Teaching About the Spanish Civil War: An Interdisciplinary Approach

Teaching about the Spanish Civil War: An Interdisciplinary Approach

Thomas Masterson, Hofstra University

This is an interdisciplinary unit on the Spanish Civil War and Americans who enlisted in what they believed was a fight to stop the expansion of fascism in Europe. The unit opens with a lesson summarizing the key points about the war and the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. This lesson serves to introduce students to the major themes that will be focused on throughout the whole unit. In this lesson, students read an overview of the war written by the Abraham Lincoln Brigades Archive (ALBA). According to ALBA’s website, “the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives is an educational non-profit dedicated to promoting social activism and the defense of human rights. ALBA’s work is inspired by the American volunteers of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade who fought fascism in the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). Drawing on the ALBA collections in New York University’s Tamiment Library, and working to expand such collections, ALBA works to preserve the legacy of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade as an inspiration for present and future generations.” (http://www.alba-valb.org/about-us/)

The second lesson expands on this focus on theme and has students read a New  York Times article from the 1980s that reflects on the choice these Americans made to go and fight in Spain. The article emphasizes the motivation that stimulated their involvement. Students are asked to reflect in a brief journal-writing task on how they feel about this situation and how they believe they would have responded if they were a young American during this time. Themes such as “fighting for the greater good ” and “selflessness” emerge through this reading and exercise.

The third and fourth lessons introduce students to two examples of the Spanish Civil War in literature. First, students read a brief excerpt from George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia and work in pairs on a close-reading exercise, again expanding on the thematic focus from earlier lessons. Then, as a class, W.H. Auden’s poem “Spain” is read and discussed. This lesson will focus on the appeal-to-emotion nature of poetry and ask students to reflect, once again, on the reality of what this war meant to young Americans (and global citizens) at the time.

Additionally, there are several lessons focused on different art produced during the war. First is a class listening of the song “Viva La Quince Brigada,” a song sung by the Spanish Republican troops during the war. Students listen to the song being performed and answer a series of questions about the lyrics and tone of the song. Second is a lesson on Pablo Picasso’s painting “Guernica.” Students are given a handout with the full painting as well as a chart outlining the eight major figures in the picture. Using this resource, students write a short response focusing on two of these central figures that they are free to choose.

Students  will also be shown the photography of Robert Capa and Gerda Taro, who become internationally recognized from their brutal photographs depicting the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. This handout can be used to initiate a class discussion or be used for a short writing exercise similar to the Picasso lesson.

Finally, these introductory lessons lead into a class reading of Ernest Hemingway’s novel For Whom the Bell Tolls. Lessons throughout this reading unit frequently tie into the main themes and have students connect their reading of the novel to their reflections from the start of the unit. Primary and secondary sources from the period can be brought in throughout the reading to supplement the text. The first lesson on the book asks students to read and interpret the John Donne quote used as the novel’s epigraph.

The final assignment is a longer writing task where students have three choices for a final submission. They have the option of writing a letter home from the perspective of an American soldier in Spain, a journal entry from the perspective of Robert Jordan (the main character in Hemingway’s novel), or a thematic essay in which they define two major themes of the novel and explore representation in the book.

A) The Abraham Lincoln Brigade and the Spanish Civil War  Sourced and Edited from the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives (ALBA) athttp://www.alba-valb.org/history/spanish-civil-war

