Spanish Civil War: Democracy Murdered or Tragedy Avoided?


Less than a week ago was the anniversary of the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. One of the podcasts I love listening to is The Writer’s Almanac which is narrated by Garrison Keillor, whose voice is an American treasure which needs to be given its own Secret Service detail. The program consists in 5-6 minutes of Keillor listing what happened of note in literature and history on that day, before reading a poem. Even if you are not into podcasts or literature, I highly recommend it at the start or end of your day.

That being said, on the 17th, Keillor opened with this description;

It was on this day in 1936 that the Spanish Civil War began. It started with an attempted coup by right-wing forces, who called themselves Nationalists, against the government, or Republicans. General Franco was at the helm of the Nationalists, and the Spanish Civil War was the first major threat of fascism in Europe. Tens of thousands of international volunteers went to Spain to fight on the Republican side, including thousands from the United States.

Strictly speaking nothing is incorrect about this description. It did begin that day in 1936, it did start with an attempted coup from the Nationalists and it was against the pro-government forces called Republicans. Furthermore Franco did lead the Nationalists, was somewhat associated with fascism and thousands of international volunteers, including Americans, did fight for the Republicans.

But I find the unconscious characterization of Keillor’s description to be extremely fascinating. Not that I believe any of it intentional, but it is highly telling. Notice that Keillor makes a point of outlining the generals as “right-wing” but does not call the government, headed by leftist Santiago Quiroga, “left-wing.” Most tellingly, however, is the description of the Civil War, and thus the Nationalist victory, as the first “major threat of fascism.” Why not instead describe it as Spain narrowly escaping from the first major threat of communism in western Europe?

I don’t believe any of this comes from an overt ideological axe grind from Keillor, but probably rather just an unconscious American bias. After all, we fought fascists, Franco had truck with fascists and Americans fought in the conflict, in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade no less! How much more American can you get? In addition we Americans tend to know very little of the Spanish Civil War, as it has yet to be involved in any element of American popular culture, with perhaps the exception of For Whom the Bell Tolls or Kevin Bacon’s character in My Dog Skip.

What? Are you going to tell me that Hemingway, the all American badass and inspiration for The World’s Most Interesting Man, and the guy from Footloose were the bad guys?


Victor Gaetan of National Catholic Register outlines the mainstream American view of the Spanish Civil War and how divorced from reality it is, far more pithily than I can;

Many Americans, if they think about it at all, probably picture the Spanish Civil War vaguely, as a pre-World War II face-off between a fascist dictator, Gen. Francisco Franco, supported by wealthy friends, the so-called Nationalists, vs. a ragtag army of international idealists, misleadingly [for Americans] known as Republicans…
Books such as Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, whose main character is an American fighting for the Republicans, and, indirectly, Pablo Picasso’s massive painting Guernica, solicited by the Republican government to be shown in Paris at the 1937 World’s Fair, blame Franco and the Nationalists for the war’s chaos and misery.

Some people might know that the “idealists” were actually a fiercely anti-religious alliance of socialists, communists and anarchists.

I think when the historical record is examined, on the whole, it was probably for the best that Francisco Franco and his forces carried the day. For starters, the Republican regime was a murderous machine bent on violently shaping Spain into their absurd and inhumane mold. Had a Republican victory taken place, it would have been a violently polarizing victory that would have paralyzed politics to this day. Secondly, there is no doubt that Franco’s regime governed Spain far more competently than any Communist-leftist government, eventually handing power back to the Cortes and the king. Lastly, his victory no doubt spared Spain the horrors of the Second World War.

Endgame for Republicanism

There is really no questioning Francoist crimes, so let me get to this first. The White Terror was aptly named. Estimates range anywhere from somewhat less than 50,000 deaths all the way to 200,000. Given the reliability of various estimates, I’d trust Stanely Payne’s estimate, driven by on the ground studies, of somewhat less than 50,000. Nonetheless, that’s not a small sum. There was no discretion in this slaughter nor was its brutality stayed by Franco’s hand. One of his generals, Emilio Mola admitted;

It is necessary to spread terror. We have to create the impression of mastery eliminating without scruples or hesitation all those who do not think as we do.

