Before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, Spain’s political landscape featured fascists who would side with the Spanish Nationalists when the war began in earnest. Spanish communists chose to align themselves with the Spanish Republicans. Despite the Non-Intervention Agreement signed by 27 countries, Italy’s Benito Mussolini, Germany’s Adolf Hitler, and the Soviet Union’s Josef Stalin had few qualms about breaking this agreement and supporting one side of this civil war. Volunteers from more than 50 countries joined the Communist International Brigades to fight on the side of the Spanish Republicans, notwithstanding some domestic opposition to foreign “invaders.”
Fascists Within the Spanish Nationalists
The Nationalist faction in the Spanish Civil War, also known as the Rebel faction, was comprised of right-leaning political groups that supported the July 1936 military coup that aimed to overthrow Spain’s democratically elected government. In addition to fascists, the Nationalist faction also included pro-Catholics, anti-Marxists, and monarchists. The two right-wing Spanish political parties that were fascist or inspired by fascism were the Spanish Confederation of Autonomous Rights (CEDA in Spanish) and the Falange.
The CEDA was a right-wing political party formed in March 1933 that managed to win 115 out of 473 seats in the November 1933 general election. These 115 seats weren’t nearly enough to win a majority, but it was sufficient for the CEDA to play an integral part in a coalition government formed by right-wing parties. Led by Jose Maria Gil-Robles, the CEDA wasn’t a fascist political party, but Gil-Robles was inspired by fascism. He attended the 1933 Nuremberg rally in Nazi Germany, where he studied the methods of modern propaganda. At his own rallies, Gil-Robles was called “Jefe” by the CEDA party members, the equivalent of Mussolini’s Duce. Gil-Robles was more anti-Marxist than he was pro-fascist.
The Falange Española was a political party formed in October 1933 by Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera, the son of General Miguel Primo de Rivera, who governed Spain as a dictator from 1923 to 1930. The Falange was created with financial assistance from one of Spain’s monarchist organizations. Himself a landowner and aristocrat, Primo de Rivera assured the Spanish upper classes that Spanish fascism would not get out of control as it had in Germany and Italy. After poor results in the 1933 general election, the Falange merged with another nationalist and fascist political party to become the Falange Española de las JONS in February 1934.
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The Falange used tactics such as employing terror squads to fight political opponents in street brawls to create an atmosphere of public disorder that would justify the imposition of an authoritarian regime. As backing for the CEDA declined in the run-up to the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, support for the Falange increased. By September 1936, there were 35,000 Falangist volunteers, or 55% of the Spanish Nationalists’ civilian forces.
In April 1937, Spanish Nationalist leader General Francisco Franco merged the Falange with the Carlist monarchist group, changing the name to Falange Española Tradicionalista y de las JONS. Both groups were furious at this decision, and the Falangists viewed their ideological role as being supplanted by the Catholic Church. Franco went on to distance the Falange from fascism, stating that “The Falange does not consider itself fascist; its founder said so personally.” Franco did not deny that there were fascist members in the newest Falange party.
Communists Within the Spanish Republicans
The Republican faction in the Spanish Civil War, also known as the Loyalist faction or the Government faction, was the side that supported the government of the Second Spanish Republic against the Nationalists. The Spanish general election of February-March 1936 was won by the Popular Front, an electoral alliance of left-wing political organizations. Socialists, Marxists, trade unions, and the Communist Party of Spain supported the Popular Front.
The Communist Party of Spain (PEC in Spanish) was a fringe party during most of the Spanish Second Republic’s existence (1931-1936), although it grew after the Popular Front’s election victory as well as during the first few months of the Spanish Civil War. Between July and December 1936, the PEC grew from 30,000 members to 100,000. It was in July 1936 when Spain’s socialists and communists asked the government to distribute arms to the people before the military took over. Prime Minister Casares Quiroga hesitated to issue the arms before the military coup started later that month.
