HISTORY: Spain, 1936: Fascists flame civil war

A Journal of People report

Source: http://media.iwm.org.uk/ciim5/16/374/large_000000.jpg

It was July 18, 1936. Fascists flamed a civil war in Spain on this day.

Right-wing Spanish military officers in Spanish Morocco organized a reactionary revolt, which was spread to mainland Spain. The Civil War in Spain was flamed.

Fascist Spanish general Francisco Franco representing reactionary bourgeois interests broadcast a message from the Canary Islands off Africa, calling for all army officers to join the revolt and overthrow the country’s leftist Republican government. Within three days, the rebels captured Morocco, much of northern Spain, and several key cities in the south. Franco flew to Morocco and prepared to bring the Army of Africa over to the mainland.

The Republicans successfully put down the rightist revolt in many areas including Madrid, the capital city.



In 1931, the Spanish voters overwhelmingly chose to abolish the monarchy in favor of a liberal republic. King Alfonso XIII went into exile, and the Second Republic, initially dominated by middle-class liberals and moderate socialists, was proclaimed.

During the first two years of the Republic, organized labor and leftist radicals forced widespread liberal reforms, and Catalonia and the Basque provinces achieved virtual autonomy.

The landed aristocracy, the church, and a military clique opposed the Republic.

In November 1933, conservative forces regained control of the government in elections.

In response, socialists launched a revolution in the mining districts of Asturias, and Catalan nationalists rebelled in Barcelona.

General Franco crushed the Spanish October Revolution on behalf of the conservative government.

In 1935, Franco, a monarchist, was appointed army chief of staff.

In February 1936, new elections brought the Popular Front, a leftist coalition, to power.

Franco was sent to an obscure command in the Canary Islands.

Fearing a Marxist revolution, army officers conspired to seize power. Franco was in the conspiracy.

The reactionaries planned to begin the revolt on July 18 and secure Morocco before the revolting army being transported to Spain’s Andalusian coast by the navy.

But on the afternoon of July 17, the plan for the next morning was discovered in the Moroccan town of Melilla, and the rebels had to begin premature action.

Melilla, Ceuta and Tetuan were soon in the hands of the fascists, who identified themselves as Nationalists. These fascists were backed by conservative Moroccan troops that also opposed the leftist government in Madrid.

The Republican government learned of the revolt soon after it broke out but took few actions to prevent its spread to the mainland. On July 18, Spanish garrisons all across Spain joined the revolt.

Workers and peasants fought the uprising, but in many cities, the Republican government denied them weapons, and the fascists soon gained control.

In conservative regions including Old Castile and Navarre, the fascists seized control. In other regions including Bilbao, they didn’t dare leave their garrisons.

The fascist revolt in the Spanish navy largely failed, and warships run by committees of sailors were instrumental in securing a number of coastal cities for the Republic.

The fascists including Franco had the backing of Nazi German and Fascist Italian dictators Hitler and Mussolini, whose planes transported troops onto the mainland from Morocco in what is known as the world’s first major airlift. The Nazi planes regularly bombed cities around the country. The Nazi planes destroyed the town of Guernica in the Basque Country, made famous by Picasso’s haunting painting. For the first time, civilians were direct targets.

In the next few months, the fascist forces overran much of the Republican-controlled areas in central and northern Spain. Madrid was put under siege in November.

“We must create an atmosphere of terror… by eliminating all those who don’t think like us without any misgivings or hesitation,” rebel general Gonzalo Queipo de Llano called in a radio address in July 1936.

During 1937, Franco unified the fascist forces under the command of the Falange, the fascist party in Spain.

Germany and Italy backed Franco with a huge number of planes, tanks, and arms while the Soviet Union aided the Republican side. Soviet Union began arming the Republicans.

Madrid asked its neighbors for help, but in vain. Britain and France refused, scared of being dragged into another world war.  They opted instead for a “pact of non-intervention” to which Italy and Germany also signed up, even as they continued to openly back the fascist rebels.

The conflict moved people the world over. With the inaction of bourgeois democracies, intellectuals took the side of the Republic including novelist John Steinbeck and India’s Nobel Literature laureate Rabindranath Tagore. Thousands of communists and other radicals from France, the USSR, US, and other countries formed the International Brigades to aid the Republican cause. The most significant contribution of these foreign units was the successful defense of Madrid until the end of the war.

In the later part of 1938, Franco mounted a major offensive against Catalonia.

As the rebels progressed, left-wing lawmakers, unionists, Socialist activists, supporters or their families were executed in their thousands. Franco refused to enter into a peace treaty.

On March 28, 1939, the Spanish Civil War came to an end with the fascists overrunning Madrid.

Up to a million lives were lost in the civil war.

Franco subsequently served as dictator of Spain until his death in 1975.


