Excerpted from Spain: A Country Study Eric Solsten and Sandra W. Meditz, eds. (Washington, D. C.: Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress, 1988)


The African War and the Authoritarian Regime of Miguel Primo de Rivera

Spain was neutral in World War I, but the Spanish army was constantly engaged from 1909 to 1926 against Abd al Krim's Riff Berbers in Morocco, where Spain had joined France in proclaiming a protectorate. Successive civilian governments in Spain allowed the war to continue, but they refused to supply the army with the means to win it. Spanish losses were heavy to their fierce and skillful enemy, who was equipped with superior weapons. Riots against conscription for the African war spread disorder throughout the country, and opposition to the war was often expressed in church burnings. Officers, who often had served in Morocco, formed juntas to register complaints that were just short of pronunciamientos against wartime inflation, low fixed salaries for the military, alleged civilian corruption, and inadequate and scarce equipment.

Conditions in Morocco, increased anarchist and communist terrorism, industrial unrest, and the effects of the postwar economic slump prompted the pronunciamiento that brought a general officer, Miguel Primo de Rivera (in power, 1923-30), into office. His authoritarian regime originally enjoyed wide support in much of the country and had the confidence of the king and the loyalty of the army. The government lacked an ideological foundation, however; its mandate was based on general disillusionment with both the parliamentary government and the extreme partisan politics of the previous period.

Once in power, Primo de Rivera dissolved parliament and ruled through directorates and the aid of the military until 1930. His regime sponsored public works to curb unemployment. Protectionism and state control of the economy led to a temporary economic recovery. A better led and better supplied army brought the African war to a successful conclusion in 1926.

The precipitous economic decline in 1930 undercut support for the government from special-interest groups. For seven years, Primo de Rivera remained a man on horseback. He established no new system to replace parliamentary government. Criticism from academics mounted. Bankers expressed disappointment at the state loans that his government had tried to float. An attempt to reform the promotion system cost him the support of the army. This loss of army support caused him to lose the support of the king. Primo de Rivera resigned and died shortly afterward in exile.

Republican Spain

Antimonarchist parties won a substantial vote in the 1931 municipal elections. Alfonso XIII interpreted the outcome of the elections and the riots that followed as an indication of imminent civil war. He left the country with his family and appealed to the army for support in upholding the monarchy. When General Jose Sanjurjo, army chief of staff, replied that the armed forces would not support the king against the will of the people, Alfonso abdicated.

A multiparty coalition in which regional parties held the balance met at a constitutional convention at San Sebastian, the summer capital, to proclaim the Second Republic. The goals of the new republic, set forth at the convention, included reform of the army, the granting of regional autonomy, social reform and economic redistribution, the separation of church and state, and depriving the church of a role in education. Niceto Alcala Zamora, a nonparty conservative, became president and called elections for June.

The first general election of the Second Republic gave a majority to a coalition of the Republican Left (Izquierda Republicana--IR)--a middle-class radical party led by Manuel Azana, who became prime minister--and labor leader Francisco Largo Caballero's PSOE, backed by the UGT. Azana pledged that his government would gradually introduce socialism through the democratic process. His gradualism alienated the political left; his socialism, the right.

Azana's republicanism, like nineteenth-century liberalism and Bourbon regalism before it, was inevitably associated with anticlericalism. His government proposed to carry out the constitutional convention's recommendations for complete state control of education.

In 1932 the Catalan Generalitat gained recognition as the autonomous regional government for Catalonia. The region remained part of the Spanish republic and was tied more closely to it because of Madrid's grant of autonomy. Representatives from Catalonia to the Madrid parliament played an active role in national affairs. Efforts to reform the army and to eliminate its political power provoked a pronunciamiento against the government by Sanjurjo. The pronunciamiento, though unsuccessful, forced Azana to back down from dealing with the military establishment for the time being.

Azana's greatest difficulties derived from doctrinal differences within the government between his non-Marxist, bourgeois IR and the PSOE, who, after an initial period of cooperation, obstructed Azana at every step. Opposition from the UGT blocked attempts at labor legislation. The PSOE complained that Azana's reforms were inadequate to produce meaningful social change, though there was no parliamentary majority that would have approved Largo Caballero's far-reaching proposals to improve conditions for working people. Azana's legislative program may not have satisfied his ally, but it did rally moderate and conservative opinion against the coalition on the eve of the second general election in November 1932.

