6 Unsettling Mysteries of the Spanish Civil War

Uncovering the tragic mysteries of the Spanish Civil War (Image: Augusto Ferrer-Dalmau; mysteries of the Spanish Civil War)

Outside of Spain, the Spanish Civil War exists in a strange pocket of history. Fought between the left-leaning Republicans and the falangist Nationalists from 1936 to 1939, it’s often overshadowed by the rise of the Third Reich and the events leading up to World War Two. Before the end of the war and the establishment of a Nationalist government (supported by both Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy), an estimated 500,000 people died and thousands fled into exile. The Spanish Civil War left its share of mysteries, too, buried in the annals of a dark period in 20th century history.

What Really Happened to Bob Smillie?

The death of Scotsman Bob Smillie is among the most baffling mysteries of the Spanish Civil War (Image: University of Warwick)

Bob Smillie, grandson of the co-founder of the Independent Labour Party (ILP), died after being sentenced to a Spanish prison in 1937. The official cause of death was appendicitis but many – including novelist and journalist George Orwell – believed that no one was ever told the real circumstances surrounding Smillie’s demise.

Bob Smillie was known to be active in the socialist politics of his family, and in 1936 he left university and headed from Glasgow to Barcelona. The Spanish Civil War had been raging for three months at that point, and he (along with Orwell) joined the International Revolutionary Youth Bureau’s Executive Committee. Smillie was posted to active service on the Aragon Front, but in April of 1937 he left the front lines and travelled first to Paris then Britain.

He was speaking about the war and his work for the Republic, but when Smillie tried to rejoin his unit he was arrested by Republican forces. His paperwork was not in order – at least, that was the excuse given for his detainment – and he was shipped off to prison in Valencia, where he died. The official line goes that he was transferred to hospital first, but rumours that he was either mistreated or murdered quickly began to circulate. As a result, Bob Smillie’s death remains one of the enduring mysteries of the Spanish Civil War.

Was The Falling Soldier Staged?

The iconic image of the Falling Soldier has become one of the most compelling mysteries of the Spanish Civil War (Image: Cornell Capa/Magnum Photos)

It is arguably the most iconic image of the Spanish Civil War. The photograph of ‘the Falling Soldier’ was taken by Robert Capa at the exact moment that a member of the Iberian Federation of Libertarian Youth met his death. The figure is in mid-fall, dropping his rifle, capturing the true horror of the battlefield.

According to Capa, he took the famous photograph almost by accident during the Battle of Cerro Muriano, holding the camera above his head and shooting without even looking. At least, that was the accepted story for many years, and for a long time it was claimed that the man in the picture was 24-year-old Federico Borrell García. But by 1975, the photo’s authenticity had been called into question. A comparison of the landscape in the Falling Soldier image and the reported location of Cerro Muriano suggest that they’re far from the same – in fact, the landscape may actually be Espejo, 50 miles from the bloody battlefield.

As ever more questions started to be asked, one of the most damning pieces of evidence might have surfaced in 2009. The so-called “Mexican suitcase” contained hundreds of photographic negatives, but no negatives of the Falling Solider were uncovered, nor others that may have come from the same series of film. Experts suggest that not only was the photo staged, but that it didn’t show Garcia or Cerro Muriano, making the haunting image of the Falling Soldier one of the most intriguing mysteries of the Spanish Civil War.

What Really Happened to Dick Sheepshanks?

Was Soviet double agent Kim Philby involved in the mysterious death of journalist Dick Sheepshanks during the Spanish Civil War? (Image: Mariluna; Soviet double agent Kim Philby)

Dick Sheepshanks was a 27-year-old Reuters war correspondent during the Spanish Civil War, and his life was the stuff of a Hollywood blockbuster. Sheepshanks headed for Spain in 1937 with several other journalists to cover Franco’s Nationalists, but he was killed in December in the Republican shelling of the village of Cudete. When news of his death reached London, Sir Roderick Jones (who headed the Reuters News Agency and unknowingly shared a love interest with Sheepshanks) paid him all the tributes as befitted a national hero.

