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History of Ibiza
by Emily Kaufman

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

Spanish Wars

Hello and welcome to the history page. Our instalment this week opens with the narrow triumph of Azaña’s reformist administration over the previous conservative regime. The five months that elapsed between the leftist electoral victory in February 1936 and the outbreak of civil war in July 1936 were fraught with political treachery and social unrest. Indeed, with the aid of hindsight we can see that the acrimony of this period was nothing if not the prelude to war. Two opposing currents of thought and action - one conservative and reactionary, the other progressive and liberal - brewed menacingly over the Spanish horizon. The angry voices of parliamentary discussion can be likened to the rumbling of thunder, while the escalating acts of public violence were the bolts of lightening that in turn set off new rebounds of thunder. It was only a matter of time before the storm would unleash its deluge of hatred and death over the face of Spain. Let us now examine the course taken by each of the country’s opposing camps during these final tortured months.

The Popular Front

Azana’s government, launched as the Popular Front (a coalition of republicans, socialists, Catalan leftists, communists and Basque nationalists - listed in order of the number of seats held by each faction), reunited after the internal divisions of 1933 under a programme of amnesty for the October revolutionaries. Their first objective was to free the thousands of incarcerated workers, make reparations to the victims, and ensure that leftist sympathizers were restored to their jobs, many having been blacklisted after the uprising. Second on their agenda was the renewal of the legislation that had been instituted during the Reformist Biennium, especially the laws regarding education, agriculture and federal autonomy.

A third course of action was the demotion of suspicious rightist generals who, during the Black Biennium, had risen vertiginously to positions of power within the government. Accordingly, generals Franco, Mola and Goded, the prime movers of the imminent military coup, were transferred to Tenerife, Pamplona and Majorca respectively. Their removal from Madrid and the hub of political life was certainly wise, but, as we shall see, insufficient to stop the clandestine networking that was already in progress among the three generals and a host of anti-republican supporters. Posterior analyses of the causes of war invariably point out the myopia of the Popular Front in estimating the real threat presented by these generals to the continuance of democracy.

The National Front

The opposition launched their electoral platform under the hastily patch-worked National Front, an ad hoc coalition of the Spanish right wing (i.e. CEDA, monarchists, landowners, etc.), with the exception of the Falangist Party, which remained unaffiliated due to the fact that there were not enough parliamentary seats to go around. Campaigning under a separate platform, the Falangists suffered a terrible defeat at the urns and, in the end, won no seats in parliament. José Antonio then opted for what he termed ‘the dialectic of fists and pistols’, in other words, street violence.

One point that stands to be clarified regarding the 1936 elections is that the results were extremely close, the margin of difference being no more than 200,000 votes in favour of the Popular Front. Thus, despite the fact that Azaña’s cabinet ruled parliament, public sentiment was quite evenly divided between left and right, a scenario that further served to fuel the wheels of war.

Public Disorder on Both Sides of the Fence

As regards the political line of the National Front, its opposition to Azaña’s reforms was as adamant as ever. To this habitual resistance they now added the tactic of subversion: certain agents (José Antonio’s ‘blue shirts’, for example) provoked public disorder while the rest of the right wing exaggerated and sensationalized these incidents in an attempt to discredit the government and so justify the planned repression. The fatal flaw of the left wing was its impetuous reaction to these taunts and its impatience in effecting social change.

One example of this impatience occurred in the rural hinterland of Extremadura where, as in the rest of Spain, the issue of land rights was a major source of contention. On learning of the leftist victory, the ploughmen of Extremadura reoccupied the lands that, under the Reformist Biennium, had been granted them. The only problem was that, in their haste, they did not wait for the official ratification of the laws that would soon legitimize this occupation. Predictably, the affected landowners retaliated by calling in the guardia civil, giving rise to numerous bloody clashes and the loss of life on both sides.

The urban panorama was also afflicted by frequent strikes and bombings as well as the stalking militias of blue-shirts. In effect, the social climate was virtually identical to the period preceding Primo de Rivera’s seizure of power, the only difference being that Primo de Rivera’s takeover was non-violent, while Franco’s takeover, intended to be a quick coup, degenerated into three years of warfare.

Spanish Civil War Poster

Final Stand

In the face of growing chaos and turmoil, the new government did its best to carry on. One particular debate held on 1st July remains as the final parliamentary showdown between right and left. The Minister of Agriculture presented a bill advocating the return of communal properties to certain towns whose commons had been expropriated during the previous century. His proposal was hotly challenged by the monarchist, Calvo Sotelo, who, since Gil Robles’ fall from grace was now hailed as the national leader of the right wing:

“… the liberal-democratic State cannot interfere in this type of problem,” he argued, maintaining that what Spain needed was an authoritarian government to protect the interests of “the middle classes, who are not willing to be proletarianized the way that the inhabitants of Russia are.”

To this, the Minister of Agriculture responded:

“Any protectionism by the State is based on the concept that there have been social classes who, due to their economic situation, have not had the means to defend themselves and we must lend them these means. We are not aiming for a Marxist economy, we are not aiming for a Marxist regime; we are aiming, simply, for a situation of justice that so far has not come about. Whose fault is that?”

On 13th July, less than two weeks after this impassioned exchange, Lieutenant Castillo, an ardent and vocal socialist, was assassinated by rightwing activists. That very night, a group of Castillo’s colleagues avenged his death by killing Calvo Sotelo. The killing of such an exalted personage was indeed a grave transgression, but graver still was the fact that, unbeknownst to the public, Calvo Sotelo had recently pledged his allegiance to Franco’s conspiracy. It is often said that his death was the spark that started the war when, in fact, his death merely precipitated the execution of a military coup already in the final stages of planning.


Join us next week for the final instalment of our overview when we will retrace the steps of Franco and his generals in the preparation of their conspiracy. Following that, our area of scrutiny will shift back to Ibiza and the specific effects of the civil war on the island. Until then.

Emily Kaufman