Military History Spanish Civil War
George Esenwein
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 July 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0056


It is well known that, like the Catholic Church, the military in Spain has long played a key role in public affairs. This was particularly evident during the second half of the 20th century, when a bloody civil war (1936–1939) resulted in a military dictatorship under General Francisco Franco, who would rule Spain for the next thirty-six years. Throughout his reign, Franco sought to legitimate the military intervention which had brought him to power by using history as an ideological tool of the state. The result was that the majority of Spanish historians fell into the role of a conservative and decidedly official establishment. The one-sided political partisanship of Francoist historiography was amply demonstrated in the early years of his rule, when official histories written from the victors’ point of view became the standard sources on the subject. Over time, the ideological tone of the military-centered official histories became less strident but was nonetheless still distinctly colored by the passions and deeply rooted political biases of the regime. Outside of Spain, the tendency to interpret the Civil War in political terms also dominated writings about the conflict. But in contrast to Spanish historiography, Western scholarship was not focused on the military side of the war. Apart from books about the International Brigades, articles and monographs relating to the military assistance provided by foreign powers, or studies which dealt with celebrated engagements of the war, no full-scale military histories of the Civil War were ever produced by non-Spanish historians during the Franco era, 1939–1975. On the other hand, reliable and detailed accounts of key military campaigns could be found in general works, such as Hugh Thomas’s The Spanish Civil War (Thomas 2001, cited under General Overviews). The demise of Franco’s dictatorship in the mid- and late 1970s saw an explosion of new publications on the Civil War. Yet, partly because of their ideological associations with the past and partly because they represented an outdated mode of historical investigation, traditional military histories did not prove as popular as studies devoted to local or regional affairs or to the international aspects of the war. Recently, there has been a resurgence of publications dealing with the military side of the Civil War. Most of the newer works differ from those produced by Francoist historians in that their overall interpretations are not being filtered through an ideological lens. Nor are they as narrowly focused on the purely technical aspects of military operations, as many previous studies have been. The greatest attention has been paid to struggles at the regional level and the impact that bombings and wartime conditions in general had on both combatants and noncombatants alike. Without making any claims of being exhaustive, this bibliographical article seeks to give the reader a sense of the broad range of sources which have been published on the subject since the outbreak of the Civil War and which can be used as a point of departure for future investigations. It is also hoped that, by being exposed to such a diverse and varied group of publications, the reader will gain a greater sense of how much historical trends and patterns of interpretation of a particularly complex and contentious subject have evolved over a seventy-year period.

General Overviews

This section lists general studies about the Civil War or Civil War period which contain significant glimpses into not only the conduct of military policy of both the Republican and Nationalist camps but also the extent of involvement of foreign powers. One group of works, including Adamthwaite 1990 and United States Department of State 1950, comprises edited government documents issued by foreign governments. These include special reports and correspondence relating to the types of military equipment being supplied by Germany, Italy, and the Soviet Union. The surveys Bolloten 1991, Beevor 2006, and Thomas 2001 offer highly readable narrative accounts which pay close attention to the military dimension of the conflict. Cortada 1982, a wide-ranging historical dictionary, contains numerous entries on key military figures and major military campaigns. Two background studies, Boyd 1979, an examination of civil-military affairs in the 20th century, and Payne 1967, an acute analysis of the relation between the military and modern Spanish politics, help to explain both how and why Spain’s military played a “praetorian” role in the 1936–1939 period. A balanced attempt to document the personal experiences of both Nationalist and Republican soldiers may be found in Fraser 1979, the groundbreaking oral history Blood of Spain. Blázquez Miguel 2003–2007, the fullest and most up-to-date history of military campaigns, by Juan Blázquez Miguel, has not been translated into English.

  • Adamthwaite, Anthony, ed. British Documents on Foreign Affairs: Reports and Papers from the Foreign Office. Confidential Report, Part 2: From the First to the Second World War, Series F. Europe, 1919–1939, Vol. 27: Spain, July 1936–January 1940. Frederick, MD: University Publications of America, 1990.

    Intelligence reports and diplomatic correspondence—many of which detail the types of foreign military equipment being tried and tested on the battlefield—about military affairs on both sides is provided by the fact-gathering diplomatic officials stationed in Spain during the Civil War.

  • Beevor, Antony. The Battle for Spain. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2006.

    A highly accessible narrative history of the Civil War. Though based primarily on scholarly secondary sources, this work provides the clearest and most comprehensive picture of military operations on both sides of the conflict.

  • Blázquez Miguel, Juan. Historia militar de la Guerra Civil Española. 5 vols. Edited by María Dolores Tomás. Madrid, 2003–2007.

    A detailed and objective overview of the military campaigns during the war.

  • Bolloten, Burnett. The Spanish Civil War: Revolution and Counterrevolution. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.

    A penetrating and provocative analysis of the role the Communists played in Republican political and military affairs. In the course of conducting his extensive and groundbreaking researches into the subject, the author interviewed and/or corresponded with a number of leading Republican military leaders, including General José Ascensio, General Ignacio Hidalgo de Cisneros, and General Sebastián Pozas.

  • Boyd, Carolyn P. Praetorian Politics in Liberal Spain. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1979.

    A discerning study of civil-military relations in Spain during the 20th century. A revised and expanded version—La política pretoriana en el reinado de Alfonso XIII—appeared in Spanish in 1990.

  • Cortada, James W. Historical Dictionary of the Spanish Civil War, 1936–1939. Westport, CT, and London: Greenwood, 1982.

    Among the many entries are profiles of leading military figures and brief summaries of the principal battles. A useful survey of the general course of military events of the conflict can be found in Appendix B.

  • Fraser, Ronald. Blood of Spain: An Oral History of the Spanish Civil War. London: Allen Lane, 1979.

    Based on the author’s taped conversations with hundreds of eyewitness participants, this oral history offers a direct window onto the personal experiences of soldiers from both sides of the conflict.

  • Payne, Stanley G. Politics and the Military in Modern Spain. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1967.

    Important narrative survey of civil military relations in the modern period, with chapters devoted to the background and events of the Civil War.

  • Thomas, Hugh. The Spanish Civil War. New York: Random House, 2001.

    The most objective descriptive account of the war, paying close attention to the details of military operations on both sides. Originally published in 1961.

  • United States Department of State. Documents on German Foreign Policy, 1918–1945: From the archives of the German Foreign Ministry. Ser. D. Vol. III, Germany and the Spanish Civil War, 1936–1939. Publications of the Department of State, vol. 3838. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1950.

    Though these documents do not contain a great deal of precise information relating to German military involvement in Spain—such as the scope and role of the Condor Legion—they do spell out the economic arrangements between Germany and Nationalist Spain which were used to secure military aid for Franco’s troops.

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