1936 - 1939

The Spanish Civil War

"It was in Spain that we learned that one can be right and yet be beaten, that force can vanquish spirit, that there are times when courage is not its own recompense."
Albert Camus

The Spanish Civil war was one of the defining moments of the 20th century. A clash of ideologies as well as arms, it was a brutal conflict that tore a nation apart. 

Although the fighting itself began in July 1936, the fault lines had been forming for decades. The generals who rebelled against Spain’s democratically elected government aimed to turn the clock back on social, cultural and political change. 

The coup escalated into a fratricidal conflict, which lasted for three long years. For many observers, the internationalisation of the conflict turned it into a Europe-wide struggle between fascism and democracy. 

When US Ambassador Claude Bowers claimed that he was watching the 'dress rehearsal' for World War Two, he was not far wrong.  

1936-08-16, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
Republican loyalists man anti-aircraft guns against Nationalist planes.

An Ever Evolving Story

The Spanish Civil War has captured the attention of historians, writers, poets and filmmakers across the globe. 

Until Franco’s death in 1975, the only written history consisted of pro-rebel narratives written by the regime and works by foreign – especially British and North American – historians. 

Today, however, Spanish historians are once again writing the history of their own nation and coming to terms with a conflict which scarred their country for decades.

1920, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
An Exiled King - Alfonso XIII

All Spaniards are equal before the law.

Constitution of the Republic

Proclamation of the Second Republic

In April 1931, following the collapse of General Miguel Primo de Rivera’s seven-year dictatorship and the flight of King Alfonso XIII, Spain’s first real democracy was proclaimed. 

For Republican and Socialist politicians, and for thousands of rural and urban workers, the new regime was a promising symbol of modernisation, democracy and social justice. A Republican-Socialist coalition began an ambitious programme of change, attempting labour and agrarian reform, the separation of church and state and the depoliticisation of the army.

The Popular Front

In November 1933, a right-wing coalition was elected. It would overturn the reforms of the previous two years. In October 1934, when the para-fascist CEDA party entered government, the Socialists called a strike. In Asturias, it became an armed insurrection. General Franco used the African Army to crush the revolt with extreme brutality. 

Yet in February 1936, a ‘Popular Front’ coalition of leftists and Republicans won the elections. Led by Manuel Azaña, they were committed to bringing further reform. Suddenly everything was about to change. 

Azana Manuel, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
Prime Minister Manuel Azaña

"(We will) consolidate democracy."

Manuel Azaña
Azana Manuel, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection

Manuel Azaña

Manuel Azaña was one of the most important Spanish politicians of the 20th century. During the Second Republic, he was minister of war, prime minister on two occasions and was president during the Civil War. He founded the political party Izquierda Republicana and was profoundly committed to military and educational reform.  

1936-07-29, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
Republican soldiers defending against Nationalist rebels during street battles in Barcelona, July 1936
Time Covers - The 30S, 1936-08-24, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
Battle Lines Drawn: Azaña, Franco  & Mola

The Coup

After the February 1936 elections, right wing politicians and army generals began to fear what they saw as the ‘bolshevising’ influence of those on the left. They secretly started planning a revolt. As members of the growing fascist movement - the Falange - clashed with left-wing activists on the streets, politics and society became polarised, and political violence escalated. 

On 13 July, a prominent right-wing leader, José Calvo Sotelo, was murdered by Republican Assault Guards. The attack was a reprisal for the murder of their colleague Lieutenant José Castillo; it provided an excuse for the generals, led by Emilio Mola, to stage their coup. On 17 July, military garrisons rose in Morocco; the revolt spread quickly to mainland Spain, dividing the country in two, politically, geographically and militarily. 

1937-11, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
No Turning Back: Franco & Mola 
1936, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
Franco in the Field
Time Covers - The 30S, 1936-08-24, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection

Emilio Mola

Emilio Mola was the chief planner and director of the 1936 coup. He had served in the Moroccan War and was Director General of Security in 1930, a post which brought conflict with Republicans. Along with Franco, he coordinated and orchestrated a brutal repression in rebel-held Spain. He was killed in June 1937 in a plane crash. 

“It is necessary to spread terror...eliminating without scruples or hesitation all those who do not think as we do.”

Emilio Mola, July 1936

“The fascists shall not pass! THEY SHALL NOT PASS!”

Communist Dolores Ibárruri, July 1936

The Internationalisation of the War

Though an internal conflict at heart, international forces were crucial to the outcome of the Civil War. 

