Whose Side Are They On?: Images of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939)

Comprehending the meaning of historical photographs can be a difficult task, especially from periods of war where photos are often chaotic and disheveled. But within each photo, there are context clues that give insight into the true meaning of the image. The Spanish Civil War serves as a key example of a war with a murky historical record, but imagery and symbolism from both the Republican and the Nationalist side allows us to get a better picture of the identities of the people in these photographs.

Image 1: Oil painting of General Francisco Franco (circa 1936-1939)


Question: What does this symbol mean?

Depicted on Franco’s shirt pocket is a yoke with five arrows, the symbol of Falagism, which was a conservative fascist ideology promoted by the Nationalists during the war. This clearly indicates Franco’s political alignment, ideology, and the side of the war he promotes.

Question: What is the significance of his hat?

Franco is also wearing a Carlist red beret, which also became part of the uniform for Nationalist soldiers. As their leader, Franco is exemplifying the clothing this soldiers wore throughout the war.

Image 2: Republican Soldiers Resting in France (1939)

Rustende republikeinse soldaten in Frankrijk Source

Question: Who are these men? What do they stand for?

These soldiers are all holding up their fists to indicate the Communist salute. Communists were one of the biggest groups in support of the Spanish Republic. In addition, the lack of a common uniform– such as Franco’s Nationalist uniform– further indicates that these are : Republican soldiers.

Image 3: Comparing Republican and Nationalist flags

Flags of the Second Spanish Republic (1931-1936) Source and Dictatorial Spain (1939-1975) Source

Question: What does each flag symbolize?

On the left is the flag of the Second Spanish Republic, which was replaced after the Spanish Civil War by the flag of Franco’s dictatorship, pictured on the right. These two flags were used simultaneously during the war to differentiate between sides. Spotting these flags (or variations of them) in photographs can be useful for providing context of the identity, ideology, location, and time of people or items pictured.

Navigating a Changing Landscape: What maps and monuments can tell us about the past and present

A while back a friend asked me what I would buy if I had 1 Million dollars. I couldn’t answer the question as asked. “I wouldn’t buy anything,” I replied, “I would travel.” For me, traveling is a way to discover new and fantastic landscapes, and immerse myself in the unknown in a way that I could never do behind a computer, or through a book. There are some things that simply cannot be learned without experiencing. The sights and smells of the souk in Marrakesh, the tangible openness of the Montana plains, and the imposing presence of the Edinburgh castle over the city in the evening are those things that require a personal connection.

This is why I also love maps. The opportunity to explore new places means the opportunity to discover just a bit through a map. What does the city think is important? What cultural institutions are presented first and foremost? What parts of a place feel hidden and secret? Where do I go to get the best food? All of these questions can start to be answered through maps.

Below I’ve presented two maps and two pictures of Barcelona, Spain, a city I have not been to, even though I’ve been to Spain a few times. I’ve always wanted to go, and looking at the maps below, now I have a renewed passion for visiting. I want to show these to you to better understand how the city has changed, and in some cases not changed at all, since the turn of the 20th century.

A map of Barcelona

The first map is dated around 1910, and the second is the Apple Maps view of the city today. Take a look at these pictures, and explore the city with me below.

Old map of Barcelona, Spain (circa 1910), compared to a current Apple Maps capture

Some questions and thoughts regarding these maps

  1. What would you consider to be the “center” of Barcelona in either map? Would you think this has changed over time?
  2. How has city growth-and the advent of automobiles-changed the way Barcelona looks from 1910 to today?
  3. Based on the city layout, where would you start a “Barcelona Adventure”? What would you want to see in the old city, versus the new?
  4. If you’ve been to Barcelona, post a reply and let me know how these maps speak to your own adventure’s experience!

The Arc de Triomf

Barcelona hosted the World’s Fair in 1888, and built for it’s exposition the Arc de Triomf, a massive arch that acted as the ceremonial entrance to Ciutadella Park, where the exhibition was held. Built to model the recently completed (and more famous) Arc de Triomphe, Paris, this arch remains as a symbol of Barcelona’s worldly influence. The first image is of the arc in its debut at the 1888 World’s Fair. The second image is of the arc in 2015.

Arc de Triomf in 1888 compared to Arc de Triomf in 2015

Some questions and thoughts regarding these pictures

  1. How do these two images compare at first glance? What’s been changed/added/removed?
  2. The Arc de Triomf was known as the “Gateway to Modern Barcelona”. Do monuments to modernity exist in contemporary society?
  3. What does the condition of the arch tell you about its significance to Barcelona, and Spain in general?

