Dr. Moreno, Dr. Davis
Spanish Civil War
25 April 2023
Siege of Madrid: The Humanitarian Crisis of Spain’s Capital
The Spanish Civil War changed civilian life all over the country, this was especially true for the nation’s capital, with it being on the frontlines for nearly the entire war. Civilian testimony gives insight into civilian life in the capital. Basic human living conditions became scarce with poverty becoming increasingly common among the populace in the city. Warfare outside the city took its toll on the civilians and military personnel.
Sieges are often very brutal affairs in warfare, with supply being cut off and basic living supplies being scarce. They often have dire consequences on the civilian population with hunger and disease often being rampant. Some of the most brutal conditions usually exist such as conditions during the Siege of Leningrad and most recently, the Siege of Mariupol. Even many years after the siege, the civilian population still has to deal with the effects which can be seen with the Siege of Madrid.
The Siege of Madrid started early in the civil war in late 1936 when Francoist troops started their assault on the city. This fighting that took place in November and December of 1936 was the most fierce fighting that the city saw during the siege. Nationalist troops made deep progress into the city until new equipment and reinforcements, especially international volunteers pushed the nationalist back.1 Nationalist troops would make more attempts to assault the city, but none as fierce as the November-December assault. The lines would stabilize and the nationalist would be content to siege the city and keep it under artillery fire and aerial attack until the city was taken in 1939. Madrid experienced aerial attacks which had not been seen until the Spanish Civil War started. The city, especially the center and western parts of the city saw the heaviest damage, with German and Italian air volunteers being the main culprits in the bombardment.2
The urban fighting, aerial strikes, artillery strikes, and warfare across the whole country created a humanitarian crisis for the nation’s capital. City infrastructure would be heavily affected from the warfare and people of the city would have to find new ways to make money to sustain their families. This is where testimony can give an insight into the conditions that Madrid inhabitants faced during the war.
Angela Guallart Palomina was only six years old when the Siege of Madrid started. Despite this, she still gives vast insight into the conditions of civilian families in the city. Her mother had to sell nearly everything in their house to feed their family. Hunger and cold were some of the things that she remembers the most during the war.3 Food was something that became harder to come by as the war dragged on. Citizens of Madrid used ration cards to get food, which was nothing special. Little meat was included, with rationed food containing mostly lentils and potatoes. The food supply would deteriorate even more as Republicans lost ground across the country, losing even more food sources until the Republican government surrendered.4
This would become some of the most common ways that civilians would die, with illnesses becoming more common due to poor diet, and disease spreading across the city.5 Mortality rates would become even higher due to the inevitable deterioration of health services that would happen from constant warfare across the country. The food situation would continue for many years after the war as the country rebuilt its infrastructure to sustain the country. Due to this, ration cards were used in Spain until 1953.6
Another thing that was noted during Angel Palomina’s testimony was how she met what would become her lifelong friends at the Auxilio Social after the civil war ended.7 The Auxilio Social at face value, was the main welfare institution that assisted poor women and children across the country. This institution was started in Nationalist held territory during the war and eventually brought to the whole country when the war ended.8
Deep down though, the Auxilio Social was a way to control the food supply and to attempt to pacify the defeated populace of the war. The program was led by the accepted social classes of the Francoist government, therefore it was a heavily politicized program. Due to this, families, whose children and women were recipients of the program, had to show loyalty to the government in order to receive food from the program. The institution would also institutionalize children if the government deemed their families were enemies of the government. Overall, this program was a way to quell resistance from citizens of Spain, which would especially affect Madrid, being the main stronghold of the former Republican government. It also shows how the Franco regime ruled by fear across the country, something the Angela Palomino remembers deeply in post war Spain.910
Citizens of Madrid experienced a humanitarian crisis directly related to the civil war. Thanks to testimony, we know how much it affected citizens of Madrid and the hardships the population had to face due to a war that was perpetrated by fascism. Humanitarian items such as food was also used as a weapon by the Franco regime to pacify the populace across the country and was a part of the many ways Franco ruled using repression of Spain’s populace.
Cenarro, Ángela. “Memories of Repression and Resistance: Narratives of Children Institutionalized by Auxilio Social in Postwar Spain.” History and Memory 20, no. 2 (2008): 39–59. https://doi.org/10.2979/his.2008.20.2.39.
Fanjul, Sergio C. “Madrid’s Hungry Years.” EL PAÍS English, April 2, 2015. https://english.elpais.com/elpais/2015/03/25/inenglish/1427295634_802166.html.
Times, Camille M. Cianfarraspecial To the New York. “SPAIN AGAIN GETS FOOD SUFFICIENCY; Ration Cards Ended by Regime for the First Time Since the Civil War in 1936.” The New York Times, January 6, 1953, sec. Archives. https://www.nytimes.com/1953/01/06/archives/spain-again-gets-food-sufficiency-ration-cards-ended-by-regime-for.html.
“Madrid Bombardeado 1936-1939.” Accessed May 5, 2023. https://www.madridbombardeado.es/.
“Testimony of Angela Guallart Palomina, Interview with Scott Boehm; March 27, 2009,” March 27, 2009.
The Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives. “The War from the Defense of Madrid to March 1939,” January 17, 2020. https://alba-valb.org/resource/the-war-from-the-defense-of-madrid-to-march-1939/.