Under the Non-Intervention Agreement of the world’s major powers, both sides of the conflict were denied the right to buy or receive war materiel. 

However, the agreement was constantly flouted, primarily by Nazi Germany, Italy and the USSR. But while the Republic struggled to get arms and equipment, even with Soviet assistance, the Nationalists received a constant stream of fascist arms. It was the key factor in Franco’s victory, and spelt doom for the Republic.

1940-10-23, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
Hitler and Franco

Fascists Unite

At the war’s outset, Hitler and Mussolini sent planes to transport the Nationalist African Army from Morocco to mainland Spain. It was one of the most significant pieces of foreign intervention in the war, and greatly influenced its outcome. 

Hitler/Jaeger File, Hugo Jaeger, 1939-06-06, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
Hitler salutes the troops of the German Condor Legion
1937, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
Members of the International Brigade

The International Brigades

The International Brigades were the volunteers who fought to defend the Republic. They were organised and recruited by the Comintern (Communist International). Over 35,000 joined the brigades and international medical services; many of them were exiles from Europe’s fascist dictatorships. France, Germany, Poland and Italy provided the bulk of members, but volunteers also came from Britain, America and Canada.  

Americans - Spanish War Lincoln Brigade - 1938, Peter Stackpole, 1938, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
Douglas Roach (R) with a fellow member of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade 

"You will win but you will not convince. You will win because you have more than enough brute force; but you will not convince."

Miguel de Unamuno

Terror in the Rearguard

The uprising unleashed terror in both zones. In rebel territory, those associated with the left and Republicanism were imprisoned or executed. This ‘purge’ was sanctioned by the military, who saw the violence as necessary to purify Spain. 

In the Republican zone there was a wave of revolutionary violence against the coup’s perceived supporters: large landowners, local political bosses, industrialists, army officers, priests and others from the political right. 

War 1936 - 1939 Spanish Civil, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
Madrid Conquered, 1939, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection

The Battle for Madrid

By November 1936 the rebel armies had reached the outskirts of Madrid. Convinced the city would fall, the Republican government fled to Valencia. However, the Nationalist advance was thwarted by passionate civilians and militia units determined to make Madrid ‘the tomb of fascism’. On 8 November, the 11th International Brigade was welcomed by relieved Madrileños. Making use of the first Soviet arms delivery, they played a decisive role in defending the capital. 

Spain's Loyalist Refugees, Margaret Bourke-White, 1939, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
A young girl from Madrid takes refuge in a church after losing her home

The Fall of Malaga and the Battle of Guadalajara

On 7 February 1937, Italian and Spanish troops overpowered the inadequate defences of the southern city of Malága; Republicans were detained and executed on a mass scale. 

Flushed by this success, Mussolini persuaded Franco to launch a two-pronged offensive east of Madrid. Italian troops would attack Guadalajara, supported by Spanish forces moving on Alacá de Henares from Jarama. 

Yet the Italians were soon bogged down by appalling weather conditions and spirited Republican resistance. 

When Franco’s ‘prong’ failed to materialise, a furious Mussolini watched in horror as his sodden forces were comprehensively routed.

The ‘Miliciana’: Women in the Republican Zone

In the Republican zone, women mobilised politically on a massive scale, joining existing parties, trade unions and all-female political groups. 

Women also took up arms; the miliciana (militiawoman), clad in blue overalls, became a powerful image of revolution and antifascist resistance. This bold shattering of gender stereotypes, however, did not last long. As the war progressed, women returned to the home front where they were engaged in welfare and nursing work and industrial production. 

War 1936 - 1939 Spanish Civil, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
War 1936 - 1939 Spanish Civil, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
1937, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
Loyalist women patrol the streets

The Campaign in the North and The Bombing of Guernica

Despite their Catholicism, the Basque region in the north of the country remained loyal to the Republic. As the rebels approached Bilbao, the German Condor Legion bombed the town of Guernica, razing it to the ground. 

With Basque morale shattered, Bilbao fell in June 1937; the Republic attempted to relieve pressure by launching an attack at Brunete but the Nationalist's numerical superiority drove them back. The rebels continued their northern assault, marching into Santander in late August. The Republic responded by opening a front in Aragon aimed at capturing Zaragoza. International Brigaders took Quinto and Belchite, but the main prize remained elusive. By October, the Basque regions and Asturias had fallen to the rebels. 

