Under development:

Our website is currently being upgraded. Please be patient with any technical problems.

Background and Context

Download PDF

The Spanish Civil War

The Spanish Civil War, which lasted from 17 July 1936 to 1 April 1939, was a conflict between the Spanish Republic and a coalition of nationalist rebels, led by General Francisco Franco. The Republic, which had democratically elected a new government after the abdication of King Alfonso XIII in 1931, was faced with a number of ultra-conservative political groups who perceived the dissolution of the monarchy as a destruction of Spanish national identity. Francisco Franco led a military coup d’état in July 1936. Those loyal to the Republic attempted to hold Spain against the rebels–or Nationalists. The Republican forces adopted Republican leader Dolores Ibárruri’s iconic phrase No pasarán–they shall not pass. Despite the military determination of the Republicans and the thousands of international volunteers that joined their cause against fascism, the war ended in a Nationalist victory, and Franco would go on to govern Spain until his death in 1975.

The International Brigades

After the Spanish Civil War broke out, many of the world’s governments took a stance of non-interventionism, despite the widespread support that Franco received from Adolf Hitler in Germany and Benito Mussolini in Italy. Regardless of governmental reaction, the rise of fascism in Europe and the economic disparity of the 1930s prompted an explosive public and cultural response throughout the world, and thousands of volunteers opted to travel to Spain to support the Republican cause. In total, around 50 000 volunteers from 53 countries took up arms and travelled (often against the wishes of their own governments) to Spain to assist the Spanish Republicans against Franco’s fascist rebellion. Ultimately, the diversity of individual experience, camaraderie, and class consciousness that was shared within these groups served to confirm the socialist leanings of many Canadian volunteers, as there was no room for exclusivity or xenophobia in a volunteer army that was ideologically united in their anti-fascism.

The Republican forces were not the only ones who received international assistance; Italy’s dictator Benito Mussolini supplied troops and support to the Nationalist side, and Adolf Hitler aided Franco by deploying his Condor Legion, a combination of the German Luftwaffe and Wehrmacht regiments, to Spain. The Nationalists also had control over the Army of Africa, made up of soldiers from the Spanish colony of Spanish Morocco. These troops are often referred to as the Moors.

Canadians and anti-fascism

More than 1700 Canadians went to Spain to support the Republican front. Many initially joined the American and British battalions, but eventually they formed their own battalion: the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion (commonly referred to as the Mac-Paps). Only half of these veterans returned home after the war, to a country whose government denounced their participation in the conflict; those that did return were often persecuted or simply ignored.

Although not all Canadians necessarily knew the details of Franco’s rise to power or the many facets of Spanish fascism, the thought of travelling to Spain to fight directly against this political oppression seemed like a tempting option, especially after seeing a similar ideological system at work within their own country. Prime Minister R.B. Bennett could hardly be described as a fascist, but many of his conservative policies and the suppression of leftist sympathies during the Great Depression was certainly seen by many Canadians as part of the global trend towards fascism. Economically exhausted and quickly running out of options, the Canadians that would later join the International Brigades saw something familiar in the cause of the Spanish Republicans, and many were confident that stopping the spread of fascism abroad was preferable than quietly suffering by its hand in their own country.

Canadian writers and artists took up the Spanish Civil War in their cultural production. Many of Canada’s foremost poets of the 1930s–Dorothy Livesay, F.R. Scott, Leo Kennedy, A.M. Klein, among others–wrote about Spain, and their poetry was published in the leftist periodicals New Frontier and the Canadian Forum. To this day, Canadian writers continued to engage with the Spanish Civil War in their writing.

Sources: Hoar, “Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion”, Petrou

Journalism and Media

Journalistic publications played a huge role in reporting on and representing the events of the Spanish Civil War both in Spain and in North America, as well as representing the various ideologies to viewers in Spain and abroad. It was the first war to be broadcast over short-wave radio; there was innovative coverage by photojournalists such as Gerda Taro and Robert Capa; there were documentaries produced in Spain that toured the world (Heart of Spain, The Spanish Earth); and due to the war’s polarizing politics, both sides and their supporters produced and circulated a large amount of propaganda. Ted Allan worked for the radio Station EAQ Madrid, broadcasting from Madrid to North America twice a day, and he wrote articles for the Canadian communist newspaper the Daily Clarion.

Sources: Peck.

Ted Allan

Ted Allan (1916 - 1995) was born Alan Herman into a Jewish family in Montreal, Quebec. As a young man Allan left school to earn money to help supplement the family income. He worked as a correspondent for the Toronto Daily Worker and as a Montreal-based journalist for the Communist Party of Canada’s publication The Clarion. A dedicated communist, he adopted the name ‘Ted Allan’ in order to infiltrate a fascist organization and write about it. He kept the pseudonym for the remainder of his life. Allan met Dr. Norman Bethune in 1936 and in the following year he joined the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion to fight in the war against fascism in Spain. Allan’s experiences in Spain–of fighting, of meeting Gerda Taro and Robert Capa, of working with Bethune–form the basis of his first novel This Time a Better Earth (1939). Allan went on to write television and radio scripts which broadcast in both Canada and the United Kingdom. He wrote several plays and screenplays including the Academy Award nominated Lies My Father Told Me (1975) and a screenplay about Bethune entitled Bethune: The Making of a Hero (1990). Allan died in Toronto at the age of 79.

Sources: “Ted Allan”, Vautour.

Gerda Taro

Gerda Taro (1910 - 1937), born Gerta Pohorylle, was a Jewish photographer raised in Stuttgart, Germany. She was imprisoned in her late teens for anti-Nazi activities, and upon her release she fled Germany for the relative safety of Paris. She spent the rest of her short life in exile, and never saw her family again. They were murdered by the Nazis during the occupation of Serbia. In Paris, she met Hungarian photographer André Friedmann and he taught her photography. Though he trained her well, work was scarce and they lived in relative poverty. Eventually, the two invented the persona of Robert Capa, a name that immediately attracted professional attention. Their new names–Robert Capa and Gerda Taro–also recalled contemporary Hollywood stars Frank Capra and Greta Garbo. Taro and Capa both published under the credit “Capa,” then “Capa and Taro,” and eventually Taro begun publishing under her own assumed name. Taro travelled to Spain early in the war to work as a photographer. Her work was widely published. She often photographed refugees and orphans, the civilians caught in the conflict, and she did a memorable series of a crowd waiting outside the morgue to see the bodies of their loved ones after a bombardment. Taro died in July 1937, of injuries sustained in a car crash with a tank during the Republican retreat from Brunete.

For some time, Capa’s fame overtook Taro’s memory. Recently, there has been more study of her career, spurred in part by the 2007 recovery of a suitcase in Mexico that contained hundreds of her lost negatives, and which was the subject of the 2012 Mexican/American documentary, The Mexican Suitcase.

Sources: Rogoyska, Schaber.

Publication History

This Time a Better Earth was first published in 1939, in London by William Heinemann and in New York by William Morrow. A Canadian edition may have been published by McClelland & Stewart, but this remains unconfirmed (Vautour xxvi). A new scholarly edition of the text, edited by Bart Vautour, was published by the University of Ottawa Press in 2015. Allan wrote several other pieces of journalism and fiction about the Spanish Civil War, including “Lisa: A Story” and “A Gun is Watered,” which take up the characters of Lisa and Milton, respectively.

Teaching strategies