The Second Spanish Republic and Civil War

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Part 3 of Between the World Wars

A Political Education snippet

The Second Spanish Republic (1931-1939) was a short-lived democracy born out of a military dictatorship and which gave birth to yet another, the vengeful regime of General Francisco Franco. The Second Republic tells a familiar story of the interwar period in Europe. The fall of a once powerful monarch led to hopes of a new beginning for liberal democracy. On the other side, this explosion of social change and economic redistribution drew the burning ire of reactionaries and right wing elites. The right wing managed to win control of the Republic’s parliament for two years in a major backlash election before losing political control over Spain once again in 1936. Unable to govern effectively or maintain popularity, far right elements began plotting, waiting to seize control by force. 

While largely dealing with the anti-Republic right politically, the Republic’s alliance of republicans and socialists used brutal policing to repress radical left wing uprisings. This repression of the more radical left, designed to maintain the Republic’s legitimacy, had the effect of continually eroding its only potential base of support. By the time the Republican-Socialist alliance returned to power in 1936, it was on a collision course for civil war with the right that it was wholly unprepared for.  Franco and the Nationalists would win the war, installing a military autocracy that would rule Spain until 1975.

First Spanish Republic and Restoration

The constitutional republic of 1931-1939 is referred to as the Second Spanish Republic because Spain underwent a brief period of democratic rule from February 11, 1873 to December 29, 1874. This rupture in the Spanish social order came about when King Amadeo I abdicated the throne and Republic was declared by the parliament. King Amadeo I had suffered a string of political controversies which undermined his authority, leading him to declare the people of Spain “ungovernable” and flee to Italy. The First Republic was ended abruptly by a military coup which installed a constitutional monarchy. The ensuing period, which stretched until the Second Spanish Republic, is known as the Restoration. The political order of the Restoration was characterized by an informal system of representation referred to as “el turno pacifico” or turnismo. “The peaceful turn” was an agreement between the liberal and conservative parties to take turns running the Cortes Generales, the Spanish parliament. The goal was to maintain political stability and to prevent radicals from gaining influence in the government. 

Though Spain enjoyed relative political stability under the Restoration for many years, the seeds of the Second Republic were sown in 1917. It was this year when Spain’s major socialist party, the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE) along with its associated trade union, the Unión General de Trabajadores (UGT), were organizing massive strikes and demonstrations in support of republicanism, socialism, and better conditions for workers. A period of civic strife broke out over the next three years, forming a period between 1918 and 1920 some refer to as the trienio bolchevique. Aside from urban strikes and demonstrations, the trienio also saw a wave of land seizures by peasants and activists that was likened to the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. This period was the genesis of a deep fear and resentment by the landowning class and other elites towards the Left that would reverberate for decades. It was during these chaotic struggles that the turnismo system of the Restoration and its constitutional monarchy showed their first signs of collapse.

Military Dictatorship (1923-1930)

The popular uprisings that began in 1917 were brought to a brutal end with a military coup orchestrated by Miguel Primo de Rivera in 1923. Primo suspended the constitution, dissolved the parliament and installed a dictatorship, assuring King Alfonso XIII and other political elites that his project to “regenerate” Spain would only last ninety days. Primo quickly reneged on his promise and would end up ruling for the remainder of the 1920s.

The PSOE’s cooperation with Primo led to rifts within the party and between others in the left wing. This included the sprouting of a new intra-party feud within the PSOE between Indalecio Prieto and Largo Caballero. Prieto was a journalist and activist who had large support from upper class leftists and intellectuals while Largo Caballero drew more from the trade unions. Prieto criticized Largo Caballero for speaking like a radical Marxist but behaving as a pragmatic bureaucratic, as evidenced by his acceptance of a position in Primo’s regime. Largo Caballero would answer that Prieto was merely envious and lacked any real socialist direction. Both men would go on to assume high-ranking positions and wield critical influence in the Second Republic.

By the time of Primo’s resignation in early 1930, the Great Depression was in full swing and political chaos was raging throughout Europe and in Spain. King Alfonso XIII appointed a replacement for Primo whose ineffectual leadership left Spain open to radical change. On August 17, 1930, a coalition of liberals, republicans, socialists, and anarchists formed what would be called the Pact of San Sebastian. The pact constituted an agreement among these various factions to push for liberal democracy and dethrone the king. 

Francisco Largo Caballero, “el Lenin Español”, left

The Second Republic 1931-1939

In June 1931, a few months after King Alfonso XIII’s abdication of the throne, the new Second Republic held its first general election. The PSOE and other leftist parties garnered an overwhelming victory in the Cortes parliament. One of the architects of the Pact of San Sebastian, the moderate republican Niceto Alcala-Zamora served as prime minister before becoming elected to the Spanish presidency. The cabinet was filled, however, with representatives of leftist groups, including Largo Caballero and Pieto from PSOE. On October 16, 1931, Manuel Azana would replace Alcala-Zamora as prime minister and embark on an ambitious agenda of land reform and regional sovereignty for areas such as Catalonia.

