Democracy Led to the Rise of Communism during the Spanish Civil War
by Robert C. Daniels
On the surface the 1936-1939 Spanish Civil War was a civil war fought between
the rebel Nationalist forces and those of the Republic. However, any serious
study of the war itself will reveal that it was not just a simple civil war,
but a convoluted and complex war that was indeed a prelude of the World War
that was soon to come. Both sides of the civil war were made up of complicated
political factions, all with their separate agendas. Both sides were also
supported, although in differing degrees, by various outside entities and
The Nationalists had the overt support of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany and
Benito Mussolini’s Fascist Italy, while other European countries, and even the
United States, gave covert support by giving a blind eye as many European and
American based companies sold the Nationalists fuel, vehicles, and other needed
materials. On the other hand, with the exception of Mexico and Russia, the
outside world openly shunned the Republic.
Although communist parties did exist in Spain at the outbreak of the Spanish
Civil war, they were relatively small in size and wielded varied amounts of
influence. Once the war began, however, communism spread throughout the
Republic held territories both in size and influence to the point where the
communist party eventually held more sway than the Republic government. This
essay will explore how the lack of support for the Spanish Republic by the
world’s leading democratic nations directly led to the rapid growth of
communism in 1936-1939 Spain.
At the outbreak of the war, while some factional differences existed among the
Nationalists, Generalissimo Francisco Franco was able to control these
differences and aptly organize and control the Nationalist army and militias
almost from the beginning. Franco and his fascist based uprising were also able
to quickly gain valuable assistance in both war materials and military aid
overtly from Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, along with eventual covert
assistance from the world’s major democratic countries. This assistance kept
Franco’s Nationalists well stocked, supplied, and supported throughout the war.
In contrast, the Spanish Republic, a democratically elected government, was
hindered from the beginning of the revolt by regionalism and suffered from
nearly continual infighting between the many political factions within
Republican Spain. Included among these rival political factions were the
communist and socialist parties of the Partido Comunista de España (PCE)—the
Spanish Communist Party; the Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista (POUM)—a
Marxist Socialist Party, founded in 1935 and independent of the PCE and
Stalinists; the Partido Socialista Obrero España (PSOE)—the socialist party;
the Partido Socialista Unificado de Cataluña (PSUC)—a pro-Stalin Marxist party
founded in July 1936 in Catalonia; and the Unión General de Trabajadores
(UGT)—the socialist trade union organization. At the beginning of the
revolt, each of these communist and socialistic parties taken separately had
little more than a voice in the government. However, if these parties combined
into one, the strong potential existed that they could rise to a power that
could greatly affect the running of the government, forming another European
Rivaling these communist and socialist parties for Republican power were the
Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT)—the anarcho-syndicalist trade union;
the Federación Anarquista Ibérica (FAI)—the militant revolutionary wing of the
anarchist movement; and the Unión Militar Republicana Antifascista (UMRA)—[a]
junior officer group in opposition to the Unión Militar Española (UME)—a
political organization loyal to the Nationalists.
From the outset and throughout the war, the Spanish Republic hoped to receive
aid from its democratic neighbors, England and France, and for good reasons.
According to historian Harry Browne, “The position in international law was
clear: a constitutional government had an undisputed right to buy arms to
suppress an internal revolt.” Franco’s, and his cohorts,’ insurrection
certainly met the definition of an internal revolt. At first, on 22 July 1936,
just five days after the uprising, when the newly appointed Republican Prime
Minister, Jóse Giral, appealed to the French Prime Minister, Léon Blum, for
arms, Blum “promised to allow the sale of arms to Spain.” As Browne states,
There were sound strategic reasons [for this] as well. If the rebellion was
successful, France would be caught in a vice between three fascist powers. A
hostile Spain, furthermore, could threaten France’s lifeline to her colonies in
North and West Africa.”
In the case of England, the “British Left was committed to neutrality, yet
strongly supported the sale of arms to Spain’s legal government.”
Nonetheless, in the end the English Government “came to see neutrality as
requiring a ban on the sale of arms to both sides in the conflict.” This
decision, as Browne suggests, was not, however, just a neutrality issue at
stake with the British, it was also the fear of the spread of communism. As
already stated, although fragmented in separate, and for the most part, feuding
parties, several communist and socialist parties did exist at the outbreak of
hostilities in the volatile and unstable Spanish Republic, including its
equally volatile and unstable government. With this said,
To the British ruling class in the 1930s, Communism—and behind that the Soviet
Union—seemed always to pose more of a threat than a resurgent Germany or an
Italy vying with Britain for control of the Mediterranean.
