• Spain's news in English
On this day: 80 years ago, Spain plunged into civil war
Photo: Archive / AFP

On this day: 80 years ago, Spain plunged into civil war

AFP · 18 Jul 2016, 11:23

Published: 18 Jul 2016 11:23 GMT+02:00

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

A dark prelude to World War II, the conflict unleashed passions around the world for close to three years and led to a decades-long dictatorship.   

It all started on July 18, 1936, when army generals staged a coup against a fledgling republic that had been established five years prior in a restive, poor country.

The coup failed but divided the country between those who supported the Republic and the "nationalist" rebels.

Among these was General Francisco Franco, in command of the army in the Spanish protectorate of Morocco.

He promptly gained the support of German and Italian dictators Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, whose planes transported troops onto the mainland in what is known as the world's first major airlift.

The planes would go on to regularly bomb cities around the country, and destroy the town of Guernica in the Basque Country, made famous by Picasso's haunting painting.

Picasso's Guernica in Madrid's Reina Sofia Museum. Photo: AFP

For the first time, civilians were direct targets.

The fighting and violence were reported around the world. Thanks to new portable cameras the war was "the first to be witnessed (...) by a corps of professional photographers at the lines of military engagement and in the towns under bombardment", American writer Susan Sontag, who also wrote about photography, said in The New Yorker.

Atmosphere of terror

On the ground, mayhem.

"We must create an atmosphere of terror... by eliminating all those who don't think like us without any misgivings or hesitation," rebel general Gonzalo Queipo de Llano called in a radio address in July 1936.

As the rebels progressed, left-wing lawmakers, unionists, Socialist activists, supporters or their families were executed in their thousands.

On the Republican side, armed gangs chased the wealthy and those suspected of being on the side of the rebels were executed.  

Some were taken away at night for a "walk", a car ride from which no one ever returned.

Priests and nuns were also targeted for their perceived closeness to upper classes, and more than 6,500 were killed, most at the hands of Republicans.  

Madrid asked its neighbours for help, in vain. Britain and France refused, scared of being dragged into another world war.  

They opted instead for a "pact of non-intervention" to which Italy and Germany also signed up, even as they continued to openly help the nationalist rebels.

The conflict moved people the world over.  

With the inaction of Western democracies, intellectuals took the side of the Republic, from novelist John Steinbeck to India's Nobel Literature laureate Rabindranath Tagore.

Soon enough, the Soviet Union entered the fray, arming the Republicans.    

The civil war had evolved into a clash between fascism and communism.    "Our foes are the Reds, the Bolsheviks of the world," sang the young pilots of the Condor Legion sent by Hitler.

Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin jumped on the occasion to strengthen his influence, sending advisers and organising International Brigades. Some 50,000 volunteered from all over the world.

"They saw fascism as an international threat, and the Brigades appeared to offer the best way of fighting it", writes historian Antony Beevor.  

They helped the Republic score rare victories, holding onto Madrid in a winter 1936 battle or defeating Italian brigades sent by Mussolini in 1937.  

But militarily inferior and weakened by divisions, the Republic slowly lost ground and the Barcelona-based government eventually went into exile in March 1939 along with some 400,000 Spaniards.

Five months later, World War II erupted.

Spain yet to heal

Back in Spain, Franco declared victory on April 1st, 1939 and ruled Spain until his death in 1975.

Story continues below…

Francisco Franco died on November 20th 1975. Photo: Archive / AFP

In his book "The Spanish Holocaust", historian Paul Preston calculates that 20,000 Republican supporters were executed after the war.    

He estimates that 200,000 people died in combat during the conflict, and another 200,000 were murdered or executed -- 150,000 of these at the hands of nationalists.

Franco's regime paid tribute to its dead, but those who died on the opposite side were largely forgotten and dumped in mass graves.  

When Spain transitioned to democracy after his death, authorities opted for a "pact of forgetting" to put the past and its bloody divisions behind.  

Then in 2007 as more and more people clamoured for the war and its aftermath to be addressed, Spain passed a law to help relatives willing to exhume and recover the remains of loved ones.

But acting Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has boasted of not having spent one euro to put it into effect.

