The Second Spanish Republic: From Reform to Revolution

Constraints, Conflicts, and Stages: Successes and Disappointments

Domestic Economic Conditions

From the outset, a deep distrust festered between landowners and businessmen. The immediate consequence of April 14th was the withdrawal of over 10% of bank deposits due to anxieties surrounding future economic prospects. The economic landscape of the Republic can be divided into three distinct stages, each intertwined with the prevailing political climate:

  1. The Reformist Biennium (April 1931 – November 1933): This period, characterized by a leftist government, witnessed a decline in the economy.
  2. The Conservative Biennium (1934-1936): Under conservative leadership, the economy experienced a moderate recovery.
  3. Post-Popular Front Victory (February 1936 – July 1936): Following the Popular Front’s triumph in February 1936, the economy went into decline, culminating in the coup of July 1936.

The Republic’s economic woes were primarily internal. Economic policies prioritized achieving a balanced budget, aiming to align expenditures with revenues and curb the growth of public debt. However, the reduction in public spending negatively impacted industries such as steel, construction, machinery, and shipbuilding. Furthermore, increased wages and reduced working hours diminished company profits.

External Economic Conditions

The regime change coincided with the global economic crisis triggered by the 1929 Wall Street Crash. Spanish exports of wine, citrus, and mineral oil dwindled. The devaluation of the peseta, while making Spanish exports cheaper, coupled with tariff protection for imports, exacerbated social conflicts.

Social Consequences

Intense social conflict gripped much of Andalusia, Extremadura, and Castilla-La Mancha, regions dominated by large estates. For the majority of peasants, land reform represented a beacon of hope for escaping poverty. However, the slow progress and eventual stagnation of agrarian reform dashed these hopes, fueling social unrest. The conflict escalated in 1933, fueled by revolutionary attempts by the CNT (National Confederation of Labor) and the Caballero-led faction of the PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party).

The CNT saw an opportunity to incite revolution and social upheaval, advocating for peasant uprisings and the establishment of libertarian communes to dismantle the bourgeois order. Strikes, insurrections, and land occupations became increasingly common. These revolts often involved occupying town halls, destroying land registry records, and attempting to implement collectivization and libertarian communism. However, they were invariably met with the arrival of the Civil Guard and Assault Guard, resulting in brutal repression.

Stages of the Republic

1. The Reformist Biennium (1931-1933)

From December 1931 to November 1933, Manuel Azaña led a coalition government comprising left-wing Republicans and Socialists, who embarked on an ambitious reform program.

Army Reform

Azaña sought to establish a democratic, professional army subservient to civilian authority. The Retirement Act, allowing officers to retire with full pay if they pledged allegiance to the Republic, was met with resistance. The closure of the Zaragoza Military Academy, where Franco had been director, further antagonized the army, which perceived these actions as an assault on military tradition.

Church-State Relations

The government aimed to curtail the Church’s influence and secularize society. The Constitution reflected this through the separation of church and state, freedom of religion, the abolition of state funding for worship and the clergy, and the legalization of divorce and civil marriage. The Jesuit order was dissolved, and religious orders were banned from teaching. These measures were met with fierce opposition from Catholic sectors, who viewed them as an attack on religion. Anti-clericalism among the populace led to sporadic violence against churches and convents.

Agrarian Reform

Given the significance of agriculture in the Spanish economy, agrarian reform was a cornerstone of the Republic’s agenda. With approximately two million landless laborers and 750,000 tenant farmers, the need for reform was dire, particularly in Andalusia, Extremadura, and Castilla-La Mancha, where land ownership was highly concentrated.

The 1932 Land Reform Law allowed for the expropriation of land from grandees without compensation. Poorly cultivated land, systematically leased irrigated land, and land left un-irrigated by their owners were also eligible for expropriation with compensation. The Agrarian Reform Institute (ARI) was tasked with implementing the law, but its efforts proved insufficient, settling only 12,000 families (10% of the target) in two years. This fueled discontent among landowners and disillusionment among peasants, exacerbating social tensions.

