There are parallels between the contemporary domestic political situation in the US and the period immediately before and during the Spanish Civil War…
America is definitely not Europe, but we can find a number of parallels between European history and contemporary America. For example, we’ve previously written about the Italian Years of Lead as a possible template for urban unrest and low-level inter-tribal warfare in the United States. Another example of how things might play out in the United States is the Spanish Civil War.
The Spanish Civil War is known to historians, amateur and professional alike, as the “dress rehearsal for the Second World War.” It is so termed because it pitted one side – which was equipped, armed and funded by Europe’s fascist regimes (Germany and Italy) – against a government largely funded and propped up by the Soviet Union. However, it is worth noting that General Francisco Franco’s nationalist forces were not themselves fascist (though there were fascists within their ranks) and that Spain remained neutral during the Second World War, later becoming a close ally of the United States in the fight against Communism internationally.
While there are few perfect analogs to be found anywhere in world history, there are parallels between the contemporary domestic political situation in the United States and the period immediately before and during the Spanish Civil War. And while the situation in the United States might play out in a much similar way to the Spanish Civil War, it is worth noting that our previous Civil War was the bloodiest in human history. There is little doubt that a Second American Civil War would not be significantly more destructive.
Prologue: The Situation in Spain Prior to the Civil War
As we talk about the leadup to the Spanish Civil War, the situation will begin very much unlike modern-day America, however, it will become more like the contemporary domestic situation as time goes on.
The main difference, of course, is that Spain was a monarchy for almost all of its existence until 1931. A republic was briefly declared during the years 1873 and 1874, but it didn’t have much staying power and ultimately was not a transformative government in Spain. Following the First World War, the corrupt central government of Spain became increasingly unpopular and a military dictatorship, that of Miguel Primo de Rivera y Orbaneja, 2nd Marquess of Estella, 22nd Count of Sobremonte, arose. This fell in 1930, along with the abdication of the deeply unpopular King Alfonso XIII.
This led to the creation of the Second Spanish Republic and a new constitution in 1931. It was a radically leftist constitution in a largely conservative and Catholic country. Women’s suffrage, civil marriage, compulsory universal education, the nationalization of Catholic Church properties, the prohibition of Catholic religious orders from teaching in schools (and the Jesuit order entirely), as well as a provision allowing for the nationalization of any property that was for the “public good” were all components of the new Spanish constitution. In many ways it resembled the constitution of Weimar Germany, in that it was an attempt by the left to radically remake a country through constitutional means.
The first election saw leftist elements firmly in the saddle, but the second, in 1933, was a major victory for forces of the right. However, because the conservative party had won a plurality in the parliament, and not a majority, the left-wing president of Spain invited the centrist party to form a government. Meanwhile the socialist government alleged electoral fraud, which caused them to become further radicalized. On the ground, a radical working-class movement became hostile toward the ostensibly left-wing government after the movement was suppressed violently by the military.
Monarchist forces, with the explicit backing of Benito Mussolini and the implicit backing of King Alfonso XIII, as well as ideologically fascist forces led by José Antonio Primo de Rivera, began military drills, preparing for war. The streets of Spain became battlegrounds, with 330 assassinations, 213 failed assassination attempts and 160 religious buildings destroyed, with arson being the primary means of their destruction. The Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, formerly a fairly standard European social democratic party, began to cleave between forces who favored moderation and those who sought a more explicitly Bolshevik party.
The Coup d’Etat of July 1936
Much as the War Between the States began with the attack on Fort Sumter, so did the Spanish Civil War begin with the Coup d’Etat of July 1936. This was effectively an uprising by all forces of the Spanish right, which included two different factions of monarchists, nationalists, fascists (known in Spain as Falangists) and conservatives.
The igniting event was the election of 1936. This saw a very, very slim (less than 1 percent of the vote) victory of the Spanish left (socialists, Communists and anarchists) over the Spanish right. The right wing in Spain stopped planning to take over the Spanish Republic and instead decided that they were going to overthrow it.
The central republican government of Spain was very weak and had been making attempts to purge suspect right-wing generals from its ranks. To that end, General Francisco Franco, who ended up becoming dictator of Spain until 1976, was removed from his office as chief of staff and put out to pasture in the Canary Islands. When the uprising began, the nationalist rebels had the unanimous support of the Army of Africa, a 30,000-strong force that boasted some of the hardest core soldiers Spain had to offer. Many of these troops were Muslims from Morocco, who had been told that the republic planned to outlaw worship of Allah.
Indeed, Spanish Morocco was the base of operations for the rebels, with Generals Franco and Goded taking control of the Canary and the Balearic Islands, respectively. Any opposition in the Spanish colonial empire was quickly crushed with leading trade unionists and leftists simply executed by the rebel forces. The two trade union federations in Spain offered to help crush the uprising, but were told that there was nothing to worry about as the uprising was confined to Morocco and other overseas possessions.
