The Spanish Civil War (1936-1952): A Reinterpretation

August 5, 2019
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The notion that the Spanish Civil War ended on April 1, 1939 is a convention that is as taken for granted—in textbooks, scholarship and the media—as, say, the date of Franco’s death, November 20, 1975. Yet the death of Franco is a fact, while the establishment of the end of the war in 1939 is an interpretation. And like any interpretation, it is subject to debate.

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A company of the XXXV Brigade of the Unión Nacional Española, a Spanish guerrilla army formed in France in 1942.

My argument in what follows is simple: the Spanish civil war did not end in 1939, but in 1952. It was a civil war, therefore, that lasted 17 years instead of the three conventionally assumed.

To be sure, this 17-year-long civil war was not homogeneous in military terms. It varied over the years, and so did the repertoires of violence employed. In fact, the military dimension of the Spanish Civil War can be divided into three distinct phases: (1) A non-conventional symmetrical civil war; (2) a conventional civil war; and (3) an irregular civil war. (I take these three concepts from Stathis N. Kalyvas, who has analyzed the different military devices in the context of civil wars.)

This first phase, of unconventional symmetrical civil war, emerged from the failure of the coup d’état until November 1936, although there was a period of transition that lasted until February 1937. As several historians have pointed out, this period saw a primitive form of column warfare that confronted small infantry units lacking heavy weaponry. This situation began to vary from November 1936 on, thanks to the role of foreign military advisors, the gradual organization under a single command in both armies, and the massive shipment of heavy weaponry from Germany, Italy and the Soviet Union.

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Republican prisoners of the XXIII Brigade in the concentration camp at Villalba, Tarragona, August 23, 1938. Biblioteca Digital Hispánica. BNE, CC BY-NC-SA.

These changes led to a slow military transformation of the war. From an unconventional symmetrical war, by the spring of 1937 the conflict had evolved into a conventional civil war. From then until April 1939, the war was fought by two regular armies that faced each other on the battlefield using the power of modern artillery by land, sea, and air. The defeat of the republican regular army in April 1939, however, did not imply the end of the internal armed conflict. Rather, it spurred a second military transformation of the war.

From April 1, 1939, Franco’s dictatorship had to face a much weaker enemy, less numerous and completely isolated, but at the same time quite elusive: the anti-Franco guerrillas. Small armed groups, active mostly in mountainous areas, tried first to defend themselves against the wave of violence deployed by the dictatorship after the end of the conventional war. By 1944, however, in the heat of the Allied victories in the context of World War II, they tried to organize themselves as an irregular army in an attempt to overthrow the dictatorship.

The irregular war between the Francoist state and the anti-Francoist guerrillas generated a logic of violence of its own, within the framework of the political purges initiated by the rebels in July 1936. Thus, in the 1940s Franco’s dictatorship deployed two parallel logics of violence that in some ways operated like communicating vessels but were nevertheless quite distinct. They were directed against the same internal enemy: those who in political and class terms had dared to challenge the traditional order.

After the defeat of the Republican regular army, the dictatorship applied an extensive punitive program. The defeated civilians and soldiers alike had to atone for the actions they had committed in the past. Most of them were classified by the dictatorship as “redeemable” and subjected to an intense program of isolation, punishment, and forced conversion. On the other hand, thousands of Republicans were classified as irredeemable and executed by military courts. This punitive logic was designed to permanently subjugate the enemy. It was the sheer magnitude of this repressive process that, in the 1940s, compelled a small but significant number of its targets to rebel.

The armed challenge of the guerrilla groups unleashed an irregular civil war and with it, a logic of violence conceived as counterinsurgency. The organization of armed groups against the dictatorship threatened stabilization of the regime. The guerrilla was also the ultimate example that the country’s internal enemy had not yet been completely exterminated. For that reason, the dictatorship combined different repressive instruments, including military courts and the prison system. Still, the logic of counterinsurgency fundamentally imposed a broad repertoire of brutal practices and massacres against civilians and combatants alike.

Many of the methods used were similar to those used during the first stage of the civil war—including such practices as the public exposure of corpses. But novel practices were introduced as well. Particularly noteworthy among these was the development of intelligence services, which created extensive networks of confidants, directed paramilitary groups specialized in the dirty warfare, implemented methods of psychological warfare, designed tactics to attract the guerrilla fighters, infiltrated the main armed and political sectors of the anti-Franco opposition, and resorted to the systematic use of torture as a method of extracting information.

The irregular civil war, with its logic of counterinsurgency, continued until 1952, when the last guerrilla groups linked to the Spanish Communist Party were demobilized.

Given all this, it is time we question the notion of the Spanish “post-war” period. Spain in the 1940s is closer to the irregular wars in Poland (1942-1948), Greece (1946-1949), the Baltic countries (1944-1953), the Ukraine (1944-1953) and Romania (1944-1962) than to any of the countries of post-war Western Europe after World War II.

It is time, in other words, to rethink the periodization of the Spanish Civil War and to deconstruct the narrative that the dictatorship helped solidify and that has been dominant for more than 80 years. The Spanish Civil War did not end in the year 1939. It lasted 17 years.

Jorge Marco teaches Spanish Politics, History & Society at the University of Bath (UK). A longer version of this text will appear soon as “Rethinking the Post-War Period in Spain: Violence and Irregular Civil War, 1939-1952” in the Journal of Contemporary History. A Spanish version of this text was published in The Conversation on May 9, 2019. English version by Sebastiaan Faber.

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