Double podcast episode where we give a brief general overview of the Spanish civil war and revolution which broke out after the attempted military coup by right-wing general Francisco Franco 1936-1939.
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In these episodes, we speak with Catherine Howley and Nick Lloyd about the tensions in Spanish society which exploded in 1936, about the military coup attempt, the civil war and the social revolution by workers and peasants. These episodes give an introduction to the conflict and the main organisations involved. We have future episodes planned looking at particular aspects of the events in more detail.
- Part 1: Background, the military rising, streetfighting, the social revolution, women in the war
- Part 2: International involvement, divisions within the Republic, the military conflict, the red and white terrors, aftermath
Nick Lloyd is author of Forgotten Places: Barcelona and the Spanish Civil War, which is available here, and both Nick and Catherine give Spanish civil war tours of Barcelona. Some of these are available remotely. Check these out here.
You can also find them on the following platforms:
- Catherine’s Instagram: @social_history_barcelona
- Catherine’s Twitter: @CatherineH0505
- Nick’s Twitter: @Civil_War_Spain
- Nick’s YouTube: barcelonanick1
More information about the Spanish civil war and revolution from WCH:
- Gaston Leval, Collectives in the Spanish Revolution – Book detailing workers’ self-management in the cities and the countryside during the revolution
- José Peirats, The CNT in the Spanish Revolution – Extensive, three-volume history of the CNT union during the civil war
We also have numerous reproduction posters from the conflict, as well as other commemorative merch in our online store to help fund our work. Check it out at: shop.workingclasshistory.com/collections/spanish-civil-war
Sources for everything said by WCH during the episodes:
- Macklin, Graham D., Major Hugh Pollard, MI6, and the Spanish Civil War, The Historical Journal (2006), 49:277-280, Cambridge University Press, accessed April 9, 2020, https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/historical-journal/article/major-hugh-pollard-mi6-and-the-spanish-civil-war/4648AEEADFA003D77A294031CB779A87
- Casanova, Julián. The Spanish republic and civil war. Cambridge University Press, 2010, p.141
- George Padmore, “Why Moors Helped Franco,” New Leader, May 20, 1938, accessed April 13, 2020, https://libcom.org/library/why-moors-help-franco
- Deirdre Hogan, “Industrial collectivisation during the Spanish revolution,” accessed April 13, 2020, https://libcom.org/library/industrial-collectivisation-spanish-revolution-hogan
- Xaime Martínez, “La mejor poeta de la Generación del 27 también fue una chica del cable,” Play Ground, May 4, 2017, accessed April 17, 2020, https://www.playgroundmag.net/lit/mejor-poeta-Generacion-chica-cable_22591338.html
- Ashifa Kassam, “Federico García Lorca was killed on official orders, say 1960s police files,” Guardian, April 23, 2015, accessed April 17, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2015/apr/23/federico-garcia-lorca-spanish-poet-killed-orders-spanish-civil-war
- Thomas, Hugh The Spanish Civil War (London: Eyre and Spottiswood, 1961)
- Adam Hochschild, “How Texaco Helped Franco Win the Spanish Civil War,” Mother Jones, March 29, 2016, accessed April 13, 2020, https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2016/03/texaco-franco-spanish-civil-war-rieber/
- Lincoln, Bruce. “Revolutionary Exhumations in Spain, July 1936.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 27, no. 2 (1985): 241-60. Accessed April 14, 2020. http://www.jstor.org/stable/178493.
- “Basque bishop criticises churches silence on Spanish civil war killings,” France 24, July 12, 2009, accessed April 14, 2020, https://www.france24.com/en/20090712-basque-bishop-criticises-catholic-church-silence-spanish-civil-war-killings-franco
- “The Spanish Civil War,” Holocaust Encyclopaedia, accessed April 15, 2020, https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/spanish-civil-war
- “The painful past of Spanish civil war refugees in France, 80 years on,” France 24, February 9, 2019, accessed April 15, 2020, https://www.france24.com/en/20190209-france-spanish-civil-war-republican-refugees-la-retirada-80th-anniversary
- Rosie Rickett, “Refugees of the Spanish Civil War and those they left behind: personal testimonies of departure, separation and return since 1936,” PhD dissertation, University of Manchester, 2014, accessed April 15, 2020, https://www.research.manchester.ac.uk/portal/files/54565631/FULL_TEXT.PDF
- Robert P Helms, “The anarchist who liberated Paris, and why they did it,” Kate Sharpley Library, 2004, accessed April 15, 2020, https://libcom.org/history/anarchists-who-liberated-paris-why-they-did-it
- Anarcho-syndicalism: a form of anarchist trade unionism. Short introduction here.
- CNT: Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (National Confederation of Labour), the anarcho-syndicalist union federation. Book about its history here.
- Falange: This was the fascist political party before the civil war, which then essentially absorbed the monarchist Carlist Party in 1937 when general Franco was appointed leader and later became the only legal political party in Spain.
- International Brigades: The main military units incorporating international volunteers in the Republican war effort, set up by the Communist International (Comintern). Commemorative merch here.
- Mujeres Libres (Free Women): Autonomous anarcho-syndicalist women’s group. Artwork here, history here.
- Nationalists: The most common name for general Franco’s side in the conflict. It was a coalition including the fascist Falange, monarchists and conservatives.
- PCE: Partido Comunista de España (Communist Party of Spain), the official CP which was part of the Comintern.
- POUM: Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista (Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification), an anti-Stalin communist party. Read a short history here.
- Republicans: The most common name for the anti-Franco side. It was a coalition including the Popular Front government, the CNT and UGT unions, and Catalan and Basque nationalists.
- Socialist Party: Abbreviation of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (Partido Socialista Obrero Español; PSOE), the main social democratic party.
- UGT: Unión General de Trabajadores (General Workers’ Union), union confederation linked to the PSOE.
Thanks to our patreon supporters for making this podcast possible.
Thanks to the CNT for the theme tune for these episodes, “A las barricadas”.
Episode graphic photograph courtesy Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía/Wikimedia Commons.
These episodes were edited by Louise Barry.
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NB our transcripts are lightly edited with slight corrections and adjustments for clarification, to remove repetition, and match our style guide.
In 1936 the Spanish military launched a right wing coup against the democratically elected Republican government. The working class responded by taking up arms, taking over farms and factories, and launching a far-reaching social revolution. The resulting civil war would set peasants and workers from all over the world against the military might of Nationalist Spain, fascist Italy, and Nazi Germany. This is Working Class History.
Before we get started, we just wanted to give a quick reminder that this podcast is funded entirely by our listeners on Patreon. You can support us and get access to exclusive content like early listening to both parts of this double episode, as well as other bonus episodes at patreon.com/workingclasshistory, link in the show notes.
The Spanish Civil War and Revolution was without doubt one of the most momentous events in world history, although it’s not really spoken about in proportion to its importance. For example, the fact that there was a fascist dictatorship in the heart of central Europe until over three decades after the end of World War II is something which is rarely mentioned. Given how governments of places like the UK, U.S., and France acted during the conflict, the reasons for this should hopefully become apparent over the course of these episodes.
It was an extremely complex set of events. Every major political ideology of the 20th century battled it out – literally – across the country, from fascism to conservatism, to liberalism, to socialism, communism, and anarchism. We can’t hope to tell its story in a single podcast or even a double episode, so this is the beginning of an intermittent series of episodes about the Spanish Civil War. In this initial two part episode, we’re going to give a brief overview of the conflict, its background, and its aftermath. In future episodes, we’ll go more into detail about specific aspects. Today we are very happy to be speaking with Catherine Howley and Nick Lloyd, who live in Barcelona and give excellent Spanish Civil War tours of the city. Nick is also author of Forgotten Places: Barcelona in the Spanish Civil War. More info about the book and tours in the show notes. So to begin, we asked Catherine to explain the underlying tensions in Spanish society which existed beforehand and which eventually exploded in 1936.
Spain pre-civil war was an incredibly divided society, politically, socially, culturally, and when you reflect on essentially the major reasons for the war breaking out, you can divide them, although it’s a lot more complex than just three, but the three major ones are divisions with wealth, divisions in politics, and divisions in the Spanish military. So reflecting on the division in wealth in this country, we’re talking about a period, of course, post the Great Depression where wealth in Spain was so incredibly divided that when you consider a country that throughout the 19th century had so much political upheaval and division, you still had a nation where 70% of the landownership was in 2% of the population’s hands.
Southern parts of Spain, for example Andalusia, you had an image or a snapshot of an area of the country where it was still very agrarian, agricultural part of the country, but the landowners down there who owned masses of land were treating the peasants as if they were serfs. So there’s very much visibly this situation or this setup in the south of Spain where it’s still like a semi-feudal past or kind of this relationship of landowner and the peasant as if it was a serf. When you reflect on what would’ve been comparably to Britain or France, the industrialization of this country, it had been very staggered because of political divisions and upheaval throughout the 19th century, beginning of the 20th century.
