The infamous Spanish Civil War was a culmination of brewing political tensions between the Republicans and the Nationalists. Hostile public sentiment and drastic reform from one regime to the next, in the leadup to 1936, led to this brutal conflict. With an unprecedented death toll of nearly one million people as estimated by the Nationalist forces at the time, in the aftermath of the War, Spain was left to deal with widespread destruction and devastation. Given that the Spanish Civil War was the result of compounding domestic tensions, this begs the question of what triggered the conflict and led to such a massive death toll.
Setting the context:
By 1936, after the right wing coalition disintegrated, the popular front was formed. It included numerous left-wing groups including liberals such as Azana, all of whom desired peace and stability after years of alternating governance between the Nationalists and the Republicans who continually reversed the reforms of the other after coming to power; the popular front, however, was still restricted in its ability to enact substantive change in that there was a limited political consensus among leaders (as a result of different party members having varying ideological aims). As the front worked through the conflict, public sentiments evidently ran high. Anarchists, advocating for land redistribution, encouraged peasants to cease the land they were “rightfully owed” through extreme means, leading to an outbreak of violence in the countryside. Simultaneously, the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT), which was Spain’s largest labour union, called for country-wide strikes.
Right wing leaders (the Nationalists) meanwhile remained highly critical of the government; notable among these leaders was a man José Calvo Sotelo who advocated for authoritarian rule and made attempts to unify anti-republican forces in preparation for a coup d’etat. Undeniably, by this time, Spain’s political stability was hanging by a thread.
The murder of the Right Wing political leader: Joseph Sotelo
In June of 1936, José Sotelo, a right wing political leader was murdered, sending shock waves through the country. In Spain, it appeared the impossible had suddenly become possible. One of the most noteworthy opposition leaders had been killed by a member of the Falange.
Brian Cozier, described the enormity of the murder as follows: “It is hard perhaps to convey the enormity of this deed, for it is almost impossible to transport it to other countries and different circumstances. Sir Alec Douglas-Home kidnapped and murdered by Special Branch detectives? Senator Robert F. Kennedy kidnapped and murdered by the F.B.I.? Unthinkable, one might say. And that is the point: in Spain in the summer of 1936, the unthinkable had become normal.”
The murder triggered a subsequent attempt at a coup; Azana, the leader of the popular front, to the best of his ability tried to restrict the coup. The conflict however, was beginning to spiral out of control into a greater ideological tussle. Given that the Falange (the group that claimed responsibility for Sotelo’s murder) was a pro-facist group, parties and the masses began to rearrange themselves into pro-facist and pro-communist groupings.
Azana sprung into action, taking measures to suppress the coup and cracking down on free speech, and the coup appeared to be largely unsuccessful; nearly half of the army remained loyal to the popular front’s government and fought on behalf of the Republic. Historians have argued that had the status quo within the country remained the same, without any external intervention, Azana would have likely retained power and the masses would have likely been granted with the stability they long desired.
The growing ideological connotations of Nationalist and Republican victory, in terms of “communism” and “facism”, however, led to the looming threat of foreign intervention in the conflict. Germany’s support for the Nationalists (led by Franco) in late 1936, dismissed any hope of the conflict being resolved domestically and set the stage for one of the most brutal wars of the 20th century.