The 20th of November 2005 marked the 30th anniversary of the death of Generalissimo Francisco Franco and with it a time to reflect on the events which brought him to power. The trauma of the Spanish Civil War was arguable the most acute in Spain’s history, surpassing the defeats of 1898 or the debacle of the Armada of 1588.
Franco and Hitler
The country ripped itself apart, feeding off extremism, both domestic and foreign. The Soviet Union supported the fast fragmenting Republican left, while Germany committed the infamous Legión Cóndor and Italy the Corpo Truppe Volontari to the Nationalists.
To these external powers it was a chance to further their political aspirations and test new military hardware. France and Britain remained neutral, appeasing Hitler and openly discouraging support for the Spanish 2nd Republic. To the ordinary Spaniard the choice was less clear.
Following the military dictatorship of Rivera and the restoration of democracy in 1931, the government swung from a left coalition to the centre-right coalition which included the conservative Catholic CEDA. Finally in 1936 power rested with the Popular Front a coalition of socialist, communist and anarchist groups. Mismanagement and a disastrous agrarian policy left much of the country in crisis. This general discontent led directly to the right-wing coup attempt of the 17th of July 1936.
The attempt failed, but its momentum was impossible to stop. Spain became polarized, people caught on the wrong side of the divide suffered terribly. Atrocities on both sides claimed the lives of tens of thousands. The resulting Civil War was fought by Spaniards for control and security of their homeland. While 40,000 volunteers formed the International Brigades to primarily fight fascism, in the service of the republic. Andalucía itself was polarized, with Seville in the hands of Franco’s Nationalists; the vulnerability of Málaga became obvious. On the 17th of January 1937 three Nationalist columns approached the city, the Italian Volunteers from the North, from the west came General Quiepo de Llano with his Army of the South and from Granada Munoz’s forces completed the encirclement, reaching the periphery of the city on the 3rd of February.
Although large numbers of republican troops were available for the defense of the city, bad organization made them no match for the disciplined Nationalists. The ringing of the church bells in Málaga would warn of yet another air-raid, the German and Italian aircraft coming two or three times daily. The indiscriminant bombing and strafing, sent the population scurrying to the rocks and caves of the cliff face or racing into the hills above the town. The flimsy houses of the exposed town suffered immense damage as total war was unleashed on the civilian population.
The journalist Claude Cockburn wrote in The Daily Worker: “If you were to imagine, however, that this terribly hammered town is in a state of panic you would be wrong. Nothing I have seen in this war has impressed me more than the power of the Spanish people’s resistance to attack than the attitude of the people as seen in Málaga”
On the 8th of February, Nationalist forces entered the city and an exodus of one hundred and fifty thousand refugees started. The pitiful progression of humanity included civilians and the fleeing Republican militia, turning the coastal road to Almería into a human quagmire. Constantly harassed by the Legión Cóndor from the air and shelled by the Nationalist vessels Canarias and Almirante Cervera from the sea.
The highway became littered with the dead, people and animals putrefied by the roadside as the endless procession of bewildered human debris passed unseeing. The scene of human depravation was a forerunner of what was to come. Over the following eight years millions of displaced people haunted the major routes of Europe away from Nazi tyranny.
Almería swelled with the human influx. Those who couldn’t find shelter simple camped in the streets. Exhausted by the 200 kilometre trek, without food and with limited water the situation was desperate.
On the evening of the 12th Nationalist forces bombed Almería. Ten bombs fell on the huddled exhausted refugees. Among the casualties were children queuing for preserved milk and dry bread. No attempt had been made to attack a Republican battleship in the harbour or the militia barracks.
The terrible events on the road to, and in Almería were only part of the horror of the Spanish Civil War. Atrocities were committed on both sides of the conflict. Losses were between 500,000 and 1,000,000, depending on which figures are used. If it is true that the character of a nation is not determined by crisis, but by how the country comes through that crisis.
How did Spain fare?
Franco brought some liberalisation to Spain as he tried to find a place for it in Europe, but the sceptre of the Civil War hung over the Dictator and his country. With the death of Franco in 1975, came an opportunity to reconcile and to forgive and to finally prove that Spain was a country equal within a community of democratic European states.
Defeated Republicans cross the Pyrenees
In the introduction to the book Heart of Spain The former Minister of Education and Culture, Esperanza Aguirre Gil de Biedma gives an insight in just how this was achieved, echoing the optimism of all Spaniards and of the foreign nationals who have made the peninsular their home.
“…….Those events should not be consigned to oblivion, having been overcome by means of our constitution, that instrument of concord, and by the vigorous Spanish reality of our time, based on the peaceful coexistence of all Spaniards and our mutual confidence in our future”