I’ve begun watching a lecture series on the Spanish Civil War. Though Spain in the 1930s had many distinctive aspects, some broader factors hold warning for the United States today.
Many Spaniards accepted the republican constitution of 1931 only so long as it served their objectives: secularization and land redistribution on one side, property rights and the Catholic Church on the other. Democracies work only if the majority respect their constitutions unconditionally. Playing by the rules matters more than any policy agenda. Responding to losses with “Not my president” or election denialism undermines democracy.
In the early 1930s, political opinions in Spain ranged over a broad spectrum. Only a small minority admired Stalin on the left or Mussolini on the right. When the attempted military coup of 1336 triggered a brutal civil war, everyone had to choose sides. Violence breeds polarization and empowers the fringe. Never have I seen more condoning of political violence in the U.S. than in the past few years.
As the two sides became increasingly identified with their extremes, what might once have been preferences or perspectives turned into moral imperatives. Combatants demonized their opponents. The non-negotiable defense of the Church or the working class excused any atrocity. Dehumanization rejects any outcome except total victory.
After the rebels won in 1939, Francisco Franco ruled Spain as dictator until his death in 1975. I hope the United States still has time to learn from Spain’s example.
Image: Bridge at Ronda, Spain. During the civil war, right-wing Nationalists allegedly threw left-wing Republicans to their deaths from the bridge.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.