Even more gruesome was the post-war fall out. Not only were there more killings, although this time spread out over 30 years or so, but an estimated 280,000 were sent to prison, often serving in forced labor camps. Comparisons to Nazi Germany, though somewhat inaccurate, can be given some leniency seeing that prisoners were experimented on in order to get to the psychological roots of Marxism. Reliable estimates of the total death toll range responsibly from 150,000 to 175,000. Not to disappoint my reactionary friends, but Franco was hardly a Lee Kuan Yew or even a Porfirio Diaz, with an ability to have some sort of discretion in who to target, for the sake of stability or based on some sort of rule of law. It was often chaotic as massacres were undertaken by various, disparate factions of the Nationalists such as the Carlists or the Falangists. When Himmler says it got a bit too nightmarish for his tastes, you can probably take that to the bank.

And yet…

Anyone who harbors some nostalgia for the defeated Spanish Republic must deal with the fact that the Republicans were in fact just as murderous, were functionally co-opted by Stalin and would’ve ruled over a brutalized and broken Spain. You can’t condemn the White Terror at your Abraham Lincoln Brigade reunion and then just brush over the Red Terror. To whit;

  • Religious persecution. Payne estimates that within the first six months, the Second Republic murdered nearly 7,000 Catholic clergy, including hundreds of nuns. During the regime, convents were shut down, the Church had property stolen, Jesuits exiled and bishops murdered. If your response to this is a yawn, then perhaps you don’t really have room to be shocked when Frank gives you an order to get the hell out of Dodge or burns down your communist union meeting hall.
  • Political repression. People like to think that the Second Republic was some beacon of Iberian democracy, casting off some ridiculous monarchy and stepping into an age of liberal stability. Ask Jose Calvo Soleto, a prominent monarchist who was gunned down by the state’s UMRA goons. Hundreds were assassinated before 1936 and over 1,500 more were wounded in political violence. The old Civil Guard, formed in 1844, was turned into an arm of the leftists and became deeply despised, either by directly engaging in violence or looking the other way as Spaniards were murdered and the places of worship burned down. Even early Republican supporters like Jose Ortega y Gasset, thought the repressive 1931 Constitution took things a bit too far.
  • Economic incompetency. Shockingly, the ideologically divided republican-left government was fairly clueless in how to handle the economy. Attempted reforms were made at market regulation and wealth redistribution, but the result of continuing depression, high unemployment, price strikes and a new strike popping up nearly every other day (113 in one year).
  • War conduct. Like with the White Terror, El Terror Rojo enjoys a wide range of estimates due to the difficulty of estimating war deaths and ideological implications of the debate. Moderately leftist Paul Preston puts it at 55,000 deaths, whereas former Francoist de la Cueva puts it at 72,000. Interesting enough, new research from journalist Cesar Vidal, relying on a combination of both Republicans and Nationalists, puts the toll at 110,000 with nearly 11,000 murdered in Madrid alone. The record of Republican violence is a grisly one, filled with war rapes, sexual mutilation, mass graves and indiscriminate shelling. Sorry Frankie Muniz but your dad in My Dog Skip was probably a war criminal.

What is even more important than the record of the Spanish Republic is what would have likely happened. One result would have been decades of chaos. The infighting between moderate republican-leftists, anarchists and Communists was one of the factors that not only caused the instability prior to the Civil War, but also lead to its downfall as it became increasingly difficult to maintain a united front.

The likely end game of a Republican victory would have been a civil war within the Civil War. After Franco’s forces would have been defeated or exiled to Portugal or Morocco (likely resulting in years of continued Nationalist resistance), the various leftist factions would’ve gone at each other. Thousands more would’ve died in the aftermath.

The second phase is also fairly obvious; a Communist victory and a new Communist “Third Republic.” (I think there’s a handy German term for this, but for some reasons it escapes me.) There can be really little doubt that Moscow was going to ensure that its handpicked men would reap the winnings of the war. Stalin was not about to send  military assistance, thousands in military advisers, spend hundreds of millions and then let some reformist democrats rule Spain, because, after all, Uncle Joe is such a nice guy.