     The Spanish Civil War broke out in July 1936, after conservative military officials tried to overthrow a progressive government elected that February. The rebels were surprised to encounter massive popular resistance, especially in large urban centers. Within days the country was split in half, one zone controlled by the government (known as Republicans, Loyalists, or Reds) and the other by the rebels (also referred to as Nationalists, Fascists, or Whites). Three years of bloody fighting followed. General Francisco Franco quickly emerged as the Nationalist commander-in-chief. The main leaders on the Republican side were President Azaña and Prime Ministers Largo Caballero and Negrín. The war ended with a Nationalist victory in April 1939. Franco would rule Spain as a ruthless dictator until his death in 1975.The war quickly became internationalized. Global public opinion rallied around one of the two factions, seeing the war as either a struggle of democracy against fascism or, conversely, of Christian civilization against Communism. Fearful of escalation, several Western governments signed a Non-Intervention Pact. Franco immediately requested and received extensive military support from Nazi Germany and fascist Italy. The Republic was supported by the USSR and, to a smaller extent, by Mexico.Other Western powers refused to stand by the embattled Republic, not even allowing it to buy arms on the international market. Nevertheless, thousands of concerned citizens from some fifty nations, ignoring their own governments’ purported neutrality and rallied to the Republic’s support. Almost forty thousand men and women, including 2,800 Americans, traveled to Spain to help fight fascism. Most of them joined the International Brigades, organized in 1936 by the Communist International. The U.S. volunteers in Spain formed several battalions and served in various units (medical, transportation) and came to be known collectively as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.For all its international repercussions, the war’s root causes were domestic. Political and social tensions had been building up in Spain for years. Still predominantly an agrarian society with limited industrial centers, the country was rife with inequalities. In the countryside, traditional divisions endured between wealthy landowners, doggedly preserving their position, and a huge number of landless laborers and poverty-stricken smallholders, desperate to lift themselves from an existence of near-starvation. The situation of the urban working class was equally dismal. Illiteracy rates were high. The government that came to power after the proclamation of the Republic in 1931 embarked on an ambitious program of modernization, secularization, social justice, and greater regional autonomy, with the support of the liberal middle classes, the Socialist and Communist parties and unions, the regionalist parties, as well as the powerful Anarchist movement. It met with strong resistance from the landowners, the army, and the Catholic Church. These same three groups, together with the small but powerful fascist party (Falange), formed the backbone of the Nationalists.The Spanish Civil War claimed an estimated 500,000 dead; of the American volunteers about one third died in Spain. Many of the remaining veterans continued their fight against fascism during World War II, as did thousands of Republican exiles. With their help, fascism was finally defeated in 1945. Ironically, the outbreak of the Cold War helped secure Franco’s position as Spain’s anti-Communist dictator. When, after his death in 1975, Spain finally became a democracy, the Spanish government made honorary citizens of the international volunteers. Many of them remained life-long activists. The aging Lincoln Vets have lent their support to progressive causes of all kinds, from the Civil Rights movement to the protests against the wars in Vietnam and Iraq.


  1. What were the names of the two groups at odds with each other during the Spanish Civil War?·        
  2. Who was the leader of the fascists?·        
  3. How many people died in the war, and how many of these were American volunteers?·        
  4. Paragraph 4 refers to “international repercussions.” In your own words, what does this phrase mean?·        
  5. Using the information in the article and your own opinion, why do you think other Western countries refused to get involved in the Spanish Civil War?

(B) Excerpts from “They Fought in Spain: Now the Cause is Redeemed”Originally published in the New York Times on Nov. 4, 1982 by Ari Goodman

“Once they were fighters, men who tried to stop fascism in Spain with guns and grenades. Today, more than 40 years later, Americans who volunteered in the Loyalist cause in the Spanish Civil War are watching proudly as a Socialist government is coming to power in that country.”“In the 1936 Spanish elections, the Socialists emerged as a leading element in the governing Popular Front. Within months of their victory, however, a group of generals led by Francisco Franco marched on major cities and the civil war began.”“Franco won the war and ruled until his death in 1975… ‘Franco is now on the garbage heap of history,’… Some 3,300 Americans, acting without blessings of their own Government, went to fight in the Spanish Civil War; only 1,800 came home alive.” “‘The Spanish Civil War’ pitted right against wrong,’ said the 69-year-old Mr. Steck, ‘and it was very clear where the right was and where the wrong was.’ ‘I went to Spain because as a Jew and as a radical of my time I hated fascism,’ Mr. Fishman said. ‘This was a chance to do something about it.’”“‘If we didn’t stop fascism in Spain, we’d have to stop it closer to home. We still think if we could have stopped Hitler and Mussolini in Spain, we might have avoided World War II.’”“‘It was your whole life that made you go,” said Mr. Steck, who grew up in the Midwest and at the age of 6 was taken to hear Eugene V. Debs, the American Socialist.”Questions·         Before the outbreak of the war, what political movement was becoming more prominent in Spain?·         What two foreign leaders aided Franco in the Spanish Civil War?

They Fought in Spain: Now the Cause is Redeemed” Journaling Response 

Directions: Write a journal response (No more than 1-2 pages double-spaced) to the New York Times article about Americans that fought in the Spanish Civil War. Focus on your views about what motivated these people to go fight in a foreign war. How would you describe these people? How would you react if your best friend told you they wanted to do something like this? Could you see yourself going and doing what they did as well? What are some key parts of the article that stood out to you?Keep in mind some of the important historical context we learned about regarding the socialists, the fascists, and what the outcome of the war was. Also, keep in mind what year this article was written and published in.

(C) Excerpts from W. H. Auden’s “Spain” Background: W.H. Auden, also known as Wystan Hugh Auden, was a poet, author and playwright born in York, England, on February  21, 1907. Auden’s travels in countries torn by political strife influenced his early works. Auden visited Spain in 1937 in the middle of the Spanish Civil War and wrote this poem upon his return home. It was originally published in 1940.

Yesterday all the past. The language of sizeSpreading to China along the trade-routes; the diffusionOf the counting-frame and the cromlech [stone tomb]; Yesterday the shadow-reckoning in the sunny climates . . .Yesterday the abolition of fairies and giants, the fortress like a motionless eagle eyeing the valley, the chapel built in the forest; Yesterday the carving of angels and alarming gargoyles; The trial of heretics among the columns of stone;  Yesterday the theological feuds in the tavernsAnd the miraculous cure at the fountain; Yesterday the Sabbath of witches; but to-day the struggle.Yesterday the installation of dynamos and turbines, The construction of railways in the colonial desert;Yesterday the classic lecture On the origin of Mankind. But to-day the struggle . . .To-morrow for the young the poets exploding like bombs,The walks by the lake, the weeks of perfect communion; To-morrow the bicycle racesThrough the suburbs on summer evenings. But to-day the struggle. To-day the deliberate increase in the chances of death,The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder; To-day the expending of powersOn the flat ephemeral pamphlet and the boring meeting. To-day the makeshift consolations: the shared cigarette,The cards in the candlelit barn, and the scraping concert, The masculine jokes; to-day theFumbled and unsatisfactory embrace before hurting.The stars are dead. The animals will not look. We are left alone with our day, and the time is short, andHistory to the defeated May say Alas but cannot help nor pardon. 


  1. “Yesterday” was “abolition of fairies and giants,” “theological feuds in the taverns” and “classic lecture.”
  2. What is Auden saying about “Yesterday”?·        
  3. What will “Tomorrow” be like according to Auden?·        
  4. What does Auden believe defines “today”?·        
  5. In your opinion, is this a hopeful poem? Defend your reasoning using evidence from the text.

(D) ¡Viva la Quince Brigada! Performed by Pete Seeger in Barcelona, 1993 Translated from Spanish

Background: This was one of the songs sung by members of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and other international volunteers during the Spanish Civil War. When the international forces say they will “fight against the Moors,” they are referring to General Francisco Franco’s “Army of Africa” which included soldiers from Spain’s colony in Morocco. Franco used these troops in fascist campaigns to defeat the Spanish Republic.Songs of the Spanish Civil War rekindles the hymnal of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, honoring the more than 2,600 American volunteers who fought General Francisco Franco and his fellow fascists from Italy and Nazi Germany to defend the popularly elected Spanish Republic during the 1936-1939 conflict. Featuring Pete Seeger, Tom Glazer, Butch and Bess Hawes, Woody Guthrie, Ernst Busch, and Bart van der Schelling, these songs still inspire supporters of democratic causes around the world. – ALBA

