After the opening battles of the Civil War, behind the front the political maneuverings would continue.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 44 - The Spanish Civil War Part 9 - Struggles for Power. This week a big thank you goes out to Kazik for their support on Patreon, where they get access to ad free versions of all of the podcast’s 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 information. After the initial military campaigns of the war, on both sides of the conflict there would be a serious of political maneuverings. On the Nationalist side, after their attempts to take Madrid, and with it being clear that they had several campaigns ahead of them, Franco would move to ensure that he remained firmly in control of the Nationalist military and political institutions. The primary threat to this control was from monarchists and fascists, either within the growing Nationalist government or among the paramilitary groups that had joined the Nationalist side in the war, but were at least technically outside of military control. On the Republican side the disagreements were the same political disagreements that we have been discussing since the very beginning of these episodes, however in May 1937 they would result in violence centered on Barcelona. The core disagreement was around central control, the anarchist groups and other groups that were a part of the Republican coalition were very resistant to growing central control. Meanwhile the central government, and especially its Communist members and supporters, were pushing for ever greater central control. These disagreements would turn into violence in what would become known as the May Days. In the aftermath of these 6 days in May 1937 the Republican coalition would never again be the same, and the anarchist support for the war would be irrevocably diminished.
While Franco had been put in control of the Nationalist military during 1936 at the meeting in Salamanca between several Nationalist officers, and while this also allowed him to take political control of the movement, that did not mean that everybody else was thrilled to have Franco in control of the Nationalist government. The original plan for the coup had been to install General Sanjurjo as the head of the coup and then put him into the position of military dictator of a monarchist government. However, these plans were destroyed when Sanjurju was killed in a plane crash on July 20th, 1936. After the revolt turned into a larger civil war Franco would maintain military command, which gave him de facto control over everything that happened within the Nationalist area of control, even if there were still those who hoped that Franco would not maintain that control after the war was over. Franco would approach the issue of maintaining political control in a few different ways. First, he would ensure that from the view of the public all of the Nationalist military successes were seen as his successes, and all of the failures were either not discussed or were blamed on other factors. Second, there were steps taken to make sure that the Nationalist groups maintained as much control as possible over the territory that they controlled. For example, in March 1937 a series of decrees were signed that abolished the freedom of association and public meetings, which made it easy for Franco’s government to prevent any unification of dissent. Other laws were put in place to start reversing many of the changes that the Republic had introduced into Spanish society during the previous years. Public holidays were changed, new currency introduced, and schools were put back under the control of the church. these were just some of the many changes that were made starting in 1937 to start to take Nationalist beliefs about what Spanish society should be and put them into practice. The third approach was that Franco started to put in place the political machinery to ensure that this control would continue after the conflict. For example, he setup a new political party and put his brother-in-law in control of that party. This was at first done in secret, and then only announced when Franco was ready to take the next step. This next step was for Franco to publicly force the acceptance of this political party as the new and only party allowed within the Nationalist government. Anybody who disagreed with this move would be charged with treachery against the Nationalist cause. These changes, along with others, were able to be implemented because there was little questioning that the military leaders were the correct people to be leading the Nationalist effort during the war. A viewpoint that was prevalent even among the civilian leadership in the Nationalist zone, who had in the past proven that military leadership, often put in place by a coup detat were an acceptable form of leadership. Franco’s government would also receive external verification as well. Portugal would formally recognize it as the government of Spain in Mary 1937, the Vatican would send a Papal nuncio, and of course he would receive the support of Germany and Italy. Franco was also concerned about external interference in his control of Spain, and so while he would work with the Italian and German leaders, and their representatives in Spain, he was very resistant to their attempts to exert greater control over the course of the war or of Spain’s future.
The greatest threat to Franco’s power, and one of the driving factors behind the creation of his own political party, came from the paramilitary groups that had been absorbed into the Nationalist movement early in the Spanish civil war. The largest of these groups were the Carlist and Falangists. The Carlists strongly supported a return of Spanish monarchism, and they wanted the former monarchy restored immediately. There were also many other groups and supporters of a return of the Alfonso monarchy. To try and reduce the ability of the Carlists to work independently Franco had the Carlist leader Fal Conde exiled to Portugal, and ensured that his position was taken by the Count of Rodezo, which Franco had far greater influence over. The Falangists were fascists who wanted the installation of a fascist state, not a military dictatorship. They were handicapped by the disappearance of Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera, the founder of the Falangists and son of the former Spanish Dictator. Rivera had been arrested earlier in 1936 by the Republic and he remained in prison through the coup until November when he was executed. The news of his death was suppressed on Franco’s orders, leaving the group leaderless, but still hoping for Rivera’s return. None of these groups presented an immediate threat to Franco’s leadership, however he had long term concerns about their loyalty and their actions. For all of these groups Franco had the same solution, he would fold them all into his own party that he founded and that he had complete control over. This was called the Falange Española Tradicionalista y de las Juntas de Ofensiva Nacional Sindicalista or Traditionalist Spanish Phalanx and that of the Councils of the National Syndicalist Offensive.
