Analysis 1 Did The Nationalists Win Or The Republicans Lose The Spanish Civil

This question carries echoes of the Government and Politics 'standard': 'Oppositions do not win elections. Governments lose them.' Discuss. What is inferred is that mistakes on the part of those in power impose the ultimate price: defeat. In the context of the Spanish Civil War, did the Republic, through a catalogue of errors, lose to the Nationalists? Had it, moreover, seized defeat from the jaws of victory? Two hypotheses, admittedly qualified by hindsight, suggest that the Republic might have done just that. Hills, for example, argues that the Republic could have defeated the rebels by August 1936 had it executed a workable masterplan for cordoning Franco in Morocco and Mola in Navarre. Preston suggests that, had the government promptly armed the proletariat, revolt could have been turned into rout. Did a combination of mistakes and misfortune cost the Republic the war? Or were the Nationalists such brilliant tacticians and strategists, with such superior logistics and leadership, that the Republic had no hope of victory?1

Payne has written of how Francisco Franco was 'keenly aware of the importance of politicopsychological factors in civil war that made it dangerous not to annul immediately any leftist triumph'.2 Hence, for example, the relief of the Alcázar, Toledo, in September 1936 and the retaking of Teruel in February 1938 and, by that November, the Republican bridgeheads on the Ebro.

Franco was normally well served by his generals. These included the tireless Dávila, who succeeded Mola in June 1937 as Commander of the Army of the North; Orgaz, efficient overlord of mass conscription from March 1937; and Yagüe, a field commander skilled in rapid movement and the annihilation of resistance, as shown by the Army of Africa's bloody advance from the south in August-October 1936 which brought the Nationalists close to Madrid.

Nationalist air supremacy was gained in 1937, and was decisive in the Northern campaign. On the ground, Franco's speed in deploying reinforcements was put to critical use in July 1937 at Brunete, where the Republic's ultimate failure was to have grave consequences for their position in the north, already jeopardized by the loss of Bilbao. Though the Italian CTV played an important role in this now-renewed Nationalist offensive, the Italian Foreign Minister Ciano was exaggerating matters when, referring to the Catalonian campaign in early 1939, he wrote, '[Our] General Gambara has luckily assumed the role of leader of all Spanish forces.' Nevertheless, German and Italian aid throughout the war was both more abundant and more continuous than that accessible to the Republic. And its timing could be critical, as was the case from October 1938, and Franco's counter-attack on the Ebro and the Catalonia Offensive that followed. Inexorably, the Nationalists strengthened their grip on Spain's domestic resources - human, agricultural, mineral and industrial.

Critically, despite some self-inflicted damage to their moral standing abroad, for instance, Guernica, the Nationalists won the diplomatic war. November 1936 brought recognition by Hitler and Mussolini. Germany and Italy were also represented on the Non-Intervention Committee -which barred its doors to the Spanish Republic. The Nationalists had a sympathetic network in the League of Nations. This buttressed nonintervention and neutralized attempts by the Spanish Republic to make the League confront international aggression against it. In February 1939 came recognition of the Franco regime by Britain and France.

In Spain itself the Nationalists had the high-profile support of the Catholic Church, while the 'old oligarchy' was returned to power and influence, notably in the countryside. However, did Franco believe that he had fully vanquished Marxism, Freemasonry and pluralism by the end of March 1939? If not, when would he be confident enough to terminate the bloody repression of the post-war years? And when this closed regime began to open, could the process ever be reversed?

The Republic, notably in defence, certainly showed prowess during the Civil War: for example, in Madrid during late 1936 and in the hinterland north of Valencia when in the summer of 1938 the Republican Army of the Levante held back the Nationalist advance. General Rojo conceived brilliant plans for offensives during which Republican forces, including the International Brigades, at first struck forward incisively. However, political and military in-fighting often undercut the initial advantage, as at Brunete. At Belchite in Aragón, observes Payne, orders were so detailed as to discourage initiative among field officers,3 while the Nationalists' recapture of Teruel in February 1938 led to debilitating recrimination within the Republican hierarchy. Whether officers were politically 'sound' was decided by the army's Information and Control Department, which meant that skilled personnel spuriously dubbed 'class enemies' were excised from the war effort. On the other hand, the inadequacy of Republican field officers has been blamed for the loss of Málaga, a working port on the Andalusian coast, in February 1937.

The Republic held numerical advantage at sea but failed to capitalize on it. Many officers had been murdered by their crews in July 1936 and the engineers' and sailors' committees who commandeered the ships did not produce a disciplined strategy for victory at sea. The smaller Nationalist fleet gained naval supremacy and helped deter the transport of much-needed matériel to the Republican zone, for example, to Catalonia in early 1939. On the ground, indiscipline contributed to the fall of Málaga and the north ('sudden collapses of weak units which rendered useless the resistance of heroic units'),4 and to the Nationalists' successful march to the Mediterranean in the spring of 1938, when front-line Republican units disintegrated under the impact of ground and air attack.

If the mobilization of the Republican armed forces was flawed, what of its civilian population? The issue of Republican 'unity' was considered in Chapter 6, but the question can still be posed: Was it enough to be anti-fascist? The script of one anarchist propaganda film described the restaurants of collectivized hotels: 'These large halls which once housed frivolous girls, tycoons, captains of industry, lazy aristocrats and international adventurers are now full of humble men and women living in a new society. Barcelona works and eats. That is its strength and its virtue.' But morale-sapping divisions in Republican Catalonia, along with savage police repression, had long been endured. And by early 1939 Barcelona was starving.5

Collectivization of industry and agriculture was and is highly controversial. Carr has argued that, along with the Basques' and Catalans' resolve to protect their autonomy, collectivization 'restricted the creation of a planned economy and hampered the war industry'. Speaking in the early 1980s, José Antonio's sister Pilar Primo de Rivera contrasted what she saw as the 'chaos, the jumble of weird ideas' in the Republican zone with the 'order and tradition' on the Nationalist side. However, she does not mention Negrin's attempts to hammer out a more rational strategy lor a war economy.6

The Republic had to face many problems, not least the discontinuity in support from the Soviet Union and France. Aid was insufficient to match, let alone prevail over, the Nationalists' strength. It has been said that Negrín's hope was to activate British and French support in a wider war against international fascism. However, the first possible occasion in 1939 when such a war might in theory have broken out was after the Nazis' occupation of Prague on 15 March. Yet fifteen days earlier Britain and France had recognized Franco as de facto Head of State.

The Republic lost the war of morale, experiencing a declining faith in victory. However, the Spanish Republic could be said to have won the propaganda war - though this was to prove a pyrrhic victory. Whatever the case, there is a problem in defining who exactly the 'Republicans' were as the war drew to its close in March 1939 - divided as they were between those loyal to Negrín and those determined to bring him down, preferring to 'lose' to Franco rather than to communism. If, however, it is true that the Nationalists 'won' the Spanish Civil War, then Franco soon added vindictiveness to victory - though in the long run democracy would be vindicated over dictatorship.

Was this article helpful?

+1 0


  • severi kuusisto
    Why did the republicans lose the spanish civil war?
    3 years ago

Post a comment