Category Archives: Spanish History

Catalonia-Catalunya 14th Century.
Note: The titles given to the monarchs of the Crown of Aragón (a confederation of monarchies of which Aragón and Catalonia –also known as the House of Barcelona– were the founding states) can be confusing. Non-Catalan historians tend to use the Aragonese chronology in numbering the kings, thus the heir to Ramón Berenguer IV and Petronilla (whose betrothal in 1137 united Aragón and Catalonia), is Alfonso II of Aragón, whereas to Catalans he is Alfons I of the House of Barcelona!

For a succinct explanation of the difference between the “Crown of Aragón” and the Kingdom of Aragón,” see

14th-Century Monarchs: Jaume II/ Jaime II –James in English– of Aragón r. 1291-1327, Alfons III/ Alfonso IV of Aragón r. 1327-36, Pere III/ Pedro IV of Aragón r. 1336-87, Joan I/ Juan I of Aragón r. 1387-96, Martí I/ Martín I (r 1396-1410

Catalonia: The 14th Century.
By the beginning of the 14th century, Catalonia exercised significant power in the Mediterranean, with its sphere of influence especially extensive in the western end.  Mallorca, Ibiza, Menorca, Sicily and Sardinia, formed part of what has been loosely called the Catalan “empire” although strictly speaking they belonged to the Crown of Aragón.

Widespread overseas commercial and trading activity headed by merchants from Barcelona was the source of Catalan wealth. It also gave Catalonia a cosmopolitan air, more so than landlocked Aragon. Furthermore, trade led to the establishment of Catalan consulates and ensured that the Catalan language was heard in numerous areas of the Mediterranean, including North African cities.

Another source of Catalonia’s influence was its ability –following reconquest practice within the Iberian Peninsula– to exact tributes from many North African Muslim cities (e. g. Tunis) in return for protection or payment for troops or ships.

Pere III/ Pedro IV, the Ceremonious.

The 14th century is dominated by the reign of Pere III (Pedro IV of Aragón r 1336-87). Known as “the Ceremonious,” he was an ambitious, obstinate ruler with questionable moral scruples and a pronounced streak of cruelty (there is a celebrated story of him ordering some Valencian rebels killed in 1348 by pouring molten lead down their throats).  Short in stature, he believed himself to be divinely appointed, wore magnificent robes and insisted on elaborate court ceremonials. 

His long reign was punctuated by many conflicts. Early on –1337 to 1342– Catalan ships were engaged in the Strait of Gibraltar helping Castile fight against the invading Merinids from Morocco. In 1343, Pedro invaded Mallorca, whose king James III (Pedro’s cousin) had taken an independent course; in 1347-48, nobles rebelled in Aragón and Valencia at the same time that there were uprisings in Sardinia. Genoa –Barcelona’s maritime rival– was a constant source of irritation and naval battles with the Italian city state were frequent.

Finally, Aragón-Catalonia got caught in the fratricidal war (1358-1369) in Castile between Pere III’s Castilian namesake, Pedro the Cruel and his half brother Enrique of Trastámara.  Truces came and went as a number of nations became embroiled: Navarre, England, France, the Papacy, Portugal, and Genoa, not to mention mercenaries and adventurers. 

Where did Pere III stand in all of this?  The Castilian civil war between Pedro and Enrique began in 1358, but Catalonia and Castile had already started sparring over land in Murcia in the 1340s. In the 1350s the conflict spread to Valencia and to the sea, with Castilian galleys attacking the Balearics.

When it became clear that Pedro I of Castile had a serious challenger in his half brother Enrique, Pere III had little trouble in supporting the latter since he was promised vast tracts of land in Murcia and along the frontier with Castile. However, when the dust had settled and a triumphant Enrique sat astride the Castilian throne, all the promises came to nothing, and Pere III could not do anything about it. 

The constant wars had taken their toll, and Aragón-Catalonia, with perhaps 1/6th the population of Castile, was financially crippled, and Pedro had already used up all possible financial sources. For an exhausted Aragón-Catalonia, it was effectively the end to any dreams of further territorial gains at the expense of Castile.

On top of the political turmoil and financial pressures, Pere III also had to contend with social unrest, ranging from the revolt of the discontented nobles in Aragón and Valencia to the constant challenges of the Corts (guardian of the laws of Catalonia which Pere had sworn to observe).

Then there were the ravages of the Black Death especially between 1347 and 1351, which probably slashed the population of Catalonia by 20-40%. This and subsequent lesser outbreaks, compounded by several bouts of famine bred chaos, resulted in economic depression, and brought the social fabric to the point of collapse.  

Like other parts of Europe, Catalonia survived but it was scarred by increased social conflicts as nobles and peasants fought over lands abandoned during the Plague.  The aristocrats grabbed whatever they could or brought in other peasants to farm disputed land. The result was a series of uprisings that broke out in the 1370s and simmered for over a hundred years.

Pere’s long reign was spectacular in many ways, but his many political tangles left Aragón debilitated and in serious financial crisis. And matters were not to improve. 

His heir Joan I (r 1387-96) had little interest in politics, pursuing instead his love for spectacle: horse riding, hunting, dancing, fashion, food and music: Joan I could eat as much, when journeying, as 4 partridges at a sitting.  His court ordered for him cheeses and African dates from Majorca, trout from the Pyrenees, sturgeon for fast days, Greek wine, Calabrian red, good claret, and Beaune.  He drank his wine spiced after dinner.  His sugar was specially prepared by a convent in Barcelona.  He ordered fine green and Indian ginger from merchants returning from Alexandria.  Joan was not only a gourmet but a dandy … Damascus silk, scarlet cloth from Brussels and ermine from Paris… Joan welcomed French, Castilian, and Sicilian musicians at his court…Hillgarth vol. II, 52 ). Joan also wrote poetry, and dabbled in astronomy and alchemy. 

Temperamentally unsuited to rule, Joan left the running of his kingdom in the hands of a clique that only sought to benefit itself, selling off almost all the royal patrimony (inherited estates) that remained. Joan died suddenly in May 1396 while hunting, leaving no male heir. 

Joan was succeeded by his brother, Martí I the “Humanist” (r 1396-1410), totally unlike him temperamentally, being deeply religious and devoted to solitary contemplation, sacred relics and monastic ritual.  This did not prevent him actively pursuing political ends, the main being the reconquest of Sicily, which he left in the hands of his son, Martí the Younger. 

Given the precarious economic situation of the Crown of Aragón, Martí I spent much of his time trying to recover the royal patrimony, something he managed to do quite well by convincing the affected towns that they would be better off under his jurisdiction than under the nobles.

Still, it was not an easy reign, and worse was to come –certainly from the point of view of Catalan historians– when Martí died I without legitimate heir in 1410 (his son, Martí the Younger had died in 1409).  Why? Simply put, it represents for Catalan historians the beginning of the decline and “denationalisation” of Catalonia and its “Castilianisation”. 

There were several claimants to the Crown of Aragón, including Martí the Younger’s illegitimate son, Frederic, and others who were descended from branches of the royal House of Barcelona.  Nevertheless, the successful claimant turned out to be the Castilian, Fernando of Antequera.

This marked the end of the House of Barcelona which had guided Catalonia’s destiny from the time of Guifré el Pilós (Wilfred the Hairy) in the 9th century), and that of the Crown of Aragón since 1137 (see first paragraph above). The Crown of Aragón still existed, but with Fernando de Antequera it was in the hands of a new dynasty: that of the Trastámaras of Castile!

Barton, Simon A History of Spain New York 2nd ed. 2009.
Carrasco, Juan et al    Historia de las Españas medievales Barcelona 2002,
Eaude, Michael Catalonia: A Cultural History Oxford 2008.

Fernandez-Armesto, Felipe Barcelona: A Thousand Years of the City’s Past Oxford 1992.
Hillgarth, J.N The Spanish Kingdoms 1250-1516 Oxford 1976  2 vols.
Hughes, Robert  Barcelona  New York 1992.
Mestre I Godes, Jesus Breu historia de Catalunya Barcelona 1998.
Image of Pere III/ Pedro IV:


Catalonia-Catalunya 13th Century.
Note: The titles given to the monarchs of Aragón-Catalonia (a confederation of monarchies of which Aragón and Catalonia –also known as the House of Barcelona– were the founding states) can be confusing. Non-Catalan historians tend to use the Aragonese chronology in numbering the kings: thus the heir to Ramón Berenguer IV and the Aragonese princess, Petronilla (whose betrothal in 1137 united Aragón and Catalonia), is Alfonso II of Aragón, whereas to Catalans he is Alfons I of the House of Barcelona!

13th-Century Monarchs: Pere I/Pedro II of Aragón r. 1196-1213, Jaume I/ Jaime I –James in English– r.1213-76, Pere II/ Pedro III of Aragón r. 1276-85, Alfons II/ Alfonso III of Aragón r. 1285-91, Jaume II/ Jaime II of Aragón r. 1291-1327.

The 11th century saw the emergence of Catalonia as a major player among the early Christian kingdoms. However, its identity was threatened in the 12th century when it merged with the kingdom of Aragón following the engagement in 1137 of the young Aragonese princess, Petronilla, to Ramón Berenguer IV.

From that point, Catalonia’s history was subsumed under that of Aragón although it retained its dynastic title of House of Barcelona.  With its own language and laws, Catalonia had the basic infrastructure to defend its interests, and in Barcelona it had a port slowly growing in importance in the Western Mediterranean.

Jaume I and Catalan Expansionism.
The 13th century was one of expansion with Aragón-Catalonia’s conquest of Muslim-held lands, primarily in the Mediterranean. Here Catalans played a leading role.

Jaime/ Jaume I in 16th century altarpiece in Palma de Mallorca.

Under the young, energetic king, Jaume I (r. 1213-1276), they first captured the Balearic Islands (Mallorca in 1229, Menorca 1231 and Ibiza 1235) and then Valencia in 1238.

Jaume next eyed Murcia, but here he ran up against the interests of Castile. After some sparring, both sides reached an agreement in 1244 whereby Jaume recognised Castile’s title to Murcia. 

The accord, which effectively put an end to Catalonia’s expansion southwards, has been lamented by many Catalan historians for preventing Catalonia from taking advantage of Castile’s internal dissensions and weaknesses in the late 13th and 14th centuries and challenging that kingdom for the conquest of Granada.

Shut out by France to the north and Castile to the south, Catalan aspirations found an outlet in the Mediterranean. That turned out to be fruitful because Catalan ambitions coincided with the increasing importance of Barcelona as a port and trading centre.  Mixing political opportunism, crusading and reconquest rhetoric, and commercial promises, Jaume I appealed to a wide constituency, from nobility to merchant. 

