What were the Root Causes of the Spanish Civil War?

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General Francisco Franco in 1936

In July of 1936, the Spanish Civil War began and rapidly turned into was one of the bloodiest conflicts during the Twentieth Century in Europe. The war was not simply a Spanish affair, but drew in other several other nations, including Italy, Portugal, Germany and the Soviet Union. The war was a result of many factors, but the one primary cause of the Spanish Civil War was the failure of Spanish democracy. This failure was a result of the refusal by the Spanish political parties and groups to compromise and respect democratic norms.

Background

Spain was a very divided, unstable and weak country in the 19th century. Once a great power, Spain lost almost the last of its colonies after its defeat in the Spanish-American war.[1] It was technically a monarchy, but power had frequently been in the hands of military dictators. The country was bitterly divided. The acute poverty of the Spanish people meant that many were drawn to Communism, Anarchism, and Socialism. [2] These ideologies call for popular governments and the re-distribution of resources, such as land and wealth.

Spanish anarchists, socialists, and communists were secular and wanted to remove the influence of the Catholic Church from Spanish society. The elite and the middle class were especially conservative. They dominated the economy and feared that the Communists would confiscate their property. This is typified in the fact that much of the best land in Spain was owned by a relatively small proportion of the population. Furthermore, the wealthy and the middle class, especially in rural society was Catholics and resisted any idea that there should be a separation of Church in State in Spain.[3] The elite and the rich landowners, the ‘agrarian oligarchy’ were terrified of communism, especially after the Russian Revolution in 1917.

By 1930, Spain was bitterly divided into social and ideological lines. Spain was and is a diverse society.[4] There are many areas of the country with strong regional or national identities. Many of the regions in Spain, such as the Catalans, demanded more autonomy or even outright independence from Madrid, such as the Basques. The tensions between the regions and the central government meant that the country was inherently unstable, as a compromise was impossible, between the parties.

The Failure of Spanish Government

Spain had been neutral during the First World War. However, this had not made the country peaceful or prosperous. In the wake of the ending of the WWI, there was a major economic slump.[5] The working class and the rural poor suffered greatly at this time and they began to organize themselves and Communists and Anarchists often led them. At this time the Trade Unions in Spain became very strong, and there were widespread strikes. In the countryside, impoverished peasants began to seize land.

To many in the elite, it seemed as if the country was on the brink of the Communist revolution. Miguel Primo de Rivera, with the support of the monarchy and army, launched a coup and came to power in 1923, and he became dictator of Spain. He was a monarchist and conservative and did nothing to reform the country and especially to alleviate the plight of the poor.[6] De Rivera soon became very unpopular, and tensions in the country increased, and he was forced to resign. In 1931, The Spanish monarch resigned. It seemed that Spain had an opportunity to begin a new era and to become a real democracy after elections were held.

Second Republic

A new constitution was introduced in 1931 ad it was a liberal document that guaranteed human rights and basic freedoms. The Constitution also separated the Church and State. The state held elections again in 1932. In the first elections under the Constitution in 1933, an alliance of right-wing and center-right parties came to power. Despite the establishment of democracy, there was no stability.[7] This was partly a result of the economic consequences caused by the Great Depression. The left, including the Communists and the Trade Unions, continued to press for their agendas.[8] They sought the nationalization of industry and the redistribution of land to the poor. General Strikes and local left-wing revolts constantly undermined the first democratically elected government.

In particular, there was a revolt by miners in Asturias, which was suppressed by the army. The left could not simply abide by the outcome of the election, and instead of achieving their goals by constitutional means, they opted for violent methods. [9]

The proclamation of the Second Republic in Madrid

The weakened government eventually collapsed, and new elections were called for 1936. The General Election saw a victory for a left-wing alliance of parties, including Communists, Anarchists, and Socialists. Regional parties also supported this government. They immediately launched an ambitious program of reforms, especially land reform to meet the ‘expectations of the urban and rural poor,’ that alienated many in the Spanish elite.[10] Many Spaniards believed that a communist revolution was imminent.

“They eyed with mounting alarm the red flags and banners and portraits of Lenin, Stalin and Largo Caballero on huge placards, and listened to the chanting of the demonstrators, demanding the formation of a proletarian government and a people’s army’’.[11]


In response, right-wing extremists such as the Falange militia began a violent campaign against the left-wing government. The right could not accept that the Left was the legitimate governments and believed that they were entitled to use violence means to secure their position and interests.

Countdown to Civil War

It was clear by 1936 that Spain was on the edge of a major confrontation between the left and the right and between the regions. There began a series of political assassinations. The right openly called for the military to stage a coup to oust the left-wing government, which some saw as only the puppets of the Soviet Union. Much of the Spanish Army was stationed in the country’s last colonies in Morocco.[12]

The left-wing government believed that the military was too far away from Spain because the government was losing control of the situation and there was fighting between the Falange militia and the police on the streets of several cities, resulting in many deaths. Then the Spanish Army Generals, led by General Franco, launched a coup, they managed to fly their forces, with the assistance of the German government to Spain. The arrival of regular Spanish units from Morocco on the Spanish mainland was the trigger for an all-out war that was to ‘leave half-a-million people dead.’[13]

Conclusion

The Spanish Civil War was caused by many factors, including major socio-economic problems, such as poverty and inequality. However, the on of the main causes was all sides’ failure to compromise and to respect the rights and opinions of others. This failure meant that the Second Republic could never provide a government that could bring stability and prosperity to the country. Political violence became endemic in the country as a consequence, and it escalated until it became a full-scale civil war.

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References

  1. Vincent, Mary (2007). Spain, 1833–2002. Oxford, UK; New York: Oxford University Press
  2. Beevor, Antony (2006). The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936–1939. London, UK: Weidenfield and Nicolson
  3. Lannon, Frances (1987). Privilege, Persecution, and Prophecy: The Catholic Church in Spain, 1875–1975. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press
  4. Beevor, The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936–1939
  5. Beevor, The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936–1939
  6. Beevor, Battle for Spain
  7. Paul Preston (2012). The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth-Century Spain. London, UK: HarperCollins
  8. Beevor, Battle for Spain
  9. Vincent, Mary (2007). Spain, 1833–2002. Oxford, UK; New York: Oxford University Press
  10. Preston, 7.
  11. Beevor, 124.
  12. Beevor, Battle for Spain
  13. Preston

Update January 15, 2019

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