The Spanish Civil War

Page 2 – Background

In April 1931 King Alfonso XIII of Spain left the country as a result of republican candidates winning the majority of votes in Spain’s local and municipal elections. A republican-socialist government under the leadership of Manuel Azaña was formed. A new constitution introduced sweeping social reforms while at the same time reducing the power of the Spanish nobility and Roman Catholic Church. Land, banks and railways were nationalised.

War of isms

Fascism is a political belief or movement that emphases the nation (and often race) above the individual. It stands for a centralised autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader. Socially and economically there is an acceptance of strict regimentation. To protect the state it can be necessary to forcibly suppress any opposition.

Republicanism seeks government where leadership is not based on hereditary rights as is the case with a monarchy, but is instead determined via democratic elections. Constitutional law is an important means of limiting the state's power over its citizens.

These weren't the only isms at play in Spain as adherents of Communism, Anarcho-syndicalism and various other political ideologies fought among themselves to severely hamper the Republican cause.

The powerful conservative right opposed the new constitution. On 17 July 1936 a pro-fascist military group led by Generals José Sanjurjo, Francisco Franco and Emilio Mola attempted to overthrow the democratically elected government. While the initial coup failed to seize power, the Nationalists quickly secured control of much of the rural heartland and smaller Spanish cities. The Republican government continued to enjoy strong support in the main industrial regions and largest cities. A vicious civil war erupted.

Franco soon became the leader of the Nationalists. He received strong moral and practical support from the fascist leaders Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. Germany and Italy eventually sent in troops, artillery and aircraft. The Republican government received official support and war material from the Soviet Union. In addition, 60,000 anti-fascist volunteers from all over the world joined the International Brigades that came to fight for the Republican cause.

The League of Nations (of which New Zealand was a member) chose to remain neutral during the war. A Non-Intervention Committee was created to stop personnel and materiel reaching the warring parties. This was a joint British-French initiative designed to prevent the conflict escalating into a wider European war. It achieved virtually nothing as Germany, Italy and the Soviet Union continued to pour resources into the war. In an attempt to enforce its non-interventionist position the League placed a ban on foreign nationals serving in Spain as ‘volunteers’.

Over the next three years many thousands died as the two sides fought bitterly for control of Spain. The Republican war effort was often hamstrung by bitter internal disputes between the various political factions that were supposed to be supporting it – in May 1937 communist and anarchist militias openly fought each other in a week-long battle in Barcelona. In the end this chronic instability on the Republican side proved fatal as by contrast, Franco's forces continued to gain in strength, confidence and military effectiveness as the war went on.

Franco proclaimed final victory in a radio speech aired on 1 April 1939 when the last of the Republican forces surrendered. He fused all right-wing parties into the state party and established a dictatorship which survived until his death in 1975.

How to cite this page

'Background', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 20-Dec-2012