To what extent was the 2nd Republic to blame for the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936?



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To what extent was the 2nd Republic to blame for the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936?

It was obvious that, by the late 1920s, the monarchy had failed to alleviate the harsh conditions and problems that plagued every sector of Spanish society. The Second Republic rose to power amidst this chaos and uncertainty of the times; it inherited numerous economic problems and inadvertently created some of their own with their conflicting and often inconsistent policies. For instance, the Second Republic failed to enact proper land reform and alienated the church and other interest groups with the 1931 Constitution. However, the Second Republic cannot be blamed for most of the longer-term causes of the war such as Spain’s inherent political and economic problems. In this sense, the Second Republic can be blamed for the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War to a moderate extent; the general weakness, failed domestic policies and the flawed constitution of the Republic combined with outside factors beyond their control, such as the economic, social and political problems, can all be attributed as causes of the Spanish Civil War.

In its early stages, the Second Spanish Republic enjoyed much support from most sectors of society. This was called the “honeymoon”, where both the people and government were locked in an embrace, it almost seemed as though the conception of the Republic was a welcome change. Indeed, much of the working class also supported the policies of the governing body, especially those of Francisco Largo Caballero, the socialist Labor Minister. However, this did not continue. Though the Republican government made numerous liberal, well-intentioned changes, these were hastily made changes that often did not consider most the views of most of Spanish society; this is most reflected in the provisions of the 1931 Constitution. Indeed, “Republican ministers failed to comprehend the dangers that imperiled the government as a result of their policies” (Werstein 54). The Republicans believed that they had been given the go-signal after their victory in the June 1931 elections to “change the very fabric of Spanish society”. However, though they saw it this way and reflected their views in a new constitution, most conservative sections of Spanish society opposed it or were not ready to accept the changes brought about by the liberal Republicans. According to the new constitution, the state became more anti-clerical: They would cease paying salaries to priests, even though this was part of the compensation to the church for the land confiscated in 1837. Religious education in schools, which had long become a staple in Spanish society, also had to end. Similarly, any “public manifestation of religion”, such as Easter or Christmas processions, needed official approval and, to the chagrin of the clergymen, divorces would be granted. Such was the oppression and disregard given to the church so much so that Cardinal Perdro Segura, Archbishop of Toledo, wrote a pastoral letter condemning the Republic as “those attempting to destroy religion”. For instance, the draft resolution called for universal suffrage when traditionalist Spanish society itself was not ready to “accept such a radical departure when women never had cast a ballot in Spain.”

Yet another blunder could be seen in the constitution when it reduced army size together with the renunciation of war as a national policy and granted self-governance to regions such as Catalonia; the army itself was against this move and regarded the Republican ministers as “traitors, weaklings and fools”. They thought it as a ruse to “destroy the army”, leaving Spain helpless against the “Red menace”. The army had gotten used to having the last word in politics and having their views expressed so much so that they resented their views being limited by the Spanish Republic. The noblemen, some of the Republic’s most ardent supporters were also alienated by the constitution that “removed their birthright titles”. The new constitution thus alienated important sections of Spanish society, depriving the Republic of valuable supporters and creating opposition that would express their danger in a civil war. The religious clauses in the constitution antagonized the conservative priests and lost much middle-class support; the agrarian law angered rich landowners and the move to reduce the army size and disputes over self-rule created dangerous enemies for the Republic among military officers. By the end of 1931, this controversial constitution that wracked Spanish society had been reluctantly accepted and consequently, the seeds of civil war were sown. Instead of fostering cooperation and stability, they created enemies and hatred. However, together with the constitution, the poorly implemented reforms of the Republic caused many to go against them.

The policies implemented by the Republic made it unpopular with many sectors of Spanish society. The Agrarian Reform act of 1931, a main piece of legislation, took too long to take effect. Similarly, though greater freedom was given to workers and workers’ unions, 3,000,000 workers still languished in labor plants, mills or mines by 1932. According to historian S. Payne in Spain's First Democracy: The Second Republic, even with the 7,000 schools built, landless laborers remained largely illiterate, unskilled and barely made a living, only earning a meager salary of six pesetas per day. Working conditions were “only a little better than slavery”; one American observer even commented on it being like a “slave market”. Landlords also abused tenant farming and the farmers hardly received anything for their toil. Though the Republic passed Agrarian reform laws that confiscated unused land from large estates and initiated large irrigation projects, these were not carried out as effectively and instead angered employers and landlords as seen in the anarchist revolt in Andalusia. Indeed, although the resulting crackdown on such revolts was meant to instill peace, it had the adverse effect of causing much more instability throughout the country.

