Spanish Civil War

Spanish Civil War

The Spanish Civil War


The onset of the Great Depression destabilized the economy of Spain and resulted in the collapse of the Spanish monarchy in 1931. After the establishment of a Republic, civil war erupted between Communists and Socialists on the left and the Spanish army on the right under the leadership of Francisco Franco. By 1939 Franco defeated his enemies and established a military dictatorship.


Learning Objectives

  • Examine the development of Franco’s Fascist Spain.


Key Terms / Key Concepts

Falangism: a Fascist movement founded in Spain in 1933; the one legal party in Spain under the regime of Franco

Francisco Franco: a Spanish general who ruled over Spain as a dictator for 36 years from 1939 until his death (He took control of Spain from the government of the Second Spanish Republic after winning the Civil War, and was in power until 1978, when the Spanish Constitution of 1978 went into effect.)

personality cult: when an individual uses mass media, propaganda, or other methods to create an idealized, heroic, and at times worshipful image, often through unquestioned flattery and praise

Spanish Civil War: a war from 1936 to 1939 between the Republicans (loyalists to the democratic, left leaning and relatively urban Second Spanish Republic along with Anarchists and Communists) and forces loyal to General Francisco Franco (Nationalists, Falangists, and Carlists - a largely aristocratic conservative group)


Francisco Franco: El Caudillo


Francisco Franco (December 4, 1892 – November 20, 1975) was a Spanish general who ruled over Spain as a dictator for 36 years from 1939 until his death. As a conservative and a monarchist military officer, he opposed the abolition of the monarchy and the establishment of a republic in 1931. With the 1936 elections, the conservative Spanish Confederation of Autonomous Right-wing Groups lost by a narrow margin and the leftist Popular Front came to power. This Popular Front was an alliance between Spanish Liberals and Communists. Intending to overthrow the republic, Franco worked with other like-minded generals in attempting a failed coup that precipitated the Spanish Civil War (1936 – 1939). With the death of the other generals during this war, Franco quickly became his faction’s only leader. After securing his position as military dictator, Franco eventually in 1947, restored the Spanish monarchy in name only with himself as regent.

During the Civil War, Franco gained military support from various regimes and groups, especially Nazi Germany and the Fascist Italy. The opposition—or the Republican side—was supported by Spanish communists and anarchists, as well as the Soviet Union, Mexico, and the International Brigades. These brigades included volunteers from around the world who supported the Republic.

Leaving half a million people dead, the war was eventually won by Franco in 1939. He established a military dictatorship, which he defined as a totalitarian state. Franco proclaimed himself Head of State and Government under the title El Caudillo, a term similar to Il Duce (Italian) for Benito Mussolini and Der Führer (German) for Adolf Hitler. Under Franco, Spain became a one-party state, as the various conservative and royalist factions were merged into the fascist party and other political parties were outlawed.

Franco’s regime committed a series of violent human rights abuses against the Spanish people, which included the establishment of concentration camps and the use of forced labor and executions, mostly against political and ideological enemies, causing an estimated 200,000 to 400,000 deaths in more than 190 concentration camps over the course of his 36 years as dictator (1939 – 1975). During the last several decades of his regime, the number of executions declined considerably

During World War II, Spain sympathized with its fellow Fascist European states, the Axis powers, Germany and Italy. Spain’s entry into the war on the Axis side was prevented largely by British Secret Intelligence Service (MI-6) efforts that included up to $200 million in bribes for Spanish officials to keep the regime from getting involved. Franco was also able to take advantage of the resources of the Axis Powers, while choosing to avoid becoming heavily involved in the Second World War.


Photograph of a man
Francisco Franco: A photo of Francisco Franco in 1964. Franco strove to establish a fascist dictatorship similar to that of Germany and Italy, but in the end did not join the Axis in WWII.



Ideology of Francoist Spain


The consistent points in Francoism included authoritarianism, nationalism, national Catholicism, militarism, conservatism, anti-communism, and anti-liberalism. The Spanish State was authoritarian. It suppressed non-government trade unions and all political opponents across the political spectrum often through police repression. Most country towns and rural areas were patrolled by pairs of Guardia Civil—a military police made up of civilians, which functioned as a chief means of social control. Larger cities and capitals were mostly under the heavily armed Policía Armada, commonly called grises due to their grey uniforms.

