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The Spanish Civil War:
An Overview Summary

The Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) was a unique moment in which Spain was the principal battleground for the forces that shaped the 20th century—democracy, communism, and fascism. Spain offered a dress rehearsal for the ideologies, propaganda, weapons, and military strategies that engulfed the planet with the outbreak of World War II in September, 1939.

The Spanish Republic (from 1931) was a democratic regime in which the Left and Right were increasingly polarized, and against which the army rebelled in July, 1936. The rebels received military assistance almost immediately from Mussolini's Italy and Hitler's Germany. The Republic appealed for aid to the democratic powers—Britain, France, and the United States. However, these governments preferred not to intervene, hoping that they could limit the influence of the Axis powers. In the circumstances, the Republic turned to the Soviet Union, and its foreign policy arm, the Comintern, organized the International Brigades to defend the Republic. In this conflict, volunteers from the United States formed the Lincoln Battalion and helped save the Republic during intense fighting around Madrid.

The Republican zone saw the explosion of a wide array of social experiments, in which peasants took over the large estates and workers in Barcelona expropriated the factories. In several regions of the Republic, women gained a position of equality in society that Spain had never before witnessed, and they would only begin to recover this status after the dictator Franco died in 1975.

The struggle to defend the Republic against the best elements in the Spanish army and the Axis powers attracted writers and artists from across Europe and America; among them were Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, Theodore Dreiser, George Orwell, W. H. Auden, Arthur Koestler, Pablo Neruda, Pablo Picasso, and AndrÈ Malraux. On the other side as soldier and novelist was Camilo Cela, who, like Hemingway and Neruda, was later to win the Nobel Prize for literature. Three outstanding artistic monuments to the War were Hemingway's novel For Whom the Bell Tolls, Malraux's Days of Hope, and Picasso's mural "Guernica."

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