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To what extent was the nationalists’ victory in the spanish civil war the result of foreign assistance from adolf hitler and benito mussolini?

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The Spanish Civil War lasted between 1936 and 1939. During this time, two main groups, the Nationalists, led by Francisco Franco, and the Republicans, fought for control of Spain. The Republicans wanted to preserve the newly-formed Republic, while the Nationalists wanted to implement a fascist regime. What is interesting about the conflict was the amount of international involvement surrounding a one-country matter. Both sides received assistance from foreign powers throughout the war. The Republicans received aid chiefly from the Soviet Union, and The Nationalists from Italy and Germany. In the end, the Nationalists emerged victorious. This essay intends to examine the importance of international aid to the Nationalists, asking the question “To what extent was the Nationalists’ victory in the Spanish Civil War the result of foreign assistance from Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini?”


Through analysis of secondary sources, this essay first examines why Germany, Italy, and the Soviet Union became involved and the impact of the non-intervention policy imposed by the other major European powers. From there the essay details the events of the war leading to Nationalist victory along with the impact of foreign aid for the Nationalists. Then various theories about the Republican defeat are analyzed using primary documents and other historians’ opinions to show that the real reason for defeat was from foreign assistance.


The essay concludes that the Nationalists’ victory in the war was indeed largely the result of foreign assistance. While foreign assistance was not the only reason why Franco and the Nationalists won, Germany and Italy’s contributions helped ensure a decisive, definite defeat of the Republicans.


The Spanish Civil War began on July 17, 1936 after a long battle with internal conflicts. The Spanish government had become corrupt and unable to effectively rule, and economic depression resulted in prolonged financial hardships. The monarchy was dissolved in 1931, but the new republic faced problems. Catalonia and the Basque regions desired independence, threatening Spain’s unity. The Catholic Church’s hostility towards its people and political unwillingness to compromise on a plan for government further worsened the situation. Between 1931 and 1936, military groups tried several times to overthrow the current government and control Spain, but each time had been stopped. On the brink of the war’s outbreak, the right-wing politician José Calvo Sotelo was murdered, causing other right-wing supporters to believe that they too were in danger. They thus believed that a military dictatorship was necessary. Around this time, Francisco Franco assumed control of the Spanish military. Having already conquered Spanish Morocco, his next target was to invade mainland Spain, establish a military government there and rid the country of all those involved in left wing politics. The left would have to “fight for survival.” Upon Franco’s invasion of the mainland, the Spanish Civil War had begun.


The war was between two groups: the Nationalists and the Republicans. The Nationalists wanted to preserve Spain as it had been before the Republic and instill a military dictatorship. The Republicans were socialists and communists who wanted to preserve the newly-formed Republic. The war began as a civil issue, but not long after the war began, the war took an international focus with several of the other European powers becoming involved, with Germany, Italy, and the Soviet Union the most. All supplied men and weapons to Spain, with Germany and Italy supporting the Nationalists and the Soviet Union supporting the Republicans. Great Britain, France, and the United States imposed a non-intervention policy that lasted through the war’s entirety. The other minor European powers simply ignored the conflict. The war continued until April 1, 1939. On this date, Franco declared that the war was over and that the Nationalists were victorious.


The purpose of this paper is to assess why Franco, along with the Nationalists, won the Spanish Civil War. This essay focuses on the impact of foreign assistance Germany and Italy provided to Spain during the war, examining to what extent this assistance led to Franco’s victory. The research question is: to what extent was the Nationalists’ victory in the Spanish Civil War the result of foreign assistance from Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini? Through the arguments put forth, the essay hopes to answer that question by concluding that Franco’s victory stemmed largely from German and Italian assistance, as they provided superior weapons and trained men to the Nationalists’ cause.


This topic is worthy of study because of the large-scale devastation that the war caused inside Spain. In addition to dozens of towns destroyed and thousands of deaths, historians widely acknowledge the Spanish Civil War as a “testing ground for new equipment” that would later be used in World War II. Its importance as a precursor for World War II makes this topic a fascinating area of study.


Origins of international aid

Soon after the war’s outbreak, both the Nationalists and the Republicans realized that the war was not going to be quick. Franco was surprised at the initial resistance given by the Republicans. Both sides were unprepared for a long conflict. Weapons and men were in short supply and what weapons they did possess were old. Each side came to the conclusion that in order to have the advantage and sustain a war, they needed assistance. The Spaniards thus asked the other European powers—Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and the Soviet Union—and United States to provide men and weapons to their cause. The European countries and the United States responded unfavorably to the Spaniards’ requests. Several adopted non - intervention policies that would prevent involvement in the Spanish Civil War. Only three countries would provide any substantial aid at all: Germany and Italy to the Nationalists, and the Soviet Union to the Republicans.


