38: Violence


We check in with the leadership situation in the aftermath of the coup, and then discuss the violence of the opening months of what was rapidly becoming a civil war.



  • The Battle for Spain by Antony Beevor
  • Spain in Arms: A Military History of the Spanish Civil War 1936-1939 by E.R. Hooton
  • The Spanish Civil War A Modern Tragedy by George R. Esenwein
  • Spanish Civil War Tanks: The Proving Ground for Blitzkrieg by Steven J. Zaloga
  • The Anarchist Collectives: Workers’s Self-management in the Spanish Revolution 1936-1939 Edited By Sam Dolgoff
  • Patterns of Development and Nationalism: Basque and Catalan Nationalism before the Spanish Civil War by Juan Diez Medrano
  • Blackshirts, Blueshirts, and the Spanish Civil War by John Newsinger
  • Edge of Darkness: British ‘Front-Line’ Diplomacy in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1937 by Tom Buchanan
  • Franklin D. Roosevelt and Covert Aid to the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-39 by Dominic Tierney
  • The Cult of the Spanish Civil War in East Germany by Arnold Krammer
  • Fascism, Fascitization, and Developmentalism in Franco’s Dictatorship by Ismael Saz Campos
  • Writing the Female Revolutionary Self: Deoloris Ibarruri and the Spanish Civil War by Kristine Byron
  • A Spanish Genocide? Reflections on the Francoist Repression after the Spanish Civil War by Julius Ruiz
  • The Spanish Civil War in the 21st Century: From Guernica to Human Rights by Peter N. Carroll
  • The Revolutionary Spirit: Hannah Arendt and the Anarchists of the Spanish Civil War by Joel Olson
  • Seventy Years On: Historians and Repression During and After the Spanish Civil War by Julius Ruiz
  • Fascist Italy’s Military Involvement in the Spanish Civil War by Brian R. Sullivan
  • The Spanish Civil War: Lessons Learned and Not Learned by the Great Powers by James S. Corum
  • Truth and Myth in History: An Example from the Spanish Civil War by John Corbin
  • ‘Our Red Soldiers’: The Nationalist Army’s Management of its Left-Wing Conscripts in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-39 by James Matthews
  • Multinational Naval Cooperation in the Spanish Civil War, 1936 by Willard C. Frank Jr.
  • ‘Work and Don’t Lose Hope’: Republican Forced Labour Camps During the Spanish Civil War by Julius Ruiz
  • The Spanish Civil War, 1936-2003: The Return of Republican Memory by Helen Graham
  • Soviet Armor in Spain: Aid Mission to Republicans Tested Doctrine and Equipment by Colonel Antonia J. Candil, Spanish Army
  • The Soviet Cinematic Offensive in the Spanish Civil War by Daniel Kowalsky
  • Soviet Tank Operations in the Spanish Civil War by Steven J. Zaloga
  • The Spanish Military and the Tank, 1909-1939 by Jose Vicente Herrero Perez
  • The Theory and Practice of Armored Warfare in Spain October 1936-February 1937 by Dr. John L. S. Daley


Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 38 - The Spanish Civil War Part 3 - Violence. This week a big thank you goes out to Sze and D-zizzle for their support on Patreon, where they get access to ad free versions of all of the podcast’s episodes plus special Patreon only episodes released once a month. If that sounds interesting to you head on over to historyofthesecondworldwar.com/members to find out more information. After the failure of the military coup to achieve a quick and decisive overthrow of the government, the hostilities that had started in July began to lengthen to weeks, then months, and eventually years. This would require the two sides to go through a series of transitions, one of which we will discuss today as the military and other supporters of coup would be forced to begin to organize their effort along more traditional lines. It would be at this point that the Nationalist government would be formed, and its military would be organized, which would be the basis for the future government under Franco. Another critical event that would occur during this early period was the beginning of violence throughout Spain as the two sides in the Civil War became very concerned about the possible presence of supporters of the enemy behind their lines, and in general just desired to ensure that those people in civilian areas were supportive of their efforts. There are many stories of the resulting violence against civilians, especially during the early months of the war, during this time there was a general sense of chaos, and a general uncertainty about who was and was not the enemy. On both sides there were atrocities, terror, repression, murder, and other types of abuse against anyone and everyone suspected of aiding or supporting the enemy, regardless of who the enemy was. One of the large challenges when discussing these events is that role that they would play in the propaganda used by both sides during the war. The Republicans would recount the details of nationalist violence in horrific detail, amplifying the brutality of the fascist enemy. The Nationalists would do the same, recounting the brutal details of the violence and terrorism caused by the revolution, using it as an example of why they had to rebel against the Republican government in the first place. Both sides were oddly silent about what their own sides were doing. I do want to say that the violence during the early months of the war was often very different than what would come later, as this violence was only beginning in 1936. It was generally less organized, less targeted, and more random than it would become in later years. It did however have the effect of normalizing violence against civilians, of painting certain groups as the enemy with the only solution being their removal. We will focus most of the discussion in this episode on these early months, a more holistic discussion of the scale and savagery of the violence experienced by those in Spain during the Civil War will have to wait until the end of the series.

Even though their initial efforts failed, the Nationalist forces were still very much at an advantage when it came to the military side of the conflict. They would enter the war bringing with them 8,000 of the 13,500 officers in the Spanish Army, and a third of the officers from the reserve formations. Of course not all of these officers were created equal, and there were many among that number that were not exactly fantastic military leaders, just as there would be in many armies that had previously experienced a long period of peace. One of the most pervasive problems that the Nationalist side would have deal with in these officers was a resistance to taking risks and a lack of imagination. Many wanted to find a way to push responsibility onto someone else, which required very specific orders and plans to be made, which was also a consequence of many officers having spent so much of their military careers on barracks duty where imagination was not often rewarded. It was also indicative of prewar Spanish doctrine, which promoted very little initiative among the officer corps, instead creating officers who were trained to execute written orders as they were written. This was very common among militaries and while it was a theory that many adhered to it created real problems for the Nationalist leaders, it also created a huge amount of administrative work to create those orders, and also reduced the ability of the officers to think independently and act accordingly when events did not proceed as planned. The Nationalist forces would also be in possession of many of the obsolete Renault FT-17 tanks that were in Spain, but they were of First World War vintage and of dubious actual value. These would begin to be augmented very quickly by German Panzer Is that would arrive as early as September 1936, although those vehicles would have their own problems. The true strength of the Nationalist military lay in the fact that many of the best units and most experienced soldiers would join the Nationalist cause, which provided value far greater than their number, not just because they joined the Nationalists, but because they were denied to the Republicans. Before local conscription began the Nationalists had somewhere around 130,000 officers and men of the former Army and Civil Guard under their control. This would then be augmented by large numbers of volunteers, Falangists, and Carlists, and that is before Franco issued his first conscription decree in August. However ,the greatest tool available to the Nationalists in the early stages of the war was the Army of Africa. The Army of Africa was made up primarily of Moroccan soldiers, in total about 70,000 Moroccans would end up serving for the Nationalist Army, and they were considered some of the best soldiers available at the time, which also meant they were often used as Shock troops. At the beginning of the war many of these soldiers were volunteers who had joined the Spanish military for the pay, it was a lucrative way to make a living and support their families, especially when there were a number of droughts in Northern Africa in the years before the Civil War. This volunteer support would continue after the war began, with high wages and a guarantee of a steady source of pay proving very attractive. Eventually, this stream of volunteers would begin to run dry, and Nationalist authorities would later begin to apply coercion to make up their numbers, but this generally only came into play later in the war. The Nationalist leaders liked to use the Moroccan troops for two reasons, at the beginning of the war they had more military experience than almost any unit in the Spanish Army and they also brought with them a fierce reputation, which the Nationalist leaders did everything they could to amplify. As with all portrayals of African troops used in Europe during this time, this reputation and fear that it caused was stoked by racism, of the backward African savage that was coming to Europe to inflict violence and pain on their enemies, these stories were circulated by the Nationalist propaganda and designed to generate fear and panic among the Republican forces.

