Was the neutrality of Britain the most decisive factor in the outcome of the war?



Louise Sian Phillips (Swansea College, Wales, UK)

IB Extended Essay




This essay deals with the issue of British non-intervention in the Spanish Civil War. This has been researched by looking chiefly at secondary sources, such as the wide-ranging views of modern historians. Firstly, it deals with the question of why the cabinet chose the course of action it did, focusing on the predominant fear of communism, the appeasement policy of the time and economic concerns. The essay goes on to briefly outline the mechanics of the non-intervention Committee set up by the nations of Europe. Subsequently it examines the major effects of this viewpoint on the general course of the war and the attitudes of other countries, predominantly France. This is then contrasted by examining other reasons for the defeat of the Republic such as factionalism and the influence of the Axis powers. The conclusion decides that Britain perhaps could and should have done something to aid the Spanish government, but concedes that there were other, equally influential factors in its collapse in 1939.





The Spanish Civil War of 1936 to 1939 began as a simple rising by some disgruntled members of the military, but quickly became relevant to the rest of the world as a modern democracy was threatened.

            In Great Britain, attitudes towards the Republic and its defence were hugely different. To the left, it epitomised the struggle between socialism and the evil forces of fascism. The right meanwhile felt that it was an opportunity for Bolshevism to spread further from Russia and Eastern Europe. The Cabinet decided that its best possible option was to carry out a policy of non-intervention. It can be difficult to understand why the government seemingly chose to watch and do nothing whilst a fellow democracy fell to its knees. In order to comprehend their decision, it is necessary to examine what Britain hoped to achieve by non-intervention and also determine to what extent they can really be blamed for the defeat of the Republic.

            The evidence collated for this essay has mainly been drawn from secondary sources as some government information has not been released and since the collapse of Franco’s regime, fresh knowledge has only just begun to emerge. Examples of the wealth of literature written about this emotive and inspirational event in history have also been looked at.



What were the British Government’s Reasons for non-intervention?



The critical decision by the British government (led by Baldwin and then Chamberlain) not to act in any way during the Spanish Civil War was ultimately made for three essential reasons; to avoid giving aid to international Bolshevism and possible revolution; to act in accordance with their appeasement policy and avoid general war in Europe; and, finally, to protect economic interests in Spain.

            The Western democracies had an ever-increasing fear of communism and to the British government, the spread of Bolshevism was even more threatening that the growth of fascism. This meant that the issue of to whom the country would lend its support was made even more difficult. Many leaders were convinced that the Spanish Civil War was merely a dispute between the righteous counter-revolutionary army and a Republican force dominated by militant communist and anarchist militias. The British Consul in Barcelona, who on 29 July 1936 asserted that,


“If the government are successful in suppressing the military rebellion

Spain will be plunged into the chaos of some form of Bolshevism”[i]


illustrates this point of view. This is also taken up by the First Lord of the Admiralty who believed that Britain should not do anything to “bolster up communism in Spain” as its presence in Portugal, (to where he was certain it would inevitably spread- presumably due to its geographical proximity) would pose a “great danger to the British Empire”[ii].

            Historians Eric Hobsbawm and Harry Browne view the prevention of the advancement of social revolution and Bolshevism as the strongest influences on British governmental attitude towards the Spanish Civil War. But others, in particular AJP Taylor and Raymond Carr, are inclined to see this as secondary to keeping out of a European or world conflict against Hitler and Mussolini. As Hugh Thomas points out, British policy was dictated by an unflagging determination to prevent a general war from developing and Enrique Moradiellos agrees that the government’s response would be at all times “subordinated to the basic objectives of this policy of general appeasement”[iii].

