As political unrest escalated military leaders all across Spain and Morocco began to put in place a plan to drastically alter the situation in Spain.
Hello every one and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 37 - The Spanish Civil War Part 2 - The Coup of July 1936. This week a big thank you goes out to Paul, Stephen, Daniel, and Timothy who have chosen to support this podcast on Patreon where they now get access to ad-free versions of all of these episodes plus special Patreon only episodes released every month. If that sounds interesting to you head on over to historyofthesecondworldwar.com/members to find out more information. The event which would precipitate the Spanish Civil War was the failed coup launched by the military in July 1936. Calling it a failed coup seems odd when the outcome of the eventual Civil War was a victory for those who had launched the coup, however the objective of the coup was to quickly overthrow the government, not to get embroiled in military conflict which would last for years. It only turned into a civil war because the coup both failed to overthrow the government and the government failed to suppress the coup during the crucial first few days of its existence. This allowed those participating in the coup to solidify their positions and gain greater support. In retrospect the first 48 hours of the coup would be two of the most important days of the entire Civil War, because it would decide who would control several areas of Spain. What would develop was a divided Spain, with many of the most important cities still under the control of those loyal to the Republic, while several areas of northwestern and southern Spain would be under the control of the military, along with the entirety of Spanish Morocco. Today we will discuss these early moments of the coup, and why the generals would both fail and succeed during them. First we need to do just a quick overview of the various political groups that would participate in the Civil War, because as with all civil wars the political component of the conflict would be incredibly important. This was more important that usual on the side of the Republic, because it was made up of many different, and often incompatible political philosophies which would cause innumerable problems in the years before 1936.
While the Republic was most obviously supported by a diverse set of political groups, the coup would be as well with the Falange, the Church, Carlists, and the military all have different, although largely compatible beliefs. The Falange Espanola, or Spanish Phalanx, would turn into the coup’s most ardent and fanatical groups of supporters. The group was created in October 1933 and was the group in Spain that can most closely be compared to the fascist groups in Italy and Germany. In fact the Falange would be financially supported by Mussolini. However, there were some important differences in the two political ideologies. They were far more conservative than the other fascist parties in Europe, they had that revolutionary rhetoric, but it was always grounded in a very specific view of what the result of that revolution should be, and it was a view that was uniquely Spanish. Instead of largely rejecting religion like say the Nazis would, the Falange embraced it as a critical part of what it was to be Spanish. They called back to the authoritarian Catholicism of the Spanish Empire as their inspiration. Another group was the Carlists, they were far more traditional conservative in nature, with their greatest concern being the possible Marxist takeover of Spain. Like the Falange they save Catholicism as a key part of the Spanish identity, and a key part of what Spanish society should be. These groups, along with the military and the Catholic church would make up the coalition of the rebellion and while they had their differences they would largely unite during the early stages of the war. Later during the conflict actions would be taken to ensure that unity until the conflict was over.
If unity was found within the rebellion, within the Republic the story was very different. At the core were the Republicans, those parties that strongly supported the continuation of the Republic as it had been created in 1931. These were mostly various liberal and socialist parties that had joined together during 1936 to form the Popular Front which had been victorious in the election. This was however a loose coalition, that had just a few years earlier been defeated in the 1933 elections due to their inability to work closely together. On top of the differences in political opinions, the growing Catalan and Basque nationalism, which had been growing in the previous decades added another layer of friction between the various groups. There had been some changes during the early Republic to try and help with this, like the Catalan statute which was passed in September 1932, but then after the electoral losses of 1933 the devolution of power down to the Catalan leaders was put on hold. Both the Basque and Catalan nationalists would continue to advocate for a new, and much more all encompassing statute of autonomy. The most populous and powerful group within the Popular Front was the PSOE, the Spanish Socialist Party, led by Francisco Caballero. As we discussed last episode Caballero had become quite radicalized during the 1920s and 30s, which would cause the Communist press from around Europe to dub him the ‘Spanish Lenin.’ The Spanish Communist Party was much smaller than the Socialists, receiving just 20% of the Cortes seats when compared to the Socialists, however that support was growing rapidly. During the 1933 election they barely registered on the national stage, but by 1936 they were an important force within the Popular Front, and would be a critical part of the Republican effort during the war.
