Changing American Politics — As Told by the Spanish Civil War

The United States is currently wrought with political distrust and dissatisfaction all both sides — from the election of one of the most dangerously far-right Presidents in U.S history, to the rantings and outcries of the far-left, unsatisfied with the current climate of the Democratic party. To say the political climate in the United States is far from ideal would be an understatement. Though extremely disheartening, this is not a unique instance in history. One need only look to the Spanish Civil War to find the eerie similarities between countries wrought with political division. Very few Americans know much about the Spanish Civil War (in fact, when I have brought it up in conversation it is usually confused with the Spanish-American War). However, the Spanish Civil War is one of the greatest reflections of the current political climate in the states and a prime example of how extremism, on both sides, can lead to horrifying results.

The battle between left and right, conservative and liberal, communism and fascism, was one that had defined much of the 20th century. This battle, however, was never more present than in the bloody and divisive war between the leftist Republicans and the right wing Nationalists (led by Francisco Franco) that plagued Spain from 1936 to 1939. The Spanish Civil war, known simply as “The War” in Spain, was wrought with casualties. Used as a sparring ground for both far-right fascist movements (Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy) and far-left communist movements (The Soviet Union under Stalin), the Spanish Civil War quickly became not just a war between Spaniards, but a war between ideologies.

In the 1931 Municipal elections, following extreme income inequality and dissatisfaction among the Spanish people, the Antimonarchist parties held a substantial win. This resulted in the abdication of Alfonso XIII, and the effort to separate church and state in Spain. The newly elected Government, known as The Second Republic, was largely middle class and promoted multiple policies that attacked the privileged structure of Spanish society. With sweeping land reforms, the separation of church and state, and an anti-military/war stance, it looked to be a promising future for Spain.

This was not the case. The right, which consisted mainly of businessmen, wealthy land owners, military, the church, and a blossoming fascist party known as the Falange, felt as though it was an extreme attack on their rights. The new idyllic government also failed to satisfy those on the far left, such as the communist and socialist parties who saw it as not progressive enough. It also failed to satisfy the working class, who increasingly protested against it.

This should all be starting to sound very familiar.

By 1936, the Popular Front (a coalition of Socialists, Communists, and Liberals) had swept the reigning party from office. Creating such a large political divide that Spain would soon be thrown into one of the deadliest civil wars of the 20th century.

It was the fascist-nationalist Falanges and Carlistas against the Republicans, a hodge-podge of Communists, Socialists, Anarchists, Liberals, and everything in between. As the Nationalist forces won more battles (thanks to help from Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy) , and took over more of Spain, the Republican forces were having a civil war within themselves.

The Soviet aid increased internal divisions between Communist and non-Communist supporters of the republic and the anti-Nationalists began to splinter into factions tied to differing political goals. In order to further their goals of revolution post-civil war, the Communists of the Republican front purged their own movement of competition. This not only weakened republican efforts, but created another civil war in Catalonia. All the while, Nationalist forces continued to bombard parts of Spain.

It was this infighting (combined with lack of international support) would eventually lead to the downfall of the Republicans and the success of the Falanges led by Francisco Franco. By the start of Franco’s regime, many historians estimate nearly 500,000 people died from all causes, including combat, bombing, and executions. Tens of thousands died of starvation, and as mentioned above, many more fled. This was only a small taste, however, of what was to come with the following dictatorship of Francisco Franco. Franco’s regime would oversee the execution of 50,000 republicans, a documentation of all Spanish Jews, the establishment of concentration camps, and the destruction of multiple Spanish cultures such as that of the Basque and Catalonian regions.

Hindsight is always 20/20, and looking back it seems as though maybe this could have been delayed or prevented if unjustified far left and right extremism combined with political dissatisfaction hadn’t shaken and destroyed the Second Republic. That, however, is not the most important part of this piece. What’s important is what we can learn from it as citizens of the United States.

It is extremely unlikely that U.S going to be thrown into the boughs of another Civil War — especially one at the same level of the Spanish Civil War. However it teaches us an important lesson of unity in a time of division. What killed the Republicans during the war was not simply lack of arms or support, but infighting amongst each other . Much like the current Democratic party, the Republicans were torn between groups of socialists, liberals, anarchists, and communists. It was this division and infighting that helped bring about their downfall. In order for the Democratic party to be successful in this current political climate, it is important to unify. If the entire left wants to win elections in 2018 and 2020, they must be willing to work together. From the far-left learning the concept that any progress, no matter how small and seemingly insignificant, contributes to the whole, to the more center-left working to allow more hard hitting progressive policies — both must be willing to work together. Without this, it is hard to see an easy future for the left.

As for the far-right, and extremism in general — the Spanish Civil war shows us how important it is to look past he present. Looking back to the Second Republic, it almost seems inconceivable that people would even consider the government not-progressive enough, or an attack on their rights. It is often too easy to take the slow progress of the present as no progress at all, even though in the long term it could be vital. It is easy to view any change as an attack on one’s rights, even though in the long term those rights will be expanded. Unwarranted dissatisfaction and false propaganda, like that which plagued the far-right leading up to the election, can be extremely dangerous — and one need only look to the current policies passed by a reality-star President to see that.

It is important to look back at history in order to properly predict the future. Extremism has had very few instances of success, and division has had very few instances of hope. If there is one thing to be learned from this, it’s that in order to find political security we must work together, we must do what is right, and we must never let history repeat itself. It is far too easy to let blinders separate the past, present, and future. We must look in all directions, not just one, in order to truly be successful as a country and prevent the political troubles that plagued the Spanish Civil War from happening again in the United States.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Katie Gould’s story.