First objective was Mallorca, the largest of the Balearic Islands.  Strategically placed some 200 kilometres (125 miles) from Catalonia and in hostile Almohad (i. e. Muslim/Moorish) hands, it was a serious obstacle to Catalan maritime trade, condemning it to shore-hugging activities.

Justification for the attack was easy in an age of crusades backed by papal encouragement and indulgences.  On a more practical level, piracy practiced by the Moors had to be overcome. What it amounted to really was that the merchants of Catalonia wanted in on a lucrative trade possibility covering the western Mediterranean at a time when there was not much to distinguish pirate from trader.

By taking Mallorca, Menorca and Ibiza, Jaume I opened up the Western Mediterranean with the result that trade prospered and Catalan consulates were soon dotting the coast of North Africa from Tunisia westwards.  Not only did the merchants of Barcelona benefit, so too did Catalan cloth manufacturers and wine and oil producers.

In return, Catalan ships brought back gold, black slaves, paper, sheepskins, leather, wool and spices from the Barbary coast. It was a satisfying victory, and furthermore willed by God –so Jaume claimed! 

The conquest of the taifa of Valencia (1238) –with its rich and highly irrigated “garden”– from the Muslim Almohads, was also satisfying but posed a problem. Over the objection of the Catalans, many Aragonese nobles wanted to incorporate the newly conquered land to their kingdom and its fueros (privileges). To neutralise these demands, Jaume elevated the region to a kingdom endowing it with its own fueros (which were much like those of Catalonia).

It is from this moment that Valencia forms the third confederate member of the **Crown of Aragón. At the same time, Jaume came to an agreement with the Muslim population that they could retain their religion and customs. It was a pragmatic arrangement since the Christians lacked manpower to take over the land and, importantly, the Muslims were expert workers of the fields and vital to the economy of the region.
For a succinct explanation of the difference between the terms “Crown of Aragón” and “Kingdom of Aragón,” see

Jaume I and Language.
Jaume I’s initiative in expanding Catalonia’s territory and its trading contacts was accompanied by a surge in the importance of the Catalan language, akin to what was happening to other Romance tongues.

Although Jaume’s contribution may be considered less profound than that of his son-in-law, Alfonso X, in Castile, Jaume made Catalan the working language of the court, and gave it added impetus by penning –or probably dictating– his autobiography, the Llibre dels feits (Book of Deeds), in Catalan. 

The lives of kings were normally chronicled in Latin, but Jaume’s decision to write in Catalan conferred on the language immediate prestige through association. “Great deeds” were no longer the domain of Latin! Jaume was also influential in the compilation of the Llibre del Consolat de Mar (1283 Book of the Consulate of the Sea), a manual of maritime law governing trade in the Mediterranean.

Jaume I’s reign was not without internal dissensions and rebellions; nothing unusual in the uncertain world of Medieval Europe.  He did not help the cause of unity when he divided his kingdom upon his death that in time led to smaller kingdoms –Mallorca, Sicily, Naples– which frequently had different agendas even when they all recognised the king of Aragón as the head of the dynasty to which they belonged. 

It was a family division, but family interests did not always coincide, even between the elder members, Aragón and Catalonia.  Undoubtedly, the general primacy of Aragón-Catalonia as the driving force behind the politics of expansion, and strong-minded monarchs provided the impetus and formulated the policies.

Dynastic rights were probably paramount in the monarchs’ minds, but such concerns went hand in hand with the commercial interests of the merchants of Barcelona (it helped too that the crown was also involved in commerce).  The result was a fortuitous merger of interests that benefited the city so that by the 14th century it could compete with the already established Western Mediterranean cities of Genoa, Pisa and Marseille in the trading wars in the Mediterranean.

Pere II (1239-1285).

Pedro III of Aragón giving audience.

A major step in the expansion of Catalan interests was the marriage of Jaume I’s oldest son, Pere II (Pedro III of Aragón r. 1276-85), to Constance, the daughter of the Germanic king of Sicily, but it was a union that brought Catalonia directly into conflict with other interests –French, German and papal. 

A French invasion of Sicily in 1266, urged by the pope, led to French occupation of the island. Discontented with French rule, the Sicilians rebelled in 1282 and sought out Pere II’s help. Pere answered immediately by invading the island in the name of his wife and claimed the throne for both. 

At this point the kingdom of Sicily became part of the Crown of Aragón and the growing Catalan “empire.” Equally important the island was a major grain producer, a fact that was not lost on the merchants of Barcelona, some of whom helped finance Pere’s conquest.      

Soon after, Catalonia turned its attention to Sardinia, like Sicily rich in grain as well as salt and silver.  It was also a strategic post for Barcelona’s rivals, Genoa and Pisa, so that Catalan control would clearly hurt the two Italian city states.

By 1324, Sardinia was in Catalan hands, but being a very large island, it was never effectively controlled, and numerous rebellions over the years –abetted by the Genoese– were very costly in Catalan lives and money. As a result, it never became anything more than a colony, a savage land with its inhabitants despised by the Catalans and sold into slavery whenever possible.

Beyond Sicily, Catalan presence was less notable.  There were diplomatic contacts with Egypt and Constantinople, but territorial gain was limited to the duchy of Athens. 

However, this conquest, in 1310, was not the result of royal or commercial sponsorship but initiated by a band of Catalan mercenaries of the so-called “Catalan Company” whose political link with Aragón-Catalonia was tenuous, since it fell under the authority of the Kingdom of Sicily. It appears to have produced little commercial benefit.

All in all, Catalan expansion by the early 14th century was impressive: Mallorca, Ibiza, Menorca, Sicily, Sardinia, and its sphere of influence especially extensive in the Western Mediterranean.  Not only did it have trading links with numerous North African cities, it also –following reconquest practice within the Iberian Peninsula– exacted tributes from many (e. g. Tunis) in return for protection or as payment for troops or ships.

It might have been tempting to consider conquest, and establishing a Catalan colony for the greater glory of Christendom, as some of the chronicles of the period urged; that certainly was a powerful image, but in reality the logistics of distance and lack of manpower made that impractical.

Barton, Simon A History of Spain New York 2nd ed. 2009.
Carrasco, Juan et al  Historia de las Españas medievales Barcelona 2002,
Eaude, Michael Catalonia: A Cultural History Oxford 2008.

Fernández-Armesto, Felipe Barcelona: A Thousand Years of the City’s Past Oxford 1992
Hillgarth, J.N The Spanish Kingdoms 1250-1516 Oxford 1976
Hughes, Robert  Barcelona  New York 1992
Mestre I Godes, Jesús Breu historia de Catalunya Barcelona 1998.
By anonymous – Unknown, Public Domain, Image of Jaume I
Image of Pedro III By anonym –


Catalonia-Catalunya: 11th and 12th Centuries.

Introduction: In the 10th century, the counts of Barcelona, who were successors of the legendary Guifré el Pilós (William the Hairy ca 840 -897), wrestled with rival counts for control over the various counties that made up Catalonia. It was also the time when Catalonia strengthened its independence as a political force by finally breaking its ties with the Frankish kingdom north of the Pyrenees.

This came in 988 when Count Borrell of Barcelona refused to renew his oath of allegiance to the Frankish king after the Franks became too weak to offer help in defending Catalonia from the razzias (raids) of the powerful Muslim caliphate of Córdoba from al-Andalus (as the Moors or Muslims called the land they occupied). 

During the 11th century, the counts of Barcelona, like their Christian rivals to the west (Castile, Navarra, Aragón, León) expanded their lands at the expense of Muslim al-Andalus following the collapse of the caliphate of Córdoba in 1031.

Still, with the marauding Alfonso I el Batallador (the Warrior) of Aragón (1104-34) as their neighbour to the west, expansion was limited mainly to the coastal regions belonging to the taifa** of Lérida (LLeida, a factional offshoot of the larger taifa of Zaragoza).

An ambitious attempt to capture the town of Valencia in 1085 was blocked by the Castilian noble, Rodrigo or Ruy Díaz de Vivar, better known as El Cid who at the time was serving Alfonso VI, the king of León-Castile  (**Taifas were small Muslim kingdoms that sprang up in the 11th century following the break-up of the caliphate of Córdoba)

Five consecutive counts, confusingly named Berenguer Ramón or Ramón Berenguer ruled through the 11th century into the 12th.  Of these, Count Ramón Berenguer I of Barcelona (r. 1035-1076) was the most formidable. 

Ramon Berenger I’s Sepulchre: Barcelona Cathedral.

By general consensus, it was he who shaped Catalonia as a major player among the Christian kingdoms by uniting all the counties of Catalonia under the county of Barcelona and extending Catalan influence into the south of France through the purchase of a large chunk of Provence. 

He imposed military dominance over several Muslim taifa kingdoms (Lérida/Lleida, Tortosa, Denia), and with the parias (tribute money i. e. acknowledgement of submission and payment for protection) he received from them he was able to bribe many counts into giving up their independence and accepting his leadership. 

In common with many of his fellow Christian rulers of the time, Ramón Berenguer married a woman of the French nobility (in fact, he married three times, each time to a French lady of noble blood!), and encouraged the use of the Benedictine liturgy in church instead of the Mozarab (i. e. Visigothic liturgy). 

Nevertheless, even with all his political accomplishments, Ramón Berenguer I is best remembered by many Catalan historians for having formulated the first code of laws for Catalonia, the Usatges of Barcelona, in 1068. 

Dealing broadly with sovereign law, feudal customs  (they outlined the limits of power of the monarch vis a vis the counts and the townspeople in return for their allegiance), and criminal and civil law, the Usatges were often added to and did not in fact receive final form until early in the 15th century. 

There has been considerable controversy in Catalan circles regarding what remains of the original usatges, but there is agreement that even if only a few of the articles can be traced back directly to Ramón Berenguer I, his decision to enact the usatges was a major step in a new legal system and an important move towards Catalonia’s identity. 

The usatges are seen as one of the cornerstones that define the difference between Catalan and Castilian feudalism.  In general terms, in Catalonia men were under the protection of their lord to whom they owed homage and loyalty, vassals in other words; in Castile –thanks largely to the personal liberty granted in the early fueros (charters of laws, privileges and liberties)– men enjoyed considerable freedom. 

In Catalonia, a vassal who was insulted had to appeal to his lord for justice to be done; in Castile any affront was personal, which allowed the aggrieved individual to seek personal revenge.  In these two early distinctions we see the birth of two historical and antagonistic characteristics attributed to Catalans and Castilians: the Catalan inclination for litigation, the Castilian preference for personal action. 

