The Involvement of the Great Powers in the Spanish Civil War

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The Spanish Civil War, which lasted from 1936-1939, is often thought of as a prelude to the Second World War, a testing ground used by the Great Powers in the great war to come. Spain had seen some major political, social and economic turmoil during the first few decades of the 20th century. Catalonian and Basque nationalism, rise of socialist and anarchist groups, a costly war in North Africa, a short-lived dictatorship from 1923-1930 led by General Primo de Rivera, and the end of the monarchy all contributed to the turmoil. As the monarchy came to an end with the fleeing of King Alfonso XIII into exile, the Second Republic was quickly established. For the first few years the republic was dominated by a leftist coalition consisting of socialists and republicans. The government set out to reform Spanish society, and with such acts as the land reform and laws restricting the power of the Church, the government alienated the rightist elements of Spanish society. The slow progress of the reforms and divisions over policies (between socialists and republicans) caused great disunity within the ranks of the left and sparked some riots and strikes involving anarchists. The military felt hostile towards the Republic as their position was greatly diminished and several military academies were closed. Due to this disunity within the Left, the Conservative Right managed to come to power in 1933. Power changed hands again in 1936, when a leftist coalition managed to gain a majority once more. However, the situation was extremely unstable politically, and anarchy broke out in many parts of the country, with the burning of churches and violence on the streets. The Right became convinced that they were in the midst of a revolution and began to plan a counter-revolution with the military. The murder of a prominent member of the CEDA (a right wing coalition) on the 13th of July, 1936 set off the Civil War.

The country was soon split between Nationalist and Republican strongholds. North Africa and northern Spain were soon under Nationalist control. Already in the early stages of the war, General Franco (who was soon to become the leader of the Nationalists) and his forces were transported with the help of the Germans and Italians over from N. Africa to Spain. Without their help, Franco would not have been able to move his troops. Once in Spain, the Nationalists put together a government under Franco, which was quickly recognized by National Socialist Germany under Hitler and Fascist Italy under Mussolini. Italy and Germany were the main backers of Nationalist Spain, as they shared some ideological similarities, and Spain provided good testing grounds for their new weaponry and tactics. Germany provided what was known as the Condor Legion, a unit comprising of aeroplanes, artillery, tanks and infantry totalling 10,000 men. Italy was far more generous in their aid; 60,000 men, 700 aircrafts and 950 tanks. Portugal, although not a major power, also provided 20,000 men for the Nationalists. This aid gave Franco’s Nationalist further advantages and the situation of the Republicans started to look desperate. The Nationalists controlled the industrial regions of the north, they had many experienced officers and military personnel, and substantial aid from Germany and Italy.

Initially, the French Prime Minister, Leon Blum, agreed to help the Republican Spanish army by sending artillery and aircraft to their aid. However, after coming under pressure from the British and the more right-winged members of his cabinet, Leon Blum withdrew his support from Republican Spain. Britain and France set up a non-intervention committee, which was to deny both participants military aid, even the legitimate government. The committee consisted of 27 members, including Italy, Germany and the USSR, which all sent military aid to the warring parties in the civil war. Initially, Hitler tried to disguise his aid to Nationalist forces by sending them via Portugal. Britain, led by a conservative government in 1936, feared the spread of international communism, and was  partially sympathetic to the Nationalist uprising in Spain. The Labour party also originally supported the policy of non-intervention, but when it became apparent that Italy and Germany were determined to help the Nationalist triumph, they urged for British aid to be sent to the Republicans.

Hitler had several far-sighted policies, which he was able to pursue by aiding Franco’s Nationalist forces. The notion of a third fascist or fascist-friendly power on France’s border appealed to him. Hitler also saw an opportunity to move closer to Mussolini and Italy by aiding the Nationalists. His aim was to keep Fascist Italy and Britain and France at loggerheads, and, therefore, secure a relatively powerful ideological and military ally. Hitler was also interested in some of the raw materials a Spain under Franco could provide for the German war industry, such as iron, copper, mercury and pyrites. Mussolini had already had contact with right-wing groups in Spain prior to the war, and had, in 1934, promised immediate aid in the case of a of an uprising. By aiding Nationalist Spain, Mussolini worsened relations between Italy and the western democracies, and was driven closer to Hitler. The western democracies had still hoped that they may improve ties with Italy after the Abyssinian War, but intervention in the Spanish Civil War torpedoed the notion entirely. Mussolini struck a deal with Franco, wherein Italy would be allowed to set up military bases in Spain in case of a war with France. The USA also advocated a policy of non-intervention and tried to ban its citizens from selling arms and other military material to either side.

