Foreign involvement in the Spanish Civil War

The Spanish Civil War had large numbers of non-Spanish citizens participating in combat and advisory positions. The governments of Italy, Germany—and to a lesser extent Portugal—contributed money, munitions, manpower and support to Nationalist forces led by Francisco Franco. The government of the Soviet Union, and to a lesser extent France and Mexico, likewise aided the Republicans (Loyalists) of the Second Spanish Republic. The aid came even after all the European powers had signed a Non-Intervention Agreement in 1936. While individual sympathy for the plight of the Spanish Republic was widespread in the liberal democracies, pacifism and the fear of another world war prevented them from selling or giving arms. The Nationalist pleas meanwhile were answered within days by Hitler and Mussolini.[1]

International non-intervention

Non-intervention had been proposed in a joint diplomatic initiative by the governments of France and the United Kingdom, responding to antiwar sentiment. France was also worried that the civil war in Spain might spread to France.[2] It was part of a policy aimed at preventing a proxy war, and escalation of the war into a major pan-European conflict.[3]

On 3 August 1936, Charles de Chambrun presented the French government's non-intervention plan; Galeazzo Ciano promised to study it. The British, however, accepted the plan in principle immediately.[4] The following day, it was put to Nazi Germany by André François-Poncet. The German position was that such a declaration was not needed.[4] A similar approach was made to the Soviet Union.[4] On 6 August, Ciano confirmed Italian support in principle. The Soviet government similarly agreed in principle, so long as Portugal was included, and that Germany and Italy stop aid immediately.[5] On 7 August, France unilaterally declared non-intervention.[6] Draft declarations had been put to German and Italian governments. Such a declaration had already been accepted by the United Kingdom, Belgium, the Netherlands, Poland, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union, renouncing all traffic in war materiel, direct or indirect.[7] The Portuguese Foreign Minister, Armindo Monteiro,[nb 1] was also asked to accept, but held his hand. On 9 August, French exports were suspended.[7][8] Portugal accepted the pact on 13 August, unless her border was threatened by the war.[9]

On 15 August, the United Kingdom banned exports of war materiel to Spain.[10] Italy agreed to the pact,[10] signing on 21 August.[6] Although a surprising reversal of views, it has been put down to the growing belief that countries could not abide by the agreement anyway.[10] On the 24th, Germany signed.[11][12] The Soviet Union was keen not to be left out. On 23 August, it agreed to the Non-Intervention Agreement,[13] and this was followed by a decree from Joseph Stalin banning exports of war material to Spain, thereby bringing the USSR into line with the Western Powers.[11]

Non-Intervention Committee

It was at this point that the Non-Intervention Committee was created to uphold the agreement, but the double-dealing of the USSR and Germany had already become apparent.[14] The ostensible purpose of the committee was to prevent personnel and matériel reaching the warring parties of the Spanish Civil War, as with the Non-Intervention Agreement.[2] The Committee first met in London on 9 September 1936.[15][nb 2] It was chaired by the British W. S. Morrison. Charles Corbin represented the French, Italy by Dino Grandi, and the Soviets by Ivan Maisky. Germany was represented by Ribbentrop; Portugal, whose presence had been a Soviet requirement, was not represented.[16] The second meeting took place on 14 September.[17] It established a subcommittee to be attended by representatives of Belgium, Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, Italy, the Soviet Union, Sweden and the United Kingdom to deal with the day-to-day running of non-intervention. Among them, though, the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Italy dominated, perhaps worryingly so. Soviet non-military aid was revived, but not military aid.[18] Meanwhile, the 1936 meeting of the League of Nations began.[19] There, Anthony Eden convinced Monteiro to have Portugal join the Non-Intervention Committee.[19] Álvarez del Vayo spoke out against the Non-Intervention Agreement, claiming it put the rebel Nationalists on the same footing as the Republican government.[20] The Earl of Plymouth replaced W.S. Morrison as British representative.[21][22] Conservative, he often adjourned meetings – to the benefit of the Italians and Germans – and the Committee was accused of an anti-Soviet bias.[22]

On 12 November, plans to post observers to Spanish frontiers and ports to prevent breaches of the agreement were ratified. France and the United Kingdom became split on whether to recognise Franco's forces as a belligerent as the British wanted, or to fail to do as the French wanted.[23] This was subsumed by the news that the Italian and German governments had recognised the Nationalists as the true government of Spain.[23] The League of Nations condemned intervention, urged its council's members to support non-intervention, and commended mediation.[24] It then closed discussion on Spain, leaving it to the Committee.[25] A mediation plan, however, was soon dropped.[24]

The Soviets met the request to ban volunteers on 27 December, Portugal on 5 January, and Germany and Italy on 7 January.[26] On 20 January, Italy put a moratorium on volunteers believing that supplies to the Nationalists were now sufficient. Non-intervention would have left both sides with the possibility of defeat, which Germany, Italy and the Soviet Union, in particular, were keen to avoid.[27]