We can see this difference clearly in their respective attitude towards honour**: a dishonoured Catalan sought legal recompense and disputes were settled by negotiation, a dishonoured Castilian sought revenge.  (**An affront to personal honour becomes one of the major themes of Golden Age drama in Spain; the protagonists are invariably Castilians, as are the most of the authors.  It was a theme that did not catch on in Catalonia.).

In the early years of the 12th century, the future of Catalonia looked promising despite the predatory activities of Alfonso I el Batallador of Aragón and the imperial ambitions of Alfonso VI of León-Castile and his heir Alfonso VII (both of whom assumed the title of Emperor). 

A sense of collective identity can be detected in the appearance for the first time of the word “Cathalonia.”  Important too, the town of Tarragona had been conquered (1099) and there had been further consolidation in Provence through marriage. The greatest danger for Catalonia at this moment was the possible union of its powerful Christian neighbours Castile and Aragón, but an unusual set of circumstances in fact produced an unexpected twist: the merger of Catalonia and Aragón.

The story began when the religious Alfonso I el Batallador of Aragón died without heirs in 1134, and left his kingdom to three military-religious orders: the Templars, the Hospitallers, and the Holy Sepulchre.  This eccentric bequest was immediately challenged by the nobles of Aragón who proclaimed Alfonso’s brother, Ramiro –at the time a monk and bishop elect–, as King Ramiro II.

To complicate matters, Alfonso VII of Castile (r. 1126-57) also laid claim to the throne, and backed this up by marching into Zaragoza at the head of a large army.

Petronilla and Ramón Berenger IV.

Ramiro managed to negotiate himself out of trouble,married a French princess, and then frustrated Alfonso VII by pledging his two-year old daughter, Petronilla, and his kingdom to Ramón Berenguer IV, count of Barcelona, in 1137. 

At this point, Ramiro returned to his monastery (still retaining his royal title!), and Ramón Berenguer IV became effective ruler of a new political entity: Aragón-Catalonia. The name given to the new entity was the Crown of Aragón, although Ramón Berenguer continued to call himself Count of Barcelona (when asked why, he is reported to have said: “Because I would be least of kings, but the greatest of counts” (Eaude 50).
(Successors of Ramón Berenguer and Petronilla were titled King of Aragón and Count of Barcelona, and the Catalan branch of the dynasty belonged to the House of Barcelona.)   

Modern national sensitivity plays a role in questioning some terminology here. Most Catalans prefer to call the union of Aragón and Catalonia the  Catalan-Aragonese Confederation or the kingdom of Catalonia and Aragón!  Historically, however, Aragón took precedence because it was a kingdom whereas Catalonia was a conglomeration of counties.

A matter of language, perhaps, but at a time of hierarchical distinctions, it was important; and it gives rise to an anomaly whereby the golden age of Medieval Catalan history –the 13th and 14th centuries– becomes subsumed in the history of Aragón! 

As if this was not enough salt to rub into these historical wounds, Catalans also fret that the names of the subsequent rulers are Aragonese: Alfonso, Pedro etc… and gone are Ramón, Berenguer, Guifré.  And a little more salt… non-Catalan historians tend to use the Aragonese chronology in numbering the kings, thus the heir to Ramón Berenguer IV and Petronilla, is Alfonso II, whereas to Catalans he is Alfons I.
For a succinct explanation of the difference between the terms “Crown of Aragón” and “Kingdom of Aragón,” see

The merger between Aragón and Catalonia in 1137 came with some conditions that suggest a recognition by the Aragonese that they were in fact the lesser partner: e. g. they had to argue that their customs, privileges (fueros) and institutions be retained.  This was undoubtedly better for the Aragonese nobility than the possible alternative of union with the much more powerful Castile.

Still, the union with Catalonia was not a “lived happily ever after” affair; there were frequent conflicts where interests clashed.  For example, the Aragonese, being an inland community, were not always supportive of Catalan maritime dreams, and being close neighbours to Castile frequently felt the attraction of the larger kingdom, especially when they saw their interests subordinated to those of Catalonia.  The marriage was, in many ways, one of convenience more than mutual admiration.

Crown of Aragón, Other Christian kingdoms and al-Andalus ca. 1150

The new crown got off to a good start when Ramón Berenguer IV conquered Tortosa (1148) and Lérida (LLeida 1149) and reaffirmed Catalan control over Provence. His successor (Alfons I r. 1162-96) added his bit, taking the towns of Caspe and Teruel, but Ramón Berenguer IV’s grandson, Pere I (Pedro II of Aragón r 1196-1213), found himself entangled in a religious conflict that in the end cost him his life and Catalonia its territory in the south of France.

This was the time when the famous Albigensian controversy erupted in the south of France, embroiling several interested parties: the papacy, the king of France, the powerful count of Toulouse, and Catalonia.

The Albigensians, or Cathars to many, were heretics who taught that matter is evil and that Christ did not take really undergo human birth or death. To counter this heresy, the pope called for a crusade, a call that was answered by Philippe Auguste, king of France, although less for religious reasons than for an opportunity to expand his kingdom to the Mediterranean. 

The man who headed the northern barons and was charged with cleansing the region was the ruthless and ambitious Simon de Montford, who in 1208 unleashed a vicious war against the Albigensians that lasted over 15 years.  Pere I (Pedro II of Aragón) was involved at the same time in the crucial campaign against the Almohads at the Battle of Navas de Tolosa (1212), and initially attempted to find a peaceful solution.  

His decision to side with the Count of Toulouse (to whom he was related by marriage), not only led to his death in the battle of Muret in 1213 but set in motion events that would lead eventually to the end of Catalonia’s rule in Provence (1246) in the face of northern French expansionism.

Capdeferro, Marcelo    Historia de Cataluña Barcelona 1967
Carrasco, Juan et al    Historia de las Españas medievales Barcelona 2002,
Eaude, Michael Catalonia: A Cultural History Oxford UP 2008.
Hughes, Robert  Barcelona  New York 1992
Mestre I Godes, Jesús    Breu historia de Catalunya Barcelona 1998.
Image of Petronilla and Ramón Berenguer IV:
Image of Ramón Berenguer I’s sepulchre: By Didier Descouens – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,,_Count_of_Barcelona


Second Spanish Republic. February 1936-July 1936. Prelude to Civil War.
On January 7, 1936, the president of Spain’s Second Republic (1931-36), Niceto Alcalá Zamora, dissolved the Cortes (Parliament) and called elections for February 16, the third in five years.

Although the Second Republic had been greeted enthusiastically by millions of Spaniards in April 1931, opposition from entrenched interests — monarchists, bourgeoisie and aristocratic landowners, members of the church hierarchy, conservative peasants (especially in the north), and military hardliners— constantly undermined efforts at radical social changes.

Left-wing reforms following the first elections (June 1931) were reversed or rolled back during the tenure of the right-wing coalition (November 1933-January 1936). Worker frustration on the Left and intransigent opposition from the Right made consensus impossible, the result being intensified militancy on both sides.

The results of the February 1936 election in Spain showed how wrong Alcalá Zamora was in believing that he could manufacture a centrist coalition in the face of increasing polarisation over the past two years. When the results were announced, the pendulum had swung again, this time from right to left, with the moderate-rightist Radicales –the closest to a centrist party– almost wiped out .

In all, the newly formed leftist coalition, the Frente Popular, won some 55.6% of the seats in the Cortes, the Right 33% and the centre 11.4%. However, equally important is that of the approximately 10.000.000 voters, 47.2% cast their vote for the Frente Popular and 45.7% for the Right. In other words, in the popular vote the difference was not large, but in the Cortes the voice of the Frente Popular was significantly greater.

Unfortunately, the Frente Popular was unable to articulate a vision of the future that would include all Spaniards. In other words, it governed for only half of Spain, and the other half would not resign itself to die (Payne 315), as the opposition leader José María Gil Robles (head of CEDA, a coalition of Catholic organisations) warned. In addition, the two halves followed a broad geographical distribution that reflected the split that occurred when the Civil War broke out.

The Left received most of its votes from the main cities (with a strong proletarian presence), the east, the agrarian areas of the south and south west, and a strip along the north coast from Asturias to Bilbao. The Right drew its strength primarily from those northern, central and western areas with an historical affiliation to the church and a vision of a united country: Old Castile, León, Aragón, Galicia, northern Extremadura.

The near equality of the popular vote might suggest that there was a balanced division of opinion in the country that would curb any excesses by the victors. Unfortunately, the rhetoric of both sides leading up to the elections of February 1936 was anything but balanced, condemning the Cortes to extremist views, dangerous confrontations and polarising language full of accusations, military bombast and threats.

Francisco Largo Caballero, the leader of the socialist union (UGT: Unión General de Trabajadores), for example, was unequivocal about what would happen if the Right were to win the elections: the Left must of necessity move to civil war. And don’t let the right have any illusions and say that this is an idle threat. This is a warning … Remember October (i. e. the failed insurrections of “Red” October, 1934. Carr Spanish Tragedy 47).

The Right countered that if the revolution wants war, it shall have war (Carr Modern Spain 638), and in a coded language that looked back to a glorious past, it talked of a Third Reconquista  under the slogan For God and Country; to conquer or to die (Carr Spanish Tragedy 47).

The Cortes following the elections of February 1936 consisted really of two belligerent and intolerant antagonists. But by now this intolerance had become almost the norm. The seeds had been sown by the uncompromising Constitution of 1931 (see The Church September 1931-November 1933) and the aggressive posture of the Left from 1931 to 1933. The Right had lost their opportunity to rise above ideological partisanship and show a national vision during their two-year tenure (November 1933-January 1936), and the brutal repression following the October 1934 insurrection had come back to haunt them in the February elections.

The joyful demonstrations that greeted the victory of the Frente Popular in the large cities increased the fears of the Right that a purge would be underway. There were even rumours of a Russian style revolution, and Gil Robles went so far as to ask –unsuccessfully– that martial law be proclaimed and that the elections be declared void.

Such reaction by the Right might seem extreme, but already many churches had been torched on the very day of the elections and serious disruptions –including attacks on offices belonging to the Right– ensued on the following days. And on February 26, a mass Socialist-Communist rally held in Madrid’s bullring was highlighted by clenched fist salutes, red flags, and portraits of Lenin and Stalin.

As events showed, public order –or the lack of it– was a major problem, a barometer not only of social and political discontent but also the behaviour in the Cortes, where many members carried arms!  The social discontent soon developed into a wave of strikes and violent clashes which in turn led to the military coup of July 1936 and the outbreak of civil war. 

Adherents of both the Left and the Right were implicated in the violence. The actions of the Left –the strikes, the burning of religious buildings, murders etc.– threatened revolution; the Right countered with its own creed of violence, and at the same time planned counter-revolution.