While these actions assured the support of the pre-existing political groups there was another problem that the Nationalist leaders, and the military, had to find a solution for. Even with the Army of Africa, and then the 100,000 or so volunteers that were brought into the Nationalist military in the opening months of the conflict, they would have to resort to conscription to fill the ranks. The vast majority of the troops on both sides would eventually be conscripts, with a roughly 10 to 1 ratio of conscripts to volunteers. These conscripts were not politically motivated, and any ideological differences between themselves and the enemy were far out of their area of concern. To make up for this lack of motivation the Nationalists would lean heavily on discipline. Threats and violence were the tools used to try and maintain tis compliance, with punishment for desertion and other disciplinary issues being very brutal. Along with these efforts to maintain their own forces, the Nationalists would also be very open to incorporating former members of the Republican army. It was recognized that many of the men who were captured or who deserted were just as apolitical as the Nationalist conscripts, and around half of those that left the Republican army would be incorporated into the Nationalist army quite quickly. Others were given the option of service in labor battalions as an alternative to prison camps. There were of course many other cases where there was far less mercy shown, with resulted in forced labor at best, and torture and death at worst.
While any disagreements on the Nationalist side would at first be glossed over with the goal of mounting a united front against the Republic, and then later forcefully removed by the actions of the Nationalist leaders, the disagreements on the Republican side would refuse to go away, and would in some ways just become more pronounced. All of the animosity between the various groups would explode during the spring of 1937. In Madrid the Communists, who controlled the Junta de Defensa that had been established after the government had left Valencia, were accused of arresting, torturing, and even executing people within the city. These accusations, brought forward by the CNT, were based on on information provided by Melchor Rodriguez. Rodriguez had been in charge of prisons in Madrid and had stopped the process which had been in place which had resulted in the execution of many nationalist prisoners. However, it was not the nationalists that Rodriguez was saying that the Communists were now arresting and executing, but instead socialists, anarchists, and republicans. This resulted in the dissolution of the Junta on April 22nd, with the government in Valencia attempting to reassert greater control in Madrid. All of this was occurring at an awkward time for Caballero who led the government, because the Community party was gaining greater and greater control in the government, and several of the leaders of the socialist party were considering merging the two groups. Caballero would have liked to prevent his, but he was only supported by the Anarchist deputies, and their power was being actively reduced by both the Communist efforts to increase control over the military and a general fracturing of support among the anarchists.
While these political maneuverings and discussions occurred in Valencia and Madrid, in Barcelona the disagreements between the Communists and other groups would very soon result in some very real violence. Tensions had been rising leading up to the Spring of 1937 as the Catalonian government, with growing Communist influence, wanted to reassert its position of control over the various militias and unions that had gained so much power during the coup. As a reminder, it was in Catalonia that the events of July 1936 could best be described as a revolution, and an anarchist one at that. On May 2nd 1937 the workers would be told to not allow themselves to be disarmed with the message that ‘The storm clouds are hanging, more and more threateningly, over Barcelona.’ This proved to be a warning sent out at a good time, and it would be one prompted by information gathered based on phone conversations that were overheard by Anarchist members working at the Barcelona telephone exchange. On the very next day the Generalitat, with the support of Valencia, began to assert greater control. It began with the Communist Commissioner of Public Order, Rodríguez Salas, and three truckloads of Communist Assault Guards arrived at the Telefonica. They were fired at by anarchist militia members, and news of the confrontation quickly spread all around Barcelona. As it appeared likely that violence might spread several CNT representatives would meet with the Generalitat and its President, Lluis Companys. They believed that the best way to defuse the situation was to demand the resignation of the Commissioner of Public order Rodriguez Salas and the Minister of Internal Affairs in Catalonia Artemi Aiguader. The Generalitat refused, but discussions continued, and while they continued a general strike was called for the next day. Barricades were erected on May 4th, groups of worker militias were armed and began to prepare buildings for fighting, and that fighting would begin to occur all around the city the workers groups firing on the Assault Guards and other government supporting groups. With local events escalating so quickly, representatives from Valencia arrived to try and negotiate a way out of what was happening. This included the national secretary of the CNT and representatives of the UGT, the Socialist Union.
