Second Spanish Republic. November 1933-February 1936. The Left Reacts. The elections of November 1933 transferred power from the Left to the Right, resulting in a reversal of as many of the leftist reforms enacted by the earlier government as possible (see The Right Takes Charge). Leading the roll back was CEDA (Spanish Confederation of Autonomous Rightist Groups), an umbrella coalition of Catholic organisations formed by José María Gil Robles in February 1933. CEDA’s espousal of Spain’s traditional or historic values of religion, property, family, and the unity of the fatherland made it fundamentally opposed, even hostile, to the Republic.
Although CEDA won the largest number of seats, political manoevering by the president of the Cortes (Parliament), Niceto Alcalá Zamora –himself a devout Catholic and committed republican– initially kept CEDA members out of the government. And instead of Gil Robles –whom he disliked—Alcalá Zamora chose as Prime Minister, Alejandro Lerroux, leader of the Radicales party.
However, in October 1934 three members of CEDA were finally brought into Lerroux’s cabinet. This clear swing further to the right precipitated workers’ strikes in several major cities (e. g. Madrid, Seville, Córdoba, Valencia, Barcelona and Zaragoza). It also led to the two most serious crises of the second Republican government, and were an ominous prelude to the Civil War:
- The proclamation in Barcelona of a Catalan State, reflecting Catalan aspirations for some form of autonomy. This was viewed as a serious challenge to Madrid’s powers, and was swiftly suppressed with limited resistance (For more on the Catalan question, see Catalan Autonomy in The Right Takes Charge.)
- Violent insurrection in the mining valleys of Asturias. What happened in Asturias had nothing to do with regional aspirations but was a part of a larger political agenda: the destabilisation of the country by the Socialists and the birth of a proletariat Republic.
The violent insurrection that took place in Asturias reflects the change in tactics adopted by the socialist trade union, the UGT (Unión General de Trabajadores—General Workers’ Union) as Socialists in the country reacted to the loss of power after the November 1933 elections.
A brief overview of the socialist agenda will help explain what happened.
The Socialist Programme.
Following their defeat in the November elections, the Socialists became increasingly militant and revolutionary. Various reason have been given for why this should have happened in a group that had historically worked legitimately within the political system to effect change. Some have looked outside Spain, to the rise of Hitler in Germany in 1933 and a right-wing dictatorship in Austria, with the repression of Socialism in both countries. Others have pointed to the effects of the economic depression, still felt in Europe, which left workers feeling vulnerable and fearful. Some view the founding of the Falange Española (Spain’s fascist equivalent) in October 1933 by the aristocratic landowner, José Antonio Primo de Rivera (son of the late dictator Miguel Primo de Rivera) as a major factor in furthering a “them versus us” atmosphere.
These are legitimate possibilities, but increased militancy may also have resulted from something more mundane: having just savoured power for the first time, the Socialists feared that their election defeat would see all their reforms revoked and the completion of their agenda stalled. The Republic was, after all, “their creature,” as one historian put it, and the Socialists acted as if they alone held the right to govern the country. Seen in this light, the socialist call for revolution was illegal because it was directed against a legitimately elected government.
Leading the call to revolution was Francisco Largo Caballero, the leader of the UGT, the socialist union. Largo had been Minister of Labour in former Prime Minister Manuel Azaña’s leftist government (Oct 1931- Sept 1933), but disillusioned by the continued collaboration of the socialist party (PSOE: Partido Socialista Obrero Español: Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party) with Azaña’s increasingly repressive government,** he adopted a much more confrontational attitude and rhetoric. For example, declarations such as the following just prior to the November elections left little room for compromise: The Republic must be a Socialist, not a Bourgeois Republic. We may delay but we don’t hide that we are going to have a social revolution … we will have to expropriate the bourgeoisie by violence…. We mustn’t stop until the red flag of the Socialist revolution waves over the official buildings of the Republic (Carr 43).
