Background Narrative

Nineteenth-century Spain was torn apart by two civil wars between rival claimants to the throne. An unstable and shortlived republic (February 1873-December 1874) gave way to a constitutional monarchy under Alfonso XII. The 1876 Constitution introduced a bicameral parliament and by 1890 universal male suffrage was established. But, if a new age of political enlightenment seemed at first to be dawning, it was not to be an age of gold: in the 'Disaster' year of 1898, the economically valuable Spanish colonies of Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines were all lost to the United States.

Spain kept out of the First World War. Although neutrality brought economic prosperity, there also came inflation and internal conflict, including a general strike in 1917. In the same year, army officers, still blaming the politicians for the defeats of 1898, set up their own unions. On the far left, anarchism was growing fast. In the regions, there was serious unrest, notably Barcelona's 'Tragic Week' (1909), the 'Three Red Years' (Trienio Bolchevique) in Andalucía (1918-20), and guerrilla warfare in Catalonia during 1919-23 when 700 people were murdered. Worker against capitalist, Catholic against atheist, anarcho-syndicalist against conservative, regionalist against centralist, landless labourer against landowner showed divisions deepening in Spain. There were also divisions within the divisions. Captains of industry resented the hold on political power of the reactionary landowners. Landless labourers, already brutally repressed by the paramilitary Civil Guard, hated the conservative-minded smallholders, the Catholic favourites and potential allies of the landowners. 'Regenerationists', who looked to restore the greatness of Spain, deplored the corruption of local political bosses, known as caciques.

Deepening this chasm of national anxiety came the news in 1921 of a gruesome military defeat in Morocco. The reputation of the army top brass was pilloried in the subsequent report on the affair, and the King's role in the campaign was investigated by parliament. The Catholic Church felt threatened when the government seemed about to grant full public freedom of conscience in what church leaders saw as a gross act of state-sponsored atheism. Landowners felt undermined by government attempts at land reform. But, according to Paul Preston in his 1993 biography of Francisco Franco, the flashpoint for General Primo de Rivera's coup d'état in 1923 came at Málaga. It was here, the embarkation point for Spanish Morocco, that a non-commissioned officer was murdered. When the suspect, a corporal, was pardoned by the King under political pressure, the officer corps felt doubly humiliated. The corrupt state had to be seized.

Primo de Rivera's dictatorship lasted seven years. Its politics reflected both reactionary and progressive attitudes, but eventually Rivera alienated as broad a political spectrum as had supported him in 1923. In January 1930 he withdrew from politics to exile in Paris, where he died. His successor, General Berenguer, headed a divided government. Although he restored political parties, as well as the four local administrations of Catalonia, parliament (the Cortes) was to be delayed until spring 1931. Berenguer's rule was not a smooth 'transition in reverse' to the system before Rivera's coup, but nor could it be a gradualist transition forward, given the level of support for more radical change, even a new dictatorship. The relatively free municipal elections of April 1931 were in effect a referendum on the monarchy, and they showed overwhelming support for the Republicans and Socialists. Alfonso XIII stepped down and the Second Republic was born.

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