             Since the founding of fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, the Cabinet strictly followed a policy of appeasement towards the two states. Despite their obviously provocative moves such as Germany’s withdrawal from the League of Nations in 1933, their rapid and huge rearmament contrary to the restraints dictated by the Treaty of Versailles and Italy’s occupation of Abyssinia in 1935, Britain’s course of action to pacify the leaders and not to react in an equally aggressive manner, was determined by a number of imperative reasons. Firstly, following the Wall Street Crash (29/10/29) and ensuing depression, the country was suffering from severe economic crisis. Moreover, they were in the costly process of rearmament and would certainly have been extremely vulnerable in the event of simultaneous conflict with Japan, Germany and Italy around the world. In addition, the help of neither the USA nor the Soviet Union could be relied upon (America was devoted to isolationism and the new communist regime in Russia was not altogether a trustworthy ally). Furthermore, public opinion was most strongly against another conflict as wounds were still sore after the Great War eighteen years earlier. This undeniably placed Baldwin’s and then Chamberlain’s governments in a delicate position in both domestic and international affairs.

            The Spanish Civil War was immediately viewed as an extension of this inter-war foreign policy, which aimed to prevent confrontation with Italy or Germany at all costs. This outcome was viewed as highly possible if Britain were to enter the war, either directly or just by selling arms to the Republican government.

            Finally, an issue that is often overlooked is the role of economics in Britain’s decision. Conservatives and the business community had definite Francoist sympathies as they believed the General would prove to be a more reliable ally than the ‘red’ Republican government, and protect the country’s interests in Spain itself and the Mediterranean generally. Gibraltar was very important in the Imperial-shipping route to India, a friendly figure in charge of mainland Spain and Spanish Morocco was vital in ensuring the island’s safety and British ownership. It is also interesting to note that forty percent of foreign investment in Spain came from Great Britain and 87 firms were based there. These concerns would have certainly influenced the Cabinet.


How was non-intervention carried out?


The British Cabinet found a suitable solution to the “prickly Spanish problem”[iv] in a suggestion from French Prime Minister Leon Blum who proposed to secure a non-intervention pact and a collective arms embargo. From the British point of view, this answer was perfect, mainly because they could maintain their neutrality under the pretext that the rest of Europe was doing likewise. Also the fact that it had been put forward by a socialist would quieten the Labour opposition who had been quite vocal in their belief that Britain should help to defend the Republic.


              By the end of August 1936, all the European states (except Switzerland due to its constitutional neutrality in all such events and, of course, Spain) had officially subscribed to the Agreement of Non-Intervention in Spain. It was agreed that London should be “the clearing house with an International Committee to supervise arrangements”[v]. This would be presided over by the financial secretary to the Treasury and composed of representatives of the Treasury, Foreign Office and the Board of Trade. Other departments were set up to assist in implementing the agreement, all containing ministers from each country included. This also stretched to a ban on volunteers to join the International Brigades that had been set up early on by the Communist International. On the 11 January 1937, the British Government decided to make the Foreign Enlistment Act of 1870 applicable to the Spanish Civil War, however, here it did not make very much difference to recruitment but in certain parts of France it was rigorously applied. Many volunteers were arrested and even deported; Tom Picton, a Welsh volunteer from Treherbert and noted mountain fighter, was miraculously was freed from jail and got to Spain after telling a rather unbelievable story to the French Authorities at Perpignan:


“I told them I could not fight I was deaf just blind and 52 years old”[vi].


What was the affect of Great Britain’s Attitude?


Even though the Non-Intervention Committee sprang from a French idea originally, this was not in reality their government’s initial attitude and Great Britain was certainly the real inspiration throughout. Both France and Spain had governments founded on similar socialist ideologies and operated under the same name; “Popular Front”. In addition, it was vital for trade purposes and general protection to have an ally south of the Pyrranean border; they were especially keen to avoid encirclement by hostile and fascist powers since the rise of Hitler and Mussolini and Nationalist Spain could disrupt communications with the French colonies in North Africa. It seems logical, therefore, that Leon Blum primarily committed arms, responding to Prime Minister Giral’s request and on the 22nd July agreed to send 20 bombers and other arms. As Blum and Foreign Minister Delbos returned from a conference in London, he learned that the news of aid to the republic had broken and Cabinet radicals were arguing against it. However, internal divisions and uproar by some ministers, catholic citizens and the right alike in France less caused his reversal of policy, but more because of their fear of losing British respect and friendship. Harry Browne in particular points out that British pressure completely overrode the evident willingness of Blum to help the Republican government. Danté A. Puzzo also agrees that after this first decision;


[T]he Quai d’Orsay, in matters relating to Spain, was, in effect,

                                     an adjunct of No.10 Downing Street”.[vii]


            This meant that Spain had perhaps lost its most reliable source of munitions. Britain’s decision had (indirectly) thrown the Republic to the extremely limited sources of Mexico, the shadowy world of unscrupulous arms dealers and, both crucially and ironically considering the Cabinet’s motives for non-intervention, the Soviet Union.

