Like most Americans, I never knew very much about the Spanish Civil War. Outside of Spain, it mostly seems to be seen as a sort of prelude to World War II; the first battle of the epic struggle between Fascism and Democracy. In the movie Casablanca, that Rick fought on the Loyalist side in Spain was a quick way to indicate that he had, at least at one time, been on the side of the good guys.
At first glance, this impression seems to be true. The Spanish Civil War did begin as a military insurrection against the democratically elected left wing government of Spain. The Nationalists under Francisco Franco were backed by Fascist Italy and Germany who saw the civil war as an opportunity to test new weapons and tactics. A closer examination quickly shows that the issues surrounding this war were much more complicated than this simple view. For one thing, since the democracies such as France and Britain were determined to remain neutral in this conflict, the Republican government of Spain had little choice but to turn to the Soviet Union for help. This help came with strings attached, the Soviets hoped to increase the influence of the Communist Party in Spain and ultimately to create a Socialist dictatorship controlled by the Communists. On the other hand, there were never very many Fascists, or Falangists as the Spanish Fascists were named, in Spain until just before the Civil War. There was an increase in membership of the Falangist Party as the conflict began, mostly as a reaction to the apparent attempts by the left wing parties to convert Spain into a Soviet state. Franco himself never had much use for Fascist ideology and by the end of the end he had subordinated the party to his personal rule.
As for democracy, the truth is that neither side really supported the idea. The Right, whether Falangist, monarchist, or conservative, was frankly authoritarian in outlook. They were prepared to play the game of running in elections, but they didn’t much care for the process. The Left seemed to not understand the whole purpose of democracy is too allow the people to choose their rulers. They believed that they were on the side of History and Progress and thought of elections merely as a way to confirm their mandate. When a right-wing coalition won the elections in 1933, the left demanded that the vote be invalidated, not on the grounds of any evidence of fraud or irregularities, but simply because the wrong people had won. When they won the next elections, they began to rig the system to make sure they wouldn’t lose again. This refusal to follow the Spanish constitution, along with a threatened purge of the military caused the military to rise up against the left-wing government, beginning a terrible civil war. Neither side were the good guys, or even altogether the bad guys.
Stanley G Payne makes this clear in his account of the war, titled, simply enough, The Spanish Civil War. Payne gives a clear and coherent account of the years leading up to the war and is remarkably even-handed in assigning responsibility for the mistakes in policy that caused the war. Payne gives a good chronological account of the military history of the war as well as dealing with the policies each side developed to fight the war and to remake Spain according to their competing ideals. Both sides committed atrocities, and Payne is again even-handed in giving accounts on the inevitable horrors of war, alway worse in a civil war. He also explores why Franco and the Nationalist eventually won control of Spain and the motives of the countries that sought to intervene in the war.
The one thing that most struck me while reading through this book is that the Republicans really should have won this conflict. In 1936, when the fighting actually began, they controlled most of the territory of Spain, including the richest and most productive regions. They were considered the legitimate government of Spain internationally and they held the capital. They also controlled about half the navy, most of the air force, and even much of the army. The Nationalists began the war as a few disgruntled army officers, mostly stationed in Morocco. How did they end up winning? They did get a lot of support from Germany and Italy and this did make a difference early in the war, but it seems the one advantage the Nationalists had over the Republicans was that they early became unified under a single leader, General Francisco Franco. The Republicans were divided between various factions including liberals who wanted some sort of social democracy, more doctrinaire socialists and communists who wanted to use the existing government to make Spain into a socialist state, and the radical communists and anarchist who wanted a revolution, not to mention nationalist Catalans and Basques. This division made it difficult for the Republican government to develop any sort of coherent strategy for winning the war, and the more extreme left-wing elements of their coalition, especially their anti-religious stance, frightened many Spaniards into supporting Franco as the lesser evil. They were probably correct, Franco was a dictator who crushed dissent after winning the war, but he probably didn’t cause nearly as much misery for the Spanish people as a Soviet backed Communist dictatorship might have, and Franco, at least, had the good sense to keep Spain out of World War II and he was inadvertently responsible for restoring democracy to Spain by arranging for King Juan Carlos to take power after his death. Franco was the least bad option for Spain at the time.