The Spanish state also enjoyed the broad support of the Roman Catholic Church. Many traditional Spanish Roman Catholics were relieved that Franco’s forces had crushed the atheistic, anti-clerical (anti-priests), Communists.  Franco was also the focus of a personality cult which taught that he had been sent by Divine Providence to save the country from chaos and poverty.

Franco’s Spanish nationalism promoted a unitary national identity by repressing Spain’s cultural diversity. Bullfighting and flamenco were promoted as national traditions, while those traditions not considered Spanish were suppressed. Franco’s view of Spanish tradition was somewhat artificial and arbitrary: while some regional traditions were suppressed, Flamenco, an Andalusian tradition, was considered part of a larger, national identity. All cultural activities were subject to censorship, and many were forbidden entirely, often in an erratic manner.

Francoism professed a strong devotion to militarism, hypermasculinity, and the traditional role of women in society. A woman was to be loving to her parents and brothers and faithful to her husband, as well as reside with her family. Official propaganda confined women’s roles to family care and motherhood. Most progressive laws passed by the Second Republic were declared void. Women could not become judges, testify in trial, or become university professors.

The Civil War had ravaged the Spanish economy. Infrastructure had been damaged, workers killed, and daily business severely hampered. For more than a decade after Franco’s victory, the economy improved little. Franco initially pursued a policy of autarky, cutting off almost all international trade. The policy had devastating effects, and the economy stagnated. Only black marketeers could enjoy an evident affluence.

Up to 200,000 people died of starvation during the early years of Francoism, a period known as Los Años de Hambre (the Years of Hunger). This period coincided with the ravages of World War II (1939 – 1945).


Falangism: Spanish Fascism


Falangism was the official fascist ideology of Franco’s military dictatorship. Falangism was the political ideology of the Falange Española de las JONS when this political party was formed in Spain in 1934. Afterwards in 1937, Franco reformed this party as the Falange Española Tradicionalista y de las Juntas de Ofensiva Nacional Sindicalista (both known simply as the “Falange”). This new party remained the official party of the Spanish state until the collapse of this fascist regime soon after Franco’s death in 1975, Under the leadership of Franco, many of the more radical elements of Falangism considered fascist were diluted, and the party largely became an authoritarian, conservative ideology connected with Francoist Spain. Opponents of Franco’s changes to the party’s ideology included former Falange leader Manuel Hedilla. Falangism placed a strong emphasis on Catholic religious identity, though it held some secular views on the Church’s direct influence in society, as it believed that the state should have the supreme authority over the nation. Falangism emphasized the need for authority, hierarchy, and order in society. Falangism was also anti-communist, anti-capitalist, anti-democratic, and anti-liberal. Under Franco’s leadership, however, the Falange abandoned its original anti-capitalist tendencies, declaring the ideology to be fully compatible with capitalism.

The Falange’s original manifesto, the “Twenty-Seven Points,” declared that Falangism supported the unity of Spain and the elimination of regional separatism that existed among the Basques and Catalans of Northwestern and Northeastern Spain. This manifesto established a dictatorship led by the Falange and used violence to regenerate Spain. It also promoted the revival and development of the Spanish Empire overseas and championed a social revolution to create a national syndicalist economy. Syndicalists hoped to transfer the ownership and control of the means of production (i.e., factories) and distribution to state controlled workers' unions. This new economy was to mutually organize and control economic activity, agrarian reform, industrial expansion, while respecting private property except for nationalizing credit facilities (i.e., banks) to prevent capitalist usury (charging interest on loans). It criminalized strikes by employees and lockouts by employers as illegal acts. Falangism supported the state to have jurisdiction of setting wages. The Franco-era Falange supported the development of workers cooperatives (employee-owned businesses) such as the Mondragon Corporation in 1956, because it bolstered the Francoist claim of the nonexistence of an oppressed working class in Spain during his rule. The Mondragon Corporation still operates in Spain today, but the Falange Española Tradicionalista y de las Juntas de Ofensiva Nacional Sindicalista dissolved in 1977 soon after Franco’s death in 1975.

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