The Spanish Civil War Between Two Other World Wars

Taking place between the two world wars, the Spanish Civil War was in some ways a precursor to the Second, while the First greatly impacted Spain’s social and economic affairs.

Jul 7, 2023By Stephanie Jelks, MPhil History, MA History, BA Political Science
spanish civil war world wars
Nationalist Spanish Civil War propaganda, via The Times UK


The Spanish Civil War was a “minor” war compared to the two world wars. Although Spain remained neutral, the First World War significantly impacted Spain economically and socially. A series of weak interwar Spanish governments were unable to govern Spain’s varied religious, socioeconomic, monarchist, military, and nationalist factions. By the mid-1930s, democrats, fascists, and communists in Spain were fighting to prevent Spain from becoming a failed state. Some historians believe the Spanish Civil War was a prelude to the Second World War.


Themes of the Spanish Civil War Evident During the First World War

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“In the Face of the European War: Spain’s Neutrality” poster, via


While Spain remained officially neutral during the First World War, many in Spanish society favored one side over the other. Many of those who supported Germany were defenders of the traditional order: the aristocracy, the Roman Catholic Church, the military, and right-wing political parties. Those who supported the Allies tended to be middle-class professionals and the petty bourgeoisie, anti-clerical groups, republicans, liberals, Catalan nationalists, and most intellectuals.


During the First World War, Spain’s King Alfonso XIII intervened in foreign and domestic policy much more than occurred in other European constitutional monarchies. This was partly because of the weaker constitutional character of the Spanish government. During the war, Spain also saw sudden and unexpected economic growth due to higher demand for Spanish exports and fewer manufactured goods available to import. However, these profits were largely concentrated in the hands of a few social groups in the north and northeast of Spain. The more heavily agricultural regions in the center and south suffered from a profound economic crisis.


In 1916, the two main organizations of the still-immature workers’ movement in Spain demanded an efficient political response to the rising cost of living and the scarcity of foodstuffs for the average Spanish worker. The Unión General de Trabajadores (UGT) was a socialist trade union, while the Confederación Nacional de Trabajo (CNT) was anarchist-syndicalist. Both of these unions supported the Republican cause during the Spanish Civil War.


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CNT-UGT propaganda from the Spanish Civil War, via El Viejo Topo

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When a revolutionary general strike took place in August 1917, the army brutally repressed it. Although the Spanish armed forces, weakened by defeat in the Spanish-American War of 1898, were not strong enough to significantly contribute to the First World War, they had gained control over Spanish freedom of speech and assembly in 1906 under the Law of Jurisdictions. (The Law of Jurisdictions was annulled in 1931 with the creation of the short-lived Second Spanish Republic.)


When the First World War ended, so did Spain’s period of economic growth. This economic growth didn’t consolidate Spain’s industrial infrastructure or benefit society in general. The post-war period in Spain was characterized by an economic recession. Also in this period, social agitation intensified against the political regime that wasn’t capable of dealing with the new awareness and political mobilization that started during the war and was strengthened by the Allied victory and the Bolshevik triumph. The First World War exacerbated Spain’s economic inequality and social differences linked to regional problems.


Dictatorship Before the Spanish Civil War

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Captain General Miguel Primo de Rivera, dictator and prime minister of Spain 1923-1930, via ABC Historia


In 1923, with after-the-fact support from King Alfonso XIII, Captain General Miguel Primo de Rivera staged a military coup that overthrew the parliamentary government. De Rivera established himself as dictator of Spain, but Alfonso XIII legitimized him three days later by making him the prime minister. De Rivera resigned in early 1930 after losing the support of the king and the military.


De Rivera was followed by a general who was unable to return Spain to its normal constitutional order. King Alfonso then appointed General Juan Bautista Aznar-Cabañas as prime minister in February 1931. Aznar called for municipal elections to satisfy the democrats and republicans as well as to replace the dictatorship’s local governments and to reintroduce the restoration, which had established Spain as a constitutional monarchy in 1874. The municipal elections were held on April 12, 1931. Monarchist parties won in the overall polls, but republican candidates won in 41 provincial capitals, including Madrid and Barcelona.


