In 1931, Spain became a Republic with a democratically-elected left-wing government. King Alfonso XIII fled, and the new government began a program of modernizing the country. Composed of communists, socialists, anarchists, and Basque and Catalan separatist groups (lured by the promise of self-government), the new government drew up a new constitution granting freedom of speech and religion, voting rights for women, and removed the privileges of the aristocracy. A major part of their platform was anticlericalism, and the Republicans were seen as very hostile to the Catholic Church. Unfortunately, their reign coincided with the Great Depression, which left them unable to implement some reforms and contributed to national unrest.
Many conservative, religious, right-wing, fascist, and nationalist groups opposed the new Republic, and in 1936 many of these groups formed a coalition in support of a military uprising. Their coup d’état, led by General Francisco Franco, began in earnest on July 16th. However, Franco did not succeed in seizing power immediately, as most of the major cities of Spain remained loyal to the Republic. He therefore began a long campaign to conquer the Republican holdouts, and the Civil War commenced.
While the League of Nations remained neutral and most European countries signed a Non-Intervention Pact, many governments willfully broke the pact to provide aid to one side or the other. Hitler’s Nazi Germany, for example, provided a great deal of assistance to Franco’s Nationalist forces. The infamous Condor Legion of the Luftwaffe, for example, engaged in bombing campaigns, including the one that destroyed Guernica and was immortalized in Picasso’s masterpiece.
Franco also received financial and military support from Mussolini’s Fascist Italy as well as neighboring Portugal. The Italian navy was particularly effective in blockading Spain’s Mediterranean coast, preventing aid from reaching Republican forces.
The Republicans, on the other hand, turned to Stalin’s Soviet Union for support. That alliance was often uneasy, but Stalin was willing to break the non-intervention pact in secret and sell arms to the Republicans when other states were not. Mexico was a more enthusiastic if less wealthy ally, and sent cash and rifles to aid the Republican cause. France’s leftist president Léon Blum was sympathetic to the Spanish Republican cause, and often hinted that he would consider intervention. However, under pressure from conservative factions in France, he agreed to uphold the Non-Intervention Pact, but did not actively stem the flow of cash and weapons passing between the Soviet Union and Spain via France. Additionally, the Republican side gained support from leftists of all stripes all around the world, many of whom traveled to Spain to participate in the International Brigades. Novelist Ernest Hemingway, who reported on the Spanish Civil War, wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls about a fictional American fighting in the International Brigades.
Unfortunately, as Franco’s forces advanced and gained territory, the Republicans were divided internally. The anarchist party, POUM, was often in conflict with the majority communists and socialists. Their differences were primarily ideological, but proved divisive. POUM was denounced and declared illegal, and many anarchists were imprisoned or executed by fellow Republicans.
At the beginning of 1939, Franco made frightening progress, and the Republican stronghold of Barcelona saw the threat approaching. His campaign of January-February 1939 resulted in the fall of Barcelona and the rest of Catalonia, the last great holdout of the Republic. On April 1st of that year, the Civil War ended in Franco’s victory, and the Republican government went into exile.
When Barcelona fell, hundreds of thousands fled. Franco was infamous for his brutality toward his enemies, so many Republicans sought refuge across the border in France. This was the Retirada, the subject of the rest of this blog.
While the refugees of the Retirada suffered greatly, it may have been the best possible option for them. Many Republicans who remained behind in Spain were imprisoned, executed, or forced to labor for Franco’s new Nationalist dictatorship. Numbers are uncertain, but historians estimate that several hundred thousand leftists died under Franco’s regime.
Francisco Franco died in November 1975, reinstating the monarchy that had ruled prior to the Republic, 45 years previously. Only then were any exiles of the Retirada who so chose able to return safely to Spain.