The Spanish Civil war is a suitable topic to study for 2020 IB History Guide and is a natural fit for the World history topic 11: Causes and effects of 20th century wars.

The Spanish Civil War of 1936 to 1939 was a class war, and a culture war. Competing visions of Spanish identity were superimposed on a bitter struggle over material resources, as the defenders of property, religion and tradition took up arms against a Republican government committed to social reform, devolution, and secularisation. —Frances Lannon, The Spanish Civil War

'A civil war is not a war but a sickness,' wrote Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. 'The enemy is within. One fights almost against oneself.' Yet Spain's tragedy in 1936 was even greater. It had become enmeshed in the international civil war, which started in earnest with the Bolshevik revolution. —From Antony Beevor, The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936−1936, 2006

The Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936 after more than a century of social, economic and political division. Half a million people died in this conflict between 1936 and 1939.

The prescribed content is below (2020 Guide):

I. Causes of war

  • Economic, ideological, political, territorial and other causes
  • Short-term and long-term causes

II. Practices of war and their impact on the outcome

  • Types of war: civil wars; wars between states; guerrilla wars
  • Technological developments; air, naval and land warfare
  • The extent of the mobilization of human and economic resources
  • The influence and/or involvement of foreign powers

III. Effects of war

  • The successes and failures of peacemaking
  • Territorial changes
  • Political impact: short-term and long-term
  • Economic, social and demographic impact; changes in the role and status of women

I. Causes of War


Long-term causes of the Spanish Civil War: political instability (1920−1931)

  • Struggle between conservatism and liberalism.

Weakness of government

  • 1871 onwards Spain was a constitutional monarchy with a parliament that retained little power.
  • Political control shifted between the wealthy oligarchs and their various cliques.
  • Two main parties, Conservatives and Liberals, with very little difference between them.
  • Elections were rigged or decided in private.

The role of the Spanish Army

  • Army had powerful political position due to imperial past.
  • It intervened in politics if a crisis occurred to defend its interests.
  • It was unpopular, had a reputation for brutality, and was expensive and required heavy taxes.
  • It was ineffective, as proven by the loss of the Spanish Empire during the 19th century, the American war in 1898, and the struggle to keep Morocco between 1906 to 1926.
  • It was too big with too many officers and overly middle class.
  • Army was conservationist, traditional, nationalistic and 'Africannistas.'

The role of the church

  • Catholic church was rich and powerful, with guaranteed role in education and the economy.
  • Its wealth was used to gain political and social influence!
  • It used its power for economic conservatism and to oppose modernising and liberal forces.
  • Defended the upper class as many of the clergy were aristocrats, who helped fund.
  • In many urban areas and rural areas there were protests against the church.

Economic causes

  • Spain was mainly an agricultural economy, and it was inefficient, thus not providing sufficient food and its work was seasonal.
  • Most lived in abject poverty, with an enormous gap between rich and poor.
  • Rioting and disorder often broke out in the countryside, with the Civil Guard deployed to ruthlessly repress.
  • No support from churches made some groups support the anarchists who argued for land redistribution.
  • Many small landholders were conservative, resisted socialist/anarchist ideas, and were exploited by the Catholic Agrarian Federation who provided support for their beliefs, only to later support Franco.
  • There was a need for modernisation and reform, and was limited by endemic poverty.
  • Workers in towns faced low wages, long hours, unregulated working conditions, poor housing, and little welfare provision.
  • This situation led to a growth in trade unionism, which, however, failed to achieve anything substantial.
  • The workers' political parties had no real political power, with no legal means and violent uprisings.
  • Spain's neutrality during WWI facilitated a short period of economic boom, however the increase in exports only increased inflation and shortages.
  • By 1920s, there were major economic problems.

