Spain at war: a country divided

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It began on the night of 17 July 1936 – with a coordinated revolt in Spanish-held Morocco by right-wing Spanish military officers that spread quickly to garrison towns throughout mainland Spain, splitting the country in two.

By the time it ended in victory for General Francisco Franco’s forces on 1 April 1939, it is estimated that around 500,000 people had been killed in the fighting, and countless more had succumbed to malnutrition, starvation, and war-engendered disease – making it the deadliest conflict that Western Europe had experienced since the end of First World War.

In some respects, the Spanish Civil War reflected what had happened in the past – with roots in the struggle between the forces of reform and reaction that had divided Spanish society since 1808, but also as part of the more recent international civil war that can be traced back most obviously to the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.

In Spain, as had happened in Russia two decades previously, towns and villages – and even individual families – were divided along ideological lines, with ‘reds’ (Republican forces loyal to the elected Spanish government, and the left-leaning volunteers of the International Brigades who fought alongside them) pitted against ‘whites’ (or Nationalists, as the army-backed rebel forces termed themselves) while the country descended into chaos.

Against this bitterly polarised backdrop, human life was devalued, with mass executions taking place, and terrible atrocities committed on either side.

Nationalists and Republicans battle during the Siege of the Alcázar in Toledo in July 1936, a significant Nationalist victory at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War. Image: Alamy.

In other ways, of course, the Spanish Civil War was a harbinger of things to come – a clash of dictatorships (with Stalin supporting the Republican side, and Hitler and Mussolini providing powerful backing to Franco’s forces) that acted as a dress rehearsal for the horrors of the Second World War.

With fascism on the rise across Europe, it showed the weakness of the remaining democratic powers (Britain and France chief among them), highlighting their lack of resolve in dealing with conflict on their own doorstep, and thereby further emboldening the expansionist urges of Nazi Germany.

And of course – as the appalling aerial bombing of the Basque town of Guernica on 26 April 1937 would demonstrate so vividly – it was a proving ground for many of the devastating new weapons and military strategies that would soon be deployed in the greater conflagration to follow.

In our two-part special feature for this issue, Chris Bambery traces the complex history of the Spanish Civil War, and examines how the bloodiest engagement of the conflict, the Battle of the Ebro (25 July-16 November 1938), paved the way for four decades of Francoist dictatorship.

This is an extract from a special feature on Spain at war from the latest issue of Military History Matters magazine.

Read the full article in the magazine, which you can subscribe to here, or here via an online subscription at The Past website.

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