Spain’s Communist Party is said to have expanded to nearly one million members in 1937. As part of the Popular Front against the Spanish Nationalists, the Communist Party became the best organized, most tightly disciplined, and most militarily effective of all the political parties in the Spanish Second Republic. The PEC also received considerable Soviet aid and assistance during the Spanish Civil War.
Fascist Italy’s Support for the Spanish Nationalists
Despite the fact that Italy, Germany, and the Soviet Union signed a Non-Intervention Agreement in August 1936, all three countries supplied aid to one of the two sides in the Spanish Civil War. Under Benito Mussolini’s Fascist leadership, Italy supported the overthrow of the Spanish Second Republic in favor of the establishment of a regime that would act as a client state of Italy. Italy didn’t trust the Spanish Republic because of its pro-French leanings. In 1933, Mussolini met the Falangist leader Primo de Rivera, but the dictator didn’t hold high hopes then that fascism would take hold in Spain.
Italy rationalized its intervention in the Spanish Civil War by stating that it wanted to avert the rise of Bolshevism in Spain. The arrival of volunteers from the Soviet Union who fought on the Spanish Republican side was also cited as a threat that needed to be countered.
By 1937, an expeditionary force of 35,000 Italian troops was stationed in Spain. A greater number would fight on the side of the Spanish Nationalists during the course of the war. Three of the four divisions were comprised of Italian Blackshirts. Italy also supplied Spain with 660 planes, 150 tanks, 800 artillery pieces, 10,000 machine guns, and nearly a quarter of a million rifles. Furthermore, Italy intervened politically by sending a representative to Spain in March 1937 to convince Franco to unite the various Nationalist political movements into one fascist Spanish Nationalist Party.
Fascist Germany’s Support for the Spanish Nationalists
A total of around 16,000 Germans fought in the Spanish Civil War, although no more than 10,000 participated at any one time. Germany sent 200 tanks and 600 aircraft to Spain in addition to training some 56,000 Nationalist soldiers in the infantry, artillery, aerial, and naval forces. The German Condor Legion was formed in July 1936. The Condor Legion included members of Germany’s Army and Luftwaffe. The Condor Legion contributed to the Spanish Nationalists’ offensive operations against the Republicans, including 1936’s Battle of Toledo and 1937’s aerial bombardment of the Spanish town of Guernica.
The Spanish Civil War provided valuable experience to Germany’s ground forces, air force, and even U-boat submariners that would be utilized just a few years later when Germany was officially at war. While Hitler didn’t want a quick Nationalist victory, he did want to stop the spread of Communism to Western Europe, destabilize British and French influence in the Mediterranean, and open up possibilities for economic expansion. Because the Spanish Republicans retained access to Spain’s gold reserves, the Spanish Nationalists needed Germany’s financial assistance. The debt Franco’s Nationalists owed to Germany soared during the Spanish Civil War, and when it was over, Germany exploited Spain’s mining resources.
Communist Soviet Union’s Support for the Spanish Republicans
As Italy and Germany had done, the Soviet Union ignored the Non-Intervention Agreement that was signed by 27 countries soon after the Spanish Civil War broke out. The Soviet Union became the Republicans’ only major source of weapons. Unlike Mussolini and Hitler, Stalin tried to supply personnel, financial aid, arms, and supplies to the Spanish Republicans stealthily. Collective security against German fascism was a priority of Soviet foreign policy; the Communist International (Comintern), the Soviet-controlled international organization (1919-1943) that advocated world communism, agreed on a similar resolution in 1934.
The quality of the weapons that the Soviet Union sent to Spain was inconsistent at best, with some rifles and field guns dating back to the 1860s. The shipment of arms was a slow process, with many shipments getting lost or not matching what had been authorized. The Soviet aircraft that the Spanish Republicans received was in current service as of the mid-1930s, but by the end of the Spanish Civil War, German aircraft proved to be superior to Soviet aircraft. The Soviet Union sent between 2,000 and 3,000 military advisers to Spain, with no more than around 700 Soviet citizens fighting in Spain at any one time.
