The Spanish Civil War began when army officers rose against the Second Republic in July 1936. But the potential for conflict was rooted in long-term, structural imbalances in Spanish society and the economy, and in the failure of successive regimes to construct a state system that enjoyed undisputed legitimacy. Political power had traditionally been concentrated in the hands of a small elite, who had not learned the trick of moderate reform aimed at co-opting the masses. On their great estates in south and west Spain, landowners faced a restive population of agricultural labourers and poor tenants, trapped by the lack of alternative employment opportunities. Their living standards were miserable, many were unemployed for parts of each year, and literacy levels in some areas were as low as 20 per cent. The state offered them little beyond the repressive presence of the Civil Guard, the militarised police force founded in the 1840s to keep order in the countryside.
Industrial workers struggled with low wages, unregulated working conditions, poor housing and virtually no social welfare provision. Moreover, the rapidly expanding working-class areas of cities like Barcelona, Bilbao and Madrid lacked an adequate urban infrastructure in the form of decent sanitation, paving and lighting, making them a danger to health. In both town and country, there were neither enough schools to provide even elementary education for all, nor basic medical services. The infant mortality rate among the poor remained depressingly high.
It was no wonder that the propertyless masses of Spain, and the political modernisers who championed them, wanted to redress the imbalance of power and resources, and hailed the Second Republic as the great opportunity to do so. At the same time, many conservatives, including very modest property-owners as well as the wealthy, feared that once the balance began to shift, revolutionary claims for redistribution of wealth would overwhelm them.
In these circumstances, the proclamation of the Second Republic on 14 April 1931 was an extraordinary turning point in Spanish history. The Bourbon monarchy, first established in Spain back in 1715 at the end of the War of the Spanish Succession, had been overturned before, first by Napoleon in 1808, and then by disillusioned politicians and generals in 1868. Both times it had been restored. Since the end of the 19th century, however, it had experienced several major crises. In 1898, the calamitous defeat in war by the United States and the loss of Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines virtually spelled the end of a once-great empire. Military disasters in the fragment of empire that remained, in north Africa, in the period 1909-22, were accompanied by political instability and domestic unrest. In 1923 General Primo de Rivera seized power, under the king, and suspended the constitution; the monarchy's legitimacy was fatally undermined.
Then in 1931, for the first time, popular opinion declared against the crown in a way that could be quantified, at the ballot box. The elections of 12 April 1931 were merely municipal elections, designed as the first step back to constitutional normality. Nationwide, more pro-monarchist than anti-monarchist candidates were successful. But it was recognised, not least by King Alfonso XIII himself, that these local elections were a plebiscite, and that the results which mattered were those in the big cities and provincial capitals, far from the control of traditional elites whose influence often falsified results in rural Spain. The free voice of urban Spain was
Civil Guards. The Civil Guards were a militarised police force founded in the 1840s to keep order first in the countryside, and then in towns and cities. They were a widely feared repressive force. Here they are shown in a poor district of Barcelona, near architect Antom Gaudrs famous Sagrada Familia church. (Topham Picturepoint)
loudly Republican or Socialist, and the king, after consultation with political and military advisers, left the country.
If Alfonso had ignored the election results, or tried to impose martial law, he might have provoked revolution or civil war in 1931. Faced with this prospect, and the collapse of support even among erstwhile monarchists, he chose instead to depart. On 14 April the Republic was proclaimed amid scenes of euphoric jubilation in Madrid. An era was over, and those who welcomed the Republic as the beginning of a new age of genuine democracy and social justice were confident that - unlike the first Republic that had lasted only a year back in 1873-74 - it would stand and deliver. But others who were willing, with whatever misgivings, to give it a chance in 1931 took up arms against it only five years later. Their action in July 1936 plunged Spain into war. But over-ambitious Republican policies contributed greatly to their alienation, and were also a major cause of the civil war of 1936-39.