Differences were simplified and amplified by both sides: for the Left, the opposition was condemned as fascist; the Right alleged that they were fighting the forces of godless Marxism and Masonry. To the Left it was truth against obscurantism; to the Right it was truth (i. e. traditional Catholic values) against heresy.  

Inflammatory and highly dangerous accusations were hurled by both sides, with some new players of the Right now added to the potent mix. These new players included José Antonio Primo de Rivera, the charismatic founder of the Falange Española (Spain’s fascist equivalent) and son of the former dictator Miguel Primo de Rivera, and José Calvo Sotelo, the pugnacious leader of the Bloque Nacional, a militant, authoritarian, monarchist party. 

Increasingly they replaced Gil Robles as the voice of the Right with Calvo Sotelo, in particular, blaming Gil Robles for his failure to implement a counter revolution following the October 1934 insurrection (see The Left Reacts) and accusing CEDA of being overly moderate. Many disillusioned cedistas of like mind left the party, and quickly joined the Falange, which they saw as actively engaged in defending traditional, patriotic values.

Street fights proliferated, gangs wearing paramilitary uniforms cruised Madrid on the lookout for the enemy, and subsequent funerals became political rallies that sometimes ended in pitch battles in the cemeteries.  Civil disorder, we can now see, was the prelude to civil war.

Primo de Rivera (better known simply as José Antonio) was arrested in mid March 1936, and the party outlawed, but all this did was to increase popularity of the Falange, which continued to operate clandestinely.

The constant threat to the stability of the new government by political violence in the streets mirrored the verbal war occurring in the Cortes itself. There was, however, one thing which both left and right agreed upon: the need to remove Alcalá Zamora as president.

The Right resented the president’s role –as they perceived it– in bringing to an end the previous government (Nov 1933-Jan 1936). The Left still remembered that he had withdrawn his support in September 1933, which undermined the socialist-republican coalition and led to the fall of the leftist government (June 1931-November 1933). By the beginning of April 1936, both sides succeeded in removing Alcalá Zamora from office; a month later former prime minister Manuel Azaña was voted in as his successor.

All the political and social disorder attending the third republican government inevitably raises the question of its effectiveness as a legislative body. What could it hope to achieve when debate in the Cortes was so often dominated by personal attacks, accusations, counter-accusations, and obstructionism?

Clearly, a left-wing government was going to try to complete the reforms initiated in the first bienio (two years, June 1931-November 1933) and overturn the countermeasures carried out by the rightist government of the second bienio (November 1933-Jnuary 1936). By doing this, the government was, of course, returning to those historic issues identified when the Republic was proclaimed in 1931: the church, agrarian reform, regional autonomy, and the military.

The first Prime Minister of the new government –until he became president– was a familiar face: Manuel Azaña, leader now of the Izquierda Republicana (within the Frente Popular). Azana was probably the best choice in those difficult days, but his government was seriously weakened by the absence of any members of the largest party of the Frente Popular alliance, the socialist Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE), not by exclusion but by choice.

The reason for this extraordinary decision goes back to the first bienio (two years) when collaboration with other leftist groups was seen by the Socialists as responsible for the dramatic reversal in the November elections of 1933, when PSOE seats in the Cortes were halved. Socialist forces were dramatically radicalised after the November elections (see The Left Reacts), and formed the major component of an umbrella alliance –the Alianza Obrera (Workers’ Alliance)– whose objective it was to prepare a proletariat revolution.

When the Left returned to power in February 1936, the Socialists split into two contending groups. A more moderate faction led by Indalecio Prieto was still willing to collaborate; a radical circle under Largo Caballero insisted on a proletarian republic. It was the caballeristas, with the backing of the socialist union, the UGT (Unión General de Trabajadores), who gained the upper hand and vetoed any cooperation with the Republicans.

Without the Socialists, the government was out of touch with the grass roots of Spanish society at precisely the time it needed them.

With workers’ hopes high following two “black” years (November 1933-January 1936), pressure was intense for quick action from the government. The first and most pressing measure was to fulfil a campaign promise of a general amnesty for all political prisoners. By February 21, only five days after the elections, thousands were freed. This was followed within a few days by a decree restoring workers dismissed from their jobs for political reasons with indemnity paid by the employers.

The Catalan question also required immediate attention. Amongst the political prisoners released were Lluis Companys, president of the Generalitat (the Catalan Parliament), and his colleagues imprisoned in Madrid after the October 1934 debacle. Companys refused to return to Barcelona until autonomy had been restored to Catalonia and the Generalitat had regained all the powers it had enjoyed before October 6, 1934.

The issue was quickly resolved, and by March 2 Companys was back in Barcelona to a heroic welcome. With its powers fully restored, one of the first acts of the Generalitat was to implement the controversial Ley de Contratos de Cultivo (the Law of Cultivation Contracts), the very law that had initiated the struggle for powers between Madrid and Barcelona culminating in the October 1934 crisis.

The triumph of the Frente Popular was a nightmare for the Church, and the burning of churches in the early days was a vivid reminder of the continuing hate felt by many Spaniards for the historically powerful institution. The Achilles heel in the state’s struggle with the Church was the power the Church still retained through its role in education.

Here, the plans of the government of the first biennium had been constantly frustrated by the chameleon-like transformation of church schools into “state” ones (e.g. many Catholic institutions became  “lay” schools, with the religious staff simply exchanging their clerical garb for lay clothes and using their baptismal names), and the lack of money to fund new schools as well as the shortage of qualified secular teachers. Restrictions on Catholic schools had –predictably– been lifted during the rightist period from 1933.

Now plans were announced to shut all church schools by the middle of 1936 and coeducation was to be reintroduced. A school budget was also announced, aimed at creating over 5000 new state teaching positions, desperately needed to replace religious personnel. None of these measures pleased the Right or the Church, and accusations of forced or illegal closure, or private schools set on fire did nothing to help towards a peaceful political transition.

Agrarian Reform.
However, where tension was most keenly felt was around agrarian reform. After the constant obstructions of the landowners (e. g. lockouts, leaving the land uncultivated), the frustrations of the farm labourers in 1936 were acute, and illegal occupation of farmland began almost immediately.

The government saw the dangers and took action quickly, proclaiming the concept of private property obsolete and empowering the Institute of Agrarian Reform to occupy any farm anywhere in Spain if it deemed it socially. Even so, for the Federación Nacional de Trabajadores de la Tierra (FNTT: National Federation of Land Workers) the speed with which real changes were taking place was too slow, and on March 25, 1936, it headed a massive occupation of land by 60.000 farm workers in the province of Badajoz. Although the occupation was illegal, the government could hardly oppose it without bloodshed. Some leaders were arrested, but the occupation was later legitimised.

The record of land distribution was substantially greater in the five months before the Civil War than in the five preceding years altogether. It is estimated that over 193.000 campesinos were settled on some 1,865,645.00 acres during this period, a remarkable achievement under the circumstances. 

However, flexing its power, the FNTT also set terms of employment for those working the land: no minimal work, no productivity standards, restricted use of mechanisation, increased salaries etc., demands that made it difficult, if not impossible for small to medium landowners to adopt.

The problem with these demands –backed and sometimes instigated by the anarchist union, the CNT (Confederación Nacional del Trabajo)– is that they allowed very little flexibility, and opposition by landowners inevitably led to strikes. Compounding it all, the winter of 1936 was the wettest for the century up to that point, with attendant loss of crops and fewer employment possibilities.      

Altogether, it was a potent mix of frustrated hopes and seething resentment, for at the same time that the measures to improve the campesinos’ lot underlined the determination of the Left to change once and for all the social inequalities of centuries, it re-enforced the loathing of the agrarian oligarchy that saw itself victimised by godless hordes.

Accustomed to power, and with influential allies, that oligarchy –perhaps the most regressive and retrenched social force in the country– was not about to give up. Certainly, after these measures against the landowners, social stability was not to their advantage, and war became a seductive option for recovering what they had lost.

The Military.
Closely watching what was going on was the one force that had the power to dramatically change the course of events: the military. Although there were commanders loyal to the republic, it was no secret that many of the most powerful figures were more than uneasy with the disorder and fragmentation of the country, and some had begun to sound out the possibilities of a coup as soon as the results of the February elections were known.

A failed insurrection of August 1932 had been premature and lacked support, but in the far more volatile situation of 1936, the potential for armed rebellion was much greater. Those most active were the hardliners whom the rightist government of 1933-36 had promoted to the most powerful commands, the two most important being Generals Emilio Mola and Francisco Franco.

The Azaña government responded by reassigning most of the hardliners and replacing them with more liberal commanders. Mola and Franco were transferred respectively to minor posts, the former to Pamplona (Navarra) and the latter to the Canary Islands. It seemed a reasonable solution, but it did not prevent the collaboration that eventually led to the civil war.

What the government was doing was something of a juggling act: at the same time that it was promoting those loyal to it, it was weakening the loyalty of those it had shunted to minor posts. Had the government been able to control the political situation there would have been no problem, but with an increasingly radicalised Left and a Right increasingly thirsting for confrontation (several rightist groups –the monarchists, Carlists, Falange had formed their own militias) the country found itself hurtling down a one-way road towards conflict.

The momentum of discontent and violence gathered pace in June. In that month alone there were over four hundred strikes and July would probably have surpassed that number but for the outbreak of war on the 18th.

Political killings between February and July numbered approximately two hundred and seventy, the majority in the weeks following the elections and in June-July. By mid July, the country was a violent cauldron awaiting just the right moment to explode.

That moment came on the night of July 12, with the murder of Calvo Sotelo, the leader of the Bloque Nacional in the Cortes. But the events that set in motion the death of Calvo Sotelo started a few days earlier with a round of killings between members of socialist youth groups and falangistas in Madrid. Reprisals continued.

Late on the night of the 12th, an Assault Guard known for his militant pro socialist views was gunned down in the centre of Madrid on his way to work. He was the second officer to be killed in a couple of months and his colleagues were determined to exact revenge. One target was Gil Robles, but he was not at home. Instead, they kidnapped Calvo Sotelo, shot him in the back of his head as he sat in a police car and dumped his body at the gates of Madrid’s main cemetery.

The implications of his death were ominous. By now, Calvo had become the voice of opposition in the Cortes, and his assassination by police officers provided the Right with its martyr. For the Right, the murder was further evidence of state-sponsored terrorism by the Frente Popular, especially when the government reacted by shutting down right-wing centres, arresting Falangists and imposing press censorship.

Both Calvo and the Assault Guard were buried on the 14th of July. Large crowds attended both funerals, after which many Falangists and sympathisers marched to the centre of Madrid. In the ensuing confrontation with the police, gunfire was exchanged and up to half a dozen demonstrators died.