The coup was less than a rousing success for the nationalist rebels, who invaded from their overseas bases. They failed to capture any major cities, which remained significant bases of support for the republican government. The republican government remained in possession of the lion’s share of Spanish territory. However, the republican government was at a disadvantage for two reasons: First, the nationalists had split the territory of peninsular Spain in half, dividing the country between republicans in the north and south while they controlled the middle.
Second, the republican government responded to the crisis by effectively mobilizing the far left in Spain as shock troops to terrorize the population into submission. Communists in particular were unleashed to execute and torture anyone even suspected of being a nationalist sympathizer. It didn’t help that the clergy bore the brunt of this, with nuns gang raped before being summarily executed. The republicans went so far as to exhume the bodies of dead religious figures and desecrate their corpses.
The Spanish Red Terror
The Spanish Civil War continues to have a sort of romantic quality among the left, many of whom see the Civil War-era republican government as an example of “real” socialism in action or, at the very least, something close to it. However, the Spanish republican left were less bloody than their more famous Communist counterparts in Russia, China and the Eastern Bloc only due to a lack of scale and a limited time frame on which they operated.
The Red Terror in Spain predates the nationalist rebellion and was, indeed, one of the primary motivations for the uprising. It is generally agreed that the Spanish Red Terror began during an Asturian miners’ strike in 1934. Priests and the religious were targeted in what was not simply a strike, but a rebellion against the government. Supporters of the rebellion targeted clergy and religious figures, resulting in the destruction of 58 churches and convents during a period of a little more than two weeks. Ironically, the rebellion was put down by Goded and Franco at the behest of the republican government.
Once the rebellion began, the Catholic Church – its clergy, its religious orders and its lay faithful – were largely seen as fair game by supporters of the republic. The comparison between the Church in Spain 1936 and white Americans in 2020 isn’t much of a stretch. Much of the violence directed against the Church was predicated on the basis that they “deserved” this as payback for historical crimes. All told, 3,400 priests, monks and nuns were murdered during the first two months of the Spanish Civil War. Indeed, most of the deaths during the early months of the Civil War were not because of deaths on the battlefield, but rather because of targeted executions against enemies of the Spanish Republic.
In addition to the atrocity against nuns, there were a number of horrific incidents mostly involving clergy. The parish priest of Navalmoral was forced to undergo a parody of the Passion of Christ, ending with a vigorous debate about whether or not to actually crucify the priest at the end. They “mercifully” decided to just shoot the man. The priest of Ciempozuelos was thrown to fighting bulls and had his ear cut off at the end of the spectacle. In Ciudad Real, a priest was castrated and had his penis and testicles put in his mouth. People were forced at gunpoint to swallow their own rosaries. Others were thrown down mine shafts or forced to dig their own graves prior to summary execution. A Madrid nun was executed for the crime of refusing a marriage proposal from a militiaman who had participated in the sacking of her convent.
All told, the republicans destroyed over 20,000 churches and other religious sites during the war. Unsurprisingly, Spanish Catholics overwhelmingly supported the nationalist effort during the Civil War. Even among conservative allies of the republic (for example, conservative Catalan nationalists), support for the republican cause was lukewarm at best, thanks to the Spanish Red Terror.
The Red Terror’s victims are not limited to Catholics or nationalists. As the war progressed and the Communists came to have greater power in the republic (for example, when they were given the Interior Ministry and when the militias were put under centralized control), they also turned their fire on anarchists, socialists and Trotskyists. This move against the non-Communist elements of the Spanish left is detailed in later chapters of George Orwell’s memoir, An Homage to Catalonia.
A Spanish White Terror?
Some attempts have been made to create an equivalence between the Red Terror in Spain and the Francoist repression at the end of the war. There certainly were atrocities committed by the Francoist forces during the course of the war. Indeed, it would be a bit strange if there weren’t, as such atrocities are a hallmark of modern warfare. Specifically, the Francoist forces engaged in war rape and frequently confiscated babies from republican women prior to their execution. These babies were then placed with Francoist families.
However, there are also some important differences between the terror engaged in by the Francoist forces and their republican adversaries. The Francoist repression wasn’t indiscriminately targeted at the friends, family and acquaintances of anyone who fought on the republican side. It was directed squarely at people who had committed atrocities in the name of the republican regime. The large numbers run up by the Francoist forces aren’t a function of the bloodthirsty nature of the victorious nationalist forces – on the contrary, they were quite conciliatory and looking to get the country moving again after a highly destructive war. Rather, it’s because the atrocities committed by the republican forces during the Civil War were so widespread. Those executed generally received trials unlike those summarily executed by the republicans.
Forced labor was employed for projects such as draining swamps, digging canals and building national railway systems. But again, it is worth noting that the people who were being conscripted for labor were considered criminals by the new regime. Indeed, any participation in the Popular Front government of the republic was criminalized by the Law of Political Responsibility, enacted two months after the end of the war. What’s more, this forced labor is not comparable to gulag labor where the intent was to work the victims to death.