The 1931 election result was viewed as a plebiscite on the monarchy, and street riots ensued. Government ministers were told that the military could not be relied upon to sustain the monarchy. King Alfonso XIII fled the country, and the Second Spanish Republic was proclaimed on April 14, 1931. The Second Spanish Republic lasted just over five years before the start of the Spanish Civil War.


The Beginning of the Ill-Fated Second Spanish Republic


Niceto Alcalá-Zamora y Torres served first as prime minister and then as president of Spain during the Second Spanish Republic. In May 1931, a taxi driver was attacked outside a monarchist club, an event that sparked anti-clerical riots throughout Madrid and the southwest of the country. The government’s slow response led those on the right to believe that the new government was willing to persecute the Church.


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Prime minister and president of Spain Niceto Alcalá-Zamora, 1931-1936, via La Vanguardia


In June and July, the CNT union called several strikes, which led to a brutal crackdown by the Civil Guard and the army against the CNT in Seville. Many workers believed the Second Spanish Republic was just as oppressive as the monarchy, and the CNT announced its intention to overthrow the new government in a revolution. Socialists and Republicans fared well in the general elections of June 1931.


Like many other countries, Spain suffered from the effects of the Great Depression. The new government introduced economic reforms, but these yielded mixed results. Landowners turned to counterrevolutionary organizations and local oligarchs. Strikes, arson, robbery, workplace theft, and assaults on shops, strikebreakers, employers, and machines became more frequent. The reforms of Zamora’s Republican-Socialist government discontented as many people as it satisfied.


In October 1931, Manuel Azaña Díaz became prime minister of a minority government. (Zamora resigned as prime minister in October and was elected president in December). Fascism remained a threat, and controversial military reforms kept this threat alive. In December, a new liberal, democratic, and reformist constitution was declared. Many moderate Catholics opposed the country’s secularization, which included abolishing Catholic schools and charities.


When the new constitution was approved, the constituent assembly should have arranged for regular parliamentary elections and adjourned itself. Instead, because it feared popular opposition, it postponed the regular elections for two years. In the government’s attempt to modernize Spain, in 1932, the Jesuits who ran the best schools in the country were banned and had their property confiscated. The army was reduced. Landowners had their property seized. Catalonia was granted home rule, which included a local parliament and its own president. In June 1933, the Pope issued an encyclical decrying the persecution of the Catholic Church in Spain.


The Right Wins the General Election of 1933

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A press re-creation of the Casas Viejas incident, 1933, via La Razón


Right-wing parties won the general election of November 1933. Resentment of the government’s land reform policies, the Casas Viejas incident, and the formation of a right-wing alliance (the Spanish Confederation of Autonomous Right-wing Groups [CEDA]) contributed to this election victory. The recent enfranchisement of women also increased the number of votes that went to the center-right.


The events after the November 1933 general election made a civil war more likely. The leader of the Radical Republican Party (RRP) formed a government that reversed many of the changes made by the previous government. Some monarchists joined the fascist-nationalist organization Falange Española. Open violence and militancy increased in the streets of Spanish cities. Around 100 people died in December 1933 in a small insurrection by anarchists in response to CEDA’s victory.


The following year, when CEDA was able to force the acceptance of three government ministries, the Socialists and Communists responded with an insurrection they had been preparing for nine months. The insurrection turned into a bloody revolutionary uprising against the existing order. The well-armed revolutionaries took the entire province of Asturias while murdering police officers, clergy, and civilians. They also destroyed religious buildings and parts of the university in Oviedo. The Spanish Navy and Spanish Republican Army needed two weeks to crush the rebellion.


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The Civil Guard with detainees in northern Spain, 1934, via Age of Revolutions


Like the anarchists, non-anarchist socialists denounced the existing political order as illegitimate. Reverses to land reform, changes to working conditions in the central and south countryside, and violence against farmworkers and socialists that resulted in deaths hardened the animosity between landowners and workers. Leftist workers found themselves fired, trade union and socialist militants were imprisoned, and working-class wages were reduced.


