The Internationalization of the Spanish Civil War

On June 25, 1940, the last formal president of the Second Spanish Republic, Juan Negrín López, arrived at the shores of Milford Haven in Wales. His destination was the city of London, the capital of the country that would host him as an exile until May 15, 1945. Contrary to the general targets of most Spanish exiles (Dominican Republic, Argentina, Chile, Mexico), Negrín chose London against the arguments of several Spanish republicans: a country with different culture and language, a dangerous city due to its constant bombing, but especially the known detrimental British diplomatic position towards the Spanish Civil War. This position heavily influenced the outcome of the war, and, in this sense, it appeared that his choice was not consequential. Nonetheless, Negrín insisted on remaining and maintaining a government-in-exile where other people and European governments interrelated in a city where exile was a common denominator.

Neglected even by specialized historiography in exile communities in London,[1] little attention has been paid to the Spanish representatives of government-in-exile that settled in London during World War II. In a short series of articles on the Spanish exile in London, I aim at closing this gap. This first entry discusses the international context that shaped the diplomatic position of Great Britain towards the Spanish conflict, a position that, as mentioned above, remained mostly the same during the Spanish exile during World War II.

Starting in mid-July of 1936 as a reactionary response against the Spanish Republic, the military insurrection, led first by José Sanjurno and then quickly capitalized by Francisco Franco, marked the beginning of an inner conflict that was expected to be swift, at least from the perspective of the insurrectionists. Due to a military stalemate and a virtual division of Spain by half, this attempted coup-d’état moved to a civil war logic and dynamic that virtually mobilized all segments of its society. In this sense, this was a war that shattered the country and its people in ways that neither battling side had imagined.

This fighting impasse made both belligerent forces require international support: the insurrectionist successfully engaged with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, while the Republican government searched for aid from Great Britain, France, and the United States, but with no real support from their respective governments. The only official support to the Republic came from the USSR, a matter that was contested and criticized by a wide range of sectors of the society and even within the republican government.

In contrast to this lack of official support by leading powers, international support was immediate and impressive: different personal figures and political organizations supported the republican cause politically and even militarily, the case of the International Brigades being one of the best known. Nonetheless, this assistance did not become a crucial factor for a major change in the military outcome of the civil war. Geopolitical and diplomatic positions were decisive for the outcome of the civil war.

Translation to headlines: “Antifascist Demonstration in London”; “Magnificent Antifascist Meeting in London”.
Clippings from the newspaper La Vanguardia, September 11, 1936,
from the exhibition, Por la Defensa de la Cultura, Centro del Carme (Valencia, Spain), 2018, original by Dorieo, used and modified under CC BY-SA 4.0 by Francisco Vallejo.

Two diplomatic-geopolitical policies were central: the Appeasement Policy and the Non-Intervention Agreement of 1936. The former was the general frame to prevent Great Britain from going to war, while the latter specifically focused on a non-military-involvement of more than twenty countries in the Spanish conflict. In several cases, the agreement was not respected by Germany, Italy, and the USSR, especially by their clear military participation in the Spanish conflict. According to the Spanish historian Enrique Moradiellos, both policies “basically penalized the Republican government” and “favored the insurgent military forces”. This created two key results: first, the weapon blockade canceled the legal exclusivity of the Republican Spanish government to buy arms in authorized markets, and secondly, the Non-Intervention Agreement essentially benefited the insurgents and affected the republicans “through a system of international support and inhibitions” that created asymmetries between the contending sides.[2]

Left picture: signature of the Anglo-Italian Agreement in Rome on January 2, 1937.
Right picture: Resignation speech of Léon Blum to journalists, June 20-21, 1937.
Clippings from international newspapers from the exhibition Por la Defensa de la Cultura, Centro del Carme (Valencia, Spain), 2018, original by Dorieo, used and modified under CC BY-SA 4.0 by Francisco Vallejo.

Following Moradiellos, with these policies, the British government specifically intended to achieve three objectives regarding the Spanish conflict. The first two were publicly known: the confinement of fighting on Spanish territory and supposed respect to Spain’s national integrity. A third concealed goal was constructed by British policymakers which had defining results: It sought the neutrality of Spain in the case of a new war. While Spain did remain neutral during World War II, in Moradiellos’ interpretation, this is the most difficult task to historically assess, especially due to the complicated setbacks of the British government and the constant support of Franco towards the Axis powers. In other words, Spain remained a constant threat to Great Britain before and during World War II. In contrast, British public opinion and the Labour Party remained pro-republican, a clear contrast to the British government.[3]

Union of Democratic Control, A Summary of the History of the Non-Intervention and a Survey of the Proceedings, February 1937, Henry Sara and Frank Maitland Archive, Warwick University.
Available at: https://wdc.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/scw/id/6582/

This public preference was used as potential leverage by Negrín and the Spanish Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Pablo de Azcárate. Since the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, the latter had the mission to find any kind of support from Great Britain, especially by engaging with a wide range of British and European politicians in the British capital. Unfortunately, as in the words of Moradiellos, these goals were part of an “almost impossible mission” due to the inflexible position of Great Britain, its lack of support for a republican cause, the interference of anti-republican figures as the Duke of Alba in London, and even less with the “threat” of communism in Spain.[4] However, these attempts from a handful but still important exiles in London require additional attention to understand how they operated in a city where different types of exile were happening at the same time.



[1] Martin Conway and José Gotovitch, Europe in Exile: European Exile Communities in Britain 1940-45 (Berghahn Books, 2001).

[2] Enrique Moradiellos, La perfidia de Albión: El gobierno británico y la guerra civil española (Siglo XXI Editores, 1996), XV.

[3] Moradiellos, 379–90.

[4] Enrique Moradiellos, “Una misión casi imposible: La embajada de Pablo de Azcárate en Londres durante la Guerra Civil (1936-1939),” Historia Contemporánea 15 (1996), https://doi.org/10/37796.


OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
Francisco Vallejo (December 5, 2021). The Internationalization of the Spanish Civil War. The London Moment. Retrieved July 18, 2024 from https://doi.org/10.58079/onna


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