The Spanish Civil War began in 1936 when a group of disaffected Spanish army officers staged a coup d’etat against the democratically-elected Spanish Republic. The participation of the Popular Front (which included a small number of Communists) in that government was used as a justification by these army officers and their conservative supporters. Early on, the fascist dictators Hitler & Mussolini backed the rebels, whom the press would come to refer to as the Nationalists. On the other side, a coalition of labor unions, anarchists, and liberals armed themselves to defend the Republic. Their defense of the capital, Madrid, attracted global attention and drew many writers and artists to Spain to document the struggle. Ultimately, left wing parties, but predominantly, the Communist Party used an international network to organize volunteers to fight for the Republic. The Abraham Lincoln Brigade was the American volunteer unit. Many New Yorkers joined this unit, and many of them were indeed Communists, but it would be perhaps more accurate to say that they were all opposed to the spread of fascism. This was what united them.

The Republic fought valiantly, but without the aid of its fellow democracies, most importantly France, Britain, and the United States, it was simply outgunned. The Soviet Union did provide aid, but at the cost of stifling dissent. And it was never enough to tip the scales decisively against the Nationalist side, where career army officer, Francisco Franco, emerged as the leader of fascist Spain, personally meeting with Hitler.

Terrible atrocities occurred on both sides. Neighbors murdered neighbors, and Franco encouraged colonial troops to attack civilians. Much of what was to come in World War II (1939-1945) was foreshadowed by the war in Spain. More civilians died than soldiers, for instance. This new type of warfare was famously depicted in Pablo Picasso’s painting, “Guernica”.

The war ended in 1939, just months before World War II began. Persecution of people involved with the Popular Front or labor unions continued for decades in Spain. Not until Franco’s Death in 1975, did Spain begin to move again towards democracy. It is still grappling with how to confront the history of the war and its aftermath.

Further Reading