The role of regions

  • Tension created by ongoing struggle between the centralist state and Catalonia and Basque provinces, which wanted decentralization and independence.
  • The two regions had their own languages, cultures, economies, and churches.
  • Primo de Rivera took back the self-governing rights of Catalonia, and separatists forces supported the Republican movement that overthrew Alfonso in 1931

Political opposition

  • Liberal movement achieved little in opposing conservative forces, though remained a political force and supported the revolution that ousted the King in 1931.
  • Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) had grown in rural areas but had minimal impact.
  • General Union of Workers (UGT) was more visible in organizing strikes/protests in rural areas.
  • Following the Bolshevik revolution, a Communist Party emerged.
  • Anarchists demanded land redistribution; popular with peasants.
  • Anarchists argued for revolutionary methods and to boycott democratic processes.
  • More extreme anarchists (FAI) perpetrated bombings and assassinations.

The fall of the monarchy and the establishment of the Second Republic

  • Post WWI economic depression and social tensions put pressure on King Alfonso XIII, and after 12 unsuccessful governments, a coup was thrown (1931, General Primo de Rivera).
  • De Rivera tried to establish an authoritarian right-wing regime; started infrastructure programmes for railways, roads, electrification, irrigation.
  • Ended war in Morocco in 1925.
  • All his efforts to satisfy various social groups created massive debt and was not good when Wall Street Crashed in 1929.
  • Resigned in 1930, and after municipal elections in April 1931, there was support for San Sebastian Pact (republicans, liberals, socialists, Catalans) coalition.
  • 'Velvet revolution' occurred and the Second Republic was established as the King went into voluntary exile.

Short-term causes of the Spanish Civil War: political polarisation

  • Between 1931 and 1936 Spain became polarised due to the long-term structural problems and clear divisions.
  • Paul Preston: "no-one, except a tiny minority on the lunatic fringe on the extreme right or left, believe that Spain's problems could be solved only by war."

The Left Republic (April 1931−November 1933)

  • When Manuel Azaña became president he declared a "democratic republic of workers of all classes."
  • Key issue of tension before 'velvet revolution' in 1931 was the church's power.
  • Azaña removed powers from the Church, prevented its control in education, and state payments to the clergy stopped.
  • Army also affected; Azaña offered early retirement and closed military academies - this all backfired as those who remained were hard-core conservatives, nationalists, and Africanistas.
  • Depression exacerbated the economic problems; agriculture prices were falling, wine and olive exports fell, peasant unemployment was rising, industrial output fell by as much as a half (steel).
  • In 1932, law allowed estates to be taken over and redistributed to peasants, however it was expensive and ineffective; only 7,000 families benefited by 1933.
    • Right wing saw all this as a threat and similar to the Soviet-style system.
  • Government introduced Assault Guard to increase left-wing military force to deal with civil unrest and violence.
  • Both the left and right were rising against the slow pace of change, however these were suppressed as the army were loyal.
  • Catalonia given its own parliament, some law-making powers, and dual control over education.
    • Right-wing saw this as a threat and the first step to break-up Spain's integrity.
  • Each reform was perceived as an attack on right-wing groups, causing new groups to protect against these changes.
  • Political divisions increased under Second Republic.
  • Historians see the land reforms as the central failing of the government in this period, however Paul Preston argues right-wing were never going to give Azaña a choice.
  • Azaña lost left-wing, working-class support and resigned in 1933 after government guards 'smoked out' anarchists, killing 25.

The Right Republic (November 1933−February 1936)

  • Republic swung right wing, members of CEDA (largest party) became war ministers.
  • These two years are known as the "black years" as right-wing systematically tried to reverse everything; Church regained power, education, and land programme was halted.
  • Catalonia declared itself independent when CEDA joined the government, but autonomy was suspended after Asturian miners' uprising 1934.
  • Historians argued that violent suppression of left uprising created likelihood for civil war.
  • Right lost support from Basques.
  • Caballero suggested CEDA was Spanish Nazi party, and seek solution to Soviet-style Spain.
  • Gil-Robles demanded shift to an authoritarian approach of control, which led to ...
  • February 1936, 'Popular Front' was an anti-fascist pact made up of various left-wing groups including socialists, anarchists and communists.
  • Identical front as Stalin's policy in 1935.
  • For many, it was final attempt to uphold democracy and peace, others associated it with Stalin and extreme communism.
  • Government wanted to restore reforms of 1931-33 regime; political prisoners released.
  • Caballero's socialists did not join government and right did not accept restoration of old reforms.
  • Increase in violence in the countryside as anarchists encourage peasants to seize land.

