Political philosophies in the Latin country of Spain are so aggressive that journalists who have an opinion, or dare to have an opinion about politics that affect Spain run the risk of, at the least, being spat upon in the street. At the most, they might be killed, as happened to a number of writers and journalists during the 1930s. Victims were usually affiliated to the Left, but many who died were of the Right. We are going to attempt to write an unbiased account of the Spanish Second Republic which lasted from 1931 to 1936; we are not associated with, nor affiliated with any political party. Nor do we consider ourselves right-wing or left-wing. An American TV crime series used to have its chief character saying “Just give us the facts . . .” in every episode. That is what we intend to do in this post.
Spain’s first democratic administration for nearly sixty years was established in 1931 and was cheered by the population, following fairly disastrous policies of the monarchy. But the Republic had to face an almost indefatigable series of obstructions, such as the unmovable and institutional power of ‘the ruling classes’, the timidity and feebleness of the State, immeasurable debt and the international impact of the Depression and, above all, radical differences in the regime’s own ranks.
The Government of 1931 was provisionally established in April – and officially placed in power by the general election of June. Republicans and Socialists won an impressive victory. The Spanish Right was demoralised and shocked by the fall of the Monarchy (King Alfonso XIII). Its own weak organisation was hindered by the Church, which sat firmly on the fence, or abstained from comment.
A Constitution was passed in December which incorporated the principles of the Republican Left and Socialist idealism, as was expected. For a short while, this seemed acceptable, but then the biggest of the pro-Republican parties, the Radical Republican Party, walked out in protest against the swelling participation of the Socialists. At the same time two Roman Catholic ministers departed (in October) after declaring inacceptable the anti-clerical clauses embodied in the Constitution.
Manuel Azaña led the Republican/Socialist administration of 1931 – 3, and doubtless tried hard to change Spain from a reactionary, virtually medieval and backward country to a modern and progressive state within Europe. We must remember that Spain, though underpopulated, is a large territory only a little smaller than France. Her importance in the general scheme of things cannot be doubted. Far too many European states spoke and thought patronisingly of Spain in those days – sandy beaches, the killing of bulls, flamenco dancing and little else. It was erroneous thinking, and led to boycotts and sniffiness or outright bullying on the part of Britain, Germany and France. Russia, meanwhile, kept a close watch on the proceedings, as a future Marxist Spain would greatly increase Marshall Stalin’s world influence.
Attempts were made by Azaña’s administration to depoliticize the police and armed forces, with ignominious failure as his reward. The same effort was made with the judiciary and judges in general, but again the attempts failed. The Army was incensed by the administration’s political favouritism and interventionism, which it considered impertinent and unnecessary. Official hatred of the Church and its hierarchy did more harm than good by providing the Catholic Right organisations with rallying cries: ‘we must defend our Church!’
There was an abortive monarchist rising in August 1932 (without support from the exiled monarch), but an agrarian reform bill was passed, and autonomous status was handed to Cataluña. Still, reform of the land proceeded at snail’s pace, because landowners had not been consulted, and some state officials sabotaged it, possibly aided by the Guardia Civil, an integral part of the Army. There was also never enough money, as surrounding countries that might have contributed were turning a blind eye to what was happening in Spain. It must be said that there never was enough money to support Azaña’s reform schemes. The entire modernisation programme was frustrated by a lack of financial resources.
Violence was introduced at Casa Viejas in Andalucía (1933) when more than twenty Anarchists were killed by ‘Assault Guards’, which underlined the mistakes of agrarian reform and diminished the moral credibility of the Government. The outrage also drew attention to the Republic’s failure to impress the million strong trade union movement (CNT), which had been well-disposed towards the Republic in the first instance. This led to the ruling majority’s gradual decrease during 1933, due to the Socialists’ increasing frustration with what they called ‘a lack of commitment to socio-economic change’ which meant reducing the great landowners’ power to curb reform. The Government was dissolved in September, 1933.
There were no resources, agreement or expertise in the coalition, and almost complete failure of reform in the period 1931 – 33, mainly because of the hostility of the conservative classes to any kind of change that might disturb them. This was wrong ideologically, but perfectly understandable. How, one asks, do you reform such a traditional society with a parliamentary democratic regime in a time of financial crisis? This question has been unanswerable in Spain many times since the death of Franco, and is especially unanswerable now, in 2013.
The general election of November-December 1933 altered the course of the Republic. Right-wing CEDA won 115 seats in Congress, and the Radicals 104, but the Socialists won only fifty-eight and the Left Republican around forty. One of those dubious ‘pacts’ was formed between the Radical Party and CEDA, on the assumption that the radicals would expedite the Right’s minimum, not to say minimalist programme, perhaps in return for access to the finances of the public administration. Political corruption is hardly new. The CEDA’s aim was to replace the republic with a ‘corporate state’.
Perhaps some political commentators have forgotten that it was a Centre/Right administration that moved from December 1933 to October 1935 towards the Right in Spanish politics, at the same time as demolishing the reforms of 1931 – 32. This led to a schism among the Radicals in May, 1934 and an almost complete agricultural stoppage in the summer of that year. There was not enough food and sections of the population faced starvation. When three openly fascist members of CEDA entered the central administration in 1934 there was a Socialist general strike, a declaration of total Catalan independence, and an armed rising among the miners in Asturias. This was brutally repressed in October of that year, and served to emphasise the feeling (and the popular phrase) that there were ‘two Spains’.The CEDA gained more and more power at the expense of the Radicals in 1935, and the previously divided Left rallied to the banners of the Popular Front.
It was only a matter of time before the Radicals were disqualified from power (two financial scandals had a lot to do with it), and President Zamora became doubtful as to the CEDA’s democratic credibility. He dissolved the Cortes (Congress) and called for a general election which took place in February 1936 and was a bitterly fought contest between the National and Popular Fronts. The latter won an insignificant victory which helped nobody. The situation became potentially explosive, when successive Left Republican governments, unaided by the Socialists, proved unable to impose their political will. Landless, hungry labourers took the law into their own hands, frustrated by the lack of impetus. Socialist leader Largo Caballero spoke loudly and well at meetings, but it was hollow rhetoric and he did nothing to prepare for possible armed uprisings. The monarchists, Carlists (supporters of a pretender to the throne) and the Falangists (members of the falange Española) encouraged the bitterness and sense of failure through street meetings, propaganda and violence. Sections of the Army prepared for an inevitable coup d’état.
Largo Caballero (Socialist leader) astonished everyone by not permitting the moderate Socialist Indalecio Prieto to become Prime Minister (Presidente del Gobierno), and Manuel Azaña was elevated to the Presidency of the Republic, depriving it of a chance to contain the mounting hysteria, or prevent the already planned military coup. Azaña found himself isolated and friendless as President, with sick and over-tranquil Casares Quiroga as Presidente del Gobierno. There was no resolute leadership in the Republic. The unavoidable military rising of 17- 18 July 1936 brought about the dreadful Spanish Civil War, and the dramatic end of the Second Republic.