Sunday, 31 July 2016

The Road To Civil War 1921 to 1936

Don Miguel Primo de Rivera y Orbaneja
The 'Disaster of Annual' which began the Rif War of 1921-1927, ushered in a period of political instability in an already unstable political scene. Ultimately successive falls of governments and the basic argument of whether to attempt to regain its Moroccan protectorate, or to just abandon it altogether, as well as the prosecution of certain commanders for various charges relating to the disaster, resulted in a military-led coup which placed Captain-General Miguel Primo de Rivera in the position of prime-minister, an act which was confirmed by King Alfonso XIII, who was also implicated within the criticism levelled at the military, not least for his 'chicken meat is cheap' comment when informed of the death toll at Annual.

Unusually for a coup followed by a military dictatorship, the bulk of Spaniards were initially supportive of Primo de Rivera. Political unrest, a Post-Great War economic slump, along with strikes and political violence, had wearied them and a strong leader who was seen to be proactive and patriotic, was just what many wanted. Bearing in mind that De Rivera's coup was almost contemporaneous with Mussolini's rise to power in Italy, comparisons were drawn and indeed it does seem that De Rivera did use some of Mussolini's initiatives, modified for Spain. King Alfonso even describing him as 'his Mussolini', much to the embarrassment of De Rivera. 

De Rivera wanted to withdraw from Morocco entirely, but to do so without a Spanish victory first would shame Spain in front of the world once more, as had the events of the Spanish-American War of 1898. While the Rif War was hard and long, the Spanish were ultimately victorious, even if that victory only came after France was drawn into the conflict. At home the regime embarked on a modernising of infrastructure, with a programme of building dams, new roads and railways. De Rivera also pursued a corporatist policy with regard to industry, which saw industrialists and trade unionists being forced to find common ground under the view of the government. The anarchists of the CNT found themselves banned however and were forced to become an underground movement. 

By and large however, De Rivera's reforms ultimately benefited the rich. Spain had the best road system of auto-mobiles in Europe, yet the bulk of the population would never be able to afford one. The public works undertook created massive inflation, albeit trade levels in 1927 were three times bigger than they had been in 1923. Decisions as regards industry and agriculture inevitably came down on the side of the industrialists and landowners, and the gap between rich and poor was at its greatest than previously in Spain's history.

By 1929 De Rivera's policies were becoming increasingly criticised, with Right-Wing parties claiming that his various public works were bankrupting the country. Spain was also entering a trade deficit, which only widened as the effects of the Wall Street Crash were felt. A bad harvest in the same year added to the country's calamities too. De Rivera had already begun to replace his military governors with civilians and had planned a programme which would see the reformation of the national assembly and a return to civil government. It was however too little too late and ultimately De Rivera lost both the King's support and even that of the army. He felt that there was no option but to resign, which he subsequently did.

The subsequent elections of 1931 returned a majority alliance of parties committed to forming a Republic and now even the King could see the writing on the wall. He was a symbol of oppression to the working class, the middle class despised him for his previous support of De Rivera and ultimately even the aristocracy was now shunning him as they perceived that he could no longer rule. While he did not formally abdicate, Alfonso issued an open letter to the Spanish people, effectively saying that he was and promptly fled the country. With no impediment facing them any more, the government declared Spain to be a republic.

In what was certainly a case of too much too soon, the government introduced a swathe of new policies, which shocked the more conservative of Spaniards. Most of these centred on restricting the power of the church. Nuns and priests were forbidden to teach, church schools shut down and secular education was made compulsory. Civil marriages and the option to divorce were also introduced, while church land was nationalised, with the church having to pay rent for what it held. Left-wing groups also began burning churches and there were occasional attacks on clergy and nuns in the streets.

The previous agreements with industrialists with regard to pay and conditions, one of De Rivera's successes, were now extended to agricultural workers, which infuriated landowners across Spain. Added to that, in certain areas land was seized and redistributed to the local population, as a test project for wider land reform. Having alienated the church and landowners, the Government turned to the last of Spain's 'Three Pillars' and began to reform the Army too.

Besides creating massive opposition from the right, the anarchists of the CNT were also in opposition to the government on principle alone and wildcat strikes and rioting by their members became commonplace. After two years of well-intentioned reforms and opposition from the extreme left and right, the government finally gained a 'no confidence' vote in the Spanish parliament and new elections were ordered.

14th April 1931. The heads of the government of the new republic.
The Bienio Negro 

Having been caught unprepared in 1931, the right-wing had made up for it by 1933 and won a convincing victory. In a similar fashion to the 'Republican Alliance' of 1931, the right campaigned as an alliance, directing its supporters to vote for other right-wing parties where their own presence was weak. While CEDA (Confederación Española de Derechas Autónomas - an alliance of minor right-wing parties) gained most seats, their leader, José María Gil-Robles, presenting himself very much in the Mussolini mould, was not selected as prime-minister. He was able to influence decisions in parliament however, as a result of the support he had within it. The next two years was to see what was essentially a rolling back of every reform the previous government had initiated.

