Society & History

The Spanish civil war

From bombings, Guernica, forced labor camps, and starvation, the Spanish Civil War was a long-burning tragedy that tore Spain in two.

Spanish civil war


Updated 9-1-2024

Eighty years ago, civil war broke out in Spain: a painful, bloody wound that has yet to heal. A dark period in Spanish history and a prelude to World War II, the conflict unleashed passions for close to three years. It ultimately led to a decades-long dictatorship.

Hundreds of thousands died in the war, which pit the elected leftist, Socialist-led government against Franco’s right-wing Nationalist forces, backed by Hitler and Mussolini. Today, the Spanish Civil War is a dark spot on the the history of Spain; stories live on and the country continues to deal with its past tragedy:

How the Spanish civil war began

Some scholars of Spanish history trace the beginnings of the civil war back to the Spanish Second Republic (suggesting the military coup was an inevitable maneuver to reestablish political order). Others take it back to the Spanish-American war of 1898 and the failure of Spanish imperialism; they argue that the military was still in denial about the democratic consequences of modernization. Some historians trace it back to 1492.

The war itself started on July 18, 1936, when army generals staged a coup against a fledgling republic 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. Their planes transported troops onto the mainland in the world’s first major airlift. The planes would go on to regularly bomb cities around the country. They destroyed Guernica, made famous by Picasso’s haunting painting.

For the first time, civilians were direct targets.

The fighting and violence occurred 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.

Spain’s atmosphere of terror and a burgeoning war

On the ground, there was 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, socialists, and their families were executed in their thousands. On the Republican side, armed gangs chased the wealthy.

Priests and nuns were also targets for their closeness to upper classes. Over 6,500 died, most at the hands of Republicans.

Madrid asked neighbors for help, in vain. Britain and France refused. They opted instead for a non-intervention pact with Italy and Germany, even as they continued to openly help nationalist rebels.

The conflict moved people the world over. With the inaction of Western democracies, intellectuals took the side of the Republic, from novelists John Steinbeck to Rabindranath Tagore. Authors such as George Orwell and Ernest Hemingway wrote about the war and its effects. Soon enough, the Soviet Union entered the fray, arming Republicans. The civil war became a clash between fascism and communism.

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

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

They helped the Republic score rare victories; they held 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, losing key battles such as the Battle of Ebro.  The 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 1, 1939 and ruled Spain until his death in 1975.

In his book The Spanish Holocaust, historian Paul Preston calculates that 20,000 Republican supporters died after the war. He estimates that 200,000 people died in combat during the conflict. Another 200,000 died – 150,000 of these at the hands of nationalists.

Franco’s regime paid tribute to its dead. Those who died on the opposite side now lie 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 it.

Then in 2007, 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’.

There is, however, a burgeoning interest in Spanish history among locals, an interest in exploring the history of Spanish exiles, the Civil War, and the postwar regime. This local movement is offering surprising discoveries. Spain was not backward in the 1910s and 1920s, but had Nobel laureates, important scientific research centers, thriving cultural movements.

From Guernica to slavery, Spanish vet recalls war horrors

Luis Ortiz Alfau was 19 and working at a food warehouse when Spain’s civil war began in 1936, as General Francisco Franco led an uprising against a democratically elected Republican government.

Today almost 100, Luis is one of the last surviving witnesses of the atrocities of that conflict, from the bombing of the Basque town of Guernica to the forced labor camps.

“I joined a battalion of the Republican Left in the first days of August in Bilbao,” he recalls at his flat in Bilbao, surrounded by his archives and his computer.

“As the son of a Republican, I had to join because they would surely call me up. I wanted to defend freedom and the legal Popular Front government,” adds Luis, wearing a traditional round Basque beret.

“We would practice with brooms. We didn’t have rifles or any war material,” says Luis, a 99-year-old widower.

‘Collect the dead’

Luis doesn’t see himself as a brave hero. He says he never fired a single shot during the three-year war, the most devastating conflict in Spanish history.

“I was lucky to be in the transmissions section because I was a living phone. I would go from the battalion command to the trenches with an envelope,” he recalls.

His battalion was resting in a neighborhood in Guernica on 26 April 1937 when German planes dropped dozens of tons of bombs. It was an atrocity that shocked the world, ultimately immortalized in Picasso’s haunting anti-war painting that year named after the town.

“We had to go out and collect the dead and wounded. Everything was burning and full of smoke. I had never seen so much blood,” he said.

Historians estimate as many as 1,600 people died when aircraft from Hitler’s Condor Legion sent to Spain to support Franco’s forces carpet-bombed the Basque town.

