Spanish politics would have a rough and rocky century before the First World War, and the uncertainty was only beginning.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 36 - The Spanish Civil War Part 1 - The Second Republic. This week a big thank you goes out to Kurt and Myron for choosing to support this podcast on Patreon where they get access to ad free versions of all of these episodes plus special Patreon only episodes released once a month. If that sounds interesting to you head on over to historyofthesecondworldwar.com/members to find out more. The Spanish Civil War can be a deceptively complicated topic. On the surface it can at times seem simple, a nationalist right-wing supported military coup attempt was launched, it initially partially failed. Those that supported the coup then came into conflict with the official government of the Republic, led by a coalition of socialists and republicans. A civil war then developed and the nationalists under General Franco were victorious. Of course such a simple summary hides layers upon layers of details, many of which are incredibly important. The Civil War was a culmination of years and decades of political unrest in Spain as several different groups had their own visions for the future of Spain, views which were largely incompatible. On one side you have a nationalist right-wing military group, with the support of authoritarians and the Catholic church, a coalition which would eventually be led by General Francisco Franco. On the other there was a loose coalition of republicans, socialists, communists, and anarchists all of which united due to the situation in which they found themselves in, but there were still deep ideological rifts between them. On a world stage, the conflict in Spain became not just about the future of Spain, but also the future of the various political ideologies that were represented in the conflict. Most of the dominant political movements of the day were represented: fascism, communism, anarchism, socialism, authoritarians, to just name the larger groups. With all of these groups represented those who held similar beliefs in other nations reacted as if they themselves were also under attack, this resulted in thousands of foreigners, mostly communists, travelling to Spain to fight for what they felt was the future of their beliefs. The danger when discussing the conflict is in losing the fact that while there was an international presence within the various armies, while other nations would both directly and indirectly participate in the fighting, and while the war in Spain would garner international attention it was a war for the future of Spain, primarily fought by Spaniards. These were people fighting for their homes, their families, and what they felt was the best path for their nation. The clash of views that separated them went far beyond political ideologies: the place of religion within society, the role of government, and gender roles are just some of the other issues that would come into play and which would amplify the ferocity of the conflict. Like all civil wars it would be bitter, brutal, and bloody. There would be atrocities, political killings, targeted repression, and mass violence during the war and after that is to this day being properly categorized and quantified. Over the next 13 episodes we will discuss this conflict, what happened, how the war evolved over time, the political challenges faced by the Republic, and the reaction of other nations. Today we will start with some of the trends and themes of Spanish history around the time of the First World War, and this discuss the creation of the Second Republic. Along with these episodes I have also had the privilege of interviewing some excellent historians on topics surrounding the Civil War, the first interview should appear in your feed in a few days, followed by 17 ore over the course of the net few months. I have really enjoyed doing the interviews, and I hope you enjoy them as well.
In the century before the First World War, from the end of the Napoleonic years and forward, the political situation in Spain was unsteady. In the 60 years after 1914, there were 37 attempted coups, 12 of which were successful. Then in 1874 Alfonso XII was proclaimed as king after one of the successful coups. There were many causes of this instability, the military leaders were highly traditional in their views, which clashed with the liberalism that was spreading throughout Spanish society. The Generals were also strongly centralists, which came into conflict with the Basque and Catalan separatists movements. Along with some of these problems there was also massive, widespread, all encompassing corruption. In the constitution that was put in place after 1874 many rights were curtailed, for example peasants and tenants had the right to vote, but they had to vote in accordance to their wishes of their landlords. Corruption was probably the largest problem though, it took over the entire political and economic landscape and any attempt to lessen its hold on Spanish society was met with hostility. When the First World War started in 1914 Spain would decide to stay neutral. However, even remaining outside of the conflict could not prevent the war from having drastic consequences for Spanish society. Initially the war was very good for the economic, suddenly there were buyers for many Spanish goods with other nations ravenous for additional raw materials and manufactured goods that Spain could provide. The benefits of this new income were felt unevenly within society, industrialists received massive boosts to their profits, but workers did not see similar rises in pay. This became more problematic as the war progressed because as exports rose so to did inflation, which saw the real purchasing power of many Spanish workers and peasants drop dramatically. This economic strain was just added onto many already troubling trends in Spain to create greater overall stress between the traditional ruling classes and the military on one side and the workers and rural peasants on the other. These tensions would again escalate when news began to arrive in Spain of foreign worker revolutions in Russia and then Germany. In the immediate postwar years many Spanish leftists looked to Russia for inspiration and believed that it was time for a Spanish revolution as well. While a true revolution would not occur at this point there would be many worker revolts and uprising during this period. Worker actions would be seen in both urban and rural settings, with all instances met with violent repression from the government. These were just a symptom of the overall level of unemployment and poverty that was afflicting Spanish society, and which the Spanish government had not real solution for.
