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History of Ibiza
by Emily Kaufman

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

Spanish Wars

Hello and welcome to our continuing saga on the Spanish Civil war. We left off last week just as General Primo de Rivera had seized control of Spain, proclaiming himself the supreme political ruler of the county, albeit in service of the King. Before going on to discuss the ideological co-ordinates of his dictatorship, it will first be helpful to get our chronological bearings.

Three Decades of Dynastic Demise

Until Franco's restitution of Juan Carlos I to the throne in 1975, Alfonso XIII was the last Bourbon to rule in Spain. The twenty-nine luckless years of his monarchy can be divided into three main phases, each spanning roughly a decade. The first decade was one of an attempted, but failed, renovation of the parliamentary system which lasted from 1902 to 1912, and ended abruptly with the unfortunate assassination of the liberal reformer, Canalejas. (See last week's instalment An Overview 11 for more details.)

Crisis and Disintegration

The renovation period was followed by a long decade of political disintegration and severe internal crisis that stretched precariously from 1912 to 1923. This second phase witnessed the final agonizing death throes of the parliamentary monarchy. The two dynastic parties splintered into several sub-parties, each vying for control under rivalling leaders. Needless to say, the governments that ensued were highly ineffective and unstable, a parallel manifestation of the country's mounting social unrest. Chronic violent activism resulted in a second presidential assassination, this time of the conservative, Eduardo Dato, in 1921. Public disorder erupted like an angry rash across the whole of Spain as the economically deprived proletariat began to break through the chinks of repression.

The third phase was Primo de Rivera's dictatorship, or 'military government', as he preferred to call it, which lasted from 1923 to 1930. After its failure, Primo de Rivera fled the country, followed in 1931 by the King himself.

Caciquism Persists

One point to keep in mind as we examine this third period is that, in Spain, true power had, for centuries, lain in the hands of a reactionary and indolent oligarchy, made up of the aristocracy, the Church and a small bourgeoisie. This unofficial ruling body had survived intact to the 20th century, indurated by a long succession of wallflower governments which stood by, either unwilling or unable to curb its prepotency.

The very idea of social or economic progress was diametrically opposed to the corrupt ways and all-but-feudal mind set of this privileged elite. For this reason - to enable Spain to progress along the lines of its European neighbours - the desire to dismantle its unhealthy power structure was as fervent on the far right of the political spectrum as it was on the far left.

'Reluctant' Dictator: 1923 -1930

One right-wing defender of progress was General Primo de Rivera, who, with the king's tacit consent, staged a non-violent military coup in 1923, naming himself provisional leader of the country. Interestingly, Primo de Rivera did not see his regime as a true dictatorship, but rather as a 'democratic dictatorship' (his words), whose only objective was to tide the country over until constitutional law and order could be restored. From the transcripts of his speeches, there is no doubt that his intentions were sincere - it was his modus operandi that was suspect, or as some critics claim, inoperative. Here is an excerpt from the General's address to the country and to the army, after he had just taken power:

"Spaniards: The moment has arrived for us - more feared than hoped for (because we would have always preferred to live within an uninterrupted legality reigning in Spanish life) - to quell our anxiety and tend to the clamorous requirements of those who, though they love their Patria, see no other salvation for her than to free her of the professional politicians who, for one reason or another, offer us nothing but a picture of misery and immorality which started in the year '98 and threatens Spain with an impending tragic and dishonourable end (...)"

Surgeon of Iron

Primo de Rivera's last comment regarding 1898 brings us to a crucial factor in contemporary Spanish history, the importance of which cannot be overestimated. Readers will remember from our first overview that the seeds of the Spanish Civil War and the unrest leading up to it, were sown in this year. Let us take a moment to consider perhaps the most enduring of the ideas that began to circulate during the Crisis of '98, that of the 'iron surgeon' or cirujano de hierro. The phrase was coined by the Regenerationist thinker, Joaquín Costa, in his treatise Oligarquía y cacequismo, and was a reference to the type of political leader needed to rid Spain of its inbred corruption. Costas' powerful words, written in 1901, rang true in the hearts of all Spaniards across the political spectrum. He held that the old order (represented by the oligarchy) must pass away before a new order could be born, and shared his dream of:

"... a new Spain, which is to say, a rich Spain that eats, an educated Spain that thinks, a free Spain that governs, ... in short, a Spain that is contemporary with humanity..."

Costa correctly reasoned that the only way to achieve such a Spain would be to extirpate caciquism by means of 'political surgery'. Ironically, the concept of an 'iron surgeon' inspired both of the country's future dictators as well as the up and coming Republican Left; for, the fact that the country needed 'surgery' was a universally accepted given. How the operation would be performed was a matter of hot debate.

Primo de Rivera, then, saw himself as that man of iron who would rid Spain of its ills. Accordingly, he devoted the first six months of his rule to eradicating caciqism at the local level. All civil governors were replaced by military ones and a meticulous investigation was carried out in every county. The measure, however, proved ineffective as cases of corruption implicating members of the army began to come to light, and the investigations eventually petered out.


Next week we will go on to examine the further failures (and a few successes) of Primo de Rivera's 'democratic dictatorship', as well as its many similarities to Mussolini's single-party government. Join us then.

Emily Kaufman