The Collapse of the Spanish Republic, 1933-1936: Origins of the Civil War

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This book focuses on the short but crucial period that led to the collapse of the Spanish Republic and set the stage for the ensuing civil war. Stanley G. Payne, an internationally known scholar of modern Spanish history, details the political shifts that occurred from 1933 to 1936 and examines the actions and inactions of key actors during these years. Using their own memoirs, speeches, and declarations, he challenges previous perceptions of various major players, including President Alcalá Zamora.
The breakdown of political coalitions and the internal rifts between Spain’s bourgeois and labor classes sparked many instances of violent dissent in the mid-1930s. The book addresses the election of 1933 and the destabilizing insurrection that followed, Alcalá Zamora's failed attempts to control the major parties, and the backlash that resulted.  The alliances of the socialist left with communism and the right with fascism are also explored, as is the role of forces outside Spain in spurring the violence that eventually exploded into war.  

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Editorial Reviews

Juan J. Linz
"An outstanding book by one of the most distinguished scholars in the field."—Juan J. Linz, Yale University
Michael Seidman
"This is the most compelling analysis of the origins of the Spanish Civil War that I know."—Michael Seidman, University of North Carolina-Wilmington
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300110654
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 5/11/2006
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 432
  • Product dimensions: 6.13 (w) x 9.25 (h) x 1.31 (d)

Meet the Author

Stanley G. Payne is Hilldale-Jaume Vicens Vives Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author of fifteen books, including The Spanish Civil War, the Soviet Union, and Communism, published by Yale University Press.

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Read an Excerpt

The Collapse of the Spanish Republic, 1933-1936

By Stanley G. Payne


Copyright © 2006 Stanley G. Payne
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-11065-4

Chapter One

The Republican Project

THE INTRODUCTION OF THE Republic and the manner of its birth reflected the widespread transformation of Spanish society and culture during the preceding generation. Throughout the 1920s Spain achieved one of the highest economic growth rates in the world, and during the decades 1910-1930 it experienced the most rapid proportionate expansion of the urban population and industrial labor force in the country's history to that time. Industrial employment almost doubled, from 15.8 percent of the labor force to 26.5 percent, a figure that in fact slightly exceeded the proportionate shift to industrial employment during the next great boom decade of the 1960s. Though agriculture remained the largest single sector, despite the rapid growth of the labor force by 1930 the share of the active population engaged in agriculture and fishing had dropped to less than half for the first time, shrinking from 66 percent in 1910 to 45.5 percent in 1930. The growth in service employment was even more rapid than in industry, increasing from 20.8 percent in 1920 to 28 percent in 1930. Of an active labor force of approximately 8,773,000, some2,325,000 were industrial workers and nearly 2,500,000 were engaged in services. Though about 1,900,000 were landless farm laborers, Spain was no longer the overwhelmingly rural, agrarian land that it had been as recently as 1910.

Adult illiteracy dropped by almost 9 percent during the 1920s, apparently the most rapid improvement within a ten-year period in Spanish history. Opportunities for women expanded: their presence in the labor force grew by nearly 9 percent during the 1920s, while the percentage of women university students nearly doubled, from 4.79 to 8.3 in the years 1923-1927. Indeed, the absolute number of university students doubled between 1923 and 1930.

The result was the beginning of a fundamental social and cultural transformation, which produced the most fundamental of revolutions-the psychological revolution of rising expectations. By 1930 millions of Spaniards for the first time expected rapid continuation and even expansion of major improvements in social and political affairs. Unless the magnitude of the recent expansion and its attendant sociopsychological changes are taken into account, Spanish society in the 1930s cannot be understood. The radical demands that followed did not stem from the fact that Spain had earlier failed to make progress, but precisely from the fact that in many areas it had been making rapid progress. As millions experienced rapid improvement in their lives, they and others would be determined to demand even more.

This transformation created a potential basis for democratization, though at this stage not one that could guarantee success. The republican forces that suddenly seized power in April 1931 were for the most part new formations. The original republican movement of the 1860s had produced the disastrous experience of the First Republic of 1873-74, when the country nearly fell apart. For two generations republicanism had been discredited as anarchic, and during the early twentieth century it expanded only slowly. What gave republicanism a new lease on life was not merely the accelerated modernization of Spain but also the disastrous failure of the dictatorship, which seemed to show that the monarchy itself was corrupt and authoritarian, and that democratization could be achieved only under a republic.

The Second Republic was inaugurated amid a dramatic explosion of popular enthusiasm in the larger cities, a mood of expectation and euphoria that constituted a Spanish variant of the yearning for some kind of new human order that was so widespread and intense in Europe during the generation following World War I. Its bloodless introduction-in contrast to the civic turmoils and military pronunciamientos of the preceding century-argued a new civic maturity. Comparisons with the French Revolution were sometimes heard, but to the advantage of a new Spanish regime that had been born without violence. Such a favorable comparison, of course, betrayed more than a little confusion. The French Revolution had degenerated into repression and violence only after three years, so that any Spanish parallel with its phase of maximum conflict could be expected only later, a phase that did in fact afflict Spain. A more exact historical parallel might have been the French Third Republic, which from 1871 through its first decade took a very conservative form that reinforced stability.

