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War without limits: Spain 1936-39 and beyond

22 November 2006

The Spanish Civil War and beyond

The Spanish Civil War started as a revolt by the ruling cast of the Spanish military, motivated by what it saw as the anarchist and communist excesses of the recently elected Popular Front – predominantly a coalition of socialists and liberals – but also by resentment at the new regime’s attack on the established hierarchy and its long-held privileges. By the war’s end, in May 1939, somewhere between a half and a million people had died, and the Nationalists, as the generals were to become, put an end to Spain’s Second Republic by inaugurating General Franco’s dictatorship, which was to last until his death in 1975.

The origins of this war were profoundly Spanish. The division of the belligerent factions into Republicans and Nationalists reflected the division of Spanish society into those liberals, socialists, anarchists and communists who defended the constitution of the Republic and who sought a more equitable distribution of both land and wealth, and those who had enjoyed such privileges: the landed aristocracy, a wealthy urban bourgeoisie and the Spanish Catholic Church. Yet the war was to become rapidly internationalised. Hitler and Mussolini lent their support to the Nationalists, while the Soviet Union, after initially supporting British and French policies of non-intervention, sided with the Republicans and thousands of young men from all over the world slipped into Spain in order to join the Republican International Brigades. In the summer of 1936, many Europeans could be forgiven for believing that the next world war was about to begin.

The origins of the war were profoundly Spanish

Despite its scale and significance for the Europe of the 1930s, the Spanish Civil War has become something of a forgotten conflict, a conflict that has, at times, been quite deliberately forgotten. It is inevitably overshadowed by the Second World War, yet many parallels exist between the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War, which succeeded it by only a matter of a few months. For many it is the first ideological conflict; those who fought against the Spanish Nationalists often believed they were engaged in a battle against international Fascism, while the Nationalists often claimed to be at war with the red menace of international Communism in the form of a Soviet-sponsored republic. Some of the military tactics employed by the Nationalists and their foreign backers anticipate those used by both the Allies and the Axis powers: the extensive and co-ordinated use of tanks and aircraft alongside infantry, building-to-building fighting and urban warfare, and the deliberate targeting of civilian populations, notably in the bombing of Madrid, Barcelona, and, most famously, Guernica. Indeed, Germany, Italy and the Soviet Union often treated this originally Spanish conflict as a testing ground for the military technology and hardware that was to shape the forthcoming global conflict. British and French attempts to enforce a non-intervention pact seemed futile; their inability to react effectively to its frequent violations by Italy and Germany illustrated the apparent powerlessness of the liberal democracies and anticipated the subsequent policy of appeasement.

However, the interest of the Spanish Civil War does not lie in its political or military significance alone, but also in its cultural legacy. Just as it galvanised European nations politically, leading to individuals aligning themselves with one side or the other, so many intellectuals, artists and writers also took sides and used their activities to support and justify one cause over the other. The war therefore served to accelerate certain intellectual and artistic trends already present in the 1930s, notably that of the politically committed intellectual. Indeed, the war demonstrated to many at the time that neutrality and retreat into the ivory tower were now impossible; the fate of the Spanish writer and intellectual Miguel de Unamuno seemed to exemplify this. Unamuno, who had been considered a liberal, decided to remain the rector of Salamanca University in 1936, despite it falling almost immediately under Nationalist control. Believing the intellectual could remain removed from the fray, he nevertheless found himself denouncing Nationalist claims to represent Christian and Western values in opposition ‘godless’ Republicans, for which he was attacked and sidelined by the Nationalist regime until his death a short while afterwards.

Intellectuals, artists and writers used their activities to support and justify one cause over the other

In contrast to Unamuno’s attempted withdrawal from the conflict, many other intellectuals rushed to the defence of one side against the other. In the case of pro-Republican intellectuals, this sometimes led to fighting alongside Republican troops. George Orwell, Ralph Fox, André Malraux and many others all took up arms in what they considered to be the anti-Fascist struggle, while Ernest Hemingway, officially a war reporter and a non-combatant, was famously photographed reloading Republican rifles for the troops he shadowed in combat. More generally, the conflict became a subject of representation for sympathisers of both sides eager to foster support for their respective causes in Spain and usually their own right or left-wing movements at home. The conflict left us several significant and internationally renowned treatments of the subject of war, its horror and its camaraderie: Orwell’s Hommage to Catalonia, Malraux’s Man’s Hope, Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls; the poems of Miguel Hernandez and W.H. Auden; Picasso’s Guernica. It also coincided with the rise of the photo-journal and established the career of many war correspondents and photo-journalists, most notably that of Frank Cappa.

Despite the subsequent outbreak of a more prolonged, bloody and obviously international conflict months after Franco had marched victoriously into Madrid, the subject of the Spanish Civil War continues to return again and again in the European artistic consciousness. Ken Loach’s 1995 film Land and Freedom and Xavier Cercas’s novel of 2000, Soldiers of Salamis, are but two recent examples of the persistence of the memory of the Spanish Civil War that reflect, in Loach’s case, a persistent European interest in the conflict and, in Cecas’s case, its continued resonance for Spaniards of the post-war generation. It was in order to recuperate this cultural and political legacy that the Group for War and Culture Studies and the Bristol Institute for Research in the Humanities and Arts, with the support of the British Academy and the Alumni Foundation, held a conference in July 2006, dedicated exclusively to the Spanish Civil War.

Martin Hurcombe/School of Modern Languages


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