In the Cortes, Gil Robles alleged persecution and extermination against anything that is rightist. But,” he warned, “the day will come when the same violence that you have unleashed will be turned against you (Payne 359).  Violence was about to be unleashed indeed, with a virtual declaration of war being proclaimed in a left-wing paper on the 15th of July: They don’t like this government? Then substitute a dictatorial government of the Left. They don’t like the state of alarm? Then let it be all out civil war (Payne 357).

Those words were, of course, rhetorical, but for the military hardliners the time for rhetoric was past. Already during the spring of 1936 several high-ranking officers had begun to plan an uprising against the government.

Reassignment to minor posts only hastened their resolve, and preparations were well under way before Calvo’s assassination. However, the shocking circumstances of the murder convinced the leaders –Generals Mola and Franco— that immediate action was now necessary. From Pamplona, where he was stationed, General Mola sent out orders to his fellow conspirators: the coup was set for the 17th!

Barton, Simon A A History of Spain Basingstoke, Hampshire 2nd ed. 2009.
Carr, Raymond  Modern Spain 1875-1980 Oxford 1980
Carr, Raymond The Spanish Tragedy: The Civil War in Perspective  London 1993
Casanova, Julian and Carlos Gil Andres Twentieth-Century Spain: A History Cambridge 2014
Esdaile, Charles J Spain the in Liberal Age: From Constitution to Civil War, 1808-1939 Oxford 2000
Jackson, Gabriel  The Spanish Republic and the Civil War, 1931-39 Princeton 1972
Payne, Stanley  Spain’s First Democracy: The Second Republic, 1931-1936 Madison 1993
Preston, Paul A Concise History of the Spanish Civil War London 1996
The opening paragraphs of the following offer a useful summary of the events leading up to the Civil War:




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:

  1. 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.)
  2. 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 Azaña 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.

Guardias Civiles (Rural Police) leading Asturian miners prisoners, 1934

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)!

Barton, Simon A A History of Spain Basingstoke, Hampshire 2nd ed. 2009.
Carr, Raymond  The Spanish Tragedy. The Civil War in Perspective. London 1993

Casanova, Julian and Carlos Gil Andres Twentieth-Century Spain: A History Cambridge 2014
Esdaile, Charles J Spain the in Liberal Age: From Constitution to Civil War, 1808-1939 Oxford 2000
Jackson, Gabriel  The Spanish Republic and the Civil War, 1931-39 Princeton: Princeton, 3rd printing 1972
Payne, Stanley  Spain’s First Democracy: The Second Republic, 1931-1936 Madison 1993
Preston, Paul A Concise History of the Spanish Civil War London1996
A useful Case Study of the Civil War:
Image of Asturian miners:

Elected Government: November 1933-February 1936. The Right Takes Charge.
From the experience of two years of radical changes under the leftist Republican government (1931-33) of Prime Minister Manuel Azaña, the Right learned that any hope of wrestling control from the Left depended on their ability to form a strong conservative coalition.

The Right, e. g. traditionalists such as the church, powerful landowners and the military, were determined to arrest further erosion of their authority and turn the tide back as far as possible. But first they had to gain power, and in this the republican reforms themselves and the speed and frequent insensitivity with which they were implemented, provided the Right with a focus for collaboration.

Unity came in the form of the Confederación Española de Derechas Autónomas (CEDA: Spanish Confederation of Autonomous Rightist Groups), an umbrella coalition of Catholic organisations led by the energetic university professor and lawyer, José María Gil Robles. CEDA first met in Madrid in February 1933 to draw up a common platform of attack.

Its strategy was to win political power through the ballot box, and then make fundamental constitutional changes to protect traditional or historic values: religion, property, family, and the unity of the fatherland. Even so, CEDA’s espousal of such traditional values was not sufficient to satisfy the more extreme rightists, including many monarchists, Carlists** and ultra conservative Catholics.  **The Carlists were 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 Navarre

CEDA’s strategy produced dividends in the November 19 elections, when it won 115 seats. It was closely followed by Alejandro Lerroux’s Radicales (a centrist party that became increasingly conservative) with 104 seats. The big losers were the Socialists with 58 seats, just half of what they had won in 1931. It’s important to note, however, that although there was marked swing to the right in the Cortes (Spanish Parliament), no party had anywhere near a majority in a parliament of 472 members.

There are several factors that account for the political swing to the Right: e. g. the fragmentation of the Left, the large absenteeism of the Anarchists, the frustrations of many moderates with the chaos of the first two years of the Republic, the mobilisation of rightist forces, women’s vote (a right –ironically guaranteed by the leftist Constitution– exercised for the first time by women in Spain, including nuns).

With CEDA the largest party in the Cortes, we might expect it to take immediate steps to try and implement its agenda. But here we hit one of the imponderable paradoxes of Spanish politics at this time! CEDA, being made up of Catholic groups with a decidedly conservative outlook, maintained an ambivalent relationship with the Republic which was officially secular and had introduced reforms undermining those traditional values that CEDA represented. CEDA acknowledged the Republic, but they did not view it as permanent. It was, as Gil Robles argued, an “accidental” system to which he himself never swore loyalty.

The president of the Cortes, Niceto Alcalá Zamora –a devout Catholic and committed Republican– now found himself in a predicament. As president, he was empowered by the Constitution to invite individuals to form a government, normally from the party with the highest representation. But he could scarcely invite Gil Robles, a man whose commitment to the republic was questionable at best.

The solution for Alcalá Zamora was to bypass Gil Robles for the aging Alejandro Lerroux. Alcalá Zamora’s decision did not affect CEDA’s long term strategy because the party did not plan for immediate control of government. As a result, it did not push for nor did it get a single member in the Lerroux’s cabinet, believing that it was only a matter of time before its role would be more prominent and decisive.

Political stability during the two years of rightist rule was unfortunately no greater than during the preceding bienio (two years). Ten different cabinets and twenty-one different parties grappled with essentially the same problems, but approached them from a different ideological point of view.

The obvious starting point, if the rightists wanted to undo what had been done during the previous bienio, would be to change the Constitution, the legal framework that had permitted so many radical changes. Here, however, the Right ran into a snag because built into the Constitution was a provision that required any amendment adopted in the first four years of its life to obtain a two-thirds majority in the Cortes, a most unlikely event given the numerous parties involved (after December 1935, a simple majority would suffice).

And once an amendment was passed, the law required that parliament be dissolved and new elections called, something that the fledgling CEDA was not anxious to precipitate, at least until it was better established. It was more important to work carefully and strategically. CEDA was rewarded for its patience in October 1934 when three of its members were finally brought into the cabinet, but it was a move that precipitated the most serious and bloody crisis of the second Republican government.

The issues of church-state relationship, agrarian reform, regional autonomy and military reorganisation continued to retain their emotional impact, and it was time to roll back as many of the leftist reforms as possible.

Regarding church-state relationship, the one-time anti-Catholic Lerroux –desperate to remain in power— quickly came to terms with CEDA pressure. Anticlerical persecution stopped, educational reforms were rolled back or ceased: e. g. Catholic schools were allowed to function as before, the Jesuits received back their property, state support for the clergy was reintroduced, and religious displays, e. g. processions and the use of rosaries were again seen in public.

The military reforms of Azaña remained largely intact, although there was an increase in the officer corps and religious services were restored. General José Sanjurjo, who had led an unsuccessful military coup in August 1932, was pardoned in April 1934, as were others implicated.

In May 1935 Gil Robles –who had earlier defended some of the accused in the abortive sanjurjada rising– became Minister of War. As a result, several senior liberal and pro-republican commanders were removed or placed on the reserve, and there was a decided shift to the right in the appointments made (one being the promotion of General Francisco Franco to chief of the general staff).

Agrarian reform had from the beginning been a major headache for the Republic. The first government, under Prime Minister Manuel Azaña, had managed to pass an Agrarian Reform Bill in September 1932, but it had met with strong resistance and suffered from a lack of organisation. Nevertheless, despite resistance from the powerful estate owners, a substantial amount of land was distributed in 1934, more in fact than during the Second Republic’s first government (1931-33), but still a drop in the bucket.

Furthermore, the Municipal Boundaries Act (allowing landowners to hire workers outside their municipalities) was repealed in May 1934.The effect was to drive down salaries and often left local workers evicted and without work. After the frustration from unrealized hopes for the majority of workers during the first two years of the Second Republic, the deteriorating situation under the rightist government (1933-35) left passionately embittered workers ripe for violence.

Catalan autonomy. It was inevitable that the interests of Catalonia would clash with the centralist vision of CEDA and the administration of the second bienio, especially since the autonomous government –the Esquerra Republicana Catalana of the Catalan parliament –the Generalitat– was left wing.

Matters came to a head in Catalonia in April of 1934 when the Generalitat passed a law (the Law of Cultivation Contracts) favouring tenant farmers in a dispute with landowners. The law protected the farmers from eviction by the owners and gave the tenants the right to buy land that they had worked for 18 years.

Protests by the owners were taken up by the Catalan conservative party (the Lliga Catalana) in the Cortes, which declared the Catalan law an attack on property rights and therefore unconstitutional. An appeal to the predominantly right-wing Tribunal for Constitutional Guarantees confirmed that social legislation fell within the competence of the Madrid Government, and that the Law of Cultivation Contracts was unconstitutional. The Tribunal decision was a major setback for Catalan autonomy, and the Esquerra withdrew its members from the Cortes in protest.

Nevertheless, despite heated rhetoric, a solution did seem to be possible by late September, but a sudden change by the government in Madrid in October 1934 provoked a widespread crisis. The spark that ignited what became known as Red October was the selection of three members of CEDA with influential portfolios (agriculture, justice and labour) to a new cabinet on October 4, 1934.

Reaction was swift. On October 5, strikes broke out throughout Spain but were quickly crushed by government forces. This was followed by a declaration of martial law on October 6.

On the same day, Lluis Companys, President of the Catalan parliament, the Generalitat, proclaimed a Catalan State within the Spanish Federal Republic. It was not a declaration of independence, but it was a reaffirmation of Catalan nationalism at a moment when any such assertion was seen as a challenge to Madrid’s powers. Madrid did not hesitate to respond.

On the following day, the army besieged the Generalitat, Companys and his cabinet surrendered and were imprisoned, and the statute of autonomy temporarily suspended to be replaced by military law. Madrid once more took over all the administrative powers that had been transferred to Catalonia over the two previous years; it was a centrist’s dream.

But there was much more instability to come, with implications for all of Spain. 

