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Propaganda In The Spanish Civil War

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: History
Wordcount: 4762 words Published: 18th Apr 2017

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Plato once expressed that: “One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.” This must have been the case in Spain around the early 1900’s under the rule of military dictator General Primo Rivera.

Rivera was responsible for the overthrowing of the monarchy under the rule of King Alfonso XIII, his coup went unopposed and he went on to take over control of Spain in 1923. During his reign, Rivera “introduced public works schemes building roads and irrigating the land.” (www.historylearningsite.co.uk).In this time, he also managed to increase industrial production in Spain. However, his achievements were overshadowed by the uprising of the upper class of Spain, who accused Rivera of “robbing them of their riches to increase the prosperity of the working class.”(Schellack, Spies, 1993: 278). Overall, Rivera was perceived to be an unsuccessful leader; this was further proven when he was ultimately unable to save Spain from financial crisis during the depression of the 1930’s. Citizens were unhappy with his position as leader of Spain (to say the least) and Rivera was forced to stand down when the military withdrew its support, sensing civil unrest.

This series of events opened the door for numerous political parties with different ideals to campaign for rule of the Spanish government. Over the years, this would prove fatal to the idea of a peaceful and united Spain, ultimately resulting in the Spanish Civil War.

In the following, I will be focusing on the events leading up to the Spanish Civil War, the two sides that were active in this civil war along with their respective allies, and the ideologies that were kin to the oppositions involved. I will also be investigating the use of propaganda by examining posters that may have been used to fuel the war in the favour of one side or the other. I believe that examining the art or graphic design that was produced gives a better representation of affairs at the time, and is a more reliable source than written words sometimes because words can be misinterpreted over the years whereas a piece of art stays constant.

Before the Spanish Civil War

Shortly after General Primo Rivera resigned from his position as the ruler of Spain in 1930, following his failure to manage the dire financial situation Spain found itself to be in after suffering a heavy blow from the depression, elections were held in 1931 to determine the successor of the dictator.

The results of the elections saw Spain pronounced a Republic, led majorly by the Republican Party with Alcala Zamora as its president. The party appointed Manuel Azana as the prime minister of the new government. In his short term in office, from 1931 to 1933, Azana managed to alienate a number of associations which had a hand in securing the party’s victory, namely; the military, the church (Roman Catholic) as well as landowners and industrialists. This was done by the introduction of new policies and strategies; the most significant being the party’s anti-clerical policy which completely separated the church from the state, and the policy that discontinued recruitment for the military and excluded generals from political activity. The disapproval for the new policies expressed by the aforementioned associations caused a stir within the government which in time led to the resignation of Azana as the prime minister and the fall of the Republican Party in charge at the time.

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Spain was again without a ruler, but not for long as the next election was held in late 1933.A new rightist group that went by the name of CEDA, which stands for Confederacion Espanola de Derechas Autonomas, won the election. This new party was led by Gil Robles, and unlike the previous party, they were concerned with “protecting the authority of the Roman Catholic Church and landlords” (www.historylearningsite.co.uk). Once in power, Robles almost immediately overturned the new policies and strategies that had been implemented by Azana and the previous Republican Party which held office before CEDA. This was a move that upset other parties that had supported CEDA in their campaign right up to their triumph in the 1933 elections, and was considered to be an outright attack on the left wing parties of Spain.

CEDA’s reign in Spain came to an inevitable end in 1936 when they lost the next elections to the Popular Front; a political party that was formed by a number of left wing parties that comprised of Socialists, Liberals and Communists. The Popular Front had protested and held riots on a number of occasions to demonstrate their disapproval of the government under rule of CEDA. This tension culminated in a strike involving coal miners, requiring harsh military intervention under the lead of General Franco to calm the situation. Although the strike wasn’t a major catastrophe, it certainly alerted people to the seriousness of the political tension that had been brewing in Spain. In order to stop the expansion of riots and strikes and avoid conflict, a general election was held in 1936, the results of which saw the Popular Front replace CEDA in government.