Hitler/Jaeger File, Hugo Jaeger, 1939-05, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
Condor Legion on Parade
Hitler/Jaeger File, Hugo Jaeger, 1939-05, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
Men from the Condor Legion
1938-11-10, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
Franco addressing his troops


Francisco Franco Bahamonde was born in Ferrol, La Coruña, in December 1892. He was from a military family and as a young soldier he fought in the colonial war in Spanish Morocco. 

He belonged to the group of rebel generals which planned and orchestrated the July 1936 military coup which escalated into the Spanish Civil War. 

On 1 October 1936, Franco was proclaimed Generalisímo of the military forces in the rebel zone and head of the ‘Nationalist’ state. Following the victory of his forces on 1 April 1939, Franco ruled Spain as a dictator until his death in 1975. 

War 1936 - 1939 Spanish Civil, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
Nationalist troops crossing the Ebro

Military Action: From Teruel to the Ebro

The Republic launched a surprise attack on Teruel in December 1937 capturing the city, but Franco’s forces retook it in February 1938. Next came a Nationalist operation in Aragon cutting Republican territory in two. There followed an attack on Valencia. Aiming to relieve the pressure, Republican and International Brigaders advanced across the River Ebro. The battle lasted for three months, whereupon the exhausted ‘Army of the Ebro’ was forced back across the river. 

The Withdrawal of the International Brigades

International involvement had determined much of the war’s course; it would also decide its end. 

At the September 1938 Munich Conference, Britain and France had effectively surrendered Czechoslovakia to Hitler; Spain’s fate was also subordinate to appeasement. 

The Republic had no hope of securing assistance from the democracies, but Prime Minister Juan Negrín withdrew the International Brigades, hoping that Franco would remove German and Italian troops. 

This last-ditch attempt at international diplomacy fell on deaf ears. In the winter of 1938, Franco set his eyes on Catalonia; his forces entered Barcelona in January 1939. 

“You can go with pride. You are history. You are legend. You are the heroic example of the solidarity and the universality of democracy… We will not forget you; and, when the olive tree of peace puts forth its leaves, entwined with the laurels of the Spanish Republic’s victory, come back!” 

Dolores Ibárruri’s farewell to the International Brigades, October 1938


Following the fall of Cataluña in February 1939, an immense human tide of refugees crossed the border into France. More than half a million Republican civilians, soldiers and International Brigaders, fleeing Franco’s advancing armies, made this irreversible journey. 

Exhausted and terrified, on the other side of the border they were incarcerated in internment camps by the French authorities. They suffered appalling conditions; many died of disease and hunger. Among the most well known of these refugees was the poet Antonio Machado who died a few days after he crossed the border and was buried by the sea at Collioure. One of his most celebrated poems, ‘Caminante no hay Camio’ (Traveller there is no road) is a poignant expression of these refugees’ sense of loss, courage and  placelessness.

Spain's Loyalist Refugees, Margaret Bourke-White, 1939, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
Refugee families
Spanish Refugees In France, 1939, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
Spanish Refugees In France

We see the path which we can never tread again

Traveller there is no road, only the wakes on the sea.

 Antonio Machado
Hitler/Jaeger File, Hugo Jaeger, 1939-05, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
Nationalist victory parade
War 1936 - 1939 Spanish Civil, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
Hitler/Jaeger File, Hugo Jaeger, 1939-05, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection

The Casado Coup and The End of the War

In March 1939, Colonel Casado, commander of the Republican central army, launched a chaotic rebellion against his own government. Driven by dissatisfaction with the policy of continued resistance, he thought he could negotiate for a peace without reprisals. 

His advances were rebuffed by Franco and he was forced to surrender. On 27 March, the rebels entered Madrid; four days later, all of Spain was in their hands. The next day, Franco announced the end of hostilities. 

The Civil War had ended, but for thousands of fleeing refugees and terrified Republican civilians, the terror had only just begun. 

Hitler/Jaeger File, Hugo Jaeger, 1939-05, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
Women watching the nationalists victory parade
Time Covers - The 40S, Ernest Hamlin Baker, 1943-10-18, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
Last man standing: Franco would rule for over 30 years
Credits: Story

Dr Maria Thomas, Author & Postdoctoral Researcher
Mike Lewis, CEO & Founder, Historvius.com

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not represent the views of the institutions whose collections include the featured works or of Google Arts & Culture.
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