Immediate causes of the Spanish Civil War

  • Military officers began planning a coup as soon as Popular Front gained power
  • Catalyst of the coup was the murder of popular anti-republican, right-wing leading figure Calvo Sotelo on 13 July 1936.
  • Azaña knew about the coup and moved key military figures to remote posts.
  • When details about the coup were discovered, it was made a day earlier on the 17th of July, from Morocco.
  • Spread to mainland, took northern Spain and parts of Andalusia.
  • Rising failed to take main industrial areas, or Madrid.
  • Half of the army remained loyal to Republic, coup technically unsuccessful.



Historiography: The historian Paul Preston argued that: ‘... in 1931 when the Second Republic was established, no one, except a tiny minority on the lunatic fringe on the extreme right or left, believed that Spain’s problems could be solved only by war.’:

Task: In pairs discuss Preston’s quote, here are some questions to help you:

  1. What is Preston's point in your own words?
  2. Does Preston imply long (before '31) or short term causes (after '31) were more to blame for the outbreak of war?
  3. What extent do you agree that the long term divisions in Spanish society did not make a civil war inevitable after 1931?

II. The course of the Spanish Civil War

  • With assistance of Nazi Germany, Franco airlifed 24,000 Spanish troops from Africa to Spain, using a policy of terror has the main force against Madrid.
  • Coup aimed to crush the 'left revolution,' but actually politicised and radicalised many Spaniards towards the left.
  • Supporters of the Republican regime (1936) were 'Loyalists,' and rebels called themselves 'Nationalists.'
  • Workers supported Republic, and middle, upper class and the church supported Nationalists.
  • Nationalists did make some progress, but the Republicans controlled major cities, key industrial areas, Spain's gold reserves, and important elements of the military (air force and navy).
  • Nationalists, slowly, pushed back the Republic.

Why did the Nationalists win the Spanish Civil War?


Republican weaknesses


Political disunity

  • Republicans were politically divided and subscribed to different ideologies; between the Communists and Socialists who both believed the 'revolution' should be postponed until after the war and the Anarchists who argued the war can only be won through a revolution.
  • Historians argue that the Anarchists' 'revolution from below' added a crucial hurdle for the Republic to regain centralised control, with more influence in Madrid and Valencia.
  • War increased in popularity with communists; July 1936 40,000 members, October 1937 400,000 members.
  • Republic had clear foreign support from USSR.
  • Communists wanted victory in war, anarchists wanted revolutionary regime.
  • Communists used 'terror' tactics.
  • Four days of street fighting in Barcelona 1937 - communists and socialists versus the anarchists illustrated the lack of unity.
  • After May Days (see above), the Worker's Party of Marxist Revolution took up a authoritarian regime.

Military problems

  • Lacked strong military and no unified command.
  • Anarchists and communists would not work together.
  • Basques refused to be led by a central command structure and would not permit their forces outside of their own territory.
  • Loyal army forces were not trusted by the Republic.
  • Military fought series of local battles instead of overall campaign and this meant they could not be supported by the airforces, or to sustain an offensive campaign.
  • Only until end of 1939 that Republicans started to replace militias with 'Popular Army'.

Economic problems

  • Areas under the anarchists were the industries, public utilities and transport - these were taken over by workers' committees, however they were unable to meet the demands of the war.
  • Historians argue that this was not due to a badly run government but due to the war, however the government is partially to blame.
  • Production fell by two-thirds between 1936 to 1939, with many food and raw material shortages.
  • Inflation was a problem; rose 300% during the war.
  • The Non-Intervention Committee (NIC) was set up by France and Britain in 1936.
    • Prevented an influx of support for warring parties in Spain, making the Republic lose all credit and USSR was the only willing trader.
  • Paul Preston: communist control ultimately improved the situation by centralising control, but too late to save Republic.