Once in power, the Popular Front elected Azana as the prime minister for the second time. Soon after the Popular Front came into power, the Socialists withdrew their support for the party. This didn’t help considering the fact that Azana was not favoured by some associations, most importantly the military, because of Azana’s policies in his previous term in office which sidelined the army. At this point there were suspicions and fears of an impending revolution. The government tried to prevent these attacks by posting army generals in different locations in an attempt to weaken their communication lines. However, this tactic failed and a military uprising took place on the 18th of July 1936, signaling the beginning of the Spanish Civil War.

The War Begins

The attempt to overthrow the Government of the second Spanish Republic (led by president Manuel Azana), by a group of Spanish Army Generals set the wheels in motion for the Spanish Civil War. The war saw Nationalists (assisted largely by Italy and Germany) take on the Republican Government (assisted by the Soviet Union) to bring about a takeover under dictator leadership of General Francisco Franco. The war lasted three years, from 1936 to 1939, ending with the loss of 300,000+ lives.

The ruling party, the Popular Front (also known as “the reds”), was made up of republicans ranging from centrists to revolutionary anarchists. Centrists believed in the ideal of practicing politics and promoting policies that do not favour extremes, i.e. policies that are in between political extremes, not for one side or the other. I think this kind of approach to politics is one that aims to satisfy the majority in society. These centrists supported a “moderately capitalist liberal democracy”. (www.wikipedia.com). When one considers the combination of the words ‘moderate capitalist’ and ‘liberal democracy’, it is made clear with these kind of oxymoron’s the kind of ideal that the centrists wished to practice. The majority of the Republican Party however, followed communist ideals; which aimed to nationalize land and industry, i.e. have government own and control land and industry.

The opposition to the Republican Party was the Nationalists Party. The Nationalists were labeled as rebels, led by a military regime in a revolution to remove and replace the Popular Front from power. The Nationalists wanted to prevent the separation of state and church as well as that of state and the military by the republicans. This party was well known for its views against communism, an ideal at the heart of the Popular Front. In short, the Nationalists were fascist, wanting to rule the state in a dictatorship manner where they could control all aspects of society. Any opposition in any form, from free speech to demonstrations would not be tolerated under a fascist government.

The Nationalist party received aid from Ireland and Portugal. But the most notable allegiance to the Nationalist party was the aid of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany as well as the aid of Mussolini’s Fascist Italy, as requested by General Franco. It is believed that Hitler and Mussolini agreed to aid the Nationalists in order to take advantage of the war, with Mussolini hoping “to increase Italy’s status in the Mediterranean area, while Germany used Spain as a testing ground for its new air force.”(Shellacked, Spies, 1993: 278). Be that as it may, these two super power allies were vital to the Nationalists revolt against the ruling party. Combined, Italy and Germany supplied the Nationalists with 1260 planes, 350 tanks, 2000 artillery pieces and about 87 000 soldiers, a significant contribution I would say.

On the other hand, the Republicans managed to gain support from Mexico and the Soviet Union. Mexico funded the Republication with a total of two million U.S Dollars ($2, 000, 000), and contributed arms in the form of 20 000 rifles and a number of artillery pieces. The Soviet Union on the other hand, was the republican’s main source of arms, providing a total of 806 planes, 362 tanks and 1 555 artillery pieces.

Well armed and fuelled, the Nationalists carried out a number of campaigns to take over cities that would ensure victory over their rivals; attacks that required the Republicans to respond and defend these cities if they could. It took fierce warfare for the Nationalists to get the Republicans to surrender these cities. The most important of these takeovers that were essential to the revolution were those of the cities of Alcazar, Malaga and Aragon in the north, as well as the takeover of Tarragona, Barcelona and Gerona, and lastly Madrid, a struggle that took two years with a stubborn Republican force defending to the bitter end in the battle of Brunette.

The war was officially ended by General Franco on the 1st of April in 1939 having successfully overthrown the Republican Government. This would see the beginning of authoritarian rule, under the strict fascist regime of General Franco and the Nationalist party. Intolerance would be the most notable feature of the new government, although General Franco was considered a moderate in comparison to Hitler, he was not an extremist as Hitler was with regards to the level of strictness on society. This made Spanish Fascism more acceptable to the public.

Designing Propaganda

During the Spanish Civil War, a mass of posters were produced by the republican Popular Front. The Nationalist party produced a significant amount less than that of the republicans. These posters were largely used for propaganda to promote the ideals of one party and to discredit those of its opposition. Other posters that were designed during the war were used to demoralize the opposition and to weaken the morale of the opposition’s troops. Propaganda can take many forms ranging from public protest, persecution and mainly via mass media and media channels.

