How the Spanish Civil War Became Europe’s Battlefield

How the Spanish Civil War Became Europe’s Battlefield


Between the two World Wars that would change the course of modern history, a smaller yet deeply impactful conflict took place. The Spanish Civil War was fought from 1936 to 1939. On the one hand, it was a local conflict on the margins of Europe. On the other hand, the conflict can also be seen as a microcosm of war in the 20th century. Not only did the Spanish Civil War foreshadow the global conflagration to come, but it also had its roots in the modern era’s central divides: urban versus rural, religion versus secularization, rich versus poor, progress versus tradition, democracy versus fascism and communism.

The only exposure many of us have had to information about the Spanish Civil War comes from the cultural reflections of the time, such as artistic masterpieces like Pablo Picasso’s painting Guernica and Ernest Hemingway’s novel For Whom the Bell Tolls. Beyond these representations, however, the shadow of the war lives on as new information continues to emerge about the authoritarian rule of General Francisco Franco in Spain and the nation he built out of the rubble after the war between the left-wing Republican government and the right-wing Nationalist insurgency.

In this course, you will have the opportunity to explore this fascinating, complex, and often brutal time in history. How the Spanish Civil War Became Europe’s Battlefield takes you to the front line and introduces you to the competing coalitions on each side to look at the issues of a perennially confounding military, political, and social history. Taught by Professor Pamela B. Radcliff of the University of California, San Diego, these 24 scintillating lectures survey the aspects of an endlessly multifaceted history. Along the way, you will investigate key questions, such as:

  • How did Spain transition from a seemingly peaceful democracy to a nation torn by war?
  • What role did the Catholic Church and the international community—including Soviet communists, Italian fascists, and German Nazis—play in the conflict?
  • How did ordinary soldiers, citizens, clergy, workers, and business owners experience the civil war?
  • Why did the Republican side lose, and what did this mean for Spain’s future?

Next, you will reflect on the complicated legacy of the war. Since the Nationalist leader General Francisco Franco took power and held authoritarian rule for decades after the war, information about the war itself was limited until the later decades of the 20th century. Only recently, scholars have been able to evaluate terror campaigns, concentration camps, and other wartime atrocities. Professor Radcliff delves into these so-called “memory wars” of the 21st century to show how multiple narratives of the war continue to proliferate.

How the Spanish Civil War Became Europe’s Battlefield is a magnificent overview of an astonishing history from the political polarization in the Second Republic to the urban warfare during the war years.

Examine the Roots of Spanish Nationalism

In July 1936, Spanish military leaders conspired to overthrow the democratically elected Spanish Republican government. But their coup’s partial failure turned into an almost three-year-long “total” war that claimed about a half a million lives and resulted in the exile of 250,000 Spanish nationals.

To set the stage for this monumental conflict, Professor Radcliff goes back to establishment of a democratic Republic in 1931, when the nation was bifurcated largely on urban and rural lines. The interior of the country was largely agricultural, traditional yet impoverished; whereas, the urban centers, led by progressive intellectuals, were perceived as elite and out of touch.

Political polarization from these geographic and class tensions came to a boiling point in 1936 when military garrisons led by General Franco attempted a “surgical coup.” Although the coup failed, the spasm divided the military and ushered the country into local violence and, ultimately, state collapse.

Trace the Course of the War

The summer of 1936 was one of the bloodiest seasons in Spanish history, in which tens of thousands of civilians—including the poet Federico Garcia Lorca—were massacred in lawless states that resembled the “Wild West.” In this opening act, a series of decentralized groups coalesced in two broad camps: progressive Republicans, as well as socialist workers and communists, on the side of the government and Catholics, Nationalists, and even outright fascists on the side of the insurgency.

At the time, the war seemed to represent a larger European contest, where democracy, fascism, and communism were competing to define the region’s future. For that reason, it attracted international attention from the major world powers, from fascist Germany and Italy to the Soviet Union, Britain, France, and the United States, as well as from ordinary citizens—including the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, memorialized in the writing of Ernest Hemingway.

In How the Spanish Civil War Became Europe’s Battlefield, Professor Radcliff surveys the war over its three-year span, delving into each side’s strategies, alliances, and propaganda. In addition to Franco, you’ll meet such figures as Manuel Azaña, the Republican president; Largo Caballero, the revolutionary socialist who influenced the radical wing of the Socialist party; and Dolores Ibarruri, a prominent female labor leader immortalized through passionate speeches written under the pen name “La Pasionaria.”

Legacy of War, Lessons for Today

As you will discover, both Republicans and Nationalists gradually centralized their military operations and employed repressive tactics on soldiers and civilians alike. The violence, however, was asymmetric, with the Nationalists ultimately prevailing. General Franco became “el caudillo” (“the leader”) of an authoritarian regime for more than 35 years.

Professor Radcliff rounds out the course with a deep consideration of the war’s legacy. Even today, the ghosts of this 20th-century war still haunt contemporary Spain, with no national consensus on how it fits into the trajectory of Spanish history. After the war, Franco’s regime buried records of atrocities. The true death toll and economic accounting have only recently come to light, leading to battles in scholarship over how to interpret the war.

Was the Spanish Civil War a victory of totalitarian fascism or was it a backstop against the rising red tide of communism? Was Franco a ruthless war criminal or a defender of the faith? Most important, what can the war tell us about democracy today as many of the same divides over rich and poor, progress and tradition, religion and secularism, continue to inspire passionate intensity?

There are no easy answers, but How the Spanish Civil War Became Europe’s Battlefield offers a powerful survey of a defining moment in Spanish and European history.

Released 7/2023

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