What did the Republic represent to the Spanish population in the heady days of April 1931? Crucially, it represented not just a change of regime, but a turning upside-down of established values and hierarchies. The Republic had enormous symbolic potency. Its name immediately suggested not just the end of the monarchy, but also a challenge to the policies and institutions historically associated with it. One example was the insistent centralisation that had been one of the hallmarks of the Bourbon
The New York Times announces the end of the Bourbon monarchy in Spain. After municipal elections showed that there was little popular support for the monarchy, King Alfonso XIII left Spain, and on 14 April 1931 the Second Republic was proclaimed. It was a peaceful transition, but the new Republic faced daunting problems. (Aisa)
project since the early 18th century. So obvious was this implication of the word 'Republic' that, in the very first days, its government had to restrain exuberant Catalan nationalists from establishing a separate Catalan Republic. Devolution for Catalonia and potentially for the other historic regions of the Basque country and Galicia was inescapable, and was soon written into the new constitution.
Similarly, no one expected the Republic to continue the church-state alliance that had existed between Catholicism and the crown. The separation of church and state and the introduction of religious freedom were inevitable concomitants of the historic turn to Republicanism. Many of the bishops feared something worse, namely an active attempt to secularise Spanish society and culture, and to limit the freedom of action of the church. Traditional religious privileges were clearly under threat; the question was how far the assault would go.
If bishops were wary and pessimistic, so too were many of the generals. Monarchy had been identified historically with religion and empire. But the Republic symbolised change and modernisation. It would surely rationalise an oversized army left over from empire. Moreover, it was bound to assert the supremacy of civil authority over military as well as religious claims to embody national identity.
In social and economic matters too, 'Republic' was not a neutral term. It implied a shift in public policy in favour of the working masses and the poor. Land reform, jobs, improved wages and better public provision for health and particularly education were essential items on the Republican agenda. It was the promise, however implicit, of work, schools and access to a better life that brought working men to the voting booths to topple the toffs of the old regime. The prospect of social
A symbolic representation of the Second Spanish Republic. The female figure wears classical dress, the revolutionary bonnet of the French revolutionaries of 1789, and carries an olive branch of peace. The Republic positioned itself symbolically within a long European tradition. (Topham Pictuepoint)
justice as well as political renewal turned the proclamation of the Republic into a mass celebration. But the economic circumstances of the great depression cast a huge question mark over what any government would actually be able to achieve for the rural and urban working classes.
'Republic' was a code that Spaniards knew how to read. The old order had been monarchist, centralist, Catholic, imbued with the values of empire and arms, and run by and largely for the social and economic elites. The new order, therefore, was not merely a political system without a king. The Republic meant, for those who cheered its arrival, a democratic, civilian, secular order, in which the centre would have to be responsive to the periphery, and the top to the bottom. For those who were sceptical or hostile, it meant the abandonment of tradition, and a threat to stability, property and national unity. Within days of the Republic's proclamation, the Catholic newspaper El Debate was trying to rally its readers under the slogan 'Religion, Fatherland, Order, Family and Property'. The outlines of the two sides in the civil war of 1936-39 were already visible, even though war itself was far from inevitable.
The weight of popular expectation on the new Republic was enormous. Although the monarchy had collapsed, the institutions and social sectors long identified with it -church, army, landlords, the barons of finance and industry - were all still in place. Except in politics, there had been no revolution. Instead, the Republic now set out to instigate and manage a transformation of Spanish society by democratic methods, and in exceptionally difficult economic circumstances, without provoking a backlash of angry reaction. This was a task that no one knew how to accomplish. To make matters worse, there was no consensus among those within the Republican camp about what kind and degree of transformation was desirable. Disagreement over this weakened and divided the Republic from its inception through to the last days of the civil war in 1939.