Centralist State Reform: The Autonomies

The 1931 Constitution recognized the right to autonomy for regions with nationalist sentiments. In Catalonia, Francesc Macià of Esquerra Republicana had proclaimed the Catalan Republic within an Iberian Federation on April 14, 1931. The Statute of Catalonia, granting Catalonia its own government, parliament, and control over economic, social, educational, and cultural matters, was passed in 1932. Esquerra Republicana won the first parliamentary elections, and Macià became President of the Generalitat (Catalan government).

The Basque Country’s Statute of Autonomy, a result of consensus between nationalists, republicans, and socialists, was delayed until October 1936 due to the outbreak of the Civil War. José Antonio Aguirre, leader of the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), was elected Lehendakari (President of the Basque Country). The Galician Statute was never adopted due to the war.

The recognition of autonomy faced stiff opposition from right-wing parties, reluctance from some Republicans, and resistance from centralist sectors within the military.

Social Reforms

Largo Caballero, the Socialist Minister of Labor, implemented reforms to improve working conditions, including collective bargaining, mixed tribunals to resolve labor disputes, reduced working hours, and the promotion of social insurance. These measures drew the ire of employers’ organizations.

Educational Reforms

The government prioritized universal, free, compulsory, and secular education. They established 10,000 new schools, created 7,000 teaching positions, and increased the education budget by 50%. Pedagogical Missions were established to promote cultural development in rural areas through libraries, cinema, theater, and lectures.

The Crisis of the Biennium

Azaña’s government faced mounting pressure from both the right and the far left. On August 10, 1932, General Sanjurjo, the head of the Civil Guard, led a coup attempt in Seville. Swift government action and the support of labor forces quashed the coup. Sanjurjo was sentenced to death, later commuted to life imprisonment.

In January 1933, anarchist groups reignited their revolutionary efforts, resorting to bombings, attacks on barracks, and the formation of councils to achieve libertarian communism. The most tragic incident occurred in Casas Viejas (Cádiz), where a peasant uprising was brutally suppressed by the Civil Guard and Assault Guard. The incident sparked nationwide protests, tarnishing Azaña’s reputation. The Socialists withdrew from the government, prompting Azaña’s resignation. President Alcalá Zamora dissolved Parliament and called for new elections.

2. The Conservative Biennium (1933-1936)

The November 19th elections saw a 67% turnout, with increased abstention in anarchist strongholds. Conservatives campaigned on revising the Constitution, repealing secular laws, and granting amnesty to the 1932 rebels. The CEDA (Confederation of Autonomous Rights) secured 115 seats, Lerroux’s Radicals won 102, Socialists 61, and Agrarians 36. The left-wing Republicans suffered significant losses, while Esquerra Republicana maintained its position and the conservative Catalan League gained 24 seats. The far-right, represented by Spanish Renewal and the Traditionalists, won 35 seats. José Antonio Primo de Rivera, leader of the Falange Española, was also elected.

The CEDA, a coalition of various right-wing groups led by Gil Robles, advocated for religion, family, social order, labor discipline, and private property. The Falange Española, with its fascist ideology, promoted anti-democratic, Spanish nationalist ideals and formed paramilitary groups.

This period was marked by the dominance of Lerroux’s Radical Party, which had shifted towards conservative positions, and the CEDA. The Radical Party government, supported by the CEDA, rolled back many of the previous reforms:

  • Land reform was halted, and land was returned to large landowners.
  • The implementation of the Basque Statute was suspended.
  • Funding for worship and the clergy was reinstated.
  • Amnesty was granted to the 1932 rebels.
  • The Catalan government’s Crop Contracts Act, which aimed to grant ownership to tenant farmers after fifteen years, was challenged.

Strikes intensified throughout 1934, reflecting social and political discontent with the government’s regressive policies. Left-wing parties and trade unions called for a united front to counter the right-wing resurgence.

The October 1934 Revolution

In October 1934, Lerroux appointed three CEDA ministers to his government. This provoked a backlash from the left, who perceived it as a threat to the Republic. Worker-communist, socialist, and anarchist factions rose up in Asturias, seizing control of town halls and barracks. The region briefly experienced a revolutionary regime. Franco, leading the Army of Africa, was dispatched to quell the uprising. The rebellion, lacking the capacity to seize power solely through workers’ forces, was crushed. Official figures reported over 1,300 deaths and numerous arrests.