Jill Edwards furthers this fear in stating that “‘in the first weeks of the
rebellion, it was the thread of anti-communism which formed the warp of British
government attitudes.’” According to Antony Beevor, the British
Admiral Lord Chatfield, the First Sea Lord, was an admirer of General Franco
and his officers in the Bay of Biscay had an undoubted sympathy for their
Nationalist counterparts. Sir Henry Chilton, the ambassador at Hendaye, who
still had the ear of the Foreign Office though he was not on the scene, acted
as a mouthpiece for the Nationalists.
In addition, Browne quotes Edwards as saying, “By turning a blind eye both to
the intervention of the dictators and to the need to protect British shipping
to Spain, the British government aided Franco as decisively as if it had sent
arms to him.” Therefore, not only did Great Britain refuse to give aid to
the Spanish Republic from the onset of the war, England also, at least
covertly, seemed to support the Nationalist side.
Only a short time after Great Britain refused to aid the Spanish Republic, the
French government began to come under strong opposition to lending its support
to the Republic as well. Under great pressure from not only the British
government, but also the French President and even his own Cabinet, on 8 August
1936, “as an alternative to supplying arms to the Madrid government, Blum
proposed that the major powers should collectively agree to take no part in the
Civil War and to ban the sale of armaments to either side.” Although after
stating several influencing factors why Blum’s government backed away from
aiding Spain, Browne contends that it was fear of a French civil war breaking
out when he writes,
Perhaps the most influential factor was that fear, voiced by the President, of
a similar civil war breaking out in France, where the political balance was
extremely delicate and political rivalries as intense as in Spain. The way
would then be open to intervention from Germany, Italy and the Soviet Union—a
danger Blum could in no circumstances risk.
The Americans, the remaining major democratic country, also refused to sell
arms to the Republic. This, even against the “vocal sympathy of Claud Bowers,
the American Ambassador to Spain.” According to Browne, President Roosevelt
announced “‘a moral embargo’ on arms sales to either side,” although the
“Texaco Oil Company gave long-term credits to the Nationalists.” Beevor
contends, much like Edwards did in the case of Great Britain, that the United
States’ actions actually aided the Nationalists when he states, “The
isolationism of the United States helped the Nationalists, who were aided by
many influential sympathizers in Washington.” He furthers that in May of
1938, after the United States embargo had been repealed, a
group led by the [United States] ambassador to Great Britain, Joseph Kennedy,
managed to frighten Congressmen who depended on the Catholic vote into opposing
the repeal of the arms embargo. They did so even though no more than 20 per
cent of the country and 40 per cent of the Catholics supported the
It became apparent that like in Great Britain, the Nationalists also had their
American admirers, and powerful ones at that. This left the Republic with few
friends to count on for aid. With Franco’s Nationalists soundly being defended
and supported by the Nazis, Fascists, and even, at least covertly, the
democratic nations, who then was the Republic to turn to?
Two of the major reasons for the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War were the
Republic’s hatred of being ruled and oppressed by both the Catholic Church and
the Spanish aristocratic minority. As Hugh Thomas states, “The Mexican
government from the start supported the Spanish republic, as might be expected
from a country whose constitution was itself a protest of clerical and
aristocratic privilege.” Mexican President Cárdenas announced in “September
 that he had sent 20,000 rifles and 20 million rounds of ammunition to
the Spanish government.” Thomas later states that Mexico also sent “8
artillery [batteries] with some lorries and aircraft…even though much of this
equipment was second-rate.” This was help, but not nearly what was needed
by the Republic if they were to sustain the fight, not to mention any hope of
eventually winning the war against Franco’s nazi and fascist backed
The Republic’s only other source of aid came from Stalin’s Soviet Union.
Against some popular beliefs and fears of many of those in the major democratic
nations it can be argued that Stalin did not actually intend to turn Spain into
a communist country. Les Evans contends that
Stalin was above all concerned with securing a military alliance with the
imperialist democracies against Nazi Germany. In Spain he aimed to prove to his
prospective allies that he was uninterested in promoting the spread of
revolution and was willing to use his influence to contain the workers’
movement within the limits of bourgeois democracy.
Browne echoes this when he writes, “By the end of August 1936 Stalin had
decided to send arms to Spain as part of a long-term Soviet policy to build a
united front against Nazi Germany.” Even the English writer George Orwell,
who fought on the Republican side as a member of a POUM militia unit, relates
that the Communist Party was not intending to turn Spain into a communist
state. As Lionel Trilling states,
Orwell’s disaffection from the Communist Party was not the result of a
difference of opinion over whether the revolution should be instituted during
the war or after it. It was the result of his discovery that the Communist
Party’s real intention was to prevent the revolution from ever being instituted
Russian aid to the Republic soon began arriving in the way of weapons, tanks,
aircraft, and military and political advisors. In addition, the Comintern began
recruiting volunteers throughout Europe and America to fight for the Republican
cause in the form of International Brigades. Michael Jackson estimates that
“about 36,000 foreigners had served in the International Brigades, 32,000 of
them men in the ranks.” Although it is true that many of these
International Brigade members were communists, not all were. As Thomas relates,
“About 60 percent were communist before volunteering, and a further 20 percent
probably became communists during their experiences in Spain.”