Foreign assistance

  • Role of foreign aid was exaggerated, but aid given to Republic was far less than that of the Nationalists.
  • Republic's main ally was USSR, who saved them and enabled it to fight the civil war by supplying aircraft (1,000) and tanks (750), but the Republic had to pay for this.
  • No Soviet troops were sent.
  • International Brigades were another ally, organised by Soviet Comintern, with 35,000 volunteers sent to fight in Spain.
    • Had very little overall impact, only in Madrid.
  • 1938, Soviets withdrew support and International Brigades went home, major blow for Republic.
  • France sent aid initially, but stopped when it joined the NIC - this was driven by anti-communist sentiments.
  • Francisco J .Romero Salvadó (on NIC): "preserved consensus [in France] and [avoided] confrontation with Germany and Italy."

Nationalist strengths


Political unity

  • 1936, Nationalists almost dived as Republics; but had a common aim of overthrowing the government.
  • Franco assumed political and military control and became head of government and head of state.
    • Due to his position in command of the Army of Africa because important German aid came through him.
  • Merged two parties into the Spanish Traditionalist Phalanax (FET).
  • Franco used a mixture of propaganda and terror in areas under his control.
    • Historians argue that Soviet involvemenet led to this, however others suggest it was power and authority gained during the war.
  • Supported by the church which denounced atheist communism and called for a crusade to protect Christian civilisation.
  • Nationalistic politics of Franco were not undermined by foreign support from Germany or Italy.

Military unity

  • Nationalists had similar problems to the Republicans with regard to 'columns' of militias, however these were quickly put into a regular army unit.
  • The Army of Africa fought for the Nationalists and were the most effective force in the Civil War.
  • Had unified command and Franco's leadership was accepted by other generals and right-wing parties.
  • Italian forces under Nationalist command.
  • Successful in pushing on and winning offensives, and adopted effective defensive tactics.
  • Had sound communications, and equipped the growing army.
  • Franco's concern for his troops ensured the majority were obedient.
  • Franco was a sound military and political leader.

Economic advantage

  • Business communist supported Nationalists; could buy supplies.
  • By September 1936, Nationalists in control of main food-producing areas.
  • 1937, in control of main industrial areas.
  • Benefited from International trade, with the USA giving about $700 million credit to Nationalists.

Foreign assistance

  • Hugh Thomas: conflict 'became an international crisis whose solution was decided by external circumstances.'
  • Rebels benefited from more aid, which were better quality than those of the Republicans, and had continuous supply.
  • German's airlifted Moroccan soldiers and sent 10,000 troops, 800 aircraft, 200 tanks.
  • Italians sent 70,000+ troops, 750 planes, 800 aircraft, 200 tanks.
  • Portuguese sent 20,000 troops.
  • All aid allowed Nationalists to fight, and gave them air dominance.
  • Most of Nationalist army was Spanish, and was modern and equipped.

Overview: foreign intervention

  • Foreign intervention lengthened and intensified the war.
  • It meant Spanish issues were submerged by wider ideological battles taking place in Europe.


  • Feared the war would become a general European conflict so set up the NIC.
  • However, 3 key members of the NIC ignored the NIC.
  • Britain's not interventionist policies were limited and generally supported the Nationalists.
  • December 1936, signed a trade agreement with Nationalists to allow for trade.
  • Britain did not want to damage relations with Italy or Portugal.
  • Spain was sacrificed to the policy of appeasement like Czechoslovakia.


  • Support for Republic was inconsistent, and reflected complexity of its position towards the war.
  • French did not want a right-wing border (joining Italy and Germany), but French politics were also polarised, fearing a revolt if it fully supported Spain.
  • France was reliant on Britain, which was anti-Republic for its foreign policies.
  • France restricted themselves to humanitarian assistance.
  • Republic would have benefited from France as it was on its border.
  • The Republic's reliance on the Soviet polarised politics and associated it with 'Soviet communism.'
  • France did not stop citizens joining the International Brigades, which was organised in France, just like the coordination of Soviet aid.


