In 1918 Spain was still a nation in which local loyalties contested with national sentiment. Catalonians and Basques continued to work toward separate states, and though the Catholic religion had united Spaniards against Muslims in the Middle Ages and against Protestants in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the church was no longer so strong a force for unity.
While Spain at times approached self-sufficiency in agriculture and industrial raw materials, its soil was poor and its farming antiquated, and the rural areas were suffering from over-population. Poverty was commonplace, and the masses were increasingly discontented with their national leadership.
Spain had also suffered from a lowered sense of prestige. It had lost its empire to the United States in the short war of 1898, and in World War I it had remained neutral. The government had done little to improve agriculture, and farmers in Catalonia could not gain access to sufficient land to support themselves. There were many small landholdings and many large estates, but no middle ground for prosperous farmers.
Spanish sheep, once prized, declined in competition against Australian and Argentine flocks, while Spanish grain from Castile cost more in Barcelona because of inadequate transport than did foreign grain from North America. By World War I Spain had no export market to itself in Europe except for cork, which was benefiting the area already best developed, intensifying the sense of disparity among the various regions.
Spanish industry was dominated by textiles. But production was largely confined to the home market, where the consumption of cotton was no higher than in eastern Europe. Though it was the most important part of Spain’s industries, the cotton industry was unable to stimulate further stages of industrialization, as had occurred in France, Switzerland, and Belgium.
Moreover, what small prosperity the textile industry brought to Spain was largely confined to Catalonia. Spain had little coal for heavier industry, and the iron industry in Bilbao used British coal until 1914. Spain also had to rely on British investments for its railroads, and both rails and rolling stock had been imported until the war curtailed them. In short, Spain had not achieved a breakthrough into modern industrialism, the level of agriculture remained low, the gap between the rich and the poor was very great, and there seemed little prospect of change.
When the Spaniards turned to revolutionary doctrine, it was chiefly to Bakunin’s anarchist beliefs and later to Sorel’s syndicalism. Anarchism (and anarchosyndicalism) really took hold only in Spain. The industrial workers of Catalonia and the peasants of Andalusia who no longer attended Mass were anarchist; they wanted to destroy the state utterly rather than conquer and use it.
Yet anarchism, which at its peak numbered a million to a million and a half adherents, could only harass governments, not overthrow them. The movement was deeply puritanical and anti-Catholic; its adherents burned churches and killed priests. A wave of assassinations put into office General Miguel Primo de Rivera (1870-1930), who proclaimed martial law, dissolved the Cortes (the Spanish parliament), imposed censorship, drove liberal critics into exile, and ruled from 1923 until 1930.
In the 1930s Spain also had a growing Marxist Socialist party with its own federation of trade unions. The socialists drew their first strength from the urban workers of Castile and from the mining and steel-producing centers of the north. When Spain became a republic in 1931, the socialists added many rural supporters, and the party numbered a million and a quarter in 1934. The socialists were moderates who had refused to adhere to the Comintern in 1920, but who had joined the revived Second International a few years later. Dissidents founded a small Communist party, and Catalonians had their own socialist organization.
On the extreme right was Carlism, founded in the nineteenth century as a movement supporting Don Carlos (1788-1855), a pretender to the throne. Carlism called for the restoration of the Inquisition, regarded the railroad and the telegraph as sources of evil, and rejected the Copernican theory of the universe. Carlism had its lower-class followers, too, especially among the rebellious farmers of Navarre in the north.
King Alfonso XIII (r. 1886-1931) ruled over Spain until 1931. Based on electoral corruption and intimidation, the “liberals” and “conservatives” in his governments took orderly turns at office, and the real power rested with the local political bosses. These alternating governments occupied the political center, which in fact was quite small. Once the prosperity brought by Spain’s wartime neutrality was over, the clashes between the anarchists, the left, and the far right led many people to consider General Primo’s rule necessary.
