The Spanish Civil War (1936 - 39)

Past Questions:

Paper 3
  • Analyse the reasons for the weaknesses and collapse of democracy between 1918 and 1939 in either Italy or Spain. (Nov 10)
  • “The contribution of foreign powers to Franco’s victory in the Spanish Civil War has been greatly exaggerated.” To what extent do you agree with this statement? (Nov 09)
  • In what ways, and to what extent, did social and religious divisions lead to civil war in Spain in 1936? (Nov 07)
  • Analyse the causes and results of the Spanish Civil War. (May 07)
  • Why did internal tensions in Spain in the 1920s and 1930s lead to a civil war in 1936? (Nov 06)
  • Analyse the reasons for the Nationalist victory in the Spanish Civil War. (May 06)
  • To what extent was the Spanish Civil War caused by divisions in Spain and in Spanish society? (Nov 05)
  • What were the results of the Spanish Civil War for Spain and for Europe? (May 05)

Paper 2
  • Analyse the causes of either the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939) or the Falklands/Malvinas War (1982). (Nov 2010)
  • Analyse the reasons for, and the results of, either the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939) or the Chinese Civil War (1946–1949). (May 2010, TZ1)
  • Analyse the principal causes of either the Algerian War (1954-1962) or the Spanish Civil War. (May 2010, TZ2)
  • To what extent did foreign involvement affect the outcome of either the Spanish Civil War, or the Vietnam War? (May 2009)
  • Analyse the causes of one of the following: the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939); the Arab-Israeli wars (1948/9 and 1956); the Nigerian Civil War (1967–1970). (Nov 2008)
  • Examine the impact of foreign intervention on either the Chinese Civil War or the Spanish Civil War. (May 2007)
  • Compare and contrast the reasons for, and impact of, foreign involvement in two of the following: Russian Civil War; Spanish Civil War; Korean War. (Nov 2006) - nb. Russian civil war is no longer a 'named example' so will not come up in an exam question now.
  • Analyse the causes of either the Spanish Civil War or the Korean War. (May 2006)
  • Examine the impact of foreign intervention on either the Chinese Civil War or the Spanish Civil War. (May 2005)



Also useful, to clarify who's who!


Background to the outbreak of the war:
Even though the attracted international attention, and was seen as an European “ideological war”, the roots of the conflict were Spanish in nature, relating to the particular divisions that had developed in the country by early 20th century

Regional divisions
Basques, Catalans, Galicians had significant cultural and economic differences. All minorities sought greater autonomy and separation from Spanish state.

Economic and social divisions
Centres of industrial development in the economically dynamic north (Barcelona, Madrid, Bilbao) created a new urban proletariat and new industrial elites

However, the rest of the country was dependent on a feudalistic agricultural system where the peasants in the south lived under miserable conditions as they worked on the vast private estates of the rich, on the verge of starvation.
Regional/social/economical divisions led to deep social tensions and divided the country into to opposing sides. 1) Rich landlords/ industrial elite, Army, Church and Monarchists supported the conservatives and fascists. 2) Poor, republicans, reformers, proletariat, peasantry and minorities supported socialists and anarchists.
The loss of Cuba as the last outpost of the Spanish empire leaves a huge colonial army with no role, which assumes the roles of maintaining law, order and tradition at home. This created political tension as the army interfered in politics.
The wealthy, catholic, powerful and deeply conservative church was a big part of everyday lives of many people. It was resented by the poor peasants in the south/ politicized urban workers, who saw it as a part of the wealthy classes that oppressed them. This issue regarding the church further divided the country.