Barton, Simon A A History of Spain Basingstoke, Hampshire 2nd ed. 2009.
Carr, Raymond  Modern Spain 1875-1980 Oxford 1980.
Casanova, Julian and Carlos Gil Andres Twentieth-Century Spain: A History Cambridge 2014.
Esdaile, Charles J Spain the in Liberal Age: From Constitution to Civil War, 1808-1939 Oxford 2000.
Jackson, Gabriel  The Spanish Republic and the Civil War, 1931-39 Princeton 1965 (3rd printing, 1972).
Payne, Stanley  Spain’s First Democracy: The Second Republic, 1931-1936 Madison, Wisconsin 1993.
Preston, Paul A Concise History of the Spanish Civil War London 1996
A useful Case Study of the Civil War:

Casas Viejas.
It’s unlikely you’ve heard of Casas Viejas, a village in Andalusia. In fact, its name was changed to Benalup (de Sidonia) and later to Benalup-Casas Viejas. It’s a tragic story. But first, let’s clarify some necessary abbreviations and give you the background to the terrible events of January, 1933.

Abbreviations used:
CNT: Confederación Nacional del Trabajo. National Labour Confederation. Founded 1910. Anarcho-syndicalist trade union.
FAI: Federación Anarquista Ibérica. Iberian Anarchist Federation. Founded 1927. More militant vanguard of the CNT.
PSOE: Partido Socialista Obrero Español. Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party. Founded 1879.
UGT: Unión General de Trabajadores, the PSOE’s trade union affiliate. Founded 1888.

The Background.
The Second Spanish Republic (1931-36) faced numerous challenges when it was proclaimed on April 14, 1931. The Republic’s first Cortes (Parliament), made up of a coalition majority of left wing politicians led by the socialist PSOE, proposed radical social and economic reforms.

Opposed to the reforms were right-wing, historic and conservative powers such as the Church, landowners and the army, as well as bankers, industrial and commercial interests and millions of conservative Catholic churchgoers. On the other hand, the reforms were greeted enthusiastically by millions of landless peasants and factory workers, and by regional nationalists –especially Catalans– who sought some recognition for Catalonia.

Predictably, as it pressed forward quickly with its reforms, the government found itself under attack. The Right resisted change employing a variety of tactics to frustrate the government (e. g. lock-outs, leaving land untilled, threatening to move money out of the country, refusing salary increases to workers).

Opposition from the Right was to be expected, but from the beginning the Republic and the government that represented it also faced enormous problems from workers’ organisations, notably the anarcho-syndicalist union, the CNT, and its much more militant branch, the FAI.

The situation was also aggravated by the bitter rivalry between the PSOE (and the UGT, its trade union affiliate), and the CNT.  Where the PSOE sat in the Cortes, the CNT, being a union, held no parliamentary seats. Anarchist in spirit, the CNT did not endorse the Republic although its more moderate members were willing to give the Cortes a chance to fulfil its promises.

Unfortunately, not so the FAI, whose goal was to oppose the socialist dominated government and bring about revolution even if that meant direct confrontation, illegal strikes and violence. Feuding between cenetistas and faístas split the CNT whose loose, decentralised organisation allowed the faístas, to gain control of the union, and purge it of its more moderate leadership.

Casas Viejas.
Which brings us to Casas Viejas, an obscure small town in the province of Cádiz (Andalusia). What happened in Casas Viejas became one of the defining moments in the history of the Second Republic.

Benalup-Casas Viejas today.

Huddled on the furthermost edge of the Serranía de Ronda mountain range and facing a fertile valley that stretches westward in the direction of Jerez and Seville, Casas Viejas was a poverty stricken, agricultural community with a population of about 2.000.

The life of the inhabitants was fairly typical of the hardships experienced in those areas of Andalusia, dominated by the latifundistas (large estate owners). Most of the campesinos lived in primitive conditions, primarily in chozas: huts with earthen floors, a mixture of mud and bits of stone for walls, and a covering of branches or straw.

The men worked in the surrounding latifundios as jornaleros i.e. they were hired by the day or for a specific task. This meant turning up at the village plaza (square) at dawn each day in the hope of being hired by the landowner –or more likely his foreman.

It was a humiliating, slave-market ritual that re-enforced the hierarchical structure of local society. In this case, the most powerful landowner was the Marquis of Negron whose estate (made up of different parcels of land in the region) totalled over 10.000 hectares (almost 25.000 acres). Smaller amounts were held by the financially pressed Duke of Medina Sidonia.

Like so many latifundistas, both Marquis and Duke were absentee landlords, the Marquis living in the bustling sherry capital, Jerez de la Frontera, and the Duke in Madrid, and were largely indifferent to the conditions of the campesinos.

Predictably the campesinos of Casas Viejas –like workers throughout the country– greeted the Republic with enthusiasm and hope. One inhabitant described the euphoria that took hold of the town when news of the king’s exile on April 14, 1931, reached them:
Exhilarated crowds invaded everything. There were continual shouts of ‘Hurrah for the Republic!’ Speakers spontaneously took strategic places and gave fiery speeches to the crowds that gathered around. They referred to the old monarchical regime with loathing phrases and insults… The names of the streets were changed to others associated with the new regime… There was nothing but jubilation and praise!… All the state organisms at the service of the humble classes! It seemed at first sight that everything had been transformed, that a social revolution had taken place as if by magic, and that capitalism had lost its enormous cruel and despotic power (quoted in Mintz 129).

It wasn’t long, however, before the community felt the heavy hand of authority, but this time it came tragically from the very regime that it had greeted so enthusiastically.

Still, the events that catapulted Casas Viejas into the public eye started not in the town itself but in the northeast of the country. Towards the end of 1932, the leaders of the FAI planned a revolutionary insurrection in Barcelona and other urban centres. Local uprisings in smaller communities would serve as a diversionary tactic to keep government reinforcements distracted as much as possible. Militant rhetoric in anarchist newspapers spread the revolutionary gospel against a socialist dictatorship. Workers were reminded that the instruments of production are invincible weapons. A sickle can be used for something other than to reap, and a hoe can serve to dig the grave for all that has outlived its time (Mintz 180).

The call to arms came on January 8, 1933, but government forces reacted swiftly and efficiently. There was some furious fighting, several bombs went off and some people died, but the hoped-for mass proletariat attack on the “socialist dictatorship” never materialised, and within a few days the insurrection was over. Like the right-wing attempted military coup of August 1932 (known as the sanjurjada, after its leader, General José Sanjurjo) the anarchist insurrection of January 1933 had been ill conceived and poorly organised.

Where does Casas Viejas fit into all this? Like so many communities in Andalusia with landless labourers, it had been attracted to anarchism’s messianic ideology of federated communes freed from the tyranny of institutional authority. Anarchism had penetrated western Andalusia as early as 1870 (Cádiz), especially the vineyards around Jerez and the agricultural town of Medina Sidonia, only some 20 kilometres from Casas Viejas. The first anarchist centre in Casa Viejas was set up in 1914 by a charcoal burner from Medina Sidonia, and by 1933 had a well established presence there.

The confusion attending the insurrection of January 8 in the north east filtered down to Andalusia and to Casas Viejas. By the 10th, there were reports of uprisings in Jerez, Cádiz, Algeciras etc., but radio bulletins from Madrid announced that the movement had died.

Unfortunately, in Casas Viejas the leaders interpreted these official releases as an attempt to trick them. Believing they were joining the revolution, they took over the town early on the morning of the 11th. They cut the telephone wires, dug ditches across the roads to prevent entry, raised the anarchist flag and declared the establishment of a comunismo libertario (libertarian as opposed to state-controlled communism).

But there still remained within the town four members of the feared symbol of state authority: the Guardia Civil. Things went dreadfully wrong when two of the guardias were fatally wounded as the townsmen surrounded the barracks.

At about the same time, the telephone operator in Medina Sidonia noticed that contact with Casas Viejas had been cut, and a repairman and three guardias were sent to investigate. Just outside the town, where the wire had been cut, the guardias captured four men. With the line repaired, reinforcements were immediately requested and by about 2 p.m twelve more guardias had been rushed from a neighbouring town. Firing their rifles in the air as they entered, they succeeded in dispersing the insurrectionists, many of whom scattered into the nearby hills. A few were captured in their homes; one at least was severely beaten and revealed the identities of other participants. 

At about 5 p.m. the guardias were joined by a dozen Assault Guards and four more guardias, and the search for the escaped insurrectionists began. They concentrated in particular on the hut of a 70-year charcoal burner, nicknamed Seisdedos (Sixfingers), whose two sons-in-law had been clearly implicated in the siege of the Civil Guards’ barracks. The three were there together with other family members and a couple of friends (total of nine). What happened next became a gruesome incident that horrified the nation.

It began when one of the Assault Guards was killed by a shotgun blast as he tried to enter the hut. Appeals to surrender were ignored, and the guards opened fire. However, by now it was getting dark and it was difficult for the guards to advance on the hut because it was awkwardly located in a hollow and the rebels inside were good shots.

In addition, under cover of darkness, some other insurrectionists had resurfaced and tied down the guards by gunfire from surrounding rooftops. Around 10 p. m. some more guards arrived with hand grenades and a machine gun. The machine gun, however, failed to work, and the grenades didn’t explode!

Finally, at about 2 a.m. a company of forty Assault Guards arrived led by Captain Manuel Rojas with strict orders to overcome opposition within fifteen minutes. Even with the repaired machine gun and added rifle fire peppering the hut, the forces of order failed to overcome the rebels.

A telegram from the provincial governor demanded the hut be levelled. Within a few minutes Rojas ordered the choza to be torched, a measure that had earlier been rejected for fear of setting the whole town alight. Flaming cotton balls tossed on the roof ignited the thatch immediately. Only when the roof collapsed did the shooting stop. A young woman –Seisdedos’s granddaughter– and a child were allowed to escape, but all the others died, either from rifle fire or incineration.

On the morning of the 12th, Rojas ordered a house to house search for all those implicated in the insurrection. Frustrated, angry and very weary after a tense night, the guards rounded up a dozen men, only one of whom had been involved in the fighting. On the orders of Rojas, they then herded them to the burnt-out hut to see what “they were responsible for” and what “they had done.”

The details of what happened in the next few minutes are not clear, but the results were: twelve men lay dead. Later testimony from Rojas was contradictory. On the one hand, he wrapped himself in a patriotic flag, defending the Republic against widespread anarchy while arguing the killing was an emotional reaction to the pressure they had all been through. On the other hand, he claimed to be acting under orders not to take any prisoners, an accusation denied by the minister in charge of security.

Casas Viejas

Whether a calculated execution or an emotional response, the massacre of twelve helpless prisoners shocked the nation when it became public. At first the government defended the police claiming that they were fighting to maintain order.

However, as details filtered out, and press reports gathered momentum, the government was soon on the defensive. The most sensational accusation was that Prime Minister Manuel Azaña himself had allegedly ordered “Neither prisoners nor wounded. Shoot them in the belly” (Mintz 247).

