Spanish Civil War sample essay
Did the Nationalists win the Spanish Civil War because of their strengths or the weaknesses of the Republicans?
The evidence that supports the idea that the Nationalists won the Spanish Civil War because of their strength is abundant. The unity of the Nationalists was obvious and meant that there was both great organisation and co-ordination, meaning there was no ambiguity in the goals set by those fighting for the Nationalists. Franco’s plans for a long term war meant that he was able to ensure the defeat of the Republic by slowly squeezing the life out of the Republic war effort, which already was heavily reliant on Soviet aid, by securing Republican strong holds throughout Spain. The contrasting lack of unity on the Republic as well as they heavy reliance on foreign aid are the reasons why many feel the weaknesses of the Republic were the reason for its downfall. The reliance on foreign aid does not just relate to the aid received from Soviet Russia, but the lack of aid from Britain and France due to non-intervention.
The absence of this aid was extremely influential because as Soviet aid shrunk the Republican cause was exposed as weak and it slowly became a question of when rather than if. However, the strengths of the Republic must not be underestimated, and the reliance of foreign aid came from both sides as it could be easily argued that the initial Nationalist uprising would have failed without help from foreign sources. In fact, the aid received by the Republicans from the Soviets was superior to that being supplied by both Germany and Italy to the Nationalists. The militia victories in both Barcelona and Madrid were a huge morale boost for the Republicans, while also showing the Republic would not just lie down. The International Brigades, although not effective as fighting force, were a symbol of international solidarity in terms of the fight for the maintenance of democracy in Europe.
The depth and passion of the working class support that was present for the Republic was one its greatest assets, and it is this passion of the working class and the militias that they formed that kept both Madrid and Barcelona under Republican control in the early stages of the Nationalist uprising. The organisation of the working class through organisations such as the CNT and the UGT was originally seen as an advantage, but it would quickly become apparent that even this organisation would not stop the divisions of the Republicans and of the left from crippling the struggle against Franco and his Nationalists. The main divisions came from the various communist parties as well as the anarchists, none of whom could fight alongside the other; such was the extent to which their ideologies differed. The PCE, who had very strong Soviet backing and were heavily influenced by Stalinism, frequently clashed with both the anarchist CNT and the PSOE.
The main differences was the want of a revolution, the communist PCE thought that the priority should be to win the war in order to secure the Republic’s power, and then lead the communist revolution, where as both the CNT and POUM felt it was necessary for the revolution to happen if any hope of defeating the Nationalists was to remain. These tensions would boil over in the “May Days” of 1937 where fighting would break out on the streets of Barcelona, and many historians dub these actions as the Civil War within the Civil War. The feeling of the CNT and the POUM that the PCE was too moderate still remained, as too did the concern that the PCE were merely agents of Stalin and were not genuinely concerned about the future of Spain. There had already been clashes on the French frontier with between the CNT militias and the Government forces sent to take over from them, due to the Communist influence in the Government.
This resentment carried over into May and over a span of four days, 200-500 people were killed as a result of clashes between the CNT, POUM and the PCE. Even though the CNT and POUM had a common enemy in the PCE, they were at a massive disadvantage due to the fact that they were unable to unite together as they too had ideological differences that were so vast that they could not be ignored. This crisis was a turning point for the Republic which saw the influence of the Communists vastly increase. The main political casualty of the May Days was Largo Cabellero, who had always been opposed to the Communist interference, especially when it had been influenced so heavily by Stalin and the USSR. So great was his hatred of the Communist interference that he once famously sent out the Soviet Ambassador, Rosenberg, from a Cabinet meeting as he tried to impose the will of the Soviets in January 1937. After the events of the May Days Cabellero had little choice but to resign, and give way to Negrin, who some historians argue was a mere pawn of the wishes of the Communists.
Even if this was the case, the Republic became more unified under Negrin, even if the underlying ideological differences still existed. With Communist influence in the government, Stalin was still willing to send the aid that was essential to the survival of the republic, while the Popular Army also emerged from the fighting in Barcelona as it was finally accepted a well trained force was needed; no longer could the Republic rely on the scrappy little militias to fend off the advances of the Nationalist forces. Although this move was damaging for the morale of many revolutionaries it was a necessary step that could not be put off much longer.. As a result of this, it could be argued that the clashes on the left went some way in to helping the Republic re-organise and gain a properly trained military force, although the lack of co-operation would remain a fatal flaw for the rest of the war. Where there were clashes on the Republican side, there was unity on the Nationalist side.
Following a series of convenient plane crashes, in the eyes of Franco anyways, there was only one leader for the Nationalists to follow, a unified idea for the whole of the Civil War to from behind. There were three events early on in the War that showed the priority of the Nationalists to gain unity and their success in gaining it The first was “Instruccion reservada no.1” (25th May 1936) which was a meeting called by General Mola to determine the overall leader of the Nationalist cause. Although Mola originally saw Franco as unfit to lead the Nationalist cause, his connections with Italy and Germany were priceless, he was a man with very few enemies as he had no major involvement in politics before, on top of this he also had the support of the Fallange which was vital. Although he did not like the decision, Mola conceded and the Nationalist cause had its one leader. 15th August saw the Feast of Assumption and the selection of the Nationalist flag, although a small factor it once again showed the unity of the cause.
The Day of Caudillo (1st October) was also integral, it saw Franco officially sworn in as Generalisimo of the Nationalist Army, and so he could carry out his plans for a long term war without questions from his Spanish counterparts. This unity meant orders were easily carried out and co-ordination between battalions was to a good standard, vital for the long term war of Franco. It was much easier for those with Nationalist sympathies to support the Nationalists because of their clear intentions and aims, and so it was much easier for those capable of giving aid to send it. The political strength of
the Nationalist cause came from its unity, a fact that cannot be understated, and it is this strength that was integral for laying the foundations of a successful campaign.
Although both sides were fighting for completely different versions of Spain, the reliance on foreign aid is something that is common on both sides. There is sometimes a misinterpretation of this aid, namely that the German and Italy aid was the most superior throughout the war, but it was actually the Soviets that provided the better aid in the first few years of the war, and it was this aid that helped the Republicans hang on for so long. Although initially favouring non-intervention, Stalin made the decision to send aid to the Republicans after it became evident that both Italy and Germany were supplying aid to the Nationalists. Stalin’s aim was not a Communist Spain, but the protection of France, as if Spain became facist, they would be encircled by a bloc of Fascist regimes. This being the case it would seem Hitler would be able to concentrate his expansionist policies eastwards into Russia, and eventuality which Russia was not yet able to fend off.
The first load of Soviet aid arrived in October 1936, just in time to be a serious factor in the defence of Madrid, a key victory and stronghold for the Republicans. November saw the arrival of 500 Soviet advisors in Spain, to help with the organisation of military actions, these are the advisors who would help organise the Popular Army which was yet another key part of the Republican war effort. The influence of the Soviet aid cannot only be seen when it is being supplied, but the fall out after the point at which it was withdrawn. By 1938, after the exclusion of Russia from the Munich Conference between Germany, Britain and France, from which Neville Chamberlin returned with his famous piece of paper declaring “peace in our time”, it became clear that there would be no additional aid for the Republicans, and so the Soviets did not feel like they could continue an already faltering cause. This forced the Republicans onto the open market where weapons were often overpriced and so they simply could not afford to maintain the war effort much longer.
It could be argued that the Soviet aid prolonged the war, and the Nationalists could not win the war while the Soviets were still involved, and so the Nationalists had to wait for the Republicans to weaken before they were able to secure victory. As well as showing the Soviet influence, the events of 1938 also showed the impact of non-intervention had on the war. The horrors of the Great War and the impact of the Great Depression had forced Britain especially into a policy of appeasement; they were desperate to avoid European war by any means possible. Although France were initially in favour of supporting the Republican cause, Leon Blum was forced to follow a policy of non-intervention divisions domestically in French politics, at one point there was concern there would be civil war in France as well.