Azana's principal parliamentary opposition came from the two largest parties that could claim a national constituency, Lerroux's moderate, middle-class Radical Republicans and a rightwing Catholic organization, the Spanish Confederation of the Autonomous Right (Confederacion Espanola de Derechas Autonomas-- CEDA). Lerroux, who had grown more conservative and tolerant since his days as an antimonarchist firebrand, capitalized on the left's failures to reach a compromise with the church and to deal with industrial unrest and with the extragovernmental power of the UGT and the CNT. He appealed for conservative support by showing that Azana was at the mercy of the unions--as he was when in coalition with Largo Caballero.

CEDA was a coalition of groups under the leadership of Jose Maria Gil Robles, a law professor from Salamanca who had headed Popular Action (Accion Popular), an influential Catholic political youth movement. As a broadly based fusion party, CEDA could not afford a doctrinaire political stance, and its flexibility was part of its strength. Some elements in the party, however, favored a Christian social democracy, and they took the encyclicals of Pope Leo XIII as their guide. CEDA never succeeded in establishing a working-class base. Its electoral strength lay in the Catholic middle class and in the rural population. Gil Robles was primarily interested in 1932 in working for a settlement favorable to the church within the constitutional structure of the republic.

In the November election, the IR and the PSOE ran separately rather than placing candidates on a common slate. Combined electoral lists, permitted under the constitution, encouraged coalitions; they were intended to prevent parliamentary fragmentation in the multiparty system.

The government parties lost seats, and CEDA emerged as the largest single party in parliament. CEDA's showing at the polls was taken as a sign of conservative Spain's disenchantment with the Republic and its anticlericalism. But there was no question that the Catholic right was being called on to form a government. President Zamora was hostile to CEDA, and he urged Lerroux to head a minority government. Lerroux agreed, but he entered into a parliamentary alliance with CEDA a little more than a year later. Lerroux did not welcome the center-right coalition; however, he knew the coalition presented the only means by which a parliamentary majority that included his party could be obtained. Gil Robles was appointed minister for war, with a role in maintaining public order, in the new government.

Unions used strikes as political weapons, much as the army had used the pronunciamiento. Industrial disorder climaxed in a miners' strike in Asturias, which Azana openly and actively supported. The police and the army commanded by Franco crushed the miners. The strike confirmed to the right that the left could not be trusted to abide by constitutional processes, and the suppression of the strike proved to the left that the right was "fascist." Azana accused Gil Robles of using republican institutions to destroy the republic.

The Lerroux-Gil Robles government had as its first priority the restoration of order, although the government's existence was the chief cause of the disorder. Action on labor's legitimate grievances was postponed until order was restored. The most controversial of Gil Robles's programs, however, was finding the means to effect a reconciliation with the church. In the context of the coalition with Lerroux, he also attempted to expand his political base by courting the support of antirepublican elements. The government resigned in November 1935 over a minor issue. Zamora refused to sanction the formation of a new government by CEDA, without the cooperation of which no moderate government could be put together. On the advice of the left, Zamora called a new general election for February 1936.

The Asturian miners' strike had polarized public opinion and had led to the consolidation of parties on the left from Azana's IR to the Communist Party of Spain (Partido Comunista de Espana-- PCE). The PSOE had been increasingly "bolshevized," and it was difficult for a social democrat, such as Largo Caballero, to control his party, which drifted leftward. In 1935 Soviet leader Joseph Stalin had sanctioned communist participation in popular front governments with bourgeois and democratic socialist parties. The Left Republicans, the PSOE, the Republican Left of Catalonia (Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya), the communists, a number of smaller regional and left-wing parties, and the anarchists, who had boycotted previous elections as a matter of principle, joined to present a single leftist slate to the electorate.

The Spanish Popular Front was to be only an electoral coalition. Its goal was not to form a government but to defeat the right. Largo Caballero made it clear that the Socialists would not cooperate in any government that did not adopt their program for nationalization, a policy as much guaranteed to break Spain in two and to provoke a civil war as the appointment of the CEDA-dominated government that Zamora had worked to prevent.

