The Spanish Civil War

by Stewart Hunter 

This article originally appeared 5 years ago in The Democratic Green Socialist magazine and is republished here with the kind permission of the author.

My birthday on the 28th of March 1939 was also that same sad day, 70 years ago, when the brave anti fascist Madrileños, whose passionate cry of ‘No Pasaran’ had inspired democrats and anti fascists as it echoed round the world, were forced to surrender the heroic City of Madrid, and General Franco’s fascist troops finally entered the city.

Two of my father’s friends went out to Spain with the Scottish Ambulance Unit and he had planned to join them, but was prevented from doing so by ill health. So as a lad the Spanish Civil War was always a favourite topic of my father’s conversation. From the street where I was brought up, the Garngad in Townhead, Glasgow, six volunteers went out to Spain to fight in the International Brigades. Despite its small population, Scotland provided a disproportionate number of volunteers for the International Brigades, more than 500 in all.

Many were active Communists and trade unionists, but others simply saw the need to defend democracy and to save the Spanish working class from being overrun by fascism. The Independent Labour Party (ILP) also sent volunteers to fight in Spain, in the POUM militias. Other Scots went to Spain as part of The Scottish Ambulance Unit’s and some served as nurses in Spanish hospitals. Two Glasgow anarchist women, Ethel MacDonald and Jenny Patrick, both members of Guy Aldred’s United Socialist Movement, went to Spain in 1937, where Ethel broadcast English language news reports from the CNT’s ‘Radio Barcelona’, and Jenny sent back press reports to Scotland about the situation in Spain. intbrigade

The International Brigades came into existence through a decision taken by the Comintern, who instructed Communist Parties to organise volunteers to fight in Spain. Most volunteers were active communists, but many others came from socialist or reformist parties like the ILP and British Labour Party and many trade union activists also joined.

The Brigades were made up of battalions from individual or neighbouring countries. They participated in all the major battles of the war, from the defence of Madrid through to the final offensive across the River Ebro. Fighting with great determination and courage, they gained the respect and affection of every Republican Spaniard.

Historical background to the Spanish Civil War

Many of the complex social issues and underlying historical events leading up to the Spanish Civil War have long since become dimmed by the hazy mists of time. The successes of the Castilian aristocracy during the Reconquista led directly to the creation of the huge estates of the latifundistas in the parts of Spain formerly ruled by the Moors, and to the authoritarian, autocratic and centralist methods of governance, favoured by both the monarchy and the political right.

Some of the ideas that inspired the competing ideologies of the left can also be traced back in time, possibly as far back as the Celt Iberians of pre Roman times, who practiced a form of communal land tenure not unlike the Run Rig systems found in other Celtic and north European societies. Libertarian ideas were also brought back from the New World by Jesuit missionaries, whose tales of the primitive communism practiced by many native Amerindian tribes, may well have planted the seeds that later blossomed into a widespread sympathy for libertarian anarchist and socialist ideas.

In 1868 a pronuncimienta (military coup) removed Queen Isabella II from the throne. Her many affairs, mainly with young army officers, had brought the monarchy into disrepute. However anecdotes prevalent at the time suggest that the main reason for the army’s displeasure, and what led them to depose the Queen, was simply because her latest lover hadn’t been a member of the elite Guards Regiment!

In the same year that Queen Isabella II was deposed by the army, the socialist ideas of the First International first appeared in Spain. An Italian engineer, Giuseppe Fanelli arrived in Barcelona, and despite being unable to speak any Spanish, Fanelli was soon spreading the revolutionary anarchist ideas of Bakunin in French and Italian! Three years later, after making his escape from the aftermath of the Paris Commune, Paul Lafargue, the son in law of Karl Marx, reached Spain and began to spread the rival socialist ideology of Marxism.

These competing strands of socialist thought found a receptive audience and were soon spreading like wildfire among the heavily exploited urban working class and a hungry and downtrodden Spanish peasantry. A pronuncimienta in 1873 removed King Amadeo I, and so the First Spanish Republic came into being. Led by liberals who favoured a federalist constitution, the First Republic only lasted for twenty three months. Beset by deep divisions between the Liberals and Radicals in the Cortés (parliament), civil unrest in the cities, revolutionary strikes, murders, and subversion within the army, the Republic was in disarray.

