Propaganda posters in the Spanish Civil War
Exploring visual and political narratives
Exploring visual and political narratives
The Spanish Civil War ran between 1936 and 1939, and was fought between Republican and Nationalist forces. It saw the end of the Second Spanish Republic and the establishment of the fascist dictatorship under general Francisco Franco’s Spanish State, a highly repressive state that remained until his death in 1975. In this blog, we will be looking at how posters reflected the events of the war and help us understand the narratives of the parties.
Elections in 1931 saw a landslide victory for left-wing republican parties. Two days after the elections, King Alfonso XIII left the country. During the following years, political tensions would rise dramatically and eventually culminate in a coup staged by monarchic-traditionalist military forces in Ceuta and Melilla against the republican government and quickly spread throughout the country. Consequently, the war was fought in many major Spanish cities as well as North-west Africa.
The Spanish Civil War was marked by bloody atrocities and massacres. The two belligerents, the Republicans and the Nationalists, were both composed of multiple and quite diverging political groups that were only loosely held together. Often, their only shared common ground was a common enemy.
Throughout the war, both sides made extensive use of propaganda. One of the most visually striking displays were the many posters that were published during the war demonstrating both side's narratives. Often, these narratives were founded on the same basic goals or fears, like concerns about security and the future of Spain. Another example is combating illiteracy.
One reason the heavy use of propaganda posters was so effective and widespread, was the fact that, in the 1930s, many people from different regions of the country could not read or write. Striking and colourful posters with a clear and distinct message were thus an effective way of communication for propaganda.
Posters include various examples from both the Republicans and Nationalists, covering a range of topics that were of high importance for both sides, like: depictions of the enemy, freedom, youth.
They regularly make use of recurring elements such as youthful and strong soldiers or children in danger, and murder committed by the enemy side.
The poster below depicts an actual photograph of a dead child. This strong imagery is both effective in provoking an emotional responses, and highly controversial. (A fact that holds true to this day, as evidenced by the publication of the photograph of a dead child refugee in 2015.)
Posters often depict the enemy as greedy, avaricious, semi-human monsters. Often, the same imagery and elements are used to convey a narrative of the enemy's untrustworthiness and guilt. The poster below depicts 'hoarders' as enemies of the war effort that should be 'treated as they deserve'.
The poster below calls for the extermination of 'leftists'. As the Republic had used all of Spain's gold reserves to buy Soviet weapons and the fact that many communists and other far-left leaning groups were fighting on the side of the Republicans, this was a popular target for the Nationalist propaganda.
The war led to many refugees seeking shelter in other countries. Around half a million people sought shelter elsewhere, mostly in France.
As seen in this poster below, refugees also sparked controversies and their presence was used for propaganda. The poster reads that: 'The best hotels are residences for refugee children.'
Chilean poet and diplomat Pablo Neruda organised the immigration of 2,200 Republican exiles to Chile from France. Neruda was not the only famous writer who was actively involved in writing or even fighting in the Spanish Civil war. Other notable names include George Orwell, who fought in the Republican Militia, Emma Goldman, Federico Garci Lorca, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and Ernest Hemingway.
These posters were among the various tools and visual elements that both sides of the conflict used for their propaganda, which was an important weapon of the war. The posters can now serve as highly valuable and insightful sources to learn about the use and spread, and above all the aims of war propaganda.
After Franco’s death in 1975, Spain released a number of amnesties in order to ensure a peaceful transition from the dictatorship to a democracy. Today, new narratives of the Civil War in the twenty-first century have formed in their own right.
This blog was inspired by a Source Collection on Historiana, which offers free historical content, ready to use learning activities, and innovative digital tools made by and for history educators across Europe. The source collection includes 25 of propaganda posters, available on Europeana as part of the collection of the Goldfarb Library, Brandeis University.