Proclamation of the Second Republic

Aided by PSOE members Prieto, who served as Minister of Public Works, and Largo Caballero, as Minister of Labour, Azana was immediately tasked with guiding the Second Republic through a financial crisis. The economic downtown was precipitated by the fleeing of wealthy citizens, and their capital, as they feared the new Republic would expropriate their assets. This would severely limit the Azana administration’s ability to deliver on their promises of public works spending.

A self-described “middle-class republican,” Azana’s leadership also alienated a significant portion of left wing groups who saw him as too compromising. Azana failed to deliver on his promises of economic redistribution and improving worker conditions.  Azana also used the newly formed Assault Guard, as well as Spain’s long-standing national police force, the Civil Guard, to crush left wing uprisings. One of the most notable flash-points was in 1933 at Casas Viejas, an anarcho-syndicalist uprising where Azana’s national police summarily executed fourteen prisoners. Instances like this drove wedges between the Republican-Socialist alliance and those further to the left, such as the CNT trade union. Leftist political groups including the Stalinist Communist Party of Spain (PCE), began to increasingly align with the right to thwart the Azana administration’s legislative agenda. 

Azana’s administration from 1931-1934 came to be defined by a tenuous Republican-Socialist alliance with competing aims and no clear political program. Azana initiated many drastic reforms that were only taken half-way, angering the right and leaving many on the left feeling abandoned. Ultimately, Azana’s administration also had to contend with Spain’s most powerful forces which did not want any fundamental change in the social order. Azana, while at war with the church, had attempted to reform of the rightist-dominated Spanish army and national police, alter the centuries of traditional local rule by landowning elites in the south, and grapple with the ravages of the Great Depression and capital flight from Spain in the wake of the Second Republic. Falling far short of cementing in place these wide-reaching reforms, the Republican-Socialist alliance would not prove strong enough to survive the next election.

Right Wing Backlash and 1933 Election

In early 1933, Spain’s chief far right groups coalesced into the Spanish Confederation of Autonomous Rights (CEDA), a political party founded by Jose Maria Gil-Robles in order to contest the Republican-Socialist alliance in the upcoming election. The three main political wings of the anti-republican right were the Carlists—a century-old monarchist fringe group, the Alfonsine monarchists, and the explicitly fascist Falangists. By November, CEDA, aligned with the Radical Republican Party (PRR) would go on to win a majority of seats in the Cortes. Incidentally, this was also the first election women were allowed to participate in. Though most of their votes went to center and center-right parties, women’s suffrage was abhorred by the reactionary right wing. To them, it still represented the degeneration of Spanish society and contributed to their deep-seated hostility towards the Republic which was reflected in their propaganda.

The results of the election threw what was left of the Republican-Socialist alliance into a scramble for control over the Cortes. The recent ascent of the Nazi Party in Germany caused many to fear that the same fate could happen in Spain. Many in CEDA openly praised Hitler and spoke of abolishing socialism. Prior to his big election win in 1933, CEDA’s leader Gil-Robles gave an impassioned campaign speech where he spoke of “purg[ing] the fatherland of Judaising freemasons.” The leaders of the PSOE rejected participating in a Cortes with Gil-Robles as prime minister. President Alcala-Zamora, for his part, refused to appoint Gil-Robles, selecting instead Alejandro Lerroux, the populist leader of the PRR. Despite the attempts to keep the far right out of government, PRR, with the legislative support of CEDA, began rolling back the reforms instituted by Azana’s administration. By 1934, Alcala-Zamora caved to political pressure and began admitting CEDA members into the presidential cabinet.

The years of 1933-1934 came be to known by some as the bienium negro. The “black two years” were  merely a precursor to the right wing retaliatory politics that General Franco would perfect during his rule. In this period, worker’s councils which had grown during the first few years of the Second Republic were closed and replaced by rightist government bodies. In areas with significant left wing protests, activists would be arrested wholesale, regardless of their particular involvement in any of the demonstrations. Thousands would be arrested as political prisoners under the Lerroux administration. As the protest movements grew, the rightist government increasingly relied on the military to crush the rebellions, including the Spanish colonial army led by General Franco.

The repressive tactics of the rightist government combined with the utter failure of their economic vision, which amounted to little more than reversing the policies implemented by Azana’s administration, the right wing quickly lost its grip on democratic power. By the elections of 1936, the Republican-Socialist alliance was reborn and the left had unified into the Popular Front to topple CEDA and its enablers in the PRR from their governing majority.

1936 Election and Civil War

The 1936 elections held on February 16 led to a narrow popular victory for the Republican-Socialist alliance, now formally referred to as the Popular Front. However, the victory brought significant gains in the Cortes, leading to a series of difficult decisions on how to allocate power. The alliance ran on a platform of defending the Second Republic from creeping fascism and the ever-present threat of another military coup. 

