A Brief History of Spain – Part 30, the Second Republic (1931 – 1936)

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The second republic was short-lived. The parties that supported it, ranging from left-anarchist, communist, socialist (PSOE) to liberal conservative, were deeply divided both internally and among each other.

The large national debt left by dictator Primo de Rivera, the global economic crisis, and food shortages caused by crop failures made the republic’s modernist ideals hard to realise. In response to social legislation, the wealthy bourgeoisie moved their capital abroad, causing the peseta to significantly depreciate.

Also read: A Brief History of Spain – Part 29, The emergence of the second republic (1930 – 1931)

The church, major industrialists, large landowners, and sections of the army resisted, seeing their position in the new Spain threatened, as well as the nation’s status due to the recognition of autonomous regions and the curbing of the church’s role. Right-wing parties united in a coalition of autonomous right-wing parties, with Acción Popular (later Partido Popular, PP) as the cornerstone. Their aim was to win elections with a large right-wing party, restore economic order, and defend the threatened Catholic church’s interests.

Elections of 1933 and 1936

In the 1933 elections, the left was divided, and the right-wing coalition won. Key positions, like the ministries of Agriculture and Labour, were taken over by the right, leading to massive strikes. The army restored order, and leftist politicians and union leaders were imprisoned. Government corruption scandals and division on the right led to new elections in 1936. Leftist parties successfully entered the elections as a united front.

Calls for military intervention grew

The campaign revealed two irreconcilable groups: right-wing Catholic authoritarian vs. a spectrum of left-wing anti-clerical parties. The left won the 1936 elections, leaving the right divided and unable to reverse the changes made by the left. Calls for military intervention grew, especially among new parties with a fascist inclination, like the National Bloc and the Falangists led by José Antonio, son of the former dictator, Primo de Rivera.

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Apocalyptic atmosphere and polarisation

1936 was marked by factory worker strikes, peasant uprisings in the impoverished south, and clashes between left and right in cities. Politicians on both sides stirred fears of their opponents, whether it be the threat of Falangists or a Bolshevik revolution. The apocalyptic atmosphere and polarisation made a political solution seem impossible. The left narrowly won the elections, but the young parliamentary democracy was soon stifled due to a lack of consensus and dialogue culture after decades of dictatorship and clientelism.

Division of Spain

Chaos ensued; left and right militias began arming, with much of the population owning a weapon. The new government tried to reduce the power of unfavourable officers (including Franco) by relocating or retiring them. The outlines of a civil war emerged, clearly delineating the sides: right-wing Catholic authoritarian nationalism vs. left anti-clerical and regionalist-separatist. Spain’s division was also geographic.

Lack of moderate politicians

A historical tragedy was that Largo Caballero, the “Spanish Lenin,” gained dominance among the moderate social democrats and called for revolution. Meanwhile, the Catholic party shifted its allegiance, with many youths joining the Falange, seeking stronger action against the left. The war might have been avoided if moderate politicians had been more skilled in democratic negotiation, compromise, and coalition-building. Instead, a political process emerged, rendering a democratic minority almost powerless against the extremes. Under the inspiring leadership of Dolores Ibárruri Gómez (La Pasionara), the communists seemed poised to take power.

A military coup initiated by Spanish units in Morocco and taken up by army units in mainland Spain failed due to the fierce resistance of poorly armed workers.

Start of the civil war

The civil war was now a reality. The right aimed to restore order and return the elites to power. Spain experienced a class struggle in which religion played an increasingly important role, notably the burning of churches and monasteries in 1931. During the Republic, the church became more political, with many clergy viewing the war’s outbreak as a blessing. The archbishop of Salamanca stated the conflict resembled a civil war. But at its core, it was a crusade against left-leaning non-believers. The bishops openly supported Franco’s regime, resulting in a symbiosis later termed national Catholicism.

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