            In the early months of the Spanish Civil War, both sides recognised the need to quickly gain vital military and financial support from abroad. The Nationalists secured aid immediately from Italy and Germany, which continued throughout the three years. These countries, as well as the USSR, had signed the non-intervention pact yet were not at all deterred by it, whilst Britain and France adhered to it religiously. The Axis powers gave the rebels approximately 92000 men, compared with, at the most, 3000 Russians on the Republican side.[viii] This configuration of forces gave a decisive military advantage to the Francoist side and lethally, perhaps even fatally, damaged the defensive capacity of the Republic.

            The Soviet aid received was certainly not entirely helpful or without conditions. It was first and foremost calculated simply to prolong resistance, unlike that of Italy and Germany whose ultimate aim was their side’s victory. Martin Blinkhorn believes that the USSR hoped that they could merely keep the war going until Britain and France became involved in a general war against fascism. However, the 1938 Munich Agreement, the epitome of British appeasement, proved this would not be the case. Consequently, Russia’s interest in the Civil war, and with it their support, dwindled greatly.


What were the other factors contributing to the Republic’s defeat?


There were further problems with the Republic’s dependence almost solely on the Soviet Union. In order to gain an agreement on collective security with the European democracies, Stalin’s government sought to dismantle the revolutionary changes which had taken place in Spain and restore Republican government authority as quickly as possible. They also encouraged conventional warfare, rather than the adoption of a guerrilla or revolutionary style that would have been very much to the advantage of the poorly armed Republic. Russia’s own power and prestige within the country was “enormously raised”[ix] and whilst their advisors and training was undoubtedly valuable, they simultaneously interfered with strategy, the make-up of the cabinet and propaganda as well as practising systematic persecution of their political enemies.

            The intrusion of the Soviet Union into the affairs of the Republican side exacerbated a situation which would have been problematic enough without them- factionalism and disunity. Apart from the role of foreign intervention on both sides, it is arguably the greatest reason why the Republic was defeated. As put by Paul Heywood:


            “the Nationalist rebels were united in terms of what they were fighting against,

             the Republican forces were divided over what they were fighting for”[x]


The Republic uncomfortably embraced a huge cross-section of Spanish society, including anarchists; Stalinist and anti-Stalinist communists; right and left wing socialists; moderate and radical Republicans; Catalan separatists; and conservative Basque nationalists. Each group had their own methods and policies regarding revolution and war, along with their own committees and courts-martial to deal with them. In the Republican zone, forced and spontaneous collectivisation, syndicalism and other forms of revolutionary activity was taking place in varying degrees. As Harry Browne rightly points out, the governments power of swift decision was dependent upon, and therefore seriously handicapped by, its capacity to deal tactfully with the different political groups.

                The nationalists enjoyed a single goal- the dismantling of the Republic and the restoration of traditional Spanish values (Franco used the slogan “Country, Religion, Family” to represent what he stood for). They also had a common deference towards authority and were unlike the left who were, it can be said, “ill-suited to the discipline of war”[xi]. Franco and his brother-in-law Serrano Suner managed to successfully merge Carlists, Falangists, Alfonsists and other right-wing groups under his leadership. The Carlists supported the claim of the descendants of Don Carlos (the uncle of Queen Isabella II) to the throne of Spain. They wanted a return to a "traditionalist" ultra-Catholic monarchy. Although they hated the Alfonsine Monarchists, whom they regarded as too "liberal", they loathed the anti-clerical Republicans. The movement's support came from the Requetes (the Carlist Militia), the Pelayos (the Carlist Youth Movement) and the Margaritas (the Carlist Womans' Service), whose recruits were mainly drawn from the families of Navarrese smallholders. The Falange was a small fascist party that was founded in 1933 by Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera. It gained a degree of popular support when it merged with the JONS (Juntas de Ofensiva Nacional-Sindicalista), in 1934, to form the Falange Espanola de las JONS.  Altogether they created a system more like an old-fashioned military dictatorship than a model of modern fascism seen in Italy or Germany.

