Why did the Nationalists win the Spanish Civil War?

December 18, 2017 September 1st, 2019 Free Essays Online for College Students

The Spanish Civil War was to be both bloody and protracted, with a Nationalist victory only being achieved after three years of bitter and arduous fighting. The reasons for the Nationalist victory are both numerous and diverse but whilst military matters such as leadership, quality of troops, strategic objectives and foreign military aid are crucial to any explanation of the Nationalist triumph, these alone do not account for the fall of the Spanish Republic. The inherent weaknesses and divisions within the Republican military and political system were vital to the success of the Nationalist forces throughout the war and perhaps most importantly, the attitudes of the European governments and the eclipse by the greater events in Europe ultimately determined the fate of Republican Spain.

The early days of the rebellion were crucial for both the Nationalist and Republican forces and it therefore seems possible that the initial errors made by Casares Quiroga’s government sowed the seeds of an eventual Nationalist victory. Although the military uprising had the great advantage of surprise and the backing of the majority of younger officers, it fell far short of its immediate objectives, to take all of Spain’s major cities prior to an assault on Madrid. According to the Left, it was the government’s refusal to hand over arms to the para-military forces of the unions and militias which allowed the conspirators their initial success. Although the government consisted of civilian legalists who were appalled at the consequences of an armed struggle, the Republic had clearly made a fatal error in refusing to authorize the distribution of arms. This early mistake undoubtedly aided the insurgents in their most vulnerable days of the war.

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The commitment of local army garrisons to the rebellion and also the willingness of the Civil and Assault guards to abandon their allegiance to the Republic was often the deciding factor in the fall of key regions and towns. Where the army and police collaborated, the military and civil arms of the Republican state collapsed, leaving the Madrid government with no means by which to restore control. By the end of the first week of the rebellion the Insurgents controlled about a third of Spain, including the most important wheat growing districts. The early triumphs of the Nationalists had therefore been due to careful organization, the ardour and skill of their middle ranking officers, the defection of the Civil and Assault guards and the refusal of the Madrid government to arm civilians.

At this early stage the military balance was not as unfavourable to the Republic as the foreign press supposed. A majority of senior officers remained loyal to the government and the so called “revolt of the generals” included only one in command of a division. The strength of the Nationalist army was to lie in the fact that it had captured the allegiance of the majority of younger officers, a cadre which the Republic would find hard to improvise. The military balance in terms of troops was roughly equal, with the elite, pro-Nationalist Army of Africa representing the key to the situation. However, the crucial fact for both sides was that the Colonial army was still in Africa and the Spanish navy remained firmly in the hands of the government. For the Republic, the clear need was to blockade the straits in order to prevent Franco’s troops ever reaching the Spanish mainland. On July 19th, General Franco, realising that the pronunciamiento had fallen far short of its goal, took the momentous decision to seek limited foreign military aid.

The German and Italian governments responded quickly to the request for aid, and by late July, German bombers and navy battleships were beginning to destroy the Republican fleet stationed in the straits. Once German and Italian aircraft had given the insurgents control of the water, twenty Junker JU52 transport planes were sent to Seville and Morocco, enabling some 24,000 Moors and Legionnaires to be rapidly transported to Southern Andalusia. It was the failure of the Republican air force to concentrate on the destruction of the lumbering Junkers that ultimately allowed the Army of Africa into metropolitan Spain. The Colonial army was, in the early decisive months of the war, to hold the military balance in the peninsula and it was perhaps the greatest mistake or misfortune of the conflict that the Republic did not use its superior resources to prevent it ever reaching the mainland.

Any account of the Nationalist victory must inevitably include an appraisal of Franco as Commander-in-Chief of the Insurgent forces. Franco was appointed commander at the end of September 1936, after the Army of Africa had given practical proof of its military efficiency. Franco’s prestige, military standing, skill and seniority, had made him the natural choice for commander, and the people of the Nationalist zone clearly accepted his supreme and overall command as something desirable and necessary. The immediate effect of the unification of military command under Franco was seen in the spheres of logistics and strategy, and the highly multiform Nationalist forces that entered the war were gradually transformed by a powerful sense of unity, which by the end of the conflict could be termed monolithic. However he used it, Franco’s monolithic military and political control undoubtedly gave Nationalist Spain a great advantage throughout the war.

