Second Spanish Republic 1931-36. Transition to Provisional Government.

For a general overview of the Second Republic, click here.

After the resignation of the dictator, Miguel Primo de Rivera, on January 26, 1930, King Alfonso XIII, found himself under increasing pressure from republican sympathisers, prominent intellectuals, and monarchists critical of his accommodation with Primo’s dictatorship.

The republicans, however, were far from united in their political views, ranging from the revolutionary left –radical socialists, anti-clericals and anarchists— to conservatives and Catholics. Adding to this potential powder keg were the Catalan nationalists exasperated by the centralising policy of Madrid and clamouring for autonomy.

Hoping to resolve the issue of a discredited monarchy, these various sectors put their differences aside and formed an umbrella revolutionary committee which met in San Sebastian in August of 1930. The committee produced a series of proposals known as the Pact of San Sebastian.

Included in the proposals was the establishment of a Republic, a call for an election of a Cortes (Parliament) to draw up a new constitution, guaranteed freedom of religion and political affiliation, and regional autonomy.

Impatient to promote their agenda, the pactistas tried to hasten the end of the monarchy by organising a military insurrection in December 1930 of soldiers sympathetic to the republican cause. The uprising, however, failed through lack of adequate planning, and King Alfonso ordered its leaders executed and the members of the revolutionary committee imprisoned. It was a public relations disaster for the monarchy.

In an attempt to stabilise the situation, the revolutionary committee was freed and municipal elections were called for April 12, 1931. But it was too late for the King because the elections in fact turned into a referendum on the monarchy. Although 41 of the 50 provincial capitals voted for a republic, Alfonso was loathe to recognise the winds of change, but unable to gain military support, he finally accepted the inevitable. On April 14, 1931, he left Spain, although refusing to abdicate!

On the day that Alfonso departed, Spain’s Second Republic was proclaimed. It started off with  great optimism. A “new dawn” was heralded as Spaniards proudly contemplated the bloodless transformation overnight of their country from Monarchy to Republic.

There was plenty of window dressing to celebrate the occasion: La niña bonita (“the pretty girl”) as the Second Republic was popularly called, came with a new tricolour flag, replacement of the royalist national anthem by the old liberal “Hymn of Riego,” and the renaming of many streets and squares. These were heady days.

But the Republic still had plenty of enemies: dyed-in-the-wool monarchists, the church hierarchy, the army, anarchists, large estate landowners, industrialists, and –especially in the north– the conservative peasantry. Still, in general it was the dream not only of most politicians but also of millions of workers and farm labourers whose woeful conditions they had pledged to address.

Spurred by a sense of urgency, the revolutionary committee immediately took the reins of power and formed the provisional government.  Its job it was to steer the country until a new Cortes (Parliament) was elected and a new republican constitution drawn up.

Of those who formed the provisional government, most were representative of the republican left and the socialists. E. g. the leftist intellectual Manuel Azaña, minister of war, and the socialists Indalecio Prieto, minister of finance, Fernando de los Ríos, minister of justice, and Francisco Largo Caballero, head of the labour union, UGT (Unión General de Trabajadores).

Making the Republic more palatable to the right were two Catholic, conservative Republicans with important portfolios: prime minister Niceto Alcalá Zamora (ex-Monarchist and landowner), and the Minister of the Interior, Miguel Maura.

Despite the spirit of optimism, the provisional government faced many difficulties, not the least of which was the impatience of the country. Within a month of Alfonso’s departure, two events took place that were ominous signs of things to come, and carried with them the baggage of history.

The first took place on April 14, the very day the republic was proclaimed. It was the unilateral decision by Colonel Francesc Macià –the formerly exiled leader of the separatist Estat Catala and now head of a Catalan coalition party, Esquerra Republicana– to declare 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 could have serious repercussions. It is true that the Pact of San Sebastian had agreed to support Catalan autonomy, but only by following due constitutional process. Macià’s immediate and unilateral declaration sent shudders down republican backs, and three ministers of the provisional government quickly went to Barcelona to head off a confrontation.

An agreement was reached to resurrect the Generalitat 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 constituent Cortes of the nation for ratification. It was a rocky start.

The second event underlined the dangers inherent in the enthusiastic embrace of republicanism at the expense of entrenched interests: it brought the state head to head with the church. It came about this way. Republicanism had always contained within it a strong secular streak. When the provisional government took power it immediately published a special statute to provide the nation with an interim legal framework.

Amongst the provisions was one that proposed freedom of belief and religion, and separation of Church and state with no reference to any special status or relationship the Church might enjoy in the new regime. And to add fuel to the fire, a measure was announced on May 6 ending obligatory religious instruction in public schools.

Cardinal Segura in Seville.