Timeline of causes of the Spanish Civil War:
1923: General Primo De Rivera took control of Spain in a bloodless coup as King Alfonso was under heavy pressure from post-ww1 depression + military defeat in Morocco. The king did not resists the coup.
1924-29: Rivera ends the war in Morocco and introduces public work schemes. Industrial production increases by 300 percent. Rivera suspends the parliament and freedom of speech/press.
1929: Spain hit hard by depression, industrial production fell to 50 percent, and unemployment rocketed.
1930: The army withdraws support for Rivera and he has to resign
1931: Elections are held and Republicans won all the major cities in Spain. King Alfonso abdicates to avoid civil war and Spain becomes a republic.
1931: The government was split between left and right wing republicans. The former wanted rapid social reform to satisfy the working classes, the latter wanted more moderate change to reduce opposition from church, landowners and the army.
1931-33: Regions get more self-government. Religious education in school is banned. Many officers in the army were made to retire early on half pay. Huge estates of the rich were nationalized. This land reform was called Latifundia.
1931-33: The fascist party The Falange with Primo’s son Jose Antonio de Rivera as its leader was formed in protest at the radical reforms of the republican government
1932: General Sanjuro led an army coup to overthrow the government of Manuel Azana, the prime minister. The coup failed as the army remained loyal to the government; after all it had won the elections fairly.
1932: A right reactionary party CEDA was formed in protest to the republican government, which was determined to protect the interests of the church and land owners. Two powerful left-wing parties, the anarchists and syndicalists (powerful trade union groups) thought Ananza’s government was too moderate and consequently created political tension.
1933: The extreme left organized strikes to destabilize Ananza’s government. 25 people were killed by gov troops who were attempting to catch some communists near Cadiz. This lost the government a great deal of support among the left and workers.
1933: Ananza resigns as prime minister, elections were set up and CEDA won a majority of votes and formed a government led by Gill Robles. Robles withdrew all reforms initiated by Ananza’s government. All left-wing parties joined together to form the popular front, which organized strikes, riots and vandalism.
1934: Coal miners in Asturias initiated a general strike but were ruthlessly put down by General Franco. Spain was heading towards chaos.
February 1936: An election was called to restore order. The left-wing popular front coalition won and Ananza once again became prime minister. Right-wing parties formed the national front coalition in reaction. Spain had become extreme politically polarized.
July 1936: A leading right wing politician, Sotelo was murdered. Right wing politicians argued that they were in danger of a serious communist takeover. They began to favour the idea of military dictatorship.
July 1936: General Franco assumes control of the military, seized control of Spanish Morocco and crossed over into the mainland of Spain to overthrow the government. The civil war had begun.

Long term causes: Political instability

Weakness of government:
In the late 19th century Spain was a constitutional monarchy. There were political parties, but the elections were rigged and the Cortes (parliament) had no real power, as the power was held by wealthy oligarchs (anhängare av fåmansvälde). This caused social and political instability.

The role of the Spanish army:
The army was powerful because of its colonial past. It believed that it was the protector of the nation, and this meant that it intervened in politics if a crisis occurred. The army intervened in 1936, which led to war. The army was conservative and the Africanistas (who had served in Morocco) were most nationalistic and traditional.
The army also had a bad reputation with the people as it was brutal, ineffective (it had lost Spain’s colonial assets) and expensive. This caused social tension, as middle/upper class defended military interests as they dominated the jobs as officers and generals.

The role of the church:
The Catholic Church in Spain was wealthy and powerful. It used is influence to support social, economical and political conservatism. The aristocracy had also close bonds to the church as they funded the church. Consequently, the church defended the interests of the upper class. This led to resentment among the poor and urban workers.

Economic causes:
Spain was mainly an agricultural economy and the plight of agricultural workers was a key factor in the discontent that led to the civil war. Agriculture was the main source of employment and there were fundamental problems that made it inefficient.
a) Work was seasonal and landless peasants had to move around to get a job
b) Most peasants lived in abject (usel, nedrig) poverty
c) The agricultural system was feudalistic with poor peasants working on the farms of land owners
These fundamental problems in agriculture created social tension

There was also the need for industrial modernization and reform. Urban workers faced low wages, long hours and bad working conditions. Trade unions were formed but could not achieve anything substantial as employers could always find alternative labour in the countryside. With no legal means, the workers resorted to violent uprisings as the means to effect of change.

Even though Spain’s neutrality during WW1 facilitated (underlättade, made easier) a short economic boom with increase in production and exports, the working-class living standards went down. In the early 1920s the country faced major economic problems and this led to increased militancy in the working class as well as political polarization.

Regional problems:
A cause of tension was the struggle between the centralist state and Catalonia and Basque, which wanted independence. When Robles (national front government) withdrew Ananza’s (republican government) reforms that had granted the regions more independence, tension intensified and led to divisions in Spanish society.

Short term causes: Political polarization
Between 1931-36, Spain became politically polarized. Is important to note that when the second republic was established (governments between 1931-36), no one “except a tiny minority on the lunatic fringe on the extreme right or left, believed that Spain’s problems could be solved only by war” (Paul Preston). Thus, the events during the second republic and were crucial for the outbreak of the war.