                Whereas Franco was successful in presenting a coherent and united opposition, the Republicans never completely managed to despite various attempts and initiatives of the Communist Party (mainly under the instruction of Moscow) which only made the situation worse. The most infamous example of these divisions is May 1937 when the streets of Barcelona erupted into a Civil War within the Civil War. The tension between the POUM (the Partido Obrero de Unificacion Marxista, a Marxist socialist party founded in 1935) along with the CNT (the Confederacion Nacional del Trabajo, the anarcho-syndicalist trade union) and the PSUC (the Partido Socialista Unificado de Cataluna, a pro-Stalin Marxist party founded in Catalonia, July 1936) with the UGT (Union General de Trabajodores, the socialist trade union organistation), had been building for some time. This was due to the POUM and the anarchists’ concern at the rapid control by the communists of government affairs and their inability to accept the abandonment of the revolution. This led them to be openly critical of the government who, at this time under Largo Caballero, were carrying through a policy of returning Spain to Republican social normality.

            On the 3rd May, the government began to take over the telephone exchange which had been held by the CNT militants since the beginning of the war. It sparked off three days of confused fighting, as fierce as any that took place against the nationalists, during which around five hundred people were killed and many leading militiamen had begun to disappear. These events have been vividly described by writer George Orwell in “Homage to Catalonia”, his account of his experiences in the POUM;


                   “The sunlit streets were quite empty. Nothing was happening except the streaming of bullets from barricades and sandbagged windows. Not a vehicle was stirring in the streets, here and there along the Ramblas the trams stood still where the drivers had jumped out of them when the fighting started. And all the while the devilish noise, echoing form thousands of stone buildings, went on and on and on, like a tropical rainstorm. Crack-crack, rattle-rattle, roar- sometimes it died away to a few shots, sometimes it quickened to a deafening fusillade but it never stopped while daylight lasted, and punctually next dawn it started again”[xii]   



This particular extract illustrates the intensity of the situation very well. It was an event that effectively epitomised the contradictions in the Republican side that helped to destroy any chances of effective leadership and with it, the possibility of victory.

            The Barcelona May days and other examples of terror and violence as workers took over the cities and enemies were eliminated, “confirmed the hostility of the middle-classes”[xiii]. 6832 priests were slaughtered and hundreds of churches were burnt and raided. This would have persuaded many that the Nationalists were the more respectable and trustworthy side. These issues were also used in propaganda which played a part in the nationalists gaining support. The radio became extremely important; Hugh Thomas describes its use as “an essential part of the rebels partial success”[xiv]. Republican victories were forcefully denied and decent food (the “white bread of Franco”) promised to a population becoming increasingly malnourished, surviving on a diet of “Dr Negrins Resistance Pills”- lentils.

            When one considers the territory and resources held by the Republic at the beginning of the Civil War (the industrial areas, much of the army and the gold reserves), it seems incredible that their people could firstly become so poverty-stricken and that they could then even lose the war. However, on more careful examination of the facts, it is evident that this was not actually to their advantage. Industry demanded raw materials which the government could not import and the large cities needed food, most of which came from the agricultural regions held and conquered by the fascists. Many of those army and police officers that remained ‘loyal’ undoubtedly did so more through geographical accident than actual conviction, so the Republic’s leaders were inhibited from ever making full use of them. The rising was quickly successful in areas where such officers and other garrison commanders (and often the locals too) were firmly behind the rebellion, whether officially or not; for example in Burgos, the austere heart of old Castile; in Pamplona, where thousands of Navarrese Carlists volunteered hurriedly; and throughout much of conservative northern Spain. As concerns the ownership of the gold compared to the limited financial resources of Franco, it proved no more useful. Whereas Italy and Germany supplied the nationalist’s arms on credit, the Soviet Union demanded immediate payment and the munitions received were never of superb quality. This is also perhaps an indication of how the foreign powers expected the war to end, with Franco in power and able to pay his debts to Mussolini and Hitler, both in money and in terms of political favours.

