General Miguel Primo de Rivera: The Rise of a Dictator.

General Miguel Primo de Rivera: Coup and Success.
Spain entered a period known as the Restoration (1875-1923) after the collapse of the First Republic (1873-74) and the return of the monarchy. Following the declaration of the 1876 Constitution, the conservative Antonio Cánovas and the liberal Práxedes Sagasta set up an alternating government system (gobierno de turno pacífico), which unfortunately proved inadequate to solve the many issues that arose during the period.

The system was underpinned by the corrupt practices of rural caciquismo whereby local political bosses –caciques—ensured the desired election results by rigging the electoral lists whenever government changed hands.

In addition, the de turno system failed to address the concerns of the numerous competing voices, some new (e.g. socialism, anarchism, workers’ movements), some old: (e.g. the monarchy, the church, regionalism, the military) …

The result was political instability and social violence. There were assassinations, bombs, strikes, military disasters (the loss of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Philippines in 1898; humiliation in Morocco) and increasing calls for autonomy from Catalonia and growing political unrest in the Basque Provinces. As the 19th turned into the 20th century, everyone seemed to agree that there was a need for national “Regeneration.” It was the buzz word, but people couldn’t agree on what it meant … and so instability and violence.

By the 1920s, the dream of national regeneration seemed an illusion to many Spaniards, with the failure of Restoration politics, with governments changing faster than the seasons, with a debilitating diet of labour wars and terrorism, and with Catalan demands for autonomy now extending to separation. 

The country badly needed a fundamental political overhaul, but what it got instead in 1923 was a military coup, headed by General Miguel Primo de Rivera, a bluff, paternalistic Andalusian landowner and aristocrat, with a weakness for wine, women and good food.

However, what triggered Primo’s power grab was not political, social or regional unrest, but fall-out from a festering Moroccan nightmare. In July 1921, the army had suffered a humiliating defeat at the Battle of Annual (in the Spanish protectorate along the north of Morocco).

A report on the disaster was supposed to be heard finally by the Cortes (Parliament) in September of 1923. Before then, rumours circulated of incompetence, corruption, and the king’s involvement in the Moroccan debacle. Such rumours were knife wounds to military sensitivity.

Primo right, with Alfonso XIII

To be made political scapegoats and to suffer the humiliation of possible withdrawal from Morocco after so much sacrifice was more than enough to drive many generals to contemplate a military coup, especially since –in their view– it was not they but the politicians who had failed the country.

The next step, the golpe (coup) was not that difficult. After all, the creation of the Laws of Jurisdiction in 1906, intervention during the Tragic Week of 1909, and the crushing of a general strike in 1917 had already shown that the military could quite easily return to its 19th-century role of power broker.

As for the king, he had been heard to espouse the idea of reform “with or without the constitution” (Carr, 1, 523), and had even met with the future golpistas only ten days before the coup! There appears little doubt, then, that the generals knew they could count on his support.

A Promising Start.
When Primo staged the coup in September 1923, he did so in the name of national salvation. To many Spaniards, he was the “iron surgeon” that Joaquin Costa, one of the most articulate regenerationists of the beginning of the 20th century, called for to cure the ills besetting the country.

Primo justified the coup, in his first declaration to the country, as necessary in view of the picture of misfortunes and immorality that threatened Spain with an early, tragic and dishonourable end. His intention, he told the people was to “open a brief parenthesis in the constitutional life of Spain and to reestablish it as soon as the country offers us men uncontaminated by the vices of political organization” (Carr 1, 564).

Spaniards, exhausted and disenchanted by Restoration politics, were prepared to give the well-meaning Andalusian (who talked frankly to them through a new contraption called a radio), that chance. It was comforting to hear a voice of authority that promised order after years of instability, conflict and competing claims. They would hear a lot from Primo in the next six to seven years!

Primo moved swiftly: the Constitution was suspended, the Cortes dissolved and replaced by a Military Directorate. Press censorship was imposed, Catalan aspirations repressed, and the anarchist union mouthpiece, the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT: National Labour Confederation) declared illegal.

Buoyed to some degree by the general optimism of the early “Roaring Twenties,” the first three years of the dictatorship were relatively successful. For many, the highlight of these years was a solution finally to the Moroccan problem. Ironically, although he himself had fought there (he was an africanista), Primo favoured abandoning the protectorate, much to the disgust of committed africanistas and especially the leaders of the recently formed Spanish Foreign Legion (amongst them Colonel Francisco Franco) who felt betrayed by one of their own.

However, in the summer of 1925 a miscalculation by the Berber leader, Abd el Krim, changed Primo’s heart and gave him his moment of glory.  Briefly, el Krim –ambitious to establish a socialist republic in northern Morocco– attacked and demolished French lines encroaching to his south. This pushed the French and Spanish into a joint venture in September 1925, agreed to by Primo and the French commander.

The French attacked from the south, while the Spaniards landed in the Bay of Alhucemas (mid way between Ceuta and Melilla) and drove inland. It was not a copy book exercise (poor reconnaissance left Spanish landing forces floundering on sand-banks, and Colonel Franco had to countermand an order to retreat), but el Krim’s surrender in May 1926 allowed the iron surgeon to declare to a relieved nation that the Moroccan cancer had finally been removed.