For many years the goal of many Spanish military officers was to see service in Morocco, where colonial conflict happened somewhat frequently, and in general a soldier’s life was far more interesting than back in Spain. This trend of the best, brightest, and most importantly most ambitious officers going to Morocco would create a specific type of exceptionalism among those who served in the theater. In Spain they were seen as the military elite, which just made it more unexpected when news of the Battle of Annual arrived. The Battle, or the Disaster of Annual as it would sometimes be called, would occur on July 20th, 1921 as part of a long conflict between Spain and Berber tribesmen of the Rif region of Morocco. During the battle General Silvestre and over 20,000 Spanish led men, many of which were raw conscripts, were attacked by a far smaller group of tribesmen and forced to retreat. The retreat, due to a lack of planning, supplies, poor leadership, and the inexperience of many of the men involved turned first into a rout and then into a massacre. More than 13,000 men were killed or captured, a true disaster. Back in Spain this caused a political crisis as the blame fell not just on the military but also on the government and all of its policies. This would be just one of many problems for the government, problems that would eventually lead in 1923 to yet another coup. On September 13, 1923 General Miguel Primo de Rivera, the captain-general of Catalonia, would announce that he was now dictator of Spain, although he was retaining King Alfonso XIII as head of state. The Primo dictatorship was initially welcomed by many within Spain, especially the industrialists and others in the upper half of the Spanish economy. They hoped above all that Primo would be able to provide stability. For workers and peasants Primo had a generally patriarchal view, sympathized with their problems, but was also really unable to work towards real solutions to their problems. Any solution that had any hope of being successful was far too radical for Primo, and especially too radical for the economic leaders upon whose support he depended. Prime made some moves to try and bridge the gap between workers and the industrialists after 1926, like when he brought Francisco Largo Caballero into the government. Caballero was the secretary for the Unión General de Trabajadores the largest Spanish Trade Union, and is a name that you will be hearing a lot in the coming episodes. The decision to collaborate with the Primo dictatorship was controversial within the Spanish Socialist party, with other socialists and the anarchists believing that collaboration represented almost a betrayal of their ideals, especially at a time when the worker organizations were facing repression of their organizations and publications. While Primo would try to reach out to the workers, as he tried to fix the problems that he saw in Spanish society, and as his solutions continued to not work, he pushed harder to enforce what he saw as his good decisions. This would push the workers away, even those that might have been inclined to support the government after his very public outreach attempts like bringing in Caballero. His solutions would often push away the industrialists that had supported him as well, due to his growing control over the relations between those business owners and the unions. He would attempt to put in place policies that he believed would help solve some of the problems, like a large public works program to reduce unemployment, however when he tried to introduce taxes to pay for it, business leaders resisted, and then when he tried to use other methods to raise the funds, it just led to inflation, causing further hardships for those that the programs were designed to help. In August 1930 Indalecio Prieto, one of the leading union leaders, and other socialists and unionist would begin to actively conspire against the Primo government. On August 27th at San Sebastian this was formalized with support for a diverse set of leftist leaders. Then in December the UGT called a general strike, and the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo or CNT, the leading anarcho-syndicalist organization did not oppose this decision. A revolutionary committee was created, but all of the members were quickly arrested by government troops under the command of General Emilio Mola. While the response was successful in halting any possible revolution at that moment, it did not stop further strikes and worker actions from taking place during December and January. The erosion of support from both sides would eventually force Primo to resign in January 1931. In retrospect it seems that Primo thought he was trying to solve problems, but was unable to fully reconcile his desire to fix these problems with how fundamentally broken the Spanish society and economy were during this period. There probably was not a workable solution that Primo could have put in place without alienating a good portion of Spanish society. After Primo’s departure there were two other Prime Ministers, both military officers, and both would serve for only short periods of time. When the second of these, Admiral Juan Bautista Aznar was put in place by the King it was with the clear indication that elections would be held in the near future, with April 12th, 1931 eventually being the date. During these elections the socialists and republicans would defeat the monarchist parties in every major city in Spain, and their victory would result in the creation of the Second Spanish Republic.
