The Spanish Civil War: Myths and Lies

No episode in the 1930s has been more lied about than this one, and only in recent years have historians begun to dig it out from the mountain of mendacity beneath which it was buried for a generation.
Paul Johnson, Modern Times

Paul Johnson could have extended his judgment to most of Spain’s history because the myths and lies about Spain didn’t begin with the 1936-1939 civil war and didn’t stop at its end, they remained during the Franco dictatorship and after the transition to democracy in 1975, and they continue today. There is an unabashed revision of the history of Spain, an effort led by British and Spanish left-wing historians in order to paint as bad a picture of the country as possible, one that benefits its main enemies: the Spanish revolutionary left and the Basque and Catalan separatist movements, both wanting revenge from their historic defeat in the civil war, both wanting to erase their past to show themselves as democratic movements.

The biggest lie of the civil war, one that has found a place of honor in contemporary history, is that the Popular Front was fighting for the Spanish Republic, that it was the Republic. This is one of the great propaganda successes of the 20th century, a triumph of Stalin and the Spanish Communist Party. As Stanley G. Payne writes, the Spanish Civil War has been presented to the world as a clear fight between democracy and fascism, but this is pure leftist propaganda. The Popular Front called themselves (and were called by the nationalists) “the Reds.” They succeeded in building a short-lived society similar to the Soviet Union and tried to dismember Spain into small fiefdoms. On the opposite side, the nationalists and General Franco have been presented as fascists by leftist propaganda, when in reality they were fighting for a united, traditional and Catholic Spain. (Moa, Cita 26 all; Cita 70, 9:18)

How the Civil War Really Developed

1931. The Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) and its leftist allies win the election. As soon as they got power, the Socialists and anarchists began burning churches, murdering priests, and raping nuns. The rights of Catholics were severely restricted, the Jesuits were expelled from the country, and there were plans to prohibit religious orders from teaching, all this in a country where Catholicism was the predominant religion and where it could mobilize more support than any political group. The left in power openly identified itself with the violent actions: Manuel Azaña, the Prime Minister, said: “all the Madrid convents aren’t worth the life of one republican.”

1932. The anarchists had committed 23 political murders and had launched three revolutionary insurrections. A small sector of the right encouraged a weak military revolt led by General José Sanjurjo in August 1932, which failed because it was ignored by the Army.

1933 -1934. The right wins the election by a big margin (women voted for the first time and were important in the win). The left loses badly, getting only 14% of the vote and 10% of the Parliament seats. The Spanish people were tired of the abuses of the left after their two wild years in government. The 1933 election was the last legal election in the Second Republic. The defeated Socialists and left Republicans demand (four times!) the cancellation of the election because the right had won, both then leave the government and decide on direct action:

“This position was unprecedented in the recent history of European parliamentary regimes … the fact that a majority of the republic’s founders rejected electoral democracy as soon as they lost an election meant that the prospects for democracy were at best uncertain … the left became only more radical and exclusionary, continuing to insist on an all-left regime, while most of the Socialist movement began to embrace violent revolution.” (Payne, 17-18; Moa, Una Hora 051, 13:00)

“The Socialist Revolutionary Committee [led by Fernando Largo Caballero, the ‘Spanish Lenin’] prepared secret instructions calling for the nationalization of land, and the dissolution of all religious orders, the Army, and the Civil Guard … The Committee’s instructions declared that the insurrection must have ‘all the characteristics of a civil war’, its success depending on the ‘breath of its expansion and the violence with which it is carried out’ … The Spanish Socialist insurrection of 1934 was the most elaborately organized and best armed of all insurrectionary actions in Western and Central Europe during the interwar period.” (Payne, 19-21; Moa, Una Hora 050, 15:00)

If it wasn’t sufficiently clear, their newspaper El Socialista announced on September 25, 1934: “everyone should give up the idea of peaceful evolution, which is an utopia; blessed be the war.” This is how the insurrection developed: Largo Caballero calls for a general strike in Madrid; an Independent Catalan Republic in Barcelona lasts ten hours; A Workers Commune in Asturias, with Socialist backing, lasts two weeks (mainly because all leftist parties joined the insurrection) and is legally suppressed by General Francisco Franco. The insurrection broke out in fifteen of Spain’s fifty provinces, the revolutionaries murdered about 100 clergy and civilians and carried out widespread destruction, arson, and looting. About 1,500 people died. The insurrection started by the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) and the Catalan Separatists against the Spanish Republic in 1934 is the real beginning of the Spanish Civil War (Moa, Una Hora 084, 14:15). It was also the beginning of the propaganda war, supported by Comintern money and the European left, and the string of lies cited by Paul Johnson:

