Second Spanish Republic 1931-36. History. Overview.

The Second Spanish Republic 1931-39: Historical Overview.
The birth of Spain’s Second Republic was greeted enthusiastically following the decision of both the dictator, General Miguel Primo de Rivera, and the king, Alfonso XIII, to go into exile (in January 1930 and April 1931 respectively). It was a bloodless transition and there was plenty of window dressing to celebrate the occasion.

The Republican flag.

La niña bonita (the pretty girl) as the Second Republic was popularly called, came clothed with a new tricolour flag, the royalist national anthem was replaced by the old liberal Himno de Riego (“Hymn of Riego”) and many streets and squares were renamed. They were heady days, full of hope for so many Spaniards, yet in 5 years that hope was dashed as a bloody civil war engulfed the nation.

A general outline of the governments of the Second Republic looks something like this:

  1. April – June 1931: Provisional government.
  2. June 28 1931 – November 1933: Left wing coalition government.
  3. November 1933 – February 1936: Right wing coalition government.
  4. February 1936 – July 17 1936: Left wing coalition government.
  5. July 18 1936. General Francisco Franco declared a state of war. The Civil War lasted until April 1 1939.

So, why did the Second Republic fail? There were numerous factors, both external and internal that worked against La niña bonita.

Externally the Second Republic had little control over events. In October 1929, the Wall Street Crash provoked an economic crisis that was felt worldwide with a hardening of international relations and increased tariff protection erected by several countries.

Spanish exports, notably citrus fruits, olive oil and steel were especially affected. The subsequent shortage of funds, necessary for the reforms projected by left leaning politicians in Spain, hampered such initiatives.

A significant offshoot of these unstable times was the growth of European nationalism giving rise to fascist and totalitarian regimes, most famously in Germany, Italy and Portugal (and Poland, Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia and Greece had also taken the path of repression and authoritarianism).

A further destabilising issue was the successful Russian communist revolution of 1917, which gave support to the potential of left-wing, egalitarian ideas. Both of these ideological extremes –fascism and communism– were factors that increasingly entered the political narrative of the Second Republic and were major components of the Civil War itself.

But however much external issues influenced the political and social events of the Second Republic, the major obstacles were home grown.

Internally the Second Republic was not without committed enemies: e. g. dyed-in-the-wool monarchists, bourgeoisie and aristocratic landowners, members of the church hierarchy, conservative peasants (especially in the north), and military hardliners. Against this opposition, the Republic was tasked with seeking solutions to four pressing issues: 1. Agrarian reform, 2. Regional autonomy, principally Catalan, 3. Addressing the role of the Catholic Church and 4. Military reform.

Agrarian reform immediately came up against entrenched, powerful landed interests, Catalan autonomy was anathema to centralist Castile and the military, the Church had long enjoyed wide-ranging privileges which it saw threatened, and the military, especially the army, objected to reforms pushed by politicians.

All of these issues had been quashed during the dictatorship of General Primo de Rivera whose priorities were la Patria (the Fatherland), Church and King. A centralist and traditionalist, and furthermore, landowner and military officer, he preferred to dabble in superficial but expensive projects (e. g. building roads, dams, restoring monuments) rather than attack root causes. His lack of economic judgement also left the country with a significant budget deficit, leaving the Republic shackled from the outset.

In addition to the challenges outlined above, the Second Republic faced a surprising obstacle from a powerful group we might initially think supportive of the new political system: the Anarchists.

Anarchism had very strong roots in Andalusia and around Barcelona. Although members of the proletariat which had much to gain from proposed agrarian and workers’ reforms, the Anarchists sought to destabilise the very government that sought to improve the lot of the workers.

The reason for this is not simply that the Anarchists were anti-government. For a long time, they and the socialists had been rivals in recruiting converts, but what made them particularly hostile to the left wing coalition of the first government of the Second Republic (of which the socialists formed the largest component) was that the socialists had earlier collaborated with the Primo dictatorship whereas the anarchist movement had been suppressed.