Here I will be focusing solely on posters to examine and analyze the role of design and propaganda, because I believe that posters or poster design is more closely related to graphic design than paintings or photography. Posters are a means of communication, a graphic designer’s task in creating a poster, is not merely to make it appealing, but to deliver a clear and intended message to the audience as effectively as possible. Graphic designers can make use of imagery, text, illustrations, colour and other factors to find solutions to creating successful posters. I will be focusing on these techniques and how they are executed to portray the intended concept or ideal. The first pieces I will focus on are posters designed for the Popular Front.

The first poster, titled ‘To the Front ‘(figure. 1.1), was created by a Spanish painter by the name of Carles Fontsere in 1936. Here, we have a close up on the face of a man who is wearing a helmet which appears to be part of military attire. There is text written in Spanish running diagonally on this poster that reads: “AL FRONT!” which translates to: “TO THE FRONT!” The focal point of this piece is the face and the text as they are both bold and occupy most of the canvas.

This poster was used for recruitment for the Popular Front, this is made clear by the use of the colour red that dominates the face on the poster because the Popular Front was also known as ‘the Reds’. The man is portrayed in a heroic pose and seems to be very proud to be fighting for his country. In my opinion, this kind of imagery is most likely to inspire men to heed the call of action. As a whole, I think the composition is well balanced; there is a good contrast with the use of complimentary blue and green colours against the bright red of the republicans. I think the use of simple wording or text gets straight to the point, the message is not vague and therefore it works. Another example of a republican recruitment poster is titled “Saving the crop is equivalent to winning a battle against the enemy” (figure 1.2),

The Popular Front did not shy away from the use of propaganda to discredit their rivals. They used design and posters to portray the opposition in a negative light. The poster (figure 1.3), titled ‘His Excellency, the Generalissimo’ is one such example. This is a satirical style of poster, which aims to ridicule the leader of the opposing Nationalists, General Franco. Here we see an illustrated figure representing General Franco holding what appears to be a club while riding a horse that has been branded with the Nazi symbol. What is also important to note would be the missiles falling from the sky. There is text at the bottom of the poster that reads: “S.E. el generalissimo”.

In this poster for the Popular Front, the artist has illustrated General Franco, making him look foolish and dimwitted. I think this is an attempt to discourage support for General Franco and the Nationalist party. The horse on which the General rides represents the aid of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany to the Nationalists. I believe the bombs falling from the top right corner of the composition are linked to the General and the Nazi horse as all three have a similar round structure. The message here could be that the Nationalists are here to bring destruction to Spain; the use of comical characters supports this further by implying a lack of seriousness about the Nationalists, i.e. they are not a real contender to govern Spain, they are playing around. This poster is intended mock and disgrace the opposing Nationalist General Franco and his party; possibly in an effort to undermine the Nationalists. In this regard, I believe that the poster has succeeded in achieving its goal. Another example of this kind of satirical poster design can be seen in the poster titled: “The Nationalists” (figure 1.4)

Perhaps a better example of propaganda against the Nationalists would be the poster (figure 1.5) titled “What are you doing to stop this?” This poster is an unmistakable attempt at propaganda. Here we see two red arms holding small daggers. One the hands has a Nazi symbol on it, and the other has a Fascist Italy symbol on it, clearly indicating that they represent the two super powers that were aiding the Nationalists in the Spanish Civil war at this time, Germany and Italy respectively. The title text and the supporting text are bold and hard to miss. The supporting text reads: “Esperantists of the world, pit your strength against international fascism!”

The Germans and Italians are represented in a bad light in this poster, painted in a colour that represents danger. These two countries are portrayed as attackers of Spain; this is symbolized by the bloody daggers that they hold in their hands, daggers they are clearly using to stab at the viewers beloved country of Spain. This poster is intended to spread the idea that the allies of the Nationalist party are there to destroy Spain. I think this poster may also be intended to recruit soldiers for the Popular Front, I say this because the title of asks the reader the question: “What are you doing to stop this?” and the supporting text clearly calls for action from Spaniards, saying that they should stand up to international fascism. The image of two fierce looking arms clinching daggers tightly while stabbing at one’s country is very emotive. I doubt that a proud Spaniard would have looked upon this poster and be able to ignore it. For this reason, I think this poster does well what it tries to achieve, which is to harm the reputation of the Nationalist party and its allies and gather support for the Popular Front.