Long live the Fifteenth Brigade, Rumba la rumba la rumba la! Long live the Fifteenth Brigade, Rumba la rumba la rumba la!It will cover us with glory, Ay Carmela, ay Carmela! It will cover us with glory, Ay Carmela, ay Carmela!We fight against the Moors, Rumba la rumba la rumba la; We fight against the Moors, Rumba la rumba la rumba la,Mercenaries and fascists, Ay Carmela, ay Carmela! Mercenaries and fascists, Ay Carmela, ay Carmela!Our only desire, Rumba la rumba la rumba la! Our only desire, Rumba la rumba la rumba la!Is to end fascism! Ay Carmela, ay Carmela! Is to end fascism! Ay Carmela, ay Carmela!On the Jarama front, Rumba la rumba la rumba la! On the Jarama front, Rumba la rumba la rumba la!We don’t have airplanes, nor tanks, nor cannon, Ay Carmela, ay Carmela!We don’t have airplanes, nor tanks, nor cannon, Ay Carmela, ay Carmela!We’re now leaving Spain, Rumba la rumba la rumba la! We’re now leaving Spain, Rumba la rumba la rumba la!We shall fight on other fronts, Ay Carmela, ay Carmela! We shall fight on other fronts, Ay Carmela, ay Carmela!Questions·         How would you describe the tone of the song after hearing it performed and reading the lyrics in English?·         How do you interpret the ending of the song? What “other fronts” do you think the original songwriters were referring to?

(E) Pablo Picasso’s Guernica (1937)

Background: Guernica is a mural-sized oil painting on canvas by Spanish artist Pablo Picasso. It was completed in June 1937 while he was living in Paris. It is over 11 feet high and 25 feet wide. Picasso painted the mural in response to the April bombing of the Basque village of Guernica in northern Spain by German and Italian warplanes in support of Spanish fascist forces. The village had no military significance. The bombing foreshadowed German attacks on civilian populations during World War II.

Directions: Choose two of the central figures of the painting outlined on the following page and write a paragraph explaining your interpretation of their inclusion in the piece. Explain what you believe Picasso was trying to convey through these images, and why you think the sections you chose are perhaps the most striking.

 (F) Movies about The Spanish Civil War Scenes from these movies can be used to help students envision conflicts during the Spanish Civil War.

“For Whom the Bell Tolls” directed by Sam Wood, 1943. In this adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s popular novel, idealistic American Robert Jordan (Gary Cooper) travels to Spain to join the guerrilla forces opposing dictator Francisco Franco. Jordan, who is given the dangerous task of blowing up a bridge that lies behind enemy lines, gets sidetracked when he falls for partisan Spanish girl María (Ingrid Bergman) at base camp. As Jordan’s love for María grows, he begins to question his assignment, his politics and his place in this foreign war.

(G) Robert Capa and Gerda Taro Photograph the Spanish Civil War 

Robert Capa (Endre Friedmann) was a Hungarian-Jewish war photographer and photojournalist. He photographed the Spanish Civil War, the Sino-Japanese War, World War II in Europe, and the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Capa died in 1954 while covering the first Indochina War. Some consider Capa the greatest combat photographer in history. In 1947 he was awarded the United States Medal of Freedom by General Dwight Eisenhower. Gerda Taro (Gerta Pohorylle), a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, was Capa’s professional partner and companion. She was a major photographer in her own right. She died in 1937 while photographing the Spanish Civil War at the Battle of Brunete. She was only 27 years old. Taro is remembered as the first female photojournalist to photograph front line battles during war.

Robert Capa: Farewell ceremony for the International Brigades. Les Masies, Spain. October 25, 1938
Robert Capa: Republican militiaman, Federico Borrell Garcia, at the moment of death, Cerro Muriano, Cordoba front, Spain. September 5, 1936.
Robert Capa: Crowds running for shelter after an air-raid alarm sounded, Bilbao, Spain, May 1937
Gerda Taro: Pro-Republican workers in a munitions factory in Madrid, June 1937.
Describe the scene in each photograph·        
In your opinion, were Capa and Taro as photojournalists important
contributors to the defense of the Spanish Republic? Explain.

(H) Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell (1938). Excerpt from Chapter One

Background: George Orwell (1903-1950) was a British novelist, essayist, journalist, and political critic. He is best known for his philosophical and dystopian literature, such as 1984 and Animal Farm. Homage to Catalonia was written as a memoir recounting his experiences fighting in the Spanish Civil War as part of the International Brigades.

