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History of Ibiza
by Emily Kaufman

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

Spanish Wars

Hello and welcome to the final, volatile years preceding the outbreak of civil war. We left off last week in 1931, just as the Second Republic had taken over the reigns of government from the defunct parliamentary monarchy. Not surprisingly (for those of us aided by hindsight), political and social tensions began to make themselves felt almost immediately after the inception of the new regime. Certain controversial reforms, most notably the Agrarian Reform, as well as the institution of what, at that time, was considered ultra-modern legislation (i.e. the separation of Church and State, freedom of religion, universal suffrage, the right to divorce, etc.) caused the extreme right to conspire against the Republic, at first erratically and unsuccessfully, then methodically though still unsuccessfully, and finally militarily and effectively.

Before going on to examine the specific content of these radical new measures, it will first be helpful to block out the Republic’s general path of development - which can best be described as a brave and rocky road to defeat.

An Overview within an Overview

The Second Republic based its political function on the Constitution of 1931, the existence of a wide array of parties, and regular elections to determine the members of the legislative and executive bodies, the Parliament and the government respectively. Comprised of 125 articles, the Constitution set forth, among other principles, the equality of all Spaniards, the separation of Church and State, the division of powers, the right to political autonomy within Spain’s different regions, and many fundamental points of civil liberty.

Azaña’s Reformist Biennum

The five year’s of the Republic’s existence were divided into three distinct phases, known as the Reformist Biennium (1931-1933), the Black Biennium (1933-1935) and the Popular Front (1936). I will give a very brief sketch of each period so as to provide readers with a broader perspective before delving into the particular developments of each period. The Reformist Biennium, under the presidency of Manuel Azaña, receives its name from the ruling coalition’s attempts at profound social and political transformation. It was during this time, for example, that the Agrarian Reform and the Catalan Statute of Autonomy were implemented as well as important laws that, on the one hand, protected workers and, on the other hand, reduced the hegemony of the Church and the Army in Spanish society.

The Counter-Reform

The Black Biennium is so called due to the rise of the Partido Radical de Lerroux and CEDA, two conservative parties that eventually formed a centre-right coalition, effectively managing to annul the legislative opus of the previous phase. Now it was the left who, resenting the loss of its hard-won gains under Azaña’s rule, organized a general strike in 1934. In Asturias, this manifestation escalated into a full-scale proletariat revolt that was bloodily repressed by military intervention. The conservative coalition remained in power despite the incident until economic scandals and administrative corruption caused its downfall and, subsequently, the collapse of Spain’s entire political centre.

The Popular Front

In December of 1935, Parliament was disbanded with two transition governments holding down the fort until new elections could be held in February of 1936. The Popular Front, a coalition of all of Spain’s left-wing parties, won the new parliamentary majority with 287 seats out of 473. However, at that time, a majority of seats did not necessarily translate into a majority of power, for the main strength of the country still resided in the privileged elite, a hefty chunk of which was comprised by the armed forces, a rather unmanageable ilk. In the early months of 1936, with the almost total disappearance of its political centre, Spain became diametrically polarized into two blocks, the Bloque Nacional and the Frente Popular.

Meanwhile, Azaña, who had been appointed president of the Republic, patiently resumed the task of social reform, endeavouring once again to institute the policies that had been annulled during the Black Biennium. The right wing, which by this time had become nothing less than reactionary (i.e. monarchical factions, religious factions and those determined to maintain the country’s status quo), was categorically opposed to any action taken by the left and quickly united behind a military conspiracy that had been brewing for several months.

Civil War Breaks Out

A climate of political uncertainty punctuated by violent confrontations between the right and the left grew to unobtainable dimensions - a situation virtually identical to the social panorama directly prior to Primo de Rivera’s grab for power. The tension finally reached breaking point on 13th July, 1936 when Calvo Sotelo, leader of the National Block, was assassinated in Madrid by left wing activists. The shooting provoked the immediate reaction of the right and is classically considered the spark that ignited the war. In truth, however, Calvo Sotelo’s assassination, while significant, was simply the incident (one of many) that fell in closest proximity to the launch time of the army’s premeditated military coup. On the afternoon of 17th July 1936, the Generals Franco, Mola, Yagüe and Goded, with the support of the Church and the political right, staged an uprising against the Popular Front, thus initiating the Spanish Civil War.


We will conclude our ‘overview within an overview’ for this week, resuming next time with the most important points of reform and counter-reform within the Second Republic. We will also detail Franco’s military machinations, carried out with utmost secrecy from the Canary Islands. Join us then.

Emily Kaufman