“International red aid” (figure 1.6), was a poster created for the Popular Front by the International Red Aid; a charity organization that sought to provide relief for the victims of the war, this organization openly supported the Popular Front during the Spanish Civil War. In this poster, we have a big red hand as the focal point; this hand dominates the canvas, splitting it diagonally. In the foreground, we see two young children being shielded by the big hand against a fighter plane that seems to be loitering in the background. There is also a building that seems to be in ruins, this building is positioned between the hand and the fighter plane. There’s a significant amount of text on the poster, the most important being highlighted in red stating:”International Red Aid”, the supporting text in white reads: “The fascist beast murders and destroys. The International Red Aid brings hope and assistance.”

This poster promotes the International Red Aid, represented here by the shielding red hand, and their assistance to the Popular Front. The children depicted here look fragile and vulnerable; one almost feels sorry for them. It is depicted here, that if it weren’t for the Popular Front and the International Red Aid, these children would be face potential danger that the fascist Nationalist and their allies wish to subject Spain and its children to. I say this because it seems that the red hand is shielding the children from the fighter plane in the background which bears the Nazi symbol on its wings. The message we get here is that this plane is intent on doing damage; I say this because it looks as if the building behind the hand looks to be ruined, probably by the Nazi fighter plane. The placement of the destructed building behind the hand enforces the power this hand has to protect, the building is ruined, but the hand stands strong and protects. This poster succeeds in promoting the Popular Front and the International Red Aid which is depicted a savior for the children of Spain against the destruction of the fascist Nationalists. Overall, I think that this is a good composition with good balance and contrast; however, there is use of too much text, not that it is not necessary, but I believe the headline alone would have sufficed.

In the last of the pro Republican posters (figure 1.7), untitled, we are exposed to a ‘man versus evil’ scenario. Here, we see a naked man holding a hammer. The man is looking at a snake that is wrapped around his leg, poised to strike. The hammer that the man is holding is his defense against this snake. The text on the poster is the names of two organizations; the National Committee, a trade union, and the Office of Information and Propaganda; the producers of this poster. These were organizations that supported the Popular Front.

The man in this poster represents the Popular Front and the snake represents the fascist Nationalists; this is made clear because the snake has text on it labeling it as ‘fascismo’ (fascism). The two are clearly on opposite sides, this is not only expressed by their pose which suggests a conflict, but by the use of extreme colour contrast on the two figures; the man in a warm red colour, and the snake in a cool blue colour. The Nationalist are presented here as a fascist snake, a universal symbol of evil. The man on the other hand, representing the republicans, is naked; probably in attempt to represent the republicans as the pure and innocent. The text in this poster does not support the image, it merely credits the creators of this poster; I this is not problematic, the poster works well without supporting text. The image alone is worth a million words, so to speak, and I believe it would be very hard to misinterpret the intended message.

As I mentioned earlier, the Nationalist Party produced less posters than the Popular Front during the Spanish Civil War. I think this is because General Franco’s Nationalists were the aggressors in this war, and their intention, I suppose, was not to win public favour but rather to take over Spain under dictatorship rule.

In contrast to the republican posters, the few Nationalist posters that were produced do not focus on the opposition in an attempt to discredit them. They do not depict the enemy in a bad light, but are celebratory and motivational to the revolutionary cause; this is evidence that they were not concerned with winning public favour over their opponents as the republicans were.

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The Nationalist poster titled:”Spain Has Arrived” (figure 2.1), is an example of a celebratory piece of art. In this poster, we see two men and a woman. One of the men seems to be a worker, and the other man with a military helmet is a soldier, and the woman carrying a basket of fruit appears to be a farmer. Behind them there is a waving Spanish flag and three doves in flight, and in front of them sits a lion with the title text.

