The Spanish Civil War & the Influence of Foreign Powers: Definition, Summary & Timeline

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  • 0:06 Spanish Civil War
  • 0:33 Spain in the 1930s
  • 3:18 Civil War
  • 6:13 Aftermath
  • 6:47 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the Spanish Civil War that broke out between nationalists and socialists in Spain in the 1930s. In the aftermath, General Francisco Franco instituted a fascist dictatorship.

Spanish Civil War

Here in the United States, we have had an established and successful republic for well over two hundred years. But elsewhere in the world, republics are a much younger novelty and some did not succeed in their first attempt. Such was the case in 20th-century Spain, where several years of attempted republican rule erupted into civil war, eventually giving way to a fascist dictatorship that lasted well into the 1970s.

Spain in the 1930s

Prior to the 1930s, Spain was a constitutional monarchy under King Alfonso XIII, though from 1923 to 1930 Spain was ruled by General Miguel Primo de Rivera, a military dictator. Rivera's rule was marked by strict censorship of the press and a suspension of the Spanish constitution. However, Rivera did institute multiple infrastructure projects, which lowered unemployment and aided the Spanish economy.

Regardless of Rivera's economic improvements, Spain was still largely a rural country economically based on agriculture exports. As a result, Spain was hurt considerably by the international economic downturn caused by the 1929 Wall Street collapse. For example, the precipitous fall of the prices of wine and olive oil, two of Spain's chief exports, caused agriculture to be virtually a worthless endeavor. Rivera's policies did little to help; in 1930 he attempted to raise public loans to pay for his social programs. This blunder and the continued economic downturn caused Rivera to resign.

In the wake of Rivera's resignation, Spain held its first democratic elections of the 20th century in 1931. The elections returned a heavily republican majority who favored a reorganization of the Spanish government. Rather than fighting to keep the constitutional monarchy intact, Alfonso XIII chose instead to abdicate the Spanish throne and declare Spain a republic in April 1931.

The general elections that followed created a socialist government, which attempted several Marxist reforms, such as agrarian land redistribution, and also attacked the influence of the Catholic Church in Spain. This naturally angered the traditional landowners, who along with the Catholic Church held considerable power within Spain. Industrialists were also angry with the new government, as the government raised the wages of workers without consulting business owners.

The outrage at the socialist policies of the republican government led to an attempted military coup in 1932. Though the coup failed, it was indicative of the rising opposition to the left-wing Spanish government. In the following year, the right-wing party defeated the socialists at the ballot box, winning an outright majority and almost double the amount of seats the socialists had won. The right-wing government began dismantling the socialist reforms of the past two years, only to be defeated by a narrow margin in the 1936 election and see the socialist Popular Front, led by President Miguel Azaña, reinstitute the same measures.

At this point, generals of the right-wing leaning nationalist army began plotting to overthrow the Spanish government. Sensing this, the Spanish government began arming left-wing political organizations out of fear any right-wing revolt would have the support of the bulk of the army.

Civil War

With tension between the two sides at its breaking point, General Emilio Mola declared open revolt against the socialist government in Navarre in July 1936. Though the attempted immediate overthrow of the government failed, the revolt was successful in the peripheries of Spain. The revolt got a huge boost when General Francisco Franco, Commander of the Spanish Army of Africa, joined the revolt.

The breakout of the Spanish Civil War was seen internationally as an ideological battlefield: communism and socialism on one side, and nationalism - and increasingly fascism - on the other. As a result, those sympathetic to the socialist goals of the Popular Front flocked to Spain and formed the International Brigades. These were battalions and armies made up entirely of foreigners, including prominent men such as George Orwell, who originally went to Spain as a reporter.

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