  • Support not just because of ideological reasons.
  • Emergence of another fascist state in Europe would strengthen Hitler's position - threat to Stalin.
  • Republic victory could panic Britain and France into an alliance with Hitler.
    • Wanted to form an alliance with Britain and France to contain Hitler.
  • Stalin originally welcomed the NIC, but Germany and Italy's treatment of NIC, Stalin withdrew in October 1936.
  • Some historians argue that Franco protracted the war to enhance his power, but Stalin had a tendency to drag fighting out.
  • Drained resources from Germany, making it less likely to turn into a general war.
  • Stalin withdrew support in June 1938, as the Republic seemed to be losing and Western democracies were appeasing fascist dictaros.
  • Stalin wanted to create a block to resist Hitler ended with Czechoslovakia being blocked at Munich agreement, September 1938.


  • Germany not ready for general European war and was cautious when rebels appealed for help.
  • Hermann Göring decided to support rebels, as he and Hitler wanted to stop the spread of communism, and wanted to test out the Luftwaffe.
  • Economic and strategic benefits; raw materials (iron) could be gained, and could hamper Anglo-French maritime communications.
  • Hitler thought the war would not last long, committed limited aid.
  • Ignored NIC, even though it was a member.
  • Germany played a crucial military role at critical times and other governments deterred from getting involved due to its presence.


  • Gave most assistance as Mussolini was anti-comminist/-socialist and democratic outlook, he wanted to enhance his influence in Mediterranean, and a fascist victory would weaken France and prevent French left-wing influence.
  • Another fascist power would encircle France, pressurising French colonies in North Africa.
  • Contributed many planes, tanks, weapons, bombers, and submarines.
    • Historians argue that despite massive troop support, its most effective support was air and naval.
  • Italy ignored membership of NIC.
  • Relationship between Italy and Germany were cemented in Spain.


  • Only foreign force not compromised by membership of NIC.
  • Sent 20,000 troops and fundamental supplier of rebels in the south-west.
  • Provided a base for communications.
  • Britain's long-term alliance with Portugal made the British reluctant to count its support for Nationalists.

The nature of the Spanish Civil War

  • For foreign powers it was limited, for the Spanish it was total civil war.
  • Propaganda was used to dehumanise the enemy.
  • Atrocities were common.
  • The targeting of civilians was a premonition of what was to come in WWII - no lines drawn between civilian and combatant.
  • Some cases, cavalry charges proved effective, such as in Teruel in February 1938.
  • Other case, such as the crushing of Republican offensives in 1938 to 1938 with combined arms and air strikes showed the importance of technology.
  • Neither side could consistently gain air control.
  • Control of sea was important especially for supply routes.
  • Battles on land were similar to that of WWI with defense remained easier than attack.
  • Casualties were high, with attackers gaining little hand.
  • Blitzkrieg was evolving with application of tanks, artillery, and air bombardment.
  • It was not a guerrilla war because, from Antony Beevor, "the conditions for a universal guerrilla war simply did not exist."

III. Effects and results of the Spanish Civil War − Spain


Human cost

  • 100,000 Republicans were killed
  • 70,000 Nationalists were killed
  • Killing continued after war, as Franco launched terror campaign to eradicate competition (estimated death toll 40,000-200,000).
  • Thousands Republicans were held in concentration camps and prisons.
  • Republican children were taken from parents to be re-educated. this meant many families were separated
  • Divisions and hatred remained in Spanish society for decades.

Economic cost

  • 10-15% of wealth was destroyed; per capita income declined 28%; 70% of Madrid's factory machinery need to be replaced.
  • Madrid's communication systems, tram network needed rebuilding.
  • Two-thirds of merchant ships out of action.
  • High inflation.
  • Republican land reform reversed.
  • Agricultural economy was inefficient and ineffective.
  • Labourers tolerated periodic unemployment, and landowners not interested in modernisation.
  • Massive debts.
  • General labour shortage.
  • Economy improved due to outbreak of WW2; Franco began trading with Britain and France again.
  • Germany's exploitation of Spain's economy during WWII weakened the economy.
  • France and Britain's loan to Spain gave it influence in Spanish politics.
  • Suffered a famine in 1946, and was fairly isolated during the war.
  • During the Cold War, Spain became less isolated with reforms in the 1950s and 1960s developing a capitalist state.
  • Spain industralised and developed a strong service industry.