The Left Wins the General Election of 1936


President Zamora was hostile to the RRP government, and in February 1936, he called another general election. This time the Popular Front, an electoral alliance of various left-wing political organizations, won. The Popular Front included socialists, communists, republicans, Galician and Catalan nationalists, and trade unionists. In the day and a half after the election, over 50 people were killed in the unrest, and over one hundred churches and conservative political centers were attacked.


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Manuel Azaña Díaz, Prime Minister of Spain 1931-1933 and 1936; President of Spain 1936-1939, via NR Periodismo Alternativo


Manuel Azaña Díaz was called upon again to form a government (after being prime minister from 1931 to 1933). In April, Azaña was elected president of Spain by the Congress of Deputies because of a constitutional loophole. Those on the right became convinced that their left-leaning political opponents were no longer willing to follow the rule of law. They abandoned the parliamentary option and began planning to overthrow the republic.


Left-wing members of the Socialist Party (PSOE) publicized plans to convert Spain into a “socialist Republic in association with the Soviet Union” and warned about what the “organized proletariat” might achieve. Instead of communism or socialism, Spain descended into anarchy.


Between February and July 1936, there were more than 200 political assassinations in Spain. Waves of large-scale and sometimes violent and destructive strikes occurred, farmland was illegally seized in southern Spain, Catholic schools were arbitrarily closed, wanton arson and destruction of property took place, censorship was widespread, Catholic churches and property were seized, thousands were arrested arbitrarily, security forces were subverted, criminal activity by Popular Front party members went unpunished, the justice system was manipulated and politicized, and rightist organizations were arbitrarily dissolved. Spain was so polarized that instead of playing “cops and robbers,” Spanish children would play “leftist and rightist.”


The prime minister who replaced Azaña, Santiago Casares Quiroga, ignored warnings of a military conspiracy involving several generals. The generals had decided that the government needed to be replaced, or else they might witness the dissolution of Spain itself.


The Planning for the Military Coup That Kick-Started the Spanish Civil War

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General Emilio Mola, via Arte Historia


Various military officers began discussing the prospect of a coup soon after the Popular Front’s 1936 general election victory. The Republican government had tried to remove suspect generals from influential posts. General Emilio Mola was moved from head of the Army of Africa to military commander of Pamplona. This only enabled him to direct the uprising in mainland Spain. General Francisco Franco was moved from his position as Chief of the General Staff to military commander of the Canary Islands.


The revolt by the generals didn’t adhere to any particular political ideology. Its goal was to end anarchical disorder in Spain. Mola’s plan for the new regime was described as a “republican dictatorship” rather than a totalitarian fascist dictatorship. General José Sanjurjo would head this new regime, creating a “strong and disciplined state.” The 1931 constitution was to be suspended, but certain liberal elements would remain in place.


On June 23, 1936, General Franco wrote a letter to Prime Minister Casares indicating that the military was disloyal, but if Franco was put in charge, he could keep the military under control. Casares failed to act. Mola’s planning for the coup was becoming increasingly complex, and he didn’t believe that the troops based in Spain would be sufficient to take control of the country. In July, Franco, who was respected in the Army of Africa, was flown from the Canary Islands to Spanish Morocco. Franco had always believed that elite units from North Africa would be needed in the coup.


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General Francisco Franco, via La Vanguardia


On July 12, right-wing Falangists murdered a socialist police officer. The following day a leading Spanish monarchist and parliamentary conservative, José Calvo Sotelo, was assassinated in retaliation by a member of the state police. While political violence had been rife in Spain for years, this assassination was the catalyst that caused the generals to put their plan into action.


Before Sotelo’s assassination, Mola had estimated that only around 12% of Spanish officers supported the coup. Now there was high public disapproval of a government that didn’t even take action against Sotelo’s assassins. Others decided to join the rebellion because they believed that the state had shown that it could not be neutral. Meanwhile, the Socialists and Communists began to demand the distribution of arms to the general public before the military took over. Once again, Prime Minister Casares dithered.