The unity of military command and spiritual unity within the Nationalist zone were decisive factors in maintaining a tough, effective military discipline, which was perhaps the principal advantage of Franco’s troops over their opponents. In addition, a delicate communications network functioned with increasing efficiency within the Nationalist zone, making possible the execution of complex military plans. Trusting more and more in his logistical superiority, Franco was able to leave whole sectors thinly manned whilst concentrating huge forces on the point chosen for attack. However, Franco as commander was always conscious of symbolic or moral actions, always running his war with political criteria in mind. The costly relief of Alcazar was more than compensated by the liberation of its “heroes” thus injecting a vital dose of confidence into his moral crusade. As commander, Franco’s task was to decide in what region a new offensive should be, but he was careful to give supreme field command to such men as Saliquet, showing none of the recklessness of his early days in Morocco. Franco’s achievements in the Civil War were therefore considerable and as Commander-in-Chief of the Nationalist forces, he undoubtedly made a great, if not decisive contribution to the defeat of Republican Spain. However, Franco could not have achieved victory without a strong, efficient and well equipped army, which was often the deciding factor in key campaigns.

For many Socialists and Anarchists in Republican Spain, a “peoples” force could in no way resemble the pre-Civil War army, which had so accurately reflected the social divisions of traditional Spain. However, Republican virtue was by no means an adequate defence when facing Franco’s elite troops. The speed of Franco’s advance on Madrid was an indication of the difficulties facing the militia; ill-equipped, under-armed and untrained in holding terrain contested by a splendid fighting force. In the improvisation of a regular army, the Nationalists always held a great psychological advantage, as they possessed the seasoned commanders and the enthusiastic cadre of younger officers. In addition, the officers of the Moors and Legionnaires had an excellent relationship with their men, and all shared their pride of service in the elite force created by Franco. The Nationalist forces also consisted of other experienced troops, with the Civil and Assault guards being especially outstanding.

The task of building a new model army within the Republican zone rested on the senior officers who had remained loyal to their oaths. However, they were initially subjected to a damaging political purge with only 3,500 out of 7,000 being classified as loyal. After the obvious failures of the militia system, the process of militarisation proceeded slowly and was not completed until the summer of 1937. Although a remarkable creation, the Popular Army was always weakened by tactical failures and a chronic shortage of arms, therefore remaining a skeletal and artificial force for the duration of the war. Whenever the militia was faced with a flanking movement or subjected to artillery fire the troops often fled, having no idea of the value of dispersal. Government troops always appeared to fail when faced with a sophisticated manoeuvre, even when enjoying overwhelming superiority. During the Brunete offensive the Republican forces were always superior in number to the Nationalists, yet the failure of their attack was due to a general uncertainty and lack of confidence among the officers, with all appearing to be overcome by an excessive fear of the enemy and obsessive concern with counter attacks on their flanks.

The tactical failure at Brunete and other offensives were nearly all explicable by a breakdown in the lower levels of command, and collapses of this kind rapidly became the source of bitter accusations and rumours, thus further weakening morale. The Republican army was rarely able to take advantage of its local military superiority, which rapidly diminished as the main army of the North disintegrated. As a fighting force the Popular Army never fully overcame the weaknesses of the militia system and therefore remained inferior to the Nationalist Army, which had so been effectively united under the firm hand of Franco.

The influence of the International Brigades in the Civil War remains in question. The arrival of the Xlth Brigade in Madrid in November 1936 was of great psychological importance, yet within two days it had lost a third of its 1900 soldiers. The Internationals were to fight in all the major campaigns of the War, but as a multinational force the problems of communication were always great. The difficulties in language were compounded by international rivalries, with some Brigade commanders being extremely tyrannical and repressive. The overall total of Brigadiers was never large, at most perhaps 35,000 and Hugh Thomas argues that their numbers were always too small to have turned the tide in Republican favour.