A. There were no private motor-cars, they had all been commandeered, and all the trams and taxis and much of the other transport were painted red and black. The revolutionary posters were everywhere, flaming from the walls in clean reds and blues that made the few remaining advertisements look like daubs of mud. Down the Ramblas, the wide central artery of the town where crowds of people streamed constantly to and fro, the loudspeakers were bellowing revolutionary songs all day and far into the night. And it was the aspect of the crowds that was the queerest thing of all.

B. In outward appearance it was a town in which the wealthy classes had practically ceased to exist. Except for a small number of women and foreigners there were no ‘well-dressed’ people at all. Practically everyone wore rough working-class clothes, or blue overalls, or some variant of the militia uniform. All this was queer and moving. There was much in it that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for. Also, I believed that things were as they appeared, that this was really a workers’ State and that the entire bourgeoisie had either fled, been killed, or voluntarily come over to the workers’ side; I did not realize that great numbers of well-to-do bourgeois were simply lying low and disguising themselves as proletarians for the time being.

C. Together with all this there was something of the evil atmosphere of war. The town had a gaunt untidy look, roads and buildings were in poor repair, the streets at night were dimly lit for fear of air-raids, the shops were mostly shabby and half-empty.

D. Meat was scarce and milk practically unobtainable, there was a shortage of coal, sugar, and petrol, and a really serious shortage of bread. Even at this period the bread-queues were often hundreds of yards long. Yet so far as one could judge the people were contented and hopeful. There was no unemployment, and the price of living was still extremely low; you saw very few conspicuously destitute people, and no beggars except the gypsies.

E. Above all, there was a belief in the revolution and the future, a feeling of having suddenly emerged into an era of equality and freedom. Human beings were trying to behave as human beings and not as cogs in the capitalist machine. In the barbers’ shops were Anarchist notices (the barbers were mostly Anarchists) solemnly explaining that barbers were no longer slaves. In the streets were colored posters appealing to prostitutes to stop being prostitutes. To anyone from the hard-boiled, sneering civilization of the English-speaking races there was something rather pathetic in the literalness with which these idealistic Spaniards took the hackneyed phrases of revolution. At that time revolutionary ballads of the naivest kind, all about proletarian brotherhood and the wickedness of Mussolini, were being sold on the streets for a few centimes each. I have often seen an illiterate militiaman buy one of these ballads, laboriously spell out the words, and then, when he had got the hang of it, begin singing it to an appropriate tune.


  1. What did Orwell notice about life in Spain that signaled impending societal change?·        
  2. How do you interpret this quote from the final paragraph: “Human beings were trying to behave as human beings and not as cogs in the capitalist machine.”·        
  3. Although resources were very scarce there was still “a belief in the revolution and future, a feeling of having suddenly emerged into an era of quality and freedom.”
  4. In your opinion, how did the arrival of foreign fighters in support of the Spanish Republic contribute to this optimism?

(I) For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest HemingwayEpigraph by John Donne (1572-1631)

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”


  1. Why do you think Hemingway chose this as the epigraph for his novel?·        
  2. In your opinion, how could a quote from the 16th century connect to events in Spain and the world happening 400 years later?

Ernest Hemingway (L) and Robert Capa (R) meet in Idaho in 1940.

The Spanish Civil War Final Writing Assignment


Choose ONE of the following prompts and write a 3-4-page essay in response. Be sure to follow the specific formatting expectations outlined in each prompt.·        

  1. You are a young American in the year of 1937. The Spanish Civil War has been ongoing for the past year, and several weeks ago you and some friends took it upon yourselves to enlist in an American brigade to go and fight against fascism in Spain. Write a letter home describing how you feel about your decision. Explain what inspired you to go and fight in this war. Use our reading of Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls to offer some guidance in putting yourself in this position.·        

2. Write an extended journal entry from the point of view of Robert Jordan at any point in the novel. Make sure to refer to specific points in his story. You may set your journal entry right before the start of the novel, alluding to events that will unfold early in the book.·  

3. Write an essay exploring TWO major themes of both For Whom the Bell Tolls and our supplementary readings about the Spanish Civil War. Remember to cite all references to the novel and outside sources appropriately.

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