Azaña indignantly denied the accusation, but it was to cling to him like a curse. A parliamentary investigation to look into the role of government members in the massacre concluded that there was no evidence to implicate any of them, although it did not contest the accuracy of what had happened.

[For his part, Rojas was eventually imprisoned for 21 years, but at the outbreak of the Civil War was reinstated in the army by the Nationalists. He was later court-martialled and dismissed for theft at the end of the war, but had already earned a reputation for brutality for his role in the repression of Granada in 1936-37.]

The grim events of Casas Viejas etched themselves indelibly in the history of the Second Republic, and in particular on the actions of Azaña’s ministry (which was soon known simply as “the government of Casas Viejas” (Mintz 251).

The massacre became a political liability leading eventually to the downfall of the government in September of 1933, and to the subsequent election of the right-wing coalition that followed. 

In total twenty-two campesinos and three guards died in the confrontation, but what really stunned the country was the brutal punishment inflicted on a group of poverty stricken, insignificant, southern campesinos when compared to the more cautious approach adopted for the more powerful anarchist rebels of large urban centres. It was authoritarian overkill, and the stench of bullet ridden bodies –fanned by political opportunism—had serious consequences.

In the aftermath of the massacre, both the Right and the Left sought political advantage to attack the government. The former saw further evidence of the government’s inability to maintain law and order, the latter depicted the villagers as heroically resisting against brutal authority.

1933 witnessed a cycle of disorder and repression as workers vented their frustration at the seeming lack of social and economic change. Indeed, over the year, strikes by the UGT and CNT reached a staggering number: 1,127, involving 843,000 strikers (Shubert 134).

An already embattled left-wing coalition crumbled as the UGT found it more difficult to ignore the anger of its members, and PSOE members of the Cortes –disillusioned with their collaboration with Azaña’s republicans– seriously questioned the usefulness of the alliance.  By early September loss of confidence in Azaña forced him to resign.

Two brief attempts to form new governments failed, and a decision by the Socialists to refuse to join any coalition and to seek power on their own persuaded the president, Niceto Alcalá Zamora to dissolve the Cortes on October 10 and call new elections for November 1933.

Casanova, Julian and Carlos Gil Andres Twentieth-Century Spain: A History Cambridge 2014
Esdaile, Charles J Spain the in Liberal Age: From Constitution to Civil War, 1808-1939 Oxford 2000
Fraser, Ronald Blood of Spain: An Oral History of the Spanish Civil War New York 1979 (An excellent read.)
Jackson, Gabriel  The Spanish Republic and the Civil War, 1931-39 Princeton 3rd printing, 1972
Mintz, Jerome R. The Anarchists of Casas Viejas Chicago 1982 (The above summary of events in Casas Viejas is much indebted to Mintz’s excellent account.)
Preston, Paul A Concise History of the Spanish Civil War London 1996
Shubert, Adrian A Social History of Modern Spain London 1990
Photo of Benalup-Casas Viejas: De El Pantera – Trabajo propio, CC BY-SA 4.0,
Image of victims of Casas Viejas: De Desconocido –, Dominio público,


Second Spanish Republic 1931-33. Unions and Forces of Order 5.18.

Abbreviations used:
CEDA: the Confederación Española de Derechas Autónomas. Spanish Confederation of Autonomous Right-Wing Parties. Founded 1933.
CNT: Confederación Nacional del Trabajo. National Labour Confederation. Founded 1910. Anarcho-syndicalist trade union.
FAI: Federación Anarquista Ibérica. Iberian Anarchist Federation. Founded 1927. More militant vanguard of the CNT.
PSOE: Partido Socialista Obrero Español. Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party. Founded 1879.
UGT: Union General de Trabajadores, the PSOE’s trade union affiliate. Founded 1888.
FNNT: Federación Nacional de Trabajadores de la Tierra: Agricultural landworkers’ branch of the UGT.

Unions and Forces of Order: The Politics of Destruction.
The first government of Spain’s Second Republic lasted from June 1931 until November 1933. Dominated by a coalition of left-wing interests, it was immediately tasked with finding solutions to four pressing problems: 1.  the role of the Catholic Church, 2. Agrarian reform, 3. Regional autonomy, and 4. Military reform.

By the end of 1932, the Second Republic appeared to have matters in hand with Church power outwardly weakened, both a Catalan Statute of Autonomy and Agrarian reform bill successfully passed by the Cortes (Parliament), and the Army re-organised and seemingly under control.

But the assaults on the Church and the Army, and the passing of the Catalan Statute and Agrarian reform incensed already embittered enemies of the Republic, e. g., the Church hierarchy, landowners, bankers, centrists, committed Catholic lay members, military officers, monarchists, and the right-wing Press. Implacable opponents of the Republic, they were united by a common nostalgic vision of an historically great Spain.

Early in the first two years of the Second Republic (June 1931-November 1931), those groups hostile to the Republic were disorganised and badly split, but gradually united under the umbrella of a right-wing party, the Confederacion Espanola de Derechas Autonomas (CEDA), founded by a young lawyer, Jose Maria Gil Robles, in March 1933.

But there were also other factors that destabilised the Republican dream, not least the hostility of the anarchists (CNT) and the inability of the socialists (PSOE/UGT) to incorporate them into the Republican agenda. Suppressed during the dictatorship of General Miguel Primo de Rivera (1923-30), the CNT viewed the socialists as traitors to the working class for having collaborated with the Primo regime.

Consequently a hardcore offshoot, the Federación Anarquista Ibérica (FAI), had emerged, committed to ensuring the survival and purity of anarchist ideology. Not surprisingly, the CNT did not endorse the Republic, but it was the FAI that actively sought to destabilise the Republic through violent strikes and armed insurrection.

The difference between the two was one of degree rather than of substance, but the militant, revolutionary faístas quickly took over from the more pragmatic, moderate cenetistas who were more inclined initially to give the Republic the opportunity to fulfil its promises.

Mob violence, perpetrated largely by anarchists very quickly shattered Republican optimism. From May 11 to 14, 1931 (i. e. within a month of the Republic’s birth, April 14, 1931), a rash of church burning (known in Spanish as the quema (burning) de conventos) in Madrid and several southern cities (Málaga, Seville, Alicante, Cádiz) set the tone for what would become an unfortunate and polarising pattern of FAI-CNT insurrection followed by government repression.

Responding to a series of strikes and growing disorder during the summer of 1931, the government created a new paramilitary police force, the Guardias de asalto (Assault Guards), the urban equivalent to the rural Guardias civiles (Civil Guards). Anarchist newspapers, meetings, demonstrations, and union offices were all subject to suspension or closure, and militants subject to arrest .

The irony of this confrontation is that a government that was sympathetic to worker demand and was attempting radical measures to break down historical elitism was at the same time being cornered into using imprisonment, detention, closure of party centres etc.

Frequently, it even resorted to repressive force against workers. Fighting against determined conservative opposition on the one hand and worker impatience for change on the other, the government was condemned by both sides. Damned as godless communists by the right, they were bitterly denounced as being worse than the hated monarchy by the CNT.

The socialist union, the UGT, was caught in between. It could not afford to let the CNT-FAI win converts through inaction, and yet strikes initiated by the UGT were also blows to the very government it supported and further evidence to the Rightists of the chaos into which the patria had fallen.

In fact, figures show that the UGT had reasons for concern because between 1931 and 1932 membership of the CNT surpassed that of the UGT. In 1931 there were 958,176 members belonging to the UGT compared to 535, 565 for the CNT. By the 1932, the respective numbers were: 1,041,531 for the UGT and 1,200,000 for the CNT (Shubert 131). The remarkable growth in CNT membership and the increased strikes and confrontations with the government reflect its growing power.

 In 1929 there had only been 96 strikes, but in 1931 the number rose to 734 (Shubert 134) reflecting the change from a dictatorship to democracy. In 1932, there were actually fewer: 681, but in 1933 strikes reached a staggering number: 1,127, involving 843,000 strikers (Shubert 134).

This increase reveals the frustrated hopes and deep discontent of workers who saw strikes as the only recourse to obtain a satisfactory result. Employer lockouts or dismissal or owner intransigence also often forced workers to strike action, even to resort to violence: torching buildings, destroying crops, burning barns). The government’s response in virtually all these protests was to call in the forces of order.

The Forces of Order.
The heavy handedness of the government in handling strikes and confrontations was not helped in many instances by the repressive actions of the police, especially the Guardia Civil. The Guardia had been created in the 19th century as an armed (paramilitary) rural police force to maintain public order especially against rampant banditry.

Predictably, the guardias were well received by the latifundistas (large estate owners) who quickly used them to control disturbances on their land. By the 20th century, the Civil Guard had become a feared symbol of authority to peasants and workers, and their reputation for brutality was widespread.

With political tensions provoked by government moves to reform on so many fronts (church state relationship, agrarian and military reform, regional recognition) and social tensions arising from the slow implementation of the reforms or from backlash by aggrieved landowners, conservative Catholics etc., the relationship between the Civil Guards and peasants was predictably edgy. The large number of strikes and disturbances between 1931 and 1933 only added fuel to fire.

Whether the strikes occurred in UGT or CNT territory, and whether they were legal or not, the Guardia Civil or the new assault force, the Guardias de asalto, shared the same determination to put down protests quickly and often brutally.

On December 31st, 1931, the FNNT called for a strike in the town of Castilblanco (in the province of Badajoz, Extremadura). The demonstration, meant to draw attention to the plight of jobless jornaleros (day workers), was the third in as many days and was declared illegal. Tensions were high and worsened when a group of women protesters tried to enter the town centre.

At this point discipline broke down, a guardia fired a shot and one protestor fell dead and two others wounded in the scuffle.  Furious, the villagers set upon the guardias killing four with hoes, knives and stones. When the tragedy went national, the conservative press had a field day, the whole affair providing it with plenty of ammunition to condemn republican excesses, especially when it was rumoured that the women had danced upon the bodies of the dead guardias.

A few days later, forty-five villagers were rounded up, strung up outdoors by their wrists and interrogated in freezing cold weather. Twenty-two (twenty men and two women) were put on trial, thirteen of whom were found guilty. Seven were sentenced to death and six to life imprisonment. (Later the seven deaths sentences were reduced to life imprisonment and the other six to twenty years imprisonment.

There were more incidents throughout the country in the following days, the most tragic occurring in the northern town of Arnedo (southeast of Logroño, La Rioja). On January 5, 1932, a peaceful demonstration protesting the sacking of several workers at a local shoe factory ended in pools of blood.

The protestors, including women and children had gathered in the town square, the Plaza de la República, where the Civil Guard had already assembled. Suddenly, without warning the Civil Guards opened fire, killing six men and five women (including a child) and wounding thirty more. A military investigation into the tragedy found the guardias and the lieutenant in charge not guilty owing to lack of evidence.