Control plan

Observers were posted to Spanish ports and borders, and both Ribbentrop and Grandi were told to agree to the plan, significant shipments already having taken place.[28] Portugal would not accept observers, although it did agree to personnel attached to the British Embassy in Lisbon. Zones of patrol were assigned to each of the four nations; an International Board was set up to administer the scheme. There were Italian assurances that Italy would not break up non-intervention.[29]

In May, the Committee noted two attacks on the patrol's ships by Republican aircraft.[30] It iterated calls for the withdrawal of volunteers from Spain, condemned the bombing of open towns, and showed approval of humanitarian work.[31] Germany and Italy said they would withdraw from the Committee, and from the patrols, unless it could be guaranteed there would be no further attacks.[30][32] Early June saw the return of Germany and Italy to the committee and patrols.[33] Following attacks on the German cruiser Leipzig on 15 and 18 June, Germany and Italy once again withdrew from patrols, but not from the Committee.[34][35] This prompted the Portuguese government to remove British observers on the Spain–Portugal border.[36] The United Kingdom and France offered to replace Germany and Italy, but the latter powers believed these patrols would be too partial.[37] Germany and Italy requested that land controls be kept, and belligerent rights be given to the Nationalists, so that rights of search could be used by both the Republicans and Nationalists to replace naval patrols.[34][37] A British plan suggested that naval patrols would be replaced by observers in ports and ships, land control measures would be resumed.[38][39] Belligerent rights would only be granted when substantial progress was made on volunteer withdrawal.[39]

It culminated in a period during 1937 when all the powers were prepared to give up on non-intervention. By the end of July, the Committee was in deadlock, and the aims of a successful outcome to the Spanish Civil War was looking unlikely.[40] Unrestricted Italian submarine warfare began on 12 August.[40] The British Admiralty believed that a significant control effort was the best solution to attacks on British shipping.[41] It was decided by the Committee that naval patrols did not justify their expense and would be replaced with observers at ports.[42]

The Conference of Nyon was arranged for all parties with a Mediterranean coastline by the British, despite appeals by Italy and Germany that the Committee handle the piracy and other issues the conference was to discuss.[43] It decided that French and British fleets patrol the areas of sea west of Malta, and attack any suspicious submarines.[44] Warships that attacked neutral shipping would be attacked.[45] Eden claimed that non-intervention had stopped European war. The League of Nations did report on the Spanish situation, noting the 'failure of non-intervention'.[45] On 6 November, the plan to recognise the Nationalists as belligerents once significant progress had been made was finally accepted.[46] The Nationalists accepted on 20 November, the Republicans on 1 December. On 27 June, Maisky agreed to the sending of two commissions to Spain, to enumerate foreign volunteer forces, and to bring about their withdraw. The Nationalists wished to prevent the fall of the favourable Chamberlain government in the United Kingdom, and so were seen to accept the plan.[47]

National non-intervention

Great Britain and France

The British government proclaimed neutrality. Its foreign policy was to prevent a major war by appeasement of Italy and Germany. The leaders believed that the Spanish Republican Government was the puppet of extreme left Socialists and Communists. Accordingly, the British Cabinet adopted a policy of benevolent neutrality towards the military insurgents, with the covert aim of avoiding any direct or indirect help to the Popular Front Government. Public opinion was divided, with a clear majority demanding another great war be avoided. The British establishment was strongly anti-communist and tended to prefer a Nationalist victory. However, Popular Front elements on the left strongly favoured the Republican cause.[48]

The ambassador to Spain, Sir Henry Chilton, believed that a victory for Franco was in Britain's best interests and worked to support the Nationalists. British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden publicly maintained the official policy of non-intervention but privately expressed a preference for a Nationalist victory. Eden also testified that his government "preferred a Rebel victory to a Republican victory." [49] Admiral Lord Chatfield, British First Sea Lord in charge of the Royal Navy was an admirer of Franco. The British Royal Navy favoured the Nationalists during the conflict.[50] As well as permitting Franco to set up a signals base in Gibraltar, a British colony, the Germans were allowed to overfly Gibraltar during the airlift of the Army of Africa to Seville. The Royal Navy also provided information on Republican shipping to the Nationalists, and HMS Queen Elizabeth was used to prevent the Republican navy shelling the port of Algeciras. The German chargé d'affaires reported that the British were supplying ammunition to the Republicans. During the fighting for Bilbao, the Royal Navy supported the Nationalist line that the River Nervión was mined, telling British shipping to keep clear of the area – and were badly discredited when a British vessel ignored the advice and sailed into the city, finding the river unmined as the Republicans had claimed.[50] Despite this, the British government discouraged activity by its ordinary citizens supporting either side.