A critical factor throughout the war would be the quality and volume of military aid each side received, with victory going to the force with superior supplies or foreign co-operation. The Nationalist forces were greatly aided in the early days of the war by the pro-Insurgent policy adopted by the European Powers. At Gibraltar, the British refused to supply Republican ships while passing details of their manoeuvres to Nationalist forces. Portugal co-operated with the Nationalist’s, making the country’s communication networks available, thus allowing Mola’s forces in Castile to link with Franco’s in Andalusia. German freighters were allowed to unload in Lisbon and from there supplies were transported to the Spanish frontier by rail. The United States had not listed oil as a war commodity in 1935, and by mid July 1936 some five Texaco tankers were heading for Insurgent held ports. These several forms of military and economic aid received by the Nationalists in the early days of the war were vital to the success of the rebellion, but the supply of foreign aid was to become ever more crucial as the war progressed.

The quality of foreign aircraft underwent significant changes during the Civil War, changes which were to greatly benefit the Nationalist Forces. In 1936 the German and Italian aircraft were inferior to their French equivalents, but with the arrival of the first squadron of Fiats, the Nationalist’s once again reigned supreme in the air. The arrival of Russian fighters briefly reversed this superiority, but with the advent of ME109’s and Hel 11’s, the Nationalists regained an air superiority which was to last until the end of the war. The Basque campaign clearly illustrates the psychological and military importance of air power, as the Nationalists were free to bomb without any danger from Republican attack. The bombing of Guernica demonstrated the destructive capacity of modem aircraft and may well have sapped Bilbao’s will to resist. The superiority of the Nationalist air force was therefore a decisive factor in their eventual victory.

In terms of manpower, the greatest contribution to the Nationalist forces was Italian with over 50,000 troops serving in Spain between 1936 and 1939. Germany’s greatest contribution was the Condor Legion consisting of over 100 aircraft, followed by Panzer companies and tank instructors. The Portuguese government contributed a legion of 3,000 men, whilst other countries aided Nationalist Spain by supplying raw materials such as lubricants and oil. However, the Republic had no such accommodating allies in the West and after French arms supplies ceased in mid 1937, the only significant contribution came from the Soviet Union. While Soviet aid remained the chief prop of the Republican regime, supplies when they arrived tended to stave off defeat rather than ensure victory. Furthermore, when the French frontier was sealed in February 1937, supply by sea became increasingly difficult due to Italian submarine activity. Stalin had other concerns; he was becoming preoccupied with the Japanese threat from the East whilst also turning his mind to some form of accommodation with Germany. Although Soviet aid had greatly helped the Republic, it was too frequently dissipated by the failure of the government to create an efficient army. Military aid was therefore vital for both sides and the superior quality the Nationalists received greatly contributed to their victory, but Raymond Carr believes that “Logistical superiority, was a much more decisive factor in the final victory than any superiority due to foreign arms or aid” ( Carr p207 ).

Franco’s great skill had been to force organizational unity upon the squabbling Monarchist and Fascist groups, however, the political problems within the Republican zone were always far greater than those faced by General Franco. On the eve of the Civil War, the left was riven by discord and the Socialist party was split into irreconcilable factions. As Prime Minister after September 1936, Caballero faced an important political phenomenon; the rapid growth of the Communist party within the Republican zone, reaching almost a million members by mid 1937. Although Caballero had been billed as the “Spanish Lenin”, the attitude of the Communists towards him was condescending and manipulatory. In an atmosphere of mutual mistrust, Caballero therefore failed to make use of the most energetic and popular civilian leader in his zone, Indalecio Prieto. Thus between November 1936 and May 1937, two political coalitions began to form within Republican Spain, consisting of those for and against Communism. In addition, the Republic was constantly faced with the problem of regionalism which resurfaced after July 1936, preventing the government from ever establishing a unified control of their zone. The government constantly struggled with the Catalan Left, and efforts to regain control of the French border in April 1937 led to a brief civil war within a civil war. Matters came to a head in May 1937 when the Communists staged a cabinet coup against Caballero. The new government of Negrin was passively accepted rather than truly supported by the regions and the non-Communist left, despite the clear need for a strong united government at all costs. Thus in contrast to the increasing unity achieved in the Nationalist zone during 1937, Republican Spain remained sorely divided. There can be little doubt that the competing power centres that emerged in the summer of 1936 put great difficulties in the way of a unified economy and war effort. If political unity helped the Nationalists, disunity among the Republicans was a prime cause of their defeat.

