In July 1936 Spain was plunged into a civil war which was the result of several long term factors and tensions exacerbated by short term factors and events occurring in the 1920s and 1930s. For many years there had been protracted ideological struggles between centralism and regionalism and also between authoritarianism and libertarianism, both which partly brought the civil war to fruition. In order to successfully and fully account for the outbreak of civil war in Spain, it is necessary to examine the long term economic, social and political factors that caused the war. The short term events that culminated in civil war were further intensified by the long-standing struggles these events too will also be assessed in relation to the importance of the long term factors to determine their significance in causing the Spanish civil war.
At the turn of the twentieth century Spain was characterised by economic, social and political conflict, as it had been for previous centuries. Spain was late developing economically, and at the period was still predominantly agricultural in nature. A semi-feudal system was still in operation on the land industrialisation had only begun in the middle of the nineteenth century and so large amounts of power still lay with the landowners. Due to the nature of Spain's mainly agricultural, semi-feudal economy, there was extreme wealth and extreme poverty, with the vast majority of people poor with a very low standard of living. Whilst the standard of living had increased perhaps 25% since 1900 by the 1920s, it was nonetheless a poor rate compared to Northern Europe and the US. By the 1930s Spain's economy was still in an early developmental stage, especially in relation to the northern European nations and the US with which it lagged behind considerably. Industry was however on the growth in some areas, namely the Basque, Asturias and Catalonia regions Barcelona in particular was a large industrial hub, largely as a result of textile and shipping growth. Spain was essentially somewhat backward economically, still in an early process of development.
Spain's social structure must also be examined in order to understand the context in which the Spanish civil war occurred. For centuries the centre of Spain's social structure lay with the Catholic Church and the army. Both were incredibly influential and had been an integral part of Spain's social life for centuries. The Church in particular was a pillar of society since Spain was a very religious country where the Church was held in high regard. The Church's strong position was consolidated by the Concordat of 1851 which resulted in Catholicism being made the official state religion and clergy receiving state-financed income. The wealthy classes were almost always supported by the Church who saw no need for change within Spanish society and so upheld the status quo. However the severe reactionary views of the Church led many poorer people to resent and question its position, as they were aspiring for change. It can be seen that the Church was implicitly involved in any class conflict as it was such a core tenant in society, its motives tied with the upper classes' reactionary desires. The gradual growth of anti-clericalism at the end of the nineteenth century in workers' circles can be seen to mirror the pessimistic attitude taken towards religion by socialism and can perhaps help explain the ease with which it spread throughout Spain's working class.
The Spanish army had long occupied a proud position within Spanish society. By the beginning of the twentieth century however, it had outgrown its use. Spain was no longer a first or second rate power, and its overbearing army had no proportionate function considering Spain's limited world role. The army was top heavy with officers 1 for every nine men, however since it provided employment and prestige for Spain's upper classes, as well as symbolizing former Spanish glory, it proved incredibly difficult to reform. The significance of the army in understanding the causes of the civil war lay in the tradition within Spain of political initiatives being undertaken by the military. Coups or pronunciamientos, were undertaken by the army whenever they felt it necessary for the greater good of Spain retaining the potential power to create or destroy governments. This ensured that the army was central in the political scene and so the causes of the Spanish civil war cannot be explained without considering the importance of the Spanish army in the explanation. Indeed, the importance of the army and the Church in Spanish history and tradition cannot be exaggerated in explaining the outbreak of civil war in 1936. Castilian authoritarianism was prevalent during the period the church was inseparable with the growth of Spain and its empire the army conquered, whilst the Church integrated.
The political situation that Spain was in prior to the war must also be explored. Since 1898 Spain was a constitutional monarchy whilst there was a parliament - the cortes - as well as some democratic attributes such as universal male suffrage, Spain's political system was a corrupt one. There were very few differences between the two main parties and the caciquismo style of politics meant elections were not free or fair, rather they were managed through ballot rigging, bribery and intimidation corruption was rife and fraud commonplace. The structure of the political system resembled "an oligarchy with professional politicians alternating in government." The ordinary Spaniard was so disillusioned and had had so little real interaction with the political system that change was ensured to be radical and revolutionary whenever it occurred. These feelings were compounded in the Catalonia and Basque regions, which is where separatist groups emerged and bastions of anarchist and socialist opposition grew. The system bred apathy and disillusionment amongst the people and is perhaps the most significant long-term factor helping to explain the outbreak of the Spanish civil war.
Heavily linked with the ongoing political issues of the period were the long-standing imperial problems facing Spain during this period. Spain had long since declined from its one great-power status. Ever since losing its empire in Central and South America, followed by the loss of the Philippines and Cuba after war with the US in 1898 Spanish national pride was on the decrease as was Spain's power status. Without any imperial success or foreign achievements to help distract attention away from domestic problems, Spaniards would instead focus their frustration to the political and social problems blighting Spain. No doubt the army would have been irritated and demoralised by Spain's decline as an imperial power perhaps increasing their interest and commitment to resolving Spain's political troubles in their own way.
The tensions were further diversified by the ongoing ideological struggles between centralism and regionalism. For quite some time there had been pressure from Catalonia and the Basque regions in particular for secession from Spain. Naturally, the authoritarian, centralist elites would not allow this and so there was an ongoing tension between ideas. Centralism and authoritarianism usually went hand in hand in opposing regionalism and libertarianism, as the anarchist presence in the industrial regions grew in the late nineteenth century.
It can be seen that Spain had many long-term underlying problems and tensions, ranging from social, economic and political issues, as well to the ideological struggles between centralism and regionalism. Competing class interests were also involved the Church and army, with their reactionary tendencies, favoured authoritarianism, opposing the growth in socialism and anarchism which both harboured either separatist or libertarian values. Over such a long period, these opposing ideas and tensions would surface to a head with devastating results the Spanish civil war.
