Home Moving to Spain Society & History The Spanish civil war
Last update on July 08, 2020
Written by  AFP

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

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 around the world for close to three years and led to a decades-long dictatorship.

Hundreds of thousands of people died in the war, which pitted 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, as 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 coop 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 (arguing that the military and old order 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 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.

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.

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, 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 neighbors 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. Some authors such as George Orwell and Ernest Hemingway wrote about the war and its effects on the population. 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 organizing 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, losing key battles such as the Battle of Ebro.  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 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 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 it.

Then in 2007 as more and more people clamored 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’.

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, and their many legacies today in Spain. This local movement is offering ‘surprising discoveries’: that 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 his hometown of Bilbao in northern Spain, surrounded by his archives and his computer.

“As the son of a Republican I had to join because they would surely call me up and 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 who lives alone.

‘Collect the dead’

Luis refuses to be presented as a brave hero and says he never fired a single shot during the three-year war that began on July 18, the most devastating conflict in Spanish history.

“I was lucky to be assigned to the transmissions section. 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 the Basque town of Guernica on April 26, 1937 when German planes dropped dozens of tonnes of bombs — an atrocity that shocked the world and was 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 were killed 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 was sent to one of the 121 forced labor camps that were 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 was assigned the job of scribe in the labor camp that was tasked to build a road through the valleys of the frosty Pyrenees mountains on the border with France in ‘inhuman conditions’.

“I was privileged, 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 (83-88 pounds). They would eat vegetable peelings that were thrown to 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 reserved for ‘those who had fought with Franco’. He only found work after he bribed a civil servant to eliminate his record as a former Republican fighter.

Luis, who will turn 100 on October 13, says he is ‘wonderfully happy’ and pleased 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 has opened an inquiry into Franco-era crimes and 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 July 18, 1936, large landowners in the southern region of 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, known today for its sandy tourist beaches, 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 was killed 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.

As he speaks he holds a photo of his relative which is part of a traveling exhibition called ‘The DNA of Memory’ which aims to give visibility to victims of the conflict eight decades after it started.

A 1977 amnesty law prevents Spain from investigating and trying the crimes of the civil war era and the repressive right-wing dictatorship of General Francisco Franco that followed until his death in 1975.

“They did horrible things. They would leave bodies scattered in the streets as an example and would prevent them from being collected so they would be eaten by animals,” said Antonio Narvaez, 83, a retired steelworker.

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

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

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

“They would shave their hair off and parade them around the town,” said Antonio Martinez, 80, a retired hotel worker whose 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’ and that is called genocide”.

“It was an ideological purge which 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, known for works including the play “Blood wedding“, who was shot for his suspected leftist sympathies by supporters of the military uprising near the southern city of 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, contacted by AFP, refused to be quoted about his legacy.

“Sometimes you think you are doing good and you are doing bad,” said one of his great-nieces who declined to be named.

But for now, the street sign bearing Carranza’s name remains in place as local authorities wrestle with the bureaucracy needed 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, now 93, recalls as he sits in a rustic wooden chair in the living room of his home.

“They lined up and dropped their bombs. They 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 blown open. At least 13 people were killed, 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 across the country in the air raids during the 1936–39 war. The vast majority of the dead were opponents of Franco’s forces, who were backed by Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy. 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 the town of Guernica in the northern Basque region was wiped out by aircraft from Hitler’s ‘Condor Legion’ sent to Spain to support Franco, an atrocity immortalized in Picasso’s haunting anti-war masterpiece named after the town.

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

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 targeted. 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 used to test 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 but 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 air bombings can be seen still in the town of Corbera de Ebro in the northeastern region of Catalunya near the Ebro River, the site of the bloodiest battle of the war which paved the way for victory by Franco’s forces.

Corbera was ‘completely leveled’ by the insurgents, said professor Sanchez Cervello.

The town was engulfed in fire and smoke for weeks, and was called ‘the eternal flame’, said local historian and high school teacher Joan Antonio Montana who provides tours of the ruins of Corbera.

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 was left in rubble as a memorial to a ‘town punished by history’.