There were pockets of the country, particularly Barcelona in Catalonia, where industry had slowly become the characteristic of that major city on the Mediterranean Coast. But Barcelona itself, although it’s a different snapshot, a different language being used to the south of Spain with landowner and peasant, you had this industrial class that was becoming increasingly controlling of property and of the industry, especially textile in Catalonia, and a working class where there’s foreign journalists here at the start of the war who can’t believe that you’re seeing grown adults walk into work in working class neighborhoods into factories, and they can’t even afford to put shoes on their feet. That was the level of poverty.
So in comparison, it’s just a very different snapshot in Barcelona with this industrialized city that was modern for some people, prosperous for some people, but it was a city where class divisions were very much inscribed in the geography. Changes in politics have resulted in almost the peasants and workers have been left in their own orbit of being neglected, let’s say, by the powers that be, and this as you can imagine, was creating a huge amount of social unrest, anger, a sense of betrayal amongst the workers and peasants.
The second division would be Spanish politics. So when George Orwell arrived, the political situation in Spain, he remarked it was an epidemic of initials. There were so many different political factions involved, he’d have a hard time, kind of, creating an idea of who was who and who supported what. But these divisions in a country that the three major pillars of power had been the monarchy, the Catholic Church institution, and the military, huge changes had been on the horizon in Spain by the end of the 19th century, turn of the 20th century. First with the first attempt at declaration of a Spanish republic in the 1870s, which had a very short life, but by the turn of the 20th century politics were becoming incredibly antagonistic. We’re already talking about a Spain where the politics on the left, for example, especially amongst the workers and the peasants, there was a huge following of an anarcho-syndicalist movement under the title of CNT.
The CNT is a National Confederation of Labor, a confederation of anarcho-syndicalist trade unions, which at the time was one of two major union federations in Spain, the other being the socialist UGT. To explain briefly, anarcho-syndicalism is the practice of creating an anarchist society, that is to say a classless, stateless, free communist or socialist society, through the practice of syndicalism. Organizing in workplaces and forming rank and file member run unions which can fight for improvements here and now, and eventually seize control of workplaces and run them collectively for the benefit of all instead of private profit in the future. The CNT was just one of many groups vying for influence. All the acronyms and factions can get a bit confusing so we’ve put together a brief glossary on the web page for this episode. Link in the show notes.
You had socialists in the country, you had liberal democrats. You had communist party was small but existed, and on the right you had the following of an ultra Catholic party, pro-monarchists, a small but increasing in its influence fascist party called Falange in Spain. And you’ve got this kind of potpourri on both sides. Two very incredibly antagonistic political sides, that when the declaration of the second republic happened in 1931, it was happening in an environment already that what was kind of promised by the second republic, the social reform, and although we wouldn’t call it radical today, but what they proposed to change in the country to take it really out from that semi-feudal past and to bring this country to modernity, finally bring it into the 20th century.
As they failed to deliver on what they promised, and within the left wing, that very splintered or shattered left grouping together, it resulted in quite a weak coalition which resulted in 1933, another general election being called, and after the left wing’s victory, the coalition of the liberal democrats and socialists in 1931. When 1933, a general election was forced to be called again, it was a victory for the right wing. So you’re feeling this kind of … Within the space of 1931 and 1936, there’s three general elections, and it’s a society that’s obviously very divided, politics are very divided, but especially on the left.
The third and final division in Spanish society pre-civil war was the Spanish military itself. Spain having lost its last colonies of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines in 1898, this blow, what they title or what they refer to it as was the disaster. For a country that, particularly on the right, you have this image or this kind of desire of protecting systems of times gone by, which is proving to worsen social inequality across the country. Losing the colonies meant more than just losing this kind of consistent pillaging of resources and with the loss of the colonies you’ve got also this concept of imperial golden age Spain that’s lost with the colonies and this disaster, who it mattered to. So when you think of Francisco Franco and his entry into the military academy at the age of 15, he was now a part of a new generation of the military that it was very much drummed into their head that they were going to be in a certain way the saviors of Spain, and this essential idea that Spain losing its footing on this imperial ladder or this colonial ladder, when it was proposed to bring Spain back onto that colonial ladder you could say again, and invade the north of Morocco in what they thought was going to be a very quick colonial expedition.
When Franco finally became part of that formation of these Africanistas in the north of Morocco, they believed they were just a colonial army but they were saviors of Spain itself, and given this quite horrible title. They were called Africanistas. It was almost that title gave them a special brand of arrogance, that not just engaged in this brutal colonial battle in the north of Morocco, this part of the Spanish military were constantly looking into Spain from their post in Morocco, as if it was their duty and right to stop any political or social reforms or changes in Spain that would take Spain in a direction that they wouldn’t tolerate.
So it becomes quite evident that you have this kind of fault line in the military of a generation that come and their descendants really, their family members of military, they’ve come from, in many cases, elite families and it’s been this pocket of power in Spain that’s only really been threatened now with the declaration of the second republic and with the reformist agenda of the left wing government in 1936, which proposed to close down a lot of military academies, to reform the military itself, and to reform that to become an army that was bred in a way and that was identified with the idea of the concept of what the second republic and what that government in 36 wanted to affect and change it in the country.
By western European standards at the time, Spain was an underdeveloped country, still with a very large peasant-based economy, but it was industrializing, and 70% of its industry was concentrated in the northeastern region of Catalonia and its capital Barcelona.
By the mid 19th century Barcelona was a city that for many, the population was a veritable hell on earth to live in. The working class population was confined within very few neighborhoods in the city, whereas the middle class and the bourgeoisie, mainly the new elite because the Industrial Revolution had started to steadily migrate to a newer part of the city called the Eixample, the extension of the city, where workers in the city … It was huge illiteracy rates. The possibility of education or even a decent healthcare was slim to none, and when anarchism arrived to the city, it came in 1869, word of mouth.
So when Giuseppe Fanelli [the first anarchist sent from Italy to spread the idea in Spain] arrived to Barcelona, amongst a working class population that to that point in history in 1869, socialism was very slow to take off in Spain, essentially because of it coming in through theory and manifestos, that kind of immediate connection with workers was a lot more difficult because the high levels of illiteracy. You also have as well huge resistance from the monarchy at the time, to any what was seen to be French political influence coming into the country, and it wasn’t until the turn of the 20th century and the formation of the anarcho-syndicalist union, the CNT, that you find a big change in terms of the approach to anarchism, and that is the CNT in 1910 when it’s formed in Barcelona as the National Confederation of Workers. The idea is to create these short-term objectives towards the long-term objective, which is a stateless, classless society, but much more based on the bonds of solidarity and what one academic, Chris Ellem, calls the mutuality of the oppressed.
The bonds of solidarity to the workers will be essentially these boycotts, strikes, organization, in a way mutual aid and respect amongst the neighborhoods or the barrios here, which exponentially grows, and the growth of the CNT, it doesn’t just confine itself to Barcelona but spread throughout Catalonia. It has a lot of influence in the south as well amongst the peasants. Partially but not to the same extent as the socialist union in Madrid, or the north amongst the miners, but coming from the core of where it was created, the CNT in Barcelona in 1910. It started off nationwide with an average of about 45,000 members with its creation. By 1919, that was almost 750,000 members nationwide, so exponentially grew at a much faster rate amongst the peasants and workers in the country, than the socialist union UGT, which predated the CNT as a union.
In many ways you could say that anarchism, becoming a catalyst of organization or at least kind of thought process and the politicization of the workers and peasants in this country, was a lack of faith in the state full stop. That the state, that the powers that be in Spain had failed the workers and peasants across the country, and as a result of this concept of creating a stateless classless society made, in many ways, the most sense regarding political motivation amongst workers peasants.
With the background of a deeply divided society and a working class and peasantry heavily imbued with revolutionary ideas, in 1936 a chain of events was set in motion which would result in civil war.
February 36, there’s a general election between two extremely antagonistic coalitions. On the right side, a right wing coalition moving now towards something more modern than was present in Spain before, fascism, heavily influenced by events in Italy and Germany without a large actual explicitly fascist party. The Falange itself was not a very big party in early ’36. And on the other side we have a left coalition, so-called Popular Front, and the Popular Front, the anarchists were not involved in this, went from a relatively small Communist Party through to the Socialist Party, which was the largest party to the left in Spain, and across to a group of different parties of what we could describe as being liberal Republicans.
This general election is, although the anarchists obviously do not stand as candidates, they more or less support the Popular Front, because one of the first policies of Popular Front is to release all the prisoners. So even though they’re not actually a part of Popular Front, on a local level they actually are campaigning for Popular Front candidates, and saying things like vote for your conscience.
