*Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Twenty-eight months after launching an assault on Madrid, Generalissimo Francisco Franco and his Nationalist soldiers finally broke into the Spanish capital on March 28, 1939. Within days, the bloody and brutal Spanish Civil War would come to a close, opening the door to one of the most severe dictatorships in modern history.
Like much of Europe, Spain in the early 20th century was in the midst of a confusing shift away from monarchy. Though King Alfonso XIII was officially the ruler, the centuries-old system by which wealthy landowners — known as latifundia — were able to exert heavy influence on the government remained intact, a fact which increasingly left the masses discontent as the decades passed.
With the close of World War I, a number of groups sought to end the central authority held by Alfonso and the Spanish nobility. Working class men and former soldiers conspired to overthrow the monarchy, succeeding with a coup in 1923. Miguel Primo de Rivera took the reins as dictator, maintaining his hold on the country for seven years until it became clear his government would fail.
In January 1930, with Rivera out of power, Alfonso had an opportunity to retake his seat on the throne. In Spain’s population centers, however, the idea of restoring the king met with tremendous opposition. Frustrated with corruption evident during Alfonso’s reign, the people hungered for a democratically-elected government. With landslide victories by Republican politicians during the elections of April 1931, the king realized his time as head of state had come to an end. Two days after voting was over, the king left the country and paved the way for the founding of the Second Spanish Republic.
Eight months later, with a constitution in place, the government embarked on a new era for Spain — but trouble existed almost immediately. Reforms expanded the rights of everyone but Catholic orders, singling out members of the clergy (and an immensely popular institution to most Spaniards) in a bid to severely restrict power. Even with a shift in law two years later, many Spaniards remained bitter.
As if to cement the weakness of the Republican government, the constitution allowed for the separate provinces to ignore the national hierarchy and govern themselves. Catalonia and the Basque Country took advantage of this provision in 1932 and 1936, respectively, acting almost as individual nation-states from then on.
By the 1933 elections, the Second Spanish Republic was in shambles. Opposition from anarchists and Socialists arose in rural areas, leading to strikes and violence over the next two years. Miners in the northern Spanish province of Asturias took control of the city of Oviedo in early October 1934, murdering administrators and setting government buildings on fire during a two-week spree. Called in to quell the rebellion, Franco showed no mercy, earning the nickname “The Butcher of Asturias” for his ruthless tactics.
A fresh round of elections were called for in early 1936, but the results were largely academic. Parties with fringe ideologies gained the majority of seats in the legislature, nearly wiping out those in the middle with a willingness to compromise. (The centrist Radical Republican Party, for example, went from 104 seats in parliament to only 9.)
Accusations of impropriety flew wildly from one political realm to the next, particularly after the assassination of Jose Calvo Sotelo, a monarchist, and Jose Castillo, a lieutenant with anti-fascist leanings. On July 17, 1936, Franco, at the head of the Spanish Army of Africa, moved onto the chaotic mainland sensing an opportunity to seize power in a military coup.
Aid soon arrived for both sides, but not before Franco’s Nationalist soldiers seized much of southern Spain. Using supplies and air support from Benito Mussolini in Italy and Adolf Hitler in Germany, he pushed his army on toward Madrid following a victory in Toledo during late September. Six weeks later, Franco and his forces launched an assault on the capital, believing they could capture the city with a quick advance on the worn-out Republican defenders.
The Nationalists had underestimated their enemy’s resolve. With more than twice as many soldiers at their disposal, not to mention environmental advantages provided by high ground and the Manzanares River, the Republicans were able to turn back Franco’s army and their allied forces from Germany. For the next eleven days, both sides engaged in a bloody fight, yet Nationalists were unable to break through. The front was locked in place by the end of the month, forcing Franco to engage in a siege.
Throughout 1937, the two forces could do little to tip the battle one way or the other. A handful of skirmishes on the outskirts of Madrid amounted to little more than a few dozen men killed for no reason. It was not until Franco squeezed the city’s supply lines the following year that the Republicans inside the city began to feel the strain.
At the beginning of March 1939, as Republican forces all over the countryside began falling like dominoes, it became clear there would be no way out. Colonel Segismundo Casado reached out to Franco to negotiate a surrender, hoping to spare those inside Madrid the pain of a Nationalist “purge” — Franco’s means for consolidating authority after a victory by killing opposition.
Knowing he held all the cards, Franco insisted on an unconditional surrender. Casado could not stand for that, as he wished to secure the lives of those who had done so much to defend Madrid. After two days of fighting, Franco and his men entered the city on March 28, 1939. Within days, thousands of Republicans were rounded up and imprisoned, dying behind bars — if not executed — while Franco eliminated obstructions to absolute rule over the next four years. (As many as 200,000 people were killed, according to some experts.)
Officially the leader, Franco remained in control until his death in November 1975. Through the course of nearly four decades in charge, he suppressed whatever he believed did not represent the true Spain, jailing dissidents and outlawing the use of the Catalan and Basque languages, for example. Despite his ferocity early in his reign, the undeniable prosperity he brought to the country leaves many Spaniards struggling to quantify his impact to this day.
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