“None of the great powers had a policy ready when the Spanish crisis broke out on them in the summer of 1936.” Thus, a widespread policy of non-intervention was adopted. The countries felt that it would be in their best interests to avoid involvement in the Spanish Civil War. Most adhered to this policy, but it was soon broken when Germany and Italy responded to the Spanish requests. The complicated situation of involvement and non-involvement would ultimately play out in the Nationalists’ favor. The Nationalists received the aid that they requested, while the Republicans’ attempts were ignored by all countries except the Soviet Union.


The reasons for non-intervention depend on the country. “The British were determined to avoid a general war.” The British felt that if they were to become involved in this conflict, the other powers would follow suit. They also did not want to be blamed for the results and effects of the conflict, nor risk their “Great Power” status in the Mediterranean if it “helped create a fascist Spain.” France felt that if it became involved, it would lose its alliance with Great Britain. Also, the French government was largely unpopular, and current leader Léon Blum firmly believed that there would have been a fascist rising in France if he intervened, and France would have turned from a “democracy to a fascist state.” Even the United States felt that it was necessary to keep international peace and imposed a “moral embargo”  on Spain, despite support for both sides from citizens. Three denials dealt the Republic a serious blow early, and they would have to hope that assistance would be given or their chances of winning would be slim.


Despite the lack of support, the Republicans were promised assistance from the Soviet Union, which almost did not happen. Stalin wished to provide aid to the Republicans but struggled to find a way where the current balance of power would not be upset. The actual reason for involvement is debatable. Historian Paul Preston argues that Stalin only agreed to send aid when Germany and Italy became involved because the other powers were not, but historian Antony Beevor argues that it was Leon Trotsky who pushed him into involvement. Preston has extensive expertise in this area of study and his experiences as a historian are certainly valuable; however, his experiences may have developed a certain amount of bias towards the subject that can hinder the source’s worth. Likewise, Beevor has studied the Spanish Civil War in detail, and his research as a historian is valuable as it provides new insights, but it is limited from Beevor’s personal bias. After a request for arms received no reply, Trotsky used the silence to accuse Stalin of betraying the Spanish revolution and aiding the fascists, and upon realizing that Soviet communism would lose credibility, “decided to send aid to the Republicans.” Although most likely a combination of Trotsky’s threat and Germany and Italy’s intervention, the Soviet Union only supplied the minimum amount of aid requested. Though small, the Republicans had found the aid they desperately needed.


The Nationalists found aid through the two fascist European powers: Germany and Italy, though their desire to help was purely through advancing the powers’ own self-interests. Hitler’s reasons were strategically planned in order to give Germany a strong advantage over the democratic powers. “Hitler saw that having a fascist Spain would present a threat to France’s [south] and to Britain’s route to the Suez Canal, and could be an opportunity to have U-Boat bases on the Atlantic coast.” Mussolini also saw the Spanish Civil War as an opportunity to make Italy “great, respected, and feared.” Mussolini had previously attempted to advance Italian interests, and “he felt that having another fascist ally would be useful to him, especially one that could establish naval bases in the Balearic Islands. Mussolini also felt that he could impress Hitler and prove that he could be an indispensible ally to the Germans.” With that, both Germany and Italy sent men and weapons to the Nationalists in order to see that a fascist state would be established in the Mediterranean.


Though the war had just begun, the Nationalists already had an advantage over the Republicans. While the Soviets sent only the minimum necessary to sustain the Republic, the Germans and Italians delivered dozens of aircrafts, tanks, guns, and thousands of men. Hitler allowed Franco to use Germany’s trained pilot squad, the Condor Legion. The Nationalists were also “inundated with foreign advisors, observers, technical experts, and combat personnel, and within a month of the start of the war Franco had received 89 aircrafts, 41 from Germany and 48 from Italy. The Republicans, on the other hand, received no more than thirteen Dewoitine fighter planes and six Potez 54 bomber planes, which were outdated and lacked weapons and mountings.” The Nationalists also had the advantage of having trained soldiers to fight with in battle. Franco’s army, along with the trained German and Italian soldiers, was superior to the men fighting on the Republic’s side. The Republicans resorted to using Spanish and international volunteers. The newly-formed International Brigades were comprised of men willing to fight to defeat fascism in Spain, made of men from the United States, Great Britain, France and Spain, for example. Yet the members of the International Brigades were volunteers that lacked the training necessary to partake in an armed conflict of any kind. The Nationalists also had the advantage of numbers. Even at the International Brigades’ largest membership, the Nationalists still had tens of thousands more soldiers. The early advantages were helpful to the Nationalists, giving them an edge over the Republicans. Franco and his troops were now ready to engage in battle with the Republican armies. They were trained and ready to fight using their new weapons and aircrafts, which Franco would make full use of throughout the war.