Franco blamed ‘red vandalism’ – a reference to Communists and other leftists – for the destruction of the city.

‘Eat raw lizards’

In February 1939, Luis fled to neighboring France where he experienced the hardships of the camps where Spanish Republicans – deemed ‘undesirable’ – were confined.

Journalist Ander Izaguirre, who was asked by a Basque government institute to write a biography of Luis, says ‘what is impressive’ about his life story is that he ‘passed through the most important places of the war and post-war’.

When France entered World War II in September 1939 by declaring war against Germany, Luis – like thousands of other Spaniards – thought the time was right to return to Spain. But he was arrested at the border and in June 1940 sent to one of the 121 forced labor camps set up by Franco, according to British historian Antony Beevor, to punish the losing Republican side.

Luis likes to say that he is alive because he knew how to use a typewriter. Thanks to this skill, he got the job of scribe in the labor camp. The camp was building a road through the valleys of the Pyrenees mountains on the border with France in inhumane conditions.

“I had the privilege. I stayed with the officials in a small house. But the rank and file were in the outskirts in the barracks for livestock,” he recalls.

“Some weighed just 38-40 kilos. They ate vegetable peelings for the pigs, even raw lizards.”

‘Slaves of the Franco regime’

Luis said he still feels shame for having contributed, against his own will, to the hunger the prisoners endured when his corrupt lieutenant demanded that he hand over part of the funds meant to buy food.

When he finally returned to Bilbao as a free man in 1943, Luis quickly realized that jobs were for ‘those who fought with Franco’. He only found work after he bribed a civil servant to eliminate his record as a former Republican fighter.

Luis says he is ‘wonderfully happy’ that he has the chance to bear witness in the name of the former ‘slaves of the Franco regime’.

An amnesty law passed in 1977 – two years after Franco’s death – pardons crimes committed during the war and dictatorship that followed. But a judge in Argentina opened an inquiry into Franco-era crimes. Luis was able to outline ‘everything that dead Republican prisoners can never tell’.

Painful memories of civil war purge live on in southern Spain

“They would say: ‘We have to eliminate the red seed’,” said Rogelia Beltran as she recalled how her grandfather died in a purge against leftists in southern Spain during the country’s civil war.

After Nationalist troops staged a coup on 18 July 1936, landowners in Andalusia aided the revolt by persecuting day laborers who they believed backed the government.

In Beltran’s hometown of La Algaba, the pro-Nationalist landowners were led by a matador, Jose Garcia Carranza, also known as El Algabeno, who became known as the ‘killer of bulls and reds’. Civilian supporters of the military uprising like El Algabeno received ‘carte blanche’ from the military men who quickly seized control of the region, historian Francisco Espinosa told AFP.

“They were members of the rural bourgeoisie” who offered to repress opposition to the coup “mounted on their own horses and using their own weapons”, he said.

Eighty years after the war began, the memory of the purge carried out against leftists in Andalusia lives on.

‘Hunted like animals’

Paramilitaries and the rebel troops ‘carried out clean-up operations in the mountains’ where leftists and unionists sought sanctuary, said Juan Jose Lopez, a member of an association of victims of the civil war and the dictatorship that followed. His great uncle died in November 1936 in a raid near the village of El Madrono.

“It was like a deer or wild boar hunt. The raiders would sweep the mountains so the prey would flee” and then shoot them, he said.

A 1977 amnesty law prevents Spain from investigating and trying the crimes of the civil war era and General Franco’s dictatorship.

“They did horrible things. They would leave bodies in the streets as an example. They’d prevent them from collection so the animals ate them,” said Antonio Narvaez, 83.

He was just three-years-old when his father died in Marchena. A day laborer who did not belong to a union and had no political affiliation, his only crime was that he could read, said Narvaez.

“He would read the press to his colleagues,” he said with a toothless smile.

Widows also received punishment. Supporters of the right-wing coup would confiscate their homes and goods, leaving them without work and stigmatized with young children to raise.

“They shaved their hair off and paraded them around the town,” said Antonio Martinez, 80. His father was repressed during the war in the town of Escacena del Campo.

‘Ideological purge’

Beltran, a 53-year-old nursing assistant, said the idea was “‘if you don’t think like me, I will eliminate you’. That is genocide”.

“It was an ideological purge that also included teachers, lawyers, journalists, writers with a liberal ideology,” added Paqui Maqueda, 52, a social worker whose great-grandfather and three great-uncles were killed in the town of Carmona near Seville.

She gave the example of the celebrated Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca. Supporters of the military uprising shot him for his leftist sympathies near Granada in 1936.

“But the lower classes were the most repressed,” said Maqueda.

