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

From Success to Fall: (For Primo’s coup and early success, see Primo: The Rise of a Dictator)

Like so many well-meaning dictators, Miguel Primo de Rivera had vaulted to power promising a return to civilian rule as soon as possible. He clothed himself in the virtues of patriotism, free of political trickery. His direct talks to the people, had an endearing quality as he explained his decrees or admitted his errors.

His eccentricities were part of his attraction. He loved to stay up into the early hours discussing politics in some modest bar before wending his way home to issue a decree.  These late night sessions would then be followed by a long siesta, after which the decree might be revoked!

Propaganda painted him not only as the iron surgeon, but also as the “father of the nation,” or another Cid who had acquired immortal fame against the Moors. He became the “Messiah,” bearing on his shoulders the burdens of his country, an image that he encouraged by his own frequent claims to divine help.

At first, Primo’s unpolitical approach might have seemed a breath of fresh air to Spaniards, but it also carried within it the seeds of his downfall. The fast return to civilian rule that he promised when he came to power extended to almost seven years, during which he initiated many changes. 

But these were largely decorative and merely hid, temporarily, fundamental problems such as political diversity, regional ambitions, agrarian inequality and peasant unrest (especially in the south), labour divisions, religious and secular dissidence, educational reform…

Politically, Primo failed to create anything to replace the discredited gobierno de turno** system. The Union Patriotica (UP), the “apolitical” party created by him, was really no more than another political party, one decreed from above.

**Gobierno de turno pacifico: a system of alternating governments, the changes of government being agreed upon by the leaders of the conservative and liberal parties. The system was underpinned by caciquismo,a corrupt arrangement whereby local political bosses –caciques—were charged with rigging electoral results to ensure the desired outcome when governments changed.

It succumbed to the same shortcomings that the previous parties had been accused of: favouritism and corruption. Primo, for example, favoured Upetistas (UP members) many of whom turned out in fact to be happy converts from the de turno system!

UP had no specific political philosophy and its members were required only to believe in La Patria (Nation/ Fatherland), Religion, and Monarchy. So the UP fell victim to a transformed caciquismo on which the de turno system depended, and its purpose was to mould and manipulate public opinion. One of its jobs, for instance, was to organise a national plebiscite (1926) that would retroactively legitimise Primo’s coup and authorise his plans to transfer administrative and political responsibilities from military to civilian rule.

The UP was to form the basis of the new government, and prepare a National Assembly whose main mission, Primo made clear, was to construct a new constitution for the country. The UP, then, was a civilian channel that both praised Primo as the country’s saviour and promoted his vision of the nation’s future; it was not much more than a propaganda machine.

The failure of a single party to renovate political life had its parallel in Spain’s economy. State intervention could provide showpieces like improved public services etc., and economic nationalism or protectionism appealed to those industrialists who benefitted from them, but by crippling competition Primo was in fact “shielding powerful interests at the expense of the smaller entrepreneurs” (Ben Ami 244).

For example, many companies engaged in public works (e.g. railway expansion, dam construction, distribution of gasoline/ petrol) were monopolies which, in addition, received generous subsidies or concessions from the public purse. Primo regarded free competition as a vice of liberalism that only led to chaos! Control by a Regulating Committee (established in 1926) ensured that competition was not going to happen.

Although Primo’s regime was a dictatorship, it was in fact a dictablanda (a soft regime; a play on the Spanish dictadura: a hard regime). Primo was a bluff character, not a cruel tyrant. There was indeed repression, but his almost seven years of rule were free of brutality and executions.

Most dictators would have wanted blood if they had been publicly accused of being criminals, robbers and cowards, as Primo was by the eminent philosopher and university professor, Miguel de Unamuno. The dictator chose to exile him.

Primo preferred to rule by consensus of the people –or the nation, as he preferred to see it– and frequently made trips to the provinces to show himself to the people and, more important for his self-esteem, receive their spontaneous adulation. This, he maintained, was the mark of approval that reinvigorated him against the burdensome demands of government.

These burdens became more onerous as the euphoria of the Moroccan solution gradually faded and the prosperity created by public works became endangered by cut backs caused by inflationary tendencies and the flight of capital from the country.

There had always been some opposition to the regime but by 1927 it was growing more vocal. Politicians of different stripes, dismissed when Primo took power, were a constant threat, and even conservatives were calling for Primo’s dismissal. Student unrest and even army discontent became more evident.