His conservative party, founded by Franco's former ministers, doesn't want to "stir the ashes of the past".

By Patrick Rahir / AFP     


For more news from Spain, join us on Facebook and Twitter.

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
Spain's Rajoy says king has tasked him with forming govt
Photo: AFP

Spain's king on Tuesday tasked Mariano Rajoy with forming a government, taking the acting conservative prime minister a step closer to power again after a 10-month political deadlock.

Two imams arrested in Ibiza resort over 'Isis support'
The men were arrested in the resort of Sant Antoni de Portmany. Photo: Jose A / Flickr

Two Moroccan imams at a mosque on the Spanish resort island of Ibiza were arrested Tuesday on suspicion of backing the Islamic State group and inciting jihad.

Balearic Islands choose to keep summertime forever
The islands will have longer evenings during winter. Photo: AFP

The Balearic Islands want to keep summertime when the rest of Spain turns the clocks back on Sunday.

  Brazilian had 'uncontrollable desire to kill': Spain police
Francois Patrick Nogueira Gouveia has been charged with murdering his uncle, his wife and their two children. Photo: Guardia Civil.

A Brazilian teenager accused of dismembering his uncle and aunt and killing their two young sons in a grisly crime that shocked Spain had an "uncontrollable desire to kill", police said on Monday.

Man rescued from bin after climbing in to find old clothes
Photo: Policía Local Murcia

Police were called after passersby reported hearing a man calling for help from within a rubbish bin in the Vistabella neighbourhood of Murcia, southern Spain.

Spain faces crucial week as conservatives re-take power
Mariano Rajoy hopes to form a government this week. Photo: AFP

Spain entered a crucial week as acting conservative PM Mariano Rajoy prepared to re-take power, ending ten rollercoaster months without government marked by hope and disillusion.

Eight very creepy Halloween costumes ideas from Spain
Photo: Pan's Labyrinth

Forget flamenco dancers and bullfighters, The Local counts down the freakiest alternative costume ideas to dress up in this Halloween.

Man attacked by racist thug in UK street for talking Spanish

Tomas Gil, 27, from Valencia in eastern Spain was talking to his girlfriend in their native language after a night out in the British seaside town of Poole when he was set upon by a racist thug.

Malaga: Police probe bizarre 'sex death' of homeless Brit
The man was found near Malaga airport. Photo: Dennis Howlett / Flickr

A British homeless man was found dead tied to a bench near Malaga airport with his trousers down and his genitals in a can of tuna.

Clock ticking as Spain races to avoid third elections
Third elections could now be avoided. Photo: AFP

Spain's Socialists voted on Sunday to allow the conservatives to take power, likely averting a third election for Spaniards tired of going to the polls.

Analysis & Opinion
Out of the dark: Five years on from Eta ceasefire
Sponsored Article
Last chance to vote absentee in the US elections
Spanish 'La Mafia' restaurants banned after Italian complaint
Spain's top court overturns bullfighting ban in Catalonia
Hunt launched for ten most wanted Brit fugitives hiding out in Spain
Napflix: Spaniards launch very boring TV channel for siestas
Madrid parish church faces fine over 'too noisy' bells
Celebrate expat life at Madrid’s THRIVE convention
Fury after kids told to bring their own loo roll to school
Disney announces plans for Don Quixote action movie
Activist tells 8-yr-old matador wannabe with cancer 'just die'
King to make last minute push to avoid third vote in Spain
Amazing photos of Catalonia's 'human tower' contest
What's on in Spain: October 2016
'No way, Jose! You'll never get your hands on our Rock'
Recipe: How to make a classic Spanish tortilla de patatas
Chorizo in paella? Go back to cooking school Jamie Oliver
Spain in eye of a perfect storm after 10 months without govt
Thousands share clips of life for 'Spain in a Day' film
Ten incredible Spain locations for Game of Thrones season 7
Analysis & Opinion
Why moving to Spain could be the best decision of your life
Seven reasons why autumn is the very best season in Spain
Spanish study finds four types of personality. Which are you?
New search underway for civil war grave of poet Lorca
jobs available