Another major component of the Republic aligned forces was provided by the very powerful and populous Anarchists. A few items to get out of the war about the anarchists which are related to the last episode. On the first episode of this series I used the phrase “anarchist party” a few times, which is a bad word choice on my part. The Confederation Nacionel del Trabajo, or the National Confederation of Labor, or CNT, was not a political party. It was instead a coalition or confederation of labor unions. This is important from a phrasing perspective, and I will not make that mistake again. Another item to discuss here is one of the other things that I said in the last episode which was that they opted not to participate in the 1934 revolutionary action started by the socialists which led to among other things the Asturian revolution. I was notified that this was a possible error which led me to spending a good chunk of time doing some additional research and at this point I am going to fully retract that statement. The reasons why I made this mistake, and the reasons why this area had become such a contentious topic are, I think, important to discuss both in the interest of accuracy but also as a way of discussing the relationship between the various groups that made up the Republican side of the Spanish Civil War. From the perspective of those who supported the Republic there were two primary political rivals in the years before 1936. There were the anti-Republican groups on the right, which would later make up the Nationalist side of the Civil War, and then there was the CNT and the Spanish Anarchists. By 1934 the CNT had over 1.5 million members, for comparison the Socialist party would get 1.8 million votes during the 1933 elections, so obviously the CNT was a force within Spanish society. The CNT and other groups on the left would at times work together, but there was always tension, their philosophies were at the end of the day largely incompatible. Because of this, depending on the source you are looking at you can get some very different stories for some events. Bringing it back to the specific example of the events of October 1934, after the failure of the strike and revolution a few things would happen. In the search for answers for why the actions failed, those that had led the strike would include in that list that it was partially due to the fact that the anarchists had not participated. On the CNT side of the story, instead of wanting to sit out the events you instead had willing participants that were prevented from participating due to the fears of the Socialist Union, the UGT, that such participation would result in greater growth of support for the CNT. The worst case scenario for the Socialist leaders was to have a successful strike and a successful revolution only to see the Spanish Anarchists gain control of the result. After that further research that I did I am inclined to believe that the truth is with the Anarchists. The Socialist case it not at all helped by the fact that in some areas where they did gain control, they would resort to arrests and violent actions against their political opponents, including the anarchists, in their attempts to retain that control. I am most certainly capable of making mistakes, and I would like to thank the person who brought this criticism to me in a very constructive way. This is also, I think, a great illustration of the disunity on the left in Spain in the months and years leading up to the Civil War, a disunity that would be plastered over with initiatives like the Popular Front, and then in the early stages of the conflict that would begin in July 1936, but which would never really go away. It would result first in political infighting, but then also violence at some of the most inopportune times. This will not be the last time we discuss these types of actions of left against left during the course of the civil war. It would make the entire situation an uneasy alliance, when in fact absolute trust and unity were required.
After the Popular Front won the election in early 1936, they were faced with many challenges and to meet those challenges they brought their specific political beliefs and goals. So for example when there was conflict between landowners on one side, who were experiencing problems trying to maintain any profit, and laborers on the other, who were often forced into brutal living conditions, the Popular Front supported the laborers. However, those within and leading the government were not necessarily radical in their views, they were gradualists, not revolutionaries. This put limits on the government’s response, limits that were rejected by many of those workers who had supported the Popular Front. They believed that they had supported the Popular Front and voted for them so that they would alter the balance of power between themselves and the landowners. When this dramatic rebalancing did not occur they would often take the situation into their own hands, for example during March 1936 several estates in central Spain would be occupied by the workers and on March 25th 60,000 landless peasants would seize land in Western Spain for their own. There were also other worker actions throughout Spain, like strikes during the spring. In many of these cases there was not a specific unifying demand between the groups, just a general protest about the power of the workers and peasants. While these worker actions were occurring, there was also violence instigated by the Falange. During protests in Madrid in April members of the Falange would open fire on workers, killing 3. Various assassination attempts were also made, some of which were successful, like when a judge was killed after having sentenced Falangists to 30 years in prison for murder. In response to this violence, a socialist group the Motorizada, was created with the goal of meeting violence with violence. At the top the Socialist leaders remained divided, Caballero and others would openly call for revolution and violence, while Prieto and those who supported him warned that such actions would simply push more of the Spanish centrists away from the left. These varying views of the correct response to what had at first been somewhat spontaneous violence and strikes had the effect of continuously ratcheting up the tension around Spain.