During these continuing discussions the Generalitat strongly opposed forcing any members to resign, including Aiguador and Salas. With such an impasse Companys decided to appeal to the Valencia government to take control of the situation, even if it meant far more direct control from Valencia moving forward. A deal was eventually reached whereby the entire government would be dissolved and a new government created without Aiguador. Around Catalonia, Communist units of the Assault Guard tried to take advantage of the situation by seizing more key buildings. More Assault Guards were brought into the city, which just caused more fighting to occur. However, by this point the violence around the city had taken on a life of its own, beyond the direct control of leaders that were working with the Generalitat. What was very clear is that there was a serious disconnect between the views of the anarchist representatives that were talking with the government and the workers who were actually in the streets. The representatives knew that continued fighting would almost certainly lead to a civil war within a civil war, between the Anarchist and Communists, with the anarchists being blamed by the rest of the Republicans for what was happening. The workers, who were bearing the brunt of Assault Guard violence, were resistant to any attempts to reduce their ability to defend themselves. On the morning of May 6th the CNT-FAI leadership offered to order the barricades taken down and for the workers to return to work under the condition that there would be no reprisals for what had happened, and then the regional CNT committees appealed over the radio for an end to the fighting. This would start to have an effect, and barricades would start coming down. During the previous two days thousands of additional Assault Guard soldiers had been moved into the city, they had been sent to Barcelona from the front lines of the Civil War specifically to reinforce the troops that were already there. As the workers began to stand down and to return to normal, the Assault Guard would begin to first disarm, an din many cases arrest those who had participated. In the end the violence around Barcelona resulted in 500 people being killed and 1,000 wounded.
The events of the May Days would result in some very impactful shifts within the city, Catalonia, the war, and it would result in the downfall of the Caballero government in Valencia. The groups involved all blamed the others for what had happened. The Communists would claim that it was a Trotskyist-Fascist disturbance while the CNT and the POUM would place the blame on the Communists, claiming that they had staged events specifically to elicit violence. The result of the events would see a CNT and the anarchists, along with the POUM, or the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification, greatly weakened. Both groups would see their publications and public meetings come under increased scrutiny and a Special Tribunal for Espionage and High Treason was created which added official judicial actions as a method of punishing those who had participated in the May Days against the government. The leadership of the CNT was almost entirely discredited among the workers, a final break which had been building up for years as some focused on winning the war while other prioritized ensuring the future of the revolutionary changes that had been possible in 1936. The POUM would also be directly targeted, an important aspect of the actions against the POUM were the influence that the Communist leadership in Moscow was trying to assert in Spain. Back in the Soviet Union the Great Purges were very much in full swing during 1937, and the POUM was seen as a great enemy of Communism, it was claimed that the group was simply made up of Trotskyists, the great enemy of that was being sought out during the purges. However, Largo Caballero was hesitant to make the POUM outright outlawed, which is wht the Communist ministers were demanding. Caballero did not fully understand the position that he was in at this time. Over the course of less than a year, many of the other political leaders and parties that had helped to create the Caballero government had come to look to the Communists as perhaps the best hope for the Republic. Both the centrist liberals and the social democrats wanted a greater amount of centralization, which the Communists were also striving for. They also knew that the Republican military effort required continued support and supplies from the Soviets. This made working with the Communists, in the eyes of many, essential not just for winning the war but the very existence of the Republic. With so much of his former support drifting away Caballero could have tried to form a government made up of other groups, based upon the Anarchists mostly. However, such a course almost certainly would have required drastic changes to the government, and for Caballero himself to give up his position as War Minister, which he steadfastly refused to do. Caballero believed that a Communist Coup was incredibly likely given their power in the military, and he believed his position as Minister of War as an important part of preventing that from occurring. And so, instead of trying to cobble something together, he resigned on May 17th, ending the Caballero government which had long been in crisis.
To form a new government the Socialist Juan Negrin, who had been the Finance Minister in Caballero’s government, was installed as Prime Minister. The official Communist influence on the government was quite small, two mostly unimportant ministries, with the rest filled with socialists, liberals, and republicans. While their official presence was small, it was clear that the Communist influence over the course of the government was strong. On its very first day the Negrin government shut down the POUM newspapers, then on June 16th the group was declared illegal. POUM leaders were arrested, along with their families in some cases, the leaders were then taken to a secret prison in Madrid. It would be claimed that the POUM had become a fascist organization, actively trying to undermine the Republic. This was absolutely false, but it did not matter. The power of the elected legislature, the Cortes, was almost entirely removed, and the new government very quickly became a top down affair, with little control from the former political bureaucracy. For the anarchists, this simply officialized their concerns about the course of the Republican government. As one anarchist would say ‘Whether Negrín won with his communist cohorts, or Franco won with his Italians and Germans, the results would be the same for us.’ This feeling would poison the Anarchist support for the war, which would never come close to reaching its previous highs. However, the new government would once again prepare for another Republican offensive, which would be named the Battle of Brunete, which we will discuss next episode.