Another pronuncimienta in 1874 ended the short lived First Republic; the restoration of Alphonso XII was as a constitutional monarchy. With the monarch retaining the right to appoint the prime minister and make appointments to the Senate. This greatly increased the powers of the Cortés but still fell far short of the liberal ideal of democratic universal suffrage. Women were still denied the franchise, and the electorate was strictly limited by property qualifications. Elections, particularly in rural areas, were blighted by widespread intimidation and electoral fraud, initiated by the caciques (political chiefs) in the pay of the latifundistas (big landowners). The foregoing periods saw the rise of a new ruling class, who imbued with liberal ideas, introduced some badly needed reforms, and confiscated many of the huge estates and properties previously owned by the Catholic Church.

These new liberal and anti clerical masters of Spain, many of whom were Freemasons, soon enriched themselves by buying up the former Church lands and properties at ‘bargain prices’, turning themselves into a new grande bourgeoisie. This was the closest Spain had ever come to a classic ‘bourgeois revolution’. The Spanish army which had for centuries been a sinecure for the feckless sons of the aristocracy, was now the favoured vehicle for upwards social mobility by the sons of the middle classes, and could be a route to fame and fortune if they were lucky enough to be posted to the overseas colonies. As a result the army had become top heavy, with few of its officers gaining any real military experience, except for the small minority serving in the colonies. Its main function at home was to maintain order and quell any uprisings against the government or monarchy. The military garrisons in effect acted like an army of occupation over their own people!

In 1923, following a disastrous defeat by the tribesmen of Abd-el-Krim in Morocco and with strikes, instability, widespread violence and political murders at home, a further pronuncimienta abolished the Senate (upper house) and installed the military dictatorship of Miguel Primo de Rivera and two subsequent brief dictatorships which continued in power until 1930.

Miguel Primo de Rivera

Miguel Primo de Rivera

As a result the army had become top heavy, with few of its officers gaining any real military experience, except for the small minority serving in the colonies. Its main function at home was to maintain order and quell any uprisings against the government or monarchy. The military garrisons in effect acted like an army of occupation over their own people!In 1923, following a disastrous defeat by the tribesmen of Abd-el-Krim in Morocco and with strikes, instability, widespread violence and political murders at home, a further pronuncimienta abolished the Senate (upper house) and installed the military dictatorship of Miguel Primo de Rivera and two subsequent brief dictatorships which continued in power until 1930.


In his role as Minister for War in the 1931 government, Manuel Azaña carried out wide reaching reforms, drastically reducing the size of the army. At that time there were approximately165, 000 soldiers, 22,000 officers, and 500 generals in the Spanish army, a ratio of 1 general and 44 officers to every 330 soldiers! (Azaña’s reform of the army was probably a factor in the military uprising of 18th July 1936 when he was President of the Republic.)

The success of the various republican parties in the 1931 municipal elections, where they swept the board in most of the cities, despite right wing and monarchist reactionaries claiming victory in the areas under the control of the political caciques. The King seeing the writing on the wall packed his bags and went into exile, just as the republicans were proclaiming the birth of the Spanish Second Republic.

Following a turbulent period of strikes, civil disorder and an attempted coup d’état in 1932, led by General Sanjuro, commander of the hated Civil Guard, an uprising took place in the Asturias region in 1934. It began as a general strike led by miners from the socialist UGT. Despite support from the CNT and anarchists they were unable to spread the uprising, which was put down with great brutality and bloodshed by a young General Franco and the Moorish troops under his command.

Republic, revolution and civil war

By 1936 the left, after suffering two electoral defeats by the Republican right, formed a Popular Front to fight the 1936 election. Many CNT members and anarchists, usually staunch anti-parliamentarians with an intense suspicion and distaste for any form of State power, turned out to vote for the Popular Front. This gave the left a narrow majority and saw them take power for the first time. On 18th July 1936 a well organised coup d’état took place against the left Republican government. 

The insurgency was led by General Sanjuro, now exiled in Portugal, and was directed by General Mola, supported by Generals Fanjul, Franco, and Goded, along with other senior, middle ranking and many junior army officers. Most Civil Guards, Assault Guards and carabineros, joined the Nationalist uprising. They were also joined by the fascist Falange militias, monarchist’s, Carlistrequetes, and supported by the CEDA (Catholic conservative party), and the Spanish Catholic Church and most of its clergy.

spancivwarWhen the insurgency began on 18th of July, the Republican government of Prime Minister Santiago Casares Quiroga was in total disarray, left wing demonstrations and calls from left socialist leader Largo Caballero to arm the workers were ignored. Later that day Quiroga resigned and was replaced by Diego Martinez Barrio.