**During 1933, the leftist Azana government increasingly resorted to repressive force against the very workers it supported. Unfortunately, workers’ strikes and calls for disobedience and subsequent social disorder left it open to scathing criticism of incompetence from the Right as well as disenchantment and frustration from the Left.
After the November 1933 elections, militant rhetoric increased against the newly elected rightist government. Under Largo’s leadership, a socialist revolutionary committee was set up in February 1934 to collaborate with other groups and to coordinate preparations for an insurrection. Out of this came the formation in May 1934 of the Alianza Obrera (Workers Alliance), an alliance of the Socialists with other smaller unions, including Communists. The aim of the Alianza Popular was to initiate a proletarian revolution to defend the “legitimate” Republic against the fascist forces represented by the Madrid government. The only major union that refused to join at this point was the anarchist union, the CNT (Confederación Nacional del Trabajo –National Labour Confederation); as usual, for the Anarchists libertarian communism was the only worthy goal.
During the summer of 1934, revolution was the buzz word, strikes and protests were the tools. But what Alianza Obrera looked for was the right moment to declare a general strike to initiate the revolution to transform the country into a Worker’s Republic. But setting up an umbrella association was one thing; getting members to work as a team was another, and in the case of Spanish unionism almost a forlorn hope. For example, one of the UGT’s biggest affiliates, the FNTT (Federación nacional de trabajadores de la tierra: The National Federation of Workers of the Land) decided to push ahead with a strike in the summer of 1934 against the advice and without the support of the UGT itself. It was a disaster not only exposing the inefficiency of the FNTT but also the inherent weakness of the Alianza, and at the same time seriously weakening the labour movement in general.
The FNTT debacle also reflected the inability of the leadership to impose its vision and coordinate a countrywide strategy of attack. As a result, when the call for a revolutionary general strike came following the selection of three cedistas to the cabinet on October 4, it was quickly extinguished in all parts of the country. Here we come back to Asturias, because Asturias was the exception.
The Asturian Insurrection.
The mining valleys of Asturias had long been a stronghold of the UGT, but what gave added strength to the Asturian insurrection was the sense of community solidarity born out of relative isolation, and the cooperation –for once– of the combative CNT which had gained a following during recent economic crises. Although mostly unarmed, some 20,000 miners were quickly able to equip themselves when they overpowered local Civil Guard and Assault Guard posts and two ammunitions factories located in the valleys. By October 6th, 1934, about 8000 moved in on the provincial capital, Oviedo, occupied the centre of the town and proclaimed a proletariat revolution. Government forces garrisoned in Oviedo reacted swiftly, but it was clear that reinforcements would be required to put down the rebels. In Madrid, responsibility for military operations in Asturias was handed to General Francisco Franco, who rushed in legionnaires and Moroccan troops to help the beleaguered provincial capital. For a week bombing, dynamiting (at which the miners were very proficient) and vicious street fighting racked the city before the rebels were finally forced to retreat to the mountains. By now there were some 15,000 troops and 3,000 police engaged in battle, and it was only a matter of time before the insurgents would be defeated, especially when they lost the munitions factories –on which they had depended heavily– on October 17. The end came the following day when the leader of the Revolutionary Committee of the miners negotiated their surrender. The proletarian dream was over, but a nightmare of reprisals was about to begin.
The exact number of casualties in the Asturian rebellion is difficult to calculate, but it is estimated that some 1300 people died, and another 3000 wounded. Tales of atrocities abounded, the Right emphasising the barbarity of the insurgents, the Left berating the brutal treatment and summary executions handed out by the Right. Certainly some 34 priests, several civil guards, and some business men were murdered by fanatical leftists, and many churches burnt or blown up, including the bishop’s palace and the beautiful library of Oviedo’s cathedral. Nevertheless, many soldiers and priests also testified to having been saved by less ideologically driven rebels. Reprisals by the Right, whipped up by a vigorous newspaper campaign, were hard and unforgiving. Thousands of arrests were made, prisoners beaten and tortured, and many executed. Terror, repression, censorship, fanaticism, accusations of bolshevism and fascism, red baiting and church martyrs… all the ingredients that were to blend into a fatal mixture in the Civil War were already visible. Indeed, as many historians have pointed out, the two-week rebellion bore the stamp of a vicious mini civil war; it was a prelude to the brutal Civil War of 1936-39, and the beginning of the end of the Republic.
