The Magazine

Spanish Upheaval

Republicans, nationalists, and the crucible of modern Spain

Jun 23, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 39 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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The virtues of Stanley Payne, the outstanding living historian of the Spanish Civil War, are on gratifying display in this comprehensive volume. He writes with appropriate sweep: “[C]ivil war in Spain was not a complete anomaly, but rather the only massive internal conflict to break out in Western Europe during the 1930s. It would reflect all the tensions, hatreds, and ideologies found in these other conflicts, while adding further features of its own, characteristic of Spain and to some extent of Europe as a whole during the decade before World War II.” Still, Payne concentrates on the domestic history that produced the convulsion. 

Francisco Franco (center) and colleagues (1938)

Francisco Franco (center) and colleagues (1938)

He begins with the decline of Spain’s empire, once the world’s greatest in geographical extent, controlling territories from North Africa across the Western Hemisphere and the Pacific to the Philippines. He notes that, early in the 19th century, the invasion of Spain by Napoleon’s armies and the ensuing defeat of the French fostered local constitutionalism resulting in a “Spanish contradiction.” That is, the country adopted an advanced, modernizing political system but maintained an undeveloped society and economy, a traditional culture, and weak educational resources.  

Payne also offers a reliable account of the main episodes of 20th-century Spain’s armed torment. These begin with the fall of the dictator Miguel Primo de Rivera in 1930 and the abdication of King Alfonso XIII in the next year. A republic was then proclaimed and a liberal and social-democratic coalition was elected, followed by the eruption of leftist extremism. That last was evidenced by ferocious anticlericalism, the growth of an anarchist labor movement uniquely strong in Europe, and a shift of Socialists toward revolutionism, alongside which the Moscow-controlled Spanish Communist party was an alien force without significant roots.  

The emergence of a radical-right alternative soon followed. While it was identified most notoriously with the Falange Española, or Spanish Phalanx, which was inspired by Italian and German fascism, the counter-movement to Spain’s radical left was represented more widely by conservative Roman Catholic politicians and traditional monarchists—the latter known as Carlists for their support of a slighted pretender to the throne, Prince Carlos, passed over by the predecessors of the ill-fated Alfonso XIII. 

In 1934, the most important of several failed leftist insurrections occurred. That rehearsal for a full-fledged civil war was organized (as Payne shows) with considerable preparation and thoroughness by the radicalized Socialists. But it was defeated—and enabled the victory at the polls of a rightist government, which aggravated the crisis.  

Elections in 1936 brought the liberals, leftists, and Communists of the People’s Front to power, but the revolutionary tide ran ahead of them. The People’s Front won the balloting in part because of incidents of leftist violence that skewed voting results, but also thanks to the numerous votes of the anarcho-syndicalists and Socialists, neither of whom were willing to participate in the new administration. Revolution had seized the minds of the radical left, but a major opposing offensive was about to begin. It would come under the leadership of General Francisco Franco, and it would prevail.

In the summer of 1936, the antirevolutionary faction in the Spanish Army rose in defiance of the new government and was dubbed “the nationalists.” The armed forces had been divided no less deeply than the rest of the country: Franco admitted that leaders were badly split inside the military establishment and supported no common position other than “law and order.” That is why, in Franco’s view, no military intervention against the left had been organized successfully between 1934 and 1936. The electoral triumph of the People’s Front, however, provoked further violent confrontations between the two ideological poles, dramatizing the disintegration of the state.

Franco began his uprising from Spanish Morocco. The nationalists quickly seized most of the Spanish north (which was sympathetic to them) with the support of Falangist cadres and Carlist militias. But Franco himself was stuck in Morocco, as the Spanish Navy remained loyal to the Republic. Franco and his colleagues went to Germany and Italy for airplanes and pilots, along with weapons, to evade the Republican closure of the Strait of Gibraltar. Hitler and Mussolini obliged, sending their own combat personnel to assist the nationalists in beating the naval blockade. Franco ferried thousands of soldiers and Moroccan mercenaries onto the mainland.