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History of Ibiza
by Emily Kaufman

The Spanish Civil War (1936-1939)
An Overview: X

Spanish Wars

Hello and welcome to the history page. Our discussion this week will centre on the profound social changes that were instituted - at least at the legislative level - during the first two years of the Second Republic, a period know as the Reformist Biennium (1931-1933). The primary aim of the new legislation was to modernize Spain’s obsolete and, frankly, inequitable social and economic structures, thus ensuring a more democratic brand of progress which would benefit, not just the privileged elite, but the entire population. In a very real sense, the interests of the masses, ‘the real Spain’, were represented in government for the first time in the country’s long history.

The ratification (if not the implementation) of new policies was immediate, so that, by the close of 1931, the old guard was suddenly and nervously on guard. As ever, the powerful conservative sectors of society rested in the Church, the Army, the land-owning aristocracy and a small financial (mainly industrialist) oligarchy. These sectors now faced the imminent danger of losing, not all, but some of the social and economic leverage that, for centuries, had elevated them over the hungering masses. Predictably, the new rulings were seen as revolutionary and opposition to them was vehement. Most measures were met with total disregard at best and flagrant sabotage at worst.

Land distribution and utilization, education, civil liberty and the decentralization of Spanish government were the principal areas in which the Azaña administration endeavoured to remodel the country in order to bring its institutions and economy up to date with the rest of Europe. Once again we hear the echoes of Joaquin Costa’s Regenerationist ideal of “a rich Spain that eats, an educated Spain that thinks, [and] a free Spain that governs… In short, a Spain contemporary with the rest of humanity…” Readers will remember that Costa maintained the only way to achieve such as Spain was by means of an Iron Surgeon, a concept that inspired Primo de Rivera in his day and now guided the lawmaking policies of the Second Republic. Point by point; let us examine the main areas affected by the reforms and shake-ups of the Azaña administration.

The Agrarian Reform

Like most of the social structures in early 20th century Spain, the distribution of real property dated back to the Middle Ages. This problematic issue had already been addressed, unsuccessfully, by the liberal governments of the 19th century; however, various attempts at disentailment only served to aggravate the situation by further concentrating real estate in the hands of a reduced aristocratic circle. I.e. the grandees of Spain. The inevitable consequence of this imbalance translated into a lack of communal lands for the farming majority and the latter’s subsequent proletarianization. In country that was still overwhelmingly agrarian, the question of land rights was indeed a critical issue.

The solution of the agrarian problem along with the abusive practices of landlords was given top priority by the Republic’s provisional government. Only twenty days after the proclamation of the new regime, the first of four major rulings was passed. The District Decree, dated 20th April 1931, made it obligatory for overseers to hire day labourers native to the district in question, in strict accordance with the order in which the workers had signed up at the employment office. The measure was meant to eliminate the practice of hiring migratory workers from other districts or provinces, a tactic adroitly used by patrons to break strikes and thus keep labour conditions in an appalling state of retrogression.

Some weeks later, on 7th May, another key piece of legislation, known as the Decree of Mandatory Tillage, was passed. This bill made it compulsory to utilize potentially arable lands for the purposes of farming, whether the landlord was in agreement or not. The need for such a measure arose from the fact that lands were frequently left fallow in order to be used for hunting, raising bulls for sport, or were simply left uncultivated while nearby farmers and their families lived in hunger and misery. It often occurred that landlords blandished their decisions to plant or not plant certain tracts of land as a type of threat of punishment over those who worked the land. The Mandatory Tillage Decree was designed so that no Spaniard need go hungry as a consequence of landowners’ callousness in this regard.

The third and last decree ratified during the provisional phase of republican government was dated 11th July 1931, and was aimed at protecting tenant farmers. Under this piece of legislation, crofters were granted reductions in their rents in cases of low agricultural yield - a rather common occurrence, as any farmer knows, caused by either too much or too little rain, early or late frosts, etc. Reductions were also applicable in cases in which crofters were charged unrealistically high rents for their farms, rents based, for example, on the pre-depression economy and which were no longer reasonable in the early 1930s.

In spring of 1933, two additional decrees were introduced, one prohibiting the eviction of crofters from their rented farms, legitimizing the automatic extension of a lease until the tenant chose to vacate the premises. The other decree was less of an ordinance and more of an arbitration aid for peasants and farmers. The measure established a system of mixed juries whereby workers, patrons and a government representative (allegedly) cooperated to negotiate conflicts of interest, work conditions, terms of payment, etc. One of the norms instituted by this ruling was the establishment of an eight-hour workday in both the agrarian and industrial sector.

Implacable Opposition

Landowners’ resistance to these new policies was immutable. Months passed and conditions remained unchanged. As a result, the peasants began to grow impatient, strikes became more frequent and violent clashes broke out between the labourers and the guardia civil, several of which involved bloodshed and the loss of life. Rural villages in Toledo, Salamanca, Badajoz and Logroño marked the scenes of four of the worst incidents, and, in hindsight, constitute an undeniable foreshadowing of the civil war that was smouldering just below the surface of Spanish society.

In his excellent work, La crisis del Estado: Dictadura, República, Guerra (1923-1939), Manuel Muñón de Lara informs on the state of social agitation, deliberately provoked by the landowning class:

“… In February of 1932, the civil governor of Toledo reported that ‘there was a patrons’ plot to not give work and so cause a grave question of public disorder against the Regime’… He also confirmed that, ‘The agrarian patrons in Salamanca also refused to follow the employment rulings and the Bloque Agrario (a landowner’s association) even sent up flares calling workers in the fields to halt the planting they were engaged in’; in numerous provinces patrons boycotted the arbitration of the mixed juries.”


These acts of dissent were, in fact, the beginning of the end; for, unlike passive governments that had come and gone before, the founders of the Republic would not give in to pressures from the oligarchy. Instead, Azaña and his government continued to fight for what they, and many other nations of the world, perceived as indefensible social injustice. Join us next week as the Republic continues to crash headlong into a solid block of conservative opposition.

Emily Kaufman