After the Civil War: Spain’s hunger years

Last week it finally rained – two days of heavy rain, falling as snow on the sierras. With reservoirs at 37% of capacity, the rain dominated the news; people cheered and sighed with relief. In the south of Spain, the number of rainy days since spring can be counted on one hand. This year’s drought is the worst since 1992-95. Some crops are badly affected; inevitably food prices will rise, and as always, it is the poor who will suffer.

The years following the end of Spain’s Civil War in 1939 also saw a severe drought that lasted three years. It was the last thing the country needed. Food was in any case scarce, partly because the fields had been neglected during the war. Huge numbers of working men, the family breadwinners, had been killed or maimed or were imprisoned. Even after the fighting had stopped, retribution against Republicans continued. Franco was intent on rounding up as many ‘enemies’ as possible, so that all those with Republican sympathies lived in constant fear. Some 300,000 had gone into exile; others fled to the hills. Tens of thousands of prisoners were executed; large numbers died as a result of the dire conditions in gaols and camps (TB and typhoid were rife). Prisoners were used as slave labour in the mines or on construction projects, where they were exposed to grievous dangers. Those who survived were permanently weakened. Amongst the general population, illness and malnutrition caused innumerable deaths.

The situation in Spain was incomparably worse than in European countries affected by the Second World War. With the country isolated, a policy of autarquía (autarky or economic self-sufficiency) was decreed. The 1940s were known as los años de hambre, the ‘hunger years’. Women would scour the hillsides for herbs and grasses. Thistles, acorns, orange and lemon rinds – anything remotely edible – served as food. For some, prostitution was the only way to feed themselves and their children. Others resorted to stealing cabbages from the fields or digging up newly planted potatoes. If they were caught, they would get a beating from the Guardia Civil.

Cuts in the supply of energy were frequent, so that in winter people suffered terribly from the cold; water was also scarce in some places. Working conditions and wages had deteriorated dramatically. While widows of the nationalists received a pension for their husbands, this was denied to the widows of ‘reds’. The illnesses of poverty and poor diet were rife.

Rationing had been introduced in 1939 but was hopelessly inadequate, lacking the minimum level of nutrition for subsistence. It was also open to abuse, to which the government turned a blind eye. In fact it suited Franco to have the population crippled by hunger and disease.


In theory, the weekly rations consisted of 125g of meat, 1/4 litre of oil, 250g of black bread, 100g of rice, 100g of lentils, one egg and a piece of soap. In practice, what was usually available was chickpeas, sweet potatoes, pasta for soup, some salted cod and very small amounts of oil, sugar and soap. Meat, eggs and milk were rarely distributed. Some flour and milk were provided for children. Women struggled to construct meals from the sparse ingredients available to them. Journalist Claudio Grondona, in an article years later for Diario Sur, wrote about how they had to fry food without oil, make tortillas without eggs, stews with only bones, coffee from roasted barley or wheat.


White bread was a luxury item and the black bread ration was soon reduced to 150 or 200g. The ‘black bread’ was dense and hard, difficult to swallow. It might contain sawdust, straw or small stones. Often it was made from maize, chickpea or carob flour rather than wheat. However, those who had fought for Franco received an extra 250g of bread and the military, guards and priests were allowed 350g of white bread.

While the poor barely survived, often obliged to work from before dawn till long into the night on empty stomachs or at best one scant meal a day, the rich were doing very nicely. Private property had been restored, the privileges of Church and Army reinstated. In my forthcoming novel, The Red Gene, Consuelo’s adoptive family, being well-off landowners, suffer no hardships. On the other hand, the people in the Alpujarran villages, family home of another of the characters, suffer intense privation in the postwar years.

Prices of basic provisions had been fixed at the same level as existed in 1936, before the war. However, manufacturers and shopkeepers objected to this and either kept goods locked away in warehouses awaiting more profitable times or channelled them to more lucrative markets, adding to the already significant shortages. Bartering goods and services became common as the black market was only accessible to the well-off. Sugar and oil, for example, were sold at ten times the value fixed for the rationing system, which lasted for thirteen years.

In such a climate of deprivation as affected the majority of the population, the black market naturally thrived. It was known as el estraperlo, a word the people coined from Straperlo, the name of an infamous business run by two Dutchmen called Strauss and Perlowitz, who caused a scandal during the 2nd Republic with their fraudulent electric roulette machine. It was the black market that defined the social differences in postwar Spain. The estraperlistas, those who ran the black market, were protected by the regime; many of them became rich.

So while the winning side with good jobs were well nourished and lacked little, the survivors from the losing side, including professionals deprived of their jobs (and often their academic qualifications too), suffered all the illnesses caused by malnutrition, unless they were lucky enough to have a relative on the fascist side who supplied them with foodstuffs. Worst off were the crippled or sick without any kind of work, those who were incarcerated in prisons, camps or living on the street.

There are still some alive who remember how it felt to be hungry – those now in their 80s and 90s, who would have been children or adolescents then. They are unlikely ever to forget.




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