Immediately he had formed his new government, Barrio tried to negotiate with General Mola, offering him many concessions and inducements, but to no avail, and following large public demonstrations he too resigned on the 19th July. Barrio was replaced by left Republican José Giral, a friend of the Republic’s President Manuel Azaña. He immediately gave orders for the arsenals to be opened and for the workers to be armed!

In Madrid General Fanjul was ensconced in the Montana barracks, supported by its garrison and a sizeable group of Falangists. The barracks were soon surrounded by a large contingent of armed Madrileños workers, mainly socialists and UGT members and by Assault Guards who had remained loyal to the Republic. Before long the garrison raised white flags, but as the workers advanced towards the barracks they came under fire. Some bitter fighting then took place and on the 20th July the defenders finally surrendered.

The angry workers exacted retribution by executing several of their officers! Madrid had been saved for the Republic. In Barcelona the fighting was much fiercer, but the Civil Guard and Assault Guards had remained loyal to the Republic. Luis Companys, President of the Catalan Generalitat (Catalan parliament) refused to carry out Prime Minister Giral’s instructions to arm the workers, but some Assault Guards started to hand out rifles from their own armouries.

Rebel officers in the Castle of Montjuich were shot by soldiers of the garrison, who then opened up their armoury to the militant CNT workers. With the police now on their side, the anarchists, and CNT having collected every weapon available, made up improvised tanks by fitting armour plating and sandbags to lorries and cars. The armed workers, and police were now able to resist and overcome the cavalry and artillery regiments that had been ordered to attack them.

The loyalist commander of the nearby airport Colonel Diaz Sandino ordered his aircraft to conduct bombing raids on any remaining pockets of fascist resistance. General Goded surrendered and the only major garrison still holding out was at the Atarazanas barracks. The anarchists led by Buenaventura Durruti insisted that they should have the honour of finishing the job and with the stirring cry of Adelante hombres de la CNT’ Durruti led his comrades in the final successful, but wasteful and foolhardy assault! Now Barcelona too had been saved for the Republic.

The insurgent’s original plan to bring the Army of Africa across the Straits of Gibraltar by sea, was thwarted by the decisive action of loyalist sailors, who arrested their officers as soon as they discovered that they supported the insurgency. Other naval officers had remained loyal to the Republican government. This setback to the insurgents plans was overcome with the help of Hitler and Mussolini, and soon German and Italian aircraft began ferrying troops of the Spanish Foreign Legion and Moorish regulares from Morocco across to Southern Spain, where despite some stiff resistance from a few loyalist military commanders, trade unionists and local anti fascists, much of southern Spain was soon in the insurgent’s hands.

The death of General Sanjuro in a plane crash as he took off to join the insurgency on July 20th 1936, and the execution of General Goded and General Fanjul by the Republicans for their part in the uprising, and the death of General Mola in another plane crash in June 1937, left  General Francisco Franco with no serious rivals to challenge his leadership of Nationalist Spain.The heroic struggle to defend the city of Madrid against the fascist insurgents, started with militias spontaneously set up by the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE), the Anarchist Federation (FAI) and their associated trade unions, the UGT (socialist) and CNT (anarcho syndicalist), and the Communist Fifth Regiment. They were soon to be followed by the first small units of the International Brigades, who achieved legendary status by the courage they displayed during the initial defence of Madrid, and later by units of a reorganised, mainly Communist led popular army.

General Francisco Franco

General Francisco Franco

Many brave men and women died in the bitter fighting that took place defending Madrid, including the popular and charismatic anarchist militia commander Buenaventura Durruti, who inspired so many revolutionaries when he said “We are not afraid of ruins, we are going to inherit the earth. The bourgeoisie may blast and ruin their world before they leave the stage of history. But we carry a new world in our hearts” During the siege of Madrid rousing speeches delivered by Communist deputy Dolores Ibárruri, popularly known as La Pasionaria, Inspired both defenders and the civilian inhabitants of the city.  


She is credited with the slogan “The fascists shall not pass! No Pasaran”, which was soon on the lips of every anti fascist. Her other popular slogans included, “It is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees.” The battle for Madrid lasted from October 1936 until two days before the official ending of the Spanish Civil War on 1st April 1939. As well as combatants many Madrileños civilians died from the constant fascist shelling and bombing raids conducted by the German Condor Legion. Several major battles were fought in defence of Madrid, at Jarama, Brunete, Guadalajara and Teruel, whenever the fascists had tried to capture, encircle or cut off communications between Madrid and Valencia, where the government of the Republic had moved to for safety.