Although the Russians may not have intended to turn Spain into a communist
state, they definitely did want to control both the Republican’s military and
how the war was fought. They soon took steps to ensure this outcome. One of the
first of these steps was to begin organizing the International Brigades in the
manner in which the Soviet military was structured back home in Russia. Besides
assigning military commanders at every level, the Soviets instituted the use of
political commissars at every command level, not only to indoctrinate the
troops with Stalinist communism propaganda, but also to maintain dual authority
with the military commanders. Browne confirms this when he states,
Within Republican Spain, communist influence was reflected in the system of
political commissars, and within the International Brigades, the rigorous party
line, which it was unwise, often dangerous, to dissent from.
It wasn’t, however, just in the International Brigades that this communist
influence took hold. As Browne writes concerning the Popular Army, which the
many militia units were eventually incorporated into,
The stand of Communist political commissars ran down through every level of the
Popular Army, and at the top were Russian advisors who had to be conciliated,
for on them depended, in the last resort, the flow of equipment.
Through use of this flow of military equipment, doling it out to only those
units and commanders who submitted to the communist party line, the Russians
quickly began commanding a wide area of control over both the Spanish military
and political organizations. As Browne states, “Dependence for arms upon the
Soviet Union affected both politics and military strategy.”
In addition, the Russians also
cultivated [the police and military] officers, most of whom were already
impressed by the Party’s discipline, with plans to reconstitute a formal army.
They sought out the ambitious, presenting themselves as the experts of
As Beevor points out,
Being supreme statists, Lenin’s followers understood the mechanism of
bureaucracy best of all. Stalin had demonstrated what could be achieved by
placing a few picked men in key posts. In the army the communists managed to
have Antonio Cordón appointed to control pay, discipline, supply and personnel
in the war ministry.
The communists also “sounded out senior officers, and removed those who were
obviously unsympathetic, like Colonel Segismundo Casado,…His replacement was a
Party supporter. According to Beevor, “Every time there was a shake-up
after a defeat, more and more vital posts in the army were taken over by
communist appointees.” The use of these ploys slowly gained the communists’
power to the point that “during the second half of 1937 and 1938,…Criticism of
the [Republic] prime minister [Juan Negrin] and the Communist Party virtually
became an act of treason” throughout Republican Spain. Even the separate
“militia armies, denied arms by the democratic nations, were forced into
dependence on the Soviet Union.” As Browne writes, “What is remarkable is
that such military dependence did not produce in the Republic Soviet-style
governments under pallid democratic forms.”
Throughout the war the Republican Prime Minister continually hoped for help
from the democratic nations. As Browne points out,
Negrín’s belief, continuously expressed to his supporters, was that it could
only be a matter of time before the Western democracies abandoned their
ill-starred policy of appeasement, and that when this happened the Spanish
Republic would benefit immediately and be brought within the perimeters of
Western defence [sic].
But this help never materialized. Once the Republic accepted help from the only
major power that would initially help them, the communist Soviet Union, the
deck was stacked even more against them for gaining assistance from the
democratic nations. To help insure this, the Nationalists under Franco
concentrated their war propaganda
on a select and powerful audience in Britain and the United States. They played
on the fear of communism in an appeal to conservative and religious feelings,
and their sympathizers’ mistrust of the Republic was only confirmed by Russian
From the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, the Republic, the democratically
elected government of Spain, asked for military aid and assistance from the
other democratic nations in squashing the Nationalist rebellion. These nations,
all powerful in their own right to differing degrees, not only declined to help
a fellow democratic government, but covertly assisted that democratic
government’s usurper. Whether the reasons each country had for failing to
support the duly elected Spanish government stemmed from the fear of
antagonizing Hitler and his Nazi Germany, from the fear of helping communism
spread, a combination of both, or other reasons, democratic Spain was left with
only two alternatives—accepting aid from the communist Soviet Union or
admitting defeat and surrendering to the Nationalists. Since the latter was not
seen as an option, Spain turned to the Soviet Union, and once Spain was forced
to accept Stalin’s help, she was also forced to accept the communist influence
that came with it.
This communist influence, backed by Stalin’s “supreme statists,” eventually
overwhelmed the Republic’s politics and military organizations. The only way to
extricate themselves from the ever-growing communist control and influence was
to refuse to accept additional Russian military aid, which, without aid from
the democratic nations, would have meant quick and certain defeat by Franco’s
fascist backed Nationalists. As Beevor so aptly sums it up, “Appeasement and
the Western boycott of the Republic greatly strengthened the power of the
Comintern, which was able to present itself as the only effective force to
Ironically, the fears and failures of the more powerful democratic nations of
the world to support a fellow democratically elected government led not only to
the eventual overthrow of that government, but also resulted in that same
democratically elected government having to convert, in many ways, to a
communist state during its futile fight for survival. As Browne summarizes,
In 1936...British policy was more influenced by the possible threat of the
expansion of Soviet power. It is therefore,...given Britain’s underlying
concerns, her policy of non-intervention produced in some degree the result
which she most feared.
Show Footnotes and
. Definitions taken from Harry Browne’s, Spain’s Civil War,
(New York: Longman, 1996), 133-134.
. Ibid., 50.
. Ibid., 49.
. Jill Edwards, The British Government and the Spanish Civil War 1936-9
(Macmillan, 1979), 3; quoted in Harry Browne, Spain’s Civil War,
ed. (New York: Longman, 1996), 49, n. 61.
. Antony Beevor, The Spanish Civil War
(London: Cassel Military
Press, 1999), 165.
. Browne, 53.
. Ibid., 50-51.
. Ibid., 51-52.
. Ibid., 52.
. Richard P. Traina, American Diplomacy and the Spanish Civil War
University Press, 1968); quoted in Harry Browne, Spain’s Civil War,
ed. (New York: Longman, 1996), 52, n. 87.
. Beevor, 201.
. Ibid., 175.
. Hugh Thomas, The Spanish Civil War,
(New York: Touchstone/Simon
& Schuster, 1994.), 348-349.
. Ibid., 378.
. Ibid., 943.
. Les Evans, foreword to The Spanish Revolution (1931-39),
Trotsky (New York: Pathfinder, 1973), 42.
. Browne, 52.
. Lionel Trilling, foreword to Homage to Catalonia,
Orwell (San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1969), xx.
. Michael Jackson, Fallen Sparrows: The International Brigades in the
Spanish Civil War
(Philadelphia, PA: American Philosophical Society,
. Thomas, 441.
. Browne, 93.
. Ibid., 80.
. Beevor, 183.
. Ibid., 173.
. Browne, 90.
. Ibid., 87.
. Beevor, 172.
. Ibid., 179.
. Browne, 53.
Beevor, Antony. The Spanish Civil War.
London: Cassel Military Press,
Browne, Harry. Spain’s Civil War,
2nd ed. White Plains, NY: Longmans
Publishing Group, 1996.
Edwards, Jill. The British Government and the Spanish Civil War 1936-9.
Macmillan, 1979, 3. Quoted in Harry Browne, Spain’s Civil War,
49, n. 61. New York: Longman, 1996.
Evans, Les. Foreword to The Spanish Revolution (1931-39),
Trotsky. New York: Pathfinder, 1973.
Jackson, Michael. Fallen Sparrows: The International Brigades in the Spanish
Philadelphia, PA: American Philosophical Society, 1994.
Thomas, Hugh. The Spanish Civil War.
New York: Touchstone/Simon &
Traina, Richard P. American Diplomacy and the Spanish Civil War.
University Press, 1968. Quoted in Harry Browne, Spain’s Civil War, 2d ed. (New
York: Longman, 1996), 52, n. 87.
Trilling, Lionel. Foreword to Homage to Catalonia,
by George Orwell.
San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1969.
Copyright © 2007 Robert C. Daniels.
Written by Robert C. Daniels. If you have questions or comments on this article,
please contact Robert Daniels at:
About the author:
Robert Daniels, after retiring from the U.S. Navy as a Chief Petty Officer, received
his AA from Tidewater Community College, Virginia Beach, VA, his BA in History from
Old Dominion University (ODU), Norfolk, VA, and his MA in Military Studies, Land
Warfare from the American Military University (AMU), Manassas Park, VA. He has also
written and published two books telling the exploits of both WWII era veterans and
civilians: 1220 Days and World War II in Mid-America. Excerpts of these books, as
well as access to order autographed copies of them, a short author bio, and info
on his current writing projects can be viewed on his web page at http://www.robertcdaniels.com
He currently teaches adjunct U.S. and Western Civilization History at Tidewater
Community College in Virginia Beach, VA, when not managing a U.S. Coast Guard schoolhouse.
Published online: 07/13/2007.
* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent
those of MHO.