Stalin had spent years turning the Popular Front into basically a tool of his Comintern. Even the International Brigades were rife with Moscow paid spies and agents. One doesn’t have to rely on conservative or even alleged neo-Franquista scholarship. This is widely admitted to by historians of anarcho-syndicalist, independent leftist and Trotskyist leanings. Stalin said jump and the Republic said, “How high should we string up these Catholic kulaks?”

It’s really not hard to imagine how Spain would have been worse off with a Communist government. An already weak economy, battered by war would have been utterly crippled by Soviet “reforms” and kept barely afloat with more Soviet loans. The checas who terrorized Madrid, and Republican forces, inured to murdering Trotskyists, Catalan/Basque nationalists, Catholic laity and anarchists would’ve been turned into an impressive police state. In fact usually the Chekists’ disciples (ex. China) were far more effective and brutal than their Russian teachers.

Lastly, even assuming that Communist Spain would not have attracted any outside attention, could’ve avoided WWII (big ifs) and would’ve eventually transitioned to a state the rest of Europe would recognize (ex. mixed market, social democratic parliamentary democracy, again big ifs here), there’s no doubt that Communism in Europe left the states they ruled over worse off. Usually the transition was economically brutal, akin to inoculation. When you compare post-Soviet states to their western counterparts, the contrast isn’t even close; increased rates of poverty, suicide, violent crime, social anomie and a healthy dose of violent ethnic nationalism (ex. break up of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, inter-ethnic violence between Ukrainians, Poles, etc…).

Francoist Competency

Yeah but Franco was really bad you guys, you say. Yeah he was. That’s not the point. The question isn’t, “Would I rather live in a healthy polity like the United States, the United Kingdom or Denmark or would I rather live in Francoist Spain?” That’s an easy question. I will take Door #1 please. The question is, “Who was worse and who governed better/would’ve governed better?” That’s also an easy question with an easy answer: Franco. By most indicators; Spain was a far healthier polity and far better off due to el Generalissimo’s reign.

  • Order. Franco deftly managed the various factions that made up the Nationalists; the Carlists, the Falange, and etc…Unlike the constantly fractious left, he tolerated no infighting within the new Movmiento Nacional. While there were (limited) referenda, and there was technically a functioning Cortes, Franco was basically the source of most legislation. Not only did Franco’s singular existence (similar to the unifying effect of a monarch) limit Nationalist infighting but also he did not seek to dramatically and violently mold Spanish society by attacking its main institutions; property, the King and the Church. By supporting these institutions (though he was not personally devout and also deserves criticism for his harassment and persecution of Spanish Protestants), much of Spanish society was ready to move on and live in peace. One fisherman put it this way when asked about politics by a visitor; “Franco looks after the government. I fish.” If this kind of respecting of institutions and anti-revolutionary politics makes you cringe, then consider this; you are not a Spaniard living in the early 20th century. These are institutions you are used to, you are familiar with and are grounding points for society. Ask Messrs Bremer and Bush how violently uprooting core institutions of society and bringing in unfamiliar ones works out. To paraphrase Chesterton, the problem removing age old institutions is not that people gravitate to nothing, its that they gravitate to anything. Like murdering each other.
  • Cautious liberalization. The story of Spain’s transition is one of the most remarkable in modern history. The strategy of slowly liberalizing after restoring stability has been attempted many times (ex. el Porfiriato in Mexico) but rarely successfully pulled off (ex. Singapore). Since the 1960s, Franco had been searching for a replacement, seeking out Otto von Hapsburg, before eventually settling on the young Juan Carlos Bourbon. As Franco had managed the Carlists, Falangists and Alfonsists, so to later in his rule did he play off the die-hard nationalists (called “the bunker men” after the imbecilic suicides who couldn’t live outside Hitler’s Germany) and the moderates. Slowly but surely, the moderates found themselves rising in influence and the fascist Falange found themselves the odd man out. Juan Carlos Bourbon was, by Franco’s design, crowned king. He later successfully lead Spain to constitutional, liberal monarchy. This was largely thanks to the prestige he had in Spanish society, due, in no small part, to Franco’s policy of favoring traditionalism. By 1977, Cortes elections were again held and a new constitution written. Absent in Spanish history is the sudden collapse or violent retribution as had occurred in East Germany or Romania.
  • Economic competency. While initially Franco, due to his traditionalist-reactionary leanings and his fascist allies, was skeptical of international finance, foreign investment and capitalist reforms, he eventually turned to market liberalization by the late 1950s. Attempts at a closed off and self sustaining autarky had failed as the GDP plunged by 40% and food became scarce. However once the moderates began to gain influence with El Caudillo, the debt began to be controlled, the market was slowly deregulated, and closer economic ties were established with the United States. Finally Catholic economists, inspired by the Late Scholastic theologians, pushed for closer European economic ties, liberalized trade and more foreign investment. By the 1960s, disturbances in the market began to plummet and the GDP skyrocketed. Today this is recognized as “the Spanish miracle” as the country industrialized, rural migrants moved to the cities to get jobs, the population increased and the living conditions reached parity with the rest of Western Europe. Given a choice, where would you live? 1980s Romania? Or 1968 Spain?