The anarchists of the CNT, now supported by an increasingly radical section of the main socialist trade union, the UGT, called a general strike almost as soon as the election results were known. This was to be followed over the next two years by a further 112 strikes, almost all of which resulted in rioting and civil disorder when demonstrations by strikers got out of hand. CEDA used anti-strike laws to neutralise political leaders piecemeal and the extremists of the Falange (Falange Española Tradicionalista y de las Juntas de Ofensiva Nacional Sindicalista, or FET y de las JONS) embarked on a programme of street brawls and assassinations, which were responded to in like measure by the CNT and UGT. Over 300 political killings were to occur over the next two years, along with 1500 people seriously injured in rioting and the burning of over 200 churches.

A severe general strike in 1934 led to armed revolts in the Asturias and Catalonia and while the situation was diffused in Catalonia, more stern measures were taken in the Asturias. General Francisco Franco was tasked with putting down the revolt there and with the use of units drawn from the Moroccan Regulares and the Tercio de Extranjeros (Spain's 'foreign legion'), brutally put down the revolt. 2-3,000 rebels were killed and 30,000 captured and imprisoned. No restraint appears to have been applied and these troops acted with the same brutality as they did in Morocco and subsequently in the later Civil War. The government went to great pains to suppress reports of rape and looting by the Moros and one journalist was shot by an officer to prevent his reporting what had happened.  

While there was considerable unrest and opposition to the government, it had managed to maintain control. Gil-Robles incessant attempts to gain more power by gaining cabinet seats for CEDA was destabilising it however. After several threats to remove CEDA support for the government, it eventually made good on them and caused it to collapse. Instead of asking Gil-Robles to form a government, President Zamora opted to call for a new election, with very unintended but perhaps inevitable consequences.

Soldiers begin the work of dismantling improvised armoured vehicles and artillery taken from the rebels in Oviedo.

A new and almost all-encompassing coalition of centre and left-wing parties, the Popular Front, won the election by a margin of just 75,000 votes. Subsequent re-aligning of minor parties increased this to around 150,000, but even so, it was not the majority the Popular Front had sought. The Socialists (PSOE) had 99 seats, while the centre-republicans (IR) had 87. Even the communists gained 16 seats through negotiation, a figure at odds with the numbers of votes cast for them. CEDA's coalition on the other hand won only 88 seats, a drop of 17 on its previous holdings. Despite headline grabbing, numerous rallies and a massive effort, the Falange did not gain 1% of the overall vote. The CNT of course did not participate in the election and its members either voted for the PSOE, or at the urging of their leaders fell within the 28% of the total electorate that did not vote.

Infighting within the PSOE, with the more radical group supported by the communists, prevented one of their leaders becoming the new Prime Minister and instead Manuel Azaña of the IR was chosen as the only candidate acceptable to most members of parliament. In essence Azaña was heading a minority government, opposed by both the right and the left, but reliant on both to get anything done. The right wing was presenting the election result as almost a Bolshevik revolution within Spain and within the Army there were those who began to plot an overthrow of the government, as had occurred in 1923. 

In the streets middle and upper class women berated army officers, challenging their manhood against the affront of a socialist government and of course the Falange was making up for its electoral failings by conducting its usual round of street-fighting and assassination. Fearing a coup Azaña removed a number of senior officers from their posts, retiring some, but otherwise posting the most likely opponents to obscure postings, even effectively demoting some in the process. Franco himself was despatched to the Canary Islands, about as close to actual exile as you could get in the Spanish military. Nevertheless it was not far enough and he was still brought into the conspiracy master-minded by General Emilio Mola.

Although he had called the election which had brought the Popular Front to power, President Zamora was indicted for calling it, as he had broken Spanish law by doing so. He was replaced by Santiago Casares y Quiroga, after the PSOE blocked Azaña's preferred moderate PSOE candidate Indalecio Prieto from assuming the presidency. Despite his posturing Gil-Robles was losing support within his own party and the Falange was gaining support in equal measure, despite having no parliamentary presence. Gil-Robles became enmeshed in the Army plot to overturn the government and even provided CEDA funds as a 'war chest' for the coup. The new voice of the right in government was José Calvo Sotelo, who in relative terms was somewhat more moderate than Gil-Robles.

Thousands formed the funeral parties of Calvo
Sotelo (shown here) and Castillo.
Sotelo berated the government for its failings, while at the same time inflamed the rivalry between Falange and CEDA. Out on the streets, the violence continued with 269 deaths and 1,200 woundings between March and June, 199 attacks against members of the clergy and 136 arson attacks against religious buildings. The Guardia Civil and the relatively new 'riot police', the Guardias de Asalto were struggling to keep order and in some cases were complicit in the cycle of assassinations occurring. This facet resulted in the tit for tat shooting dead of a left-wing Asalto officer, José del Castillo, by Falange gunmen. In response a group of Asaltos and PSOE pistoleros 'arrested' Sotelo at his home and at some point in the evening shot him dead, leaving his body at the gates of a Madrid cemetery.  

The funerals of both men took place on the same day (14th July) and both funeral parties were attended by masses of supporters from their respective factions, including uniformed members of the respective corps of Guardias. Running battles in the streets occurred and even the funeral parties themselves were fired upon. The seemingly total breakdown of public order now apparent coincided with the plans of the army plot by sheer   Coincidentally the two funerals coincided with the plans of the army plotters and just three days later months of planning was put into motion and the coup began.

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