Most socialists worked within the framework permitted by the regime but also took the opportunity offered by their membership on the comités paritarios (committees formed of equal numbers of employers and UGT officials and employers to settle wage disputes), to organise meetings to expand and solidify their membership. Republicans worked clandestinely and increased their numbers significantly as the regime weakened.

However, the most sustained opposition came from the intellectuals, for whom Primo reserved as deep a dislike as for the politicians. He believed professors were subversive or lazy, and university students frivolous and addicted to modern vices. Female students at demonstrations especially annoyed him; he connected their presence there with the rise of pornography.

Surprisingly, student numbers more than doubled during the regime (18,969 to 42,009 Ben Ami 350), and their voices gained momentum after the founding of the non-Catholic Union, the FUE (Federación Universitaria Escolar: University Student Federation) in January of 1927. It organised its first strike a year later in support of a professor who was suspended following a lecture on birth control! 

But FUE’s main opposition was to a bill that would allow Catholic colleges to confer academic degrees because a proliferation of university degrees would undermine job opportunities by increasing competition and reducing salaries. As student riots increased in 1928-29, so comical scenes developed with anti-graffiti police cycling around cleaning seditious scribblings only to find them reappearing the next day.

To counter student riots, the UP organised pro-government parades, but these merely underlined the gap between the two sides. The truth was that the pronouncements of the regime carried little weight with the young who saw themselves ridiculed or attacked for their ideas by aging patriarchs. 

The running feud between government and students from 1928 to 1930 did much to undermine business confidence in the regime and demonstrated the vulnerability of a dictatorship that vacillated.  In September 1929, Primo capitulated and suspended the decree that would have allowed the Catholic colleges to grant academic degrees. A weak dictatorship is a contradiction and concessions lead to more demands.

Nevertheless, it was not the students who precipitated Primo de Rivera’s fall, but the loss of support by the army and the king. Although a military man himself, the cavalier Primo never enjoyed the total support of the generals. The coup of 1923, for example, had depended more on King Alfonso XIII’s blessing than unanimous backing from the generals.

Military discontent was papered over only as long as the Moroccan impasse dominated the scene. Once Morocco was solved, the iron surgeon began to reform the armed services with all the delicacy of a blunt scalpel. For example, Army numbers were cut by some 30% in the name of efficiency and modernisation, a matter which did not go down well with those who were declared superfluous and told to become, e.g., schoolteachers in some distant provincial town.

However, what really set off army disaffection and upset the harmony of the “military family” was Primo’s patronising meddling with the artillery corps over promotions. Briefly, the elite artillery officers enjoyed the privilege of promotion by seniority rather than by merit, which was the system advocated by the africanistas (i.e. those who had fought in Morocco).

When Primo decreed promotion by merit throughout the army in June 1926, the artillery corps rejected the decision outright. Primo reacted by arbitrarily suspending all the officers, thus converting them immediately into implacable enemies. The move also angered the king whose authority as Commander-in-Chief had been undermined by Primo.

These arbitrary decisions by the dictator provoked several conspiracies between 1926 and 1929, which included not only disaffected officers but also disgruntled politicians. The matter finally came to a head towards the end of January 1930, following the discovery of yet another plot. Without consulting the king, Primo impulsively canvassed the military leaders for support.

When it became evident that he had only lukewarm support, he tendered his resignation to the king on January 30. Alfonso, already fed up with the dictator’s independent actions and disregard for royal prerogatives, and aware that the future of the monarchy was jeopardised by Primo’s regime, was only too glad to accept.

Monument to Primo in Jerez de la Frontera (Andalusia). Jerez is where he was born and is buried.

Disillusioned and in ill health (apparently from diabetes), Primo confessed, with pathetic self-indulgence, in his last official communique his readiness “for a little rest after 2,326 days of worry, responsibility and toil” (de Blaye 68 note 7).

Unfortunately for him, the period of rest was short. In March 1930, seven weeks after leaving Madrid, he died of a heart attack in a second rate hotel in Paris.

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
de Blaye, Edouard    Franco and the Politics of Spain (transl. Brian Pearce) London 1976
Esdaile, Charles J Spain in the Liberal Age: From Constitution to Civil War, 1808-1939 Oxford 2000
Image of Primo’s monument by Mariano Benlliure y Gil: