Between its birth in April 1931 and March 1939 when its last Prime Minister, Juan Negrín, fell from power, the Second Republic experienced fifteen changes of government. This in itself, however, says nothing specific of individual government tenure, one criterion for 'stability'. Azaña's first stint as Prime Minister, from October 1931, lasted nearly two years; at the other extreme, in July 1936 the government of Martínez Barrio survived for barely twelve hours. Of the eleven peacetime governments, eight lasted for six months or less. Add to this the political, social and economic 'wars' already being waged by interest groups all over Spain against these governments (let alone each other) by strikes, propaganda, obstruction and insurrection, and it may seem remarkable not only that anything significant was achieved but that civil war was delayed for so long. At times, Spain seemed locked into a vortex of instability.
The nature of the Republic's achievements was bound to inflame or frustrate: is it therefore more apt to say that it was because of these achievements, rather than despite them, that the Republic was so unstable? Tension between Barcelona and Madrid after the Catalan Autonomy Bill (1932) was due partly to the fact that the Catalan signatories of the 1930 Pact of San Sebastián saw the Bill as too diluted. Historians such as Albert Balcells and Norman Jones have noted the dramatic shift from 'tension' to 'crisis' in the autumn of 1934: inhaling the pure oxygen of Spain's 'October Revolution', Lluis Companys, head of the Catalan Republican Left Party and of the Barcelona regional government, now proclaimed a 'Catalan State within a Spanish Federal Republic'. For this initiative he was sentenced to thirty years in prison; the central authorities suspended the Catalan government (Generalitat), along with the autonomy law itself.3
In a democratic environment, what does political stability require? More than an origin based on consensus, which in April 1931 the Republic seemed superficially to have, it needs even-handedness and political subtlety. But these, unlike anxiety and disillusionment, were in short supply. For every newspaper banned, there was an inflammatory speech in the Cortes or at a party rally; for every politician imprisoned, an intimidating parade or debilitating strike. In turn, state attempts to restore equilibrium by force were often counter-productive. Indeed, the theme of provocation is woven throughout the Second Republic. There was readiness to provoke and to be provoked. When, in October 1934, ministers from the Spanish Confederation of Autonomous Rightist
Groups (CEDA) joined Lerroux's government, 'the Socialists [took] the bait and launched a hopeless assault on the state',4 the most dramatic example being the Asturias Rising and subsequent commune which held out for two weeks before being crushed.
If a measure of instability is evident in all political systems, what made the Spanish example so extreme? Analysis of the period 1931-6 alone cannot provide the whole answer. After all, the 1931-3 governments' raison d'être was to challenge the pre-1931 order through legislation; the preoccupation of the right-wing governments of November 1933-February 1936 was to restore tradition and conserve it. Moreover, Frances Lannon's close analysis of the experience of the Catholic Church has shown that it already felt deeply insecure before the annus horribilis of 1931 : would the demonic Republic now deal the final blow?5 Similarly, landowners had long faced agitation from landless labourers: now, there was an additional scapegoat in the 'destructive Republic'.
The self-interest and self-image of groups and institutions were not only hurt by single-issue reforms aimed by the state directly at them. For example, the army was also antagonistic towards Catalan autonomy because it would destroy the unity of the Patria. Similarly, the Church was deeply anxious about land reform and the new politics: CEDA, the Church's political wing, described the 'atheistic' Republic as a communist class dictatorship hostile to the family, private property and the free market.
When centrifugal forces were at work concurrently, then chronic instability would follow. In 1933-4 both CEDA on the right and disillusioned Socialists on the left, led by Largo Caballero, were becoming more anti-constitutional in outlook. For the left this process had already begun in 1931, when its more radical elements felt that their idealized 'new Spain' was being sold out to compromise. The right countered with accusations that the old Spain was being subverted by revolutionary reform. Indeed, much venom was spat at the governments of the Second Republic: that they were more like pressure groups than governments, that their leaders were agitators not statesmen, that their law-enforcement was lawless and that they were led by their followers. And however decisively governments introduced reform, or reneged on it or repealed it, outcry was certain: from those who sought more change (Socialist, Communist or anarchist) and those who wanted no progressive legislation at all - army, Church and landowners, great and small.
Paul Preston's detailed research into the contemporary press has shown how newspapers and periodicals played a significant part in entrenching these positions. The press sustained an intoxicating aura of confrontation, while contributing to the making of revolution and reaction more directly. For example, left-wing papers conducted influential campaigns. One of these led in March 1934 to the forging of an Asturian Workers' Alliance which went on to organize the Asturias Rising. On the right, in a contagious spirit of 'catastrophism', the pro-CEDA Catholic daily El Debate intoned in January 1936, 'Between the ruin and the salvation of Spain there is no middle way.'6 Newspapers were joined in the vanguard of protest by Spanish youth, who themselves had their own political press. Prominent in the Asturias Rising of October 1934 was the Socialist Youth Movement (FJS). On the extreme right, young Falangists led death-raids against the left - notably the murder of an Assault Guards officer in July 1936, in reprisal for which the right's new hero, José Calvo Sotelo, was assassinated.
A dense matrix of instability characterized the Second Spanish Republic, the political momentum veering towards the extremes - within governments such as those of Lerroux; within parties, for example, the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE); and within movements, notably the anarchist National Confederation of Labour (CNT). High-profile operators like Largo Caballero and Gil Robles lost faith in the legal path, a route already despised by Alfonsist and Carlist monarchists and the Falange Española, the millennarian fascist movement of the new right.
To conclude: in the period 1931-6, legislation (and the dread of it) reacted with privilege and deprivation, exacerbating pre-existing tensions and leading ultimately to civil war. Speaking metaphorically, the Republic in 1931 had defined itself as an engine of change but it ignored a series of red lights and was derailed. Governments seemed at times less interested in building political bridges than in blowing them up. From late July 1936, the politics of the feud became the tactics and strategies of armies, and a plethora of conflicts now reduced themselves to a definitive formula: the open society versus its enemies. Analysis (2) seeks to consider why hopes of coexistence between Spanish people were dashed. However, as this first analysis has tried to argue, in the crisis atmosphere of the Republic hopes of coexistence were always fragile, and more or less unacceptable: to policy-makers and opinion-formers, to die-hard property-owners and to those they regarded as put on earth to serve them.
Was this article helpful?