The Labour Party was strongly in favour of the Republicans, but it was heavily outnumbered by Conservatives in Parliament.[nb 3] the political left in France wanted to directly aid the Republicans.[51][52] The Labour Party would reject non-intervention in October 1937.[53] The British Trades Union Congress was split, for it had a strong anti-Communist faction.[54] Both the British and French governments were committed to avoiding a second world war.[53] France was reliant on British support in general. Their Prime Minister, Leon Blum, the Socialist leader of the Popular Front, feared that support for the Republic would have led to civil war and a fascist takeover in France.[55] In Britain, part of the reasoning was based on an exaggerated belief in Germany's and Italy's preparedness for war.[56]

The Anglo-French arms embargo meant that the Republicans' chief foreign source of matériel was the USSR while the Nationalists mainly received weapons from Italy and Germany. The last Republican prime minister, Juan Negrín, hoped that a general outbreak of war in Europe would help his cause compelling Britain and France, to finally help the Republic. Ultimately neither Britain nor France intervened to any significant extent. The British supplied food and medicine to the Republic, but actively discouraged the French government of Léon Blum from supplying weapons. Claude Bowers, the American Ambassador to Spain, was one of the few ambassadors friendly to the Republic. He later condemned the League of Nations Non-Intervention Committee, saying that each of their moves had been made to serve the cause of the rebellion, and that 'This committee was the most cynical and lamentably dishonest group that history has known.'[57] Winston Churchill, initially an enthusiastic supporter of non-intervention, was later to describe the workings of this committee as 'an elaborate system of official humbug.'[58]

Following the withdrawal of Germany and Italy from patrols, the French considered abandoning border controls, or perhaps leaving non-intervention. However, the French were reliant on the British, who wished to continue with patrols.[34] Britain and France thus continued to labour over non-intervention; whilst they judged it effective, some 42 ships were estimated to have escaped inspection between April and the end of July.[59] In trying to protect non-intervention in the Anglo-Italian meetings, which he grudgingly did, Eden would end up resigning from his post in the Foreign Office.[60] On 17 March 1938, French Socialist Premier Léon Blum reopened the border to arms traffic and Russian arms flowed in to the Republicans in Barcelona.[61]

Britain and France officially recognized the Nationalist government on 27 February 1939.[62] Labour leader Clement Attlee criticized the way it had been agreed, calling it 'a gross betrayal ... two and a half years of hypocritical pretense of non-intervention'.[63]

United States

When the Civil War erupted, Secretary of State Cordell Hull followed American neutrality laws and moved quickly to ban arms sales to either side. On 5 August 1936, the United States had made it known that it would follow a policy of non-intervention, but did not announce it officially.[10] Five days later, the Glenn L. Martin Company enquired whether the government would allow the sale of eight bombers to the Republicans; the response was negative. It also confirmed it would not take part in several mediation attempts, including by the Organization of American States.[10] President Franklin D. Roosevelt initially ruled out US interference with the words '[there should be] no expectation that the United States would ever again send troops or warships or floods of munitions and money to Europe'.[64] However, he was privately supportive of Loyalists to the Republic and was concerned that a Nationalist victory would lead to German influence in Latin America.[65]

On 6 January 1937, the first opportunity after the winter break, both houses of Congress in the United States passed a resolution banning the export of arms to Spain.[66][nb 4] Those in opposition to the bill, including American socialists, communists and even many liberals, suggested that the export of arms to Germany and Italy should be halted also under the Neutrality Act of 1935, since foreign intervention constituted a state of war in Spain. Cordell Hull, continued to doubt the extent of German and Italian operations, despite evidence to the contrary.[67] In 1938, as the tide had turned against the Loyalists, Roosevelt tried, unsuccessfully, to bypass the embargo and ship American aircraft to the Republic via France.[68]

The embargo did not apply to non-military supplies such as oil, gas or trucks. The US government was thus able to ship food to Spain as a humanitarian cause and this mostly benefited the Loyalists.[69] Some American businesses supported Franco. The automakers Ford, Studebaker, and General Motors sold a total of 12,000 trucks to the Nationalists. The American-owned Vacuum Oil Company in Tangier refused to sell to Republican ships and at the outbreak of the war, the Texas Oil Company rerouted oil tankers headed for the republic to the Nationalist controlled port of Tenerife, and supplied gasoline on credit to Franco.[70] This was illegal and Texaco was fined $20,000, but this credit arrangement continued until the war's end. The Republicans spent close to a million dollars a month on tires, cars and machine tools from American companies between 1937 and 1938.[71] After the war was over, José Maria Doussinague, who was at the time undersecretary at the Spanish Foreign Ministry said, "without American petroleum and American trucks, and American credit, we could never have won the Civil War."[70]

In the aftermath of the civil war, several American politicians and statesmen identified the US' policy of isolation as disastrous.[72][73] This narrative changed during the Cold War, when Franco was viewed as an ally against the Soviet Union.[74]

Support for the Nationalists


The Italians provided the "Corps of Volunteer Troops" (Corpo Truppe Volontarie). The use of these troops supported political goals of the German and Italian fascist leaderships, tested new tactics and provided blooding so they would be ready for battle in any future war.[75]

The Italian contribution amounted to over 70'000-75'000 troops at the height of the war. The involvement helped to increase Mussolini's popularity. Italian military help to Nationalists against the anti-clerical and anti-Catholic atrocities committed by the Republican side worked well in Italian propaganda targeting Catholics. On July 27, 1936 the first squadron of Italian airplanes sent by Benito Mussolini arrived in Spain.[76]