The difficulty that Spain faced in consolidating a new democracy may be better understood through some comparative examples. In terms of civic culture, literacy rates, and economic development, it might be judged that Spain in 1931 was approximately at the level of Britain and France toward the end of the nineteenth century. During that earlier time neither northern country had had to face such severe political and social tests as those undergone by Spain in the 1930s. Victorian England had one of the most dynamic economies in the world and the longest of all parliamentary traditions but still had not introduced universal male suffrage, much less the female vote. The nascent French Third Republic had been faced with a quasi-revolutionary revolt in Paris, which it repressed with a ferocity that equaled anything seen in the Spanish Civil War of 1936. It then proceeded on a markedly conservative basis, for the working-class movement long remained rather weak in France. In contrast, Spanish society would soon be subjected to severe pressures of multiple and conflicting mass mobilizations.

Moreover, by 1931 the general European era of postwar democratization had already ended, and political currents both in the advanced countries of central Europe and in the underdeveloped ones of eastern and southern Europe were flowing strongly in the direction of radicalization and authoritarianism, not democratization. Once again, as a century earlier, Spanish political forces were seeking to play a unique role by inaugurating a new phase of progressivism. Republican leaders were conscious of this role, and some of them declared that the democratization of Spain would start a trend of rolling back fascism throughout the continent. Yet more than a century earlier Spanish progressivists had failed, and their failure had been most complete during the decade 1814-1823, when not merely was Spanish society unprepared but the international climate was hostile, as well.

Thus in 1931 Spain inhabited a dangerous "frontier zone" in which its new political institutions would attempt to approximate those of advanced northern Europe but in which its society and culture, despite recent rapid progress, had still not achieved levels equivalent to those of the northern countries. Accelerated development had helped to make possible the breakthrough of 1931, but the danger remained that it might have promoted a kind of developmental trap, stimulating major new demands and mobilization without having yet achieved the means to satisfy them.

Though the Republican coalition claimed to represent a new kind of politics, it had first attempted to overthrow the monarchy through an old-fashioned and abortive military pronunciamiento in December 1930. It gained power bloodlessly in April 1931, even though monarchists won most of the seats in the municipal contests, because the monarchists refused to engage in civil conflict. The Republic was thus initiated through a kind of political understanding. Despite the patriotic and self-abnegatory attitude of the crown and the monarchist politicians, the new coalition initiated a politics of vengeance toward the crown and the ministers of the fallen dictatorship through a series of political prosecutions that served no constructive purpose. Given the participation of the Socialists in some of the institutions of the dictatorship, they were also hypocritical. The new coalition took the attitude, which proved to be entirely mistaken, that conservative and Catholic opinion had been reduced to hopelessly minoritarian status and need no longer be considered in the political equation.

The Republican coalition rested on an alliance among three sectors: the Republican left (often termed la izquierda burguesa-the bourgeois left), the Republican center-right, and the Socialists, their initial cooperation masking the fact that each sector conceived of the Republican project in quite different terms. The Republican center-right was led by former monarchists such as the Catholics Niceto Alcalá Zamora and Miguel Maura, each of whom led very small new parties, and more substantially by Alejandro Lerroux's Radical Republican Party, which had moved from onetime radicalism to centrist moderation. The Republican center-right stood for the development of liberal democracy-the rules and practice of parliamentary constitutionalism-with only limited institutional and social reform. To the Republican center-right, the essence of the system would simply be civil rights and the constitutional rules of democratic fair play.

The coalition's fulcrum, however, was the parties of the Republican left, for it was they, rather than the Radical Party, who stood for a radical Republicanism and the revival of the exaltado tradition. Their concept of the Republican project was based on the cultural revolution of the nineteenth century, as well as a certain amount of social reform. This last concern was at first represented among the left Republicans, especially by the new Radical Socialist Republican Party, whose name was derived, as was customary, from French nomenclature, but which would be condemned to a short life because of its internal contradictions. It was much less socialist than its name indicated.

The most substantial sector of the Republican left was Acción Republicana, led by the writer and state functionary Manuel Azaña. This group also recognized the need for social reform, but placed uppermost the cultural revolution of republicanism, which would require creation of a strong modern state completely separated from religion, a series of fundamental institutional changes and reforms, and the construction of a modern secular educational system, to which Catholic education would be completely subordinated. According to Azaña, the failure of nineteenth-century Spanish liberalism had lain in its moderation, and the weakness of the past two generations of republicans lay in their willingness to compromise and collaborate with nonrepublican forces. In speeches in 1930 and 1931, Azaña proclaimed his republican intransigence, describing his stance as "radical" and "sectarian." Thus, from the point of view of the Republican left, the democratic Republic was not intended to be a democracy tolerant of equal rights for all but a radical reform project enjoying total hegemony over Spanish life. As Nigel Townson has put it, their goal was not to achieve a "consensual framework" for all Spanish society but rather "to give substance to secular and modernizing ideals," which, as José Manuel Macarro Vera observed, "was not initially identified with democracy, but with social, economic, or political reform."

