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The Propaganda in the Spanish Civil War

75 years ago this week, at the beginning of December 1938, Victoria Station in London witnessed the strange sight of an army returning from war. Thousands of people waited for the train from Newhaven and the disembarkation of 305 volunteers from the British Battalion of the International Brigade that had fought beside the people of Spain for the previous two years in their struggle against the Fascists under General Franco. There were flags and union banners galore, mounted police controlling the crowd. Yet, outside the station, there was a fair amount of consternation, a general public not quite sure what was happening. And, apart from left-wing newspapers like the Daily Worker, you would have searched in vain on the following morning for a headline mention of the event in the rest of the national press.

It was not that the Spanish Civil War had been entirely neglected by the media, but there was a certain ambivalence towards it all that was perhaps reflected in the way the returning heroes of the British Battalion were treated when they had landed in England after their particularly rough Channel crossing from Dieppe, their interrogation by Customs and Foreign Office officials, representatives of the Security Services. After all, these men had technically committed an illegal act by travelling to Spain in the first place. It was in contravention of the Non-Intervention Agreement, overseen by Britain, that was supposed to have maintained international neutrality in the conflict.

 Indeed, the International Brigades had only been withdrawn by the legitimate government of the Spanish Republic in deference to that Agreement, a last desperate attempt to win foreign support for the war that was now, at the end of 1938, quickly slipping away from them. Yet the Nationalist army of rebel General Franco was still heavily supported by Hitler’s Luftwaffe, by regiments of Mussolini’s soldiers, by Italian submarines that continued to sink British shipping in the Mediterranean with total impunity. And the newspapers here in Britain barely mentioned these things. There was hardly a whimper about them from “the man in the street.”

So how had the propaganda campaign swung so heavily in Franco’s favour? Why so disastrously against the Spanish Government?


Franco had launched his military coup in July 1936, believing that he would have little difficulty overthrowing the Popular Front Republican Government, elected four months earlier. But he was wrong. Spain was divided, the government badly prepared, though workers’ militias sprang to the barricades of Madrid and elsewhere, determined that Franco would be stopped.

There was an early rash of atrocities committed by both factions, though the influence of the Catholic Church, both in Europe and the USA, ensured that the killing of priests by one side grabbed headlines, while the mass murder of socialists and union members by the other did not. The Church was less forthcoming, too, when Franco’s atrocities went on for at least the following nine years, probably accounting for an estimated 200,000 victims. And the Church was responsible, also, for spreading the threat of a “Red Menace” in Spain – since Russia was, after all, the only major power supporting the Republic. But this antipathy towards the Spanish Government was also obvious closer to home. The British establishment contained significant pro-Nazi elements – members of the royal family, prominent politicians, newspaper owners (typified by the Daily Mail’s support for Mosley’s Blackshirts). And while Britain was supposed to oversee the Non-Intervention Agreement, a blind eye had been turned entirely towards the massive German and Italian involvement in Spain – their “dress rehearsal” for the bigger conflict that they both knew would be coming, while Britain still toyed with appeasement.

There are parallels here, of course, with the other main news this week. The British establishment’s Right-wing condemnation of the ANC in the early ’80s, their portrayal of that struggle as a “heathen Red menace” against “civilised Christianity” was a real echo of their attitude to that earlier conflict in Spain. And while it may be true that many of the International Brigade members were politically-motivated Left-wing party activists, there were just as many who went to fight simply because they realised the threat posed to the world by rising Fascism – many Jews, for example, who knew very well what was already happening to their people in Germany.

In total, approximately 35,000 volunteers joined the International Brigades, coming from 53 different countries. They included 2,300 Britons, of whom 526 died in Spain. There were “celebrities” as well. Ernest Hemingway and Paul Robeson were just two of the famous folk supporting the Republican cause and helping to publicise it. But despite their efforts, it was somehow always Franco’s propaganda machine that gained the upper hand. It may seem inconceivable to us now, but even the German bombing of Guernica, with its eye-witness reports in the Times and other leading papers, was still covered by the majority of the world’s press from the viewpoint of Franco’s lies – that the town had instead been destroyed by Republican anarchists.

And Franco learned a huge lesson from the presence of “celebrities” behind the Republican lines. He developed an audacious plan by which, in the spring of 1938, he had not only set up a separate Nationalist Government based in Burgos, but had prioritised the establishment of a Tourism Department. Astonishingly, that Department was soon producing brochures inviting travellers to visit the battlefields of the North Coast on which Franco’s forces had so recently triumphed and despite the fact that the war was still very much in the balance.


 The first of these macabre tours took place on 1st July, 1938. At the end of the war, more routes were added, one in Aragón, another in Madrid, the fourth in Cataluña. Tourists arrived in large numbers – from Britain, Italy, Portugal, France, Germany – even some Australians. It is thought that there were around 42 tours in 1938 and 88 tours each year between 1939 and 1945. Estimates of participants vary between a minimum of 6,670 and a maximum of 20,010.

This previously untold story of Franco's battlefield tourism forms the background to The Assassin’s Mark, a political thriller set on one of the tour buses and casting light on the Civil War, its propaganda, and the questionable role of Britain in the conflict, from the perspectives of the time rather than from hindsight.

 At the same time, the sacrifice made by the volunteers is commemorated in the UK by the International Brigade Memorial Trust...


and, in the USA, by the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Association...