As you may imagine, this tacit support of a capitalist electoral body was a significant departure from the ideology of anarchism by the CNT, and was to become the first of many over the course of the conflict.
And Popular Front’s manifesto, I should also say was explicitly not revolutionary since it is pro-free market, and it has, we could say a remarkable reformist agenda: building lots of schools, land reform, military reforms, and the Popular Front win this election. In terms of the vote it’s a narrow victory, but because of the electoral system, they get a landslide in terms of seats. Already, elements of the right had decided that if the left won the election, they would begin to organize a coup. They said they’ll accept the republic if they win the election, but if they don’t, they won’t. The real plans of the coup begin within a few days of the Popular Front winning the election. Although, as I say, already there have been plans previous to this, dependent on the results of the election.
And this planned coup, it comes … which again begins in February ’36, becomes an absolutely open secret. Everyone knows it’s coming and the radical parts of the left are warning about it. Everyone knows it’s coming. We must emphasize that even though the socialist party got the largest number of seats in that coalition, they didn’t actually join the physical government, and the physical government was made of exclusively other people of different parties, of what we call liberal Republicans. Despite that, though, there’s people generals and they’re supported and the people around them start to organize this coup. And that increases the sensation of tension over the coming months.
And over the coming months, the right wing fascist party, the Falange, the genuine fascist element of the Spanish right: in the general election, they got less than 1% in every single province in Spain. No province did they get more than 1% in elections, but they are booming in numbers because of the failure of the right to win the election in February. And the mass party of the Spanish right which is called the CEDA, which was a Catholic semi-fascistic party, the youth of the CEDA are abandoning it and flocking to the Falange, and the Falange using their new membership and their new presence to attack the Spanish Republican government through street violence and to antagonize the government and to try to create a violent response from which they can respond to in kind, or they can provoke the military responding.
And this really created a sensation of tension over the coming months. And there’s also some violence to a much lesser extent from elements on the left as well. Some anarchist groups, but above all was the Falange. And this increases the sensation of tension over the coming months, tensions rising between January and, sorry, March April, May, June and into July 1936. And the actual physical spark that occurred is the murder of a prominent right wing politician by a socialist police officer, a famous politician called Calvo Sotelo and this is the trigger. It’s the spark which brings the coup forward perhaps a few weeks, but it’s going to happen anyway. It’s not the cause of the war at all. The important thing about the murder of Calvo Sotelo is not that it leads to the coup, because it doesn’t. That was going to happen anyway. But it angers so many on the Spanish right that their politicians are being murdered that this electrifies the Spanish right and prepares them on mass to support the coup.
To many people, the idea of a socialist police officer might sound a bit unusual, but the Second Spanish Republic had established a special police force designed to be loyal called the assault guards. And after one of them was murdered on the 12th of July in 1936 by a Falangist in Madrid, another assault guard assassinated a monarchist politician in retaliation. But as Nick said, plans for the coup were already underway. General Francisco Franco who had previously done the bidding of the Republic in brutally crushing an uprising of mine workers in Asturias in 1934 was flown to Morocco from the Canary Islands by two British intelligence officers on a plane paid for by the richest man in Spain.
The coup begins on the 17th of July 1936, in Spanish colonial Morocco. And it begins physically there because it’s supposed to begin on the 18th of July but the local civilian and loyal military authorities find out the coup is in motion in Morocco and try to stop it. And they’re all arrested and shot. Because the secret is out, they have to bring the coup a day forward. The fact that they shot … kind of something you could say there is that there’d been a whole service of 20 odd, 25 coups 19th century and early 20th century. Kind of a tradition in Spanish politics and all of those coups as much as possible for a coup were more or less nonviolent affairs except for 1936.
That night in Morocco, 250 loyal police army officers, electoral officials, anarchist trade unionists, socialist activists, et cetera, were shot. From design and effect, day one, it’s murder. And then the coup at that stage spreads chaotically on the 18th of July to Southern Spain, to Seville and then word reaches on the 18th of July to say the big two cities, Madrid and Barcelona. It was actually … I’m not sure about Madrid but in Barcelona, it was the hottest day of the year. And there’s a feverish atmosphere that night in the working class neighborhoods. Everyone knows what’s going to happen. First of all, we’ve got in Barcelona, specifically we’ve got the Catalan Police, about a thousand who were almost certainly going to be loyal to the Spanish Republic against the coup attempts. And then we have workers. Few communists, which was not a big party at all at the time before the war. Catalan Nationalists. POUM members, dissident Marxists. And above all, the anarchists, the CNT, the anarchist trade union and these workers already have a few pistols hidden away here and there under the floorboards. And as the day goes on, they’re trying to get many more.
The POUM Nick just referred to were the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification, P-O-U-M. They’re often referred to as a Trotskyist group, meaning followers of Russian Bolshevik Leon Trotsky, but this isn’t accurate. Essentially they were a communist party but they were not part of the Communist International, or Comintern, the grouping of the official communist parties linked to Moscow.
They [the CNT] raid all the arm shops in the city. They go down to the harbor, raid two boats there, get several hundred weapons like that. Then they go to the Catalan government and they demand arms. They say to save the city, but of course the Catalan government from its perspective at least is in a rather difficult position. They’re afraid of the fascist coup or fascist inspired coup, to be correct. They’re afraid of the military coup let’s call it, which they know is going to happen. But it’s also afraid from the other side of the massively angry anarchist working class and what they might do with these weapons. As dramatic news starts coming from the South of Spain, some sympathetic Republican army offices opened up a small arsenal to workers. They had some weapons like that. And there were two groups organizing to stop the military. 1 was the forces of the government, the Catalan government with its police, and 2 was the workers principally anarchists. Strange allies.
I doubt there was that many people slept that night in Barcelona. It was very hot and everyone knows what’s going to happen. And 4:30 in the morning, the military wake up the conscripts in the barracks and give them a double ration of rum and tell them they’re coming to crush a supposed anarchist revolt. And as soon as they went their way out the barracks, the trade unions, the CNT and the socialist trade union, the UGT, set off all the factory sirens in the city. And this is a prearranged signal call to arms the people who rush the streets to stop the coup. Meanwhile separately, the Catalan government goes on Barcelona radio, denounces the coup and sends out its police and the military who think they can take the city while it’s still asleep instead of immediate attack. Groups of workers, groups of police.
The fighting continues for a day and a bit. And really though by the Sunday, maybe it’s almost over. And in some places it’s more the police. In Plaça de Catalunya, it would be more the police. In Poble-sec where I’m sitting now, it would be more the anarchists. And the last activities, then, the next morning when the poor area which is still in military hands is stormed by the CNT, the anarchist trade union. And that was the end of the coup in Barcelona. And it failed by a combination of worker and police resistance. Big debate about which side contributed the most and certainly were more workers killed, but probably neither side could’ve won without the other. And the coup fails in most of the big cities in Spain: Madrid, above all, but it succeeds in a few key cities, Seville and Saragossa. And most importantly as we said, it succeeds in Spanish Colonial Morocco. And that’s crucial because that’s the only place where there’s an army of any battle experience. Wide battle experience because of the colonial war which Spanish state’s being waging in Morocco until the mid-20s, a brutal colonial war, which is actually one of the things that brutalizes the Spanish army.
In addition to the Spanish army of Africa, Franco would also call on Moroccan colonial troops to fight against the Republic. The Republican government could of course have previously decided to give Morocco its independence. However, like most European liberals, they did not extend their progressive agenda to their colonial subjects. Anyway, when the initial street fighting was over, the Republican government reeling and essentially powerless, Spanish workers and peasants sat about radically reorganizing society themselves.
When the coup fails in Barcelona, rather than heading home that night to bed, the anarchists in the city started to spontaneously what they called commandeer motor cars around the city and use these vehicles to raid or to storm the military barracks which existed in Barcelona. So from that seizing of what’s estimated to be 50,000 weapons, you find this shift of placement of power where you have a wave of celebration by the workers, mainly anarchists in the city for the role in helping defend Barcelona. And secondly they’ve now got 50,000 weapons in their homes. Some of these people couldn’t afford to put shoes on their feet. They’re now armed to the teeth.
So this very obvious shift in the presence or power of the CNT in Barcelona, and the next five days after the coup failed in Barcelona, what has been called or referred to as a revolutionary fiesta begins in the city. Celebration, almost like a manic kind of celebration, a revolutionary fiesta begins and for five days. But after five days of the revolutionary fiesta, the local government in Barcelona, the Catalan government, the Generalitat, who at the time had only about 1,000 police at its disposal were armed and ready. They obviously feel that type of power or placement into the anarchist hands, and with such little police really to affect, to stop this revolutionary fiesta and in a certain sense bring the city back to normality as the war is breaking out elsewhere. They eventually convinced some of the anarchist members to come in for talks and pleaded them not to lead the revolution. They’ve been toying with this idea for seizing the means of production, collectivizing the industry, leading a revolution of course being anarchists, but the government’s argument that was essentially another war was the priority, and the guns should be used to arm militias at the front line.
So amongst the CNT, the decision was made five days after this revolutionary fiesta to use the guns for those that wanted to join the anarchist militias and be the volunteers at the nearest front line to Barcelona. They’re going to be used for that purpose. And those that wanted to go will back to work the next day in the industry in Barcelona. However, it’s almost like this tipping point takes place. For part of the population, the working class population have been toying with the idea of collectivization, an organization on a horizontal level for so many decades. When they go back to work after five days of celebration, back to work with the knowledge of course they’ve got 50,000 weapons behind them, in many cases, the bosses have left. They’ve gone into hiding. Or in the case that about 70,000 Catalan members of the elite pack up their bags and start this mass exodus. They go to Italy, some go to France. Some essentially take this opportunity to go into hiding or go on extended holidays waiting for the situation in Barcelona with the anarchists armed the teeth to blow over.
So, this opportunity in a way, it presents itself. But when the anarchist workers or the workers in Barcelona start to go back to work after five days of this revolutionary fiesta, they see the opportunity in their grasp to reorganize the factories under workers’ control. Horizontal line management and they succeed within two weeks in collectivizing what’s estimated to be between 70 and 80% of industry and commerce in Barcelona. Now, it’s not just in the city of Barcelona itself, the contingency or the support of the CNT. It’s strongest essentially in Catalonia, though it existed elsewhere in the country, but it starts to happen almost like a domino effect in other towns and other small cities across Catalonia.
Within two weeks in Barcelona, the gasworks, electricity, the water, the transport, everything’s up and working perfectly, but behind the scenes of course, it’s never been so different because this pecking order or this hierarchical order now has been replaced by an incredibly well-organized system of horizontality where the workers now are rethinking the average day of work, how many hours to be worked. The payment of the workers, the facilities in the factories themselves, setting up childcare facilities, shower facilities, libraries. Again, stress the point that they’ve been toying with the idea of revolution for decades at this stage. They’ve just grasped the opportunity now. And needless to say, the workers were the cogs. They were the machinery that made the factory work and the difference is now that the hierarchy has gone and they’re recreating this on a horizontal level. To such an extent that unemployment disappears in Barcelona after a month of revolution beginning.
The anarchists that would leave Barcelona volunteering to become the militias from the city to set up the nearest front line which was about 300 kilometers away to take back the city of Zaragoza. The revolution, although they leave the revolution in industry behind in Barcelona as they continued through the countryside in Catalonia and the countryside in Aragon where Zaragoza is the capital of, they continue the revolution to the countryside, helping peasants collectivize land and machinery along the way. And you could say the extent of the revolution actually reaches the front line itself because that nearest front line to Barcelona, because the majority of the volunteers they’re fighting against or resisting against, Franco and its fascist support as revolutionaries, they continue on the front line with this organization which is kind of the antithesis you could say of rank and file military organization. With the anarchist militias, it’s organized that no saluting is done. Everyone’s on equal pay. There was no forced discipline amongst the militias. Every decision in the trenches was voted on. The horizontality that you would find applies to factories in Barcelona or across Catalonia in the countryside with the peasants. The collectivization of land and machinery was also applied to a certain extent at the front line nearest Barcelona.
Elsewhere in the country, over half the land in the Republican zone was collectivized voluntarily by peasants. Agricultural yields in collectivized land went up significantly and collectives implemented what revolutionary changes they could based on their local conditions. So for example, in a couple of areas where there were no shortages, they implemented what the CNT called libertarian communism, whereby money was abolished, tools shared and what goods you needed could be taken freely from local stores. Although given difficult conditions in most of the country, there were varying levels of revolutionary change. So, more common was partial communization whereby money was replaced with ration cards or labor vouchers allocated to each family which could be used to distribute scarce food items with plentiful items available freely.
Much of industry outside Catalonia was collectivized as well under workers’ control and workplaces were heavily rationalized. So lots of small workshops were shut down and instead only larger factories with the most efficient machines were used. A lot of production was diverted towards the war effort, arms manufacturer and the like. Public services like health and transportation were rapidly improved and expanded. In total, it’s estimated that up to seven or eight million people were involved in the revolutionary process of a total population of around 25 million. For women in particular, the revolution drastically transformed everyday life.
It was part of Republican/revolutionary ideas that women and men were equal. And how that played out on the ground was obviously always going to be different, but on the basis that many women equal. And this surely had effect on the far lower level of violence against women on the Republican side, against women on Franco side who suffered atrociously.
As occurs frequently, ideological belief or support for equality doesn’t always translate into equal treatment in reality, as many of the women who volunteered to fight in the militias on the front lines would unfortunately find out.
Perhaps some of the more recognizable or iconic photos of the Spanish Civil War are photos of generally young women in overalls with rifles. What is known as the women militias or the volunteers that would fight at the front line against fascism, the estimate is a few hundred women would volunteer to fight at the front line. Many historians have reflected on now and concluded that more than anything, the photos that we see in this … there’s hundreds if not thousands of photos of women with rifles at the front line or preparing to go to the front line, can be interpreted as in many ways propaganda.
As the war broke out at the attempted military coup, the Republican government’s decision initially to disband the army perhaps a huge mistake, results in the necessity for militias to be called across the country to organize themselves and to fight at the front line against Franco and his fascist support. When you’re trying to convince you can imagine a young population to be trained and to risk their lives on the front line fighting, the image of the woman with a gun on their back or leaning against a rifle at the front line or on their way to embark to the front line becomes an iconic image, as I said, the historians now reflect on or at least agreed that was used in a way to try and coerce or to guilt men into joining the fight at the front line when they saw a huge amount of images with women because they perhaps challenging their masculinity or whatever we want to digest it.
But it’s not to take away from the fact that many women met the decision consciously to fight at the front line. But the reality that you find in some of the accounts of these women is when they got to the front line, that the attitude of many male comrades was laughing or teasing or a kind of disbelief that women were capable to fight as equals and the expectancy in many ways is that you were there to cook or to clean or to nurse. There was also during the war as well a campaign that was against women at the front line, saying that they were distracting the men and because of sexual encounters was spreading disease or it was tiring the men and they weren’t being as effective as fighters, and that was the fault of women at the front line.
So I think taking it from many different angles, there were women who genuinely wants to go to the front line to be treated as equals and fight alongside male counterparts or male comrades, better said. What the reality was that many of these women would turn around and make the decision to come back in the case of Barcelona to the revolution that was happening here. And they became key figures in the organization of collectives and factories throughout the revolutionary period from July ’36 until May 1937.
It’s worth pointing out that sexism at the front wasn’t a universal experience. For example, Concha Perez, a member of the CNT who fought in the Hilario Zamora column said of her comrades, quote, “They never treated me differently than anyone else or separated me from the group. There was truly great respect.” but many organizations, especially the Communist Party, argued that women’s place was not at the front but in the rear guard. In the end women, fight were banned from the front partly in a futile attempt to appear less radical. So it was not to scare off potential support from the supposedly democratic allies like Britain and France, although none of the women’s organizations, not even the most radical, actually opposed the measure.
When it comes to women leaving the front line are disillusioned with the lack of let’s say equal or fair treatment on the front line, in many cases in Barcelona, the call back, the revolution of becoming a figure and a very influential figure in the revolution here was through the group of anarchists called Mujeres Libres. For a lot of the founders of Mujeres Libres, which predates the civil war itself, this group, they felt that the CNT in many ways, although they stood for horizontality and equality, that only went so far. The utopian rhetoric of the anarchists in the recreation of a society that was equalitarian in many ways, Mujeres Libres, the founding members and those that would join Mujeres Libres felt that many of the men and women as well in Spain that would identify as anarchists or anarcho-syndicalists, when they got home in the evening, that utopian rhetoric in a way it was packaged at the doorstep and in the domestic environment, the patriarchal society in Spain was still incredibly ingrained in people’s marrow.
So, Mujeres Libres when the revolution began in Barcelona, essentially in the industry, there was almost many revolutions than one taking place. To begin with, the Mujeres Libres women as they organized separately from the CNT. They called on women to organize what you would say is an incipient sexual revolution where they started to challenge the stereotypes and gender roles and the patriarchal society.
The Mujeres Libres, which translates to free women, that Catherine spoke about, were an autonomous women’s group linked to the CNT union. We’re going to talk more about them and women in the revolution in general in a future episode. As often in wartime, many more women began to become wage workers.
As men started to leave to fight on the front line and to volunteer as militias, roles that wouldn’t have been usually assigned to women of responsibilities in factories because of that gender discrimination that Mujeres Libres were arguing needed to be rectified or challenged in Spain is that because of necessity, women were actually getting passed on roles in factories of organization. They’re now for example becoming team leaders and members of what was industry that once before would have been textile, but now it was being used, this textile industry in the production of uniforms or material that was needed for the militias and to equip the militias of the front line. So there’s the change in the industry as the war’s going on. As the demands of the war create different demands in Barcelona for products and productivity, a lot of these women figures that wouldn’t have been given the chance we can assume beforehand end up becoming these key figures in the collectivization of factories and the running of the factories during the war.
Not much has been written about the history of LGBTQ people in the Spanish Revolution, but briefly homophobia was widespread in Spanish society at the time to an extreme extent on the Nationalist side, but also to a lesser extent on the Republican side. There were a number of prominent lesbians in Spain, like Lucía Sánchez Saornil, a former telephonist anarchist and avant-garde poet who was one of the co-founders of Mujeres Libres. Probably the most famous gay person of the era was the socialist poet and playwright, Federico García Lorca. Documents uncovered recently suggests that Nationalists in Granada, aware of him being gay and a socialist, abducted him, executed him and buried him in a shallow grave. To date, his remains haven’t been found.
That’s it for part one of this double episode. In part two, we’re going to talk about the international dimensions of the event, about the military conflict, the scale of atrocities committed, and about the aftermath.
We’d like to make this podcast more frequent. However, putting together episodes takes us a lot of time and effort. So if you would like more regular episodes, please consider supporting us on Patreon and getting access to exclusive content and benefits. Learn more and sign up patreon.com/workingclasshistory. Short of that, if you appreciate what we do, please give us a five star review on Apple podcasts and tell your friends about us. You can get Nick’s excellent book, Forgotten Places: Barcelona and The Spanish Civil War, link in the show notes. And if you ever find yourself in Barcelona, do make sure to book yourself onto a tour with Nick or Catherine. I did with my partner and a couple of relatives last year and everyone loved it. Linked above.
Huge thanks as always to all of our existing Patreon supporters. We literally could not do this without you. Thanks also to Louise Barry for editing these episodes.
Hi, and welcome to part two of our double episode on An Introduction to the Spanish Civil War and Revolution. If you haven’t listened to Part One yet, I’d go back and listen to that first.
About a week after the start of the Spanish Civil War, around two-thirds of Spain was in the hands of the Republican government, or the revolutionary working class and peasantry, with the other third in the hands of the rebel Nationalist military. But its ramifications spread far beyond Spain’s borders.
The international dimension of the civil war and revolution was very complex. We are going to have more episodes in future looking at different aspects of this, but for now, we asked Nick Lloyd, author of Forgotten Places: Barcelona and The Spanish Civil War to give a brief overview. As a content note, this episode contains mention of sexual violence.
As the war develops very quickly, the Republic needs weapons, and it first turns to the Western democracies, who say no. And because of that, the Republic is desperate. They can get arms, a few machine guns and stuff illegally on the market, in Czechoslovakia or whatever, but it really does need big weapons, and the Western democracies have said no, so where else can they turn? And they turn to the Soviet Union, a second option. And they ship, in the autumn of ’36, the Republic, not the Communist Party, as it is sometimes reported, sends its gold reserves to the Soviet Union, which was actually the fourth largest gold reserve in the world at the time.
And as I say, Stalin did send some very good planes, the best the Soviets had. Not as good as the Germans, but it’s the best they had. And what was possibly the best tank in the world at the time, the T26, which start to arrive in the autumn of ’36, and probably saved the Republic in 1936. It certainly saves Madrid, and if they’d lost Madrid, that would have been it. And of course, it gives the Communist Party a huge role in advancing the Republic they never would have had, allows them to dictate military strategy, boom in numbers. And this is a role as, for example, George Orwell reminded us, became a bit murderous, and the Republic looked the other way because it needed Moscow’s weapons.
I’m sure that most listeners would have heard of George Orwell. But just in case, he was a British author and socialist who traveled to Spain with his wife, Eileen O’Shaughnessy, to fight against the fascists, and later got shot in the neck for his troubles. He wrote a journalistic account of his experiences in his book, Homage to Catalonia.
The Soviets send 1,900 military staff, almost all clandestinely, on Mexican passports. In contrast with the 1,900, the Italians, sending aid to Franco, 78,000, Mussolini, which not far off bankrupted the Italian state, and severely undermined his ability to wage the Second World War, because Mussolini’s aid was absolutely ideologically driven.
Now, Germany’s role was slightly more ambiguous, in that it was also to make money and much more calculating geopolitically, as well, I think. The so-called Condor Legion, 19,000 technicians, so-called technicians, rather, including large numbers of tank drivers and pilots. But the Condor Legion was organized ultimately by Goering, and Goering had a very high turnover of staff in Spain. Why? Well, he admitted at Nuremberg, before he shot himself or poisoned himself, right, he wanted as many Nazis as possible to get experience in dropping bombs on Jews.
If you like, the conclusion would be that the Spanish Civil War, as much had been decided in the terrible battles of Spain, was also decided in London, Paris, Moscow, Rome and Berlin.
While the Western democracies, principally France and Britain, were nominally in favor of non-intervention in Spain, effectively that meant tacit support for Franco’s forces, as they stopped sales of weapons and equipment to the Republic, while Italy and Germany were blatantly flouting the non-intervention agreement that they signed. That said, the Popular Front government of French socialist Léon Blum did secretly provide some aircraft and pilots to the Republic. The United States also claimed to be neutral, although American corporations like Texaco support the Nationalists. For example, the oil company Texaco had a contract to supply the Republic with oil. But as soon the coup took place, Texaco immediately sent a tanker to Franco. They then cut off supplies to the Republic, agreed to give Franco all the oil they needed, despite the Nationalists at the time not having any money to pay for it. Texaco also gave information on shipping to the Nationalists, who used it to capture or sink ships supplying the Republic. Now, because of non-intervention, shipping oil to Franco was illegal, as was giving credit to a faction in a war. But in the end, Franklin Roosevelt’s government just gave Texaco a small fine. Mexico was actually the first government to declare support for the Republic, and did give it financial aid, as well as some small arms and a few aircraft. They were the most important elements of the response from different governments around the world. The international working class also responded to the outbreak of the war and revolution.
Well, as the war begins, more and more workers from around Europe and even further afield are taking the defense of the Spanish Republic and the social revolution, which is engendered by the failure of the coup, as their cause. We have to also think there were also a considerable number of political refugees in Spain anyway, from Argentina, Portugal, Italy and Germany, and they are some of the first foreigners fighting against fascism, right at the start of the war.
Specifically, a group of Germans formed the core, there were a bunch of Germans living in Barcelona, and they formed the core for what becomes the International Brigades. As the weeks go on, in the summer of ’36, more and more foreign volunteers are appearing in Barcelona. And the Communist Party realized that they have to do something about this, because Stalin’s initial reaction is to keep out of things. He didn’t want to antagonize the Western democracies, he’s playing this long game. He’s obsessed with his own defense, above all, and he doesn’t really want to get involved in Spain initially. But he’s practically told by people below him, the Italian Communist Party, for example, that they have to be seen to be helping in this international workers’ movement.
At some point in September, they come up with the idea, the actual initial idea, no one’s actually sure exactly how it happened, but the International Brigades is formed. A remarkable achievement, which … Well, the estimate is about 40,000 foreign volunteers fought in Spain, of which, perhaps 35,000 were the International Brigades. They come from, really, all over the world, but they were more than a thousand Cubans, and there was 700 or 800 Arabs, something which is almost always forgotten, anti-colonial Arabs, who fought together in Spain with Jewish comrades. More than 20% of the brigadiers were Jewish, 80% were working class, so it’s one of the older mix, perhaps not so much now in the old days. But a lot of them were young and romantic, intellectual as well. A very small percentage were young and romantic, I admit. They were the ones that wrote about it, or others wrote about them. The vast majority were working class. At the beginning of the war, they played a damn fine role militarily in the defense of Madrid, and in the battle, perhaps, of Jarama also. And as the war goes on, though, and that gave, that was a huge input of morale. The Spanish are seeing that foreign workers are coming forward in solidarity, ready to give up their lives for the cause. This really engenders on the Republican side a great feeling of internationalism, that, “We’re not alone. The government and the states have abandoned us, but the working class hasn’t, yeah.” As the war goes on, the International Brigades suffer terrible casualties. 10,000 died, I mean, they’re used as cannon fodder, really. And as the war goes on, the International Brigades, each division get … There’s not enough foreign volunteers arriving, and the foreign governments are making it harder and harder for people to come. And so they have to make do with Spanish volunteers.
So near to the end, perhaps half the International Brigades were actually Spanish. I’m not sure what the figure is. And by the end, by the farewell of the Brigade in October ’38, there’s a sense they’re a spent force. I mean the Republic is not, really, in terms of fighting at the end, lacking men. It’s lacking good weapons and good logistics and petrol.