Assistance in battle

The bombing of the Basque town of Guernica on April 26, 1937 was an early decisive event in the course of the Spanish Civil War for the Nationalists. The Basques were strong opponents of the Nationalist forces, and Franco needed to secure the northern Spanish territory of Asturias and the Basque regions. These regions were the industrial powerhouse of Spain, and control of this area would give Franco access to raw materials for making more weapons. Franco needed a way to bring the Basques under his control. Seeing the opportunity for these resources, Nationalist forces commander Emilio Mola, under the direction of Franco, planned to employ the German Condor Legion in an attack to conquer the northern areas. They chose the small town of Guernica for the attack. Guernica was not a capital or large city, but it was a historical and important cultural symbol to the Basques, and destroying it would be an effective way to win in the north. Mola consulted with the Condor Legion’s Chief-of-Staff Wolfram von Richthoffen several times between the days preceding and day of the planned bombing. In the meetings, Mola and von Richthoffen planned a devastating attack that would swiftly crush the Basques. On the eve of the bombing, Mola issued an ultimatum to the Basques: “Franco is about to deliver a mighty blow against which all resistance is useless. Basques! Surrender now and your lives will be spared.” Having held off the Nationalists before, the Basques were unconcerned. The next day, the Condor Legion flew over the town on market day, when most of its citizens would be out in the open and vulnerable to airstrike. The German planes swiftly flew in and bombarded the city with heavy artillery, destroying the entire town in the process. Although the exact number of casualties was never determined, hundreds of Basques perished, and many more were injured during the bombing. “The devastation of Guernica certainly shattered Basque morale, and Mola and von Richthoffen’s meetings suggest that this was precisely why it had been bombed.” The Basques were never able to morally recover from the attack; had they recovered, the Nationalists may have faced more opposition and had to fight longer in the north. With the devastating initial blow already proving beneficial for the Nationalists, Franco closed in on other northern areas. Franco moved towards the Basque capital Bilbao, but initially was unsuccessful in defeating the town. It was only when Officer Major Alejandro Goicoechea accidentally leaked vital information about the town and its defensive strategies that the Nationalists were able to defeat Bilbao. Using his allies’ aircrafts, Franco managed to break through Bilbao’s defenses and attacked the city until it fell after one week. After the fall of Bilbao the Nationalists’ northern campaign met few obstacles. Franco enlisted German and Italian aid to provide the support necessary to take the last areas of the Basque regions. Franco next marched his army of 60,000 men, which consisted greatly of Italian troops, into Santander. Like in Bilbao, Franco utilized Italian equipment and conquered the city in little time. Other towns met the same fate. By the end of October 1937, the Nationalists were in primary control of the north, but they did not yet absolutely control it. It would take more battles and much more assistance to accomplish Franco’s goal.


Following Bilbao, the Republicans attacked the northern town Brunete. Brunete was a Republican attempt to distract the Nationalists long enough for the Republicans to regroup and plan for future northern attacks. The Republicans were initially successful in their attempt, but the Nationalist counteroffensive was too strong. The Nationalists relied heavily on German tanks and the Condor Legion to push the Republicans out of Brunete. Although the battle was indecisive as both sides claimed victory, the Republicans lost far more men and had more weapons destroyed in the battle than did the Nationalists. The Nationalists themselves credited their victory to the Germans, who provided much of the weaponry needed for Brunete. Brunete was another battle that like Guernica and Bilbao was a Nationalist victory largely from German intervention.


