Portugal's role in the Spanish Civil War

Lynne Booker


How Salazar avoided both civil war in Portugal and entanglement in World War 2.


Iberian Dictators in a time of instability
General Franco was one of four dictators who changed the face of Europe during the 20th Century   Although he appeared to lack the evil genius of Hitler, the comic charisma of Mussolini and the ruthless paranoia of Stalin, he succeeded in retaining absolute power from the moment he won the civil war in 1939 until his death in 1975.  (Gabrielle Ashford Hodges - Franco a concise biography, page 1, Weidenfeld & Nicholson 2000)  


There was yet another dictator in Europe - number five - António de Oliveira Salazar, dictator of Portugal 1932 - 1968.  He dressed up his government in the clothes of democracy and elections, but he was a dictator, and Europe is different because of him. Of the five, he was the only one who was university educated and he was also a university lecturer.  In charge of the nation´s finances since 1928, from the moment he assumed power in 1932, he was able to keep hold of the levers of power for 36 years.  He was famous for bringing order to Portuguese political life and also for imposing budgetary and financial discipline to the extent that Portugal emerged from the world-wide economic crash of 1928 – 1932 in reasonable shape.  In retrospect, many Portuguese regret the passing of Salazar because he brought order and stability where none existed before, and little since. Salazar´s government was itself a product of an army coup and there was a number of uprisings in the early 1930s.  Any one of them could have led to a twentieth century civil war in Portugal.  


Background to the Spanish Civil War
In 1830, Ferdinand VII of Spain confirmed the abolition of the Salic Law in Spain in favour of his (yet unborn) daughter Isabella.  His brother the Infante Don Carlos together with his supporters in the army and the Church refused to accept this undoing of the right of the male to precede any female in the succession; they were called Carlists or Legitimists.  Since the death of Ferdinand VII in 1833 there was always a Carlist claimant to the Spanish throne. This factor was a major threat to the stability of Spanish public life from 1833 - 1939. In the nineteenth century, Carlism also attracted popular support from conservative and Catholic districts in Navarre and the Basque country.  The three Carlist Wars (1833 --1840, 1846 - 1848, 1872 - 1876) showed that Carlism was a continuing vehicle for ultramontane and traditionalist principles and even in 1936, 100 000 Carlists fought for the nationalists in the Spanish Civil War.  Spain tried twice to make a republic work: the first Spanish Republic lasted one year (1873-4) and the second lasted eight years (1931 - 1939).  It was Alfonso XIII´s (1886-1931) weakness in leadership and interference in military affairs which created a political vacuum.  That vacuum was filled by two royal dictators,  first Primo de Rivera (1923 - 1930) and second Dámaso Berenguer (1930 - 1931). 


After the election to power of the republican coalition in 1931, the new Republican Constitution was so radical in Spanish eyes that Alfonso XIII chose immediately to go  in to exile.  The constitution permitted freedom of speech and freedom of association; it extended suffrage to women; it legalised divorce; it stripped the Spanish aristocracy of any special legal status and it disestablished the Catholic church in Spain.  Legal procedures were set in motion for the nationalisation of public services and Catalonia and the Basque country gained the right to self-government.  Many of these reforms were suspended by the new conservative government which was elected in 1934 and in answer, republicans called a general strike for the whole of Spain in October, but only the the Asturian miners heeded the call.  This strike was brutally suppressed by government troops under the command of Francisco Franco and Eduardo López Ochoa who were nicknamed the butchers of Astúrias, since more than 2000 people died during the suppression.  It is ironic that Franco used Spanish Moroccan troops to suppress a strike in the only part of Spain never conquered by the Moorish invaders of 711.


Bridge at Ronda where many met their deathThe 1930s were economically depressed over the Western world.  The ensuing poverty, unemployment and civil unrest were too much for the traditional left in Spain. On the other hand, the traditional right would not endure what they saw as communism, anarchism, anti-clericalism and random acts of violence.  Between 1933 and 1936 there were over 2 000 assassinations, and 160 arson attacks on churches, and these atrocities were committed by both sides.  


