The Spanish Civil War is among the most significant domestic conflicts in history that has gained notorious international attention due to its wide-ranging implications. International involvement has become a defining feature of the importance of the war, although more importantly, the war has exposed the political division in Spain at that time – between the Republicans and the victorious Nationalists. This study will seek to inquire more on the essential details of the war, particularly on its historical antecedents and international involvement.
The Spanish Civil War traces its roots on the traditionalist politics of Spain, which has given it a growth pattern different to that of other European nations. The dominance of the aristocracy in Spain characterized the strong traditionalist inclination of politics in the peninsula, particularly its strong association with the Catholic Church and its legacy of ousting radical forces such as the Moors and the Jews. The monarchy of Spain did not seek to consolidate coalitions with the middle class. Rather, it chose to collaborate with the aristocrats, with their partnership being instrumental to hindering the proliferation of Spanish middle class populations. Industries, including that of Castilian textile, did not flourish due to the dissuasion of the monarchy-aristocracy partnership, as it subjugated the powers of the parliament – another avenue of propagation by the middle class. In turn, the lack of middle class groups disabled the further propagation of movements that became successful elsewhere in Europe, most notable the Reformation. The marginalization of the middle class in Spain meant lesser opportunities for state modernization.
The traditionalist stance of politics in Spain run by the monarchy and aristocrats extended further to the 18th century, when attempts to introduce the Enlightenment in the nation failed due to its ideological foundations that stood against nobility. Revolutions akin to liberal ideals did not thrive in the nation and its contingents faced heavy defeats under the hands of Spanish forces. Liberalism thus did not settle in the nation, which resulted to declining economic growth due to lack of innovations that could have come from liberal policies. Traditional solutions to economic decline, such as the sale of church lands, proved inadequate in the face of growing demands from both the domestic population and international markets. Illiteracy caused by the continued domination of both the monarchy and the aristocracy disabled the potential domestic development of liberalism, hence the sluggish economic growth of the nation. Labor continued as the primary means of production in the nation due to the lack of machines coming from liberal reforms vehemently rejected by the traditionalist setup.
The continued dominance of the traditionalists in Spain hampered potential avenues for economic growth. The absence of a sizeable middle class population, rejection of land reform, mechanization of production and other liberal policies, the sustained dominance of the Catholic Church and the strong intervention of the military in political affairs all factored in as laggards of economic growth in the nation. Yet, the victory of the republican faction following the deposal of the traditionalist dictator General Miguel Primo de Rivera served as a brief victory for liberalism in the nation. Republican ideologies, with their liberal nature, may have seemed to be catalysts for reforms in the nation, yet its inheritance of a system with deep roots on traditionalism provided difficulties for the Second Republic, despite patterning its agenda on the French Revolution with an attempt to focus on improving social equality.
Yet, the failure of the Second Republic to fulfill its promise of economic growth alongside its liberalizing reforms has heralded eventual opposition from the Spanish people, particularly from the Catholics. While many preferred to give the new regime a chance to introduce changes, its failure to do so has reawakened traditionalist attitudes. The introduction of freedom of religion has provoked much of the Catholic population. Attempts to remove political influence off the military have stirred turmoil that provoked the onset of the Spanish Civil War. Such efforts, led by Prime Minister Manuel Azaña, prompted the military to issue a pronunciamiento or a declaration of a coup d’état against the government. While early attempts to stage a revolution failed, it nevertheless served as a precedent that spurred the inevitable commencement of the Spanish Civil War.
The Onset of the War
The Spanish Civil War escalated as a series of conflicts in different parts of Spain fought between forces loyal to the Republic (Republicans) led by Azaña and the military (Nationalists) led by General Francisco Franco. The first recorded event pointed as the beginning of the war happened in July 14, 1936, the day of assassination of right-wing parliament leader Jose Sotelo. Rebellions across the nation have become sporadic afterwards, with battles reported in Valencia, Valladolid, Cadiz, Spanish Morocco, Burgos and Seville, among others. On July 20, the Second Republic responded to the attacks by charging all military officers involved in the coup d’état with treason, alongside the establishment of martial law. The conflict between the two sides provoked international involvement when foreign vessels off Spanish coasts suffered interferences from the ongoing conflicts. Despite non-intervention agreements binding Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, there are findings pointing that their residents have assisted the insurgent Nationalists logistically, in the form of military supplies and labor. Yet, both nations have denied accusations. Portugal, a nation that did not express inhibition from intervention, contributed significantly to the insurgents by offering its ports as importation points for their supplies. All of the foregoing nations have thus contributed to insurgency efforts despite recognizing the Second Republic as the de jure government of Spain in the early periods of the conflict. Thus, all those three nations have rendered assistance to the insurgents unjustified under international law.
