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.
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.
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: https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Spanish_Civil_War