The USSR was the main supporter of the Republican forces. Joseph Stalin, worried by the ‘spread of Fascism’ in Europe and the threat it posed to the Soviet Union, was willing to send aid in order to stop the Nationalists from gaining power. He encouraged the committe to form international brigades of volunteer fighters that would be sent to aid Republican Spain. The Soviet Union was also the biggest provider of military material for the Republican forces. During the war, the USSR sent 1,000 aircrafts, 900 tanks, 1,500 artillery pieces, 300 armoured cars, 15,000 machine guns, 30,000 automatic firearms, 30,000 mortars, 500,000 rifles and 30,000 tons of ammunition. Stalin expected to be paid in gold for the aid, as Spain happened to have the world’s fourth largest gold reserves at the outbreak of the war. Approximately $500 million, two-thirds of Spain’s gold reserves, were shipped to the Soviet Union during the conflict.

Apart from the aid sent by the Soviet Union, relatively little real military aid came through to Republican Spain, except  in the form of the International Brigades, made up of volunteers who arrived mostly for ideological reasons. The Spanish Civil War is another triumph in Hitler’s foreign policy and another defeat for the timid western democracies and their appeasement policies. Italy, under Mussolini, moved irreversibly closer to Hitler’s Germany, and a fascist-friendly power emerged on France’s southern border. The Germans were able to test their men and equipment under real combat circumstances, as well as help the creation of another fascist-friendly power in Europe, and drive Italy, a valuable ally, closer to themselves.

Notes on Accuracy
Some facts in the article have been proven wrong and therefore, please take your time and read throuh the notes presented here about the mistakes.
1.  The Soviet Union did not provide Spain with 900 tanks
According Franco Molina's book Las Armas de la Guerra Civil Española, the Soviet Union sent 350 tanks to Spain; 300 T-26 light tanks and 50 BT-5 fast tanks. Stephen J. Zaloga has an article online which offers concrete numbers on shipments, available here.  And Wikipedia article on the T-26 offers these numbers and more sources.  In specific, apart from the Soviet Union's 350 tanks, Germany sent ca. 155 Panzer Is and Italy around 130 L-3-35s.  I can't account for the rest of the figures offered, but I think a source needs to be given because if the figure for the tanks is incorrect then I could only assume that the rest is incorrect, as well (related to the figures of Soviet aid).
Furthermore, Poland sent a considerable shipment of armor (FT-17s) to the Republic in 1937, and France did as well during the first months of the civil war.  The Republic received quite a bit of aid, and it should be noted that the Soviet Union sent more aid to the Republic than Germany and Italy did combined to the Nationalist Front (ironically, Soviet T-26s became the most used tank in the Nationalist Army, as well - they were pressed into service when captured).
2. Role of Italy
Italy did not join the Nationalist's cause immediately when the war started.  The contacts with Italy which gained their aid during the initial period of war were established after the alzamiento.  The figures for the war material sent to the Nationalists during the war are also terribly wrong, as already established (Italy did not send 900 tanks, as stated above).  In February 1937 the Italian CTV (Corpo Truppe Volontarie numbered about 49,700 strong; this force was frustrated and defeated at the Battle of Guadalajara. Source: Sullivan, Brian R., Fascist Italy's Involvement in the Spanish Civil War, Journal of Military History, Vol. 59, No. 4, October 1995. Furthermore, the mechanization offered by Italy during the war was completely inferior compared to Soviet armor (as were the Panzer Is sent by Germany).
3.  The murder of a CEDA member did not set off the war
Certainly, it was a factor, but it wasn't the spark which set the fire.  The civil war was bound to happen, regardless - around the same time, too.
4. German Condor Legion
Germany provided more than just the Condor Legion. The Condor Legion represented their direct intervention in the war; the Condor Legion had no control over the armor Germany provided to Spain, which was under control of Spanish officers and staff.  The Germans also provided much of the training staff for newly arrived equipment and for Spanish artillery.  It also provided modern aircraft (such as the ME-109) to the Nationalist front which were superior to Soviet aircraft provided to the Republicans (although, in smaller numbers).