After Primo’s resignation and death, King Alfonso restored the constitution. Municipal elections in April 1931 were viewed as a plebiscite on the monarchy. They resulted in a victory for the republicans, representing the lower middle classes of the towns, small traders, intellectuals, teachers, and journalists. The king left the country without abdicating. Elections to a constituent assembly in June 1931 brought in a republican-socialist majority, and in November the assembly forbade the king’s return and confiscated his property. Spain was now a republic.
The assembly adopted a new constitution in December. This provided for a responsible ministry, a single-chamber parliament, and a president to be chosen by an electoral college consisting of parliament and an equal number of electors chosen by popular vote. It was clear that the army would rise against the republic whenever the opportunity presented itself, and that the army would have the support of the church and the large landowners. Moreover, although the republic temporarily had socialist support, it did not have the support of the anarchists. Danger threatened from both the right and the left.
The first crisis arose over a new constitutional law defining the position of the church. The assembly rejected a moderate proposal that would have preserved the church as a special corporation with its own schools and might have proved acceptable to most Catholics. Instead, the assembly’s law was more extreme; it closed church schools and ended state grants to the church after two years. This lost the republicans many supporters, especially among the lower clergy.
The anarchists expressed their dissatisfaction by major uprisings (1933), which the government put down by force. The jails were full, and unemployment was as high as ever. Repression of the anarchists lost the republic much support on the left but failed to gain it support from the right, which came back strongly in the elections of November 1933 as the largest party in parliament. Now the government helplessly swung to the right, and much of its previous legislation, especially laws affecting the church and the working classes, remained unenforced.
The socialists now competed with the anarchists for the loyalty of Spanish workers. Strikes and disorders multiplied. In October 1934 the socialists called a general strike to protest the inclusion of fascists in the government. Catalonia, declaring itself an independent republic, was deprived of its autonomy. The coal miners of the Asturias region in the north staged a revolt, backed by both anarchists and socialists, which was put down with the loss of more than three thousand lives. Intense hatred was directed at the new minister of war, Francisco Franco (1892-1975).
Thus the right lost its public support; and now the left, under the impact of the Asturias uprising and influenced by the Comintern, united in a Popular Front for the elections of February 1936. For the first time anarchosyndicalists went to the polls and voted for republicans, socialists, and communists. The left won a considerable victory, in part because it promised an amnesty for those involved in past outbreaks.
Instead of entering the cabinet, Francisco Largo Caballero (1869-1946), leader of the left-wing socialists, now played at insurrection, acting as if he intended to seize power. Yet he had no forces of his own. The route to power for left-wing revolutionaries could open up only if the right attempted a military coup, if the government then armed the workers to fight it, and if the workers then won.
Simultaneously in 1936 the Falange (Phalanx) emerged on the right—a party founded in 1932 by the son of Primo de Rivera, Jose Antonia (1903-1936), a fascist who did not oppose agrarian reform or other socialist programs. The Falange used as its symbol a bunch of arrows and a yoke, and as its slogan Arriba Espana (Upward, Spain). Its program called for national expansion in Africa, the annexation of Portugal, and the building of an empire in South America. It established youth groups and a private army, as Hitler had done. Although the Falange polled relatively few votes in the election of 1936, it worked with army, monarchist, clerical, and Carlist groups for a counterrevolution. Everyone knew a military coup against the government was in the offing. In July it came, under the leadership of General Franco.
The Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) was the first act in the conflict that was to ripen into World War II. The right-wing rebels made Franco chief of staff in November 1936. Decisively aided by Germany and Italy, Franco’s forces pushed on to eventual victory, capturing the republican strongholds of Madrid and Barcelona in 1939.
During the war the functions of the weak republican government were usurped by a series of workers’ committees, and then a Popular Front regime under Largo Caballero came to office in September 1936. In government territory terror reigned, at first the work of anarchists, and after their suppression, of the communists, who—with the Soviet Union behind them—ruthlessly worked against their rival leftist parties in the regime.
For all its fascist trappings, the Franco regime still depended after the war upon the same classes that had supported the Spanish monarchy—the landowners, the army, and the church. The new regime was opposed by the poor in city and country, but the fear of a new civil war, which lay heavily on all classes, prevented open opposition. Franco ruled until his death in 1975.