10 Facts About the Spanish Civil War

Aditya Chakravarty

4 mins

13 Jun 2019

The Spanish Civil War of 1936-39 was a prominent conflict fought for a multitude of reasons. Nationalist rebels fought against the loyalist Republicans in a war that was widely followed by the international community.

Some historians class it as part of a European Civil War that lasted from 1936-45, however most reject that view as ignoring the nuances of Spanish history. Regardless the international interest in this conflict was endemic of the growing tensions of 1930’s Europe.

Here are 10 facts about the war.

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1. The war had many different factions loosely grouped into two sides

There were many different reasons the war was fought, including over class struggle, religion, republicanism, monarchism, fascism, and communism.

The Republican government billed the war as a struggle between tyranny and freedom, whilst the Nationalist rebels were based around law, order and Christian values standing against communism and anarchism. The factions within these two sides often had conflicting aims and ideologies.

2. The war generated an intense propaganda struggle

Propaganda posters. Image credit Andrzej Otrębski / Creative commons

Both sides appealed to both internal factions, and international opinion. Whilst the left may have won the opinions of posterity, as their’s was the version often touted in later years, the Nationalists actually influenced contemporary, international political opinion by appealing to conservative and religious elements. 

3. Many countries officially promised non-intervention, but covertly supported one of the sides

Non-intervention, led by France and Britain, was promised, either officially or unofficially, by all the major powers. A committee was even established to enforce this, however it soon became apparent that several countries had ignored this.

Germany and Italy provided troops and arms to the Nationalists, whilst the USSR did the same for the Republicans. 

4. Individual citizens of various countries often volunteered to fight

A unit of the Bulgarian International Brigade, 1937

Around 32,000 volunteers joined the “International Brigades” on behalf of the Republicans. Drawn from countries including France, Germany, Britain, Ireland, Scandinavia, the US, Canada, Hungary, and Mexico, the Republican cause was seen as a beacon for left-leaning intelligentsia and workers. The Nationalists also drew their fair share of volunteers, from many of the same countries. 

5. George Orwell was one of those fighting for the Republicans

One of the more famous volunteers, he came to “fight against Fascism”. After being shot in the throat by a sniper and barely surviving, Orwell and his wife came under threat from the Communists during factional in-fighting. After escaping he wrote Homage to Catalonia (1938), detailing his experiences in the war.

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6. Religion was a major issue in the war

Preceding the war, outbreaks of anti-clerical violence occurred. The Republican government promoted a secularising ideology, which was deeply troubling to large numbers of devout Spaniards.  

The Nationalists’ array of diverse and sometimes opposing factions were united by both their anti-communism and their Catholic convictions. This spread to international propaganda, with the Vatican covertly supporting them, along with many Catholic intellectuals like Evelyn Waugh, Carl Schmitt, and J. R. R. Tolkien.

7. The Nationalists were lead by General Franco, who would become a dictator upon their victory

General Franco. Image credit Iker rubí / Creative commons

The war started on 17 July 1936 with a military coup in Morocco planned by General José Sanjurjo, which seized around one third of the country as well as Morocco. He died in a plane accident on 20 July, leaving Franco in charge.

To establish his control over the army, Franco executed 200 senior officers loyal to the Republic. One of them was his cousin. After the war he became the dictator of Spain until his death in 1975.

8. The Battle of Brunete was a decisive clash where the side with 100 tanks lost 

After an initial impasse, the Republicans launched a major offensive where they were able to take Brunete. However the overall strategy failed and so the offensive was halted around Brunete. Franco launched a counter-attack, and managed to retake Brunete. Around 17,000 Nationalists and and 23,000 Republicans became casualties.

Though neither side could claim a decisive victory, Republican morale was shaken and equipment was lost. The Nationalists were able to regain a strategic initiative.

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9. Pablo Picasso’s Guernica was based on an event during the war

Guernica by Pablo Picasso. Image credit Laura Estefania Lopez / Creative commons

Guernica was a major Republican stronghold in the north. In 1937 the German Condor unit bombed the town. As most of the men were away fighting, the victims were mainly women and children. Picasso reflected this in the painting.

10. The death toll estimates range from 1,000,000 to 150,000

The death toll remains uncertain and controversial. The war took a toll on both fighters and civilians, and indirect deaths caused by disease and malnutrition remain unknown. Additionally the Spanish economy took decades to recover and Spain remained isolationist until the 1950s.

Featured image credit: Al pie del cañón”, sobre la batalla de Belchite. Painting by Augusto Ferrer-Dalmau / Commons.