Background Narrative

Spain's Second Republic was born, and survived, in discouraging international circumstances: the Great Depression corroding Europe's economies and societies; Hitler extinguishing Weimar pluralism and challenging the European status quo; a brutal 'revolution from above' in the USSR; and, in Mussolini's Italy, a corporate state which bound together workers and managers, ostensibly for the national good. To many in Spain, such developments were healthy, a precedent to be followed.

The results of municipal elections on 12 April 1931 showed that Rivera's successors had failed to reconcile the populace to the monarchist regime. The King left Spain, and a provisional government took power. The politics of the Second Republic functioned - or sought to function - within a dysfunctionally broad spectrum of attitudes and agendas. From anticlerical Socialist Party to dogmatically clerical CEDA; from Catalan separatism to the mystical centralism of the Falange; from Alfonsine monarchists to Marxist POUM; and from conservative army officers committed to restoring the old state to anarchists frustrated by the new.

The Republic's political relations are explained partly by the results of the three general elections that took place during its lifetime. The first, in June 1931, elected a Cortes which drew up a controversial constitution and continued the reforms begun in April. The November 1933 election ushered in governments who did all they could to turn the clock back. The third election (February 1936) brought to power a government that, though lacking Socialist ministers, set out to reverse the work of its right-wing predecessors.

The 'reformist years' of 1931-3 seemed a malevolent eternity to the opposition right. The governments of Alcalá Zamora and his successor Azaña launched a bold programme of legislation. Thus, the Catholic Church (only 20 per cent of Spaniards were practising Catholics) was disestablished under Article 26 and its state subsidy was to end in 1933. Freedom of belief and religious practice was guaranteed provided it did not offend public morals and although the Jesuits were to be dissolved, other religious orders could continue if they did not endanger the state. However, these orders were barred from undertaking economic activity or teaching, and Church schools were to close within a specific time limit. Thus, the traditional status of the Catholic Church was to end. Clerical conservative Spain was appalled, and the government itself was fractured: in October 1931 Prime Minister Alcalá Zamora and Minister of the Interior Maura - both conservative Catholics - resigned.

Controversy also stalked land legislation. By mid-1931 the Law of Municipal Boundaries protected rural workers against cheap imported labour; arbitration committees on wages and conditions and protection for tenants against arbitrary eviction were established. Predictably, irate landowners and their political allies saw this as a declaration of war, as they did the Law of Agricultural Reform which expropriated, without full compensation, the largest landowners' estates.

The 1931-3 governments also introduced army reforms, limited autonomy for Catalonia, universal suffrage at twenty-three, freedom from arbitrary imprisonment, legal divorce and the abolition of the death penalty. Other innovations included old-age pensions. Progress in hydro-electric power continued from the Primo de Rivera dictatorship. Barcelona University gained autonomy; a People's University was founded in Madrid where adults were taught by postgraduates. Official statistics from the Ministry of Information claimed that by the end of 1932 10,000 new primary schools had been built. Cultural 'missionaries' took theatre, cinema and fine art to the rural populace. But were these life-enhancing changes or, as conservatives saw them, a threat to corrupt morals?

Of these reforms, which would be targeted by the right-wing governments in power from November 1933 to February 1936? In the process of reversing earlier legislation, CEDA

deputies in the Cortes under Gil Robles wielded powerful influence. Thus, the Jesuits could teach again, while state education spending was slashed. There were nearly 19,000 peasant evictions in Estremadura alone, and rural unemployment rose as labourers lost their job security. Trade unions faced assaults from the Ministry of the Interior, whereas amnesties were granted to anyone involved in the August 1932 coup attempt led by General Sanjurjo.

Beyond parliament and law-making, how did left and right behave towards each other? They provided fuel for the Republic's opponents: in May 1931 convents and churches were burned and catacombs desecrated. At Castilblanco near Badajoz (Estremadura) the corpses of civil guardsmen were brutally mutilated. In 1934 the anarchist leader Durruti called a general strike in Zaragoza and a nation-wide strike of labourers was organized by the Socialist land-workers' union, the FNTT.1 For two weeks that October, Socialist miners took over parts of Asturias, including the capital Oviedo. As things deteriorated in 1936, Madrid was plagued by strikes.

On the political right, the most famous assault on the state before the military revolt of July 1936 was the abortive putsch by General Sanjurjo and his followers in August 1932. A reaction against the Catalan Autonomy Bill and Agrarian Reform Bill, the 'Sanjurjada' failed in its primary goal of seizing power. However, the army learned much from this debacle. Meanwhile, in rural districts landlords resorted to subversion on a grand scale - refusing to allow cultivation and thus putting labourers out of work, and taking advantage of loosely drafted legislation. In turn, many reformers - notably Largo Caballero as Minister of Labour, 1931-3 - lost faith in the power of democracy to enact change effectively.

Versions of democracy survived, nevertheless, through eight years of peace and war. And, during the peacetime Republic, the artist Miro, poet and playwright Lorca and film director Bunuel led a flourishing world of culture. Women gained new prominence in journalism, trade union leadership and politics; the suffragist Victoria Kent became the Republic's first Director-General of Prisons.2 And in parts of Spain there was a fundamental left-wing social, economic and political revolution - though it took civil war both to achieve it and to destroy it.

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