Background Narrative

Starting in 1931, a controversial agenda of military reform was pursued by War Minister Manuel Azana, himself a keen student of military history. His strategic objective was an army that was financially sound, politically neutral and streamlined for war. But were Azana's reforms an assault on inefficiency and inertia as he stated, or an attack on the fatherland and its keystone, the army itself?

In June 1931 Azana closed the 'reactionary' Zaragoza Military Academy and in September of the same year deprived the army of much of its judicial role as the Supreme Military Council was dissolved and the captains-general abolished. Many right-wingers were moved to less important posts or sacked. The army remained underequipped, notably the artillery.1 In January 1933 the widely dreaded 'review of promotions' investigated those officers whose careers had been blessed by the Rivera dictatorship (1923-30). Although far fewer were affected than was feared, the myth of a persecuted army was reinforced.

Reassuringly for the army, the Radical leader Lerroux came to power in November 1933 at the head of an increasingly rightist government. Those involved in General Sanjurjo's bungled coup attempt (August 1932) were pardoned. General Franco was promoted to Major General with a special brief to lend expertise on military exercises - a dress-rehearsal for suppressing future left-wing rebellions: when the Asturias Rising broke out in October 1934 it was the Spanish Foreign Legion and Moorish troops whom Franco used on the mainland to such ruthless effect - for the first but not for the last time.2

As a reward for his role at Asturias, Franco was made Commander-in-Chief of Spanish Armed Forces in Morocco (his alma mater) and, when Gil Robles became Minister of War in May 1935, he became Chief of the General Staff. Other generals such as Fanjul and Goded were plotting a coup should the left be returned to power, but the increasingly influential and prestigious Franco had sound professional reasons for not becoming involved.

Nevertheless, by the time the 'Popular Front' came to power in February 1936, preparations for a military uprising had begun. The new government seemed obsessively biased against the right: Prime Minister Azana pardoned those workers and left-wing soldiers involved in the Asturias and other risings; the reform programme of 1931-3 was revived; and Franco and Mola were redeployed, with the aim of neutralizing their potential as plotters: Franco to the Canary Islands and Mola to Pamplona in Navarre (conveniently far from Madrid; but, for Mola, conveniently close to Carlist conspirators).

At the rural grass roots in this spring of 1936 peasants were seizing land en masse. Right-wing newspapers were promoting an atmosphere of impending doom, encouraging the army right in its plots, the conservative classes praying for their success. With the abandonment in April of one such plot by an ailing general, Rodriguez del Barrio, it was General Mola who was designated coordinator of a future army rising. The month of May began with massed parades by the left and a general strike invoked by the anarchist CNT. Very soon now Mola would reveal to his co-conspirators his master-plan - part centripetal (starting in the provinces), part centrifugal (emanating from Madrid). The growth of Aragonese and Castilian separatism in June 1936 intensified the pressure for a pre-emptive putsch.3 But, as has been seen, Prime Minister Casares Quiroga seemed blind to rumours that such a threat was looming.

The murder of the leading 'catastrophist' right-winger Calvo Sotelo on 13 July finally wedded Franco to the rebellion. On 19 July Franco arrived in Morocco, and by the next day most of the mainland garrisons had risen. However, they only achieved partial success. About 70 per cent of Spain remained beyond their grasp, including the main industrial areas, notably in the Basque Country and Catalonia.

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