Often considered a precursor to World War II, the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939 exemplified the international political instability in the lead-up to the broader conflict. The rise of the Soviet Union generated defensiveness amongst conservative factions who feared Bolshevism, leading many of them, including some in Spain, to turn to fascism as an extreme antidote. The Spanish Civil War reflected this conflict in its two major opponents, each of whom attracted a broad coalition of support.

The Spanish Republicans

The Spanish Republicans comprised the democratically elected government of the Second Spanish Republic, which came to power in 1931 after the abdication of King Alfonso XIII. The Republicans attempted to promote secularization -- which angered Spain’s broadly Catholic population -- and to pass labor reform, which prompted fears about the spread of communism. In the 1936 elections, the Republicans held onto power through the unification of a broad array of leftist interests within the Popular Front movement. The Spanish Socialist Party and Communist Party served as major components of the Popular Front. The CNT, a large anarchist trade union, did not officially join the movement, but its members provided broad electoral support. During the Spanish Civil War, the Popular Front relied upon international volunteers and armed Spanish civilians for its troops.

Popular Front International Support

The Popular Front received international support from countries worried about the spread of fascism and from individuals who saw Nationalist aggression as a violation of democratic principles. The Soviet Union and Mexico sent direct aid in the form of money and weapons. France, though initially neutral, sent aid after French citizens protested in favor of the Republicans. The so-called International Brigade supplied a large number of the Popular Front’s fighters. This group consisted of communists, anarchists, leftists and democrats from around the world, who volunteered in what they saw as a battle against fascism.

The Nationalists

The Nationalist movement united conservatives and anti-communists that considered the Popular Front a threat to Spanish identity. Political groups that supported the Nationalists included the Catholic Church, the conservative Carlist Party, the fascist Falange party and the monarchist supporters of Alfonso XIII. The Nationalists also represented Spain’s moneyed classes, and many large landowners counted themselves among their ranks. The Nationalists derived their strength from the Spanish military, under the command of Francisco Franco. Franco not only helped initiate the coup against the Popular Front; he ruled Spain as a dictator for 36 years after the Nationalists triumphed.

Supporters of the Nationalists

Like the Popular Front, the Nationalists attracted a broad array of international support from countries that saw Spain in terms of their own political interests. The Nationalists received major support from Adolf Hitler’s Germany. Germany’s support initially took the form of logistical aid but evolved into the supply of arms, heavy artillery and outright military action in the form of bombings. Through Hitler’s encouragement, the fascist leader of Italy, Benito Mussolini, supplied naval, air and ground support. Portugal also chose to aid the Nationalists and organized a large force of volunteer troops.