During the Spanish Civil War, the eyes of the whole world turned their attention to Spain as an epic medieval like battle unfolded between forces of good and evil, though depending on what side of the fence you sat, these tags could be applied to either side or indeed if you remained perhaps on the fence, on both. Though the world tolerated it, never thinking or perhaps not wishing to think that this was a practice run or more correctly a war by proxy between Soviet Russia and Fascist Germany. This dress rehearsal was a devastating, viscous plague on Spain and Spanish society, the stage show would be devastating on a world scale. But this was a war that resulted from internal problems in Spain that had existed in Spain since the beginning of the nineteenth century.
A liberal tradition had first ascended to power with the Spanish constitution of 1812 sought to abolish the absolutist monarchy of the old regime and to establish a liberal state. Hence, there were a series of civil wars and revolts between the liberals and monarchists throughout the nineteenth century. Spain remained a constitutional monarchy throughout most of this period with brief exceptions such as the First Spanish Republic. A monarchy under Alfonso XIII lasted from 1887 to 1931 but from 1923 it was held in place by the military dictatorship of Miguel Primo de Rivera. Primo de Rivera promised to eliminate corruption and to regenerate Spain; he suspended the constitution, established martial law and imposed a strict system of censorship.
However, little social reform took place, inflation rocketed and after losing support of the army he was forced to resign in 1930. In 1931, Alfonso XIII agreed to democratic elections, the people voted for a Republic by a landside, old Alfonso rolled off his throne and went into exile. The Second Spanish Republic was led by a coalition of the left and centre which passed a number of controversial reforms such as the 1932 Agrarian Law which distributed land amongst the peasants. These reforms along with anti-clerical policies and military cut-backs created strong opposition.
The November 1933 elections saw the right-wing CEDA party win 115 seats whereas the Socialist Party only managed 58. CEDA now formed a parliamentary alliance with the Radical Party. Over the next two years the new administration demolished the reforms that had been introduced by the previous government. When a progressive Popular Front government was elected in February 1936, with the promise of realistic land reform, conservative forces immediately began to plan resistance. In July 1936, a military coup was staged but it was botched and the government remained in control of large parts of the country.
The Nationalists appealed to fascist dictatorships in Italy, Germany, and Portugal for assistance, and they soon began receiving both men and supplies from Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, and Antonio Salazar. This ended any chance that the war would be limited to solely a Spanish affair, instead it became a symbol of democracy versus fascism. The world was still reeling from the effects of the Great Depression and Republican Spain were viewed as a beacon of hope and a provider of solutions.
In addition, the world was becoming browned off with Fascism - Japan had invaded Manchuria at the beginning of the decade, the Italians had hacked into Ethiopia in 1935, Hitler was being a fiend to Jews in Germany - so when the fascists became involved in Spain, the world should have decided it had enough and must do something.
The problem is they did not. Not Britain. Not France. Not America. All feared a wider war, Hitler didn't. Mexico sent rifles and the Soviet Union sold arms and several hundred men and that was that, the Republicans were very much left on their own. The Nationalists were assisted by some 60, 000 Italian, 20, 000 Portuguese, and 15, 000 German 'volunteers' sent by their governments. However, thousands of volunteers flocked to the International Brigades, over 32,000 troops from 53 nations signed up and made their way to Spain to fight alongside the Republican units. Although, primarily the war was fought Spaniard against Spaniard.
The rebels included virtually the whole regular army officer corps and the long-service Army of Africa, plus the bulk of the rural paramilitary Guardias Civil. These were soon joined by the well-trained Navarrese Carlists and a larger number of fascist Falangist (political movement) volunteers. The Republic retained the support of most of the urban paramilitary Guardias Asalto and of variously armed and organized trade unions and revolutionary groups. The initial coup failed but then the Republican leadership proved indecisive and fractured, with various factions following their own agendas and engaging in internal civil wars.
In contrast, as a result of the early deaths of possible rivals, Franco took sole control of the Nationalist forces. The Nationalists quickly gained control of much of the north of the country taking all of Galicia and Navarre, most of León and Old Castile and half of Aragon and Extremadura. They established their capital at Burgos but their first attempt on Madrid was halted in the first major battle of the war in the Guadarrama mountains. In the south, Seville, Cordoba, and Granada were seized and soon consolidated by the vanguard of the Army of Africa, airlifted by German transports.
While half remained to garrison Morocco, the rest followed by ship under Italian fighter cover. After an early Republican counter-attack towards Cordoba was defeated and a coastal strip around Malaga was eliminated by Italian armoured troops in January 1937, the southern front was negated for the duration of the war. The Spanish Foreign Legion led a Nationalist advance from Seville into Extremadura marked by atrocities. It then relieved the garrison of Toledo and pushed onwards to the capital, being stopped inside the city limits by militia and a small Soviet armoured unit.
However, the Republican government fled to Valencia. During the 1936/7 winter a Nationalist attempt to sever Madrid's communications with the Guadarramas failed and in February the newly formed International Brigades checked the Army of Africa in the Jarama mountains. In March an Italian armoured division, rendered overconfident by success against light opposition and on more suitable terrain around Malaga the year before, was humiliatingly repulsed near Guadalajara.
In July the Republicans launched a bloodily unsuccessful counter-offensive at Brunete, but thereafter a vicious stalemate prevailed around Madrid. In the north, the Nationalists under Mola advanced from Navarre to close the Basque provinces' French border in August-September 1936. Oviedo was relieved in October, many of the dynamite-throwing Asturian miners having gone to defend Madrid. Starting in late March 1937, Mola again attacked the Basque provinces from the east and Bilbao fell to his ponderous advance in mid-June. Santander fell in August and the conquest of Asturias was completed in October.
In the east, the revolutionary armies of Barcelona twice launched broad offensives in Aragon, but the Nationalists held the major towns, including a vulnerable salient at Teruél where savage fighting took place during the winter of 1937/8. Starting in March the Nationalists counter-attacked with heavy artillery preparation followed by short infantry advances across northern Valencia, severing the land-link with Catalonia in mid-July. Republican strength was shattered in a desperate battle on the Ebro in July-October and Catalonia collapsed early the following year.
The Republican army, torn by another internal civil war, fell to Nationalist advances from all sides in March. For many, however, the suffering was not over. It was not to be a civil war ending in reconciliation, for Franco began a reign of terror aimed at the physical liquidation of all his potential enemies. Concentration camps were set up. Tens of thousands were shot. Mass executions would continue until 1944. General Franco's victory marked the beginning of a forty-year dictatorship in Spain (1939-1975).
Under the Franco regime Spain suffered international isolation, although in varying degrees. In 1955 the country was accepted as a member of the United Nations, and in1970 General Franco named prince Juan Carlos his successor as the future king of Spain, thereby re-establishing the monarchy. Upon the dictator's death in 1975 King Juan Carlos I was crowned and the country set out on the long journey back to full democracy.