“The insurrectionist Socialist Party was never outlawed, some of its centers continued to remain open, and after the first weeks the leading prisoners enjoyed special privileges. An international investigating commission was permitted to visit them, and in little more than a year the revolutionaries would be allowed to participate in new democratic elections that offered the opportunity to gain legally the power they had just tried to seize by force. The repression by the Spanish Republic was in fact historically unprecedented in its leniency, and bore not the slightest comparison with the infinitely more brutal policies followed in such circumstances by other countries, even in the cases of democratic regimes.” (Payne, 25)

During 1934, when the PSOE carried out the national insurrection, the Catalan Esquerra (left) coordinated their own regional insurrection with the PSOE, and even Prime Minister Manuel Azaña planned two separate coups —against the same Republic Azaña himself led! Two immensely important facts of the civil war, buried under so many lies are, first, that General Franco legally suppressed the 1934 insurrections, and rejected a proposal by the extreme right to seize power himself. And second, that Franco was the last one to rebel in 1936 —against the new revolutionary state— because the only alternative was to let the Reds build Soviet Spain without a fight. As Pío Moa says, Franco did not fight democrats, he fought a coalition of totalitarians, separatists, and coup-plotters.

1936: The results of the February 16 election were inconclusive and fraudulent:

“The final margin in favor of the Popular Front was primarily the result of violence, mob action, and political manipulations that took place between February 16 and March 1 … The most salient electoral fraud, however, took place in the new parliament itself … through fraudulent means, a sufficiently large margin had been created to permit amendment of the Republican Constitution … Electoral democracy had obviously come to an end well before the beginning of the civil war, which may be seen as a consequence, certainly not the cause, of this breakdown.” (Payne, 35-36)

The Popular Front forcefully takes over the government. The burning of churches and convents and opening of prisons begin anew that same night. José Gil Robles, leader of the CEDA, the main right-wing party, warns of a coming civil war forced by the left and reads to the Parliament a list of atrocities: 160 churches burned, 269 political murders, 1,287 assaults, 69 political offices destroyed, 113 general strikes, 228 partial strikes, 10 newspaper offices destroyed. The last straw: the chief deputy of the right, the parliamentarian José Calvo Sotelo, is murdered by Assault Guards. Two days later Gil Robles publicly accused the government of responsibility. Civil war breaks out a few months later, on 18 July 1936.

Parallels with the Chilean Popular Front in 1973 (see The Allende Myth post)

There are interesting similarities in the general political situation and how it evolved in both countries before the final military decision. Chile and Spain were traditional societies that nevertheless hatched modern, utopian, violent, and intransigent political groups: Communist parties that were puppets of the Soviet Union; revolutionary, violent socialist parties that made their respective communist parties look timid; and even more revolutionary and violent extreme-left groups such as anarchists, the Trotskyist POUM in Spain, and the MIR in Chile. There were no democrats in the Frente Popular (Spain) or in the Unidad Popular (Chile), there were only moderates and revolutionaries. In both countries, the revolutionaries defeated the moderates and created a “dual power” in parallel with the legal government. Also in both countries, and against their will, the right and center-right were pushed to unite and to prepare for the worst, and against the common mistake made by the left in both countries, that the right would accept the imposition of socialism without a fight.

More specifically, some individual characters are somehow replicas of each other:

Niceto Alcalá Zamora (Spanish President) and Eduardo Frei (Chilean President) shared the belief that manipulation of the political sphere could prevent the development of social forces that in the end proved to be much greater than anything they could imagine.

Manuel Azaña (Spanish Prime Minister and President) and Salvador Allende (Chilean President), were contradictory characters who shared a strong but naive belief in their personal ability to control and direct the Protean creature that is a revolution.

Fernando Largo Caballero (leader of the Spanish Socialist Workers Party, PSOE) and Carlos Altamirano (Secretary General of the Chilean Socialist Party, PS) shared a belief in violent Marxist revolution, both led the revolutionary wing of their parties, and both called for insurrection when their own parties were leading democratic regimes. Both also saw themselves playing a similar role as Vladimir Lenin during the Russian Revolution.

The main parallel is, of course, that Francisco Franco and Augusto Pinochet saved their countries from totalitarian communist systems, and both started their nations in the path of progress and the eventual return of democracy. The irony of it all is that both hated dictators were, in the last analysis, the saviors of their democracies.


Stanley G. Payne, The Spanish Civil War, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2012

Pío Moa, Una Hora con la Historia (YouTube videos in Spanish)

Pío Moa, Cita con la Historia (YouTube videos in Spanish)

Pío Moa, Los Mitos de la Guerra Civil, La Esfera de los Libros, Madrid, 2003 *

* Pío Moa’s book confirms and expands on Payne’s statements. I couldn’t quote his book because I own the Kindle version, which doesn’t have page numbers.