For the military, honour had been restored and Spanish presence in Morocco reaffirmed, and for the Legionnaires a legend had been created, at least in their own minds. Amidst all the celebration, one man had particular reason to celebrate: Colonel Francisco Franco (future dictator of Spain) was promoted to Brigadier General, making him –at 33– the youngest general in Europe.

In the meantime, Primo had also brought to a successful end another “war”: the labour violence that had seriously weakened the social fabric of the industrial centres of Spain. This he achieved in May 1924 by suppressing the anarchist affiliate union, the CNT. It was an astute move on the part of Primo, who not only won the approval of the powerful employers but also the collaboration of the historical rivals of the anarchists, the socialists’ Unión General de Trabajadores (UGT: General Workers’ Union).

It was a case of “divide and conquer” with the spoils going to the socialists, who had cautioned against any revolutionary reaction to Primo’s coup. Primo had no particular problems with unionists as long as they obeyed the same criterion that he demanded of politicians: everything must be directed to the good of the state.

As long as the socialists stayed out of politics and confined themselves social and economic concerns, he was willing to make concessions. The socialist leader, Francisco Largo Caballero, despite the objections of some members, went along with this, arguing that by doing so the UGT would be saved from the fate of the CNT.

As a result there were some modest improvements for the workers –cheap housing, medical care. The most progressive step came in 1926 with legislation allowing equal numbers of UGT officials and employers to form comites paritarios to settle wage disputes.

Primo’s aims, whether in Morocco, in the labour field or in his other initiatives, were directed to benefit the Patria (the Nation or Fatherland). In his mind, the sickness of Spain was fundamentally the result of venal and incompetent politicians whom he despised. By dissolving the Cortes he removed those professional politicians, and replaced civil governors with military personnel. 

His aim was to eradicate the corrupt practices of caciquismo, especially in the provinces where it was most entrenched. It was the kind of revolution from above that a former prime minister, Antonio Maura, had dreamed of a little earlier, but had been unable to implement.

In 1924, Primo created a single apolitical party, the aptly named Unión Patriótica (UP), to replace self-interested political parties. The UP’s aim was to regenerate political life to benefit the state. It was through the UP that Primo hoped to transfer power to civilian authorities after the military directorate had fulfilled its purpose. 

Although the UP claimed no political ideology, its Catholic roots in conservative Castile ensured support for the defence of “traditional” values: property, religion, the family, the Patria. Its official mouthpiece was the appropriately named newspaper, La Nación (The Nation), launched in October 1925.

The traditional values advocated by the UP were those espoused by Primo himself. For conservatives, the Catholic roots were integral to the historic fabric of Spanish society and fundamental to the country’s identity. One apologist for the regime (José María Pemán) went so far as to argue that religious dissension was antipatriotic and unSpanish.

It was a myopic view of patriotism, but nevertheless became a mantra for the Catholic right. The church, then, had nothing to lose and everything to gain from a traditionalist regime that equated the regeneration of the Patria with its Catholic heritage, and attacked the progress of secularization. Not surprisingly, the ecclesiastical hierarchy welcomed the coup with open arms and hailed Primo as saviour of the nation.

A state visit to Rome with the king shortly after Primo took power set the tone for a “regenerated” Spain in which the church was to have a pivotal role.  Using an historic and by now familiar image, the king delivered a speech before the Holy Father which he committed Spain to a new “crusade” should the pope see fit to declare one.

Anachronistic as it might appear to non-Spaniards, a crusade still held a powerful, emotional appeal for the conservative faithful in Spain. The church itself invoked the same image at the outbreak of the Civil War in 1936.

But who was this crusade directed against? The Moroccan war had already been classified as a sacred crusade by the principal military chaplain. Now the object of the crusade was liberalism with its poisonous social and political offsprings: secularism, materialism, anarchy, socialism, regionalism and rationalism.

Liberalism was also viewed by conservative forces as responsible for all manner of vices: prostitution, pornography, gambling, alcoholism, the cinema, and immoral dances such as the tango and Charleston. With Primo at the helm, the church could look forward to a more active role in directing the moral regeneration of the nation. And he did not disappoint them. His task, Primo said, was a divine mission; his priorities were the Patria, Church and King.

A good starting point for the church was secondary education, the principal battleground between conservatives and liberals since the mid 1850s. It helped that the iron surgeon himself was by temperament anti-intellectual and determined that freethinkers should be kept as far away from the classrooms as possible. For him, school learning was to be infused with the ideals of religion and patriotism (“no culture at school will be permitted that is not religious and patriotic,” Primo insisted: Lannon 175).

Priests were to be the watchdogs, textbooks were carefully vetted for their orthodoxy, Spanish history had to be interpreted “correctly,” teachers were fired for non-compliance, and attendance at school mass was obligatory. All liberal institutions, including the famous, secular Institución Libre de Enseñanza (Institute of Free Learning), felt the vigilant eye of the state.

