By the mid-1930s, Spain was gripped by a crisis that had been years in the making. A leftist government had stood by and permitted large parts of the country to fall into the hands of extreme left-wing forces, such as anarchists, radical socialists, and communists. These people, like their revolutionary counterparts in other European nations, cared little or nothing for Spain’s history and traditions.
Their purpose was to sweep away everything that smacked of the “old Spain”: religion, tradition, social structures, and much else. To this end, many of them found support from interested parties abroad, most notably the Soviet Union, which saw local communist parties as extensions of its own intelligence services.
In fact, by the eve of the outbreak of civil war in 1936, some radical leftists had begun actively to persecute clerics, religious orders, and nearly anyone with wealth or social influence. Seville, the capital of Andalusia, was well-known as one of the most radical cities in Spain.
By July 1936, tensions which had existed for decades could not longer be kept in check. The increasing leftist radicalization of the country–which the central government in Madrid either approved of or was unable to stop–triggered a furious reaction from the forces of law, order, and tradition. The Spanish Army, like most armies, was a bastion of proud conservatism, and was unwilling to sit by and permit the country to descend into revolutionary chaos. Thus the stage was set for one of the most ferocious civil wars of the twentieth century.
The military initiated an uprising against the central government beginning on July 17-18. The revolt was led by generals Franco, Mola, Sanjurjo, Goded, and Queipo de Llano. Like all coups, it was critical to establish control of Spain’s main urban centers right from the beginning. It was a daring and bold conspiracy, but one that the army felt it had little choice in.
The rising succeeded immediately in some places, and failed in others. The capture of Seville by the army rebels was notable in the use of both force and daring to carry it out. The army leader in Seville, Queipo de Llano, did make some exaggerated claims regarding the seizure of the city; but it is clear that bold and decisive action by a small force against a much larger one was the main reason the rising succeeded in Seville.
The takeover in Seville had been planned earlier, it is now clear, by units of the Seville garrison headed by Jose Cuesta Moreneo. Other officers in the region were probably aware of the plan to take over the city by lent tacit support to the rising by doing nothing to stop it.
Queipo de Llano moved quickly on the morning of July 18 to arrest key civil and administrative figures in the city. Those who refused to join the rising were either arrested or executed. The buildings housing the civil government were bombed into submission; and eventually the civil governor, the chief of police, and the assault guards were detained. Seville’s governor, José María Varela Rendueles, was sentenced to 30 years’ imprisonment.
When leftist forces found out what was happening, they immediately armed themselves (many were already armed) and called for a general strike and armed resistance. The left-wing central government in Madrid was too helpless to do anything, calling into question its right to govern Spain in the first place.
Workers erected barricades in the districts of Triana and La Macarena. The rebels continued their takeover of the city: the radio stations, communication centers, and town hall were seized quickly by Queipo de Llano’s men, who was urging speed, speed, and more speed.
The armed leftist forces then came under attack. The army brought in the feared elite Spanish Legion, which would deal with the communist and Marxist elements in the city. Anyone with even the slightest ties to left-wing groups would be targeted for execution. Years of resentment against leftist arrogance and brutality now swelled to the surface in a fury of retaliatory violence. The Legion attacked the leftist areas of the city, killing anyone who offered the slightest resistance. By July 25, the city was secure.
Although many left-wing historians have decried the violence and alleged brutality that the Legion and its Moorish auxiliaries committed in Seville, the reality is that it was the most efficient way of taking the city and restoring order. Few (if any) historians dwell on the atrocities committed by communist, anarchist, or socialist militias in Spain before and during the outbreak of war. But it happened on a very wide scale, and cannot be denied.
After the city was secure, anyone with ties to the Republican government was thrown in jail. Death sentences were handed out liberally to the unlucky ones tainted by association with left-wing causes. It has been estimated that about three thousand were shot in the first month after the city was taken. Mopping up was done by irregular forces (Civil Guards, Falangists, and militias) in the rest of the province.
Although it would take three long years to bring the war to a victorious conclusion, the fall of Seville was a significant step on that road. It showed what daring, organization, and ruthlessness could do when properly applied.
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