The Spanish Civil War: A Modern Tragedy

By George R. Esenwein | Go to book overview

3
Volcanic eruptions: Popular
experiences of revolution and
violence

During its opening phases, it was apparent that the Civil War would entail more than just a clash between those who wanted to overthrow the Republic and those who sought to defend it. In fact, the military rebellion unleashed two major forces that irrevocably widened the dimensions of the Civil War. The first was a massive popular revolution which, in varying degrees, spread rapidly throughout much of the antirebel zone. The main features of this multilayered movement and the different ways in which it influenced the course of Republican affairs during the war are sketched out below. Parallel to the social, economic, and political changes being wrought by the popular revolution on the Republican side, the entire peninsula was engulfed in a wave of violence that saw the mass killings of civilians not directly involved in the fighting. In the Republican camp, the revolutionary left spear-headed a campaign of terror and extermination against individuals and groups who were perceived to be allied to the military rebellion. And though this largely improvised campaign of bloody purges began to subside within a few weeks, terror, repression, and the killing of suspected enemies or ‘Fifth Columnists’ became permanent features of Republican rule. In the opposing camp, the military and paramilitary ‘repression brigades’ of the Falange and Carlist organizations led the initial onslaught against individuals and organizations who were identified as being pro-Republican. As the war progressed these purges became more regularized, not least because terror and repression were regarded as necessary instruments of political rule in the Nationalist zone.


Revolutionary Spain: Transformation of the Republic?

Some of the most dramatic episodes in the Spanish Civil War occurred during the first months of the conflict. Collectively these incidents have been referred to as the July Revolution. It began when the military conspirators and their supporters rose up against the Republican government in mid-July, offering Spain’s radical leftwing organizations (the anarchosyndicalists of the CNT-FAI, the left Socialists, and the POUM) the long-awaited opportunity to launch a sweeping revolutionary movement. Responding instinctively to the challenge presented by the rebelling forces, the revolutionaries did not (like many other Republican parties) hesitate to take to the streets with their own militias. In regions such as Catalonia, the weight of these civilian forces, combined with local and national military units loyal to the Republic, was enough to quash the rebellion. In the aftermath of the street-fighting,

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