The elections of February 1936 were won by a coalition of the Marxist and Communist parties, who together with the Republicans, Catalan and Galician nationalists formed the Popular Front. The absence of the Socialist Party from this coalition was a major source of political weakness to the Popular Front.  The Socialist agenda was to precipitate a class war in which they would eliminate the bourgeois elements from Spanish politics.  On 12 July 1936 Falangist thugs assassinated an anti-fascist policeman and in revenge, leftist elements in the urban police abducted and assassinated the leader of the parliamentary right wing, José Calvo Sotelo.  Amazingly the funerals of the victims of these two political assassinations were held on the same day at the same cemetery in Madrid, and the outcome was more shooting and four more deaths. The assassination of Calvo Sotelo was a justification to the rebels for their actions and the coup that had been planned was immediately triggered.


Leaders of the Rebels
General José Sanjurjo had become disillusioned with the Republic at an early date and he had been plotting rebellion since 1932.  He was convicted and condemned to death but released in 1934 and he fled to exile in Portugal.  He was joined by Franco, Mola and Queipo de Llano in continuing to plot the overthrow the Republic.  Returning to Spain from Estoril in July 1936, he was due to take command of the rebel forces.  He insisted on bringing his heavy luggage which proved too much for his three seater aircraft, and it crashed on take-off near Lisbon, and Sanjurjo was killed.  This accident could not have happened if he had used Ryanair.  General Emilio Mola joined the plotters in spring 1936 but his plans for a rapid victory were not successful and he lost credibility with his co-plotters.  Amazingly, he also died in an air crash (June 1937).  The deaths of his two main rivals for leadership of the rebel cause allowed Franco to succeed to the top job, but despite suspicion of his hand in these two deaths, nothing has ever been proved against him.  General Gonzalo Queipo de Llano was a key figure in the attacks on Seville on 18 July 1936 and Málaga in 1937, and after Miguel Cabanellas Ferrer President of the Junta de Defensa Nacional abstained from voting for Franco as Jefe del Estado and Generalísimo in September 1936, his career did not prosper. 


Francisco Franco y Bahamonde (1892-1975) was promoted very quickly from a young age and achieved the rank of General by the age of 36.  He was a hero of the Spanish wars in Morocco in the 1920s and because he was seen as a potential threat to the Republican government, Franco was posted to the remote Canaries early in 1936. José António Primo de Rivera, son of the erstwhile monarchist dictator was leader of the Falange Española.  Arrested in March in Madrid for possession of firearms, he was held in Alicante.  When his cell was searched in October, after the outbreak of war, yet more firearms were discovered and he was tried and convicted of conspiracy against the Republic and military insurrection.  Sentenced to death, he was shot on 20 November 1936.


The Outbreak of Civil War
The rebel generals were keen to start their uprising but Franco hesitated and earned the nickname Miss Canary Islands 1936. The rebellion eventually broke out on 17 July 1936 in Morocco and by evening all Spanish Morocco was in rebel hands.  It was appreciated however that the coup had failed since although the Rebels controlled Morocco, only a third of Spain was in their hands and the navy and airforce continued loyal to the government.  The 30 000 strong Army in Morocco came under Franco´s control and from 20 July he was able to transport his troops to Seville using 24 German Ju-52 aircraft.  These aircraft had arrived in Morocco after having refuelled in Portugal.  Without this help it is conceivable that the rebels would have lost the initiative in Spain.  The rebels also soon received Italian aircraft and 12 000 motorised troops (the Corpo Truppe Volontarie) in December 1936.  


The Uncivil War
The objective of the rebel assault on El Ferrol and Irún was to isolate from France and the rest of the Republic the Republican areas of the Basque country and Asturias.  By 18 July, Queipo de Llano had taken the important bridgehead of Seville for the rebels and in August Colonel Yagüe advanced into Extramadura. The rebels executed 2 000 defeated republican defenders in the bullring of Badajoz and from the very beginning of the civil war, both sides committed atrocities and assassinations.  On 1 October 1936, Franco was proclaimed Generalíssimo and Caudillo. 


ViriatosTaking sides
Britain pressed for non-intervention; Italy and Germany joined the non-interventionists and then used their navies to prevent help from reaching the loyalists. The only freely given external support for the republican goverment came from Mexico and the Socialist government in France. The rebels on the other hand had the support of the Germans, Italians and Portuguese.  Apart from the CTV, the Rebels enjoyed the support of 8 000 Portuguese volunteers (Os Viriatos) and Portugal also offered logistical support to the rebel cause through the port of Lisbon.  For the duration of the war there was no let or hindrance to rebel supplies crossing from Portugal to Spain.   For the loyalists, in return for the gold reserves of the Banco de España, the USSR supplied guns, tanks and aircraft and members of the NKVD in the form of murder squads. Individuals from more than 53 nationalities made up the 30,000 strong International Brigades.