Tragedia Evitada: Tragedy Avoided

One of the most interesting scenarios arising for a victorious Spanish Republic counterfactual, is how WWII would have been altered. Suppose the Republicans had won in 1939. There is no realistic way that Spain would have been able to stay out of the war. Considering how willing the Germans were to jump into total nightmares because they were really frightened of sunk costs (bailing the Italians out in Yugoslavia and Africa), and the French are similarly unwilling to accept losses (ex. Indochina, Algeria), it is highly like a joint Vichy France/German invasion of Spain would’ve been attempted. Stalin was not above hectoring and bullying his allies (especially ones that were bought and paid for) into committing national suicide for the sake of the “greater good” (ex. Ukraine). The “soft underbelly” of Europe was anything but. Spain, with its hardened, violent post-war society, rugged terrain and polarized political factions would’ve been torn apart by more war and geopolitical jostling. Thousands would have died, either directly from war or indirectly in the decades of poverty afterwards. Instead under Franco, the war was kept at an arm’s length. Hitler was not fond of Franco as he commented he would rather spend two hours in the dentist’s office than have another negotiation with the Spanish leader. He was able to appease Hitler with a legion of volunteers, but nonetheless remained neutral. Lastly, despite his bizarre rantings on a “Judeo-Masonic conspiracy” Francoist Spain tacitly allowed and even encouraged protecting Jews, allowing Hungarian Jews apply for Spanish citizenship to avoid the camps.

In the end, politics is not about solutions but rather trade offs. With its market restrictions, repression of localism, political violence and occasional antisemitism, I would really rather not live in Francoist Spain c.a 1950. However it’s clear that Keillor was in fact wrong. The Spanish Civil War wasn’t the beginning of the threat of fascism but rather was the end of a devastating communist hazard. A Spain ruled by a Communist republic would have been more violent, repressive, broken and poorer.

Perhaps a tragedy was avoided and democracy was murdered? Or even a tragedy was avoided because democracy was murdered? Either way, here’s three cheers for the defeat of the Communist Republicans and one and a half cheers for Franco.


Interesting epilogue but it seems that the Revolution beat Franco after all, or rather Franco’s vice grip on the Church undermined its place in Spanish society. As early , as 1980 most Spanish Catholics said they were not devout, ordinations have plummeted, abortion is legal (before the first trimester), only 14% attend Mass weekly and only 3% of Spaniards think religion is one of the most important things in their lives, which is less than half the fairly stale European average.

It could be that sometimes rigidly enforced traditional autocracy is good or even necessary for society, but it remains to be seen if it is good for the Church.

For those who are interested in the Civil War or Franco, there are some decent sources;

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