imperialism” that enabled him to win support amongst his people consequently leading to his win over the Nationalists.
Impact of foreign intervention - did it determine the outcome of the war?

  • In both wars the Communist parties (Republicans and Communists) were given support, however very limited, for the USSR-
SCW: Supplies of food and some military equippment, however most of them out of date and not modern technology.
CCW: The Communists were given military training as well as pilot training for the PLA.

  • In the CCW, not gaining foreign support actually helped the CCP gain support whereas in the SCW the limited support for the Republicans was one of the reasons for its defeat.

  • In the CCW, support from foreign powers actually undermied the nationalist war effort, in contrast to in the SCW where German and Italian support ensured victory.
- SCW: Given
- CCW:

  • In the SCW the foreign support increased chances of victory for nationalists, whereas in CCW the foreign support did not do much to affect the final outcome:
SCW: Nationalists won with the help of large amounts of military equippment and soldiers from Germany and Italy.
CCW: Even though the Communist party onmly recieved limited support from the USSR in contrast to US support for KMT, it did not affect the final outcome as CCP emerged as victors.

  • Failure of League and UN to stop wars!
Results of CCW and SCW (political, social, economic, international)

  • Political: Both wars resulted in the meerge of a single-party state dictatorship where individual rights were suppressed:
SCW: Franco launched a terror campaign after the victory in the Civil War, to eliminate opposition that killed approximately a further 40,000-200,000 people known as the "White Terror".
CCW: China remained a single party state in which individual rights and freedoms were suppressed- in 1989 when young protesters in the Tiananmen Square (Beijing) were forcibly dispersed with guns and tanks, the battles for the Civil War was used to justify the actions of the state.
  • Economic: In both countries the economy had been very badly effected by the fighting of Civil War:
SCW: 10-15% of Spain's wealth was destroyed and communication systems, factory machinery needed to be replaced and rebuilt. The new govt. was also facing huge debts.
CCW: 8 years of fighting and Japanese occupation left the conomy exhausted with falling agriculture and industrial production and food shortages.

  • International: Result of the Civil Wars created deep splits between the supporting powers:
SCW: Divisions between the USSR and Germany- drove Soviet foreign policy to seek alliance with Western powers to contain Germany.
CCW:US "Cold War" anxiety led to increased emphasis on military budget to prevent further spread of communism- saw USSR as the "mastermaind" behind Mao's victory.
  • Political: CCW emerge of a left-wing leader whilst SCW emerge of a right-wing leader!

  • The policies that were put in place as a result of the new governments were drastically different between the two countries:
SCW: Franco reversed the Republican's land reforms and Spain's agricultural system remained ineffective and inefficient and he wanted to restore the power of privileged!
CCW: Property was taken frmo wealthy landowners and redistributed to the peasants and large efforts were put to modernize the agricultural system.

  • International:Reaction of superpower USA differed greatly after the two wars:
SCW: US remained mostly neutral and even strengthened its isolationism. US President Eisenhower gave the first American grant to Franco's army.
CCW: America refuses recognize CCP- the seat in the UN was given to the KMT in Taiwan and not China's seat PRC!