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Study Notes

Why did the Nationalists win the Spanish Civil War?


Last updated 7 Aug 2018

The Nationalist victory in the Civil War can be explained by a number of factors relating to the Nationalists’ strengths and the Republicans’ weaknesses. Ultimately, the Nationalist forces were better skilled, equipped and organised than the often chaotic Republican factions.

Republican Weaknesses – Military Resources

Supplies sent by the USSR to aid the Republican side were of much lower quality than the aid Germany and Italy sent to the Nationalists. Rifles and machine guns were of particularly poor quality. Nearly a quarter of all weapons sent by the Soviet Union were completely obsolete and dated well back into the Tsarist era.

The cost of the aid from the Soviet Union was also important. Whilst the Nationalists were able to purchase equipment from Germany and Italy using long-term loans, Joseph Stalin demanded immediate payment in gold for any equipment used by the Republicans. Stalin’s demands meant that by the end of the war, the Republicans had spent nearly two-thirds of the nation’s gold reserves on military aid.

Food Supplies

The Republicans found it much more difficult than the Nationalists to coordinate the production and distribution of food. All Nationalists territories were under centralised control and food distribution was effectively organised by the Defence Council. However, in the Republican zones, over 2,500 independent food collectives had been set up in areas dominated by anarchists such as Aragon.

Workers within these collectives were hostile to the Popular Front government for ideological reasons and were therefore often unwilling to send food to the Popular Army. Moreover, in some regions, money had been completely abolished making exchange with the government much less efficient. Transporting food into key Republican-held areas was also difficult. Madrid, for example was under Nationalist siege for almost the entirety of the war. Consequently, food shortages were common in Republican cities which contributed to falling morale and made the Nationalists’ capture of Madrid and Barcelona at the end of the war much easier.

Faction fighting

The Republican side was made up of moderate liberals, moderate socialists, more radical socialists, communists loyal to Stalin (PCE), communists loyal to Leon Trotsky (POUM) and anarchists who opposed centralised state control. This, rather inevitably, meant that there were deep ideological divisions and tensions within the Republican forces. These tensions led to faction fighting between the PCE and anarchist CNT militias in May 1937 in Catalonia. Communists within the PCE also attacked the POUM militias and executed the POUM leader Andreu Nin-Perez. Republican factions were clearly unable to put ideological differences aside and unite in order to fight the Nationalists.

Nationalist Strengths – Military Personnel

Nationalist military commanders were far more experienced than Republican leaders. Some Nationalist soldiers came from the notorious Army of Africa and so were highly skilled, however, fighters within Republican militias often had no previous military experience as well as being ill-equipped.

Clear leadership – The Role of Franco

The Nationalists were not ideologically united – monarchists wanted the restoration of the monarchy to replace the republic, Carlists supported the re-establishment of a separate line to the Spanish throne and the Falange rejected the monarchy, wanting instead to establish Spain as a fascist dictatorship similar to that of Hitler and Mussolini. Unlike the Republicans, however, in Franco the Nationalists had a clear leader who was able to unite the various factions of the Nationalist side into one force.

Franco was careful not to associate himself too closely with neither the Carlists, Falangists or monarchists so that no faction became alienated to the Nationalist cause, this allowed him to eventually merge the Falange and the Carlist movements into one party (FET y de las JONS) in April 1937 despite the ideological differences between the two groups. As well as being very politically astute, Franco was also competent tactically – his decision to fight a war of attrition played into the hands of the Nationalists who were better equipped and organised than the Republicans.

Political cost of Foreign Intervention

The Nationalists received far better military equipment from Italy and Germany than the Republicans did from the Soviet Union but the political impact of foreign intervention was also important. Aid sent by Hitler and Mussolini came at no political cost to the Nationalists as Franco remained in complete control of the Nationalist forces. However, in return for aid sent to the Republicans, the Soviet Union demanded that communists were given leading roles within the Popular Front government. This alienated some Republican factions as anarchists from the CNT, Trotskyists from the POUM and moderate liberals were unwilling to take orders from a communist-led government.

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