Franco’s 1936 coup aided by Mussolini, new documents reveal
New documents have been found in Spanish Military Archives revealing how the 18 July 1936 military uprising by Francisco Franco that sparked the Civil War was a “joint venture” between Italy and Spain, rather than a purely domestic matter. The pro-Franco nationalists secured crucial armaments from Benito Mussolini, the Italian dictator, 17 days before it took place.
The documents are in the form of arms contracts secretly negotiated in Rome with financial guarantees from a banker, which confirm the role played by civilian as well as military figures in the uprising.
The implications of these contracts are discussed in the recently published Los mitos del 18 de julio (The Myths of 18 July)*. The book throws new light onto the preparations for the uprising and challenges the history of the Spanish Civil War as presented in the controversial taxpayer-funded Diccionario Biográfico de la Real Academia de Historia (National Biographical History) published in 2011, which is “riddled with errors and not properly vetted” according to some historians who have criticised what they describe as rampant neo-Francoist historical revisionism similar to the same trend taking place in Italy about fascism.**
One of the authors of Los mitos de 18 Julio, Ángel Viñas, who found the documents, says that the nature and the timing of the contracts dictated the date of the uprising. The first of them required the supply of weapons during the month of July. “It’s like saying that the contracts were the required spearhead to ensure the outcome of the uprising in the following weeks. It’s almost impossible that Pedro Sainz Rodrigues (the chief negotiator for the contracts) didn’t tell the Italians the date of the coup,” says Viñas.
That Mussolini kept his eyes on Spain and wished the country to turn to fascism to help consolidate its grip over the Mediterranean is a well-known fact. Contacts with Spanish monarchist and military figures were established as early as 1933, the year after the Decennale (the first ten years since the March on Rome), which was marked by huge celebrations staged to tell the world that fascism was a beacon for the future (appropriately, the scientist Guglielmo Marconi helped to deliver a pro-Mussolini message in English via radio).
In March 1934, as Mussolini prepared to invade Abyssinia to expand the Italian foothold in Africa and develop a fascist empire amid other colonial powers, he met a group of Spanish politicians and generals in Rome who were opposed to the SecondRepublic of 1931. Mussolini promised military help – 10,000 rifles, 10,000 hand grenades, 200 machine guns and a million pesetas in cash in event of a military uprising.
Hitherto most historians have upheld the view that after that meeting Mussolini dithered, had second thoughts, and at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War he failed to keep his promise of immediate aid and only after a week of negotiations agreed to sell the Nationalists two Savoia S81 bombers.
But these new documents challenge this version of events and suggest instead that contacts between the Spanish monarchists and Mussolini continued uninterrupted through various intermediaries. If Mussolini concocted the impression of reneging on his 1934 promise, it may have been because with so much of his reputation already at stake during the forging of the fascist empire (a failure was unlikely but not impossible given the Adwa defeat of 1896) he wanted to make sure the Spanish monarchists were ready to turn the uprising into a success before committing himself to helping them.
Mussolini also knew that he had the eyes of the League of Nations pointed in his direction. From the autumn of 1935 Italy had been under the sanctions decided by the League in retaliation for the war in Abyssinia and he probably felt the need to be cautious about letting anyone know that he was getting involved in Spain.
The moment the Ethiopian conquest became a fait accompli and the sanctions were lifted by the League Council on 4 July 1936, as these contracts suggest, he immediately responded to the requests for armaments from Spain.
The four arms contracts show that the nationalist rebels bought 40 planes, 12,000 bombs and machine guns. The contracts were signed by Sainz Rodriguez and the most important one was stipulated with SIAI, a major fascist aircraft industry, for the acquisition of warplanes. The contracts were worth 39 million liras, equivalent to €340 million today, and were financed by the banker Juan March, the richest man in Spain, who was living in Rome. March also had some influence with the British government and may have informed London of what was happening. Viñas says, “The 18 July coup was not solely a domestic event, but relied on the coexistence with a foreign power, Italy, that provided fundamentally important armaments. Mussolini’s CR.32 was much more advanced than the planes available to the SecondRepublic.”
SIAI had a reputation for very fast, high performing aircraft. The CR.32 was a brand new type of warplane developed in 1932. A total of 380 were to be deployed in Spain during the war and one of the nationalist pilots, Joaquín García Morato y Castaño, became famous for scoring what were described as “36 victories” piloting them. The CR.32 was used in the bombing of Guernica. Dismissing the idea advanced by some historians that the assassination of the right-wing politician José Calvo Sotelo on 13 July had anything to do with the date of the uprising, Viñas is quite certain: “The date of the coup is linked to the Italian contracts and to the support obtained by Mussolini”.
* “Los mitos del 18 de julio” (Editorial Crítica, 2013) by Ángel Viñas, Fernando Puell de la Villa, Julio Aróstegui, Eduardo González Calleja, Hilari Raguer, Xosé M. Núñez Seixas, Fernando Hernández Sánchez y Francisco Sánchez Pérez.
** The controversy about this publication is so great in Spain that a 976-page counter-dictionary, entitled En el combate por la Historia (In the Battle for History), was published in 2012 by a number of historians, including Viñas and Paul Preston.
This article first appeared in the May 2013 issue of Searchlight