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Why did the Spanish Civil War start in July 1936?

Peter Anderson identifies the groups, the grievances and the events which started the war.

On the night of 17 July 1936, the Spanish army, inspired most of all by General Franco, started the Spanish Civil War by rebelling against the Second Republic. A central goal of the rebels was the destruction of left-wing organisations. Franco’s fellow officer, General Queipo de Llano, instructed his subordinates on how to treat the ‘Bolshevik’ activist with this chilling sentence: ‘I authorise you to kill him like a dog and you will be free of all responsibility’. Attitudes such as this made the war a terrible tragedy: before its end, in April 1939, 325,000 had died in battle and from disease. Historians estimate that Francoists executed at least 150,000 during and after the war. Victory for the Francoist side brought economic and political isolation for Spain until the 1950s and the denial of basic rights until the late 1970s. Only in recent years have relatives of the executed started to learn where their loved ones are buried.

The Spanish Civil War continues to shape people’s lives. At the time, too, people recognised the significance of the war. The struggle in Spain came to represent the fight against fascism. Thousands volunteered from around the world to join the International Brigades and to defend the Second Republic, including famous writers such as George Orwell. Picasso produced his famous Guernica painting to highlight the horrific bombing by Franco and his Nazi sponsors of the eponymous town. Many hoped that by stopping Franco, and fascism in Spain, a second world war could be averted. How then did this terrible war start?

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