Episode #5 of the course Revolutions that changed the world by James Wareing
Today, we are going to learn about the Spanish Revolution of 1936. The revolution led to a civil war that divided the country for the next three years and foretold the political divides that were to split Europe in the Second World War.
What Caused the Revolution?
Facing great inequality after a depression between landowners, the financially poor Spain faced a choice between communism and fascism. This came to a head in 1936, when a right-wing politician, Sotelo, was assassinated, fueling the desire for a military dictatorship to repair the country. In pitting the fascist General Francisco Franco and the Nationalists against the leftist Republican government, the revolution was reminiscent of the political confrontations that had defined the Russian Revolution and indeed, of the political clashes of the following decades.
The Republican government, the first party to be elected in Spain after the end of the monarchy, garnered support from trade unions, anarchists, and communists, not only from Spain but also from across Europe. George Orwell famously went to Spain to fight for the Republican cause and recorded his experiences in Homage to Catalonia. They received significant backing from Russia, who were keen to see another communist government on the continent.
The Nationalists, meanwhile, had international support of their own, with fascist Germany and Italy providing them with significant military support. With such major European military powers involved, it was a rehearsal of sorts for the upcoming Second World War.
In July 1936, Franco called on the army to overthrow the government. The response was quick and brutal, leading the Nationalists to capture most of the north of Spain while the Republicans murdered whoever they considered as dissidents, while preserving power in Madrid.
The war was brutal, which was demonstrated no more so than by the bombing of Guernica in 1937. The German air force orchestrated the attack, leaving hundreds dead and the city virtually destroyed. The attack prompted Picasso to paint his famous painting, Guernica, a vivid depiction of the horrors of war. In 1938, the Republican forces were gradually being overcome. The ultimate blow came in the battle of Ebro in November of that year, where they lost 75,000 soldiers and their efforts were all but done. Madrid, which had been put under siege by the Nationalists in November 1936 but remained in Republican control, was surrendered in March 1939, signifying the end of the war.
What Happened Next?
Franco ruled Spain until his death in 1975, and after initial isolation from the rest of the world, Spain began to be recognized in the global community. Franco had appointed Prince Juan Carlos to be his successor; however, the new King of Spain defied his will and enabled Spain’s return to democracy.
How Is It Viewed Today?
The civil war and Franco’s reign still raises tough questions and much conflict to this day. Franco’s body was embalmed and once lay in a great mausoleum in the Valley of the Fallen, a memorial site to those who died in the civil war. Spain elected a new socialist government in 2018 and decided to exhume Franco’s body and move it away from the Valley of the Fallen. Many had considered the grand mausoleum to be a monument to the far-right, and in a European environment where far-right politics are on the rise, this was seen as a dangerous message to promote. Indeed, the mausoleum had been used as a symbolic point of convergence for the far-right in Spain, who were particularly upset by the move. Despite passing a law in 1977 to prevent any criminal investigations into Franco’s reign, allowing Spain to put the past behind them, the civil war is still prescient and controversial.
In tomorrow’s lesson, we shall return the other side of WW2 to the Chinese Revolution, which shaped the country that thrives today.
Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari
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