            The first months, even weeks of the Civil War were arguably the most crucial in deciding its outcome. Hugh Thomas asserts that had the government distributed arms to the people on the 18th July when the rising began, and ordered the civil governors to do the same, the rising might have been crushed by using the working classes to defend the republic at the earliest opportunity. Instead of this, Madrid refused to co-operate with the people’s organisations that were clamouring for weapons. Prime Minister Casares Quiroga even went as far as to announce that anyone who gave arms to the workers without his orders would be shot.[xv]

            An essential turning point for the nationalist side in the early days was the entry of General Franco’s Army of Africa into the rebellion. The Nationalist army and civilian volunteers were relatively weak, making the African army the decisive element. Raymond Carr states that:


                        “without these disciplined units, the rising might have turned out to be a disastrous gamble”[xvi]


Here again, though, it is impossible to disentangle the role of foreign intervention from essentially Spanish affairs as the Germans supplied transport aircraft to carry 1500 men to Seville between the 29 July and 5 August whilst the Italians supplied fighters to cover the merchant ships which ferried men with equipment from Morocco on 5 August.




Initial Republican successes in resisting Nationalist take over in certain areas, undoubtedly came from civilian strength, determination and enthusiasm. However as the war continued supplies became more scarce, people were disillusioned with war and tired of defeat, causing the loss of many major battles.

            British non-intervention was certainly influential in this. It is clear that there were two other stances that the government could have taken; firstly, supply arms and volunteers to the Republic thus increasing the Republics defensive capabilities, allowing France to feel safer in aiding the government and reducing the sometimes over-powering influence of the Soviet Union in the course of events. Alternatively, Britain could have taken the decision to adhere to non-intervention but at the same time ensure that the other countries involved did likewise. As it was the non-intervention committee, as described by politicians, writers and historians alike, was undeniably a farce with members Italy, Germany and the USSR agreeing with it on paper but blatantly disobeying it in practice.

            The quality and quantity of nationalist aid from the Axis powers was lethally damaging to their opposition and could have been stopped. After the bombing of Guernica, the Basques spiritual home, by the German Condor Legion experimenting with new “Blitzkrieg” warfare, the people were further demoralised and the Republics fate was sealed in a war which in effect they had been losing from the start.


End Notes

[i] Cited in  p102 “The Allies and the Spanish Civil War” by Enrique Moradiellos in “Spain and the Great Powers in the Twentieth Century”, edited by Sebastian Balfour and Paul Preston, Routledge 1999                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   


[ii] Quotes cited in p102 ibid.


[iii] p100 ibid.


[iv] p97 ibid.


[v] Cabinet Foreign Policy Committee discussion on non-intervention in Spain, 25 August 1936, p314 “Britain in the Twentieth Century, A Documentary Reader Volume 1 1900-1939”, edited by Lawrence Butler and Harriet Jones, Heinemann Educational 1994.


[vi] Letter from Tom Picton to George Thomas, date probably 25 January 1937, p271 “Miners Against Fascism: Wales and the Spanish Civil War” Hywel Francis, Lawrence and Wishart Ltd. 1984.


[vii] p239 “Spain and the Great Powers 136-1941” Danté A. Puzzo, Columbia University Press 1962.                  


[viii] Figures from p985 “The Spanish Civil War” Hugh Thomas, Pelican Books 1986.


[ix] p158 “The Age of Extremes. The Short Twentieth Century 1914-1991” Eric Hobsbawm, Michael Joseph Ltd. 1994 


[x]“The Spanish Civil War- Why the Republic lost.” Paul Heywood, History Today March 1989, History Today Ltd. 1989.


[xi] p313 “Modern Europe 1789-1989” Asa Briggs and Patricia Clavin, Longman 1997


[xii]p126 “Homage to Catalonia” George Orwell, Penguin Books 1964


[xiii]p137 “Modern Spain 1875-1980” Raymond Carr, Oxford University Press 19??


[xiv]p222 “The Spanish Civil War” Hugh Thomas, Pelican Books 1986 


[xv]cited in p185 ibid.


[xvi] p136 “Modern Spain 1875-1980” Raymond Carr, Oxford University Press 19??






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