Commonly referred to as “the dress rehearsal” for World War II, the Spanish Civil War was the bloodiest conflict in Spanish history. The result of deep political and social divisions within Spain, the conflict that erupted became the site of intense fighting, as well as a training ground for the Axis powers and further demonstrated the failure of appeasement as a foreign policy tactic. The conflict saw the rebel Nationalists, parts of the military, the landowners and businessmen rise up against the Republican government, supported by urban workers, labourers and the educated middle classes, and lead Spain into three years of turmoil, resulting in the deaths of half a million people.
The war has its roots in the election of a Popular Front government in 1936, which was largely supported by left-wing parties and vehemently opposed to by those on the right. In response to this a well-planned military uprising began on July 17 1936 in garrison towns all around the country and within 4 days the rebels had gained control of the Basque provinces, Catalonia, Spanish Morocco, the Balearic and Canary Islands as well as parts of central Spain. Both sides set about controlling the areas they were set up in and began to ruthlessly repress any opposition and the proliferation of executions, assassinations and murders on both sides reflects the great passions the Civil War unleashed. On the Nationalist side, captaincy was gradually assumed by General Franco, and he was named head of state in October and set up a Nationalist government in Burgos, whilst the Republicans were headed by socialist leader Francisco Largo Caballero, who was followed by Juan Negrin in 1937.
Whilst the Nationalists were largely united by their hatred of the left and desire for a strong authoritarian state, the Republicans were hindered from the outset by the heterogeneous mix of political ideologies they had to accommodate. On the one hand, the anarchists and communists saw the war as a revolutionary struggle which would lead to collectivization; whilst on the other, the more moderate socialists and republicans simply wanted to preserve the Republic. Both sides played upon the growing unrest and political cleavage that was occurring in Europe to garner support for their causes. The Nationalists sought help from the Axis powers, Italy and Germany, who provided troops, tanks and planes in a clear show of power for the world to see and take the Fascist threat seriously. The Republicans on the other hand received support from the Soviet Union, as well as international brigades of 40,000 volunteers, who saw the conflict as an ideological struggle and supplied equipment, supplies and troops to the government forces.
By November, Nationalist forces had advanced to the outskirts of Madrid but were unable to capture it entirely. However, they had already gained control of the entire Northern Coast with the fall of Asturias, so that by November a bitter war of attrition had begun.Over the next two years there was intense fighting and it was growing increasingly clear that the Nationalists, backed by German and Italian air power, had the upper hand. The Battle of Teruel marked a key Republican success and the tide of the war looked to be turning. However, due to heavy German and Italian bombardments, the town was retaken by Franco’s troops a month later, from which he launched the Aragon Offensive which cut off many of the Republican forces from their other garrisons and seriously hindered their strike power. By February 1939, 50,000 Republican troops and civilians fled to France, with the government following soon after. Nationalist forces entering Madrid a month later after Republican forces had begun to disband and surrender.
The political and emotional reverberations of the war transcended those of a national conflict, as many saw the Spanish Civil War as part of an international conflict between tyranny and democracy, fascism and freedom, communism and civilization. For the Axis powers, Spain represented the perfect testing ground for tactics they would use only months later against the Allies, such as the horrific carpet bombing of the town of Guernica; whilst for Britain and France, it represented a new threat to the international equilibrium they were struggling to preserve