Left republic 1931-33:
Ananza limits the power of the church. Church was no longer in control of education.

Power of army was also attacked. Government attempted to reduce number of officers by offering early retirement on full pay. This was an offer taken by 50 percent of officers. However, the policy backfired as this meant that the army was radicalized to the right as the officers who stayed in the army were conservative and nationalistic, including the Africanistas.

Desperate economic problems that existed in Spain were exacerbated (förvärrade) by the depression. For example, production fell by one third. As a result the gov initiated a land reform programme with compensation for land owners. The state took over some estates and the right saw this as a major threat to its interests, and an attempt to copy the Soviet system. Each reform was perceived as an attack by one or more right-wing groups like church, army or landowners. As a result the reactionary right political party CEDA was formed to protect the interests of the right. Spain did indeed become more politically polarized during the left republic.
However, the left republic brought some stability in the country as regions were given more independence. For example, Catalonia was given its own parliament.

Right republic 1933-36:
As a result of the growing tensions, Ananza resigned, new elections were held and the right won. CEDA became the biggest party. The right government reversed all of the reforms made by the left republic.
Church was now given control over education
The land reform programme was halted
The newly won independence of the regions was withdrawn.
Threats from a left general strike increased and violence was widespread. The regions now supported a left-wing government. This led to that the right wing government became more authoritarian and brutal in their treatment of political opposition.

Popular front 1936:
The right wing government disintegrated as the economic and political situation deteriorated. Elections were held in 1936 and a left wing coalition between socialists, anarchists and communists won. Ananza became prime minister and started to reverse all the counter reforms made by the right. Anarchists encouraged peasants to seize land in the countryside. Violence increased and Spain became ultra politically polarized. The government faced increased disorder and the right wing believed that Spain was in the early stages of a left-wing revolution. Civil war drew closer.

Immediate causes:
The victory of the popular front threw right wing CEDA into turmoil. Robles began to use his funds to support plans for a military coup. In fact, an extreme nationalist group of junior military officers (including Mola and Franco) began to plan the coup as soon as the popular front attained power. The catalyst of the coup was the murder of the popular CEDA politician Sotelo. The coup is initiated on the 17 July in 1936. The coup is successful in northern Spain and Andalusia, but it failed in major industrial areas as well as Madrid. Consequently, both sides reach a deadlock and the civil war begins.

Course: reasons for Nationalist victory:

MAPS showing progress of the conflict


The military had hoped to capture Spain in a weeks’ time, but failed to do so. Approximately half of the army remained loyal to the government, yet the revolt against the Republicans in Madrid, Valencia, Barcelona and in the Basque failed. Consequently, workers and peasant royalists formed to defend the government. The Nationalist Forces were lead by Generals Franco and Sanjurjo.

By August the Nationalists held the most of North and North West of Spain, whilst the government controlled the South and North Coast. Both Republicans and Nationalists appealed for foreign aid in order to manage the conflict, yet the British and the French decided on a policy of non-intervention. This was to be in favor of the Nationalists, and less so for the Republicans.

Germany and Italy provided financial and material aid for the Nationalists, while the USSR sent limited aid for the Republicans (in comparison to their rivalries). German transport planes helped ferry Franco’s army from Morocco to Spain. This event is an excellent example of direct foreign involvement!

The main Nationalist setback was their failure to capture Madrid. Bloody battles were to follow over the next months as the Republicans beat off attempts to encircle Madrid until the Nationalists called off their offensive in November.

In September, Nationalists forces captured Toledo and relieved a Nationalist garrison that had held out since the end of July. Also, Largo Caballero became Prime Minister. The Republican government was moved to Valencia in November. In October General Franco was appointed head of the Nationalist government of Spain.

Most of the Spanish gold reserves (the fourth largest in the world) were sent to the USSR in exchange for military equipment that began arriving in October. The transfer of the gold led to a dramatic rise in inflation on the republican zone. Foreign volunteers, organized into the International Brigades, started to arrive.


In February, the Nationalists began offensives at Jarama and Guadalajara with the aim of capturing Madrid. Yet, both offensives were broken off with heavy casualties.

In March, the Nationalists attacked the Basque country and in April the Basque city of Guernica was bombed by the German Condor Legion. Basque morale collapsed and the capital, Bilbao fell in June. The industry of the Basque country was now in Nationalist hands.