The failure of the ‘democracies’ like France, Great Britain and the United States to allow the legitimate, democratically elected Spanish Republican government to purchase badly needed arms, munitions and supplies, their obvious sympathy with Franco and a  policy of ‘Non Intervention’, led to Republican Spain suffering a virtual blockade throughout the entire period of the civil war. These ‘democracies’ turned a blind eye to the huge amount of materiel and logistic support the Spanish fascists received from Mussolini, Hitler and the Portuguese dictator Salazar, who provided transport, armaments, munitions, and large numbers of soldiers and airmen to fight for the insurgency.

US corporations like Standard Oil and Texaco provided the fascists with huge amounts of oil on credit and General Motors, Ford, and Studebaker all supplied them with large numbers of motor vehicles! Following the army’s attempted seizure of power on 18th July 1936 the left socialists of the PSOE/UGT, left communists of the POUM and the anarchists of the FAI/CNT, saw the 19th July as the beginning of the Spanish Revolution! Large areas of the countryside were collectivised as the large estates of the aristocracy and nouveaux riche were taken over by impoverished peasants and run as collectivist communes. In some cases they even went as far as abolishing the use of money! In Barcelona, which had a strong socialist, left communist and anarchist tradition, many aspects of administration, distribution, manufacturing, retailing and transport were taken over by Worker’s Committees and run as collectives or co-operatives.

Stalinist betrayal

The Stalinist Spanish Communist Party (PCE) was vehemently opposed to turning resistance to Franco’s attempted coup d’état into a full blown revolution. They hoped to gain support from France, the USA and the United Kingdom by proclaiming that they were fighting to maintain the Spanish Republic’s ‘parliamentary democracy’ As the war progressed, the Spanish Republic had became increasingly dependent on arms and munitions supplied by the Soviet Union, who along with essential supplies were now providing military advisors, tanks and aircraft complete with Russian crews. A Spanish secret police service (SIM) was set up by soviet experts, based on the NKVD pattern and before long they had introduced their own ‘red terror’, with secret prisons and the widespread torture and murder of prisoners.

As Soviet influence increased large numbers of petit bourgeois elements flocked to join the UGT union and the Spanish Communist Party, seeing it as ‘the party of law and order’ and guardian of private property. The Spanish Government was persuaded to move the entire Spanish Gold Reserves (probably among the largest in the world, following the prosperous colonial period and Spain’s neutrality in World War One) to the USSR for ‘safe keeping’, and as guarantees and payment for the arms and services supplied by the Soviets In May 1937, without prior warning, the police, along with armed elements of the PSUC (the United Catalan Socialist and Communist Parties) and Catalan Nationalists, attacked the anarchist’s who were in control of the Barcelona telephone exchange. The attackers were supported by Assault Guards sent from Valencia, Soviet NKVD agents, and by two warships of the Spanish Republic’s navy, dispatched by the government.

poumposterThe CNT/FAI appealed to the Catalan Generalitat, and directly to the police themselves, but their pleas to end the fratricidal action were ignored …Don’t let them betray you! You know very well, and you have the proof of it, that the CNT-FAI are not against you, either as individuals or collectively. You are, like ourselves, soldiers of the anti-fascist front. Offer your arms to the people and place yourselves on their side as you did on the 19th of July. Neither the CNT nor the FAI want to establish a dictatorship. Nor will they ever tolerate dictatorship so long as a single one of our members is alive.’ 


Several days of bitter street-fighting then took place, followed by the arrest, imprisonment, and murder of large numbers of anarchist and POUM (left communists) activists and militiamen. Two well known Italian anarchist’s who had come to Spain to organise an Italian anarchist militia column, Camillo Berneri a former professor of philosophy at Florence University and editor of ‘Guerra di Classe’ and his comrade Franco Barberi were arrested and later their machine gunned bodies were found dumped in the street  near the Generalitat. Other prominent anarchists, including Francisco Ferrer, nephew of the famous martyred anarchist educator Francisco Ferrer, founder of the libertarian ‘Modern School’ movement, were also murdered. Former Catalan Justice Minister Andreas Nin, leader of the POUM, a left communist and former secretary to Leon Trotsky was arrested, and after being brutally tortured. Nin was skinned alive and his mutilated body thrown into the street.

Under the government headed by Prime Minister Juan Negrín from May 1937, the Communists wielded considerable power over the Spanish Republic’s government, and were in almost complete control of the police, defence ministry, intelligence and the army. Communist army divisions like the Campesino’s and Lister’s were given the very best equipment available, helping to raise the influence and profile of the Spanish Communists, their mentor Stalin and the USSR. Anarchist and socialist militia units who didn’t conform to the Stalinist’s army reorganisation and become integral units of the popular army were starved of arms, pay, and supplies, and very few officers who weren’t Communist Party members would gain promotion to the higher ranks, irrespective of their ability or how many men they had under their command.