As with any fight against Communist forces, it is worth asking a simple question: What would Spain have looked like if the Communists had won? We have ample examples of what Communist regimes look like – in Eastern Europe, in Asia and in Latin America. There is little reason to believe that a Communist regime in Spain would not have been as bloodthirsty and ruthless as other Communist regimes. Indeed, the experience of the Civil War shows that a Spanish Communist regime would have been quite destructive and, it is fair to say, vindictive in its victory.
The Course of the War
Without getting too bogged down into the details of the war, the Civil War is largely the story of the nationalist forces winning victory after victory until the end of the war. This is largely because the republican military wasn’t centralized. Instead, most of the military decisions were delegated to individual autonomous militias who elected their own officers and operated on a democratic basis. Nationalist forces were unified under Franco very quickly, with everyone from conservatives to monarchists to fascists all forced to play nice in service of the nationalist cause. Such centralization did not come for the republicans until the very end of the war, and by then it was too little, too late – and also largely a power play by Moscow’s forces in the Communist Party.
The only major republican victory during the war was the Battle of Guadalajara. This was not a successful republican offensive, however – it was a successful repulsion of a nationalist attack. What’s more, the republicans didn’t even defeat a Spanish military force. They were fighting instead primarily volunteers from fascist Italy. The main impact of this loss was that the nationalists stopped trying to end the war with one big battle and instead focused on chipping away at vulnerable parts of republican Spain.
In 1939, Catalonia, the strongest base of republican support, fell to the nationalists and it was mostly all over but for the shouting. While there were major cities still under the control of the republicans (such as the capital, Madrid), everything from here on out was largely a mop-up operation for the nationalists. The republican government was in total disarray and attempted to negotiate a peace settlement with Franco, but the Generalissimo would only accept an unconditional surrender from the republicans.
Franco declared victory in a radio address on April 1, 1939. Over 500,000 republicans fled to France, where they were largely held in squalid internment camps. Some stragglers continued to fight guerilla warfare against the Francoist government even into the 1950s, but there was no significant impact. In 1944, some republican veterans who had been fighting with the French Resistance attempted to invade Catalonia from France, but the attack was repelled within 10 days.
The Relevance of the Spanish Civil War Today
So what does a European civil war that ended 70 years ago have to do with anything going on in America today? A lot, actually.
First, there is the intense political polarization of the United States. A significant portion of the country champions changing the United States into a radical liberal nation with greater centralized control and a firm Constitutional commitment to leftist social justice causes. Another significant portion of the country is opposed to any further changes to the United States Constitution and is openly hostile toward leftist egalitarian principles.
What’s more, we are already beginning to see street battles not dissimilar to those that happened in Spain in the lead up to the Civil War. It is also worth noting that the anarcho-communist ideology, which held great sway among the partisans of the Second Spanish Republic, likewise informs the insurrectionary elements of the American left that began rioting and burning down American cities in the summer of 2020.
As we prepare for the 2020 Presidential election, it is clear that whoever loses will not only be unhappy with the results, but will probably consider them to be illegitimate. On the left, there is the Russiagate hoax, the leftist conspiracy theory that alleges that the Russian intelligence services “stole” the election for President Donald Trump in 2016. On the right, there is the very reasonable fear that there will be a variety of electoral chicanery, including mass mail-in balloting, voting by dead people, voting by pets, voting by dead pets and outright fabrication of ballots from largely Democratic-controlled urban areas in swing states. Indeed, a Bloomberg article seems to be preparing the American public for a stolen election, stating that while it might “appear” that Donald Trump will win reelection in a landslide the night of the election, that further months and weeks will reveal that he did not, in fact, win as the aforementioned mail-in ballots come in.
An article from the Washington Post states that any outcome but a Biden landslide will result in massive violence and civil unrest. While Jeff Bezos’ vanity blog certainly has their reasons for promoting this notion, it’s not entirely without merit. If the president is reelected, no matter how big the margin, there will likely be another wave of urban unrest that will dwarf the events of the summer of 2020. If Biden wins by a slim margin, there will be accusations of fraud and likely more confrontations in the streets, albeit more two-sided. It seems that the only result that would be accepted as “legitimate,” particularly by the press and the American left, is one where Biden wins dramatically.
It is worth briefly considering the other side of the equation. The American Conservative ran a column in July 2020 discussing the very real phenomenon of the American right’s increasing impatience not with democracy, but with liberalism. This is a phenomenon known as “illiberal democracy,” where the forms of democracy persist, but are used for anti-liberal means. Put in simple terms: How many on the American right – even the mainstream American right – would be terribly bothered by the president taking extreme action against an insurrectionary left?
No one has a crystal ball to see the future. However, it is not a wild assertion to suggest that the real violence in America is coming after the election.