Military Reform: June 1931-November 1933.
Since the 1820s, military intervention determined the course of Spain’s political destiny on numerous occasions. Nevertheless, General Miguel Primo de Rivera’s dictatorship (1923-30) was the first prolonged period in which a military figure governed the country without opposition –even if he was technically subordinate to King Alfonso XIII.
Still, no great effort was made by the generals to prop up either the dictator or the king (forced into exile in April 1931) against the rising tide of republican sentiment in Spain in the late 1920s. It was, largely, prudence on the part of the military in the face of wide popular support for radical change in the country.
However, this prudence by a body known for its conservative mentality should not be viewed as unanimous approval for republicanism. There still remained many committed monarchists (among them the future dictator, General Francisco Franco), and most of the military viewed republican support for regional autonomy with great alarm.
When the Second Republic was proclaimed on April 14,1931, it started off with a great deal of optimism. A reform of the Armed Forces was part of the Republic’s wide-ranging agenda for change, along with re-organising Church and state relationship, agrarian reform, and addressing regional autonomy.
By introducing these sweeping changes, the reformers hoped to “republicanise” the Forces and professionalise them to see their role as protectors of the country and not the ultimate arbiters of its destiny “called-upon” as political saviours. Not an easy task where radical changes meant overturning cherished views and treading on many delicate toes! The Forces might be ill equipped and poorly trained by international standards, but they were still strong enough to defend their own interests at home.
The provisional government responsible for guiding the country until the election of a representative parliament (the Cortes) took immediate steps to make changes. The Minister of War in charge of this undertaking was Manuel Azaña, an aloof lawyer and intellectual with little time for military sensitivities.
Still, although not a soldier, he could claim some expertise in the field, having published a book on contemporary French military history and several articles on military matters. For Azaña, the Armed Forces were to serve the country, and were not a special clique permitted to enjoy privileges denied the rest of the country. His first decree came on April 17, just 3 days after the proclamation of the Republic. It was the abolishment of the infamous Ley de Jurisdicciones (“The Law of Jurisdictions”) of 1906, which had allowed the military to try civilians for any perceived criticism that undermined the honour of the Forces.
Azaña’s decree underlined the egalitarian approach he considered essential for the welfare of the Republic, and prepared the way for a later ruling largely subordinating military justice to civilian law.
The reforms introduced by Azaña, although long overdue, were not universally acceptable and divided military opinion. At a time when initial republican enthusiasm was quickly being undermined by the clashes over church-state disagreements, the rightist press seized on military reforms to further foment discontent.
It was an easy step to argue that the Forces, the defenders of tradition and order, were being subjected to the same kind of persecution as the Church. Even the oath of loyalty to the Republic –demanded by Azaña on April 22, and a normal requirement of Armed Forces everywhere– was interpreted as an insulting imposition.
The impression was spread about that those who refused to swallow their convictions were being persecuted and left penniless. In fact, they were simply moved to the reserves and allowed to retain their pay. Most military personnel had no apparent difficulty in taking the oath. As the future dictator, General Francisco Franco argued, it could even be viewed to be a patriotic act in that it prevented undesirables from acceding to positions of power in the Forces.
Azaña moved quickly to accomplish the most important changes. This meant drastically reducing the bloated officer corps, re-organising the structure by eliminating superfluous ranks, improving the training of conscripts, and modernising and overhauling obsolete and inadequate equipment.
On April 25, Azana offered early retirement on a full salary, a generous and expensive concession to reduce the officer corps –there were almost 21.000 officers for 118.000 regular troops! However, there was a catch: the officers were given a month to decide. If at the end of the month, not enough had retired, those who were considered superfluous would be dismissed without compensation! Yet more fodder for the rightist press!
The decree did achieve its goal, cutting down the number of officers to about 8.000. It also made it easier for Azaña to move ahead with further measures. Structural re-organisation saw the number of divisions cut in half, the Captains General — created in the early 18th century– and some military ranks abolished, and the air force made independent.