The violent means used by the Republic to counter oppression and separatism only created much more enemies and can be considered the single greatest cause of the civil war. The brutal crackdown at Casas Viejas was negatively received by forces not only on the left and right, but also from moderates; they denounced the government as “murderers of the people”. The period after the November 1933 elections was described as full of “tension, trouble and antagonism”. Alejandro Lerroux’s government often dealt with CNT-led strikes, Anarchist-inspired violence, FAI activism and drawn-out general strikes with violence. Also, the government failed to deal with effectively with the renewed Catalan and Basque calls for a separate state which even resulted in the the government’s violent reactions to separatist movements and the resignation of Lerroux. Anarchist trade unionists under CNT control launched several strikes and a walkout in San Sebastian resulted in violence, with three strikers being killed before order was restored. The massacres in Seville also caused resentment of the Republic on the part of the Anarchists and ultimately with the working classes. The Asturias incident and the Catalan independence crackdowns resulted in much bloodshed and hatred against the Republic. In the aftermath of the Asturias incident, further leftist uprisings occurred, some of which resulting in a “Socialist Republic” being declared. The Republic had also employed the much hated Civil Guard and Asaltos, bodies that “ruled territory like a conquering army”, to violently deal with separatists and any opposition. The Asturian revolt among others had, according to Irving Werstein in The Cruel Years: The Story of the Spanish Civil War become a prelude to the civil war, when “the rich and middle classes…wondered whether a different type of government might more effectively prevent a similar occurrence”- the Republican government was at the height of its unpopularity. However, liberal historian F. Jellinek in The Civil War in Spain does not share Werstein’s views; he proclaims that the Asturian revolt simply pointed out the need for “more bread and freedom” among the working class and that “strong democratic forces still supported the Republic” (201). Though the Republic still had support from many liberal groups in Spain, it would take strong willed leaders to galvanize them into action and to promote lasting stability.

It has been said that the men who ran the Republican government were idealistic and intellectual but lacked down-to-earth common sense (Werstein 52); in this sense, they could be held responsible for most of their own policy and political failures. Despite knowing the seriousness of the Anarchist-inspired Church burnings, government officials still proclaimed that the “Anarchists are friends of the Republic”; they were ignorant of the fact that the Anarchists themselves were responsible for the problems in Spanish society. The Republican government had ignored, and in some cases, even helped the forces that were plotting to get rid of them: They granted amnesty to General Sanjurjo and other leaders of the 1932 uprising and was blind to the fact that Carlists, Falangists, Anarchists, Socialists and Communists had taken over the countryside and were training their own private armies for use against the Republic (Werstein 73). By 1934, an Italian supported Carlist-inspired revolution was in its final stages (Werstein 74). The liberal leaders of the Republic rushed many of their policies without considering the other sectors of society (especially in the writing of the 1931 Constitution). As one historian put it, the “Spanish people still showed themselves concerned with religion”. The impression given by many leaders elected in the July 1933 elections caused the Republic many problems. The “fascist” political showing of Gil Robles and Falangists (such as Jose Primo de Rivera) in the Cortes convinced many that the government intended to create a fascist part state. With his many violent policies and crackdowns, Gil Robles himself was considered by many as the “architect of clerical fascism” and his party (CEDA) by the end of 1934, was termed the “fascist power in Madrid”. The multiparty system also did not work well for the Second Republic. Weak coalition governments such as that of CEDA and the Radical Republican Party lengthened the time to pass important legislation, such as the Agrarian law; they also suspended most of the reforms of the previous government. The Straperlo scandal in 1935 also deeply weakened government, further polarizing political differences between right and left. However, indecisive and controversial leaders were the least of the Republic’s problems- severe economic problems were on the rise.

Upon coming to power, the Republican government inherited job of bringing Spain out of the international economic crisis as well. The Catalan textile industry was hurt greatly by the loss of export markets due to the Great Depression. Consumer goods suffered as well. All of these, though not inherently caused by the Republic, contributed to unrest and dissatisfaction within Spain, especially with the working class. Though the economic effects on Spain were severe as a result of the Depression, historian S. Snow points out that the three different governments that ruled during the Second Spanish Republic “failed to execute numerous economic reforms that would have otherwise staved off the stagnation of the economy” (67); they instead contributed to inflation with the excess printing of money and other unsound economic policies. Though the new Republic cannot be held responsible for the general economic instability, they should have implemented the proper domestic economic reforms in order to stabilize the Spanish economy. Through its policies, the Second Republic had in fact exacerbated and worsened the economic situation of the country. The “violent overturning of society” needed to be prevented in order for economic prosperity to be a reality. Indeed, though the UGT driven Second Republic sought to give workers more rights, its pro-worker policies had alienated the investors and financiers that had formed the backbone of the Spanish economy; historian D. Palafox even exclaims that the “capitalist and oligarchic classes could no longer count on the government to restrain salaries through repression of workers’ organizations- the economic linchpin of many Spanish businesses (174-175).