The left Republicans ignored the example of the neighboring Portuguese republic, which had governed disastrously from 1910 to 1926. As one of its leading historians, Rui Ramos, has described it, the Portuguese "First Republic was not a liberal democracy. It was a state ruled by a revolutionary movement, the Portuguese Republican Party (PRP). The PRP disfranchised most of the electorate and, although it allowed other forces to be represented in parliament, it never allowed any peaceful rotation in power.... Only the army was able to defeat the PRP." The Portuguese Republic had represented a continuation of nineteenth-century radicalism, rather than a breakthrough to twentieth-century democracy.

The left Republicans also intended to exclude the right permanently from government, but believed that their position would be consistent with democracy because they were convinced that the governing Republican coalition represented a strong majority of Spanish opinion. This conclusion at first glance was borne out by its overwhelming victory in the parliamentary elections of June 1931. The rightist opposition was confused and disorganized, as well as leaderless and intimidated, and was very weakly represented in the first Republican parliament, the Cortes.

The Republican left formed only the left-center of the new governing alliance, whose left wing was the Socialist Party. Founded in 1879, the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) was a classic movement of the Second International that for decades had been one of the weakest Socialist parties in Europe. When its first leader, Pablo Iglesias, had first been elected to parliament in 1910, in his maiden speech he launched a vicious attack on the reformist Canalejas government, Spain's most progressive administration in more than two decades, while declaring legitimate the assassination of the leader of the Conservative Party. In conjunction with the anarchosyndicalists, the Socialists had launched a revolutionary general strike in 1917 to install a constituent republic, which resulted in 71 dead and hundreds injured. Always treated leniently by the Spanish government, the Socialists had on most occasions followed more moderate policies, participating in elections and slowly building a trade union base. The profound structural changes of the 1920s and the coming of democracy enabled the Socialist trade union, the Unión General de Trabajadores (General Union of Workers; UGT), to expand into a mass movement, reaching more than a million members by 1932. The Second Republic offered the Socialists their first opportunity to participate in a government-something that the French Socialists had not yet done-an opportunity that they accepted without having fully resolved the issues of reformism versus revolutionism in their doctrine. The dominant tendency was to take the position that the Republic would produce decisive changes, opening the way peacefully for a Socialist system to be achieved without revolutionary violence. The UGT leader Francisco Largo Caballero declared at the outset of the new regime that as a result violent revolution "would never put down roots in Spain." The Socialists also viewed the Spanish changes within a larger context as a new tide of democracy and progressivism that would roll back the trend toward fascism initiated by Mussolini a decade earlier.

With the exception of the chief moderates, Alcalá Zamora and Lerroux, the new Republican leaders had little practical political experience. From their point of view, this sharp rupture with the older elites of the preceding parliamentary system was an advantage, leaving them uncorrupted with the "old politics," but their inexperience and doctrinaire approach, combined with their misreading of national sentiment in general, deprived them of contact with large moderate and conservative sectors of the middle classes.

The broad alliance in fact lasted less than a year. By the close of 1931, with completion of the new constitution and the elevation of Alcalá Zamora to the presidency, the Radicals demanded that the Socialists leave the government so that an all-Republican coalition could rule. This demand was perfectly feasible, given the Radicals' parliamentary strength. The Radicals argued that continued participation by the Socialists was a contradiction, since the Republican parties and the constitution were based on private property. The broad alliance was denounced as unnatural, skewing Spanish affairs to the left.

This assessment overestimated the moderation of the Republican left. To the new prime minister, Manuel Azaña, and to most of his party associates, alliance with the Socialists was necessary first to guarantee the strength of the new system, giving it a base among the workers, and secondly to guarantee the specifically leftist, radically reformist character of the Republic. The left Republicans clearly preferred the Socialists to the Radicals, and thus until September 1933 Azaña would preside over a leftist coalition from which the democratic Republican center had already withdrawn.


Excerpted from The Collapse of the Spanish Republic, 1933-1936 by Stanley G. Payne Copyright © 2006 by Stanley G. Payne. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Introduction: The Problem of Representative Government in Spain....................1
1 The Republican Project....................8
2 The Turning Point of the Republic: 1933....................26
3 The Revolutionary Insurrection of 1934....................52
4 A Conservative Republic? 1934-1935....................96
5 Frustration of the Parliamentary System....................118
6 Toward the Popular Front....................140
7 The Elections of February 1936....................170
8 The Left Returns to Power: February-March 1936....................185
9 The Left Consolidates Power: March-May 1936....................215
10 Breaking Down: May-June 1936....................248
11 Competing Utopias: The Revolutionary Movements in the Spring of 1936....................273
12 The Final Phase: May-July 1936....................294
13 The Military Conspiracy....................308
14 The Assassination of Calvo Sotelo....................319
Conclusion: Could the Breakdown Have Been Avoided?....................339
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