The Second Republic. Introduction. 3/18

The Second Republic: Introduction. 3/18

The Provisional Government and An Inauspicious Beginning.

The Second Republic, proclaimed on April 14, 1931, started off with a great deal of optimism. A “new dawn” was heralded as Spaniards proudly contemplated the bloodless transformation overnight of their country from a Monarchy to a Republic. There was plenty of window dressing to celebrate the occasion: La niña bonita (the pretty girl) as the Second Republic was popularly called, came clothed with a new tricolour flag, the royalist national anthem was replaced by the old liberal “Hymn of Riego,” and many streets and squares were renamed. These were heady days.

The Republic was not without its enemies, of course, and there were many: dyed-in-the-wool monarchists, stubborn Carlists (reactionary Catholics who supported the claims to the throne of the descendants of the 19th-century pretender, Don Carlos de Borbón. Their strongest presence was in Navarra), many of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, anarchists, but in general it was the dream not only of  politicians but also of millions of workers and farm labourers whose woeful conditions they had pledged to address. In a spirit of consensus, the Provisional government included representatives from the principal political groups whose job it was to steer the country until the first elections could be held and a new republican constitution drawn up. Besides Alcalá Zamora, who occupied the positions of provisional Head of State and Prime Minister, the most prominent figures were the 66-year old former radical republican firebrand and “Emperor” of Barcelona’s Paralelo slum, Alejandro Lerroux (now a mellowed moderate ) the left wing republican lawyer, and Manuel Azana, and the socialists Francisco Largo Caballero, Indalecio Prieto and Fernando de los Ríos.

Despite the spirit of optimism, the Provisional Government faced many difficulties, not the least of which was the impatience of the country. Within a month of Alfonso’s departure, two events took place that were ominous signs of things to come, and carried with them scars of the past/ baggage of history. The first took place the very day the republic was proclaimed, April 14. It was the unilateral decision by Francesc Macià, the formerly exiled leader of the separatist Estat Català and now head of a Catalan coalition party, Esquerra Republicana, to declare Catalonia a Republic, albeit within a federal Spanish state. Given the recent history of Catalan aspirations, and the delicate moment of political transition, any declaration that smacked even slightly of separation/ independence could have serious repercussions. It is true that the Pact of San Sebastián had agreed to support Catalan autonomy, but only by following due constitutional process. Macià’s immediate and unilateral declaration sent shudders down republican backs, and three ministers of the Provisional government quickly rushed to Barcelona to head off a confrontation. An agreement was reached to resurrect the Generalitat with certain provisional powers in health, education, and public works. More important, the Generalitat was to prepare the terms of its autonomy, which would then be put to public referendum in Catalonia before being presented to the constituent Cortes of the nation for ratification. It was enough for the moment.

The second event underlined the dangers inherent in the enthusiastic embrace of republicanism at the expense of entrenched interests; it brought the state head to head with the church. It came about this way. Republicanism had always contained within it a strong secular streak. When the Provisional Government took power it immediately published a special statute to provide the nation with an interim legal framework. Amongst the provisions was one that declared the right to freedom of belief and religion. What was particularly disturbing for devout Catholics was the lack of reference to any special status or relationship the Church might enjoy in the new regime, despite the respect that the Pope and most of the hierarchy cautiously urged upon church members. By the beginning of May, however, storm clouds were gathering rapidly. Particularly galling for the Church was a measure, announced on May 6, that ended obligatory religious instruction in public schools. The announcement coincided with the publication of a militant pastoral letter by Cardinal Pedro Segura, Archbishop of Toledo. Unfortunately for Spain, the head of the most important diocese in the country was both a religious fanatic and avowed/ committed monarchist, and his letter was viewed by anticlerical republicans as a challenge. It didn’t attack the republic, but it did contain warm praise for Alfonso’s support of the church, and called for a crusade of prayers and for the faithful to close ranks to protect the rights of the church against those who were determined to destroy religion. The reignition of the crusading flame was an ominous signal.

Within a few days blood stained/ tarnished the image of the republic. A meeting of monarchists on May 10 in a building in the centre of Madrid played the royal anthem that was easily heard in the streets through the open windows. Soon crowds of republican supporters gathered and tried to break down the doors. Police prevented damage, but the angry mob then headed for the nearby offices of the monarchist newspaper, ABC, spurred on by a rumour that a taxi driver had been killed by monarchists. The subsequent confrontation with the Civil Guard left two people dead and others injured.

It was not the end, but the signal of widespread reaction, capitalised upon by the anarchists. On the following day anticlerical frustration broke loose in Madrid when a number of churches, religious schools and convents were torched. With warning signs everywhere, the provisional government’s refusal at this moment to protect church property probably set the seal for future relations between the Second Republic and the Church. Azaña is reported to have said that all the convents of Madrid are not worth the life of a single Republican (Payne 3 45). For the next three days flames rose over Seville, Málaga, Córdoba, Cádiz, Alicante, Valencia and other cities in the south, and by the time it was over more than 100 religious buildings had perished in what became known as the quema de conventos (torching of convents). The geographical parameters of the Civil War were already being shaded in.

In addition to all this, on May 11, Archbishop Segura left the country, alleging that the government had refused to guarantee his safety; a few days later the Bishop of Vitoria (Navarra) was expelled for subversive activities. Finally, on May 22, the government formally declared total religious liberty and furthermore prohibited any displays of religious/ holy images –e.g. crucifixes– in public schools.  The church reeled under these attacks, but there was more to come!……

Carr, Raymond      The Spanish Tragedy The Civil War in Perspective London1993
Ellwood, Sheelagh      The Spanish Civil War Oxford 1991
Payne, Stanley   Spain’s First Democracy The Second Republic, 1931-1936 Madison 1993
Pecharroman, Julio Gil  Historia de España: La Segunda República: Esperanzas y Frustraciones Madrid 1997