The next major battle of the war was the Battle of Teruel, whose Nationalist victory was once again from foreign assistance. Begun by the Republicans as an attempt to distract the Nationalists from their offensive towards Madrid, the Republicans heavily attacked the city, but Nationalist reinforcements and the Condor Legion were able to decisively beat the Republican forces there. The reasons for the victory were obvious. “With more weapons and more men at their command, and driven by Franco’s ruthless determination to recapture all lost territory, the [Nationalists] were always likely to be able to outlast the [Republicans].” Casualties ran high for both sides, but the Republicans lost many of their resources and had to resort to moving their strongest forces into Catalonia, instead of spreading them throughout Spain. Teruel boosted the Nationalists’ morale, who were moving closer to Catalonia and a final victory. Teruel would not have been as successful for the Nationalists without German assistance. Further battles ensued, such as Ebro in late 1938, but the results were similar. German and Italian air support provided extra assistance, and soldiers combined with the Spanish forces to overwhelm the Republicans. After Ebro the Republicans were essentially destroyed, lost large areas of control, and were pushed back farther into Catalonia. The Republicans also lost one of their only sources of aid, the International Brigades, who were ordered to leave during battle. The Nationalists now only needed control of Catalonia and Madrid to secure victory.


In December 1938 the Nationalists attacked Barcelona. The Nationalists had recently received a new supply of guns and ammunition from Germany, while the Republicans had to rely solely on what was left, since the International Brigades were gone and reinforcements from the Soviet Union had yet to arrive. Using their best forces, an Italian unit called the Corpo Truppe Volontarie of more than 50,000 soldiers and Germany’s Condor Legion, the Nationalists savagely attacked Barcelona until its fall one month later. At this point, instead of trying to gain more territory, some Republicans tried to hold out as much as possible. Most had realized, however, that the Republic was doomed. Madrid fell to the Nationalists in late March 1939, and Franco announced absolute victory on April 1, 1939.

Republican justification of defeat

Victory was hard to accept for many Republicans. Having lost thousands of lives to defend a now-defunct Republic, the Republicans now faced a military dictatorship in Spain under the command of Francisco Franco with little to show for their efforts. Republicans and their supporters tried to justify their loss and several variations as to why have been suggested, from the non-intervention policy to blaming the Soviet Union to internal divisions in the Republic.


One reason that has been suggested was the deep divisions in the Republican zone. The Republicans were not united, and divisions threatened the Republic’s stability during the war. “Unlike the Republican army, which lacked a simple unifying ideology apart from resistance to fascism, the Nationalists found an ideological anchor in the defense of Catholicism, which was seen as a consubstantial with Spain itself. The Catholic Church had been under attack by Republicans for years, including church burnings and priest and nun massacre under Republican resentment that the Catholic Church was the defender of the oppressors of the working class.” The Nationalists saw no divisions in the areas they controlled and therefore never faced a threat of internal collapse. The divisions may have weakened Republicans, but it was not the reason for their defeat. The Nationalists’ army was too well-trained and had much more European support.


The non-intervention policy and the Soviet Union itself were also possible explanations for Republican defeat, although these reasons also fall short. Historian Julius Ruiz states that Francisco Franco was fortunate in having the Republicans as his opponents. Ruiz argues that Franco himself was an “unadventurous military tactician who made poor strategic decisions,” and had to rely frequently on Germany and Italy to come to his rescue, to the point of “exacerbation,” and concludes that the non-intervention policy and its reliance on Soviet fighting did much to weaken and eventually end resistance to Franco. Although Ruiz is a historian and post-doctoral fellow at the University of Edinburgh that has studied the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath, he is also the son of Spanish immigrants who came to Britain in the 1960s. His contributions are valuable, but the fact that he is Spanish may affect his opinions on the conflict. His work is also limited by his own personal bias towards the subject.


The Soviet Union was also under attack by Spanish author and anarchist Diego Abad de Santillán. Abad de Santillán argues that one of the primary reasons why the Republicans lost the war was because of Russian intervention. He says Soviet intervention, even with its troops and weapons, did not solve any problems, and even corrupted the Republican bureaucracy. He also blames the non-intervention policy like Ruiz does, arguing that it was a “sinister farce” and a “bloody joke” that of which France and England became the leading “cheerleaders” so to say. However, Abad de Santillán worked for the FAI (Iberian Anarchist Federation) where he edited journals. Abad de Santillán’s personal involvement in the war is important as a primary source. However, as an anarchist that sided with the Republicans, he is heavily biased towards the Republic and anarchism. His book can be valuable, but it must be kept in mind that he was a Nationalist opponent. Both criticize the Soviet Union’s style of fighting and leadership during the Spanish Civil War, claiming that ineffective management and battle strategy only hindered the Republican’s efforts. The non-intervention policy certainly hurt the Republicans, and the Soviet Union may have been a poor ally, but the Soviet Union did prolong the Republic’s survival. Abad de Santillán’s heavily-biased account on why the Republicans lost must be taken carefully alongside the other sources. Even though the non-intervention policy hurt the Republicans, it still cannot measure against Germany and Italy’s involvement.