The government of Fascist Italy participated in the conflict via a body of volunteers from the ranks of the Italian Royal Army (Regio Esercito), Royal Air Force (Regia Aeronautica), and Royal Navy (Regia Marina) formed into an expeditionary force known as the Corps of Volunteer Troops (Corpo Truppe Volontarie, CTV). The maximum number of Italians in Spain, at one time, fighting for the Nationalists, was 50,000 in 1937.[77] Probably a total of 75,000 Italians fought in Spain for the Nationalists.[78] Italians also served in the Spanish-Italian Flechas Brigades and Divisions. The airborne component of Aeronautica pilots and ground crew were known as "Aviation Legion" (Aviazione Legionaria) and the contingent of submariners as Submarine Legion (Sottomarini Legionari). 6,000 Italians are estimated to have died in the conflict.[77] The New York Times correspondent in Seville, Frank L. Kluckhohn, reported on 18 August that "... the presence of the Italian destroyer Antonio da Noli here means that an ally has come to help the insurgents."[79]

Mussolini sent large amounts of material aid to Italian forces in Spain. This aid included:

  • one cruiser, four destroyers, and two submarines;
  • 763 aircraft, including 64 Savoia-Marchetti SM.81 bombers, at least 90 Savoia-Marchetti SM.79 bombers, 13 Br.20 bombers, 16 Ca.310 bombers, 44 assault planes, at least 20 seaplanes, more than 300 Fiat CR.32 fighters, 70 Romeo 37 fighters, 28 Romeo 41 fighters and 10 other fighter planes, and 68 reconnaissance planes;
  • 1,801 artillery pieces, 1,426 heavy and medium mortars, 6,791 trucks, and 157 tanks;
  • 320,000,000 small arms cartridges, 7,514,537 artillery rounds, 1,414 aircraft motors, 1,672 tons of aircraft bombs and 240,747 rifles.[80]

91 Italian warships and submarines also participated in and after the war, and sank about 72,800 tons of shipping, and lost 38 sailors killed in action. Italy presented a bill for £80,000,000 ($400,000,000) in 1939 prices to the Francoists.[81]

Italian pilots flew 135,265 hours during the war, partook in 5,318 air raids, hit 224 Republican and other ships, engaged in 266 aerial combats, and reported to have shot down 903 Republican and allied planes, and lost around 180 pilots and aircrew killed in action.


Despite the German signing of a non-intervention agreement in September 1936, various forms of aid and military support were given by Nazi Germany in support of the Nationalist faction. It included the formation of the Condor Legion as a land and air force, with German efforts to fly the Army of Africa to mainland Spain proving successful in the early stages of the war. Operations gradually expanded to include strike targets, and there was a German contribution to many of the battles of the Spanish Civil War. The bombing of Guernica on 26 April 1937 would be the most controversial event of German involvement, with perhaps 200 to 300 civilians killed.[82] German involvement also included Operation Ursula, a U-boat undertaking, and contributions from the Kriegsmarine.

The Condor Legion spearheaded many Nationalist victories, particularly in the air dominance from 1937 onwards; 300 victories were claimed, as compared to some 900 claimed by Italian forces.[83] Spain provided a proving ground for German tank tactics, as well as aircraft tactics, the latter only being moderately successful – ultimately, the air superiority which allowed certain parts of the Legion to excel would not be replicated because of the unsuccessful Battle of Britain.[84] The training they provided to Nationalist forces would prove as valuable, if not more so, than direct actions. Perhaps 56,000 Nationalist soldiers were trained by various German detachments in Spain, who were technically proficient; these covered infantry, tanks and anti-tank units, air and anti-aircraft forces, and those trained in naval warfare.[85]

Probably a total of 16,000 German citizens fought mostly as pilots, ground crew, artillery men, in tanks, and as military advisers and instructors. About 10,000 Germans was the maximum at any one time. Perhaps 300 were killed.[86] German aid to the Nationalists amounted to approximately £43,000,000 ($215,000,000) in 1939 prices.[86][nb 5] This was broken down in expenditure to: 15.5% used for salaries and expenses, 21.9% used for direct delivery of supplies to Spain, and 62.6% expended on the Condor Legion. (No detailed list of German supplies furnished to Spain has been found.)[86]


Upon the outbreak of the civil war, Portuguese Prime Minister Salazar was officially neutral but favoured the National cause.[87] Salazar's Estado Novo regime held tense relations with the Spanish Republic that held Portuguese dissidents to his regime in it.[88] Portugal played a critical role in supplying the Nationalists with ammunition and logistical resources.[89]

