Thursday, July 21, 2016

Julián Casanova - The Spanish Civil War, 80 years after

During the early hours of 18 July 1936, General Francisco Franco declared a state of war and his opposition to the Second Spanish Republic. In undermining the Republican government's ability to keep order, the ensuing coup d'état precipitated unprecedented open violence. Thus began the Spanish Civil War.


From April 1939 onwards, Spain experienced the peace of Franco, the consequences of the war and of those that caused it. Spain was left divided between victors and vanquished. The churches were filled with plaques commemorating those who had "fallen in the service of God and the Fatherland". On the other hand, thousands of Spaniards killed by the violence initiated by the military rebels in July 1936 were never registered nor even had an insignificant tombstone to remember them by; their families are still searching for their remains today.

The reformist discourse of the Republic and all that this form of government meant was swept up and scattered over the graves of thousands of citizens; and the workers' movement was systematically eliminated along with its organizations and its culture, in a process that was more violent than that suffered by other anti-Fascist movements in Europe. This was the "surgical operation on the social body of Spain" so vehemently demanded by the military rebels, the land-owning classes and the Catholic Church.

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In the first few months of 1936, Spanish society was highly fragmented. There was uneasiness between factions and, as was happening all over Europe with the possible exception of the United Kingdom, the rejection of liberal democracy in favour of authoritarianism was rife. None of this need have led to a civil war. The war began because a military uprising against the Republic undermined the ability of the State and the Republican government to maintain order. The division of the army and security forces thwarted the victory of the military rebellion, as well as their main objective: the rapid seizure of power. But by undermining the government's ability to keep order, this coup d'état transformed into the unprecedented open violence employed by the groups that supported and those that opposed it. It was July 1936 and thus began the Spanish Civil War.

The civil war came about because the military coup d'état failed to achieve its basic objective at the outset, which was to seize power and overthrow the republican regime, and because, unlike the events in other republics of the time, there was comprehensive resistance, both military and civil, to counter any attempt at imposing an authoritarian system. Had it not been for this combination of coup d'état, division of the armed forces and resistance, there would never have been a civil war.

This coup d'état met resistance because the Spanish society of 1936 was not the same as that of 1923, when the September uprising led by General Miguel Primo de Rivera was favoured by the general abstention of the army, the weakness of the government, the apathy of public opinion and above all, the consent of King Alfonso XIII.

In 1936 there was a Republic in Spain, whose laws and measures had given it the historical opportunity to solve insurmountable problems, but it had also come across, and caused, major factors of instability, which successive governments could not provide the proper resources to counteract. Against such a widespread level of political and social mobilization as had been set in motion by the Republican regime, the coup d'état could not end, as had occurred so many times in Spain's history, in a mere return to the old order, based on traditional values. To overthrow the Republic, what was needed was a new, violent, antidemocratic and antisocialist order, such as had previously been established elsewhere in Europe, to end the crisis and repair all the fissures that had been opened, or widened, by the Republican regime.

There is no simple answer as to why the climate of euphoria and hope in 1931, when the Second Republic was founded, transformed into the cruel, all-destructive war of 1936-1939. The threat to social order and the subverting of class relations were perceived with greater intensity in 1936 than in the first few years of the Republic. The political stability of the regime was also under greater threat. The language of class, with its talk of social divisions and incitements to malign one's opponents, had gradually permeated the atmosphere in Spain. The Republic had tried to change too many things at once: land, the Church, the army, education and labour relations. It raised major expectations that could not be met, and it soon made many powerful enemies.

In charge of the organization of the plot were various right-wing officers, including some from the Unión Militar Española (UME), a semi-clandestine anti-leftist organization consisting of several hundred officers. A group of generals, including Francisco Franco, met on 8 March in Madrid, and decided to mount "an uprising to re-establish order in the interior as well as Spain's international prestige". General José Sanjurjo, who had led the first attempt at military rebellion against the Republic in August 1922, and who was living in Portugal after his pardon in April 1934, was appointed head of the uprising, although the leading role was played by General Emilio Mola, who coordinated the entire conspiracy.

The assassination of José Calvo Sotelo, the rightwing monarchist leader who defended an authoritarian and corporative State, committed at dawn on 13 July 1936 by members of the Republic's police force, convinced the plotters of the urgent need to intervene, and brought into the fold many of the undecided, who were waiting for things to become clearer before agreeing to participate in the coup and risk their salaries and lives. Among them was General Franco, stationed in the Canary Islands, who took command of the garrisons that rose up in Spanish Morocco on the evening of 17 July 1936. In the early hours of 18 July, Franco declared a state of war and pronounced himself in opposition to the government of the Republic. On 19 July he arrived at Tetuán. Meanwhile, many other military garrisons in the Peninsula joined the coup. Peace was over in the Republic.

There were several distinct conflicts during this war. Firstly, a military conflict, initiated when the coup d'état buried political solutions and replaced them with arms. It was also a class war, between differing conceptions of social order, a war of religion, between Catholicism and anticlericalism, a war revolving around the idea of patria and nation, and a war of ideas, beliefs that were at that time at loggerheads on the international stage. It was a war that was impossible to reduce to a conflict between communism and fascism, or between fascism and democracy. In short, the Spanish Civil War was a melting pot of universal battles between bosses and workers, Church and State, obscurantism and modernization, set in an international context that had been thrown out of balance by crises of democracies and the onslaught of communism and fascism.

The Spanish Civil War has gone down in history, and in the memory that remains of it, for the way it dehumanized its adversaries and for the horrific violence that it generated. Symbolized by the mass killings, it served the two sides in their struggle to eliminate their respective enemies, whether natural or unforeseen. While carrying out this extermination, the rebels were also given the inestimable blessing of the Catholic Church from the very beginning. The clergy and sacred objects, however, were the prime target of popular rage, of those who took part in defeating the military rebels and who played leading roles in the "popular terror" that took place in the summer of 1936. Thus, Catholic religion and anticlericalism were passionately bound up in the battle over basic themes related to the organization of society and the State that was being unleashed in Spanish territory.

Lawless, arbitrary shootings and massacres eliminated enemies, real or presumed, on both sides. In the three months following the July 1936 uprising, the war was a struggle between armed militias, who lacked the basic elements of a conventional army, and a military power that concentrated all its resources in authority, discipline, the declaration of martial law, and almost from the start was able to employ the services of the well-trained troops of the Army of Africa.

The Battle of Madrid, in November of that year, saw the arrival of a new form of waging war and transformed this group of militiamen into soldiers in a new army. After the failure of various attempts to take Madrid between November 1936 and March 1937, Franco changed his strategy and chose to unleash a war of attrition, the gradual occupation of territory and total destruction of the republican army. His material and offensive superiority led him to the final victory two years later.

The military uprising of July 1936 forced the Republic, a democratic and constitutional regime, to take part in a war it had not begun. What followed this military coup was the outbreak of a social revolution that the Republican State, in losing a large part of its strength and sovereignty, was also powerless to prevent. This revolutionary process began suddenly and violently, its objective being to destroy the positions of the privileged classes, the Church, the army, the rich, but also the Republican authorities who were trying to maintain legitimacy.

Until it was defeated, on 1 April 1939, the Republic went through three different stages, each under a different prime minister… read more: