The Spanish civil war (1936-1939)


The mutiny in July 1936 by army units stationed in Spanish Morocco was the prelude to a three-year bloody civil war. Despite the absence of a real legal basis, the ICRC managed to negotiate access to prisoners and organized help for civilians.

After the first week of fighting, forces led by Francisco Franco had already taken a large part of the country’s territory from the Republican government. This civil war rapidly took on an international dimension with the arrival of international brigades to fight on the Republican side, while the insurgents received support in the form of men and matériel from Germany and Italy.

The distinction between combatants and non-combatants was ignored and the civilian population bore the brunt of reprisals and bombardments, most memorably the air raid on Guernica. The war came to an end in March 1939 with the capitulation of the Republican government.

The ICRC mobilizes

At the beginning of August 1936, the ICRC – which had already been concerned about the possible material requirements of the Spanish Red Cross – was officially asked by the society to take action. It decided to send a delegate, Dr. Marcel Junod, to meet both parties as well as the Spanish Red Cross.
Junod managed to negotiate two agreements in September 1936. Under the first of these, the Spanish Red Cross accepted the help of its sister national societies through the intermediary of the ICRC, declared that it would seek to ensure respect for the red cross emblem and offered its support to the International Committee in setting up agencies to gather information on the civilian detainees and prisoners of war. Under the second agreement, the Madrid government authorized the ICRC to carry out its work on both the Republican and the Nationalist sides.
Dr Junod then went on to Burgos, the headquarters of the military junta, and obtained similar guarantees. The ICRC proceeded to set up delegations throughout the country, their number and the location of their headquarters varying with the course of the war. The ICRC delegation in Spain closed its doors in mid-September 1939.

Working on both sides  

With representatives posted full time to both parties to the conflict, the ICRC worked in a number of key areas, in particular distributing the medical supplies and food financed by the Red Cross Societies, foreign governments and private individuals. This aid was distributed on the basis of strict mathematical division betwee n the belligerents.
The ICRC also strove to ensure the protection of medical units, continuously reporting their positions to the belligerents. However, it was unable to prevent Red Cross volunteers who fell into the hands of the adverse party from being incarcerated, contrary to Article 12 of the 1929 Geneva Convention.
The ICRC also did its utmost to ensure the protection of prisoners. Though its initial offers of services were rejected by both sides, the agreements eventually signed by the warring parties provided for the opening of prisoner-information offices. On this basis, the ICRC was authorized to carry out individual inquiries in the places of detention in order to ascertain the presence and the conditions of internment of designated detainees.  

89,000 prisoners visited  

Gradually the organization became able to visit all of the persons detained in given places and to repeat these visits with a degree of regularity on both sides. Though this practice remained dependent on the goodwill of the authorities, the ICRC was eventually able to visit 89,000 prisoners by 31 December 1938.

These visits to places of detention were continued on the Republican side up to the end of the war, whereas the military junta put a stop to them in August 1938. Delegates were never able to gain access to all places of detention on either side.

While the ICRC also tried to organize exchanges of captives, the results obtained were not commensurate with the efforts required, with only a few hundred civilian and military prisoners being freed through the ICRC’s good offices.

Financial problems threaten relief work  

The delegates were also anxious to assist the civilian population, who suffered greatly from the military operations. Various initiatives were taken. The first was to trace missing persons and to reunite families scattered and/or separated by the front line or driven to seek refuge abroad. In the course of the war, more than five million Red Cross messages (brief personal messages) were exchanged through the ICRC and 30,000 missing-person files were opened. 

A major operation was undertaken in the autumn of 1936 to feed civilians suffering food shortages. However, the ICRC was obliged gradually to reduce the volume of its relief consignments beginning in the summer of 1937, as it faced an increasingly difficult financial situation, with donations from governments and national societies drying up. Nevertheless, supplies continued to be sent up to the end of the war, by which time 670,000 Swiss francs worth of aid (in the currency of the time) had been distributed.   

Bombing of civilian areas

Finally, the ICRC strove to protect civilians from the effects of the war – particularly aerial bombardment – by organizing evacuations. It called on the parties to the conflict to refrain from carrying out air raids on the civilian population in areas behind the front line. However, this had no real effect.

By agreement with the French Red Cross, the ICRC also carried out several visits in France to distribute food and clothing to Spanish refugees. It also succeeded in repatriating a few hundred prisoners of war from France to Spain. In addition, with the full consent and assistance of the French authorities, the ICRC organized a personal-message service for refugees similar to the one it had set up in Spain.



Madrid. People lining up outside the ICRC delegation in search of news of their loved ones. 

Madrid. People lining up outside the ICRC delegation in search of news of their loved ones.
© ICRC / hist-01850-16

Sorting mail at the ICRC delegation in San Sebastian.  

Sorting mail at the ICRC delegation in San Sebastian.
© ICRC / hist-01848-31

Dr Marcel Junod, ICRC coordinator in Spain, distributing aid to prisoners in Salamanca.  

Dr Marcel Junod, ICRC coordinator in Spain, distributing aid to prisoners in Salamanca.
© ICRC / hist-02224-18a

Displaced population on Andújar road. 

Displaced population on Andújar road.
© ICRC / hist-01850-35

Oquendo district, Madrid. Red Cross ambulance preparing to leave the scene after evacuating the injured. 

Oquendo district, Madrid. Red Cross ambulance preparing to leave the scene after evacuating the injured.
© ICRC / hist-01850-29