Time Frame: 1936-1939
Causes: Political extremism, disputed national election
Outcome: Unelected military commander takes power and establishes dictatorship
Increasingly acrimonious ideological divisions and acts of political violence preceded the 1936 Spanish general election. Extreme elements of the Left and the Right had conducted hundreds of assassinations, engaged in street clashes, and committed arson attacks in the years running up to the vote. The Great Depression, irreconcilable positions on the proper political role of the monarchy and Catholic Church, prolonged labor strikes, and regional separatist agitation all added to Spain’s combustive atmosphere.
The Popular Front, a loosely assembled coalition of various liberal, leftist, socialist and Communist parties, won the 1936 election, but barely. They received several hundred thousand more votes than CEDA, their conservative opponents. Like the Popular Front, CEDA was itself a hodgepodge of support groups, including religious conservatives, businesses people, farmers, and fascists, united more in their disdain for their adversaries and the belief that they needed to save Spain from ruin than any other factor. The Popular Front formed a government, but internal divisions and increasing violence undermined the new administration. Military officers opposed to the Popular Front began organizing a coup shortly after the election, and openly launched their uprising against the elected government two and a half months after the last round of voting ended.
Fighting dragged on for nearly three years. Political violence quickly led to increasingly atrocious reprisals, and elements of both sides committed massacres against noncombatants. The USSR and Mexico backed the elected government of the Republicans, while Portugal, fascist Italy, and Nazi Germany supported the military-led Nationalist rebellion. The Republicans had constitutional legitimacy and a greater of popular support in most of the country. However, infighting, inefficiency, and a lack of strategic vision hampered their wartime efforts. While the military had divided loyalties, most officers ended up sporting the Nationalists, giving them a crucial edge in equipment, organization, and experience. The Nationalists eventually won, and set up a dictatorship which lasted nearly four decades.
The potential for the United States to experience a similar “left vs right” civil war should be readily apparent. Our political discourse is increasingly acrimonious. Many voters believe their ideological opponents are existential threats to our government and society. Extreme elements on both the right and the left are increasingly willing to carry out acts of politically-motivated violence. If Americans experience prolonged and intense economic hardship, these trends will correspondingly intensify. We have not yet experienced the same levels of political violence and instability of Spain in the years running up to 1936, but such a development is well within the realm of possibility. Intensified political violence and economic hardship leading up to a contested election could spark a war. Were the United States to experience similar intensity of combat and atrocities, over six million Americans would die, and another six million flee the country as refugees.
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