and welcome to the history page. This week we will continue our examination of
the Black Biennium, a reactionary phase of government within the Second Republic.
As we have seen in recent instalments, Azañas Reformist Biennium
had effectively dismantled the triple base of Spanish conservatism, i.e. the Church,
the Army and, in theory, rural caciquism. In response to this loss of power, the
right quickly mobilized and three new parties, representing the interests of a
desperate oligarchy, were founded. Within a year of the November 33 elections
and the subsequent shift in government policy, two general strikes were declared,
the second of which escalated into a small-scale revolution. Before going on to
discuss these events, however, let us first examine the political make-up of the
newly elected parliament.
Centre Caves In
we have already mentioned, one of the primary causes of the Civil War was the
nearly total disappearance of a political centre within Spanish government. The
progressive regrouping of public sentiment into diametrical blocks crystallized
during the course of the Black Biennium. Presiding over the new government was
Alejandro Lerroux, leader of the moderate Radical Republican Party, but best remembered
as a political chameleon who changed allegiances as easily as the wind blows.
In his early days, Lerroux had built up his platform as an anticlerical
agitator (a stance which pulled him to the left of the political spectrum),
but also as a centralist (a stance which pulled him to the right).
Following the November elections, Lerroux found himself
heading up a parliament in which his party held only 102 seats to CEDAs
majority of 115. His only alternative to this dilemma - as he perceived it - was
the controversial assignation of three ministerial posts to CEDA members. (It
will be remembered from last weeks instalment that CEDA was a militantly
Catholic party, and hence at odds with much of Lerrouxs programme.) Significantly,
one of the three portfolios awarded to CEDA was the Ministry of Agriculture (under
Manuel Giménez Fernández), an area which constituted the bane of
civil unrest at the time. In response to this move, Diego Martínez Barrio,
a key member of the Radical Party, accused Lerroux of deviating too far from the
fundamental principles of his platform and split from the party, forming his own
left-wing faction, the Republican Union. This split neatly showcases the process
of polarization that was occurring all over Spain, at both the national and municipal
is held as a universal truth that man cannot halt the implacable march of time.
Ironically, the Black Biennium proved this maxim to be untrue, for, within months
of taking office, its lawmakers had managed to return Spain to its pre-Republic
condition. One by one, over the course of 1934, the reforms instituted by the
Azaña administration were overruled, while the passage of new legislation
was virtually ignored. One scathing analysis of the Black Biennium states that
its political oeuvre was the work of a government that had no answers to
remedy the grave problems of the country. They could not even manage to conclude
a concordat with the Vatican.
in the area of land and farming rights, legislative support was withdrawn from
the rural proletariat. Moreover, a climate of vengeful retaliation accrued in
which landowners refused to hire workers who belonged to labour unions or who
publicly espoused leftist beliefs. Fields were deliberately left fallow and, upon
seeing the growing panorama of hunger and unemployment, landowners tossed out
the words, Let the Republic feed you, (an attitude distinctly reminiscent
of Marie Antoinette before she was guillotined). As a result of these vindictive
practices, unemployment doubled in the agrarian sector, provoking an ill-advised
strike during the June harvests of 1934. The government responded to the strike
by clamping down even more harshly on workers rights, prohibiting several
labour publications and closing down many of the rural labour associations.
Two additional areas in which the Black
Biennium took several giant steps backwards were the issues of regional autonomy
and political amnesty. As regards the first issue, a third and final attempt at
Basque autonomy (see Weekly Edition 072 Saturday 13th July 2002) was strangulated
at the parliamentary level despite electoral approbation in a local plebiscite.
Several months later, the central government banned the proposed convocation of
municipal elections in the Basque Country. The elections were held anyway, provoking
a rash of violent incidents. By September of 1934, the Basques decided that they
needed some coaching on how to obtain autonomy and turned to Catalonia for guidance.