The liberal government, in order to satisfy the sectors of society that brought them to power, had failed to consider the economic climate of the country. The legalization of workers unions posed threats to many Spanish businesses as “they represented a bargaining power that would lead to higher wages that could only come from employers’ profits”. These workers’ unions dissuaded many investors from entering Spanish markets. Most of the government policies and bodies such as wage-arbitration and the national system of agricultural juries were taken advantage of by the workers and used to win concessions from employers. Similarly, September 1932 also saw farm workers in Extremadura forcefully taking over uncultivated lands with the Government disguising these as “legal settlements”, much to the dismay of landowners. The pro-worker policies of the new Republic saw businesses and investors disinvesting on a massive scale and the Madrid Stock Market dropping by almost 15%; the peseta had even fallen by more than 25% by late 1932 according to the financial magazine El Financiero.

A mini-depression had occurred in Spain: The number of bills in circulation skyrocketed and bank accounts emptied at a rapid pace. Many wealthy Spaniards were alarmed by “the prospect of rampaging workers” as a result of the enacted policies. The profits of many businesses were hurt as a result of the reforms. Orthodox Spanish historian J. Ventosa y Calvell believed that the cause for Spain’s economic problems was indeed due to the numerous worker strikes and demands as a result of government policies (64). However, revisionist historian S. Ben-Ami in The Origins of the Second Republic in Spain suggests that another key reason was the “uncertainty and doubt” investors faced with the changing of regimes (104). Yet another interpretation comes from historian S. Payne in that the Republic suffered economic loss as a result of Monarchists initiating “economic sabotage” and “encouraging disinvestment to subvert the new government” (71). Though there are different interpretations as to whether the Second Spanish Republic should really be blamed for the domestic economic problems that led to the civil war, there is evidence that suggests that the social reforms aimed at helping workers ultimately jeopardized the capitalist business climate in Spain and forced many to “abandon productive activities” (Ventosa y Calvell 64). Evidently, the socio-economic backlash as a result of many industrialists and investors leaving Spain caused mass unemployment and a further loss of support for the Republic as evidenced by the increased strikes.



Spain had a naturally turbulent political atmosphere that plagued the Second Republic even from its conception. The political turmoil throughout the early 1930s negatively affected the Republic. For instance, the Republic was blamed primarily for many of the Church burnings when it was mostly the terrorist Anarchist secret society FAI that caused the problems for the Republic. The inclusion of three CEDA ministers in the government of 1934 led to a general strike and a rebellion by socialists and anarchists in Asturias on October 6. Numerous parties, such as the Falangists, disappointed with the election results, “cut a swath of violence and terror across Spain” and caused problematic uprisings against the Republic. The rising tensions of 1936 could never have been prevented by the Republic: Falangist assassinations, plotting generals, mass demonstrations and finally the killings of Jose Castillo and Calvo Sotelo marred the months leading up to the Spanish Civil War. By the summer of 1936, Largo Caballero, the “Spanish Lenin”, issued a called for revolution, denouncing the Popular Front as the main hindrance to a “Workers’ Paradise”. The specter of a Communist revolution haunted the Spanish middle-class and upper classes; across all sectors of Spanish societies, instability reigned. Distrust of the Republic could be seen in the aftermath of the assassination of Calvo Sotelo; the right blamed the government and subsequently, the Falange and other right-wing conspirators, including Juan de la Cierva, conspired to launch a military coup d'état against the government. Every government of the Spanish Republic experienced problems once coming into power; the treacherous political climate ensured the continued unpopularity of the government. The government’s detractors capitalized on every opportunity to destroy the Republic. It would seem as though a dictatorial government, not a democratic Republic prone to disunity, was needed in order to finally restore order in a country divided by numerous political parties and widespread violence.

The time of the Second Spanish Republic has been described by many as a tumultuous period of democracy. The Second Republic existed during a period of worldwide economic depression where the resulting high unemployment rates and poverty led to dissatisfaction with the Republican government together with traditional centers of power such as the Church, landowners, and the nobility. In the ensuing civil unrest, violence in the form of assassination, revolutionary general strikes, and mob actions increased dangerously. The outbreak of the Spanish Civil War can be attributed to the Republic’s ignorance, ineffective policies and domestic economic blunders as well as other external factors, such as the inherently unstable political situation and the Great Depression. It would seem as though the Spanish Civil War was already bound to happen; though the Republic ushered in a new era of democracy and liberalism, it wasn’t the answer a divided and backward Spain needed to overcome all the crippling socio-economic and political problems it faced.


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