The Second Republic would be proclaimed on April 14, 1931. It was formed around a provisional government which was based on a revolutionary committee led by Niceto Zamora. The Cortes was called into session and work began on a constitution for the new government. There were a huge number of problems that the new government had to try and work through as soon as it was created and just because a new Republic had been created, and it was led by a different group of people, all of the problems that had been afflicting Spain did not immediately evaporate. The economic problems caused by unemployment, inflation, and massive public debts that were wracked up during Prime dictatorship were still problems. The question of Catalan and Basque nationalism was also not resolved. Added onto this there were new problems like the relationship between the new Republic and the Spanish military, and the new Republic and the Catholic church that had to be worked through. There were many different paths that could have been taken to try and solve these and many other problems, and we will just look at two specific issues, land reform and religious reform. On the land reform front there were many questions around both how Spanish land was used, and then also the relationship between landowners, tenants, and rural laborers. During the early summer months of 1931 some of these were addressed by government decrees while the constitution was still being written. For example a decree made it far more challenging for landowners to expel tenants from their property. An Institute of Agrarian reform was also put in place to try and construct and manage a program to try and find long term solutions to these problems. land reform would also be an important piece of the new constitution which was voted on in the Cortes in early December. One of the pieces of that constitution, Article 44, allowed for the government to expropriate land if it was done in the national interest. This type of action, seizing private property to be redistributed by the government, was heavily supported by the Socialists and other groups on the left, but it was a huge concern to those on the Right. Even many of the groups in the center of politics in Spain were concerned about the government having such powers, even if it was required for any sort of agrarian reform to be actually implemented. The large landowners that were most at risk from these seizures were not the only ones concerned with the new constitution. Articles 26 and 27 dealt with the position of religion within Spanish society. For example religious orders could be banned, and state subsidies that had previously been provided to the Catholic Church would be removed. A history of the Catholic church in Spain and that role that it played within society is beyond the scope of this podcast, however the Second Republic was one of, if not the, first government in Spain to so strongly question the role that the Catholic Church should play in Spanish society. Previous administrations had not really questioned the idea, even though by the 1930s church attendance was very low, with less than 20% of Spanish citizens actually attending mass on a regular basis. Even as those numbers dropped the Catholic Church had still be very closely tied to the government, but the new constitution would end that relationship. All of these efforts and changes meant that by the end of 1931 there were many very powerful groups within Spain that were lining up against the new government: the Church, the army, large landowners, industrialists, and others, and they would develop a plan to try and bring Spain back under their control.
1933 would be a decisive year for the new government. It would be led by Manuel Azana and he would be faced by many problems throughout the year, including revolts and violence throughout the country. Along with this it would be in 1933 that political resistance to the government would reach its peak as the various groups in Spain that did not agree with the governments leftist policies would begin to force coalitions that would prove to be very politically potent. As early as March a coalition of right-wing Catholic groups would begin working together, and other coalition parties would be created during the spring and summer and in the autumn the Union of the Right would incorporate all of the major parties on the right. While the right was becoming more organized and united, at least temporarily, on the left the exact opposite would happen. The traditional rivalries on the left, which would prove to be so problematic throughout the entire life of the Second Republic would mean that the left went into the next set of elections divided. The communists, socialists, republicans, and anarchists were simply unable to move past their differences. In September Azana would resign, and it would prove impossible to form a new government. Elections were then set for November 19, 1933. The results were a victory for the center and the right, and the most seats would be held by the Partido Republicano Radical or the Radical Republican Party. Alejandro Lerroux would become Prime Minister, but he and his party wanted to create a government without involving the Socialists, which meant reaching out to the parties on the right. They agreed, but in exchange for their support in the Cortes they attached conditions, which involved several changes including outright reversals of some of the reforms put in place by the previous government. On the left, the electoral defeat would start a process which would continue until the Civil War whereby there was a trend away from the more moderate socialist parties and towards more radical groups. This included not just a shift away from more moderate socialist beliefs that were more likely to work with other parties but also a much great support for a true revolution.