Also in April, Franco merged the Carlists, the Falange and other groups into a single party known as the National Movement. One of the features of the Nationalists from then on was their unity which contrasted with the divisions on the Republican side.

In May, the divisions on the Republican side were clearly shown by events in Barcelona. This civil war within a civil war saw the Socialists and Communists fight street battles with the Anarchists and Trotskyites. The former won and a bloody purge was carried out against enemies of the communists.

As a result of the events, Negrin replaced Caballero as Prime Minister and in October, the government moved to Barcelona. From then on the Communists backed by Soviet help were to play an increasing role in all Republican areas of Spain.

Their organization helped to keep the Republicans fighting. Inspiring speeches from Dolores Ibárruri, (La Pasionaria) who was the chief propagandist of the Republicans, raised morale.

However, their extensive use of a brutal secret police (the SIM) and their intolerance of opposition caused many others to wonder if life would not be better under Franco.

Republican attempts to stop the capture of Madrid led to the inconclusive battle of Brunete. A further Republican offensive at Teruel in December was defeated after bitter fighting.


The Nationalists captured the key town of Teruel and in April, they reached the Mediterranean. Franco had by now split Republican-held Spain in two and isolated Catalonia. In July, General Modesto launched a Republican offensive at the Ebro River. Initial successes were repulsed by the Nationalists and in November the offensive ended in defeat. In December, the Nationalists began their advance into Catalonia.


After two and a half years of resistance, the Republicans collapsed rapidly during the first three months of 1939. In January, the Nationalists occupied Barcelona and in March they finally captured Madrid which effectively marked the end of the war. On April 1st, Franco declared the war at an end.

Course: reasons for, and impact of, foreign intervention:

The Spanish civil war started as a distinctly Spanish war born out of Spanish disputes but it was soon to take on an international character. It mirrored the political disputes occurring in Europe at the time between Fascism and democracy on one hand and the opposition to godless Communism on the other.

Both sides realized the importance of foreign aid and support. Propaganda played a key role. The Nationalists argued that they represented the cause of Christianity, order and Western civilization against Communism. The Republicans argued that they were the legally elected government of Spain which was under attack from anti-democratic generals and the fascist dictatorships.

Germany and Italy

Germany and Italy sent aid to Franco. German aid totaled about 16,000 men, 200 tanks and 600 planes. Some of the activities of the German Condor Legion especially the bombing of Guernica became infamous but militarily Beevor noted the Condor Legion was “the most efficient and influential assistance in Spain.”

The Nationalist enjoyed air superiority as they were provided with German planes. This matter was crucial to their success during the war. Yet, the Germans used Spain as a testing ground for their new planes tanks and for the development of blitzkrieg tactics.

Italy sent about 75,000 men, 150 tanks and 660 aircraft and as Beevor wrote “the Italian contribution to the Nationalist cause was enormous and more general than the German contribution. “ This included a major role in the blockade of Republican ports. Portugal, led by General Salazar, sent 12,000 troops. General Eoin O’Duffy led about 700 volunteers from Ireland.

Britain and France

Britain and France remained neutral and pursued a non-intervention policy. They tried with little success to prevent foreign support for either belligerent. The United States also adopted a policy of non-intervention influenced by the powerful Catholic lobby there. This prevented the Republic from purchasing arms openly and hampered its ability to resist the Nationalist threat.


The Republican government received aid from two main sources, the USSR and the International Brigades. Russia sent about 2500 men, 1000 planes and 900 tanks. Her ideological allies the Communists were to play a major role in Republican areas.

The International Brigades

To many in Europe the Republicans stood for freedom, democracy and enlightenment against fascism. They pointed to Nationalist massacres and the bombing of cities e.g. Guernica to back their case. The International Brigades were made up of men who opposed the spread of fascism. They were mainly communist volunteers from many different countries including France, Germany, Britain and the USA. They numbered about 50,000 men in all from 53 countries. 200 men led by Frank Ryan volunteered from Ireland.

Many of the battalions were named after famous revolutions or revolutionaries e.g. the French “Commune de Paris” and the American “George Washington” battalion. Their slogans included “They will not pass” and “Spain - the graveyard of European Fascism”.

The Brigades were under the control of the communist movement, the Comintern and operated outside the regular command of the Spanish Republican Army. Joseph Broz, alias “Tito”, the future dictator of Yugoslavia, headed the principal recruiting office in Paris.