The resulting solidarity meeting led to the arrest of 22 Basque councillors. Before
long, the refusal of the new central government to grant the Basques a statute
of autonomy forced the conservative and deeply catholic National Basque Party
to migrate across the political divide into the leftist fold. Again we see how
political sentiment in Spain was gravitating progressively toward either extreme
of the spectrum, leaving the middle ground dangerously uninhabited.
Homecoming for Anti-republicans
As regards the issue
of amnesty, a much-disputed and highly suspect bill allowing the return to Spain
of all enemies of the Republic - or their release from prison - was passed in
April of 1934. The measure enabled such high-profile, anti-republican figures
as Calvo Sotelo (Minister of Internal Revenue during Primo de Riveras dictatorship
and a fascist sympathizer) and General Sanjurjo (leader of a failed coup in 1932
and a chronic conspirator) to freely resume public life, as if no conflict of
interests had ever existed or could ever exist again. Lest any doubt remain in
the minds of readers, this ruling makes it crystal clear that the ultra right
merely utilized the republican political apparatus (a system of government which
it, in fact, detested) as a means of destroying the Republic itself.
Revolution of October 1934
The unpopularity of the
new government policies in general, and, specifically, the inclusion of CEDA ministers
in Lerrouxs cabinet, provoked a popular backlash of disastrous proportions.
Nor can it be overlooked that the growing prepotency of fascist movements in Germany,
Austria and Italy began to cause alarm that Spain would soon be heading in the
same direction. There were certainly blatant indications (e.g. fascist youth rallies,
blue-shirts stalking the streets, etc.) that such would be the case if workers
did not unite in affirmative action.
In early October,
in response to CEDAs admittance into the ministerial cabinet, the socialist
labour party, UGT, called a general strike which proved to be a frightening foreshadowing
of the war that was soon to come. Due to their debilitated condition after the
harvest strike in June, the agrarian sector was in no position to join the insurrection.
Thus, the core of resistance centred on the northern mining areas of Catalonia,
the Basque Country and Asturias. In the first two locations, the strike was extinguished
by Spains various law-keeping forces in a matter of twenty-four hours. In
Asturias, however, owing to the total participation of local labour unions who
banded under the watchword Unite Proletarian Brothers, the strike
escalated into a full-fledged workers revolt that lasted twelve days.
Thousands of miners, equipped with arms
and dynamite, occupied every town and village in the Asturian mining basin and
then marched to the principal cities of the province, Oviedo, Gijón and
Avilés. Town halls were replaced by labour committees which organized supply
lines of food and munitions to the combatants as well as medical attention for
the wounded. The committees also took control of public transport and utilities
while at the same time allowing the continuance of commerce and preserving the
mines from acts of sabotage.
Upon seeing that non-military
law-keeping forces could not check the rebellion, the government called up the
fiercest legion of the Spanish Army, el Tercio, comprised of veteran
soldiers from the Moroccan Conflict and supplemented by native Moroccan mercenaries.
The leadership of the operation was entrusted to the future dictator, General
Francisco Franco, who, from Madrid, attacked Asturias from several different flanks.
After ten days of intense combat, the miners succumbed to the superior force of
the Army. The death toll numbered over 1,000 miners, 300 soldiers and guardias,
with 2,000 wounded on both sides. In the wake of the revolution, many miners were
tortured and many others, singled out by the local caciques, were shot without
All told, thirty thousand workers and leftists
(some of whom had taken no part in the strike) were incarcerated, including, strangely
enough, Manuel Azaña, who happened to be in Barcelona attending the funeral
of one of his former ministers when the uprising occurred. Azaña remained
in prison for two months, an ignominy which, ironically, elevated him from his
fall from grace. The injustice he shared with the common man served to restore
his prestige and popularity, and would catapult him once again into the presidency
we will carry on with the repercussions of the October Revolution and point out
some of the eerie parallels between this incident and the military coup that became
the Spanish Civil War. We will also begin to witness the emergence of Franco into
the public eye. Until then.