Whilst the outbreak of the Spanish civil war can be attributed to the long-term problems, no account can be complete without also including the short-term events and factors that propelled Spain into war. With the failure to emerge victorious in the Moroccan wars in the early 1920s, accompanied by an unforgivably high casualty rate, Miguel Primo de Riveira was appointed by King Alfonso XIII to rule following his pronunciamentio on September 23rd 1923.
Primo was successful in certain areas: he managed to win some support from the socialists and UGT, some modernisation of the economy occurred under his rule (for example the formation of new banks), an increase in foreign trade helping to stimulate the economy, and the war in Morocco was finally resolved in 1926. However he failed to solve the long-term problems, namely that of land reform which Spain's large agricultural sector was in desperate need. He also agitated the socialist and anarchist opposition by placing restriction on freedom of speech and the extensive use of censorship. Crucially, he also supported the suppression of Catalan nationalism which provoked yet more opposition. These problems were further compounded by the ever-significant Wall Street Crash of 1929 and subsequent worldwide depression.
Spain was less affected by the depression than most European nations due to its predominant agricultural sector and high levels of protectionism, however food prices still fell and unemployment rose. Ultimately, Primo antagonised both the politicians by reducing their power and influence, and the army by introducing reforms most notably the closure of the prestigious artillery corps' promotion system. Once his dictatorship was over, tensions and conflicts in Spain were reaching volatile levels General Berenguer described Spain just after Primo's fall as "like a bottle of champagne about to blow its cork." Although civil war may not have been inevitable at that point, events were heading towards a conclusion. It can also be seen that Primo's rule further agitated the already delicate situation, further heading towards civil war.
Once the Second Republic had been established, following elections and the abdication of the king, a reasonably popular left-bloc government was empowered. Social change was expected, and the ensuing reforms could only further antagonise and exacerbate the conflicting class interests the republic would have to honour its working class support in its reforms while simultaneously attempting to not infuriate the wealthy classes - the age-old balancing act conundrum. The church reform in particular was controversial and furthered the instability Spain was experiencing. The new government passed measures ending state support for clergy within two years and excluded religion from education. Whilst many felt the reform was long overdue, some felt it was too far-reaching. These revolutionary actions infuriated the Church, and helped to further complicate the tense situation. The army was also aggravated by attempts to reduce its size by offering generous retirement, which served the purpose of reducing the army to its most passionate and fanatical. The most important piece of legislation passed by the government was the Agrarian Reform Law of September 1932. Along with other land reforms, the government enabled the state to take over estates and church land and redistribute it these measures did however achieve little in the way of reducing rural poverty or improve productivity for the people, as well as alienating the wealthy classes. The general situation in Spain deteriorated, with most groups now unimpressed with the government and the political system in general many felt direct action should be taken, proven by several CNT risings.
The formation of a right-wing coalition government in November 1933 heralded a further deterioration in stability. In what the left describe as the "black years" almost all the previous government reforms were reversed with socialism and anarchism confined to repression. The significance of the bienio negro is that division between the left and right widened the left began to get increasingly concerned over the likelihood of a right wing dictatorship, and the right feared a Marxist revolution. The international situation at this point increased the tension between the two sides the right drew inspiration from Mussolini and Hitler's actions in Europe and the left from Stalin. This was important in accelerating the conflict between the left and right in the few years leading to the civil war. Tension erupted in October 1934 when three members of CEDA entered government the socialists called for a general strike as they regarded the organization as fascist and were terrified of a dictatorship. The strike was most effective in the Asturias coalfield in northern Spain, where the CNT, socialists and communists had pulled together. Once they had managed to capture Oviedo and establish a commune, fearful of revolution, the rising was brutally and mercilessly crushed by the Foreign Legion. Concerned over the threat of a Marxist revolution, all the UGT and socialist leaders were imprisoned or exiled. This is perhaps the most important short term event that caused the outbreak of civil war. The left were terrified of a right wing dictatorship at this point, and simultaneously the right were fearful of revolution. This event helped polarise the left and right and was crucial in that it dramatically increased the chances of civil war as both sides were pushed further apart and were more desperate, and fearful of the other.
Historians have long argued over the main causes of the Spanish civil war. Considering Spain had had such a turbulent history, one with little democracy with both sides easily prepared to use violence, civil war was not an unexpected outcome. With long-term issues and conflicts brewing for such a long period of time, and little headway made, it is of little wonder it resulted in war. Sheelagh Ellwood believed that the complete lack of consensus between the left and right in the pre-war years on everything, most importantly acceptance of democracy and the universal lack of faith in representative government (similar to the distrust of the trasformismo politics of Italy) were the prime causes of the civil war. Anthony Beever instead focused on the long term causes of the war, in particular the ideological conflicts. He believed that it was the ideological conflict between regionalism and centralism, authoritarianism and libertarianism, and class interests were the most important causes ideological conflict was the main cause of the war.
The Spanish civil war was the result of forces of change building up over several centuries. Ultimately the long term economic and social struggles were the most important factors in causing the Spanish civil war. It was only these powerful issues that were strained and tested enough to cause conflict. The exalted position that both the church and army held in Spanish society were ill-suited to the twentieth-century world. Perhaps the most important long term cause of the civil war was the combination of economic and social problems it was the economic problems, notably the lack of development and modernisation that fuelled the social problems that caused the conflict. The most fundamental long term cause was the disillusionment and apathy of the Spanish people when people lose faith in their political system, direct action or revolution is historically the only answer. Ultimately these long term issues, pooled with the impact of the depression, the tendency of the left and right to be constantly suspicious and threatened by each other (the significance of the crushing of the Asturias rising being the final example), caused Spain to descend into civil war.