Bloody purge by the fascists

An AFP report headlined “On this day: 80 years ago, Spain plunged into civil war” said:

“A dark prelude to World War II, the conflict unleashed passions around the world for close to three years and led to a decades-long dictatorship.

“It all started on July 18, 1936, when army generals staged a coup against a fledgling republic that had been established five years prior in a restive, poor country.”

The July 18, 2016 datelined report by Patrick Rahir said:

On the Republican side, the wealthy were chased, and those suspected of being on the side of the rebels were executed.  Priests and nuns were also targeted for their perceived closeness to upper classes.

The civil war had evolved into a clash between fascism and communism.    “Our foes are the Reds, the Bolsheviks of the world,” sang the young pilots of the Condor Legion sent by Hitler.

Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin sent advisers and organized International Brigades. Some 50,000 volunteered from all over the world.

“They saw fascism as an international threat, and the Brigades appeared to offer the best way of fighting it”, writes historian Antony Beevor.

They helped the Republic score rare victories, holding onto Madrid in a winter 1936 battle or defeating Italian brigades sent by Mussolini in 1937.

But militarily inferior and weakened by divisions, the Republic slowly lost ground and the Barcelona-based government eventually went into exile in March 1939 along with some 400,000 Spaniards.

Five months later, World War II erupted.

The AFP report said:

“In his book The Spanish Holocaust, historian Paul Preston calculates that 20,000 Republican supporters were executed after the war.

“He estimates that 200,000 people died in combat during the conflict, and another 200,000 were murdered or executed — 150,000 of these at the hands of nationalists.

“Franco’s regime paid tribute to its dead, but those who died on the opposite side were largely forgotten and dumped in mass graves.”

Another AFP report headlined “Painful memories of civil war live on in southern Spain” said on July 15, 2016:

“Eighty years after the war began, the memory of the purge carried out against leftists in Andalusia, known today for its sandy tourist beaches, lives on.

“‘They would say: “We have to eliminate the red seed”,’ said Rogelia Beltran as she recalled how her
grandfather died in a purge against leftists in southern Spain during the country’s civil war.”

The report said:

After the fascists’ coup on July 18th, 1936, large landowners in Andalusia aided the revolt by persecuting day laborers who they believed backed the government.

In Beltran’s hometown of La Algaba the pro-Nationalist landowners were led by a matador, Jose Garcia Carranza, also known as “El Algabeno”, who became known as the “killer of bulls and reds”.

Civilian supporters of the military uprising like “El Algabeno” received “carte blanche” from the military men who quickly seized control of the region, historian Francisco Espinosa told AFP.

“They were members of the rural bourgeoisie” who offered to repress opposition to the coup “mounted on their own horses and using their own weapons”, he said.


Hunted like animals

The report said:

“Paramilitaries and the rebel troops ‘carried out clean-up operations in the mountains’, where leftists and unionists sought sanctuary, said Juan Jose Lopez, a member of an association of victims of the civil war and the dictatorship that followed.

“His great uncle was killed in November 1936 in a raid near the village of El Madrono.

“‘It was like a deer or wild boar hunt. The raiders would sweep the mountains so the prey would flee’ and then shoot them, he said.”

The AFP report quoted Antonio Narvaez, 83, a retired steelworker:

“They did horrible things. They would leave bodies scattered in the streets as an example and would prevent them from being collected so they would be eaten by animals.”

“He was just three-years-old when his father was killed in Marchena. A day laborer who did not belong to a union and had no political affiliation, his only crime was that he knew how to read, said Narvaez. “He would read the press to his colleagues,” Narvaez said with a toothless smile.

The report said:

“Widows were also punished. Supporters of the right-wing coup would confiscate their homes and goods, leaving them without work and stigmatized with young children to raise.

“They would shave their hair off and parade them around the town,” said Antonio Martinez, 80, a retired hotel worker whose father was repressed during the war in the town of Escacena del Campo.


Ideological purge

The report said:

Beltran, a 53-year-old nursing assistant, said the idea was “‘if you don’t think like me, I will eliminate you’ and that is called genocide”.

“It was an ideological purge which also included teachers, lawyers, journalists, writers with a liberal ideology,” added Paqui Maqueda, 52, a social worker whose great-grandfather and three great-uncles were killed in the town of Carmona near Seville.

She gave the example of the celebrated Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, known for works including the play “Blood wedding”, who was shot for his suspected leftist sympathies by supporters of the military uprising near the southern city of Granada in 1936.

“But the lower classes were the most repressed,” said Maqueda.

The report by Anna Cuenca said:

“Plagued by high levels of illiteracy and miserable living conditions, farm workers had formed a strong union movement.

“And wealthy landowners like ‘El Algabeno’, who is said to have speared day laborers as if they were bulls, decided to quash their movement, historians and victims say.