Direct military involvement involved "semi-official" endorsement, by Salazar of an 8,000–12,000-strong volunteer force, the "Viriatos" — for the whole duration of the conflict, Portugal was instrumental in providing the National faction with a vital logistical organization and by reassuring Franco and his allies that no interference whatsoever would hinder the supply traffic directed to the Nationalists, crossing the borders of the two Iberian countries — the Nationalists used to refer to Lisbon as "the port of Castile".[90] In 1938, with Franco's victory increasingly certain, Portugal recognized Franco's regime and after the war in 1939 signed a treaty of friendship and non-aggression pact that was known as the Iberian Pact.[87] Portugal played an important diplomatic role in supporting the Franco regime, including insisting to British government that Franco sought to replicate Salazar's Estado Novo and not Mussolini's Fascist Italy.[88]

The Vatican

Among many influential Catholics in Spain, mainly composed of conservative Traditionalists and people belonging to pro-Monarchic groups, the religious persecution was squarely blamed on the government of the Republic. The ensuing outrage was used after the 1936 coup by the propaganda of the rebel faction and readily extended itself. The Catholic Church took the side of the rebel government and defined the religious Spaniards who had been persecuted in Republican areas as 'martyrs of the faith', selectively ignoring the many believing Catholic Spaniards who remained loyal to the Republic and even those who were later killed during the persecution and massacres of Republicans. The devout Catholics who supported the Spanish Republic, included high-ranking officers of the Popular Army such as republican Catholic general Vicente Rojo Lluch, as well as the Catholic Basque nationalists who opposed the rebel faction.[91]

Initially the Vatican refrained from declaring too openly its support of the rebel side in the war, although it had long allowed high ecclesiastical figures in Spain to do so and to define the conflict as a 'Crusade'. Throughout the war, however, Francoist propaganda and influential Spanish Catholics labelled the secular Republic as "the enemy of God and the Church" and denounced the Republic, holding it responsible for anti-clerical activities, such as shutting down Catholic schools, as well as the killing of priests and nuns by exalted mobs and the desecration of religious buildings.[92]

Forsaken by the Western European powers, the Republican side mainly depended from Soviet military assistance, which played into the hands of the portrayal of the Spanish Republic as a 'Marxist' and godless state in the Francoist propaganda; its only other official support was from anti-Catholic and nominally revolutionary Mexico. By means of its extensive diplomatic network the Holy See used its influence to lobby for the rebel side. During an International Art Exhibition in Paris in 1937, in which both the Francoist and the Republican governments were present, the Holy See allowed the Nationalist pavilion to display its exhibition under the Vatican flag, for the rebel government's flag was still not recognized.[93] By 1938, the Vatican City had already officially recognized Franco's Spanish State, being one of the first to do so.[94]

Regarding the position of the Holy See during and after the Civil War, Manuel Montero, lecturer at the University of the Basque Country, commented on 6 May 2007:[95]

The Church, which upheld the idea of a 'National Crusade' in order to legitimize the military rebellion, was a belligerent part during the Civil War, even at the cost of alienating part of its members. It continues in a belligerent role in its unusual answer to the Historical Memory Law by recurring to the beatification of 498 "martyrs" of the Civil War. The priests executed by Franco's Army are not counted among them. ...In this political use of granting religious recognition one can perceive its indignation regarding the compensations to the victims of Francoism. Its selective criteria regarding the religious persons that were part of its ranks are difficult to fathom. The priests who were victims of the republicans are "martyrs who died forgiving", but those priests who were executed by the Francoists are forgotten.

Nationalist foreign volunteers

Volunteer troops from other countries fought with the Nationalists but only a few as national units. Among the latter were Eoin O'Duffy's 700 strong Irish Brigade and the 500 strong French Jeanne d'Arc company of the Spanish Foreign Legion, formed mostly from members of the far-right Croix de Feu. Approximately 8,000 Portuguese, known as Viriatos, fought for Franco although never as a national unit. Another 1,000 volunteers from countries as diverse as Spanish Guinea, The Philippines, the US, Brazil, Norway, Belgium, the UK, and Australia fought in the Nationalist ranks.[96] In 1937 General Franco turned down separate offers of national legions from Belgium, Greece, and exiled White Russians made by foreign sympathisers.[97]

Ion Moța, Romanian deputy-leader of the Legion of the Archangel Michael (or Iron Guard), led a group of seven Legionaries who visited Spain in December 1936 to ally their movement to the Nationalists with the presentation of a ceremonial sword to survivors of the Alcazar siege.[98] While in Spain the Legionaires decided, against the orders given to them in Bucharest, to join the Spanish Foreign Legion. Within days of joining, Moța and Vasile Marin (another prominent Legionary) were killed on the Madrid Front at Majadahonda.

After the extravagant and widely publicized funerals of Ion Moța and Vasile Marin, they became a prominent part of Legionary mythology.[99]

The Norwegian writer Per Imerslund fought with the Falange militia in the war during 1937.

British journalist Peter Kemp served as an officer with a Carlist battalion on the Nationalist side and was wounded.

Irish volunteers

Despite the declaration by the Irish government that participation in the war was illegal, around 250 Irishmen went to fight for the Republicans and around 700 of Eoin O'Duffy's followers ("The Blueshirts") went to Spain to fight on Franco's side. Both sides were former IRA members.