The German military attaché estimated that Soviet and Comintern aid included 242 aircraft, 731 tanks, more than 69,000 tons of war material, and over 29,000 tons of ammunition. The Spanish Republicans used some US$500 million of their gold reserves to pay for armaments. Despite his support, Stalin impeded the Republicans’ efforts in 1937 by ordering a purge of anti-Stalinist communists. Soviet agents in Spain decimated Spain’s Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification (POUM) in addition to expunging Catalan anarchists. At one point, POUM had a larger membership than the official Communist Party of Spain.
Communist International Brigades’ Support for the Spanish Republicans
Just eight days after the Nationalists’ military coup, an international communist conference took place in Prague to plan ways to help the Spanish Republican government. It initially decided to raise a brigade of 5,000 men and a fund of 1 billion French francs. Communist parties worldwide launched an intensive propaganda campaign supporting the Spanish Republicans’ Popular Front umbrella political party.
The Comintern immediately began to organize International Brigades, which were military units created to fight on the side of the Spanish Republicans. These units were given attractive names, such as the Garibaldi Battalion in Italy and the Abraham Lincoln Battalion in the United States. At least 32,000 volunteers fought in the International Brigades, comprised of recruits from more than 50 nations. (Several thousand more foreign volunteers fought on the side of the Republicans but not with the International Brigades.) It is estimated that no more than 18,000 foreign volunteers fought in the Spanish Civil War at any given time.
The most volunteers came from France (10,000), followed by Nazi Germany and Austria (5,000), and Italy (3,350). At least one thousand came from each of the Soviet Union, the United States, the United Kingdom, Poland, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Canada. The International Brigades were disbanded in 1938 by the Spanish Republican Prime Minister. Juan Negrin vainly hoped that if he removed foreign fighters from the Republican side, international pressure would cause the Italians and Germans to withdraw their troops from the Nationalists’ side. Italy and Germany continued to supply the Spanish Nationalists until the end of the war.
Spanish Propaganda Opposing “Foreign Invaders”
Both the Spanish Nationalists and Spanish Republicans used propaganda to appeal to Spanish nationalism (“nationalism” with a small “n”). Spanish communists portrayed the heroic Spanish people as rising against foreign invaders who were controlled by the upper classes, the clergy, and the army, which themselves were part of a “fascist-imperialist world coalition.” Excluding anti-Stalinist POUM communists, Republican rhetoric promoted by the Communist Party of Spain was also taken up in other left-wing and Republican literature. Germans were portrayed as arrogant; Italians were effeminate, cowardly, and presumptuous; and the International Brigades were depicted as an international horde of criminals and thieves.
The Spanish Nationalists portrayed the Spanish Civil War as a conflict for the Catholic Spanish fatherland under threat of becoming a “Russian colony.” Communist invaders were characterized as dehumanized foreigners, the “wolves of the Russian Steppes.” The Nationalists did their best to conceal the presence of Italian and German troops from their propaganda.
In the grand scheme of things, the foreign fighters who participated in the Spanish Civil War were a mere fraction of the total combatants. In 1936, the Spanish Republicans had more than 446,000 combatants on their side compared to just 58,000 soldiers and 68,500 gendarmes on the side of the Nationalists. By 1938, the Republican side contained 450,000 infantry, while the Spanish Nationalists could count on 600,000 infantry.
Before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, Spain’s fractured political scene consisted of fascists with political power while the Communist Party of Spain could boast of more than a million members in 1937. The 1938 Munich Agreement signed by Hitler and Britain’s Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain on the last day of September caused a collapse in the morale of Spanish Republicans because it ended all hope of an anti-fascist alliance with Western powers. Six months later, the Spanish Nationalists had gained control of all Spanish territory. Franco declared victory on April 1, 1939.