Political effects

  • Paul Preston: "as if it were a country occupied by a victorious foreign army."
  • Franco had declared the country safe of Communism and began White Terror in order to destroy all other traces.
    • Exodus of half a million Spaniards and murder of thousands of Republicans.
  • Teachers, lawyers, researches, doctors, writers, poets, artists, and musicians fled the country.
  • 1939, Law of Political Responsibility made supports of Republic liable to punishment.
  • Objective of new regime to restore power to the privileged class and control the working class.
  • CNT and UGT destroyed.
  • Inequalities of social and working system in rural areas were reversed and preserved by Civil Guard.
  • 1950s was an 'era of the national church' as Church reforms were repealed.
  • Frances Lannon: "The Catholic Church enjoyed a degree of state support that was much greater than at any time since the 18th century. Government and church combined to preach order, hierarchy, and discipline. The counter-revolution had triumphed."
  • Patricia Knight: Church's creation of links to worker's movements was an attempt to infiltrate and prevent any resurgent communist groups.
  • Use of Catalan, Basque, and Galician languages were forbidden.
  • All power centralised in Madrid.
  • Paul Preston: "behind the rhetoric of national and social unity, until the death of Franco every effort was made to maintain the division between the victors and the vanquished."
  • Suppression and removal of political opposition created economic stability.
  • Army lost its pre-eminence in society after Morocco gained independence in 1946.
  • The country became 'frozen in time' as no moderinsation took place for 36 years.

Effects and results of the Spanish Civil War


USSR and communism

  • After the Communist defeat in Spain, international credibility had been lost.
  • Stalin's contribution caused divisions within the left wing and disillusioned supporters of the USSR.
  • Lost intellectual sympathy from West.
  • Pushed foreign policy away from potential western alliances against Germany, only one to appease Germany.
  • After NIC, obvious that Britain and France would not ally with Hitler's expansionist ambitions.
  • Stalin became closer, possible ally by December 1937.
  • Munich Agreement in September 1938 was turning point as Britain sacrificed Czechoslovakia and Spain to appease Germany.

Hilter's Germany and Mussolini's Italy

  • Importance of air power and effectiveness of applying air cover for ground troops in Blitzkrieg.
  • Germans tested bullet-resistant fuel tanks and discovered possible improvements.
  • Bombing of civilians was effective.
  • All these made differences to Hitler's 1939-40 campaign.
  • However, Italians defeated at Guadalajara, Blitzkreig did not work.
  • Germany and Italy grew closer.
  • The NIC, Britain's pursuit of appeasement, all strengthened Hitler's position.

Britain and France

  • Spanish civilians who were bombed made it clear that a general European war would witness horrors unlike the scale seen before.
  • Polarised political view of appeasement; some thought warring factions should battle it without dragging democracies into conflict.
  • "Weakness" of Britain and France over Spain, and their policy of appeasement, led Hitler to change perception of Britain - 1938 lost respect and the NIC made Hitler more aggressive.


  • Remained neutral, yet horrified by the atrocities of the Spanish Civil War.
  • The civil war strengthened isolationist sentiment.
  • Roosevelt, October 1937: "Quarantine the Aggressors."
  • Called for economic sanctions against Franco in 1946. All members broke up diplomatic relations.
  • Spain excluded from Marshall Aid.
  • 1951, Eisenhower agreed to grant aid to Spain in return for using air base.
  • Spain became a US ally and permitted to join the UN.

Was the Spanish Civil War a cause of World War II?

  • It emboldened Hitler by increasing his popularity at home and abroad.
  • Hitler drew closer to his former enemy, Italy.
  • Hitler gained practical military lessons that he would later apply in the campaigns of 1940. It was a distraction for Britain and pushed the USA further into isolation.
  • If fostered a new direction for Soviet foreign policy, meaning that there could be no broad alliance in Europe to contain Hitler.
  • A. J. P. Taylor: The Spanish Civil War was "without significant effect" in causing WWII.