Azana, now president, also had to contend with blooming radicalism on the left. Many farm workers were keen to personally take on the Republican-Socialist promises of rapid reform and to see those promises as a license for the expropriation of land and crops. The socialist leadership was once more at odds over how to address rank-and-file leftist activists and organizers with diverging political attitudes. Prieto tended towards caution and implored those in positions of authority to restore order so as not to further alienate the middle class or embolden the Falangists and other violent rightists. Largo Caballero, on the other hand, preached fervently for revolution and more widespread demonstrations. Largo Caballero also enjoyed increasing attention from the Comintern, being deemed “the Spanish Lenin” by the Soviet Union’s Pravda newspaper. This splintering between factions aligned with the Comintern, those with the anarchists, the Republic, and those with the PSOE would become severely debilitating during the civil war. Ultimately, as president of Spain’s largest labor union, the UGT, Largo Caballero enjoyed a much more influential public platform than Prieto.

The final shot across the bow which cemented the right’s resolve to dismantle the Second Republic was the assassination of Jose Calvo Soleto on July 13, 1936. Soleto was one of the most prominent proponents of monarchy in Spain and was beloved by the far right. He had spent the past year fashioning the intellectual underpinnings and justifications for a violent counter-revolution against the Republic. The right wing’s fury at the loss of Soleto was compounded by the fact that Prieto’s bodyguard was implicated in the assassination, making high-ranking Republic officials appear complicit in the plot. Soleto’s death sealed the commitment of General Franco to the fateful military coup which would spark the Spanish Civil War only days later. 

The Spanish Civil War

Fought from 1936-1939, the Spanish Civil War has been referred to as the “dress rehearsal” for World War II. The civil war received this moniker due to the intense international involvement and interest. Germany and Italy had joined the conflict in a support capacity only ten days after the military action began. The rightist groups in Spain had united under the banner of the Nationalists, while the loose coalition of socialists, anarchists and republicans dedicated to preserving the Second Republic called themselves Loyalists. Some brigades of Nationalist fighters had been training in Italy since 1934. The only direct material support the Loyalists received was from the Soviet Union. 

The lack of support to the Loyalists was due primarily to a non-intervention pact engineered by Great Britain. All of the major European powers signed onto the pact, but only Germany, Italy, and the Soviet Union chose to openly intervene and flout the agreement. Winston Churchill, who initially supported non-interventionism, came to reflect that the political leadership of Britain had “chosen their class interests over the national interest” by allowing Germany and Italy to determine the fate of the Second Spanish Republic.

The other remarkable international dimension of the Spanish Civil War was the flood of foreign volunteers. Thousands came to aid both sides of the war, with dedicated left wing Russian, American, British, and French volunteers largely supporting the Loyalists. While Germany and Italy saw thousands of their citizens volunteer with the Nationalists, many of their citizens fought on the side of the Loyalists as well. One of the more notable examples of these volunteer fighters was George Orwell, who served in the militia of the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification (POUM), a Trotskyist party which was frequently undermined and eventually subsumed by the Comintern-led PCE.  

Tom Mann Centuri unit, International Brigade

In the end, the overwhelming military aid from Germany and Italy, combined with the institutional advantage enjoyed by the Nationalists in the Army, made the war a one-sided affair from the beginning. It is a testament to the will of the Loyalists that they held out as long as they did. The Spanish Civil War leaves powerful memory due to how uniquely ideological it was. While the common causes of civil war were present: rapid industrialization, changing social mores, a power vacuum left by an abdicating king; the sides taken by the Spanish combatants internally and their respective allies externally were profoundly influenced by their political worldviews.

Defeated Republicans marching into exile in France
Guernica, bombed in 1937

Conclusion

George Orwell writes in his Homage to Catalonia about his time in Barcelona and other Spanish cities and villages during the war. He tells both about the beautiful camaraderie among the people and the dysfunction he witnessed while fighting to save the Second Republic. He explains how the Spanish formal “usted” was discarded for the informal “tu” as a display of equality. Further, no longer were upper class gentlemen acknowledged with the title of “Don,” but were instead “comrades.” In some cities, tipping was outlawed and waiters spoke to their customers in restaurants as regular acquaintances. These impressions left Orwell with a sense of the enormous possibilities that could come from revolution. While living in this environment, Orwell felt he understood what a society without class divisions and with true solidarity could look like. Despite the internecine battling and vindictiveness of the leftist parties Orwell encountered in Spain, he left the country with his belief in socialism much stronger than when he arrived. 

This message of left wing unity, the dream of a better future, and the clarity of vision to confront fascism is a major lesson of the Spanish Second Republic, and one that continues to bear fruit today.

-Kelvin W.

(Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not express the views or opinions of my employer.)

References

In Our Time, “The Spanish Civil War,” BBC Radio 4. Apr 3, 2003. (audio).

John Simkin, “Socialist Party in Spain,” Spartacus Educational. September 1997 (updated January 2020.)

Orwell, George. Homage to Catalonia. London. Secker and Warburg. 1938.

Brennan, Gerald, The Spanish Labyrinth. Cambridge University Press, 1971. 

Preston, Paul. The Spanish Civil War: Reaction, Revolution and Revenge. London. Harper Perennial. 2006.

Revolutionary Left Radio, “The Spanish Civil War,” revolutionaryleftradio.lybsin.com Jul 18, 2018. (audio).

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