Strikes and protests continued but it was in 1933 that they reached their high point, with 1,127 strikes, involving 843,000 strikers. Confrontations were a daily reality, and violence and death routine. One particular tragedy at the beginning of 1933 resonated throughout the country and was invaluable fodder for conservative attacks on the Republic’s inability to keep public order. It happened in the insignificant agricultural town of Casas Viejas, in the southern province of Cádiz.

In brief, peasants took part in a country-wide anarchist-inspired insurrection taking over the town on January 11, 1933, and declaring the establishment of comunismo libertario (libertarian communism, as opposed to state communism).  However, in the process they killed two civil guards.

Assisted by Assault Guards, the Civil Guards hunted the rebels. By the time the smoke had cleared (literally, a hut was set on fire) twenty-two peasants were dead, including twelve who were executed mercilessly in an act of revenge. Dozens of campesinos were also arrested and tortured. However, as in the tragedy in Arnedo, the members of the forces of order were not found responsible owing to  lack of evidence.

Public reaction was swift on both right and left and the government was on the defensive. It then committed the error of washing its hands of responsibility, claiming that nothing unusual had happened in Casas Viejas. The government’s implausible defence clung to it like a dirty rag.

The hot summer of 1933 witnessed more disorder and repression as workers vented their frustration at the seeming lack of social and economic change. An already embattled left wing coalition crumbled as the UGT found it more difficult to ignore the anger of its members, and socialist members of the Cortes –disillusioned with their collaboration with Prime Minister Manuel Azaña’s republicans– seriously questioned the usefulness of the alliance. 

By early September loss of confidence in Azaña forced him to resign. Two brief attempts to form new governments failed, and a decision by the socialists to refuse to join any coalition and to seek power on their own persuaded the president, Niceto Alcalá Zamora to dissolve the Cortes on October 10 and call new elections for November 19.

Carr, Raymond  Modern Spain 1875-1980 Oxford 1980
Casanova, Julián and Carlos Gil Andrés Twentieth-Century Spain: A History Cambridge 2014
Esdaile, Charles J Spain the in Liberal Age: From Constitution to Civil War, 1808-1939 Oxford 2000
Jackson, Gabriel  The Spanish Republic and the Civil War, 1931-39 Princeton 3rd printing, 1972
Mintz, Jerome R. The Anarchists of Casas Viejas Chicago 1982
Preston, Paul A Concise History of the Spanish Civil War London1996
Shubert, Adrian A Social History of Modern Spain London: Unwin 1990



Second Spanish Republic. Regional Autonomy. June 1931-November 1933.

The Second Spanish Republic, proclaimed on April 14, 1931, started off with a lot of optimism. Among its most enthusiastic supporters were the Catalans, anticipating recognition of some form of regional autonomy.

On the whole, the Basques and Galicians were less actively engaged with nationalistic aspirations at that time, but those who did harbour autonomous sentiment also advocated some special recognition for their regions.

Proclamation of the Second Republic enthusiastically greeted in Barcelona.

The three regions shared a historic sense of identity based on their own language, literature and culture. They also shared geographical similarity: as coastal regions their maritime traditions exposed them to international contacts either through their sailors bringing back news from elsewhere, or through visitors from abroad.  

Of the three regions, Catalonia had the largest population, and had played the most active and influential role in Spain’s history. It featured significantly as a Mediterranean maritime trading power during the 13th and 14th centuries but played second fiddle to Castile after the marriage of Ferdinand of Aragón (Aragón included Catalonia at that time) and Isabella of Castile in 1468.

The 18th century was a low point for Catalonia when it was politically suppressed by the French Bourbon dynasty which succeeded to the Spanish throne in 1700. However, there were commercial compensations as South American markets were opened up to Catalonia for the first time.

Things changed dramatically in the 19th century during which Catalonia underwent a major political, linguistic and cultural Renaixenca (rebirth). At the same time, the region carried considerable economic clout in Spain.

It was Spain’s industrial engine despite being plagued by violent strikes, lay-offs and anarchist upheavals. Its textile industry was the fourth largest in the world, reinvigorating the entrepreneurial spirit that stretched back to the Middle Ages (Barcelona had a stock exchange, the Llotja, as early as the 14th century).

Exporters and importers thrived, factories were built, and banks opened in an expanding Barcelona. In 1848, Spain’s first railway was built between Barcelona and Mataró, a coastal town 30 kilometres/18 miles to the north. The industrial revolution spawned large mansions built by Barcelona’s elite along the Ramblas. In sum, Catalonia was Spain’s most dynamic region and Barcelona its commercial and manufacturing flagship.

Catalonia’s regional aspirations were advanced in Madrid in the early 20th century by two new political parties: the Lliga Regionalista (1901) and Solidaritat Catalana (1906), and by a special statute, the Mancomunitat (1914).

The statute brought together Catalonia’s four provinces to form a regional government. Although its political powers were restricted to the region, the Mancomunitat played a vital role in protecting and promoting Catalonia’s linguistic, artistic and cultural heritage, financing libraries and museums, and supporting public works and agricultural and technical schools.

The work of the Mancomunitat did much to advance Catalonia’s sense of identity but it was insufficient to satisfy those who aspired to autonomy if not separation. Several groups formed that were frustrated by the intransigence of Madrid, the most radical being the Estat Catala (1921-22). Its leader, Francesc Macià, a former officer in the Spanish engineer corps, advocated separation. That wasn’t to be.

In 1923, General Miguel Primo de Rivera, with the consent of King Alfonso XIII, declared a military a coup. A committed centralist, Primo (in September 18, 1923), took aim at the cultural heart of the Catalans: the official use of their language was forbidden, instruction in schools was switched to Castilian, the Catalan flag lowered and the Catalan national dance (the sardana) prohibited. Finally, he dissolved the Mancomunitat.

Sardana danced spontaneously in the Cathedral square, Barcelona.

Primo’s dictatorship ended with his resignation and exile in January 1930. In August 1930, a dozen men representing different political persuasions (three of whom were Catalans, met in San Sebastian.

Disenchanted with the monarchy and largely leftist in spirit, the group set out a number of proposals (known as the Pact of San Sebastian) beginning with the establishment of a Republic and a new constitution. Among the proposals put forward were freedom of political affiliation and regional autonomy.

On April 14, 1931, the unpopular Alfonso XIII went into exile.  On that day, the Second Republic was proclaimed. On that day, too,  Macià –former leader of the separatist Estat Catala and now head of a Catalan coalition party, Esquerra Republicana– unilaterally declared 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 independence had serious repercussions. Macià’s unilateral declaration caused great alarm in the provisional government in Madrid, and three ministers quickly went to Barcelona to head off a confrontation.

An agreement was reached to resurrect the Generalitat de Catalunya (the medieval parliament of Aragón-Catalonia) with certain provisional powers in health, education, and public works. More important, the Generalitat was to prepare terms of autonomy, which would then be put to public referendum in Catalonia before being presented to the Spanish Cortes (Parliament) in Madrid for ratification.

Macia’s unilateral declaration of a Catalan state on the very day that the Second Republic was declared was premature, but it signalled the haste with which Catalanistas wanted their aspirations resolved.

On June 10, 1931, the Generalitat met in the Monastery of the Pyrenean valley of Nuria to draw up a draft statute to present to the Cortes. Within 10 days, the draft was ready. Quickly it was passed by municipal councils and then overwhelmingly by popular plebiscite. By August 14, Macia was on the train to Madrid.

The draft now required the approval of the Cortes (the Spanish Parliament), but here the impatience of the Catalans ran up against the opposition of centrist sentiment, which felt that the draft provisions went too far.

The new Constitution, finally proclaimed on December 9th, 1931, did not clarify matters. Article 1 recognised the right to regional autonomy within a vaguely described “integrated state” but offered no further guidance. As a result, endless amendments and separate motions –which had begun in August 1931– dragged out the debate for a year before an attempted coup by the Spanish army in August 1932, and the determination of the prime minister, Manuel Azaña, finally brought the Catalan question to a successful conclusion. In September, 1932, Catalonia’s Estatuto de autonomia was passed by the Cortes.

Nevertheless, the Estatuto de autonomía saw the Nuria draft stripped of potentially subversive references to the right to self determination, Catalan citizenship, Catalan as the only official language, and the right to territorial enlargement etc.

Rejected too were Catalonia’s exclusive power over education and equal legal representation to resolve conflicts between the central government in Madrid and the Generalitat. Furthermore, the Statute permitted the central government the right to unilaterally intervene in Catalan affairs.

What was left for the Generalitat to control? It enjoyed a largely independent tax system, and jurisdiction over health and welfare within the community. Nationalist sentiment was also satisfied somewhat with the recognition of a Catalan flag and anthem, but the Catalan language still had to share official status with Castilian. Nevertheless, finally having a Statute of Autonomy was enough to make Catalonia one of the Republic’s staunchest supporters.

Barton, Simon A History of Spain Basingstoke, Hampshire 2d ed. 2009
Casanova, Julián and Carlos Gil Andrés Twentieth-Century Spain: A History Cambridge 2014
Colomines i Companys, Agustí “Representing Catalan National Identity. Catalonia during the Spanish Second Republic and the Civil War,” in Journal of Catalan Studies, 2008, pp. 65-85.
Eaude, Michael Catalonia. A Cultural History Oxford 2008
Esdaile, Charles J Spain the in Liberal Age: From Constitution to Civil War, 1808-1939 Oxford 2000
Herr, Richard An Historical Essay on Modern Spain Los Angeles 1971
Hughes, Robert Barcelona New York 1993
Jackson, Gabriel The Spanish Republic and the Civil War, 1931-39 Princeton 1972
Paredes, Javier (ed) Historia contemporánea de Espana (1808-1939) Barcelona 1996
Image of the greeting of the proclamation of the Second Republic:
Image of the sardana:


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.

Manuel Azaña.

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.

Carr, Raymond  Modern Spain 1875-1980 Oxford 1980
Casanova, Julián and Carlos Gil Andrés Twentieth-Century Spain: A History Cambridge 2014
Esdaile, Charles J Spain the in Liberal Age: From Constitution to Civil War, 1808-1939 Oxford 2000
Jackson, Gabriel  The Spanish Republic and the Civil War, 1931-39 Princeton 1972
Lannon, Frances  Privilege, Persecution, and Prophecy: The Catholic Church in Spain 1875-1975 Oxford 1987
Paredes, Javier (ed)  Historia contemporánea de España (1808-1939) Barcelona 1996

Preston, Paul A Concise History of the Spanish Civil War London 1996
Image of Manuel Azaña: