Spanish Civil War Begins

The Spanish Civil War began as a military uprising against the Spanish Republic and resulted in a three-year civil conflict that brought Francisco Franco and the Fascist Falange to power.

Summary of Event

In the spring of 1936, Spain was on the verge of chaos. Five years of Republican government had heightened the tensions of the previous hundred years. A liberal, reform government had been defeated by conservatives in 1933, who began to reverse changes that had benefited workers and supporters of federalism. The elections of February brought the Popular Front Popular Front (Spain) government to power, but its varied composition of Liberals and Socialists, with tacit support from the Anarchists, meant that it could not act effectively to curb public and civil disorder caused by the Anarchists and the right-wing Falange. Falange
[kw]Spanish Civil War Begins (July 17, 1936)
[kw]Civil War Begins, Spanish (July 17, 1936)
[kw]War Begins, Spanish Civil (July 17, 1936)
Spanish Civil War (1936-1939)
[g]Africa;July 17, 1936: Spanish Civil War Begins[09220]
[g]Morocco;July 17, 1936: Spanish Civil War Begins[09220]
[g]Spain;July 17, 1936: Spanish Civil War Begins[09220]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;July 17, 1936: Spanish Civil War Begins[09220]
[c]Government and politics;July 17, 1936: Spanish Civil War Begins[09220]
Azaña y Díaz, Manuel
Calvo Sotelo, José
Casares Quiroga, Santiago
Franco, Francisco
Hitler, Adolf
[p]Hitler, Adolf;Spanish Civil War
Largo Caballero, Francisco
Mussolini, Benito
[p]Mussolini, Benito;Spanish Civil War
Primo de Rivera, José Antonio
Sanjurjo, José

The Anarchists, impatient with Republican reforms and desiring a revolution immediately, had begun uprisings and takeovers of land after the election. There were many strikes, and economic chaos threatened. The Falange, the Fascist party organized and led by José Antonio Primo de Rivera, son of the former dictator of Spain, responded with violence to the Anarchists’ actions to show the Republican government’s inability to cope with the problem. There were assassinations and gunfights in the streets. In addition, military and right-wing groups were organizing to oppose the newly elected government. Finally, the election victory of the Popular Front polarized both left-wing and right-wing extremes, and the country seemed to be moving inexorably toward violence. Even so, the government of Prime Minister Santiago Casares Quiroga refused to believe reports of military plots, while President Manuel Azaña y Díaz frantically sought a political solution that would not require arming workers against the military.

José Calvo Sotelo, a monarchist deputy in the Cortes (Spain’s national legislative assembly), José Antonio Primo de Rivera, and General José Sanjurjo formed a conspiracy to overthrow the government and restore order to Spain. Although they did not commit themselves to a specific form of government, they were able to get the support of the monarchist leaders, who hoped for the restoration of Alfonso XIII, and the Falangists, who wanted to establish a Fascist state. Throughout the spring of 1936, they made plans for an uprising that summer.

In the Cortes, where Calvo Sotelo regularly complained of the civil disorder, the government could not answer the complaints of its critics. President Azaña did little except wait for the situation to improve, for he feared the leftist extremists. Francisco Largo Caballero, leader of the Socialist Party and one of the mainstays of the Republic, staged a march of ten thousand workers in Madrid on May 1, 1936, to demand a workers’ government. There was talk about a leftist revolution to prevent a rightist coup and to implement long-desired radical reforms.

On July 13, 1936, Calvo Sotelo was arrested and murdered in revenge for a Falangist assassination of a Liberal policeman. So great was the public’s shock at this deed that the military conspirators decided to take advantage of the nation’s mood and advanced the date of their planned uprising. On July 17, military garrisons of the Canary Islands, Morocco, and throughout Spain pronounced against the Republican government and began taking over control of local governments. Despite the uprisings, Azaña and the government refused to distribute arms to proletarian organizations and the trade unions. Nevertheless, workers seized arms and resisted the military. In Madrid and Barcelona, armed workers were responsible for the failure of the insurrection, which had triumphed in about half of Spain.


The conflict that began on July 17 settled into a prolonged civil war. The conspirators, called the Nationalists, had the support of the rightist elements—the Church, the landed classes, and many moderates—but, more important, they were able to get military aid and material from the Italian Fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, and from Adolf Hitler, the German chancellor. Mussolini wanted influence in Spanish affairs, and Hitler wanted to keep Mussolini embroiled in war so as to draw him away from the Western powers. By October, 1936, General Francisco Franco had emerged as the leader of the Nationalists, and in that month he proclaimed himself caudillo, or military leader, of Spain.

On the Republican, or Loyalist, side chaos prevailed. The military uprising allowed the Anarchists to implement a proletarian revolution in several areas of Spain. Workers seized factories and elected committees to oversee operations, while owners were murdered or fled. Azaña and Largo Caballero, who had become prime minister, were powerless to stop Anarchist workers, whose activities, while fulfilling the hopes of many workers, antagonized many moderates who came to support the Nationalists. The Republicans’ only source of outside aid was Soviet Russia, whose leader, Joseph Stalin, sent supplies and military advisers. With its control over the distribution of Russian aid, the Spanish Communist Party, a relatively small and powerless group before the uprising, became powerful.

The democratic Western powers stood aside from the conflict, hoping that it would not spread into a general European war. Throughout 1936 and 1937, the Nationalists slowly encircled the Republicans, whose army was largely undisciplined. By 1939, the superior military force of the Nationalists had prevailed, and in April, General Franco seized Madrid, the last Republican stronghold, and the war was over. Spanish Civil War (1936-1939)

Further Reading

  • Alpert, Michael. A New International History of the Spanish Civil War. 2d ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. Well-researched analysis focuses on the international aspects of the war, placing it in the context of other world events. Includes map, bibliography, and index.
  • Bolloten, Burnett. The Spanish Civil War: Revolution and Counterrevolution. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991. Massive study provides extensive detail regarding the role of the Communist Party in undermining the revolution and the efforts of the Spanish Republic to operate outside of Stalin’s control.
  • Forrest, Andrew. The Spanish Civil War. New York: Routledge, 2000. Brief text designed for undergraduates covers all aspects of the war, including the roles played by foreign powers. Features illustrations, selected bibliography, and index.
  • Hills, George. The Battle for Madrid. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1976. Provides detailed history and analysis of both the political and the military battle for Madrid during the Spanish Civil War. Includes maps and photographs.
  • Payne, Stanley G. The Spanish Revolution. New York: W. W. Norton, 1970. Thorough account of events in Spain from the early twentieth century through the Civil War. Focuses on the revolutionary changes occurring in the Republican Zone. Informative, although clearly biased toward the liberal Republic.
  • Preston, Paul. The Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939. Chicago: Dorsey Press, 1986. Short interpretive work argues that the military uprising under Franco ended a Republican government that was doing the best it could for Spain.
  • Thomas, Hugh. The Spanish Civil War. Rev. ed. 1977. Reprint. New York: Modern Library, 2001. Updated, expanded edition of a classic study of the war presents both political and military perspectives. Addresses the war’s impacts on both individual lives and nations.

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