Whereas Germany, Italy and Portugal stood as among the powers that intervened during the Spanish Civil War, the United States (US) – a significant power during that time, declared that they would practice impartiality over the situation and it will thus not interfere with any party in the war. Yet, the US exported airplanes for use by the Nationalists, despite recognizing its will to observe non-interference on the ongoing conflict. The Neutrality Act of 1935 did not apply to cases involving civil war, although the US expressed slight reluctance over exporting the airplanes to Spain in line with its perceived position.
The Spanish Civil War also became an influential event to the proponents of the Second World War. The victory of the fascist Nationalists further bolstered the position of Italy as an ally of Germany. Adolf Hitler, the leader of Germany, saw the victory as one that could further consolidate his motives to dominate Europe with his Nazi ideology. With its alliance with Italy strengthened, Germany was able to occupy Austria easily, although his planned conquest of Czechoslovakia met a standstill due to the absence of Mussolini in Italy, who was then in Spain to assist the cause of the Nationalists. Such move enabled Hitler to declare Western powers Great Britain and France as enemies, with both democracies having declared dissent over his and Mussolini’s actions. In sum, the war in Spain helped aggravate the crisis between the European powers, which ultimately escalated into the Second World War. The war, which ended in April 1, 1939, cost the lives of an estimated 500,000 people and around the same number of injured.
The Impact of the War
The Spanish Civil War has gained notoriety due to its wide-ranging effects, despite being a domestic conflict that has originated within a minor power of the time. It has influenced literary authors, who created works based on their experiences and accounts of the war. Ernest Hemingway, for instance, has expressed his views on the war in many of his literary works. In his article “Dying Well or Badly,” Hemingway criticized the support given by the democracies to the fascist Nationalists, in which he said, “they will deserve whatever fate brings them” for assisting the forces led by Franco. He made clear his stance on fascism in “The Writer and War,” in which he described it as the “only one form of government that cannot produce good writers” Women have become empowered by the war, during which they gained increasing exposure in activism and political representation. Federica Montseny and Victoria Kent are among those women elected to parliament, while the likes of Maria Del Maetzu and Dolores Ibarruri gained prominence in the field of politics and literature. Democracy, a system that did not find stable imposition in Spain, has inspired authors so much to the extent that they heralded it as an important “memory” of the past. The war resembled an event that threatened a crucial period that served as a precursor to the nation’s democratic transition. Democracy, in this case, has become one perceived as having no real appeal to the Spanish people. The strength of traditionalism apparent with the victory of the Nationalists in the war reflected that people still prefer to associate themselves with symbols pertaining to royalty, religion or anything reminiscent of traditionalist thought. Yet overall, the war contributed to the further enlightenment of the people. Despite the denial of democracy under the victory of the fascist Nationalists, the war empowered the Spanish people towards becoming more active in civic affairs, far from their dormant side reminiscent to that of their historical identity as a people subjugated under the control of the monarchy-aristocracy partnership. The violence that the war brought, however, stands as a more unforgettable aspect of the war in terms of remembering it in terms of the importance of democracy.
The Spanish Civil War is an event that reflects how a nation could become highly cynical of democracy. The upbringing of Spain as a nation wrought in traditionalist aspects has made it seemingly closed-minded on matters concerning change. The dominance of the monarchy and aristocracy has characterized a suitable historical background to the war, which is one that helped restore traditionalism in the nation through the influence of an emerging ideology at the time – fascism.
The victory of fascism in the Spanish Civil War is one that is easily predictable, if one is to look at the sociopolitical and historical profile of Spain critically. The appeal of fascism has enabled calls at that time to return the order of the “true” Spain, allegedly removed by the emergent democratization of the state by the then-ruling Second Republic. The war reflected that during its time, the Spanish people are not yet prepared to embrace what the rest of their contemporaries in Western Europe has accepted – liberalism and democratization. Whereas nations like France and Great Britain have incorporated those two ideals in their own ways, Spain has emanated manifestations of its preference towards its traditionalist convention. The formation of a formidable middle class, for example, is one that has affected the failure of those two ideals to spread. With the monarchy and its aristocrat allies suppressing the growth of middle class movements in several occasions, democratic virtues and liberal thinking did not match up to the massive support enjoyed by institutions such as the Catholic Church, military and all others closely associated to the power of the monarchy-aristocracy alliance. Yet, at the same time, the legacy of the war proved to be a mere setback, as Spain eventually opened itself up to the auspices of democratic and liberal thought. Thus, one could construe the war as an event that has strengthened the position of democracy in the history of the nation. Its impact on influencing the Second World War stands strong, as the involvement of notable proponents such as Germany and Italy used such event to increase their political and ideological advantage in Europe. Hitler and Mussolini used the war to legitimize their political positions by way of rendering assistance, despite the fact that they ran counter to certain principles under international law.
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