A programme of de-collectivisation in areas now controlled by the Communists and the suppression of the Worker’s Committee’s caused widespread disillusionment among the revolutionary Spanish workers and peasants, who now viewed the Stalinist Communist’s as reactionary counter revolutionaries. Following numerous military setbacks, the failure of their surprise offensive across the River Ebro had left the Republican forces exhausted, demoralised and desperately short of equipment. Prime Minister Negrín, still hoping for support from the ‘democracies’ as Europe moved closer to war, decided to withdraw the International Brigades from the conflict.

In November 1938 a final farewell parade was held in Barcelona, where the International Brigader’s marched proudly through the flower strewn streets of the city to the loud cheers of a grateful population. Dolores Ibárruri, La Pasionaria, delivered a stirring tribute. ‘Comrades of the International Brigades! Political reasons, reasons of state, the good of the same cause for which you offered your blood with limitless generosity, send some of you back to your countries and some to forced exile. You can go with pride. You are history. You are legend. You are the heroic example of the solidarity and the universality of democracy… We will not forget you; and, when the olive tree of peace puts forth its leaves, entwined with the laurels of the Spanish Republic’s victory, come back! To us and here you will find a homeland.’

An estimated 35,000 foreign volunteers from 53 countries fought in the International Brigades and a further 2,000 foreign anarchists in the anarchist militias. Another 700 anti-Stalinists from around the world joined the POUM militias. Casualties were very high and accurate figures are impossible to come by, but around three quarters or more of these volunteers were either killed or wounded during the conflict. By March 1939 it was clear that the war had been lost and many leading government officials and Communist’s had began to leave the country, abandoning the brave Spanish men and women who had fought so valiantly for the Republic!

In Madrid, Colonel Segismundo Casada, a professional army officer set up a National Defence Council which was headed by General José Miaja, and supported by the anarchist General Cipriano Mera and most of the militias. They were soon involved in fierce fighting against the First Army Corps, commanded by Communist Luis Barceló, sent by Negrín to re-take control of Madrid. After several days of fierce fighting General Mera’s anarchists overcame the Communist popular army units, and arrested their military leaders. In an effort to save what remained of the city, and an attempt to obtain humane treatment for his troops, Casada tried to negotiate surrender terms with the fascist’s for Madrid’s defenders.

But these overtures were flatly rejected by Franco, and many of the courageous Madrileños militiamen and women were among the tens of thousands who were executed or sentenced to long terms of imprisonment during Franco’s orgy of retribution which lasted from 1939 until 1945. Since the end of the Spanish Civil War, most histories have been written with a strong bias towards the contribution made by the Soviet Union and the Stalinist Communist Party, but in reality at the beginning of the war, following Franco’s military rebellion, the Spanish Communist Party (PCE) had quite a small membership, although it had ‘sleepers’ in important positions within the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) and sympathisers amongst the military. militiawomanThe heroism of the men and women who fought against fascism in Spain, and who nearly made a revolution, whether from Spain or other countries, must never be forgotten.

Neither should we ever forget the brutality of Franco’s fascists or the betrayal of the Stalinist leadership. Republican soldiers used visual materials such as posters, calendars and pamphlets commemorating heroes in the defense of Barcelona or depicting daily life. Many were illustrated by the artist known as “Sim” (José Luis Rey Vila). Salud                                                                                                                         No Pasaran!  Stewart Hunter                                                                                                       14th April 2009

For anyone wishing to gain a more detailed knowledge and understanding of events during the Spanish Civil War period, I would highly recommend these scholarly and diligently researched but very readable books: “The Battle for Spain” by Antony Beevor; “The Spanish Labyrinth” by Gerald Brennan; “The Spanish Republic and the Civil War 1931 – 1939” by Gabriel Jackson; “The Spanish Civil War – Reaction, Revolution & Revenge” & “A Concise History of the Spanish Civil War” by Paul Preston; “The Spanish Civil War” by Hugh Thomas, all of whom I have leaned heavily upon to produce this brief synopsis. For more information about Scots in the Spanish Civil War I would recommend the following books:”Voices from the Spanish Civil War” by Ian MacDougall; “The Highland Cause” by James N. McCrorie; “Homage to Caledonia” by Daniel Gray.

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