There were also some political decisions being made by the government, especially that related to the military, which in retrospect seem very ill-advised. For example, they had a tendency to send military officers who they saw as a threat to appointments far away from the capital. This took them away from the political center of the country, but it also gave them a large amount of autonomy, like when General Emilio Mola was sent to Pamplona to be Military Governor. This placed him in one of the core Carlist areas where support for the military was very strong. During the summer of 1936 the violence and worker actions just continued to increase in frequency and intensity. While this amplified the violence, it also made many question the ability of the government to control anything, which sent them looking for other options. Within the military, which had been supporting the Falangists and other Right Wing Groups, the path towards the rebellion was already being created. Not all officers were on board as quickly as others, some would take longer to move into a mindset where open rebellion was the correct course, but the anti-communist and anti-leftist feelings of so many of the top military officers made their eventual acceptance of such an action very likely. There were however some within the military that would continue to pursue a different path. For example the Union Militar Republicana Antifascista was a society within the military, kept as secret as possible, which supported the government and other leftist political groups. Many of the members of the UMRA were younger, with less overall power and control than some of the older leaders. It would be the assassination of one of the members of the the UMRA, Lieutenant Jose Castillo Seria, by Falangist gunmen on July 12th which would set in motion events that would later be claimed as the reason for the military revolt. After the murder of Castillo, several socialist officers decided to strike back, and they would abduct Calvo Sotelo, a leading right wing member of the Cortes, he would then be killed early in the morning of July 13th. This murder would later be claimed as the spark that started the military rebellion which led to the Civil War. However, this is probably just used as justification for the actions of the military. The military coup had been in the planning stages for months, really since the Popular Front had won the elections, and by July the preparations were at a point where detailed orders were distributed which set a possible date for the coup between July 10th and July 20th. While the exact sequence of events seems somewhat arbitrary looking back at it now, it was politically important as the situation would develop and the military tried to justify their actions for any individuals or groups who were on the fence.
The plan as sent out by General Mola was that the Army of Africa would revolt at 5AM on July 17th and move to control various important cities and areas. The next day the army in Spain would do the same. These actions were staggered because success in Africa was essentially assured, the number of men and officers participating in the revolt massively outnumbered those who would remain loyal to the Republic. Then once Morocco was under control troops could then be transported across the Mediterranean to Andalucia. The Army of Africa was incredibly important to the overall plan because it was known to be loyal to the generals, it was not a conscript army and was instead made of many professional soldiers, and many of the rank and file men were regulars or mercenary tribesmen. These were the same troops that had been used in Asturias in 1934 to put down that revolution. Many of the Moroccan troops were Riffian tribesmen that were led by Spanish officers. General Franco, commander of the Army of Africa would replay to Mola’s plan: “Glory to the heroic Army of Africa. Spain above everything. Accept the enthusiastic greeting of those garrisons which join you and all the other comrades in the Peninsula in these historic moments. Blind faith in victory. Long live Spain with honour!” In some areas of Africa the military coup was met with violence, like at Larache and Ceuta, but the resistance was quickly brushed aside and in many areas there was almost no resistance at all. The government in Madrid was fully aware of the events of the day by late in the evening on the 17th, and they would issue a communique the next morning which downplayed the severity of the event stating: ‘The government states that the movement is confined to certain areas in the Protectorate and that no one, absolutely no one, on the mainland has joined this absurd venture.’ When actions started on the mainland the next morning, the best way to describe events was mass confusion. Many of the military garrisons around Spain knew what was happening, most of them would elect to join the coup. However, the speed and organization of their response was at times lacking. To generalize the situation there were three main paths that the plethora of small skirmishes around Spain took in the opening hours and days of the coup. If the local military garrison moved to capture strategic areas and buildings quickly, and they were successful, that success often cascaded into more success as right wing paramilitary forces were more likely to join in. If the local military garrison hesitated in its actions, or were divided about the best course of action, events often went much more poorly. This could also happen if the local workers unions and leftist militia groups were well organized. In these cases an advance out of barracks would often end in a quick defeat, as the paramilitary forces that were so helpful in some areas were also quite weak in others, and they were in general far more likely to join a fight that was already going well. The third path that these