For the Anarchists, the socialists were traitors, and their enmity to the Republic was channelled into violent strikes and armed insurrections that were major destabilising factors in undermining the social reforms proposed by the left wing.

The following is a summary showing a pendulum of events that eventually swung out of control.

Briefly, the left-wing, socialist dominated first government of the Second Republic did succeed in effecting a number of reforms against strong even violent opposition. There was a sweeping assault on the Church including a constitutional declaration that that the state recognised no official religion and that education (run mainly by the church) was to become secular. 

Agrarian reform: A law aiming to redistribute land was passed but met with all kinds of obstacles from the landowners, including leaving their land untilled and resorting to lockouts of farm workers.

Provisions for Catalan autonomy were presented to the Cortes (Parliament) but ran up against centralist sentiment in Madrid. Still, Catalonia/Catalunya did get a statute passed providing for a separate parliament (the Generalitat), shared official status for its language with Castilian, and recognition of its flag and anthem.

The military did not carry the long, historical baggage of church, land and regional autonomy, but the power it wielded since the 19th century now made it one of the most formidable enemy of change. It had, after all, frequently intervened in the parliamentary process. Indeed, an attempted coup against the Republic by General José Sanjurjo in August 1932 failed spectacularly, but only increased the hostility of most officers against left-wing politicians.

By the summer of 1933, the country was in a state of disorder. The left was divided as to how to respond to right wing resistance, Anarchist violence, and peasant dissatisfaction with a lack of progress to their demands.

In the meantime, right wing interests organised themselves and succeeded in winning power in general elections held in November 1933. Moves were made to undo much of what had been passed under the left-wing coalition, although the republican system of governance was grudgingly accepted. Recent laws against the Church were not enforced and anticlerical persecution stopped, landowners ignored the demands of agrarian reforms, Catalan autonomy was threatened (martial law was imposed in October 1934), the right wing fascist-leaning Falange was founded in October 1933, and right leaning military officers were favoured in appointments.

Outbreaks of violence continued, the most notorious being the rebellion by striking miners in Asturias in October 1934. The army moved in to restore order. Tales of atrocities abounded on both sides, the right emphasising the barbarity of the insurgents, the left berating the brutal treatment and summary executions carried out by the right. The commander of the army engaged in Asturias was the future dictator, General Francisco Franco.

The right wing coalition finally fell over accusations of corruption involving gambling which was illegal in Spain. New elections were called for February 1936. The pendulum now swung to the left, although only just. The country was now divided, and parliamentary rhetoric was increasingly inflammatory.

Language such as “the left must of necessity move to civil war. And don’t let the right have any illusions that this is an idle threat. This is a warning” (Carr Spanish Tragedy, 47). The right responded that “if the revolution wants war, it shall have war” (Carr Spanish Tragedy, 47). The drums of war were beating, and sadly, verbal violence was soon translated into action.

Eighteen governments in just five years underline the fragility of a system that could find no road to compromise. The Second Republic collapsed owing probably to attempting to do too much, too quickly and with too much passion to right historical grievances in the face of entrenched interests during the first two years of socialist government.

Resistance to these radical reforms was immediate and defended with equal passion. The aims of the left were to modernise Spain, what happened was a return to the country’s past when, under the banner of the crusading dictator, General Franco, Spain reverted to its Catholic heritage, its territorial unity and conservative values.

Barton, Simon A History of Spain 2nd ed. New York 2009
Carr, Raymond  Spain 1808-1939 Oxford 1966
Carr, Raymond The Spanish Tragedy: The Civil War in Perspective London 1993
Casanova, Julian and Andres, Carlos Gil Twentieth-Century Spain: A History Cambridge 2014
Phillips, William D Jr. and Phillips, Carla R A Concise History of Spain Cambridge 2010
Shubert, Adrian A Social History of Modern Spain London 1990
Image of the Republican flag: By SanchoPanzaXXI – Own work, GFDL,