This poster was produced shortly after the Nationalists had successfully taken over the capital of Catalanya in Barcelona. This poster may have been produced to celebrate this victory, but also reward the soldiers and renew their morale. The poster shows happy people from different work sectors, although they are clearly from different workforces, they are united by the blue colour of their attires. This is the Nationalists idea of a new Spain under their government, where people are united, happy and proud to be part of country as they are here, backed by the Spanish flag. This poster depicts a peaceful Spain, symbolized here by the white doves in the composition; this is ironic because to achieve this peace the Nationalists would have to use violence. The poster is appealing and has a sense of peace and security about it, a success in celebrating the achievements of the Nationalists.

The Nationalist Party was led by the military under General Franco, so there was no actual need for recruitment of soldiers for the Nationalists. There were posters however, that were produced to inspire soldiers that fought for the Nationalist party. One such example is the poster titled “To arms: country, bread and justice.”(figure2.2). Here we see a close up on a hand holding a rifle, with red arrows in the background.

This poster is very simple in its message and execution. The title presents a clear message; take up arms to fight for a Spain where land is secure and food is in abundance for all as well as justice. The composition is well balanced with use of minimal colours and a clear focal point with the image of an arm carrying a rifle. The arm seems to be lifting the rifle; this gives the idea that there will be triumph and reward in this action of fighting for this new Spain.

The final poster (figure 2.3, is titled: “To speak of the Falange is to speak of Spain”. It was created for the Nationalist Party by the Falange; “an extreme nationalist movement formed in Madrid in October 1933 by José Antonio Primo de Rivera.” The Falange supported General Franco and the revolution. In this poster, we see a soldier placed square in the middle if the canvas, on the left side of the poster, he holds a Spanish flag, representing the Nationalists, and on the right side of the poster, he holds a flag in the republican colours of black and red. The supporting text at the bottom of the poster states: Unity, Unity, Unity.”

I think what poster is trying to say is that a united Spain can only be achieved by the Nationalist Party. As we see in this poster, the flags that represent the two opposing sides, although quite close do not touch. It does however, look as if it is possible that these two forces can unite, and the person who can make it possible here is the soldier, clearly a representative of the Nationalist Party. This poster leads on to believe that the Nationalists are very confident about their abilities and control over the war. This kind of poster kind of suggests to the republicans that they should leave things to the Nationalists for peace sake and unity. This poster was probably intended to intimidate the opposition, in this regard; I believe that it was a successful attempt.


Graphic design plays a big role in any society; design has and will always be a way to relay messages to a large number of people. Good design is that which is relevant to a certain time, event and society. Design can serve a number of functions, but in times of war, as we have seen here, design can be used to instill national pride, discredit one’s opposition and intimidate the opposition, and whether deliberate or not, the artists have managed to document the war through design. Poster design was not only used for propaganda, to either persuade the public’s interest in ones favour, and to alienate opponents, but also for recruitment purposes.

The majority of artworks seen here were those of the republican Popular Front. As we have seen, this party created a lot of posters, many of which served as propaganda against the Nationalist Party. With this, the republicans were hoping to discredit the Nationalists by painting them in a bad light; this was an attempt to get the communities of Spain to stand up against the opposition’s revolt. Although the artworks were successful as individual pieces of art, they seem useless considering that the Nationalists went on to succeed in their takeover of Spain. The Nationalists didn’t spend a lot of time and resources in creating posters as the republicans did, but they managed to win the war.

So now the question is: Can art influence a nation? The answer to this question cannot be a simple yes or no. I say this because unlike most things in life, art can not be right or wrong. I have mentioned here that I believe that the posters we have seen are successful; be that as it may, it does not mean that they would be successful in changing or influencing peoples perceptions because we all view art differently. I think people would have responded differently to these posters, making it difficult to get a response big enough to change the tone of the war. So the answer is: art can not influence an entire nation, art can only influence those who share the same values as those promoted in the artwork and those who perceive it in a positive light.

The role of design, although important may not have been all that influential in the Spanish Civil War. What it has managed to do however, is document the war. Through it we are in a way able to understand the mindsets of the parties involved and feel connected to the events that took place about 70 decades ago. Design is timeless, and that’s what makes it important to history.


Republican posters

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figure 1.1 figure 1.2

segeneral.jpg nacionales.jpg

figure 1.3 figure 1.4

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figure 1.5 figure 1.6


Figure 1.7

Republican Posters

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Figure 2.1 figure 2.2


Figure 2.3


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