In July the Junta de Defensa Nacional was created in Burgos, and General Cabanellas was installed as president with 9 other generals in 2 colonels rounding out the membership. During this time one of the goals of the Junta was to reduce the influence of Franco, who had entered the war commanding the most important military units, and whose fame and influence had continued to grow. While their military was being sorted out and expanded, there was also the question of leadership of the Nationalist cause that would continue to linger until September, and on the 21st of September the Junta would meet in Salamanca to discuss this very topic and to try and resolve the leadership question that had been present on the nationalist side since the failure of the coup. All of the major leaders of the Nationalist cause were present: Franco, Mola, and Cabanellas. Franco believed that he should be the leader of the Nationalist effort, and in that position he believed that he should have full control over both the military and political side of the nationalist movement. There were others that also thought they would be a better choice, but each of them had a problem of some kind. For example Mola, who was probably the most likely candidate other than Franco, was tainted by the fact that the coup had been under his leadership and was executed according to his plan, and it had failed. Therefore when General Kindelan proposed that Franco should be made Supreme Commander of Nationalist military forces, with the title of Generalissimo, Mola agreed. Franco would take the title Caudillo on October 1st, and he was given almost total control over the military, control that he would not relinquish until decades later. There was still some uncertainty about what the government of Nationalist Spain would be, however, the various groups within the Nationalist camp were generally united by their overall goals of reverting the leftist reforms that had been put in place over the previous decade and supporting a return of the Catholic tradition of Spain. The agreement on these two issues provided some grounding that helped paper over any ideological differences between the groups, at least in the early stages of the war. Franco was initially cautious about direct moves to assert absolute control, and for some time there would be talk of a return to a monarchy, even though no king was present. However, there were not huge concerns raised at this point of exactly what the Nationalist government would look like, the goal was to win. While the military side of the situation earned early focus, there were also attempts to try and build some kind of economic base for the Nationalist cause, most importantly they needed as much foreign currency as they could possibly obtain to buy support and supplies. To try and accomplish this they would utilize the products of Andalucia, exporting goods like sherry, olives, and fruit out of Spain as quickly as possible. These efforts were put under military control and strict limitations were placed on the freedom of movement of these goods or any form of financial capital out of Spain.

Another feature of the early months of the Civil War was the violence against civilians, this violence took on different forms in different areas, for example in many nationalist areas it could be classified as a kind of cleansing. The Nationalists felt that they needed to take full control over areas that in many cases did not initially support their cause. In many cases by the end of 1936 the Nationalists would be in control of territory which had been actively hostile in July. This created an impetus to start to remove whatever support structures the Republic still had among the populous. In this they were joined by local Nationalist supporters, who were often important participants in the violence. The early months would see much of this violence come in the form of almost random violence that was allowed by Nationalist leaders, who did little to try and restrain or prevent what was happening. When Nationalist forces would move into a new area often the entire civilian leadership team was arrested, then also any union leaders and any other locals who were felt to be complicit in the actions of the Republic. Many of these individuals would either be killed on the spot, or moved somewhere else and then killed. After this was done the military and paramilitary forces would move in and the real mass violence would begin. Even a slight suspicion of having possibly voted for the Popular Front in early 1936 was enough to get at the very least questioned and arrested, and possibly outright killed. These murders were often guided by local committees that were setup by local nationalist supporters. They would have local information about any leftists, unionists, or other supporters of the Republic which would then be used to ensure that as many as possible were removed, being either arrested or killed. This violence was spread all around Spain, however it was often much more severe and prolonged in areas where there was a large number of known Socialists and Anarchist supporters, or in areas that had voted heavily in support of the Popular Front in the previous election. In some of these areas the number of individuals killed would rapidly hit the thousands, and would continue to grow. 8,000 people were killed in Seville just in 1936, 10,000 in Cordoba over the course of the war. The Nationalists would justify all of this violence and brutal repression based on news of similar events that were happening on the other side of the line. However, in many areas where there had been a series of violent killings while areas were occupied by Republican forces, the violence of the Nationalists would vastly outweigh those killed in earlier events. The exact numbers did not necessarily matter to the Nationalist leaders that were allowing and supporting these violent reprisals, because this violence was not just about revenge, it was also about asserting control, especially in areas where Nationalist support was known to be in the clear minority. Overall the violence, in terms of the people killed, would reach a peak in September 1936, although it would be no means end at that point. In many areas the exact number of people killed, and who was killed, is not completely known. Any information about Nationalist violence during the war was kept under wraps during the Franco regime, and it as only decades later that more investigation was allowed to begin. That also makes it almost impossible to completely know how many people were killed specifically in this early war period, because those that were killed later in the war, or even years later get all mixed in. Nationalist sources greatly reduce the claimed number, Republican sources greatly exaggerate it, but it is very likely it was somewhere in the 60,000-70,000 range, and to be clear that is just for the early months of the war, and it is a very soft number.