Then things get weird. According to some who had known him – including Jeanne Stourton, the aforementioned love interest – Sheepshanks had become suspicious of one of his fellow journalists, and the only one of the group to survive: Kim Philby. If that name sounds familiar, it’s for good reason – Philby went on to gain infamy as Britain’s most notorious traitor during the Cold War.

According to Stourton, Sheepshanks had grown increasingly suspicious of Philby’s motivations, and Philby took it upon himself to take Sheepshanks out of the picture. A comparison between eyewitness reports and photographic evidence has raised a number of unanswered questions, and it’s been suggested that Philby may have had a hand in the attack. What exactly happened to the Reuters journalists remains undetermined, and the death of Ernest Richard Sheepshanks has become a compelling Spanish Civil War mystery.

Who’s Buried in Spain’s Mass Graves?

The identities of many of those in Spain's mass graves remains a Spanish Civil War mystery (Image: Mario Modesto Mata)

The cost of war is always tragically high, and among the most enduring mysteries of the Spanish Civil War concerns the countless soldiers and civilians who simply disappeared. Scientific American took a closer look at the excavation of one mass grave located just off of Spain’s Highway 1, where the remains of 59 people were unearthed in July 2011.

The idea of 59 people buried in an unmarked grave is horrific in itself, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. It’s estimated that around 2,000 such mass graves lie in Spanish territory from the Canaries and the Balearic Islands to the mainland, and it’s thought that they hold the remains of at least 150,000 people.

After the establishment of Francisco Franco’s dictatorship, many of the Nationalist side’s dead were recovered, identified, and given a proper burial. But Republican supporters were left to search for their missing relatives, and it wasn’t until the 1990s and 2000s that a shift in Spain’s political landscape began to allow for answers to emerge. But the names of the unidentified Spanish Civil War dead lying in the country’s many mass graves remain a mystery.

What Happened to Federico García Lorca?

The whereabouts of the remains of Federico García Lorca is one of the most enduring mysteries of the Spanish Civil War (Image: Wikipedia; Federico García Lorca in 1914)

In 2015, The Guardian featured a number of documents offering the first part of a confirmation of what happened to playwright, poet and author Federico García Lorca. His disappearance and death remain one of the most infamous mysteries of the Spanish Civil War, albeit one that’s slowly being untangled.

According to these findings, García Lorca was pursued by law enforcement for his supposedly socialist beliefs and a lifestyle the authorities deemed to be “abnormal”. He was arrested in August of 1936, and executed at an undisclosed location after supposedly offering a confession. While the documents show that his murder was carried out on the order of the government, his burial place remains unknown.

The discovery of the documents followed the disappointing results of an archaeological excavation just outside of Viznar. With evidence pointing to the site being the location of García Lorca’s execution and burial, hopes were high that his body would finally be found. But it wasn’t. Despite archaeologists believing they were close to finding the site, the whereabouts of the 38-year-old Andalusian’s body remains yet another Spanish Civil War mystery.

The Lost Children of the Spanish Civil War?

Many Republican children disappeared during the Spanish Civil War (Image: Locospotter)

Countless atrocities were covered up by Franco’s brutal dictatorship during the Spanish Civil War, and it’s only recently that a particularly heartbreaking chapter of the story began to unfold. In the 1930s, Franco’s forces were killing and looting their way across the countryside.

Not only were countless people with left-leaning views imprisoned in labour camps, but thousands of children were taken away from their families to be raised and indoctrinated into the fascist regime. An estimated 12,000 children were stolen from their homes and placed in government-run orphanages or with families that conformed to the accepted way of thinking and living.

Other estimates suggest that the number of misplaced children is as high as 30,000, and what became of many of them – and the families they were taken from – may remain forever uncertain. Most of the surviving children are now in their 70s and 80s. It’s taken decades for many of them to open up about what they went through back in the 1930s. But the fate of many other missing children remains one of the most tragic mysteries of the Spanish Civil War.

Related: 7 Bizarre Mysterious of Nazi Germany


About the author: Debra Kelly




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