and welcome to the history page. As you will remember from last week, we were
in the midst of examining the social and political climate that led up to the
Spanish Civil War, and had just explained the political hypocrisy of Spain's parliamentary
monarchy, headed by a very young and ineffectual Alfonso XIII. The situation was
a classic case of a country's oligarchy being stronger than its monarchy, whereby
true rule resided in the hands of a limited few. Our instalment ended with the
chilling realization that Spain's attempts at parliamentary liberalism had devolved
into nothing more than legal authoritarianism.
the Cafés and Revolution in the Air
the fact that every thinking adult alive in Spain at that time knew what was going
on, efforts to bring credibility to the corrupt system consistently failed. Those
who tried to change the system from within were denominated regenerationists,
while those who fought to change it from without were called everything from A
to Z. These 'fringe' groups (socialists, anarchists, communists, labour unions,
Catalan activists, etc.) in fact, commanded quite large followings, but were continually
kept on the periphery of political life, and therefore resorted to the frequent
and unfortunate use of violence in order to make their presence felt.
must have reasoned that, since they were denied legal representation within government
- and therefore the right to vote on important issues that affected them - they
would cast their vote in ways that could not be ignored. Today, we would call
them terrorists. But, in the early 20th century, when Spain's parliamentary facade
was nothing short of a brick wall in the path of progress, these political uprisings
and assassinations can perhaps be viewed through the lens of idealism ... or desperation.
Hindsight has shown us that a signature characteristic of all proletariat freedom
fighters is that they strike erratically, blinded by centuries of pent up rage.
Efforts End in Failure
Ironically, it was often the
very individuals who worked most earnestly to solve the country's problems that
were targeted for assassination, further frustrating the peaceful resolution of
these problems. One such case was that of the statesman, Canalejas, a dynastic
liberal who ruled from 1910 - 12. His short-lived government met the country's
complex social and economic issues head on, carefully taking into consideration
the grievances of each disgruntled sector. The assassination of Canalejas in 1912
by an anarchist put an end to the last genuine attempt at renovation within the
The Tragic Week
thwarted renovation attempt occurred three years earlier during the administration
of Maura. This dynastic conservative instituted many excellent and corrective
changes, but also succeeded in turning the volatile region of Catalonia against
him, thus bringing about his own downfall. In an ill-fated response to Spain's
colonial problems in Morocco (where reinforcement troops were needed), Maura,
using some unfathomable logic, decided to call up the Third Brigade. This reserve
division was comprised largely of Catalan men, rather past the flush of youth,
many of whom were married with children to support.
general sentiment circulating in Barcelona whispered that, like the War of Cuba,
this too was going to be a war fought by the poor in benefit of the rich. The
first sparks of violence broke out at the city's port in late July of 1909 as
the reserve troops embarked for the front. Over the course of the following week,
public unrest escalated into mass rioting, spreading like wildfire to the surrounding
rural areas. A general strike was declared, leaving the young and the restless
(i.e. anarchists and republican radicals) free to vent their anger on any icon
of repression in their path, mostly religious buildings. The event is remembered
in Spanish History as the 'Semana trágica' ('Tragic Week') and was described
by one eye-witness, Fabra Ribas, in these words:
I went out on the street at 8 o'clock on the morning of 28th July, the city offered
a desolate panorama. Nobody worked; several churches were burning; motley groups,
made up of everything but workers from the unions, ran through the streets; the
railway lines into Barcelona had been cut off and the shooting continued (...)
in short, the situation seemed very uncertain and in danger of worsening at any
Order was finally restored on 29th July
by the use of military force. The final death toll numbered 100 civilians and
five national soldiers. Thirty convents and 58 churches had been burned down.
Maura's government then made the fatal mistake of naming one man as the sole culprit
of the Semana Trágica. F. Ferrer Guardia, a libertarian and the founder
of a secular, rationalist school (La Escuela Moderna) was sentenced to death on
the grounds that his teachings had instigated the uprising. His execution unleashed
a torrent of protests, from both national and international organizations, and
Maura's government toppled.
tragic as the events of the Semana Trágica were, their political repercussions
were even more tragic in that they set the precedent for the habitual use of violence,
rather than peaceful manifestation, as a means of social protest. The event also
marked the departure point for Catalan separatism, when, in the cold, grey dawn
of the morning after, the inhabitants of Barcelona discovered that no other region
in Spain had seconded their objections to the war in Morocco. Finally, the rebellion
opened the floodgates of anti-religious sentiment, almost always coupled (perhaps
fittingly) with incendiary tactics against Church property.
another long decade of political unrest and with the country in a complete shambles,
General Primo de Rivera, the first of Spain's two 20th century dictators, seized
power in 1923, to the immense satisfaction of both the King and the upper classes.
Join us next week as the plot thickens.