The general election produced a number of irregularities that led the left, the right, and the center to claim massive voting fraud. Two subsequent runoff votes, recounts, and an electoral commission controlled by the left provided the Popular Front with an impressive number of parliamentary seats. Azana formed his minority government, but the front's victory was taken as the signal for the start of the left's long-awaited revolution, already anticipated by street riots, church burnings, and strikes. Workers' councils, which undertook to circumvent the slow-grinding wheels of the constitutional process, set up governments parallel to the traditional bodies. Zamora was removed from office on the grounds that he had gone beyond his constitutional authority in calling the general election. Azana was named to replace him, depriving the IR of his strong leadership.

Civil War

Gil Robles's influence, as a spokesman for the right in the new parliament, waned. The National Block, a smaller coalition of monarchists and fascists led by Jose Calvo Sotelo, who had sought the army's cooperation in restoring Alfonso XIII, assumed CEDA's role. Calvo Sotelo was murdered in July 1936, supposedly in retaliation for the killing of a police officer by fascists. Calvo Sotelo's death was a signal to the army to act on the pretext that the civilian government had allowed the country to fall into disorder. The army issued a pronunciamiento. A coup was expected, however, and the urban police and the workers' militia loyal to the government put down revolts by army garrisons in Madrid and Barcelona. Navy crews spontaneously purged their ships of officers. The army and the left rejected the eleventh-hour efforts of Indalecio Prieto (who had succeeded Azana as prime minister) to arrive at a compromise.

The army was most successful in the north, where General Emilio Mola had established his headquarters at Burgos (see fig. 4). North-central Spain and the Carlist strongholds in Navarre and Aragon rallied to the army. In Morocco, elite units seized control under Franco, Spain's youngest general and hero. Transport supplied by Germany and Italy ferried Franco's African army, including Moorish auxiliaries, to Andalusia. Franco occupied the major cities in the south before turning toward Madrid to link up with Mola, who was advancing from Burgos. The relief of the army garrison besieged at Toledo, however, delayed the attack on Madrid and allowed time for preparation of the capital's defense. Army units penetrated the city limits, but they were driven back, and the Nationalists were able to retain the city.

A junta of generals, including Franco, formed a government at Burgos, which Germany and Italy immediately recognized. Sanjurjo, who had been expected to lead the army movement, was killed in a plane crash during the first days of the uprising. In October 1936, Franco was named head of state, with the rank of generalissimo and the title el caudillo (the leader).

When he assumed leadership of the Nationalist forces, Franco had a reputation as a highly professional, career-oriented, combat soldier, who had developed into a first-rate officer. Commissioned in the army at the age of eighteen, he had volunteered for service in Morocco, where he had distinguished himself as a courageous leader. Serious, studious, humorless, withdrawn, and abstemious, he had won the respect and the confidence of his subordinates more readily than he had won the comradeship of his brother officers. At the age of thirty-three, he had become the youngest general in Europe since Napoleon Bonaparte.

Franco opposed Sanjurjo in 1932; still, Azana considered Franco unreliable and made him captain general of the Canaries, a virtual exile for an ambitious officer. Though by nature a conservative, Franco did not wed himself to any particular political creed. On taking power, he set about to reconcile all right-wing, antirepublican groups in one Nationalist organization. The Falange, a fascist party founded by Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera (the dictator's son), provided the catalyst. The Carlists, revived after 1931, merged with the Falange in 1937, but the association was never harmonious. Jose Antonio's execution by the Republicans provided the Falange with a martyr. The more radical of the early Falange programs were pushed aside by more moderate elements, and the Nationalists' trade unionism was only a shadow of what Jose Antonio had intended. The Nationalist organization did keep its fascist facade, but Franco's strength lay in the army.

Nationalist strategy called for separating Madrid from Catalonia (which was firmly Republican), Valencia, and Murcia (which the republic also controlled). The Republicans stabilized the front around Madrid, defending it against the Nationalists for three years. Isolated Asturias and Vizcaya, where the newly organized Basque Republic fought to defend its autonomy without assistance from Madrid, fell to Franco in October 1937. Otherwise the battlelines were static until July 1938, when Nationalist forces broke through to the Mediterranean Sea south of Barcelona. Throughout the Civil War, the industrial areas--except Asturias and the Basque provinces--remained in Republican hands, while the chief food-producing areas were under Nationalist control.