events could take, and which was the dominant path in some areas of Spain, was a quick and decisive victory for the Republic, workers, and militias. In almost all of the cases the reaction of the local workers was just as important to the eventual outcome as the actions of the military. On July 18th both the CNT and the UGT, the main anarchist and socialist unions declared a general strike which was announced over radio. The term general strike may seem odd in this context, but it was pretty much the union’s way of mobilizing the men and women available to them. Workers moved out into the streets all over Spain, began erecting barricades, and armed themselves with weapons that had been hidden for possible use. In some areas this went very well, in others they would be attacked by military and paramilitary troops. In the city of Seville, which was considered crucial by the leaders of the Coup due to its position as a possible staging area for an advance on Madrid, the general strike was declared over Radio Seville, and peasants would even come into the city from the surrounding areas to assist. However, there were some disagreements between the local anarchists and communists, which provided the rebels the opportunity which they took advantage of. As it became clear that the coup was spreading all over Spain, the union leaders told the government that they were ready and able to fight, but to do so they needed more weapons. However, these requests were refused, and even as parts of Spain were lost to the Republic leaders in Madrid refused to give weapons to the workers. During these opening hours and days of the coup one thing became apparent, very few of the major cities of Spain would be captured by the military, which was not an entirely unexpected result. These urban areas were the areas of greatest power for the workers, and so the fact that they were able to successfully defend the cities was understandable. This did not prevent attempts, and for example in Madrid there was general confusion about what should happen among the military leaders. There was initially indecision about who should be put in command, and then as soon as they made that decision they found that they had delayed too long and they were surrounded by workers militias and they were essentially confined to their barracks.
Even if the news of what was happening was cycling around Spain and into Madrid, there was some level of disbelief among the Republican leaders. There would very quickly be a political crisis and the Prime Minister would resign in the afternoon of July 19th. President Azana would ask Diego Martinez Barrio to form a government, and the one that he put together was made up of strictly representatives from the centrist republican parties, and there were no leftist members. The goal was to reach out to the Right and to try and come to some agreement and to achieve some level of reconciliation which would bring peace much closer to reality. Obviously those workers and leftists who were in support of the government very quickly let their displeasure at this decision known. Treachery is probably the world that could be used to describe it, if I am being nice I would say it was incredibly foolish. In any case it was also completely unworkable, and the Martinez Barrio government would fall apart very quickly, and in fact it would not last the day. Azana would then reach out to Jose Giral, who would serve in the position until September. It would be under Giral’s government that real action would begin to be taken, with the army officially dissolved and orders sent out to provide weapons to the workers. Even though these were official decrees from the government, there were still many challenges getting local government officials to work in concert with the workers.
While there was political chaos in Madrid, there was still a problem on the rebel’s side that had to be solved. The troops in Africa had to get to the mainland as quickly as possible. The plan had been for the Navy to join the rebellion and to assist in making this movement a reality. However, there were problems in making this actually happen, and while many of the naval officers were ready to join the Army, the men of the lower decks were not. They were greatly assisted in their resistance by two facts. The first was that they were generally better organized to resist. There had been discussion among some of the junior officers about what to do if the a rebellion occurred and if other officers wanted to join. They had also been warned very quickly about exactly what was happening. The naval ships were well equipped for wireless signaling, and the first to receive messages were often junior communications officers. Very soon after the Moroccan garrisons had revolted, a message would be sent from Madrid where Benjamin Balboa, a telegraphist in the capital had intercepted information about what was happening. This would be sent out to the naval ships as quickly as possible and because of this early information many of the men aboard ship were well informed about what was happening. The second major benefit the sailors had was that they were on ships. Tight, confined areas, with very limited ability of a small number of officers to resist them. All of these factors together meant that very few of the naval ships would join the rebels, which meant a core part of the plan was no longer feasible. There was some despair among the rebels in Spain, and for good reason. They had to find some way to get more troops into Spain, but there were very limited options. To try and gain assistance they would reach out to friends around Europe, in Germany and Italy. However, the arrival of any assistance in the form of German or Italian planes, which would be the fastest that could arrive, would take time, and it was time that it did not appear the rebels in Spain would have.