They fought with desperate courage and were subject to savage discipline. Over 500 were shot for political offences. They were also used by the Communists in internal struggles against their political enemies, the Socialists and the Anarchists. They were withdrawn in October 1938 as the position of the republic became desperate.

Effects: what were the main results of the conflict?

The Nationalists won the Civil War with the lead to General Franco!

Human cost:
  • Around 100,000 Republicans were killed abd about 70,000 Nationalists.
  • The killing also continued after the war as Franco launched a terror campaign to eliminate opposition that killed approximately a further 40,000-200,000 people known as the "White Terror".
  • Thousands of Republicans were held in concentration camps and prisons and Republican children were often taken from their paretns to be "re-educated"- placed in Nationalist/Catholic families and others in orphanages- indoctrinated against views of their own parents.
  • Divisions and hatred remained in the Spanish society in decades to follow.
Economic cost:
  • Spain's economy was devestated after the war as 10-15% of its wealth was destroyed.
  • The per capita income was 28% lower in 1939 than in 1935 and 70% of Madrid's factory machinery needed to be replaced.
  • Madrid's communication systems, including the tram network needed to be rebuilt.
  • There was high inflation as a result of the economic crisis and the government started printing more and more money.
  • The Republican's land reform was reversed and Spain's agricultural economy remained ineffective and inefficient.
  • Huge debts to pay! Spain attempted to find foreign loans for investment but the British and Germans demanded that the debt was payed back first.
  • The economy improved due to the outbreak of WW2 and attempted to gain leverage over Britain and France by offering to remain neutral and nto ally with Nazi Germany- also had discussions with the Germans. Once the war broke out, Britain and France signed trading agreements with Spain in 1940.
  • However, German exploitation of Spain's resources during the war weakened the economy and the debt still to be repayed gave Britain, France and the uS influence in Franco's Spain.
  • Spain was in isolation after WW2 and suffered famine in 1946, industrial output level was lower than in 1918 and may however have been saved by the right-wing Argentine dictator Peron.
  • LONGER TERM: As the Cold war took on, Spain became less isolated and with some reforms in 1950s and 1960s, it developed a powerful capitalist economy, industrialized and also developed a strong service industry.

Political effects:
  • Franco emerged from the war as Spain's dictator remained in power until his death in 1975.
  • Franco's regime claimed that they had to save the country from communism and the "White Terror" killed thousands of Republicans and led to the exodus of half a million Spaniards- this included most intellectuals in Spai such as lawyers, teachers, researchers, doctors and famous writers.
  • In 1939, the Law of Political Responsibility made supporters of the Republicans (either before or during the war) liable to punishment which even included death sentence.
  • Key objectives of the new regime was to the restore the power of the privileged and to control the working class.
  • Wages were cut and industrial political acitivism was outlawed; CNT and UGT destroyed!
  • Employment for Republicans was almost impossible and the Civil Guard maintained the inequalities of the social and working system.

  • USSR: Communist had been defeated in Spain and Stalin's small contribution to the Republican cause resulted in divisions within the left wing and Soviet lost a lot of intellectual sympathy in the West.
  • It also created divisions between the USSR and Germany and drove the Soviet foreign policy to seek alliance with western power to contain Germany- however western powers showed through appeasement that they had no intentions of standing up to Germany (Czech in 1938) and signed Nazi-Soviet Pact in August 1939.
  • Hitler and Mussolini: Hitler gained valuable military lessons from the war as he was able to try out the tactic of Blirzkrieg and military equippment. Also tried out the bombing of civilians which would be a common tactic in WW2.
  • Britain and France: The poliarized nature of the foreign intervention led to more support for appeasement as it seemed that the opposing forces could exhaust each other without democracies being dragged into the conflict. The apparent weakness of Britain and France over Spain and their wider policy of appeasement led to Hitler changing his perception of Britain and non-intervention encouraged Hitler to become more aggressive!
  • USA: Remained mostly neutral and the war even strengthened the country's isolationist sentiment. The UN called for economic sanctions against Franco and all the member states broke off diplomatic relations- initial plan to overthrow Franco but US changed this view as Cold War developed between USSR and developed the idea of "enemy of my enemy is my friend". In 1951, President Eisenhower granted the first American grant to Spain and became an ally of the US and so allowed to join the UN.