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History of Ibiza
by Emily Kaufman

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

Spanish Wars

Welcome to the history page. This week we will carry on with our examination of the reforms instituted during the first two years of the Second Republic, a period known, fittingly, as the Reformist Biennium. Last week we touched briefly on the key legislation introduced by the Agrarian Reform, noting that most of these controversial measures were either disregarded by the landowning oligarchy or deliberately violated so as to incite mass revolt.

Despite these attempts at subversion, when the Agrarian Reform finally came before parliament for discussion and ratification in the summer of 1932 (readers will remember that several preliminary decrees were instituted in 1931 during the provisional stages of government), republican lawmakers did not try to assuage the powerful upper classes. Rather, they implemented iron-handed political surgery, calling for the expropriation of estates which were either manifestly underdeveloped or exploited for purposes other than agricultural production. As it turned out, however, the intended expropriations never took place. For, in addition to the enormity of the task (it took a year just to compile an inventory of the estates in question) and the low budget allocated to the project, a new centre-right coalition gain parliamentary majority the following year, effectively annulling the legislative groundwork laid down by Azaña’s reformist administration.


Nonetheless, while the agrarian battle raged on, another important aspect of the Republic’s political platform did come to fruition: On 9th September 1932, after suffering the authoritarianism and inefficiency of Castilian hegemony for over two centuries, Catalonia was granted political autonomy within the Spanish state. Various attempts were also made at establishing Basque autonomy, although, as we shall see, all of them ended in failure. Why, then, in the face of wide-spread dissention, did Catalonia’s impetus toward self-government meet with such rapid success? The complete answer to that question could fill several volumes; for today, we will have to make due with the abridged answer, which is also rather lengthy.

In a nutshell, the driving force behind Catalan autonomy lay (and lies) in the region’s millenarian history. Long before it ever became part of the unified and ‘reconquered’ Spanish nation, Catalonia possessed sophisticated governmental institutions of its own, competently ruling itself as well as its various overseas holdings. Let us take a bird’s-eye view of Catalan development up to 1,700 and the induration of Castilian authoritarianism.

Catalonia: A Confederation of Free Counties

In the 9th century, Catalonia was conquered by Charlemagne in order to create a barrier against the encroaching Moors. Tributary counts ruled over the area until the Emperor’s death in 814, after which time Frankish control began to dwindle south of the Pyrenees, and the counts established their political and military independence. Wilfred the Hairy (874-898) is generally considered the first independent count of Barcelona, however, it would take another century and the progressive weakening of Moorish hegemony until a noticeable flourishing of culture and economy began to accrue.

The Crown of Aragon

In 1037, through the auspices of conjugal union, the confederated counties of Catalonia joined forces with the small kingdom of Aragon to create the Crown of Aragon, a political entity that would become one of the most powerful states in Medieval Spain. Each party retained its political individuality in questions of institutions, laws, language, etc., however, the combined military force of the two regions made possible the reconquest of large swathes of territory from the Moors. Under Jaume the Conqueror (1208-1276), the Crown of Aragon added the Balearic Islands, Valencia, Murcia and Ceuta to its territorial possessions, while under Pedro III (1276-1285), the Catalan dominion extended to the island of Sicily as well.

In the early 15th century, King Martin I produced no heirs and a problem of succession arose. Two candidates for kingship were put forth: the Catalan Count of Urgell and the Castilian prince, Don Fernando, of the Trastámara dynasty. To resolve the matter reasonably, a meeting known as the Capsa Agreement took place among the Crown’s triumviral powers, i.e. Catalonia, Aragon and Valencia. After long deliberations, Prince Fernando emerged as the victor, upgrading the Catalan counties into a principality and foreshadowing Catalonia’s eventual absorption into Castile. For the time being, however, the inclination of the Aragon branch of the Trastámara line was not one of fusion with Castile, but of Mediterranean expansion. The dynasty’s second monarch, Alfonso V (1396-1458, known as the Magnanimous) succeeded in annexing Naples to the Crown of Aragon, and found that he enjoyed living there more than in Spain. Indeed, his court in Naples became one of the most noted intellectual centres of the day.

Joined in Marriage

Alfonso V was succeeded by his brother Joan II (1458-1479) who faced the thorny problem of trying to placate an emergent Catalan bourgeoisie. Always a step ahead of the times, a precocious revolutionary spirit took hold of Catalonia’s powerful merchants, leading them to demand that the Principality of Catalonia be instituted as a crown republic and calling for a significant reduction in royal power. During this tumultuous period, Joan’s son, Ferdinand II (1452-1516), married Isabel I of Castile (1451-1504), thus consolidating the union of the Spanish nation by bringing together the two largest kingdoms in Iberia in a dual monarchy. Even after unification, each of the constituent parts of this powerful political ensemble maintained its own courts and lawmaking institutions as well as full jurisdiction in local matters.

Enter Hapsburgs

This situation changed somewhat with the succession of Isabel and Ferdinand’s grandson, Carlos I of Spain and V of Germany, after which time Castile was made to acquiesce to the Emperor’s authoritarianism. On the other hand, Navarra, the Basque Country and the Crown of Aragon continued to retain most of their traditional independence throughout the 16th century.

By the middle of the 17th century, however, under the rule of the so-called ‘minor Hapsburgs’, Castilian centralism, with its new custom of posting imperial viceroys, had begun to engulf the ‘outer’ regions. Resentful of their loss of independence and justifiably fed up with how Felipe the Fourth’s pet ministers were running the country, Catalonia revolted in 1640, killing the viceroy and numerous Castilian civil servants. The principality remained independent until 1652, when Felipe IV promised to respect Catalonia’s traditional political liberties.

The Bourbons Lay Down the Law

The final death blow to regional autonomy in Spain came in 1714 at the close of the War of the Spanish Succession. The personification of this new authoritarianism was the Bourbon, Felipe V, who, in centralist French fashion, outlawed all political liberties in the provinces as well as the use of local languages, such as Catalan, in government documents and proceedings.


These cultural, linguistic and political restrictions remained in force, as did the Bourbon dynasty, up until the period we are dealing with - which, in case anyone has forgotten, is the early 1930s. Also constant during the intervening two centuries was the Catalan desire to reassert its identity as a distinctive part of the Spanish nation, free to express its cultural differences and manage its own affairs as in the centuries of yore. Join us next week as we pick up the thread of Catalan autonomy in the 20th century.

Emily Kaufman