Overview of the Spanish Civil War

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Map of the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939, via GifeX


The Spanish Civil War started on July 17, 1936. On the following day, the prime minister rejected an offer of help from the CNT and UGT to proclaim a general strike that would enable the union groups to mobilize. To start, the rebellious generals failed to take any major cities except Seville, which became a landing point for Franco’s African troops. When troops arrived from Africa, they also took the city of Cadiz. Mainly conservative and Catholic areas of Old Castile and Leon provinces quickly fell to the military rebels. Casares’ replacement as prime minister ordered the distribution of weapons to the civilian population. The army insurrectionists were defeated in cities like Madrid, Barcelona, and Valencia. Anarchists were able to take control of Barcelona along with large parts of Aragon and Catalonia.


The military rebels called themselves Nacionales, although the meaning was closer to “true Spaniards” than Nationalists. During the Spanish Civil War, those on the side of the elected government were known as Republicans. The Nationalists viewed themselves as defenders of Christian civilization against communists and anarchists. Republicans regarded the war to be a contest between tyranny and freedom.


Support on the Republic’s side ranged from centrists who endorsed a moderately capitalist liberal democracy to revolutionary anarchists who were against the Republic but were more strongly against the forces of the military coup. Urban workers, agricultural laborers, and some of the middle class filled Republican ranks. Strongly Catholic conservatives in the Basque country, much of Catholic Galicia, and the more left-leaning Catalonia all supported the Republicans because they offered the regions the opportunity for self-governance.


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Nationalist soldiers training in Pamplona, 1937, via The Past


On the Nationalists’ side were monarchists, Spanish nationalists, the fascist Falange organization, most political conservatives, monarchist liberals, a large part of the military, landowners, businessmen, and most Catholics outside the Basque region. By mid-1937, the Catholic Church gave its official blessing to the Franco regime. Franco had been named Generalísimo of the National Army and Head of State on October 1, 1936.


The only two countries that openly supported the Republicans were the Soviet Union and Mexico. Dozens of other countries remained neutral, although many, such as France, were sympathetic to the Republicans. Large numbers of Republican sympathizers were in the United Kingdom and the United States. Openly siding with the Nationalists were Italy’s Benito Mussolini and Germany’s Adolf Hitler, both of whom supplied the Nationalists with arms, troops, and aircraft.


The Spanish Civil War ended in 1939. On March 26, the Nationalists began a general offensive, and two days later, they occupied Madrid. By the last day of the month, the Nationalists controlled all Spanish territory. Franco announced his victory on the radio on April 1, 1939, when the last of the Republican forces had surrendered.


The Spanish Civil War: Prelude to World War II? 

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Hitler and Franco pictured together in October 1940, via La Vanguardia


Several historians have viewed the Spanish Civil War as a prelude to the Second World War. As in World War II, the Spanish Civil War saw one side fighting against fascists in a preview of Second World War alliances. In particular, Hitler’s military obtained invaluable experience by testing weapons it would later use in the Second World War and giving Luftwaffe fighters the opportunity to devise deadly air combat tactics.


While the Spanish Civil War galvanized international opinion against the growing fascist threat, Britain, France, and the United States failed to support the democratically elected Spanish government. It was the global left, less so democrats and liberals than socialists and communists, who sided with the Spanish Republicans. Roughly 40,000 foreign nationals from around 50 countries fought with the International Brigades, military units established by the Communist International to assist the Popular Front government during the Spanish Civil War.


Hitler tried to convince Franco’s Spain to join the Axis Powers during World War II, but Franco refused. Some of the themes that were significant contributing factors to the Spanish Civil War, such as the defense of Roman Catholicism, supporters of monarchism, and the avoidance of anarchy, were not influential factors in the Second World War. Other issues, such as nationalist movements, featured significantly as motivating factors for combatants in both the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War.


Although it didn’t enter the First World War, Spain was still substantially impacted by it economically, socially, and politically. A generation later, Spain remained neutral during the Second World War, but the outcome of the Spanish Civil War may have influenced the decision-makers in some of the pro-democracy countries that entered the Second World War by showing them what neutrality could lead to.

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By Stephanie JelksMPhil History, MA History, BA Political ScienceStephanie is currently a writer based in Montevideo. She earned her MPhil and MA in History from the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, as well as a BA in Political Science (with a minor in International Studies) from Truman State University in the US. In her free time she enjoys reading, traveling, and spending time with friends.