Plagued by high levels of illiteracy and miserable living conditions, farmworkers had formed a strong union movement. And wealthy landowners like El Algabeno, who is said to have speared day laborers as if they were bulls, decided to quash their movement, historians and victims say.

“Many of Garcia Carranza’s crimes were gathered and detailed by witnesses and contemporaries,” said Diego Aguera, the mayor of La Algaba, the matador’s hometown.

In a narrow street of white houses near the bougainvillea-lined main square of the town, a plaque reads: ‘Jose Garcia Carranza Street’. Aguera in March got the town hall to approve changing the name to ‘Equality Street’ because of the ‘countless murders he carried out, the majority in cold blood, the countless detentions, and tortures he practiced’. Several family members of the late matador refused to speak about his legacy.

“Sometimes you think you are doing good and you are doing bad,” said one of his great-nieces.

But for now, the street sign bearing Carranza’s name remains in place; local authorities are wrestling with the bureaucracy necessary to change it.

Spain under bombs: ‘testing ground’ for WWII

Teenager Angel Bertran had just gone out to work in fields of hazelnut trees when Spain’s civil war burst into his small town with the arrival of Nazi bomber planes.

It was May 25, 1938. Bertran, then just 15, was heading to the countryside outside Benasal, a town of around 1,000 residents in the eastern province of Castellon where a mountain range separates Spain’s Mediterranean coast from its central plains.

“Suddenly three planes flew by, not very high. They turned towards the town and nosedived,” Bertran recalls as he sits in a rustic wooden chair in the living room of his home.

“They lined up and dropped their bombs. The bombs fell very quickly, making a loud whistling sound. Within seconds you could only see dust.”

He stops talking and thinks for a moment before adding in a broken voice. “When I returned to the town, everything was destroyed.”

Photographs from the time show entire blocks of Benasal reduced to rubble. The dome and roof of the baroque church were blown open. At least 13 people died, victims of a new war tactic: air bombardments.

‘Absolute panic’

It was the first war where ‘aviation played a crucial role’, said Barcelona University historian Joan Villarroya. Planes bombed systematically the battlefront as well as the civilian population to ’cause terror and break morale’, he said. Hospitals, schools, theatres, markets, and even churches became military targets.

Scholars of Spanish history estimate that at least 10,000 people were killed in the air raids during the 1936–39 war. The vast majority of the dead were opponents of Franco’s forces. The soldiers loyal to the Socialist-led government known as Republicans received help from the Soviet Union, but it was much more limited.

In November 1936, Madrid became the first European capital to be bombed by planes.

The following year, Hitler’s Condor Legion wiped out Guernica.

At the same time, Italian aircraft in Mallorca bombed Spain’s Mediterranean coast, especially Barcelona where 2,500 people died.

Spain was for them ‘a test ground for World War Two’, said history professor Josep Sanchez Cervello of Tarragona’s Rovira i Virgili University.

“They wanted to see what would be the effect of bombs on the civilian population. It was absolute panic.”

‘Stuka experiment’

Benasal suffered one of these experiments, the testing of the Junker-87, or Stuka, a German dive bomber that served the Axis forces in World War Two.

For decades no one explained why Benasal was a target. It was an unimportant town, without troops and 30 kilometers (20 miles) from the nearest front. But in 2011 Oscar Vives, a university professor who lives in Benasal, found a German military report titled ‘Images of the Effects of 500-kilogram bombs’. The report proved that Benasal and three other nearby towns were tests for the dive bombers.

At least 40 people died “because of an experiment, of weapons testing,” said Vives.

Time has not erased the memories. Now aged 90, Rosa Soligo says she was in bed when the bombs landed near her house. She recalls hearing her mother scream and ‘a loud noise as part of the building came crashing down.

“When they pulled us out of the rubble, our bodies were covered in blood because of the injuries. Fortunately, they were not very serious,” she said.

The German dive bombers returned three days later but there were no longer any inhabitants left in Benasal. Everyone had fled.

‘Punished by history’

“We lived in caves for days, for fear that they would return. We suffered a lot… a lot,” Soligo said.

The effects of the bombings are still visible in Corbera de Ebro, the site of the war’s bloodiest battle. The battle paved the way for victory by Franco’s forces.

Insurgents ‘completely leveled’ Corbera, said professor Sanchez Cervello.

Fire and smoke engulfed the town for weeks. It was ‘the eternal flame’, says local historian and high school teacher Joan Antonio Montana.

Only the bell tower and facade of the town’s baroque church survived.

After the war the surviving residents moved down the hill and rebuilt their town. The original town reduced to rubble as a memorial to a ‘town punished by history’.