The announcement coincided with the publication on May 7 of a militant pastoral letter by Cardinal Pedro Segura, Archbishop of Toledo. Unfortunately for Spain, the head of the most important diocese in the country was both a religious fanatic and committed monarchist, and his letter was viewed by anticlerical republicans as a challenge.

It contained warm praise for King Alfonso’s support of the church, appealed to Spanish women to organise a crusade of prayers and called for the faithful to close ranks to protect the rights of the church against those who were determined to destroy religion. This reigniting of the crusading flame was an ominous signal.

Within a few days blood tarnished the image of the republic. A meeting of monarchists on May 10, 1931, in a building in the centre of Madrid played the royal anthem that was easily heard in the streets through the open windows. Soon crowds of republican supporters gathered and tried to break down the doors. Police prevented damage, but the angry mob then headed for the nearby offices of the monarchist newspaper, ABC, spurred on by rumours that a taxi driver had been killed by monarchists. The subsequent confrontation with the Civil Guard left two people dead and others injured.

This was the beginning of widespread reaction. On the following day (May 11), anticlerical frustration broke loose in Madrid and a number of churches, religious schools and convents were torched. With warning signs everywhere, the provisional government’s refusal at this moment to protect church property probably set the seal for future relations between the Second Republic and the Church. Miguel Azaña is reported to have said that “all the convents of Madrid are not worth the life of a single Republican.

For the next three days flames rose over Seville, Málaga, Córdoba, Cádiz, Alicante, Valencia and other cities in the south, and by the time it was over it is estimated that more than 100 religious buildings had perished in what became known as the quema de conventos (“torching of convents”). The geographical parameters of the Civil War were already being outlined.

In addition to all this, on May 11, Archbishop Segura left the country, alleging that the government had refused to guarantee his safety. A few days later the Bishop of Vitoria (Navarra) was expelled for subversive activities. Finally, on May 22, the government formally declared total religious liberty and furthermore prohibited any displays of religious images –e.g. crucifixes– in public schools.  The church felt itself under siege, but there was more to come!

The immediate and grave problems arising from the Catalan issue and conflict with the Church underlined the difficulties faced by the Republic. So too did measures to improve the appalling conditions suffered by industrial workers and especially by braceros (“farm labourers”) in rural Spain, particularly in Andalusia, Extremadura and Castile-La Mancha.

Decrees were issued to prevent evictions of lessee farmers, block landowners from hiring “scab” workers, and abolish owners’ right to break strikes. Furthermore, eight-hour days were proclaimed, obligatory cultivation imposed (to prevent owners leaving their land unworked) and committees formed to arbitrate wages for the workers. These agrarian reforms posed early challenges to the powerful landowners and industrial figures and ensured a fierce and enduring opposition to republican plans.

At the same time, the Republic fueled the anger of the army. First by offering Catalans hope for autonomy, a move that was diametrically opposed to the army’s long held view of the unbreakable unity of the patria. Then, in May 1931, Miguel Azaña, the minister of war, added fuel to the fire by proposing large cut backs to the officer corps and a review of how promotions were decided,  including reassessing promotions handed out during the Moroccan wars. Azaña further inflamed army sensitivity by abolishing its legal power (introduced in March 1906) to try civilians in military tribunals for whatever it considered offensive to its honour! Adding insult to injury, Azaña was a civilian!

By the time elections were held for the Cortes on June 28, 1931, the provisional government had taken bold steps to carry out reforms to modernize Spanish society. However, its decrees carried with them destabilising seeds of confrontation, centred on Church state relationship, agrarian reform, Catalan autonomy and the balance between state and military power.

The results of the elections were overwhelmingly in favour of a republican-socialist coalition, but the plethora of parties which formed the Cortes –nineteen!— underlined the fragmentation that hounded the Second Republic throughout it existence. Among these parties, a small group of about 50 members represented anti-Republican sentiment.

Between July and early December 1931, a task force worked on a new Constitution. By the end of August, it submitted its recommendations which were fiercely debated until a final version was approved on December 9, 1931. At last, the Republic had a legal Constitution to enforce its agenda.

Balfour, Sebastian “Spain from 1931 to the Present,” in Carr, Raymond ed. Spain. A History Oxford 2000, pp. 243-82.
Barton, Simon A History of Spain 2nd. ed. Basingstoke, Hampshire 2009
Carr, Raymond Modern Spain 1875-1980 Oxford1980
Casanova, Julián and Carlos Gil Andrés Twentieth-Century Spain: A History Cambridge 2014
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
Pecharromán, Julio Gil Historia de España: La Segunda Republica: Esperanzas y Frustraciones Madrid 1997
Preston, Paul A Concise History of the Spanish Civil War London 1996
Image of Cardinal Segura: