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History of Ibiza
by Emily Kaufman

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

Spanish Wars

Hello 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, Azaña’s 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

As 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 CEDA’s 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 week’s instalment that CEDA was a militantly Catholic party, and hence at odds with much of Lerroux’s 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 level.

The Counterreformation

It 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.”

Agriculture Restricted

Especially 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.

Basque Autonomy Denied

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.

Warm 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 Rivera’s 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.

The Revolution of October 1934

The unpopularity of the new government policies in general, and, specifically, the inclusion of CEDA ministers in Lerroux’s 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 CEDA’s 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 Spain’s 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.

Asturian Resistance

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 trial.

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 in 1936.


Next week 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.

Emily Kaufman