From 1936-1939, a civil war raged in Spain between those loyal to the newly- established Republican government and those who favored a conservative, militaristic system. The outcome of the Spanish Civil War altered the balance of power in Europe, tested the military power of Germany and Italy, and pushed ER “away from the peace movement and into the ranks of the anti-fascists” fighting for democracy.
In 1931, the Spanish monarchy fell and was replaced by a democratically elected government dedicated to major social reforms. The newly elected government, called the Second Republic, was largely middle class and promoted policies that attacked the traditional privileged structure of Spanish society. Their reforms included the redistribution of large estate lands; the separation of church and state; and an antiwar, antimilitarist policy dedicated to undermining the power of the aristocracy, the Catholic Church, and the armed forces. The right (landed aristocracy, the Catholic Church, a large military clique, the monarchists, and the new fascist party, the Falange) resented this attack on their authority, and united and rebelled against the government reforms. Meanwhile, the government’s idealistic reforms failed to satisfy the left-wing radicals or gain the support of workers, who increasingly engaged in protest movements against it. The Second Republic struggled to stay in power by forming a series of weak coalition governments from the 1933 election until 1936, when the Popular Front swept them from office.
The 1936 electoral victory of the Popular Front (a coalition of Liberals, Socialists, and Communists) underscored both the hope for social reforms for those neglected by the Second Republic and the fears reform posed to the right. The Nationalists (the rightist opponents of the Second Republic government) soon took up arms against the Republicans (the antimonarchist supporters of the Second Republic). In July1936, military uprisings occurred throughout Spain and General Francisco Franco led a revolt of Spanish troops in Spanish Morocco. By September, Hitler agreed to aid the Nationalists, Franco and his troops returned to Spain, France and England decided to stay out of the war, and the first International Brigade (a multinational group of volunteers largely organized by France and consisting of many Communists and American liberals) arrived to bolster the strength of defenders of the Second Republic.
Throughout the autumn, the Nationalists won major battles, consolidated their power, and appointed Franco commander-in-chief and head of state. Germany and Italy quickly recognized the new Nationalist government and provided Franco’s troops with planes, tanks, and other materiel. Unable to match the Nationalist war machine, the Spanish republic sought outside support and turned to the Soviet Union for military supplies. The Soviet aid increased internal divisions between Communist and non-Communist supporters of the republic and the anti-Nationalists began to splinter into factions tied to differing political goals.
In 1937, the United States forbade exports of weapons to Spain, Germany conducted large-scale aerial bombings on undefended civilian targets (the most famous of which was Guernica, immortalized by a painting by Pablo Picasso), and the Nationalists conquered the last Republican center in the north. In a series of attacks from March to June 1938, the Nationalists drove to the Mediterranean and cut the Republican territory in two. Late in 1938, Franco mounted a major offensive against the anti-Nationalist stronghold of Catalonia, and after months of fighting, Barcelona finally fell in January 1939.
The Nationalist capture of Catalonia sealed the republic’s defeat. Republican efforts for a negotiated peace failed in early 1939. Great Britain and France recognized the Franco regime in February and international recognition quickly followed. Finally, on April 1, 1939, the victorious Nationalists entered the final Republican stronghold of Madrid and received the unconditional surrender of the conquered Republican army in Madrid.
The Spanish Civil War had a strong impact on ER. Her close friend, journalist Martha Gellhorn, covered the war and kept ER appraised of events. She arranged for ER to see The Spanish Earth, a documentary detailing the horrors of the German attacks on civilian populations and the vast imbalance of wealth in Spain. She hoped that FDR could find a way to lift the embargo against equipment and goods for Spain, arranged for those supporting the Republican government to lobby FDR, and criticized the state department for being “not very anxious to do much for the Loyalists.” As she later wrote to a critic, ” I am not neutral in feeling, as I believe in Democracy and the right of a people to choose their own government without having it forced on them by Hitler and Mussolini.