The Long Road

American prisoners marching through Camp O’Donnell, the last area of the Bataan Death March. Hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese invaded the Philippines. The U.S. were sent to the Philippines to aid their comrades. During the battle, the allies lost a lot of soldiers and were even forced to surrender. While being prisoners of war, the Philippine and American soldiers had to march on this grueling path where they had a small amount of food and hardly and rest.

What is in the bag? A body of a soldier that died from exhaustion, dehydration, and hunger from the Bataan Death March. The March is 85 miles long and the prisoners of war only had a very small ration of food for the entire trip.

Where is the Bataan Death March? The Bataan Death March is located in the Philippines and west of the capital city, Manila.

Attack on the Harbor

Source On December 7th, 1941 made an attack on the U.S. military in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

Who is that? Firing the machine gun turret is navy Messman Third Class Dorrie Miller who was registered as a mess attendant as well as a cook. 2.5 million black men registered for the draft and thousands of black women joined auxiliary units. African American men and women were separated into different groups which had little to none combat. During the attack, Miller got ahold of a Caliber machine gun and shot down the Japanese military planes.

What is this? This is a Japanese fighter plane that attacked U.S. military ships in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Leading the invasion were fighter planes and bombers followed by warships. 129 Japanese soldiers died in battle. 29 pieces of aircraft followed by 5 warships were destroyed.

Siege on the Coast of France

source On June 6th, 1944, 160,000 Allied military forces infiltrated the coast of France and was led by General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Many movies and video games like Saving Private Ryan, the Overlord, and Call of Duty WWII started with this scene from World War II

Soldiers were deployed from a small boat a few feet from the beach. On land, it was heavily armed with Axis soldiers manning machine guns.

When leaving the boat, soldiers are carrying hundreds of pounds in gear. Keep in mind that their clothes are wet and adding more weight.

The Pendulum of History

There’s a theory I learned from my high school teacher (thanks to Mr. Nickel!), it’s called the pendulum theory. The pendulum theory in the social science world looks at how history repeats itself with similar events or with similar groups of people. Movements in America tend to start a whole wave in which history moves back and forth between high levels of participation to low levels of participation. The pendulum swings back and forth between being active and dying down, waiting for the momentum of a new cause to swing back to. From the Great Awakening to the Second Great Awakening in America and the Civil Rights Movement to Black Lives Matter.

New movements stand on the shoulders of giants and are the source of inspiration for those who are leaning on the second swing of movement. Often I think about the Women’s Suffrage Movement to the Women’s March that began once President Trump took office. The women in the Women’s March stand on the shoulder of giants who come from the Women’s Suffrage swing.

Below you can view two sets of photo blends of two different protests: the Women’s Suffrage protest and the Women’s March and the Civil Rights March in 1963 and the Black Lives Matter march in 2020. Both groups are protesting against a president who ignored their needs. There are a lot of similarities and differences. However, recognizing where current movements come from can swing the pendulum to where it needs to go.

Here you see a photo of suffragists protesting against President Wilson in Chicago in 1916. During this time, women were seeking the right to vote and were protesting the president for his lack of support for the movement. While many of the women who were a part of this were white, there were women of color who contributed to the movement. Unfortunately, they would not be granted the right to vote until decades later. As for the Women’s March in Washington, it rose after President Trump’s Inauguration. The movement was sparked by individuals who were upset about statements made by the president. The march is intended to promote awareness regarding: women’s rights, reform on immigration and healthcare, reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights, racial equality, and many more.

(Right) “Women’s March on Washington” by Mobilus In Mobili is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. Source.
(Left) Suffragists demonstrating against Woodrow Wilson in Chicago, 1916. Source.

The Civil Right March of 1963 was done so to protest for equal rights, integrated schools, housing, voting rights, and an end to racial bias. The movement led to legislation that granted much of what the movement wanted. Though much racial inequality has not ended, the movement gained the attention it needed to produce legislation from this march on Washington. (Much to look into! I would encourage you to look into the speakers at the march, the leaders that organized it, its result, and why it is so significant today) As for Black Lives Matter, the movement shows that the United States is a long way from being racially equal. The movement started after the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin. It has since become at the forefront in the work against police brutality and racially motivated violence. Protestors have taken to the streets night after night across the United States since Spring/ Summer of 2020.

(Right) Civil rights march on Washington, D.C. / [WKL]. Source.
(Left) “Black Lives Matter” by seikoesquepayne is licensed under CC BY 2.0. Source.


  1. Why do these photos represent the pendulum of history? How does it not?
  2. How has the Suffrage Movement and the Civil Rights Movement changed how women and people of color see themselves over time?
  3. What symbols are seen in the before and after and is there meaning behind it?
  4. What causes the shift within movements to be stagnant and active?
  5. Can you think of another movement in history that seems to “repeat itself”?
  6. Reflect. Will there ever be a time where history will not swing back and forth on the pendulum?