The Spanish Civil War began as a rebellion, led by General Francisco Franco, against the legally elected Republican government in July 1936. The rebels opposed liberal changes, such as land reforms and provisions for women’s education, legal divorce, and the right to vote. In large cities, such as Madrid and Barcelona, civilian militias successfully resisted the military uprising, but Franco appealed to Europe’s fascist dictators, Hitler in Germany and Mussolini in Italy, who sent armed forces to Spain. In 1937 German planes bombed the town of Guernica, an atrocity that inspired Pablo Picasso’s most famous painting. The Spanish Civil War continued until April 1939, when the victorious generals captured Madrid.

Learn more about the Spanish Civil War here.

The Abraham Lincoln Brigade

European democratic countries feared that their intervention in the Spanish Civil War might provoke a second world war. To avoid that, the international community adopted a policy known as “non-intervention,” denying aid to both the legal Spanish government and the rebels. Starved for assistance, the Spanish Republic then appealed for voluntary help. This appeal was supported by the communist-led Soviet Union.

Volunteers from more than 50 nations, numbering around 35,000 men and women, went to Spain, forming the International Brigades against fascism. To enter Spain, U.S. volunteers had to defy State Department orders that stamped all passports with the warning “NOT VALID FOR TRAVEL IN SPAIN” and pretend to be tourists. Nearly 3,000 volunteers from the United States served in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade or the American Medical Bureau to Save Spanish Democracy. About one-third of the Americans died in Spain.

Learn more about the men and women of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade here.

African Americans in the Spanish Civil War

About 90 African Americans volunteered in Spain, including Oliver Law, from Chicago, who eventually commanded the Abraham Lincoln battalion until he was killed in 1937. The only African-American woman was Salaria Kea, an Ohio nurse. The Abraham Lincoln Brigade was the first fully integrated army.

Black volunteers were surprised and delighted to mix completely with whites without worrying about race prejudice or discrimination. “Spain was the first place I ever felt like a free man,” said soldier Tom Page. Later, during World War II, African Americans had to serve in U.S. units that were segregated by race.

View ALBA’s curriculum materials on African Americans in the Spanish Civil War here