Outbreak of the Spanish Civil War
July 18, 1936
Celebrate the Anti-Fascist Resistance of
the Spanish Civil War!
– Dougal MacDonald –
July 18, 2021 marks the 85th anniversary of the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, fought between the people’s forces, known as the Loyalists or Republicans, who were represented by the democratically-elected Popular Front, and the fascist “Nationalist” forces, led by General Francisco Franco. The people’s forces, aided by anti-fascist volunteers from all over the world, including Canadians of the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion of the XV International Brigade of the Spanish Republican Army, fought heroically against great odds. Franco was openly supported by Nazi Germany and fascist Italy. The civil war, which caused an estimated 500,000 casualties, officially ended April 1, 1939 with Franco coming to power. The Spanish people’s struggle against Franco’s fascist dictatorship continued unabated until his unlamented death in 1975.
In February 1936, the election results in Spain very much favoured the Popular Front. This was despite the fact that many of the leaders of the people’s forces had been imprisoned or exiled during the previous “two black years” of state repression following the anti-dictatorial movement against the reactionary Gil Robles government. Some 40,000 Spaniards were imprisoned and thousands had to leave the country. The new Parliament elected in 1936 included 268 Popular Front members and 140 right-wing members. Parliamentary debates became more and more heated with one major issue being land reform to break up the old feudal estates of the Spanish aristocracy. Fascists attempted or carried out assassinations of government officials, while Germany and Italy egged on the right wing. Certain industrialists who supported the fascists locked out their workers to create chaos. On July 18, a military uprising against the government began across the country.
The Spanish fascists were led by General Francisco Franco and backed by the big landowners such as the Duke of Alba and the Church and the big capitalists such as Juan March, who wanted to retain their profits and privileges. Foreign monopolies such as the Rothschild-controlled Rio Tinto also supported Franco. In August 1936, the Rio Tinto mining area fell to Franco’s forces. The British manager of Rio Tinto went to London to tell the British government to do business with Franco. Franco’s troops directly assisted Rio Tinto in ferociously smashing the 1937 miner’s strike at the company’s Huelva mines in Andalusia province. At the company’s 1937 annual general meeting, Rio Tinto Chairman Sir Auckland Geddes (whose son-in-law was a German prince) reported triumphantly: “Since the mining region was occupied by General Franco’s forces, there have been no further labour problems… Miners found guilty of troublemaking are court-martialed and shot.”
The Spanish fascists benefited hugely from the sham non-interventionist policy of the ruling circles of the United Kingdom, France, and the United States, who hoped to eventually egg on the German Nazis and Italian fascists to attack the Soviet Union. In fact, 27 countries including Germany and Italy signed a phony non-intervention agreement in September 1936, even as Germany and Italy continued to provide military aid to Franco in the form of men, planes, tanks, trucks, and other materials. On April 26, 1937, the German Luftwaffe’s Condor Legion infamously bombed the peaceful town of Guernica, one of the first air raids on a defenceless civilian population, a war crime commemorated in Picasso’s famous mural-sized painting. The U.S. declared “neutrality” during the war but U.S. corporations such as Texaco, General Motors and Ford supplied Franco’s forces with fuel and equipment. Britain and France officially recognized the Franco administration in February 1939, which Germany and Italy had already recognized in November 1936.
Only the Soviet Union provided material assistance to the courageous Republican forces. This included 1,000 aircraft, 900 tanks, 1,500 artillery pieces, 300 armoured cars, 15,000 machine-guns, 30,000 automatic firearms, 30,000 mortars, 500,000 rifles and 30,000 tons of ammunition. The Soviet Union had signed the September 1936 non-intervention treaty but on October 26 the Soviet Ambassador to Spain declared in a note to the British representative Minister Lord Plymouth that it could no longer be bound by the agreement due to German and Italian intervention. The note stated that the Soviet Union had supported non-intervention to restrict the supply of arms, reduce casualties, and shorten the war. However, it was now clear that “the agreement has been systematically violated by a number of participants” and that “the supply of arms to the rebels [Franco’s forces] goes on unpunished.” Meanwhile the “legitimate government of Spain has turned out to be, in fact, under boycott, deprived of facilities to purchase arms outside Spain for the defence of the Spanish people.”
The people’s forces fought heroically against big odds. One day after the fascist generals’ revolt began, Communist leader Dolores Ibárruri coined the famous slogan, “no pasaran!” (They shall not pass!) which inspired the anti-fascist resistance in Spain and around the world. One of the most memorable series of battles involved Franco’s Siege of Madrid, which began November 8, 1936 but lasted until March 28, 1939 due to the stout defence of the city. Soon after the siege began, a new Republican government was installed which armed the trade unionists with rifles (unfortunately a number were not in good working order). After Franco initially failed to take Madrid his forces and Italian forces encircled the city, during which time the heavily outnumbered Republican forces scored victories at the battles of Jarama and Guadalajara in Feburary and March 1937. The Republican forces also captured large quantities of badly-needed materials and equipment. As the siege continued, the main problem for the people’s forces within the city was that they had no aircraft to defend against air attacks. Both Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy supplied Franco with air cover and armoured units for his assault on Madrid, while the Condor Legion of the Luftwaffe attacked under direct Nazi command.
Germany and Italy totally refused to abide by the neutrality agreement they had signed and actively fought on the side of Franco. Julio Alvarez del Vayo, Spanish Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Republican government during most of the civil war, summed up “… the whole saga of non-intervention”: “It was the finest example of the art of handing victims over to the aggressor States, while preserving the perfect manners of a gentleman and at the same time giving the impression that peace is the one objective and consideration.”
One of the main groups in Canada pushing for the “neutrality” which actually supported Franco was the Canadian industrialists who had financial interests in Spain. One example was the Barcelona Traction Light and Power Company (BTLP), incorporated by CPR magnate William Mackenzie and his engineer, Frederick Pearson, along with Belgian capitalists. In 1948, Franco’s multimillionaire backer Juan March manoeuvred himself into control of BTLP. The other main pro-Franco force in Canada was the reactionary hierarchy of the Catholic Church. The Church was a major landowner in Spain and closely allied with Franco. The Mackenzie King Liberal government, which ruled on behalf of the monopolies, was also kowtowing to its old masters in Britain and its new masters in the United States, both of whom had also pushed through “neutrality” legislation in the interests of their own industrialists who had investments in Spain. In 1953, the U.S. government signed a pact providing substantial aid to the Franco regime in exchange for the establishment of U.S. bases in Spain.
The Spanish Civil War was not just a war within Spain, it was one of the first opening battles of the Second World War. The two main European Axis powers, Germany and Italy, fought in the war on the side of the fascist rebels for their own aims, which included access to Spain’s resources as well as menacing France with a new hostile frontier and gaining better access to the Mediterranean. Coming shortly after the Italian annexation of Ethiopia in 1936, the Spanish Civil War was soon followed by further aggressions by the Axis powers of Germany, Italy and Japan in Manchuria, the Rhineland, Czechoslovakia and Albania. But it was in Spain that the battle against fascism was first fought with the greatest intensity and where there still existed a chance to stop Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, and their collaborators in their tracks. Instead, the victory of Franco in Spain, facilitated by the deliberate non-action of the United Kingdom, France and the U.S., encouraged the Nazis and fascists to escalate their aggression and initiate a bloody world war. The tragic defeat of the heroic anti-fascist forces in Spain was the real beginning of the Nazi invasion and occupation of Europe and the six year Second World War which slaughtered millions.