The Spanish Civil War: A Modern Tragedy

By George R. Esenwein | Go to book overview

5
Spain in the international arena

Because the origins and causes of Spain’s Civil War stemmed from deeply rooted domestic problems, few observers at the time could have predicted that the course and outcome of this internal conflict would be partially determined by foreign powers. But this is exactly what happened. Throughout the war both sides received and increasingly relied on foreign aid to sustain their struggle. To understand this internationalization process, it is necessary to bear in mind how the outbreak of civil war on the Iberian peninsula forced the rest of Europe to reassess Spain’s importance in the international community. Ever since its humiliating defeat in the Spanish– American War of 1898, Spain was widely viewed as a second-rate power the affairs of which were largely irrelevant to its European neighbours. However, this view changed after July 1936. In Foreign Offices everywhere questions were raised about the meaning of Spain’s troubles, not least being what bearing they would have on the precarious balance of power in Europe. At the time, diplomatic tensions were already running high. Italy’s invasion and occupation of Abyssinia in 1935–36 provoked a negative reaction from Britain and the smaller states of the international community. And the failure of the League of Nations to take decisive action against the aggressor nation did little to allay the growing fear that Europe’s peace could easily be shattered. Then, just three months before the July uprising in Spain, Hitler blatantly repudiated the Versailles Treaty and Locarno Pacts by ordering German troops to re-occupy the Rhineland. Thus, after years of relative isolation, Spain burst upon the world stage when the frailty of the European diplomatic order was becoming more and more apparent.

Because it was generally believed at the time that the rebellion would be a short-lived affair, it is hardly surprising that, apart from Germany and Italy, most governments adopted a ‘wait and see’ attitude. By August, however, the war was gaining rather than losing momentum and both Italy and Germany showed no sign of limiting their commitment to the Nationalist forces. Now better able to appreciate the strategic and diplomatic significance of what was unfolding in Spain, the Great Power countries of Britain and France decided to formulate a more concrete policy towards the Spanish crisis.

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