On June 3, 1931, Azaña also tackled the contentious issue of promotion. The dictator, Miguel Primo de Rivera, had opted for merit as the main criterion, much to the joy of the africanistas whose action in Morocco earned them quick progress. Azaña not only restored seniority, he also proposed to subject all merit promotions won during the dictatorship to review. However, the review was never fully implemented, but the government did reserve the right to override seniority and make appointments in order to ensure the selection of pro-Republican commanders in key positions.
Further changes included the re-organisation of the African army, and the abolition of all traditional religious observances in the Forces, and the reduction of seven military academies to three, including the one in Zaragoza (closed on June 30), headed by General Franco,.
By the end of 1931, all of these measures were approved by the Cortes (Parliament) under what was known as the Ley de Azaña (Azaña’s Law). But they did nothing to endear Azaña –who by this time had become Prime Minister (October 15, 1931)– to the military. He was accused of highhandedness, of making unilateral decisions and of insensitivity, all of which suggests that much of the discontent was directed not at the reforms themselves but at the way in which they were introduced.
Perhaps the criticisms would have been more muted had there been significant improvement in salaries and equipment, but financial restraints were a very real obstacle. As Azaña himself confessed in the Cortes, “there are no cannons, there are no guns, there are no munitions” (Paredes 527), and salaries remained low.
Although there was a high-ranking, pro-Republican minority that supported Azana’s initiatives (and indeed helped him in his deliberations), for most of the military hierarchy the reforms were a challenge to the privileges they cherished.
Not surprisingly, some generals –supported by wealthy monarchists– tested the resolve of the Republic in the only “language” they knew: a coup. The central figure was General José Sanjurjo, a hero of the Moroccan war and head of the Civil Guard. He had been dismissed as head of the Civil Guard in February 1932 after a bloody clash between the Guards and peasants of Castilblanco, a remote village in Extremadura. A peaceful protest by the campesinos became violent when four Civil Guards killed one of the demonstrators. The Guards were quickly surrounded and bludgeoned to death with knives and farm tools.
The humiliated Sanjurjo –a victim of the anarchy into which the country had fallen, according to the rightist press– was ripe for revenge and there were plenty who pointed him in the “right” direction.
They plotted a coup, headed by Sanjurjo, in the summer of 1932 but, poorly organised, it turned out to be a disastrous failure, with everyone in Madrid seemingly aware of what was going on, from Azaña to local concierges. The fruitless coup –known popularly as the sanjurjada— was finally declared by Sanjurjo in Seville on August 10. By the end of following day, however, Sanjurjo had surrendered after a few hours on the run from loyalist forces!
The whole debacle was a public relations disaster for the military, especially the army. The Republic also benefitted when Sanjurjo’s death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. With no martyr, the Right had little to rally around.
On the contrary, with popular support rallying behind him against the military, Azaña was able to push through two other hotly debated measures that had pitted reformers and traditionalists against each other for months: the Catalan Statute of Autonomy and the Agrarian Reform Bill, both in September 1932.
However, the military, although down, was not out. Most of the Armed Forces, and the Army in particular, found common ground with the entrenched right-wing enemies of the Republic: the Church hierarchy, landowners, monarchists, right-wing press, centrists (i. e. anti-regionalists), even lay Catholics who had initially supported the Republic but had become disenchanted by the attacks on the Church.
In the summer of 1933, the left-wing coalition was in increasing disarray after a cycle of strikes, lockouts, repression, and an especially bad press following the massacre of twenty-two civilians in the Andalusian village of Casas Viejas (now known as Benalup-Casas Viejas) in January 1933. This enabled right-wing interests to unite under a new party called the Confederación Española de Derechas Autónomas (CEDA), formed by a young, Catholic lawyer, José María Gil Robles in March 1933. The military was to find receptive listeners in the new party.
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