The republic lacked a regular trained army, though a number of armed forces cadres had remained loyal, especially in the air force and the navy. Many of the loyal officers were either purged or were not trusted to hold command positions. The workers' militia and independently organized armed political units like those of the Trotskyite Workers' Party of Marxist Unification (Partido Obrero de Unificacion Marxista--POUM) bore the brunt of the fighting in the early months of the Civil War. For example, the anarchist UGT militia and the Assault Guards (the urban police corps established by the Republic to counterbalance the Civil Guard--Guardia Civil--the paramilitary rural police who were generally considered reactionary) crushed the army garrison in Barcelona. Moscow provided advisers, logistics experts, and some field-grade officers. Foreign volunteers, including more than 2,000 from the United States, formed the International Brigade. The communists pressed for, and won, approval for the creation of a national, conscript Republican army.

The Soviet Union supplied arms and munitions to the republic from the opening days of the Civil War. France provided some aircraft and artillery. The republic's only other conduit for arms supply was through Mexico. The so-called spontaneous revolutions that plagued the industrial centers hampered arms production within Spain.

Nationalist strength was based on the regular army, which included large contingents of Moroccan troops and battalions of the Foreign Legion, which Franco had commanded in Africa. The Carlists, who had always maintained a clandestine militia (requetes), were among Franco's most effective troops, and they were employed, together with the Moroccans, as a shock corps. Italian dictator Benito Mussolini (Fascist premier, 1922- 45) dispatched more than 50,000 Italian "volunteers" (most of them army conscripts) to Spain, along with air and naval units. The German Condor Legion, made infamous by the bombing of Guernica, provided air support for the Nationalists and tested the tactics and the equipment used a few years later by the Luftwaffe (German air force). Germany and Italy also supplied large quantities of artillery and armor, as well as the personnel to use this weaponry.

A nonintervention commission, including representatives from France, Britain, Germany, and Italy, was established at the Lyon Conference in 1936 to stem the flow of supplies to both sides. France and Britain were concerned that escalating foreign intervention could turn Spain's Civil War into a European war. The commission and coastal patrols supplied by the signatory powers were to enforce an embargo. The net effect of the nonintervention agreement was to cut off French and British aid to the republic. Germany and Italy did not observe the agreement. The Soviet Union was not a signatory. By 1938, however, Stalin had lost interest in Spain.

While the Republicans resisted the Nationalists by all available means, another struggle was going on within their own ranks. A majority fought essentially to protect republican institutions. Others, including the communists, were committed to finishing the Civil War before beginning their anticipated revolution. They were, however, resisted by comrades-in-arms--the Trotskyites and anarchists--who were intent on completing the social and political revolution while waging war against the Nationalists.

Largo Caballero, who became prime minister in September 1936, had the support of the Socialists and of the communists, who were becoming the most important political factor in the republican government. The communists, after successfully arguing for a national conscript army that could be directed by the government, pressed for elimination of the militia units. They also argued for postponing the revolution until the fascists had been defeated and encouraged greater participation by the bourgeois parties in the Popular Front. The UGT, increasingly under communist influence, entered into the government, and the more militant elements within it were purged. POUM, which had resisted disbanding its independent military units and merging with the communist-controlled national army, was ruthlessly suppressed as the communists undertook to eliminate competing leftist organizations. Anarchists were dealt with in similar fashion, and in Catalonia a civil war raged within a civil war.

Fearing the growth of Soviet influence in Spain, Largo Caballero attempted to negotiate a compromise that would end the Civil War. He was removed from office and replaced by Juan Negrin, a procommunist socialist with little previous political experience.

The Republican army, its attention diverted by internal political battles, was never able to mount a sustained counteroffensive or to exploit a breakthrough such as that on the Rio Ebro in 1938. Negrin realized that Spaniards in Spain could not win the war, but he hoped to prolong the fighting until the outbreak of a European war, which he thought was imminent.

Barcelona fell to the Nationalists in January 1939, and Valencia, the temporary capital, fell in March. When factional fighting broke out in Madrid among the city's defenders, the Republican army commander seized control of what remained of the government and surrendered to the Nationalists on the last day of March, thus ending the Civil War.

There is as much controversy over the number of casualties of the Spanish Civil War as there is about the results of the 1936 election, but even conservative estimates are high. The most consistent estimate is 600,000 dead from all causes, including combat, bombing, and executions. In the Republican sector, tens of thousands died of starvation, and several hundred thousand more fled from Spain.