“It was in Spain that (my generation) 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. It is this, doubtless, which explains why so many, the world over, feel the Spanish drama as a personal tragedy”
“On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade”
The Spanish Civil War ( 1936-39 ) took place in what the poet Auden called “a low dishonest decade”, characterised by the democracies’ fear and inability to act against the rising threat of Fascism. It brought to power a military dictator who condemned his people to ignorance and servility in a country that was not poor but blighted by centuries-old corruption and avarice, summed up succinctly by Goya’s etching of two peasants supporting the burdens of political incompetence a hundred years before:
“Give us a hand, mate”
From the very beginning of the conflict, the rebel army officers were determined to terrorise their way to victory. Starting with summary killings in the streets of Seville, they followed up with the slaughter of over 2,000 Republican prisoners in the bullring at Badajoz in August. An eye-witness to the carnage, Condor Legion officer Hans Von Frunk, one of the few high ranking Germans present, advised against the deployment of German troops in Spain because he claimed he was “a soldier used to combat, who fought in France during the World War but had never seen such brutality and ferocity as that with which the African Expeditionary Force carried out their operations.” Faced with such savagery, he feared the German mercenaries would actually become demoralised.
German mercenaries: Condor Legion passing-out parade, Hamburg 1939
Colonel Juan Yagüe, commander of the Foreign Legion and the man personally responsible for the Badajoz massacre, replied when interviewed by reporter Robert Whitaker, “Of course we shot them. What do you expect? Was I supposed to take 4,000 reds with me as my column advanced, racing against time? Was I expected to turn them loose in my rear and let them make Badajoz red again?”
In all, the Spanish Civil War was a deathly struggle in which over 300,000 people lost their lives, more than 120,000 of them civilians, and a further 200,000 in reprisals that continued up to 1943. Those who hoped an Allied victory in World War II would lead to regime change were to be cruelly disappointed: in May 1944, Winston Churchill, in a speech to Parliament just before the D-Day landings, virtually endorsed what had become “White Terror” by declaring the internal problems ( of Spain ) were a matter for the Spanish people themselves, and “not for us to meddle in such affairs.” The last Republican fugitive was actually executed by firing squad in Madrid in April 1963.
Civil Guards in Extremadura, 1951. From the cover of Death of A Nationalist by Rebecca Pawel
It should therefore come as no surprise that tensions have remained acute between Spaniards to this day: the Civil War is not a subject many wish to revisit.
Prof. Paul Preston chronicles the extent of reprisals in Nationalist Spain
Yet in spite of the cruelty, it must be said that pride and passion ran high on both sides. Many volunteers who fought with the International Brigades claimed after service in WWII that fighting with the Brigades in Spain meant more to them than liberating Europe from the Nazis, and very few on the Nationalist side subsequently repented their actions.
Major Milton Wolff and International Brigade Officers on the Ebro, 1938 / Courtesy Despues del Hipotamo.com
There were international volunteers on the Nationalist side too. For the 700 Irish – far more than from any other nation – the war in Spain was a crusade against Communism. Indeed, it was a time when many on both sides saw the war as a cataclysm that would decide the fate of the world. Massive logistical and military intervention by Germany and Italy on the side of the insurgents and Soviet support for the Republic underlined this belief, though in reality the vast majority of so-called “Reds” would have had little knowledge of the works of Karl Marx, while the Nationalists’ deep mistrust and resentment of their allies prevented them from having more than a perfunctory camaraderie with Hitler and Mussolini’s mercenaries.
Franco’s Irish: General Eoin O’Duffy is seated front row, fifth from right
On July 18th, 1936, Army officers sympathetic to the insurgents proceeded to take over key installations throughout Spain, and confidently expected to secure control of the country in a matter of days, and in some cities, such as Seville and Burgos, they were immediately successful.
But what happened afterwards gave rise to a conflict that would last the best part of three years: in Barcelona, the insurgents were driven from their strongholds by a popular uprising; in Madrid, armed civilians led by NCOs, police and lower ranks loyal to the Republic converged on the Montaña army barracks, where a massacre took place after confusion over a false attempt to surrender. Those lucky to survive were jailed in the nearby Modelo prison ( now the Air Ministry ), and the world’s press seized on the gruesome pictures of the massacre.
Insurgents surrendering to armed militia at the Montaña barracks in Madrid, July 1936
Madrid was to hold out for another 1000 days, and surrendered only when the Republic laid down its arms in March 1939, barely six months short of the outbreak of the Second World War. The city was never captured.
This tour is the story of Madrid’s proud and brave resistance to Fascism. It is the story of the rebel armies’ attempts to invest the city, and when they couldn’t, of their attempts to starve and bomb the people into submission.
Sheltering from aerial bombardment in the Madrid Metro, November 1936
It is the story of the International Brigades, who came from every corner of the world to defend the Spanish Republic, and the medical services who developed revolutionary practices in blood transfusion and the treatment of wounds.
Dr. Norman Bethune of Canada (centre ) and his mobile transfusion crew
It is also the story of writers and journalists who believed Madrid was the only place to be, in spite of the bombs.