On arrival, however, O'Duffy's Irish contingent refused to fight the Basques for Franco, seeing parallels between their recent struggle and Basque aspirations of independence. They saw their primary role in Spain as fighting communism, and defending Catholicism. Eoin O'Duffy's men saw little fighting in Spain and were sent home by Franco after being accidentally fired on by Spanish Nationalist troops.


Due to the anti-clericalism and the murder of 4,000 clergy and many more nuns by the Republicans, many Catholic writers and intellectuals cast their lot with Franco, including Evelyn Waugh, Carl Schmitt, Hilaire Belloc, Roy Campbell, Giovanni Papini, Paul Claudel, J. R. R. Tolkien, and those associated with the Action Française. Others, such as Jacques Maritain, François Mauriac, and Georges Bernanos initially supported Franco but later grew disenchanted with both sides.

Many artists with right-wing sympathies, such as Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, Salvador Dalí, Wyndham Lewis, Robert Brasillach, and Pierre Drieu La Rochelle voiced support for the Nationalists. Brasillach collaborated with Maurice Bardèche on his own Histoire de la Guerre d'Espagne and the protagonist in Drieu La Rochelle's novel Gille travels to Spain to fight with the Falange. Wyndham Lewis's The Revenge for Love (begun 1934) details the anarchist-communist conflict in the years preceding the war, and is not a Spanish Civil War novel, though it is often mistaken for one.

Other nationals

  • The Portuguese furnished about 8,000 troops for the Nationalist Side, known as Viriatos after the Viriatos Legion (Legião Viriato).[100]
  • Approximately 500 Frenchmen fought for the Nationalists, most in the Jeanne d'Arc company of the Spanish Foreign Legion.[101]
  • Over 1,000 volunteers from other nations served in the Nationalist forces, including Filipinos, Britons, Finns, Norwegians, White Russians, Americans, Belgians, and Turks.[101]
  • Probably 75,000 Moroccan Regulares fought in the Nationalist ranks.[102] Spanish Morocco was an independent protectorate at the time so the Moroccans were not Spanish citizens. They were feared by the enemy and local civil population because they spared no one and "killed everyone" according to one Moroccan veteran interview.[103] "The Moroccan troops involved felt they were fighting a jihad against atheists and communists. Another motivation was money and gaining a foothold in the (Iberian) peninsula," is Professor Balfour's opinion.[104][105]
  • Despite its name, the Spanish Foreign Legion, fighting on the Nationalist side, was mostly Spaniards.[106]

Support for the Republicans

Soviet Union

Due to the Franco-British arms embargo, the Government of the Republic could receive material aid and could purchase arms only from the Soviet Union. To pay for these armaments the Republicans used US$500 million in gold reserves. At the start of the war the Bank of Spain had the world's fourth largest reserve of gold, about US$750 million, although some assets were frozen by the French and British governments. The Soviet Union also sent more than 2,000 personnel, mainly tank crews and pilots, who actively participated in combat, on the Republican side.[107] Other countries (see below) aided the Republican side through sale of weapons and through volunteer military units. Throughout the war, the efforts of the elected government of the Republic to resist the Nazi and Fascist armies and the rebel army were hampered by Franco-British 'non-intervention', long supply lines and intermittent availability of weapons of widely variable quality. The British and French naval embargo allowed Germany and Italy to reinforce their armies in Spain; the embargo hampered only the Soviet efforts to arm the Republican government.

According to official Soviet source, more than 2000 citizens of USSR served in Spain, many of them were awarded the orders, decorations, and medals of the Soviet Union and 59 were awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union.[108] The maximum number of Soviets in Spain at any one time is believed to have been 700, and the total during the war is thought to have between 2,000 — 3,000. Estimates for Spanish Republican Air Force Soviet pilots who took part in the conflict are given at 1,000.[109]

The Republic sent its gold reserve to the Soviet Union to pay for arms and supplies. That reserve was worth $500,000,000 in 1939 prices.[110] In 1956, the Soviet Union announced that Spain still owed it $50,000,000.[81] Other estimates of Soviet and Comintern aid totaled £81,000,000 ($405,000,000) in 1939 value. The German military attache estimated that Soviet and Comintern aid amounted to:

  • 242 aircraft,
  • 703 pieces of artillery,
  • 731 tanks,
  • 1,386 trucks,
  • 300 armored cars
  • 15,000 heavy machine guns,
  • 500,000 rifles,
  • 30,000 sub-machine guns,
  • 4,000,000 artillery shells,
  • 1,000,000,000 machine gun cartridges,
  • over 69,000 tons of war materiel, and
  • over 29,000 tons of ammunition.[111]

Much of this material was purchased in France, Czechoslovakia, the United States, the United Kingdom and Mexico.[112] The Republic was continuously swindled and short-changed in its purchases.[113]