The men who suddenly found themselves forming the Provisional Government of Spain had previously pledged themselves to the overthrow of the monarchy, in an agreement called the San Sebastian pact. But they represented a wide range of different views about what should happen next. The Prime Minister and later the first President of the Republic, Niceto Alcalá-Zamora, was a Catholic, and a convert from monarchism, as was Miguel Maura, Minister of the Interior. For them, the Republic was itself a revolution and they saw no need for any other, although they recognised the urgency of social reform. The leader of the Radical party, Alejandro Lerroux, was famous for the demagogic anti-clericalism of his youth, but had no desire to see a social revolution overthrow property.
Manuel Azaña, the single most important politician in the entire Republic, Minister for War in the Provisional Government, then
Prime Minister, and eventually the second President, was a secularising intellectual who was offended by the public role and educational monopoly of the Catholic Church in Spain. He wanted the Second Spanish Republic to emulate the pre-1914 Third French Republic, make secular schooling free and compulsory, and construct a non-religious basis for national culture and citizenship. For Azana, as for many on the left, this was an essential part of the necessary updating and Europeanising of Spain.
Devolution was the overwhelming priority for Catalan Republicans who had one representative in the government. The three Socialists, Indalecio Prieto (Finance Minister) the trade unionist Francisco Largo Caballero (Minister of Labour) and Fernando de los Rios (Minister of Justice), wanted to alleviate the worst hardships of the urban and rural poor. They also wanted to help consolidate the 'bourgeois' Republic. The socialisation of production and distribution would have to wait for a later stage. Not all their followers were so patient.
In the spring and summer of 1931, the Provisional Government held supreme authority in Spain while preparations were made for general elections in June to create a Constituent Assembly that met in July. The government acted quickly to aid the labouring masses, especially in agriculture. Largo Caballero issued decrees in April through to early July, introducing the eight-hour day, establishing joint arbitration committees between rural employers and labourers, and preventing landowners from importing cheap labour from outside their own immediate area, by requiring them to employ agricultural labourers from within it first.
Swift action was also taken on other fronts. The government agreed that,
Manuel Azana. photographed in May 1936, when he was the President of the Spanish Republic. He had earlier been Minister for War, and Prime Minister Once the rising against the Republic began in July 1936, he was pessimistic about the Republic's chances of victory. (Topham Picturepoint)
although the June elections would be held on the existing basis of adult male suffrage, women would nonetheless be eligible for election as deputies, for the first time in Spanish history. Minister of War, Azaña immediately tackled what he regarded as the most pressing of army problems, the excessive number of officers, in a decree of 25 April offering all officers immediate retirement on full pay, with a threat that retirements would be forced if it proved necessary. It did not: retirement requests flowed in. The officer corps was cut by 40 per cent to between 12,000 and 13,000 in a few months. This success was modified by two elements: no political criteria were used, so there was no guarantee that the officers who stayed were pro-Republican; and many were offended that such a radical measure had been imposed by decree. Meanwhile, religious liberty was declared and Catholic images were removed from state schoolrooms. The Catholic Minister of the Interior, Miguel Maura, even took action against the Cardinal Archbishop of Toledo, Pedro Segura, insisting he leave Spain after provocatively anti-Republican behaviour.
In all of these ways, the reforming agenda of the new regime was apparent. But internal divisions had already become visible over another matter concerning religion. On Sunday, 10 May 1931, monarchist youths played the royal anthem from their new centre on Alcalá street in Madrid. Angry crowds gathered to protest. Civil Guards, unable to control the crowd, fired, and killed two people. The next day, various groups set fire to churches and convents in the capital, forcing nuns to flee as their accommodation went up in flames, and leaving a trail of burnt-out buildings.
It was obvious that the government could have smothered the flames and the lawlessness swiftly by calling out the Civil Guard. But to Maura's fury, it refused to do so, on the specious grounds that, as Azaña -Minister for War - unwisely remarked, 'all the convents in Madrid are not worth the life of one Republican'. It delayed before restoring order. The next day, the attacks were repeated elsewhere, especially in Malaga. Many ordinary Catholics concluded that the new state would not respect their religion or protect property.
