The coup on July 17/18, 1936

Most historians agree that the Spanish Civil War should not have been a war at all. Rather, conspiratorial military forces attempted to overthrow the left-wing popular-front government by means of a quick coup d’état. Emilio Mola (El Director) in Pamplona pulled the strings. The aim was to take power in the Spanish state and install a state apparatus similar to that of Primo de Rivera.1Preston, Paul: The Spanish Civil War. New York, 2006, p. 102

El Alzamiento

On July 17, the coup d’état began in the Spanish enclaves of Melilla and Ceuta under the leadership of General Francisco Franco, who had previously been reluctant to join the conspiracy. The command for the attack was assumed by other officers, since Franco was still in the Canary Islands at the time of the attack.2Preston, Paul: Franco. New York, 1994, p. 140

The next day, the coup spread to the Spanish mainland. In southern Spain, the cities of Cadiz, Cordoba, Seville and Granada fell into the hands of the insurgent nationalists. In the rural areas of the south, armed workers’ militias in manyots defeated the small Guardia Civil garrisons. Especially in the south, the nationalists proceeded with extreme brutality. Thousands of people were murdered and executed because of their political views. This bloody and brutal fight was certainly part of the nationalist strategy:

“It is necessary to spread terror. […] Anyone who hides a communist or supporter of the Frente Popular will be shot.”3Preston, Paul: The Spanish Civil War. New York, 2006, p. 103
Emilio Mola
Conspiratorial Brigade General

From these statements, British historian Paul Preston deduces the true intentions of the nationalists:

“The extent of terror and oppression in all those areas that the rebels had easily won made it clear that it was not just about taking over the state. It was rather a matter of wiping out the entire liberal and reforming culture.”4Preston, Paul: The Spanish Civil War. New York, 2006, p. 109
Paul Preston
British historian

Although the coup put the insurgents in a good position, it was foreseeable that the alzamiento (uprising) had failed. The nationalists had underestimated the strong resistance of the partly well organized working classes. Especially in the important cities of Madrid and Barcelona the rebellion was unsuccessful. This was probably the main factor in the failure of the coup.5Graham, Helen: The Spanish Republic At War 1936 – 1939. Cambridge, 2002, S. 93 – 94

Three prime ministers in one day

The Spanish central government was plunged into a deep crisis. Despite rumours of a possible conspiracy, the government has underestimated the danger of an uprising, says historian Helen Graham. Prime Minister Santiago Casares Quiroga (Izquierda Republicana) even believed that it was only a minor incident. After all, the Spanish Republic had already been able to put down a coup in 1932.

Casares decided not to arm the workers and even demanded that anyone who issued such orders be shot.6Zugazagoitia, Julian: Historia de la guerra en España. Buenos Aires, 1940, p. 41 He preferred to dismiss the garrisons involved in the rebellion from the army. He also announced that the uprisings were being crushed throughout Spain.7 Graham, Helen: The Spanish Republic At War 1936 – 1939. Cambridge, 2002, S. New York, 2006, p. 80f In reality, however, the government had lost control of the situation in the country.

Consequently, Casares resigned on 19 July 1936. His successor was Diego Martínez Barrio (Unión Republicana), who tried to negotiate with Mola. After the talks failed after a few hours, he also resigned. President Manuel Azaña faced a problem: almost nobody wanted to take responsibility in this difficult situation.

Finally, José Giral (Izquierda Republicana) took over the office of Prime Minister and ordered the immediate arming of the masses.8Graham, Helen: The Spanish Republic At War 1936 – 1939. Cambridge, 2002, p. 82 – 83

War on ideological fronts

With the beginning of the coup, the Frente Popular was effectively history and the inner left conflicts that were deeply rooted in the country came to the fore. Thus, in the rural areas of southern Spain, the CNT partially took over the organization and arming of the working classes. In Barcelona, the CNT plundered the arms depots and also armed the working class, and thus, together with the loyal local police (Guardia de Asalto), was able to crush the uprising as late as July 19.

The autonomy president Lluís Companys had previously categorically rejected the arming of the masses. The nationalist General Goded, who had been flown in, should have marched victoriously through Barcelona. Instead, he went to prison and was executed a few weeks later. The anarchists also stormed two barracks: San Andrés and Atarazanas.

Republican troops fight together with the Guardia de Asalto against the insurgents in Barcelona (July 1936)

While in Barcelona the anarchists held control of the city and Catalan autonomy, in Madrid it was the socialists and communists. The putschists expected the strongest resistance in the capital and they were not wrong. In the barracks of Montaña the moving general Fanjul was waiting for reinforcements.

Militias stormed the barracks and caused a massacre because the nationalists did not want to give up the bolts for most of the 65,000 rifles. Madrid could remain in Republican hands. To stop the advance of Molas’ troops, the militias set off for the Guadarrama Mountains.9Graham, Helen: The Spanish Republic At War 1936 – 1939. Cambridge, 2002, S. 93

The coup becomes war

While the nationalists were able to take over important cities in the south of Spain, they did not advance at the desired speed. They only managed to advance in the conservative north of Madrid, as well as in Galicia, Leon, Navarre, Aragon, part of Asturias and the Basque Country.

As Paul Preston said, this is more or less in line with the electoral behaviour of the Spanish. The nationalists triumphed in the conservative regions, while the republican areas remained more in the hands of the left-wing strongholds.10Preston, Paul: The Spanish Civil War. New York, 2006, p. 102

For the putschists, the situation was aggravated by the fact that General José Sanjurjo was killed in a plane crash on July 20. He was to return from exile in Portugal and take over the state. Therefore the rebels had to find a new plan: On July 24, 1936, they declared a counter-government: The Junta de Defensa Nacional. The failed coup developed into a civil war.

Situation in July 1936:
The nationalists (brown) were able to gain ground in the north, but took only a few cities in the south.
Foto: Nerika (CC BY-SA 3.0)