The Republic also made poor buys for ammunition. The arms trade has a standard that with every rifle, 1,000 rounds of ammunition are included; with every machine gun, 10,000 rounds are included; and with every artillery piece, 2,400 shells should be included, lest the hardware become useless for lack of ammunition. A great bulk of the purchases fell far short of this standard.[114]

Soviet foreign policy considered collective security against German fascism a priority,[115] the Comintern had agreed a similar approach in 1934.[116] It walked a thin line between pleasing France and not being seen to hinder the World revolution and communist ideals. This was also the time of the first significant trials of the Old Bolsheviks in Russia.[11] Soviet press and opposition groups were entirely against non-intervention;[13]


The Mexican Republic supported fully and publicly the claim of the Madrid government and the Republicans. Mexico refused to follow the French-British non-intervention proposals. Mexican President Lázaro Cárdenas saw the war as similar to Mexico's own revolution although a large part of Mexican society wanted a Nationalist victory.

Mexico's attitude gave immense moral comfort to the Republic, especially since the major Latin American governments—those of Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Peru—sympathized more or less openly with the Nationalists. But Mexican aid could mean relatively little in practical terms if the French border were closed and if the dictators remained free to supply the Nationalists with a quality and quantity of weapons far beyond the power of Mexico. Mexico furnished $2,000,000 in aid[117] and provided some material assistance, which included rifles, food and a small amount of American-made aircraft such as the Bellanca CH-300 and Spartan Zeus that served in the Mexican Air Force.


On 21 August 1936, France signed the Non-Intervention Agreement.[118] However, the Léon Blum government provided aircraft to the Republicans through covert means with Potez 540 bomber aircraft (nicknamed the "Flying Coffin") by Spanish Republican pilots[119] Dewoitine aircraft, and Loire 46 fighter aircraft being sent from 7 August 1936 to December of that year to Republican forces.[120] The French also sent pilots and engineers to the Republicans.[121] Also, until 8 September 1936, aircraft could freely pass from France into Spain if they were bought in other countries.[122]

Other countries

Research conducted by Gerald Howson after the collapse of the Iron Curtain shows that Poland was second after the USSR in selling arms to the Republic. In the autumn of 1936, Poland was the only nation to offer arms to the Republic in any quantity according to Howson. At that time the Republic was in great need as the Nationalists were at Madrid.[123]

Other countries selling arms to republican side included Czechoslovakia and Estonia.[124] $2,000,000 came from the United States for humanitarian purposes.[117]

International volunteers

Volunteers from many countries fought in Spain, most of them on the Republican side. About 32,000[125] men and women fought in the International Brigades, including the American Lincoln Battalion and the Canadian Mackenzie–Papineau Battalion, organized in close conjunction with the Comintern to aid the Spanish Republicans. Perhaps another 3,000[125] fought as members of the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT) and the Workers' Party of Marxist Unification (POUM) militias. Those fighting with POUM most famously included George Orwell and the small ILP Contingent. While not supported officially, many American volunteers such as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade fought for the Republicans.

'Spain' became the cause célèbre for the left-leaning intelligentsia across the Western world, and many prominent artists and writers entered the Republic's service. As well, it attracted a large number of foreign left-wing working class men, for whom the war offered not only idealistic adventure but also an escape from post-Depression unemployment. Among the more famous foreigners participating on the Republic's side was George Orwell, who went on to write about his experiences in Homage to Catalonia. Orwell's novel Animal Farm was loosely inspired by his experiences and those of other members of POUM at the hands of Stalinists when the Popular Front began to fight within itself, as were the torture scenes in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Ernest Hemingway's novel For Whom the Bell Tolls was inspired by his experiences in Spain. George Seldes reported on the war for the New York Post. The third part of Laurie Lee's autobiographical trilogy, A Moment of War, is also based on his Civil War experiences. Norman Bethune used the opportunity to develop the special skills of battlefield medicine. As a casual visitor, Errol Flynn used a fake report of his death at the battlefront to promote his movies. In the Philippines, a pro-Republican magazine named Democracia had writers including anti-fascist Spaniards and Filipino-Spaniards as well as Filipino progressives like Pedro Abad Santos, chairman of the Socialist Party, and Bishop Gregorio Aglipay of the Philippine Independent Church.[126]

International Brigades

Probably 32,000 foreigners fought in the International Brigades.[127] An estimated 3,000 volunteers fought in other Republican forces during the conflict. Additionally, about 10,000 foreigners participated in medical, nursing, and engineering capacities.[128]

The International Brigades included 9,000 Frenchmen, of whom 1,000 were killed; 5,000 Germans and Austrians of whom 2,000 died, and also about 3,000 from Poland at the time. The next highest number was from Italy with 3,350 men. Then came the United States (2,800 men with 900 killed and 1,500 wounded) and the United Kingdom (2,000 with 500 killed and 1,200 wounded). There were also 1,500 Czechs; 1,500 Yugoslavs; 1,500 Canadians; 1,000 Hungarians and 1,000 Scandinavians, about half of whom were Swedes. The rest came from a "claimed" 53 countries. 800 Swiss volunteered, 300 of whom would be killed.[129] 90 Mexicans also participated.[130] It has been estimated that between 3,000 and 10,000 of the volunteers were Jewish.[131][132] About 200 volunteers were from Palestine (of Jewish and Arab origin).