The Catholic establishment flourished in such an environment. Religion, which had been voluntary in state schools since 1913, was now obligatory, and associations were formed to ensure that public morality followed accepted Catholic standards. This was, of course, part of an ongoing fight against liberal ideology, but the important difference was that the church had the full weight of the state behind it. Now church and state stood together with a common goal against a common enemy.

But Primo’s success also depended on providing people with work. At the same time that he addressed the Moroccan impasse and resolved the labour wars, the iron surgeon had to stimulate growth and create jobs. For this an ambitious programme of public works was initiated.

However since he was a committed interventionist who equated free trade and competition with the evils of liberalism, Primo had little time for an open market. Instead, he saw the answer as state intervention, a kind of practical regeneration that provided those essential and visible services that totalitarian systems often boast about.

Roads were built and rural bus routes extended, railways were expanded and improved, dams and electric power plants erected, and irrigation encouraged (especially in the Ebro and Guadiana river valleys). Urban growth expanded rapidly, notably in Madrid and Barcelona.

These developments in turn increased the demand for products such as steel and cement. Builders were encouraged to renovate historical buildings and the first steps towards attracting tourists were taken with the establishment of the government-run hotels known as paradores. And for national pride, there were two international exhibitions: one in Seville in 1928 and the other in Barcelona in 1929.

All in all, it was a notable jump into the 20th century for a large part of Spain as it emerged from the age of the stagecoach and kerosene lamps.

And Catalonia?
When Primo took power, he was Captain General of Catalonia, whose apparently sympathetic views towards regionalism made his coup acceptable to many Catalans, and certainly to most Lliga members and the business community, who particularly welcomed the promise of social order.

Lliga Regionalista: Catalan conservative regional party that sought a solution to the Catalan “problem” within Spain. Appealed generally to and run by business interests.

Very quickly, however, Catalans learnt that Primo’s sympathy didn’t extend to much more than local folkloric practices and innocuous home crafts. Within a few days of the coup (September 18, 1923), steps were taken against the cultural heart of the Catalans: the official use of their language was prohibited, and instruction in schools was switched to Castilian.

The Catalan flag was banned, as were the sardana(a regional dance that had already acquired national status) and Els segadors (a national anthem). In 1925, even the Barcelona Football Club and the Orfeo Catala choir were closed down. At heart Primo followed the military creed of Patria, with its centralist and unitary ideology. “Spain One, Great, and Indivisible,” he told a UP meeting in 1925; it was a principle that allowed for no exception.

Predictably, the Mancomunitat, the only real vestige of Catalan distinctiveness that had survived the early cuts, was finally dissolved, also in 1925. The Catalan genie was safely bottled up at last, or so it seemed.

The four columns represented the four bars on the flag of Catalonia. They were erected on Montjuic in Barcelona in 1919 and destroyed in 1928. In 2010, they were reconstructed on the same spot.

Although the separatist Françesc Macià carried on the struggle for an Estat català from his exile in France, the only persistent opposition from within the province came from an unexpected quarter: the Church.

The opposition was not mounted on ideological but linguistic grounds. Catalan was normally used in sermons in the province, but Primo saw the continued use of the language as a threat to national unity. Even the papacy got sucked into the struggle, charging the Catalan clergy in 1928 with preaching separatist propaganda. The papal attack was a victory for the government, but only exacerbated the discontent of the Catalans.

The promising start made by Primo began to unravel as it became evident that the steps taken by him did not enjoy widespread support or were inadequate in the long run.

Oppressive measures led eventually open opposition: Catalans became disillusioned, academics chafed at Primo’s anti-intellectualism, Republicans became restless, the military dissatisfied and landless labourers (campesinos) more frustrated (especially in the south where insubordination was frequent). Even within the church there were dissenting voices. For the fall of Miguel Primo de Rivera, click here.

Balfour, Sebastian    The End of the Spanish Empire Oxford 1997
Barton, Simon A History of Spain 2nd. Ed. Basingstoke, Hampshire 2009
Ben Ami, Shlomo   Fascism from Above: The Dictatorship of Primo de Rivera in Spain 1923-1930 Oxford 1983
Carr, Raymond  Spain 1808-1939 Oxford 1966
”           ”            Modern Spain 1875-1980 Oxford 1980
Esdaile, Charles J Spain in the Liberal Age: From Constitution to Civil War, 1808-1939 Oxford 2000
Lannon, Frances  Privilege, Persecution, and Prophecy: The Catholic Church in Spain 1875-1975 Oxford 1987
Image of Primo with Alfonso XIII:,_Primo_de_Rivera_und_der_K%C3%B6nig_von_Spanien.jpg#/media/File:Bundesarchiv_Bild_102-09411,_Primo_de_Rivera_und_der_K%C3%B6nig_von_Spanien.jpg
Image of the four pillars representing the Catalan flag: «4columnes fotoantiga» de – Disponible bajo la licencia CC BY-SA 3.0 vía Wikimedia Commons –
For information on the four pillars, see (in Spanish)

Verified by MonsterInsights