Something that’s also worth saying is there is a huge, mainly working class support for the Republic, back in their own countries. A few… cities, but above all France, and France’s Popular Front, Sweden, Norway and the UK. I mean, to this day, it’s still the biggest aid effort in Swedish history. We’re not talking about the Swedish government being involved. We’re talking about workers and working class organizations.
As we spoke in Part One, Spain was a deeply divided society in 1936. There were also deep and fundamental divisions within the Republic itself, which erupted in May 1937 in what some have described as a civil war within a civil war.
At just two months, as the needs within the war seems to become apparent, the pro-Republican parties, which is the liberal Republicans, Socialists and the Communist Party, manage to convince the revolutionary groups, the POUM, and above all, the CNT, to join a new government. And if they don’t, they won’t get weapons for their militias. And at the end of September 1936, for the first, and I guess, not quite the only time in world history, or almost, anarchists join a government, which is a bit of an oxymoron, but it’s what happens.
Of course, one of the greatest divisions, the complex divisions on the left, you can divide those in favor of the Republic, those in favor of revolution. But actually, one of the biggest divisions of all was actually when the anarchists themselves, as well, vote in favor with the majority of working at some level with the Republican government during the war, and those in favor of out and out revolution, who were probably the minority. The anarchists join the government, first the Catalan government, and a week or so later, at the end of September ’36, and a week or so later, the Spanish government. And they take national ministries for four anarchist ministers during the Spanish government. This leads to the collectives being legalized, more or less, and the revolution, on some level, being legalized in Catalonia, but creates more and more tensions, because of this political limbo. Who is in power? Who’s got control over the armed forces or the police, and the weapons and the money? The situation in the autumn is relatively calm, but by January, the tensions are really rising.
These tensions would have existed anyway. A lot of them go back to pre-struggles in the labor movement, between the anarchist CNT and the socialist UGT, which at times were quite violent, pre-war. But they’re also amplified by the Soviet pressure on the Republican government to end with the POUM.
So you’ve got internal struggles on the left, which go back a long way, and you’ve got an outside thing, Stalin’s obsession with destroying all forms of Marxist opposition. And this leads to a slander campaign from about January ’37, and maybe before that, against the POUM, insinuating that they might be fascists, even. Yet these tensions are rising. There are murders between all the groups in March and April ’37. And then these political tensions, they’re not going to last. And above all, they’re not going to last in a state of war. And then finally, in fact, inevitably, explode in a terrible infighting, which are called, known as the May Days, or the May Event.
The spark of this is when the police, who are now more or less in Communist control, try to take the telephone exchange, which was controlled by the anarchist CNT. And the workers then resist, and the city is an accident waiting to happen. Now, why did the police do that? Were they under Soviet instructions to provoke a reaction of the workers, which would lead to the repression of the workers, which will allow them to push the revolution, and destroy the POUM? Or was it the Spanish Republican or Catalan government, who just wanted to take control of communications from a working class organization? I suspect it’s more the latter, but the Communist Party certainly take advantage of the events. So whether or not they actually provoke the events is a debate, but they certainly knew how to take advantage of them.
The workers there resist, and the city is an accident waiting to happen. Two sides chaotically emerge on the map. Well, on the one side, we have the mass of the anarchist factory workers and the POUM, and on the other side we have Catalan Nationalists, the Communist Party, and the police.
Although, I think, it’s like, 400 people were killed in the terrible infighting on the left, in the streets of Barcelona in four or five days, I think it’s also worth saying that probably the vast majority in any of the groups didn’t want to be involved, and just did not know how to stop it. It was just something just no one knew how to stop. And after five days, the fighting kind of stops, a compromise appears to be reached.
But very soon, it becomes clear that it wasn’t a compromise, that the Republican government and the Republican parties have won over the revolutionary parties. And the CNT had been completely outmanoeuvred. It had made massive concessions over the previous months, and been politically outmanoeuvred.
The Republican government is actually back in control, and starts to break up, not all, but many of the collectives. These are, in small numbers, returned, returning them to their owners, more often than not nationalizing them, particularly the war industry. Not all the collectives are broken up, though, I mean, for example, transport. The transit collective, actually, throughout the war, for example. And the Republican government is now firmly back in control and able to concentrate on rebuilding its army and state to fight the war.
The Republican government has two strategies. One, it wants to end the social revolution, because it’s not an anarchist government, it’s a socialist, probably democratic socialist government, So of course, it’s in its interests to destroy the collectives. And two, it did so, because it sees it’s the only way it can win the war, is by having a centralized war effort.
Now, the Communist Party is similar in a way. It also sees that the only way they can win the war is through a centralized war effort. It’s also not interested in a social revolution in Spain, because Stalin’s objective at that moment is an agreement with Britain and France, and he doesn’t want to antagonize Britain and France. And the Communist Party now have a lot more power. They don’t take over the government.
It is a plural government. I mean, to give you an idea, the anarchists were kicked out, but six months later, they were back in. It’s the CNT that are the real victims, and a small section of the anarchist movement, who is absolutely against any form of collaboration with the government. So the Communist Party don’t take over the government. But they have a lot more power now, and they express that through the use of illegal prisons, where awful things do happen. These latest studies indicate two or three dozen were directly murdered by the NKVD in Spain, not thousands.
More often, we’re talking about the long shadow of Stalin, who’s, he’s got his own aims in Spain, not to take over the government, but to crush dissident Marxism, and at the same time, keep, if possible, an agreement with Britain and France. which of course, in the end, failed. The Republican government looks the other way. It knows what’s happening, but it looks the other way, because it needs weapons, and nobody else will sell them. But also, there’s a very strong feeling that they don’t want to antagonize the Western democracies. They turn away by saying, “No, we’re not revolutionary. We have our own house in order. Please sell us weapons.”
The NKVD Nick mentioned there was the Russian secret police. We know it was a confusing set of events. So just to try to summarize for clarity, or any listeners who weren’t quite able to keep up with the different acronyms, within the Republic there emerged essentially two broad factions, the revolutionary movement, which included anarchists and the POUM, and on the other side, the Republican government, which included liberals, Catalan nationalists, and the Communist Party.
The anarchists saw the revolution and the fight against fascism as being one and the same thing, and thought that the fascists could ultimately only be defeated by a revolutionary movement of workers and peasants, and the abolition of capitalism. They thought that without this prospect, of completely transforming the lives of ordinary people, a straightforward fight between two different capitalist governments wouldn’t be enough to motivate people to risk their lives.
On the other hand, the government and the Communist Party believed that a centralized and top down Nationalist army could only be beaten by a centralized and top-down Republican army. And they also feared that a revolution would scare off Spain’s potential democratic allies, like Britain and France. So they wanted to stop the revolution, and have a straightforward military conflict between the respectable, democratically elected capitalist Republic, on the one hand, and the military rebels on the other.
Going back to the civil war itself, after the Republic and the working class had successfully suppressed a military rising in most of the country in the first few days of the revolution, from that point on, they are mostly waging a defensive battle best summed up by the slogan coin by a Basque Communist leader, Dolores Ibarruri, who is known as La Pasionaria. That slogan was ‘No pasarán!’, ‘They shall not pass’. As an interesting side note, that same slogan was adopted by East London residents in the October of 1936, who were determined to stop fascist aristocrat Oswald Mosley marching his Black Shirts through the heavily Jewish working-class area. Learn more about that in our podcast episode 35.
The civil war lasted nearly for three years, and far too much happened to go through all here. So we asked Nick to briefly summarize the key battles.
So after one week, we had a territorial division. And then slowly, Franco’s forces encroach on Republican territory for a series of offensives. First of all, they sweep up from the South. Within three months they are beseiging the city of Madrid. And then there’s the encirclement of Madrid. And there’s also slowly, in the North, in 1937, Cantabria, Asturias in the Basque country, all, one by one, fall.
Then we have two of the great, the worst battles of all, which was Teruel, in the winter of ’37-’38 in Aragon, and fought under awful conditions, in blizzards. The temperatures dropped to minus 18C. The international press talks about this Siberian war, which the Republic appears to take. The Republic successfully takes Teruel, and it appears that it’s a fighting force again. But it’s a Pyrrhic victory. And then Franco’s troops retake Teruel, and split Republican territory in two by early ’38, end of ’38. And that leads us to the Battle of the Ebro, which is the Republic’s last roll of the dice, in the summer of ’38, the biggest battle in Spanish history. And now we can say the battered Republic Army is broken.
Franco launches his final attack on Catalonia in December ’38. That leads us to the fall of Barcelona on the 26th of January 1939. Catalonia falls in early February ’39. And then all that’s left, we’ve got still quite a sizable rump of about a third of Spain, Madrid, and to the southeast, that finally capitulates on the last day of the war in April, in the 1st of April 1939. And that’s the end of the war.
