What was the Spanish Civil War and why does it matter?

The Spanish Civil War was the most important event in the modern history of Spain and one of the most crucial in the rest of the world in the 20th century.

In the 1930s, democracy was in retreat as Communism and, especially Fascism, were on the offensive. As a result, domestic political violence and international aggression became much more common. The decade began with the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, in northern China, in 1931. Hitler came to power and established his dictatorship in 1933.  The next year there was a brief civil war in Austria that ended with the creation of a dictatorship. In 1935, Fascist Italy invaded Abyssinia, today Ethiopia. All these events involved atrocities against enemies and often against the civilian population.

While this was going on, Spain appeared to be moving in the opposite direction. A democratic republic was peacefully proclaimed in April 1931, and the new government soon passed a number of progressive reforms. By 1934, however, politics in the country had become increasingly polarized. In October, there were left-wing revolutionary uprisings in Catalonia and the northern coalmining region of Asturias. Some two thousand people were killed and many more became political prisoners.

Hotly-contested elections in February 1936 were followed by months of political violence and social unrest. At the same time, a military conspiracy against the new center-left government was underway. The conspiring generals made their move on July 17, 1936 but their rebellion was only half successful, because part of the armed forces remained loyal to the government, as did much of the police. The government also had the support of working-class political parties and trade unions, to which it soon distributed weapons. A civil war, which would be marked by atrocities on both sides, had begun. 

What started as a domestic conflict almost immediately became an international one. Within days, Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy were providing crucial military support to the rebellious officers. The democratic powers, France and Great Britain, abandoned the Republic in favour of a policy they called Non- Intervention. Isolated and facing a mortal threat, in September 1936 the government of Spain turned to the Soviet Union for military assistance.

As Spain appeared to have become the battleground for the larger struggle against fascism and international aggression, events there galvanized global public opinion in an unprecedented way. The vast majority of this opinion supported the Republic against the rebels. As the governments of Britain and France followed a policy of appeasement towards the Fascist powers, ordinary people from around the world were helping fight the military rebels and their foreign allies. Millions joined or contributed to civil society organizations that raised funds and sent support to the Republic. Some 40,000 volunteers went to Spain to fight mainly in the International Brigades. Important as their contribution was, it pales when compared with the at least four times more foreign soldiers who fought on Franco´s side.

To many, Spain was the opportunity to stop the worldwide advance of fascism. Four months before the Civil War began, France stood by as Hitler flouted the Treaty of Versailles and illegally remilitarized the Rhineland. In October 1936, Hitler and Mussolini became political partners in what was now known as the Axis. In July 1937, as the Civil War entered its second year, Japan invaded China and soon new atrocities horrified public opinion worldwide. In March 1938, Germany annexed Austria and six months later Hitler demanded that Czechoslovakia surrender the Sudetenland. Frightened of another war, France and Great Britain enabled Hitler to achieve his objectives. In March 1939, as the last shots of the Spanish Civil War were being fired, Hitler occupied what was left of Czechoslovakia. Three weeks later, Mussolini invaded Albania. On September 1, five months after the Republic collapsed, Hitler invaded Poland. World War II had started.

Antonio Cazorla Sánchez and Adrian Shubert