Hello and welcome to the history page. This
week we will resume our discussion of the Spanish Civil War
with a brief sketch of this little-understood conflict. Though
short in duration and wholly contained within Spanish territory,
it marks a significant chapter in contemporary European history
for three main reasons. First of all, in only three years
of fighting, one million lives were lost, making it one of
the bloodiest 'small' wars in recent history. Secondly, the
conflict can be seen as (and should have been seen as) a foreshadowing
of WWII, fuelled both ideologically and militarily by Hitler
and Mussolini (on the side of the Nationals), and by the Soviet
Union and the International Brigade, (on the side of the Republicans).
Lastly, the ultimate victory of Francisco Franco, the 'superlative
general', ushered in a 40-year dictatorship governed by the
Falangist party, the only branch of fascism to effectively
survive the Axis defeat in 1945.
With over 20,000 books written on the subject,
from every conceivable political angle, it will indeed be
difficult to sum up the complexities of this war in one instalment.
However, stripped down to its basic components, one could
say that the Spanish Civil War was an ill-fated fight for
democracy, waged in a social climate of gross inequality.
The Republican cause was supported by the intelligentsia and
the economically oppressed sectors of the population, while,
on the other side of the fence, the Nationals (comprised mainly
of the upper classes, the army and the Church) endeavoured
to maintain the status quo in the face of a rapidly changing
But, perhaps we'd better take a few steps
back. In order to understand the social and political climate
that led up to war, let us begin our overview at the turn
of the 20th century, with the reign of Alfonso XIII. For those
who are superstitious, it will not seem amiss that this king's
reign proved especially unlucky, at least as far as the Spanish
monarchy is concerned.
In 1902 Alfonso XIII assumed the throne,
thus terminating his mother's conflict-ridden regency. Although
the new king was only 16-years-of-age, he was apparently considered
old enough to rule a country in deeply troubled times. Only
four years earlier, Spain's defeat in the Spanish-American
War had jolted the population into a painful questioning of
its political identity. This period of introspection, known
as the Crisis of '98, is often sited by political analysts
as the seed of critical awareness that, 35 years later, would
give rise to the Spanish Civil War.
In effect, the bases of internal conflict
came into such sharp focus at this juncture that the ideologies
at stake would simply not recede into the collective unconscious.
Rather, having been brought to the light of public scrutiny,
these quite disparate ideologies would continue to push for
expression in the manifest world. It was this continual push
and shove by two polarized blocks that eventually erupted
into civil war, as bitter as any ever fought.
Age Old Power Struggle
What, then, were these contrasting points
of view? The crux of the conflict lay in the fact that Spain's
system of government, a parliamentary monarchy, did not give
fair representation to large sectors of the population. From
a purely theoretical point of view, the system seemed perfectly
democratic: two parties, the Liberals and the Conservatives,
shifted pacifically in and out of office according to the
results of general elections. In reality, however, the elections
were fixed, and the dual-party system proved to be a mere
cover-up for maintaining power in the hands of a select few.
Non-dynastic parties (i.e. those opposed to the monarchy:
republicans, socialists, Catalan activists, etc.) were excluded
from the inner circle, thus stifling the political expression
of increasingly aware sectors of the population.
As my old college history book* brutally
puts it, "The actual backbone of the system was not in
the real forces of the country, but rather in the more conservative,
privileged and exclusive sectors, who controlled the power:
the nobility, the Church, the army and the bourgeoisie. These
sectors made up the national oligarchy and upheld regional
and local caciquism. As effective ruling groups, they controlled
the parties and dominated the whole country, systematically
falsifying the elections. Democratization and parliamentary
liberalism were thus more apparent than real and political
life devolved into legal authoritarianism."
As predicted, we did not manage to summarize
the Civil War in one instalment, but at least we have laid
down the preliminary groundwork. Next week we will carry on
with our overview, postponing the specific treatment of the
effects of the war in Ibiza until we are able to understand
it from an informed perspective. Until our next instalment,
*Geografía e Historia de España
y de los Paises Hispanicos, Ediciones Anaya S. A., 1980.