In Barcelona, Lluís Companys, President of the Generalitat, declared a Catalan State within a Federal Republic on October 6th. The army swiftly suppressed the revolt, arresting its leaders. Companys was sentenced to 30 years in prison, and the Catalan Statute was suspended.

The October Revolution was interpreted in various ways: as a communist and socialist attempt to establish a Bolshevik dictatorship, as a defense of the Republic against right-wing threats, or as a workers’ uprising against a potential fascist dictatorship.

The Crisis of the Conservative Biennium

The defeat of the October Revolution emboldened the right and reassured employers. In May 1935, the CEDA gained five ministerial positions in the new government, with Gil Robles as Minister of War. He appointed Franco as Chief of Staff. The government focused on dismantling the reforms of the previous biennium.

A political scandal erupted in late 1935 when it was revealed that the authorization of a roulette game involved bribes to Radical Party members. The scandal, dubbed the”estraperlo affair” severely damaged the Radical Party’s reputation and undermined its parliamentary majority. President Alcalá Zamora dissolved Parliament and called for new elections in February 1936.

3. The 1936 Elections and the Road to Civil War

The February 1936 elections resulted in a victory for the Popular Front, a coalition of left-wing parties. The Popular Front campaigned on a platform of amnesty for those imprisoned after the 1934 uprising, the resumption of agrarian reform, and the restoration of Catalan autonomy. The right-wing National Bloc, led by José Calvo Sotelo, also made significant gains. The center parties (Radicals, Progressives, PNV) secured only slightly over 500,000 votes and 40 seats. The results highlighted the deep polarization of Spanish society.

The elections failed to quell the political turmoil. From April to June 1936, both the far-right and far-left engaged in violence and unrest. Manuel Azaña formed a government composed of left-wing Republicans in April. That same month, Alcalá Zamora was removed as President of the Republic and replaced by Azaña. The new government, led by Santiago Casares Quiroga, also consisted of left-wing Republicans.

The political climate became increasingly volatile, with the Communists gaining influence and membership. The UGT (General Union of Workers) and CNT intensified their demands on the government, which they considered bourgeois. Left-wing parties struggled to establish a unified political strategy with the working class, who prioritized social revolution over supporting the government.

Right-wing forces, particularly the Falange Española and the National Bloc, resorted to increasingly aggressive tactics to counter the rise of the left. Street clashes between opposing factions became commonplace, resulting in numerous deaths. The wave of strikes continued unabated, and peasant unrest led to land seizures. Violence, including killings and church burnings, escalated, overwhelming the Casares Quiroga government’s ability to maintain order.

Fearing a military coup, the government reassigned suspected generals: Mola to Pamplona, Franco to the Canary Islands, and Goded to the Balearic Islands. However, these precautions proved futile. The assassination of Lieutenant Castillo, a known leftist, on July 12th was followed by the murder of Calvo Sotelo, leader of the National Bloc, by Assault Guard members on July 13th. On July 17th, the Army of Africa, stationed in Spanish Morocco, revolted against the government.

4. The Military Coup and the Outbreak of the Civil War (July 1936)

The coup was orchestrated by General Mola. His plan involved the simultaneous seizure of key military garrisons, including those in Madrid, Barcelona, and Spanish Morocco. General Sanjurjo, exiled in Portugal since his failed coup in 1932, was designated as the supreme commander. The rebellion enjoyed the support of most right-wing political forces, including the CEDA, the Falange Española, and the Carlists.

The conspirators had differing visions for Spain’s future. Mola aimed to establish a military dictatorship that would dismantle the Popular Front’s program. The CEDA sought the restoration of the Alfonsine monarchy. The Falange envisioned a fascist regime modeled after Italy, while the Carlists desired a return to traditional monarchy.

On July 17th, the Melilla garrison revolted. The following day, Franco flew from the Canary Islands to Morocco to assume command of the Army of Africa. By July 18th, the uprising had spread throughout most of mainland Spain. The rebels’ swift capture of the Strait of Gibraltar, facilitated by Mussolini’s air support, allowed Franco’s Army of Africa to land in Spain in early August. The Spanish Civil War had begun.