Rebel Victory
On 1 April 1939, Franco issued his proclamation claiming victory and rebel troops were joined by Germans and Italians in victory parades through the streets of Madrid. Salazar insisted that no Portuguese formation could take part although individual Portuguese were permitted to parade as part of other formations. On 27 February  1939 the nationalist or rebel government had already been formally recognised by both Britain and France.  The rebel victory was followed by years of terror for the supporters of the legitimate republican former government. Reprisals took the form of internment, forced labour and large scale executions of loyalists and historians calculate that more than 50 000 people were executed during the war and about 20 000 afterwards. In early 1939, some 465 000 republicans escaped over the Pyrenees to France where they were interned by the French authorities and whence after the fall of France in June 1940, 7 000 were sent to Matthausen in Nazi Germany, where some 5000 died.


Portugal´s Fear of the Communist Threat
After the fall of the monarch in Spain in 1931, Conservative political exiles from Spain flocked to Portugal and left wingers from Portugal found a refuge in Spain. Portugal continued to seek British assurance that help would be at hand to protect Portugal against a communist rising in Spain. The election of another socialist government in Spain in February 1936 was potentially difficult for Portugal which again feared a socialist contagion from its immediate neighbour.  Since there were so many righist exiles in Portugal, including General Sanjurjo, it is not credible to maintain that the Portuguese government knew nothing of the rebel plot.  When the military rebellion began, Salazar immediately aligned Portugal with the rebels, and permitted with immediate effect the refuelling on Portuguese soil of aircraft destined to aid the nationalist rebels.  Portugal never caused any delay in the transport of war matériel from its Atlantic ports to rebel positions on the Spanish frontier.

Salazar Strengthens his Position
After 1936 Salazar consolidated his position within the Portuguese government by taking over the Ministries of Finance, Defence and Foreign Affairs in addition to the Presidency of the Council of Ministers.  His diary shows that he was well informed about the planned rebellion and by nominating as his contact with the rebels Sebastião Ramirez, the canning magnate from Vila Real de Santo António, he managed to maintain a façade of neutrality.  


But nationalists in Spain and particularly in Seville were in no doubt of the value of Salazar´s prompt and immediate aid to the rebels.  From late August 1936 there was a book in the Portuguese consulate in Seville for Spaniards openly to express their thanks to the Portuguese regime.  Salazar also received personal letters of thanks from Generals Cabanellas Ferrer, Franco and Queipo de Llano. The German Ambassador reported in a letter of 22 August 1936 that Salazar had marshalled the Portuguese press in favour of the rebels; facilitated the rebel acquisition of war matériel; allowed munitions and troops from Andalusia to cross Portuguese territory on their way to Burgos; and allowed German aircraft to refuel en route to Morocco. In October 1936, Portugal broke off relations with the Republic, and gave de facto recognition to the rebels, and Salazar sent a trusted adviser Pedro Teotónio Pereira as his special envoy to Franco. Formal recognition by Portugal of the Burgos regime followed in May 1938.  


The Peninsular Policy
By the end of 1938, Franco sought a non-aggression pact with Portugal.  It was signed on 17 March 1939 and would last for ten years. The protocol was that before either government agreed any international matter with a third party, they should consult their partner. This bilateral non-aggression pact was a significant factor in allowing Franco to withstand Nazi presure to join the Axis in October 1940, and it allowed Salazar more freedom of action with regard to the alliance between Britain and Portugal, in particular with regard to the sale of wolfram from Portuguese mines, and to the use by the allies of the Azores. 


If the Spanish Republic had been sufficiently powerful to win the civil war, it is likely that Spain would have exerted enough pressure to overthrow the dictator on their doorstep.  To this extent, Salazar´s aid to the rebels served his own interest in staying in power. It seems clear that without the support of the Germans and Italians and the prompt and immediate help of the Portuguese, the rebels would not have won.  On the other hand, if the liberal democracies had supported the legitimate and Republican government of Spain, World War 2 could have occurred three years earlier than it did, and quite possibly only on Spanish soil. Strangely, in the anti-communist atmosphere of the 1940s and 1950s, Franco´s Spain and Salazar´s Portugal became perceived as allies of the Western Democracies in their Cold War with USSR.  Portugal and Spain, allies of the Axis powers in the 1930´s, therefore changed sides, not through any effort of their own but because the West needed them.