The revolution of Red October (as the month became known) was a disaster for the Left, with thousands imprisoned throughout the country and many of the leaders arrested, including Largo Caballero and the former prime minister, Manuel Azaña (who had gone to Barcelona on October 6th to attend a funeral and had not participated in the events of the day). Nevertheless, the clamour for stiff reprisals from the Right (including the death penalty, which had been outlawed by the Republic) and the particularly vicious treatment of prisoners in Asturias produced a wave of sympathy amongst moderates that swung the pendulum back in favour of the Left. The serious miscalculation of the Socialists in instigating revolution, then, was answered by an equally serious error by the Right in their excessively brutal reaction.
In the months that followed Red October, the Left began to take the initiative again, but the agenda now was not revolution but a return to power through the political process. It was a slow process that had to battle to overcome party differences and strong personalities, especially amongst the Socialists where Largo Caballero was locked in a struggle with his main rival, the exiled Indalecio Prieto. Nevertheless, the most powerful voice was that of Manuel Azaña, finally absolved in April 1935 of the clumsy charges of participating in the Red October insurrection. His political comeback began with a huge rally in Valencia in May 1935, to be followed by others during the next months. On the strength of his popularity, he was able to propose an alliance of several republican parties with the Socialists in November of 1935, an invitation that was finally cemented in January 1936, after new elections had been called. It was the birth of yet another coalition, this time known as the Frente Popular (Popular Front).
At the same time, the unity of the Right was under increasing strain as more cedistas were incorporated into Prime Minister Lerroux’s cabinet in May 1935, including the fiery Gil Robles, who became Minister of War. However, the government’s move even more to the right triggered disagreements between the more moderate Radicales (Lerroux’s party) and the demanding cedistas. These disagreements became more pronounced when the government was rocked by two scandals in the fall/ autumn of 1935 that quickly led to the end of the rightist government.
The first scandal was touched off in September when it was discovered that several highly placed members of Lerroux’s Radical Party –including his adopted son Aurelio Lerroux– had been implicated in bribery to facilitate the introduction of a roulette-type gambling game, known as straperlo, into the country. Lerroux maintained that it was a trivial matter, but since gambling was illegal in Spain opponents seized on the issue which soon developed into a political crisis that ended with the resignation of Lerroux and the tainting of the Radicales in general as corrupt.
The second scandal followed in November. It was triggered by a report to the Cortes by a former inspector in the colonial office alleging that some Radicales had made improper payments to a Catalan ship owner to compensate for the cancellation of a shipping contract. It was a murky issue, but one seized upon, especially by CEDA, to finally dispose of the Radicales as rivals and as a credible party. It also hastened the resignation of Lerroux’s successor, Joaquín Chapaprieta. Alcalá Zamora was left with yet another juggling act in naming a new prime minister. Events now moved quickly. Still determined that Gil Robles should not be the leader, Alcalá Zamora eventually persuaded a former liberal politician, Manuel Portela Valladares, to form a new centrist coalition amidst rumours that a frustrated Gil Robles –supported by the military– was toying with the idea of a coup.
The new government pleased no one, especially since Portela was not even a member of parliament. The new cabinet was as much as anything a caretaker government, providing enough breathing space to allow Alcalá Zamora to organise a centrist alliance to mediate between Right and Left. Reaction to these manipulations followed quickly. The frustrated CEDA attacked Alcalá Zamora and sought to indict Prime Minister Portelo and his cabinet. The Left –suspecting that elections would soon be called– worked vigorously to consolidate a united front. Under pressure from all sides, Alcalá Zamora dissolved the Cortes on January 7, 1936, calling new elections for February 16. They were the last elections in Spain for 41 years (1936-77)!
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