A Republic Collapsed: Inside The Spanish Civil War

Published January 24, 2017
Updated November 20, 2018
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A Republic Collapsed: Inside The Spanish Civil War
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By January of 1939, the dream of a true Spanish Republic had shattered. Many of those who composed its short-lived reality — Republican men and women, and elected officials of the democratically-elected Republican government — headed for the Pyrenees mountains and the French border, blanketed in cold and perhaps the sobering knowledge that blunt force, not competing ideas or democratic procedures, wields the most power to transform a given locality and govern its future.

The approximately 500,000 men and women who abandoned their homes that winter left a country where the pursuit and exercise of power saw the deaths of around 500,000 people; radical plans for economic redistribution of wealth sullied, and the installation of Europe’s longest-lasting dictatorship, spearheaded by General Francisco Franco.

The Spanish Civil War officially began in July 1936, when the 43-year-old Franco led a military coup against the leadership of the Second Spanish Republic, proclaimed in 1931 by a coalition of antimonarchist parties.

While these coalitions successfully convened to call for social and economic reform, increased regional autonomy, religious freedom and the separation of church and state, among other things, the multiplicity of actors -- socialists, communists, and anarchists, just to name a few -- and competing interests made it such that by 1933 the Second Republic did not achieve much of what it promised in its 1931 Constitution.

Nevertheless, the intended or achieved reforms of these leftist and left-leaning parties — which coalesced in the 1936 elections as the Popular Front — deeply troubled Spain’s pro-Church, pro-monarchy, pro-military conservatives.

They saw in the Front’s dismissiveness of the Catholic Church a threat to the heart of Spain; they saw in the Front’s openness to communist sects the specter of the Soviet Union; they saw in the Front's granting of regional autonomy a danger to the very existence of Spain as a nation-state. They saw in left wing acts of violence, and a government that seemed to permit them without threat of punishment, a movement that needed to be squashed.

The war started in July 1936, in the stultifying heat of Spanish Morocco and in the hills of Navarre, northern Spain. Politically-motivated murders on the right and left signaled to conservatives a need to restore “order” in Spain, and a kind of order that could only be achieved through violence. Franco, aided by fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, torched his way through Spain, where he encountered a determined, yet ultimately outmanned and out-equipped Republican resistance.

Towns collapsed. Cities and their inhabitants became testing grounds for developing weaponry. The Republican government fled Madrid for Valencia, and then finally for Barcelona in 1937. The 1938 Battle of Ebro would see what remained of the Second Spanish Republic — battered, bruised and backed into a corner — exhausted to the point of collapse.

Its remaining vestiges — old men and women, children, civilians, soldiers, former heads of state — fled in defeat, abandoning the soil where relentless force determined that alternative political and economic life forms would not grow there.

A large, black eagle that appeared on the new Spanish flag soon after the war's ended offered the world a stark visualization of the decades of darkness Spain would endure under Franco -- and a timeless reminder that, as Albert Camus penned of the Spanish Civil War, “force can vanquish spirit.”

To get a better view of other wars that plagued the 20th century, beyond the Spanish Civil War, check out these photos of World War One and World War Two. Then, have a look at some of the most memorable Ernest Hemingway quotes.

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John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.