By April 1938 Negrin was becoming increasingly worried over the loss of Republican morale The Republican economy was running down after the crucial loss of the industrial areas of the North, and the general shortage of raw materials paralysed a war industry already shaken by the collectivist revolution. The independence of the collectives was almost certainly a handicap for the Republic in terms of economics, as it was not possible to impose a unified foreign trading policy or a national production plan. High grade steel was in short supply, textile production was decreasing rapidly and food was becoming extremely scarce. With little positive news from the battlefront, it was clear that the Republic was losing its will to resist.

In the financial field Franco always held an advantage over Republican Spain. The financiers Juan March, Juan Ventosa and the exiled King Alfonso XIII had between them contributed over $85,000,000 to the Insurgent treasury. Following their example friends in the British, German and Italian business communities all channelled their aid to the Nationalist headquarters. In terms of foreign aid the Republic was at a great disadvantage, as their benefactors, the Soviet Union, insisted that all war material be paid for in gold. An increasingly desperate Caballero could only meet the cost by transferring reserves from the Bank of Madrid. The Nationalist management of the economy was particularly astute, and after the fall of Bilbao in June 1937, Franco unabashedly redirected the major share of Biscayan ore to its traditional British market. The financial management of the war was therefore a great success for the Nationalists and a disaster for the Republic, thus greatly contributing to their defeat.

The passions generated by the Civil War within Europe were great, yet it is easy to overestimate their significance or the interest of the Great Powers in Spain. By the beginning of 1938 it was becoming increasingly apparent that the destiny of Europe would not be settled on the Spanish peninsula, but in Austria and Czechoslovakia.

The Czech crisis presented the last great hope for the Republic, for if the Soviets and the Western Powers joined in a war against Hitlerite aggression, the Republic would be an ally in the anti-Fascist coalition; however, Franco assured London and Paris that he would be absolutely neutral in case of war. To his great relief the Prime Ministers of France, Great Britain and Italy met at Munich in September 1938 and without consulting the Soviet Union, delivered the fortified zone of Czechoslovakia to Hitler. The Munich pact dealt a death blow to the hopes of the Republic, and facing diplomatic humiliation, the Soviet Union rapidly withdrew men and arms from Spain. Franco had been extremely fortunate, for if the Czech crisis had led to a European war, France may well have intervened by sending an army to save the Republic. However, the European war which did loom in 1939 rapidly overshadowed the war in Spain, and all the passions which it had generated. The military fate of the Republic was therefore sealed by the betrayal of the foreign powers and as a by-product of a larger international crisis.

In conclusion, the Spanish military revolt of July 1936 stands as an audacious coup by a comparatively small number of conspirators. The initial success of the revolt was due to their intense commitment and resolution, which served to stiffen reluctant colleagues, overthrow senior commanders and in a number of cases encourage whole garrisons to revolt. Franco’s appointment as Commander-in-Chief was vital to the success of the rebellion, as he turned the desperation, fear and cynicism of his opponents into successful engines of war. Franco’s troops were of better fighting quality, their arms were generally superior and they were consistently better in manoeuvre than their opponents. Without assistance from abroad the rising may well have failed, but Hitler’s timely intervention in transporting the colonial army to the mainland saved the day for the Nationalists and made Franco the undisputed leader of the rebels. The character of rebel Spain in the early months of the war was that of a new state in which all trends were towards centralization, unity and war efficiency.

In the Republic however, the institutions of the old state were being laboriously revived, while any attempt at innovation spelled a disunity and dissipation of resources. In terms of international relations, the effects of the polarization between those who supported the Popular Front and those of the anti-Comintern grouping, made the position of those who were not wholly in sympathy with either side a difficult one. In Britain, the Conservative government hoped somehow to lessen tension in Europe by trying rather unsuccessfully to make non-intervention a reality. In France, Leon Blum, bitterly criticised by the Right, was genuinely afraid that the civil war in Spain might set the example for a civil war in France. Therefore, in the final analysis, the Nationalists won the Civil War as too many of the political, ideological, religious and economic interests of the Great Powers were against the Spanish Republic.


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