For the Republic, the war was essentially a defensive battle and a heroic one, at that, facing a much better-supplied, better-armed, more experienced enemy. But it was also, with a couple of notable exceptions, like the battle of Guadalajara, a succession of defeats.
In retrospect, is it possible to tell who was right, in terms of their strategy? Was it the anarchists, who thought that only the revolution could defeat the fascists? Or was it the Republican government, who thought that only a centralized force with military discipline could? While certainly it was true that the primary strategic victories for the Republic, were just in the first few days of the conflict, when it was the armed working class who suppressed the military rising. But military historian Anthony Beevor points out in his excellent book, Battle For Spain, that they bore a heavy cost for these victories. Many of the anarchist fighters in particular were so fanatical in their beliefs, they essentially sacrificed themselves unnecessarily. For example, in one instance, after having surrounded a rebel military barracks, rather than simply waiting until those inside were forced to surrender, they attacked en masse, and did successfully overrun it, but suffered huge losses, including many leading organizers.
In the period of conventional warfare, the revolutionary militias were starved of arms and ammunitions, and so, couldn’t be expected to perform particularly well. But after the government militarized the militias, i.e., turned them into a regular standing army, they didn’t fare much better. And worse, without the internal democracy they had before, they were subjected to the whims of politicians, who ordered numerous offensives for propaganda reasons, to try to improve morale, which failed spectacularly. Either way, whichever strategy you sympathize more with, the war ended in victory for the Nationalists.
The 5th of March 1939, the Republican government makes the decision to flee into exile. And by the 28th of March, officially now, the Republican army is disbanded, and surrenders. When Franco entered Madrid on the 28th of March 1939, as his image of himself, this figure of El Cid, or the Archangel Michael of Spain, the savior of Spain, he duly organizes a victory parade in Madrid. He’s flanked by Africanistas and by horses. He’s driven in a convertible car into the city, into the capital.
But just as Barcelona that fell, in January of 1939, when Madrid fell in March 1939, it’s those that would have resisted beforehand are dead, they’re in exile, or they’re exhausted. They’re defeated already, and they’re in hiding. The 1st of April 1939, Franco’s officially established as El Caudillo, the great general Francisco Franco of Spain, and recognized by several countries, such as Portugal, Ireland and the USA.
Alongside the military aspect of the conflict, there were also mass killings behind the lines. These are known as the White Terror on the Nationalist side, or on the Republican side, they’re known as the Red Terror.
On the side of the left, the estimate is 50,000 people were killed, murdered behind the lines in revolutionary violence. It happened in what was already a really violent society, particularly in the South, after decades of terrible grievances. And the Republic is like a pressure cooker that explodes, because of the coup, and all hell breaks loose.
Who committed the violence? Well, Catalonia, for example, the violence is mainly by anarchists. So rather than being one ideological group or another, it’s sections of society. In Barcelona city, it’s about 1,300, almost all in the first eight weeks, 10 weeks. Initially, the clergy and the military are one of the biggest groups of victims here. Probably the biggest group were gangsters in local neighborhoods, loan sharks, pimps, and above all, what were called the Sindicatos Libres, which were equivalent, say, to the Pinkertons in the United States, the strikebreakers. Back in the ’20s, the memory of this was strong, and they were massacred. And I think it’s half of those who were murdered in Barcelona had been members of the Sindicatos Libres. Of course, many innocent people are killed, people, for just being right wing, Catholic.
A lot of the violence is committed by petty criminal elements. As is commonly said, one of the biggest mistakes the anarchists made is to release everyone from the prisons. This occurred in Barcelona. They stormed what they saw as Barcelona’s Bastille, La Modelo Prison, the low-lying Bastille where they handle the prisoners. There were thousands there, and they took out the militants, but they also released a large number of common murderers and criminals who jumped on the bandwagon, and were killing for private profits, score settling, et cetera. You know, you’d walk down the Ramblas, and there’s people with CNT armbands. “Should we arm them, given they’re CNT?” And you didn’t need much more than that. So many many anarchists did try to stop this, and shot people for it, even, in Barcelona. But others, you could say, perhaps looked the other way, said it was the will of the people. And you really do not need many individuals at all to create an immense amount of harm. They’re directly and murderously involved in eliminating their so-called enemies.
Whatever the case, by the end of September, a combination of A, the newly reformed Republican government, and B, many, many of them are moderate anarchists, who by now were extremely shocked by what was happening in Barcelona, had managed to stop the violence, both legally, but also socially, in the streets. Due process, habeas corpus, are restored. And they take too long of course, but it happens in a social context, and it’s stopped and condemned.
I think it’s an important point to make, that we know it’s 50,000, 100 up or 100 down, on the Republican side. Because not only does the Franco regime investigate this when they win the war, for what was called the Causa General, General Cause, so did the Republic. The Republic investigated, judicially, the murders on their own side. Which, I think, you could say is a clear moral difference.
Some of the most enduring images of the war are of people posing with the corpses of nuns. These are often interpreted as evidence of mass Republican killings of nuns, but that’s not exactly true.
Well firstly, it’s not entirely accurate to describe the individuals pictured as Republicans. And secondly, the images don’t depict nuns who had been murdered.
Anti-clericalism in Spain predates the Spanish Civil War and predates the Second Republic. That’s not to say that the Republic supported the Catholic Church as an institution. The Republic and those who identified as Republicans were openly critical of the church’s reactionary position, and saw it as a fundamentally corrupt institution. But when the Spanish Civil War breaks out, there’s no particular union, political party or political figure which organizes the violence against the Catholic Church. Instead, it’s very much a class-based anger. It’s an outrage mainly felt by workers and peasants, who are anti-Francoists, but not necessarily Republicans.
The intensity of anti-clericalism had been building up for over a century before the Spanish Civil War, in both urban and rural parts of Spain. The Spanish Inquisition had only ended in 1834. The Catholic Church was an institution, in many ways, still stuck in medieval times. It was still using the language of the Inquisition. The church served the interests of the powerful and rich in Spain, while keeping the poor classes in moral servitude. There was never a Reformation in Spain, and the Catholic Church still maintained that if you accepted the life you were born into, and you worked hard and prayed harder, you’d get your rewards when in Heaven. For some, essentially, the institution was using the pulpit to justify socioeconomic divides in the country, intellectually justifying class division.
Before the Second Republic was declared in 1931, the church had a role of providing health and education for the poorer classes in Spain. However, hospital care at times was denied to those who refused to profess their faith in Catholicism. Education was described as being indoctrination, and it’s known that there was hardly any spaces in schools available for workers and peasants and their children.
We have this tangible buildup of anger over quite some time before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. But what tops this, really, is the church’s siding with Franco, and his supposed crusade he started in the country at the beginning of the war. It was yet another sign of where the institution’s interest laid. With the outbreak of the war comes another wave of anti-clericalism. But this time, the workers and peasants have some access to arms. And at the start of the conflict, a murderous streak emerges, like never seen before, in the anti-clericalism.
When we see images of desecration of corpses from the Spanish Civil War, these tend to be bodies that were disinterred and taken up to the streets from the crypts in churches. Yes, there were murders. A total of almost 7,000 members of the clergy were killed, of which 300 almost were nuns. They’re horrific numbers, but most of the murders didn’t happen in public places. Instead, the nuns or priests were kidnapped, taken outside of towns and villages, up to the hills, ridiculed and then killed. The images you see of dead clergy, the nuns in particular, is actually postmortem desecration. They were bodies in a state of decay, bodies that were buried in the crypts of churches.
Disinterment and display of dead bodies had happened frequently, pre-civil war. It had become this really grotesque way of challenging the power of the church, and exposing the mystery and occult forces of Catholicism as powerless. During the Spanish Civil War, in Barcelona, disinterred bodies were placed out in the streets. Workers were invited to come out and gawk at them, and some were noted for shouting, “Look. They’re flesh and blood, just like me and you.” Perhaps it was a way of exposing the hypocrisy of the church’s divine right, and insulting the public presence of Catholicism. Images of the nuns’ corpses are particularly shocking. The bodies are in a state of decay, but you can see the nuns’ habits in good condition. They’re immediately recognizable as members of the church. Traditionally, of course, this image of piety associated with nuns’ incorruptible figure, it’s challenged here. However, this worked perfectly for Franco, to legitimize his crusade, to abhor people with the atrocities carried out by the anti-Franco side of the war. And to rid Spain of what he would deem this anti-clerical violence as Red Terror.
While the Catholic Church beatified priests killed by Republicans as martyrs, it remained silent about those killed by Franco’s forces. For example, at least 14 Basque Catholic priests were killed by the Nationalists in the White Terror, which in total had far more victims than the Red.