The June elections were a triumph for the left and a disaster for conservatives, who were disorganised after the collapse of the monarchy. No one party held a majority in the assembly, but the Spanish Socialist Workers' Party (the PSOE) was the largest, with 117 deputies. The PSOE, founded in 1879, was backed by the Socialist trade unions (the UGT), and probably on this occasion by the votes of the large Anarchist movement as well, which as a matter of principle did not form a political party of its own, or put up representatives for election.
The Anarchist unions (the CNT), which were strong in the rural south and in the largest manufacturing concentration in Spain, round Barcelona, remained a powerful extra-parliamentary presence committed to the social ownership of property and production, to social egalitarianism and to the abolition of religion. Their revolutionary agenda put constant pressure on the Socialists, and on the Republic as a whole. From the Anarchists' point of view, the Republic was on trial, and would be judged on its ability to deliver a new social order.
To the right of the Socialists stood the Radical Socialists with 59 deputies, and Lerroux's Radicals with 89. Azaña's Republican Action party, like the conservative Catholic Republicanism of Alcalá-Zamora and Miguel Maura, lacked a mass following, and each of them gained only 27 seats. Spain's subsequent history in the 1930s might have been different if there had been a strong centre to hold the balance between left and right, but this was never the case. To the right of the Catholic Republicans stood two sets of monarchists, the Alfonsists, who wanted to restore Alfonso XIII to his throne, and the Carlists, who supported a rival branch of the royal family and a more traditionalist kind of monarchy. For both, the Republic always lacked legitimacy.
An early sign of polarisation was the outright repudiation by the new parliament, as soon as it met on 14 July 1931, of a constitutional draft prepared by a commission under a reformist Catholic lawyer, Angel Ossorio y Gallardo. This draft separated church and state, established religious liberty and recognised popular sovereignty. It was not enough. Instead, a new commission under the presidency of the Socialist lawyer Luis Jimenez de Asúa produced a radical constitutional draft for 'a Republic of workers of all classes'. When the Constituent Assembly approved an amended draft on 9 December 1931, it created a secular democratic system based on equal rights for all citizens, with provision for regional autonomy. It introduced female suffrage, civil marriage and divorce. To the dismay of property-owners great and small, it permitted the state to expropriate private property, with compensation, for reasons of broader social utility. It also established free, obligatory, secular education for all, dissolved the Jesuits, and banned the religious communities of nuns, priests and brothers from teaching even in private schools. Jimenez's unamended draft would have dissolved all the religious orders outright.
Alcalá-Zamora and Maura resigned from the government in October 1931 when the revised article 26, on religion, was passed. Even though Alcalá-Zamora became the first President of the Republic after the whole constitution was approved, the articles on property and religion, with their exaltation of state power and their disregard for civil rights, virtually destroyed any prospect there had been for the development of a Catholic, conservative, Republicanism.
With this divisive constitution in force, Azaña became Prime Minister and chose to govern in coalition with the Socialists rather than the Radicals. Parliament bitterly debated through 1932 and 1933 a series of laws to implement the constitutional measures on devolution, land, education, civil marriage and divorce, and the church. An attempted coup by General Sanjurjo in August 1932 signalled the depth of discontent in some quarters, but failed. However, when a mass party of the right was organised in February 1933, in the shape of the CEDA (the Spanish Confederation of Autonomous Right-Wing Groups), its programme inevitably included the defence of Catholicism, order, property and the family. Its leader, Jose Maria Gil Robles, refused to commit the party to loyalty to the Republic.
For Gil Robles, and of course for the monarchists, the Republic had already gone much too far in its first two years. He was determined to reverse its direction. However, for many of its original supporters, the Republic had not gone far enough. A Catalan autonomy statute was passed in the summer of 1932, but the process for autonomy in the Basque country was moving very slowly. The 1932 Agrarian Reform Law opened the way for the redistribution of land, but in fact very little land was expropriated, and only about 12,000 landless families were settled.
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