Some call the Spanish Civil War a prelude to World War Two. It was a brutal conflict, lasting from 1936 to 1939. The opposing sides in the conflict were bitter rivals, divided even amongst themselves at times.
The causes of the war were varied and can be traced back decades. Spain was a weak country at the end of the nineteenth century. Having already lost most imperial possessions, the Spanish-American war of 1898 was another humiliating defeat.
In 1923, a bloodless coup saw the disenfranchisement of King Alfonso XIII, who was replaced by the military dictatorship of General Primo de Rivera. Rivera remained in power until 1930, when the financial crisis of the Great Depression forced him to resign.
A new constitution was created with guarantees of basic human rights and freedoms. A general elections was held in 1933, leading to an alliance of right wing and center-right parties forming a government.
However, serious divisions remained within the country. There was the deep economic divide between wealthy landowners and industrialists on one side and a large working class population on the other, especially during the height of the Great Depression. There were a series of general strikes in the early 1930s as labor unrest grew. A particularly violent miners strike in 1934 was put down by an army general named Francisco Franco.
Along with economic trouble, the nation was divided between secularists and the Roman Catholic church. There was much friction between the influence of the Church and the constitutional separation of church and state.
Some parts of the country wanted more autonomy or even outright independence from Spain, such as the Basque region.
The government eventually collapsed under these growing pressures and new elections were called in 1936. In that general election, the parties of the left formed a new government. The coalition consisted of communists, anarchists, and socialists, and liberals. Land reforms were introduced to help impoverished Spaniards. Many saw this as the beginning of a communist revolution.
An insurgency against the government began in the Spanish colony of Morocco. Led by Francisco Franco, the rebels hoped for a quick coup, but it bogged down into a bloody civil war. Franco’s right wing forces were called Nationalists. They were financially and militarily supported by fascist Italy and Nazi Germany.
Left wing troops supporting the government were named Republicans. They were aided by communist Russia and Mexico. Britain and France recognized the current government but vowed not to interfere in the conflict. Thousands of volunteers from around the world joined the Republican ranks and were known as the International Brigades.
The progress of the war was slow, but the casualties were high. Atrocities were committed by both sides. By the end of 1936, the Nationalists had advanced on and laid siege to the capital Madrid, but could not take the city.
In 1937, the whole northern coast was taken by the Nationalists. In 1938 Nationalist advances split the country in two. In March 1939, the government and thousands of Republican soldiers and civilians fled to exile in France. By the end of the month, Nationalist forces under Franco triumphantly entered Madrid.
The number of people killed during the Spanish Civil War has been estimated at between 500,000 and 1,000,000. For Italy, Germany, and the Soviet Union, the war served as testing for new military technology and equipment, soon to be put to use around the world.
Spain became a fascist dictatorship, with Franco as leader until his death in 1975. Curiously, Spain remained neutral during the Second World War, despite the massive assistance of Germany and Italy in supporting Franco’s Nationalists.