On Franco’s side, it’s rather different. In this case, it’s a numbers game. No one knows. I mean, you always see estimates of up in the 120,000, 180,000, no really knows, or more. From day one, it’s state-sanctioned terror. And General Mola, who’s the initial director of the coup, he says on the first day, “We must sow terror. We must create a sensation of horror. We must eliminate, without scruples, all those who do not think like us.” It’s a conflict by mass rape, mass torture. These are tactics that just do not exist on the Republican or revolutionary side. I’m not saying things didn’t happen. Of course, they did, but it was never systematic. And this is a very marked difference is the treatment of women on the Republican side, and how leftists went in, which… On Franco’s side they’d go out to village after village. You know, who’s working for the left, who’s an elected official, who’s the teacher, in those new schools, against the wall. Franco said, in fact, to a journalist from the New York Times, “I’ll shoot half of Spain if I have to,” to paraphrase.
After the war, 50,000 more died abused in Spain’s prisons, concentration camps, probably double or triple those figures if there hadn’t been the exile. 200,000 died of starvation as a direct result of the war, and there’s food aid from Nazi Germany. Millions of lives ruined on both sides, with families ripped asunder by a war, ideology and exile.
Many people were forced to flee what would be certain death. Half a million anti-fascist refugees traveled mostly on foot across the Pyrenees to seek refuge in France. There, many of them were interned in concentration camps, in often appalling conditions, where large numbers died. Following the Nazi takeover of France, many of these camps were simply taken over by the Germans, and run even more callously and brutally. Mexico also took around 20,000 refugees who were considered to be of the right “race and blood.” But to be admitted to Mexico, refugees had to demonstrate that they could pay their own way, and to agree that they’d stay out of Mexican politics. Passage to Mexico was also mostly organized by former government officials, so it was harder for anarchists and POUM refugees to get asylum, than it was to those who had connections with the Republican government or the Communist Party. The Dominican Republic also welcomed numerous Republican refugees. For those who couldn’t get out, they had to try to survive in a very different Spain.
After the war, when Franco wins, you can tell who wins and who loses by the way people walk. Many people, they’re stooped, marked at as being scum, barbarians, not even allowed to dignify their own dead. And Spain becomes a state of fear. There’s a huge number of people in Franco’s penitentiary universe of concentration camps and prisons, work camps, where abuses are systematic. Slave laborers building roads which we drive on today. There are dams, where our water comes from today.
In the 1940s, the Franco regime goes into an extremely murderous phase. And the control of the population is absolute, for anyone who’d lost the war. Torture is absolutely systematic, if you’re involved politically. The Gestapo learned some lessons here.
For Republican women, the situation was even worse.
After the war, the women undergo a double defeat, one for their ideas, be they liberal or revolutionary, and two, quite simply, the condition of being women. They’re kicked back into the Middle Ages. At the very least, they become the property of their husbands, as do right wing women. For those who lose the war, they are subjected to terrible sexual violence, or having their heads shaven, which is… One thing that happened in a mass level, in villages, was priests in the square, on saints days, forcing Republican women to drink castor oil, which causes victims to expel a mixture of shit and vomit that they’d get… Then they would be jeered after they were paraded around the square. And they have to maintain, somehow, their families, being as they get hunted down, and as they’re marked at as being Red women, or the wife of Red men. And many of those men are either in exile, or they’re dead, or they’ve got one leg. Or they’re in a concentration camp, in prison, and somehow manage to maintain the people around them. Awful, awful time.
Francoist authorities also increased repression of LGBTQ people, locking up gay men and women in prisons and mental institutions. Lucía Sánchez Saornil, whom we mentioned briefly in Part One, survived the war and fled to France with her partner America Barroso, although later, they were able to return to Spain and live under the radar until Lucía’s death in 1970. We hope to produce an episode of queer resistance to Franco at a later date.
For Catherine, there are a lot of parallels between attitudes towards Spanish refugees after the war, and those towards Syrian and Central American refugees today, especially given the recent resurgence of right wing populist and fascist movements.
Franco never called himself a fascist. And that’s probably one of the most challenging questions I have in tours: “What is fascism?” And generally now, I think the best answer I can give is, it’s not what it says it is. You don’t have to be a fascist to be a fascist. But fascism is what it does, not what it says it is. So when you look at these tirades of Francisco Franco, and you look at the language nowadays used by some political leaders, they’re not calling themselves fascists. But their rhetoric, not in any way dissimilar to what we look back in hindsight now, on oppression in the 1930s, and say, “Oh well, that can never happen again.”
Just two years ago, Nick managed to find online a newspaper from France called L’Illustration. And towards the back of the newspaper it’s documenting the refugee crisis at the French border, of the Spanish in exile. There’s these horrible photos, and you see one of a grown man with what we know now is his daughter, as the Garcia family. And she’s missing a leg that was lost during the war. And then you look at the photo, and behind them, you see another man holding the hand of a child. And both those people have their legs missing. Then you say to the group, they just walked over the Pyrenees in the winter months with one leg. They get to the border of France, and the French government at the time under Daladier does not want to let these people into the country. Then look at the caption of what it says in this magazine, and there’s a small caption at the end of that photo that says, The Undesirable Convoy. I mean, I almost expect, every time I show those photos, and then I say, “Look at the French caption. Look at what the editor of the magazine, that captioned it as Undesirables. Every time I have someone from the United States, or even Europe, it comes out that it’s not in any way dissimilar to the language that’s being used today.
Despite the terrible treatment of Spanish anti-fascist refugees, after Nazi occupation of France, many of them became the best fighters in the French Resistance Maquis. For example, in 1944, La Madeleine, a unit of 32 Spanish and eight French Resistance fighters, defeated an entire German column of 1,300 men. And when Paris was finally liberated, it was the half track vehicles of the Ninth Column, made up of Spanish Republican fighters, which was the first to enter the city.
After World War II ended, which was pretty much billed in the West as a war of democracy against fascism, many Spanish Republicans expected Franco to be toppled, after his allies of Mussolini and Hitler. But sadly, they had to learn that the so-called democracies had no problem with fascism per se. They just didn’t want any expansionist foreign powers interfering with their own interests. With this realization, that only the working class and poor population of Spain can defeat Franco, many fighters returned to the country to join the underground guerrilla resistance, which would fight on against insurmountable odds for many years.
That concludes our overview of the Spanish Civil War and revolution. Now we’re going to say a little about where you can find out more, and give some more info about Nick and Catherine’s work. So firstly, for a different overview of the conflict, I appeared on the Revolutionary Left Radio Podcast to give a brief history, which they combined with testimony from participants. You can listen to that through our link in the show notes.
We’ve got episodes in the pipeline on international volunteers in the Civil War. Did any members of your family volunteer? If so, please get in touch, and let us know. Drop us a line on firstname.lastname@example.org.
We also plan on making episodes about Spanish fighters in the French Resistance, and the guerrilla resistance to Franco. So make sure you subscribe today, to make sure you don’t miss them.
On the work page for this double episode, we’ve got photos, sources and links to further reading. We’ve also got books and merchandise about the Spanish Civil War and reproduction posters available in our online store, links to all that in the show notes.
As we mentioned in Part One, Nick and Catherine give Spanish Civil War history tours in Barcelona. So we asked Catherine to say a bit more about that.
Nick Lloyd and I, Catherine Howley, have been running tours in the Spanish Civil War in Barcelona, Nick for over nine years, and myself for almost five years with him. The tour itself takes you on a chronological journey from the beginning of the war and its effect in Barcelona, to the revolutionary period, to the anarchist revolution that the city witnessed, the complications of this revolution, and the power struggle between the local anarchist forces here and the local government, but then talks specifically about the historical memory of the war.
The tour is conceived as a walking museum of the Spanish Civil War. Over the last few years, we’ve been collecting original artifacts from the time period. Within two different stops in the tour, we sit down and discuss, and you get to handle these artifacts.
So if you are ever in Barcelona, we definitely recommend checking that out. Given the current global pandemic and lockdown, that’s going to be pretty unlikely for the near future. But you can get hold of Nick’s book, Forgotten Places: Barcelona and the Spanish Civil War.
My book, Forgotten Places, which I wrote a few years ago, is partly a history book, and partly a guidebook. It’s a history of the war from the point of view of Barcelona.
The first third is, it tells the chronological history of the working-class movements and social conditions, which is to understand what happened in July 1936 and during the war, the bombing of the city, the social revolution, et cetera. And then the rest of the two-thirds is a guide to the sites.
That’s often, really, it’s an excuse to tell stories in places, which is what I like doing. And it’s often taking places and using them as excuses that will provide stories, which is what we like also doing on the tours.
Nick is also on Twitter at Civil_War_Spain. And with the lockdown, he’s starting making formative YouTube videos. You can check them out at youtube.com/user/barcelonanick1. Links to all these in the show notes.
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