“Many of Garcia Carranza’s crimes were gathered and detailed by witnesses and contemporaries,” said Diego Aguera, the mayor of La Algaba, the matador’s hometown.

“In a narrow street of white houses near the bougainvillea-lined main square of the town, a plaque reads: ‘Jose Garcia Carranza Street’.

“Aguera in March got the town hall to approve changing the name to “Equality Street” because of the “countless murders he carried out, the majority in cold blood, the countless detentions and tortures he practiced”.

“Several family members of the late matador, contacted by AFP, refused to be quoted about his legacy.

“‘Sometimes you think you are doing good and you are doing bad,’ said one of his great-nieces who declined to be named.

“But for now, the street sign bearing Carranza’s name remains in place as local authorities wrestle with the bureaucracy needed to change it.”


Testing ground for world war

Another AFP report headlined “Spanish Civil War: A testing ground for Second World War” said:

“Teenager Angel Bertran had just gone out to work in fields of hazelnut trees when Spain’s civil war burst into his small town with the arrival of Nazi bomber planes.

“It was May 25th, 1938. Bertran, then just 15, was heading to the countryside outside Benasal, a town of around 1,000 residents in the eastern province of Castellon where a mountain range separates Spain’s Mediterranean coast from its central plains.

“‘Suddenly three planes flew by, not very high. They turned towards the town and nosedived,’ Bertran, now 93, recalls as he sits in a rustic wooden chair in the living room of his home.

“‘They lined up and dropped their bombs. They fell very quickly, making a loud whistling sound. Within seconds you could only see dust.’

“He stops talking and thinks for a moment before adding in a broken voice: ‘When I returned to the town, everything was destroyed.’”

The July 18, 2016 datelined report said:

“Photographs from the time show entire blocks of Benasal reduced to rubble, the dome and roof of the baroque church blown open.

“At least 13 people were killed, victims of a new war tactic: air bombardments.”


Absolute panic

The report added:

Spain’s 1936-39 civil war was the first war where “aviation played a crucial role”, said Barcelona University historian Joan Villarroya.

Planes bombed systematically the battlefront as well as the civilian population to “cause terror and break morale”, he said.

Hospitals, schools, theatres, markets and even churches became military targets.

Historians estimate that at least 10,000 people were killed across the country in the air raids during the 1936-39 war.

The vast majority of the dead were opponents of Franco’s forces, who were backed by Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy.

In November 1936 Madrid became the first European capital to be bombed by planes.

The following year the town of Guernica in the northern Basque region was wiped out by aircraft from Hitler’s “Condor Legion” sent to Spain to support Franco, an atrocity immortalized in Picasso’s haunting anti-war masterpiece named after the town.

At the same time Italian aircraft based in Mallorca bombed Spain’s Mediterranean coast, especially Barcelona where 2,500 people were killed.

Spain was for them “a test ground for World War Two,” said history professor Josep Sanchez Cervello of Tarragona’s Rovira i Virgili University.

“They wanted to see what would be the effect of bombs on the civilian population. It was absolute panic.”


Stuka experiment

The report said:

Benasal suffered one of these experiments, the testing of the Junker-87, or Stuka, a German dive bomber that served the Axis forces in World War Two.

For decades no one explained why Benasal was targeted. It was an unimportant town, without troops and 30 kilometers (20 miles) from the nearest front.

But in 2011 Oscar Vives, a university professor who lives in Benasal, found a German military report titled “Images of the Effects of 500 kilograms bombs”.

The report proved that Benasal and three other nearby towns were used to test the dive bombers.

At least 40 people died “because of an experiment, of weapons testing,” said Vives.

The report by Daniel Bosque said:

Time has not erased the memories.

Now aged 90, Rosa Soligo says she was in bed when the bombs landed near her house.

She recalls hearing her mother scream and “a loud noise” as part of the building came crashing down.

“When they pulled us out of the rubble our bodies were covered in blood because of the injuries but fortunately they were not very serious,” she said.

The German dive bombers returned three days later but there were no longer any inhabitants left in Benasal. Everyone had fled.

“We lived in caves for days, for fear that they would return. We suffered a lot… a lot,” Soligo said.

The effects of the air bombings can be seen still in the town of Corbera de Ebro in the northeastern region of Catalonia near the Ebro River, the site of the bloodiest battle of the war which paved the way for victory by Franco’s forces.

Corbera was “completely levelled” by the insurgents, said professor Sanchez Cervello.

The town was engulfed in fire and smoke for weeks, and was called “the eternal flame”, said local historian and high school teacher Joan Antonio Montana who provides tours of the ruins of Corbera.

Only the bell tower and facade of the town’s baroque church survived.

After the war the surviving residents moved down the hill and rebuilt their town. The original town was left in rubble as a memorial to a “town punished by history”.


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