Leon Trotsky puts forth an argument about the causes of the defeat in Spain in a journal entry from March 1939. Trotsky claims that the real reason for defeat was none of the conventional reasons at all, but rather because a war is not the correct way to fight fascism at all. Trotsky states in his article that because Spain lacked a revolutionary party and reactionaries “imagined themselves as socialists and anarchists,” the reactionaries, or rather the Republicans, succeeded under the label of the Popular Front in strangling the socialist revolution and assuring Franco’s victory.


According to Trotsky himself: It is simply ridiculous to justify the defeat by references to the military intervention of Italian fascists and German Nazis, and to the perfidious conduct of the French and British “democracies.” Enemies will always remain enemies. Reaction will always intervene whenever it can. Imperialist “democracy” will always betray. This means that the victory of the proletariat is impossible in general! But what about the victory of fascism in Italy and Germany itself? No intervention there. Instead we had there a powerful proletariat and a very large Socialist Party and, in the case of Germany, a large Communist Party as well. Why then was there no victory gained over fascism? Precisely because the leading parties tried to reduce the question in both these countries to a struggle “against fascism” when only a socialist revolution can defeat fascism.


Trotsky puts forth an argument with evidence; however, one must be a firm believer in Soviet communism in order to be persuaded by his arguments. As a Russian Marxist, Trotsky firmly believed in communism and denounced European fascism. Trotsky’s article on the Republic’s defeat is valuable because he was an outside witness to the events. The article, however, is limited on the basis of extreme bias towards social revolutionaries and is anti-fascist. Like in the Abad de Santillán book, the fact of him being a communist must be considered and compared with other sources for reliability. Trotsky’s opinion is certainly an opinion as to why the Republic was defeated in the Spanish Civil War, but as a heavily-biased source the argument is very limited as to who would accept it as a reason. Despite Trotsky’s claims to the contrary, German and Italian intervention was enough to provide the advantage that the Nationalists needed to win the Spanish Civil War.


Franco may have been able to conquer Spain without any foreign assistance, but it would have been harder. Without the consistent military, diplomatic, and financial support given by Hitler and Mussolini, it is highly unlikely Franco would have been able to achieve such an absolute and unconditional victory, nor would the Republic have suffered an internal collapse and a military defeat of such proportions. The relative speed of the Nationalists’ victory in the Basque campaign was due to the Condor Legion’s contribution, and Italy provided the men and equipment necessary to conquer Bilbao. Both German and Italian troops aided Franco’s Spanish troops throughout the rest of the war. Conquering the north boosted Nationalist feelings and gave them hope that they would eventually conquer the rest of Spain. Victory would not have been as easy without German and Italian intervention. The investigation is limited to the war years (1936-1939) and does not examine its effects or precursors. Why did fascism rise in Spain? Did German and Italian intervention have lasting effects on Franco’s regime after the Spanish Civil War? How significant was the Spanish Civil War to the upcoming World War? These unresolved questions may be the basis for further investigation.


To say that German and Italian intervention was the only reason why Franco won the Spanish Civil War would be untrue. Certainly the non-intervention policy played a role, as did the internal divisions in the Spanish Republic. However, the German and Italian intervention was the leading factor why Franco and the Nationalists prevailed in the Spanish Civil War.

Works Cited

Primary Sources

Abad de Santillán, Diego. Por Qué Perdimos la Guerra: Una Contribución a la Historia de la Tragedia Española. Buenos Aires: Imán, 1940. 21 July 2011. Web. <>


Trotsky, Leon. The Spanish Revolution (1931—1939). Eds. Allen, Naomi and George Breitman. New York: Pathfinder Press, 1973. Print.

Secondary sources

Balfor, Sebastian and Paul Preston. Spain and the Great Powers in the Twentieth Century. London: Routledge, 1999. Questia. Web. 15 July 2011.


Beevor, Antony. The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936—1939. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 2006. Print.


Carr, Raymond. The Spanish Civil War. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1986. Print. Nearpass, Kate. “Spanish Civil War.” International Center of Photography. International Center of Photography: 1986. Web. 19 August 2011. <>.


Preston, Paul. The Spanish Civil War: An Illustrated Chronicle 1936—1939. New York: Grove Press, 1986. Print.


Ruiz, Julius. “Franco and the Spanish Civil War: Julius Ruiz Evaluates Franco’s Role During the Conflict.” History Review (2007): 28+. Questia. Web. 15 July 2011.


Trueman, Chris. “The Causes of the Spanish Civil War.” History Learning Site. History Learning Site, n.d. Web. 22 July 2011. <>