In 1921, the Spanish army waged war against rebellious Moroccan tribes, resulting in a disastrous defeat with ten thousand Spanish casualties and a major loss of face for Alfonso XIII, who had personally involved himself in the war.
It became evident that the Spanish army, despite allocating half of the national budget to defence, was ill-equipped for warfare. The parliament demanded an explanation, leading to a two-year investigation into the matter.
The dissatisfaction among the population with the functioning of politics had already led to suggestions in certain circles for the establishment of a temporary dictatorship to enact necessary reforms. Meanwhile, there was discontent within the military over the lack of political and financial support and fear of being used as a scapegoat by politicians.
General Primo de Rivera
Just a few days before the report on the Moroccan conflict was to be presented to parliament, General Primo de Rivera seized power on September 13, 1923, marking the first “Pronunciamiento” in 50 years. Lieutenant General Primo de Rivera, an Andalusian, was politically inexperienced but had become popular as a captain general in restless Catalonia. As a dedicated enforcer of order, he was also willing to embrace reform.
Fatal mistake of Alfonso XIII
The government resigned, albeit with the usual protest. As a constitutional monarch, Alfonso made a fatal mistake in 1923 by readily facilitating Primo de Rivera’s coup and the establishment of his dictatorship. He appointed Primo de Rivera as Prime Minister, allowed him to dissolve parliament, and granted him the power to rule by decree. From 1923 onward, Alfonso could focus on fast sports cars and high society because Primo did not tolerate any interference from the king.
New regime enthusiastically received
The new regime was enthusiastically received by a significant portion of the population. Many saw Primo de Rivera as a leader who would chastise the corrupt political caste of parliamentarians. The Catalan bourgeoisie and Andalusian landed gentry hoped for an end to strikes and the prevention of a Bolshevik revolution. The aversion to the “old politics”, that had only brought Spain marginalization and significant lag behind the rest of Europe, resulted in cautious support for the takeover from liberal and intellectual circles.
Military directorate as a temporary government
Primo de Rivera established a military directorate as a temporary government, comprised of generals. This temporary arrangement lasted for six years. Primo, being a true Andalusian, enjoyed alcohol, women, and horses. He was characterized as charming, paternalistic, blunt, and simplistic. Primo was a dictator, but compared to other European dictators of his time (such as Mussolini) and later (Franco, Hitler), he was more moderate and liberal. Although there were limitations on freedoms such as censorship, Primo’s regime did not resort to political killings. Regionalism was not tolerated, and Catalan nationalism was suppressed. Primo respected the monarchy but wisely kept Alfonso out of state affairs.
The state of war brought stability to the cities, and strikes and violent expressions of social unrest temporarily subsided. In Morocco, Abd el-Krim and his rebels were ultimately defeated in a war fought jointly with France. In 1926, a new technocratic government was formed, with both military and civilian officials holding positions.
While debates on the form and execution of the “Regeneration” continued in political and intellectual circles, Primo focused on industrialization and public works. Large-scale projects were initiated, such as hydrological works, expansion of the electricity grid, and the construction and improvement of ports, railways, and roads. A national oil company (CAMPSA) was established, and homeownership was encouraged among the population.
Protectionist economic policy
The implementation of a modern progressive tax system by Finance Minister Calvo Sotelo achieved a fair distribution of burdens and increased revenue. The national economy aimed to be as self-sufficient as possible. Internationally, Primo pursued a protectionist economic policy. By the late 1920s, Spain experienced almost full employment. The ambitious and sometimes megalomaniacal Primo managed to realize many of his plans.
During World War I, Spain managed to remain neutral and experienced an economic upturn thanks to new trade opportunities. In the relatively prosperous 1920s, Spain thrived economically under Primo de Rivera. Industrialization began to outline the contours of a consumer society. For the first time in Spanish history, less than 50% of the labour force was employed in agriculture.
Emerging coup plans
However, support for the dictatorship began to wane throughout the 1920s. Support within the military for Primo de Rivera had never been strong, and coup plans emerged as early as 1925. The Catalans felt oppressed by Primo’s rule. Intellectuals, constrained by censorship, increasingly opposed the regime. The exiled Miguel de Unamuno, who had referred to Primo as a “coward, thief, and criminal,” became a symbol of intellectual resistance. Students took to the streets, and riots erupted in cities, resulting in the destruction of statues of Alfonso XIII.
The Wall Street Crash brought economic headwinds and a severe devaluation of the peseta. Meanwhile, failed agricultural harvests in 1929 further darkened the picture. However, the decisive factor was a new conflict that arose between Primo and the generals regarding the promotion of officers. The army strongly advised Alfonso to dismiss Primo.
Dismissal of Primo
Primo had lost all his support, and Alfonso had little choice but to dismiss him, hoping that the people would forget his own failure as a constitutional monarch in 1923. General Berenguer was appointed as the temporary successor to organise democratic elections.
In 1930, Primo, an old and ailing man, departed for Paris, where he dedicated himself primarily to visits to churches and brothels, and he passed away a few months later. His children, Miguel, Jose Antonio, Fernando, and Pilar, would later play significant roles during Franco’s dictatorship.