Let the memory of those volunteers also cast light on the darkness of Fascism and ensure that we never again allow its rise.

¡No Pasarán!

This article is posted as part of the special Casting Light Upon The Darkness blog. For further interesting pieces that illuminate lesser-known historical events, you can hop easily to other sites by visiting...

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For ease, here’s the full list...

1. Helen Hollick : A little light relief concerning those dark reviews! Plus a Giveaway Prize

2. Prue Batten : Casting Light....

3. Alison Morton ‎ Shedding light on the Roman dusk

4. Anna Belfrage Let there be light!

5. Beth Elliott : Steering by the Stars. Stratford Canning in Constantinople, 1810/12

6. Melanie Spiller : Lux Aeterna, the chant of eternal light

7. Janet Reedman The Winter Solstice Monuments

8. Petrea Burchard : Darkness - how did people of the past cope with the dark?

9. Richard Denning : The Darkest Years of the Dark Ages: what do we really know? Plus a Giveaway Prize!

10. Pauline Barclay : Shedding Light on a Traditional Pie

11. David Ebsworth : Propaganda in the Spanish Civil War

12. David Pilling : Greek Fire

13. Debbie Young : Fear of the Dark

14. Derek Birks : Lies, Damned Lies and … Chronicles

15. Mark Patton : Casting Light on Saturnalia

16. Tim Hodkinson : Soltice@Newgrange

17. Wendy Percival : Ancestors in the Spotlight

18. Judy Ridgley : Santa and his elves Plus a Giveaway Prize

19. Suzanne McLeod : The Dark of the Moon

20. Katherine Bone : Admiral Nelson, A Light in Dark Times

21. Christina Courtenay : The Darkest Night of the Year

22. Edward James : The secret life of Christopher Columbus; Which Way to Paradise?

23. Janis Pegrum Smith : Into The Light - A Short Story

24. Julian Stockwin : Ghost Ships - Plus a Giveaway Present

25. Manda Scott : Dark into Light - Mithras, and the older gods

26. Pat Bracewell Anglo-Saxon Art: Splendor in the Dark

27. Lucienne Boyce : We will have a fire - 18th Century protests against enclosure

28. Nicole Evelina What Lurks Beneath Glastonbury Abbey?

29. Sky Purington : How the Celts Cast Light on Current American Christmas Traditions

30. Stuart MacAllister (Sir Read A Lot) : The Darkness of Depression


From Lucienne: Dave – a sombre piece which exposes the dark side of war propaganda and how easy it is to twist the truth by shifting the spotlight, or even turning the light off altogether by telling out and out lies (cf Guernica).

From Anna: This is one of those conflicts that remain, to this day, an open wound. My Spanish friends prefer not to speak about it - at all. Very informative!

From Beth: It's really interesting to find details of that period. I'm glad to have discovered a source of information. Nearly everyone everywhere is very tight-lipped about it. I have French friends who live near Béziers. All the towns in that area have a large colony of Spaniards, refugees from Franco's Spain. they never comment to outsiders like myself but in August each year, Béziers becomes Spanish. They have the top bullfighters, flamenco artists, bodegas, food, it's a month of carnaval. I certainly enjoy that part, even the endless toro saucisses. When next I visit my French friend, we'll call up your blog and have a discussion.

Reply from Dave: Thanks for your comments and yes, an open wound to this day, partly because the propaganda is STILL accepted as the truth by many of Franco’s remaining supporters. Back in August, I did a presentation about the book in southern Spain to a mixed audience of English and Spanish folk, and lots of tensions surfaced. All fine in the end, however, and a fascinating night. Thanks for the info about the Béziers carnival though, Beth. I´d not come across that but may try to get there one of these years!

From Debbie: I still find it astonishing, Dave, at the attitude of the British press to the Spanish Civil War, and I'm very grateful to you for making us aware of this fascinating piece of history, both here and in your excellent novel, The Assassin's Mark. It seems unimaginable in any other context to offer battlefield tours of this kind, while a war is still raging. Sometimes history and fact truly are stranger than fiction!

Reply from Dave: I agree, Debbie. But, to put it in a BIT more context, the press was divided. There were those whose “natural” tendencies (Daily Mail and Telegraph) still saw Hitler as more misunderstood than evil. The rest simply reflected the paranoia in Britain about the possibility of another global war like 1914-18. So it was pacifism at all costs. This is reflected in the newspaper response to Chamberlain and “Peace for our time!” Although we would now unanimously condemn him for his appeasement, at the time there wasn’t a single newspaper (except the Co-operative’s Reynold’s News) that failed to applaud him to the rafters - and that reflected the prevailing mood of the British people in September 1938.

From Pauline: Even today, this civil war is still kept silent. Though documents are slowly being released. Thank you for this informative post.

Reply from Dave: The Spanish historian, Ángel Viñas, has recently researched all their recently released archives about the extent of British government complicity in Franco´s insurrection. It doesn´t make pretty reading!

From Helen: It is always fascination to read an article that you have had no knowledge of before - what a pleasure to learn something new!

Reply from Dave: Thanks, Helen. Glad you enjoyed it. And thanks also for organising this entire blog hop. It must have been a huge amount of work but some great posts on all 30 of the sites. Much appreciated!

From Petrea: The dark side of propaganda indeed. The winner is the guy who spins the story.

Reply from Dave: Isn’t that the truth. I think that sentence should sit above the desk of every historical novelist!