With the shift towards more radical political groups there was also growing support for more radical action. Most of this radicalism would crystallize around the Partido Socialista Obrero Espanol, or PSOE or Spanish Socialist Workers Party which was at the time led by, among others, Caballero. Caballero was pushing for more radical movements, which would include strikes and other more violent worker actions against the wishes and advice of many other socialist leaders. Those other leaders felt that the time was not right for such a move, and that any open and blatant action would accomplish little more than a government crackdown and a suppression of the socialist movement. Even with others counselling for caution, Caballero and others began preparations for a revolutionary general strike. On October 5, 1934 the nationwide strike was declared. Two things rapidly became apparently about this act. First, it was not supported by several groups on the political left and center left. Several of those parties and political leaders would instead actively distance themselves and their parties from what was happening. For example in Catalonia the CNT, the anarchist party, abstained from participating in the strike, as they did not want to participate in a revolution started by the socialists. The second fact that was quickly noted was that the action was not well planned. This meant that around the country it was both participated in varying amounts and there was no real plan for coordination between various areas. In many areas the strike was rapidly over, while in others it would develop into a full scale revolution. The best example of this was in Asturias where revolutionary committees would be in control of the region for about 2 weeks. The specific numbers of people who participated in the strike are hard to determine and vary widely based on how you include people based on their actions during the strike, but it is probably in the range of 15,000 to 30,000. The reaction of the government was to declare martial law and order the Minister of War, General Francisco Franco, to suppress the strike. In this the government was very successful, even in areas where the strike was strongest and well supported like in Asturias. This strike, and its failure, would be important and it would have serious ramifications on later events. One of the great unifying forces for the right in Spain during this time, and really all around Europe, was a fear of a leftist revolution, and especially a communist revolution. These groups and their supporters were always concerned that what had happened in Russia could happen to them. In this case the failure of the general strike cause some in Spain that maybe would have considered themselves centrists or left-centrists into greater support for the parties on the right specifically because they did not want a revolution. It also seemed to prove to many people that the onl possible guarantee against a revolution was the Army, and its ability to meet violent protests with greater violence. While the strikes would end, and some of its leaders like Caballero would be imprisoned, it probably destroyed any possibility of an equilibrium developing within Spanish politics which would have allowed for the new Republic to continue on its course.
The effects of the 1934 action would be very important during the 1936 elections which would be held on February 16th of that year. In late 1935 the two most influential Socialist leaders, Caballero and Prieto would gather up other supports to form a Popular Front. Prieto’s goal was to try and rebuild a coalition that could once again lead the Republic, while Caballero did not forsake this previously revolutionary rhetoric and really just saw the Popular front as an essential short term compromise. Then in January 1936 they, along with other parties on the Left, came together and drafted the Popular front program. Because of the diverse views represented within the Popular Front the overall program was pretty simple, focusing on specific short term goals that were widely popular among the parties, items like agrarian reform and amnesty for those arrested during the 1934 revolutionary actions. The unification of the Left, even if it was just a temporary measure, would exacerbate the polarization of Spanish politics. Both on the left and the right leaders would use drastic language about what would happen if the other side was victorious. For instance, Caballero would say that ‘If the right win the elections, we will have to go straight to open civil war.’ Those on the right would say that a victory for the Popular Front would lead to a violent revolution, which had to be avoided at all costs. This had the effect of destroying the political center in Spain, with their supporters being pulled one way or the other. Because of this, whichever group was victorious in the elections was almost guaranteed to put in place a government that was wholly unacceptable to the other side. The elections on February 16th would be the last free and open elections of the Republic. The final vote tally resulted in a victory for the Popular Front by just 150,000 votes, less that 1.7% of the total. This was incredibly close, and was only possible because the Popular Front had been able to convince the Anarchist parties to support them, even though it went against Anarchist beliefs to participate in state politics. When the election results were announced the President, Alcala Zamora would ask the moderate Manuel Azana to form a government. However, Caballero was unwilling to participate in such a moderate cabinet, and so the Socialist party refused to support the new government. Instead they wanted a more radical government led by either Caballero or some other Socialist leader. Meanwhile within Spain the general reaction from many socialists made it seem like they had won the election with an overwhelming mandate for reform. Strikes multiplied, wage demands increased, and the government, robbed of support, could to little to control or meaningfully alter the source of events. Of course those on the right blamed the left, the left blamed the right, the classic 1-2. What became clear very rapidly was that Spain was more divided than ever. In the coming months the military and its supports would find the situation untenable, and they would move to reassert control.