The Non-Intervention committee was also created to try and enforce the idea of non intervention. Its members included Germany and Italy so the sincerity of this committee has come under question by some historians. The only notable success of this committee was its restriction of Italian arms shipments to Spain, which considering Italy was on the committee, does not seem too impressive. The policy of non-intervention was a great help to the Nationalists, who continued to receive Italian and German aid, as it simply meant the Republicans did not receive the help they so desperately needed. Another form of international help came in the form of the International Brigades. These were an important propaganda tool and morale boost. It showed the solidarity of those who believed in democracy worldwide, and showed there were people who were willing to fight for this, even in a country in which they did not live. Although a good morale boost, they were not effective in battle and their influence in many of the battles that they were involved in is questionable.
The support received by the Nationalists from both Germany and Italy was influential not just because of its sheer quantity, but because of both its timing and quality. From the very beginning of the war this was clear, after the quick takeover of the Moroccan colonies by the Nationalists, it was vital that the troops of the Army of Africa made it to the mainland Spain to help the push North. This would not have been possible to do without the help of the German Luftwaffe, who provided air lifts to provide the service of transporting the Army of Africa. Without this Franco would not have been able to capture the town in the South he did with such efficiency. The Condor Legion, 10,000 strong, was sent to Spain to help the Nationalist cause, and they were lethally effective in providing the support needed to the Nationalists. The bombing of Guernica in 1937 showed just how powerful the German influence was, if used to its full potential it could decimate any Republican stronghold or city in the country.
This was not the limit of the air dominance provided by the Germans, although the upper hand initially went to the Republicans due to the quality of the Soviet planes, the introduction of the ME109s shifted the balance of power in favour of the Nationalists. This air dominance would be key during the final push to Madrid in the final days of the war. The Italian aid must not be underestimated either, they provided 60,000 troops, a monumental amount considering it is a war being fought on foreign soil for a foreign cause. On top of this Mussolini supplied bombers, transports and regularly shipped arms and ammunition to Spain to aid the cause. As the war progressed, the strength of the foreign aid did not diminish, significantly strengthening the Nationalists war effort, it could be argued that it would have been difficult to stop the Nationalists with this level of aid.
The start of the Civil War had seen members of the army forced to choose their allegiance, while many senior officers stayed loyal to the republic, the Nationalists were able to win over many of the junior officers. This, as well as Franco’s plans for a long term war meant that the military tactics of both sides contrasted greatly, where as the Nationalists believed in the a very attack heavy strategy, where as the Republicans adopted the strategy of “to resist is to win”, taking a much more defensive stand. This made a lot of sense for the Republicans as they were the legitimate ruling power and the belief was that if they could hold on for long enough, the Spanish Civil War word turn into a European war of Ideologies and so the Republicans would be able to hold on to power. Considering the Republican cause only failed mere months before the start of the Second World War shows that the tactic does not seem so ridiculous, and could have worked if a few things had gone differently.
The root of the problem for the Republicans once again came from their political divisions. The lack of centralisation means there was no co-ordination in the Republican ranks, which would cause genuine problems while trying to organise a war effort. Those based in Basque would not listen to those in Madrid, who in turn would not listen to those in Barcelona and vice versa. The Republican war effort was initially reliant on the workers militias which had seen them retain both Madrid and Barcelona in the early days of the war. These workers militias were extremely effective for morale, and in the short term they were very successful. However they could not be relied upon in the long term to fight a full scale war. This is where the Popular army, formed in 1937, became important. Formed with a significant amount of help from the Soviets, the Popular Army was the professional fighting force of the Republic. Although it was very unpopular, especially among those in the militias who felt that the comradeship of those in the Republic would be strong enough to carry them through the war, the Popular Army was a necessity for the Republic if it stood a chance of surviving.
The creation of the Popular Army could not mask the fact that Republican military numbers had fallen by 25% by 1937, or that many soldiers deeply mistrusted the senior officers who had stayed loyal to the Republic, believing they were merely plotting to overthrow the government from within. This paranoia would just deepen divisions within the Republican cause and just further hinder their plans. The republicans should not just be counted out however as their valiant defences of both Madrid and Barcelona proved, they weren’t just simply going to lie down and hand Spain over to Franco. As discussed earlier, one of the main strengths of the Nationalists was their unity and their willingness to fight under one leader. Franco insisted that if a sustainable ruling power was to come out of the war, the consolidation of power was vital, and so he believed in a long term war strategy. This strategy would, of course, have to be a very offensive one as the Nationalists were the revolutionaries.
This involved the capture of every town and village on the way from Seville to Madrid. There was pressure for Franco to simply push on directly to Madrid, especially from the Germans, who were not convinced by the idea of a long term war. Franco did not give into this pressure which was extremely important as it would soon become apparent that the long term war was the only way to win the Spanish Civil War. By securing every town and city on the way to Madrid, it meant that the Republicans would be under serious pressure due to the amount of Nationalist territory surrounding Madrid. Franco’s obsession with Madrid slightly prolonged his advance North, as he was desperate to secure the capital. By 1937, Franco had realised he was not yet able to capture the capital, and so he continued North to continue his policy of long term war. By the end of 1937 the Nationalists controlled the Basque country, Asturias and Santander.
The Nationalists now controlled two-thirds of the Spanish population and resources. Many of Spain’s key resources, Coal, Iron and steel, were to be found in the North. This would cripple the already struggling Republican war effort. The true effect of the long term war could be seen when the Republicans launched their offensive main offensive of the war, during 1937. An initial success at Brunete in July quickly ground to a halt as the Republicans suffered 25,000 casualties.
December 1937 also saw the Republicans take Teriel, but they would quickly lose this in February of 1938. The major reason behind this was because of the consolidation of power that Franco had followed throughout his campaign meant that even if the Republicans started an offensive on a different front, it would not be long before the Nationalists were able to send support to a struggling or captured, such was the extent of the Nationalist dominance of the land. The pivotal moment of the campaign for the Nationalists was the capture of Castellon, by which point the Republican zone was split in two and so Barcelona and Madrid were isolated from each other, seriously weakening both cities. This tactic by Franco showed his military prowess and was yet another example of how strong the Nationalists were in this war. There is no question that it was the strengths of the Nationalist tactics that gained them the final victory, and not the comparative weaknesses of the Republican military strategy.
In conclusion, it is very difficult to state that it was purely the weaknesses of the Republic that saw the Nationalists win the Spanish Civil War. The passion and drive of the workers’ militias showed the desire within Spain to keep the country a democracy, while the International Brigades showed the international solidarity of the cause. At the beginning of the War, the Soviet aid was vastly superior to that being supplied by either Germany or Italy, and so in this respect the Republic was in fact strong. As well as receiving the superior aid, the Republicans controlled all the major cities of Spain, with the exception of Seville, meaning that they had a strong grasp on Industry and Communication.
However the political divisions of the Republic would ultimately be the cause of its downfall and can be argued to be the root of a majority of the problems that arose for the Republicans. It is these divisions and the eventual rise of the PSE as the dominant force in Spanish politics that was a major factor in the non-intervention of Britain and France, as neither country could be seen to be supporting a Communist regime. Without aid from Britain and France the Republican war effort quickly declined which would lead to the loss of Soviet aid as well. Although the Nationalist aid was not at first superior, it quickly became so, but this was not the only Nationalist strength.
The unity of the Nationalists meant co-ordination was excellent and decisions were much easier to make. Although the length of the war could be used as an argument to state that the Nationalists had to wait for the Republicans to become weak before they could secure victory, it had always been the plan of Franco for the war to carry on in such a way. He was aware of the importance of securing every town and village if he wanted complete control of Spain, by doing this Franco was slowly sucking the life out of the Republican cause. So to an extent, it was the weaknesses of the Republic that ensured the Nationalist victory, but it is because of the strengths of the Nationalists that caused the weaknesses, especially in the final years of the war, to become the deciding factor.
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