Approximately one third of Irishmen who fought for Republicans died, a group composed primarily of socialists, trade unionists, and former IRA members. The "Connolly Column" of the International Brigades was named after the Irish socialist leader executed after 1916 Easter Rising, James Connolly.

Patriotism invoked to oppose the invader

Patriotism was invoked by both sides and the struggle presented as one of the Spanish people against the foreign invasion.

The instrumental use of nationalism on the republican side came from the communists. The heroic Spanish people were to rise against foreign invasion directed by traitors belonging to the upper classes, the clergy and the army, now at the service of the 'fascist-imperialist world coalition'. The true Spain was represented by the lower classes; – outside the nation in arms were bourgeois traitors, the fascists, the clergymen, and false revolutionaries (dissident communists, radical anarchists, etc.) 'serving fascism'. With the exception of the anti-Stalinist communists of the POUM, nationalist rhetoric developed by the PCE soon extended to other left-wing and republican literature. Republican propaganda made use of pre-existing icons depicting foreigners in certain ways. The Italians were presented as effeminate, cowardly and presumptuous, the Germans as arrogant. The Foreign Legionnaires were an international mob of criminals and thieves. Cartoons in the republican press often depicted the rebel army as a multinational gang of foreign mercenaries. The presence of Moorish troops was exploited from the outbreak of the conflict and Moorish troops presented as black-faced, barefoot, hungry, and eager to steal and kill. "The Moors were supposedly wild and cowardly, uncivilized and anxious to rape white women. Only a few appeals during the first months of the war were aimed at convincing the 'Moorish proletarian brother' to desert."

Spanish nationalist sentiment was used by the rebels to present the struggle as one for the patria and its Catholic essence which was supposed to be under the threat of becoming a 'Russian colony', the fault of traitors and 'international agents'. 'Anti-Spain' was embodied by liberalism, atheism, freemasonry, international Jewry and regional separatism. The communist invader was a dehumanised foreigner – the 'wolves of the Russian Steppes'. A legionnaire officer emphasised that the war was one 'of Spaniards against Russians!' Francoist propaganda presented the enemy as an invading army, or as the puppet of foreign powers. The involvement of Moorish troops in a Catholic crusade was explained as that of defenders of religion in the face of the godless, the anti-clerical, the anti-Islamic, and a common religious rival (the Jews) – and they were forced to ignore the previous Moroccan war propaganda that had presented Moors as brutal and savage. The presence of Italian and German troops on the rebels' side was hidden as much as possible.[133]

Foreign correspondents

Foreign press coverage of the Spanish Civil War was extensive, with around a thousand foreign newspaper correspondents working from Spain.[134]

See also

Military forces and aid
Military operations
Economic aid and dealings


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  36. Bulletin of International News (1937). p. 6.
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  73. Tierney, pp. 5, 139
  74. Tierney, p.150
  75. Brian R. Sullivan, "Fascist Italy's military involvement in the Spanish Civil War," Journal of Military History (1995) 59#4 pp 697–727.
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  119. "Potez 540/542".
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  121. Werstein (1969). p. 139.
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  126. "Philippine Falange". 2008-08-05. Retrieved 2012-08-15.
  127. Soviet and Comintern sponsored
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  132. Sugarman, Martin. "Against Fascism – Jews who served in The International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War" (PDF). Jewish Virtual Library/Jewish Military Museum. p. 122. Retrieved January 26, 2012.
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  134. Preston, Paul. We Saw Spain Die: Foreign Correspondents in the Spanish Civil War. Constable. 2008


  1. See also: pt:Armindo Rodrigues de Sttau Monteiro (in Portuguese)
  2. Involved were: Albania, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Norway, Poland, Romania, Turkey, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom and Yugoslavia. (Thomas (1961). p. 277.)
  3. Alpert (1998) p.65 notes that rank-and-file members of the Labour Party may have been opposed.
  4. It passed by 81 to 0 in the Senate and 406 to 1 in the House of Representatives. (Thomas (1961). p. 338.)
  5. Westwell (2004) gives a figure of 500 million Reichmarks.


  • Alpert, Michael. "The Clash of Spanish Armies: Contrasting Ways of War in Spain, 1936–1939," War in History (1999) 6#3 pp 331–351.
  • Ascherson, Neal How Moscow robbed Spain of its gold in the Civil War, Guardian Media Group, 1998: review of Gerald Howson, Arms For Spain. Accessed 12 October 2006.
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  • Bradley, Ken International Brigades in Spain 1936–39 with Mike Chappell (Illustrator) Published by Elite. ISBN 978-1855323674. Good basic introduction to the subject in a readable and well-illustrated format. Author made several visits to battlefields and interviewed veterans in the 1980s and 90's.
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  • Steiner, Zara. The Triumph of the Dark: European International History 1933–1939 (2013) pp 181–251
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