On the other side of the war were the Republican forces, who were also no strangers to violence, especially in the early months of fighting. Part of this was due to the general chaos that reigned on the Republican side in the early weeks of the conflict. As the coup developed and then the Civil War began militias all over Republican Spain were improvised by local group and individuals, those in the cities then also began to organize and move into more rural areas where they felt their help was needed. Sometimes they executed this move on foot, sometimes they had motorized transport, sometimes they had small artillery pieces and armored cars, there was a lot of variation. Few of these movements were really organized at a higher level beyond local control, and would not be until August when the situation began to crystallize and a real front began to develop between the two armies. During these early chaotic days there was certainly violence perpetrated by the militias and other Republican forces, and much like very early Nationalist violence it took on a very random nature and was completely dependent on the makeup and beliefs of specific groups of militia soldiers. This violence was often very personal, for example a businessman who was known to treat it workers well may not have had issues, but one that treated them poorly may have been killed. This was due to the revolutionary nature of much of this violence, with all of its ideological basis and justification. This initial form of randomness would later give way to more organized and far more deadly violent actions. During this period, which was generally in the late summer and early autumn, tribunals were setup in many areas of Republican Spain, tribunals that functioned much like the committees present on the Nationalist side. They were made up of locals that would identify possible individuals that should be arrested, questioned, and possibly killed. In the autumn there were attempts to bring these tribunals under the control of the central government, if only because they were becoming an outlet for many arbitrary and random killings, with personal vendettas often resolved by parties using the tribunals to exact retribution. One of the most widely publicized, at least by the Nationalists, acts of violence during this period was the killing of the clergy of the Catholic church. As we have already discussed the Catholic Church was firmly supporting by the Nationalists, and the clergy reciprocated that support. This resulted in many Republican militias seeing the church as just another enemy, with violence being the result. In total almost 7,000 members of the church, including bishops, priests, nuns, and other members would be killed. This was very potent propaganda for the Nationalists who were able to use it on the international stage where many people did not have a clear understanding of just how involved in Spanish politics the Catholic Church was. For many of the revolutionaries on the Republican side the Church was just another feature of the repressive conservative Spain that they were trying to overcome. As with the Nationalist violence, Republican violence was by far the most severe during the early months of the conflict, and almost half of the total civilian victims of Republican violence, which was just under 40,000 would be killed before the winter of 1936. All of these events were important features of how the Spanish Civil War was approached by foreign press and foreign governments. In the press these events would be wildly exaggerated, mostly because they depended for information on the Nationalist and Republican leaders who were always willing to throw a few extra zeroes on estimates of the atrocities committed by the other side. For example, the Nationalists would claim that half a million people were killed by the Republicans. This was a number that was reported in many nations outside of Spain, which did nothing to help the Republicans prestige internationally at a time when many foreign governments were actively having conversations about what to do about the war. These accounts also played into the pre-existing concerns in many areas like Britain, where the populous was already pre-disposed to be greatly concerned about the possibility of Communism gaining ground in Western Europe. the negative press would not really start to turn around until the bombing of Guernica in April 1937, by which point it was in many ways already too late. Next episode we will focus on the organization of the Republican areas during the war, and discuss how they would try to create a real coalition out of some very disparate groups.