The Causes of the Spanish Civil War


What were the causes of the Spanish Civil War? Between 1936 and 1939 over 500,000 people were killed in the Spanish Civil War so this cannot be considered a ‘little’ war that was overshadowed by the problems that were occurring in Europe during these years.

In 1920, Spain was a constitutional monarchy. The king was Alfonso XIII.

However, the government was inefficient and corrupt. In 1921, an army was sent to Spanish Morocco to put down a rebellion. It was massacred but this defeat seemed to emphasise just how corrupt and incompetent Spain’s leadership was.

In 1923, Spain experienced a bloodless coup when Alfonso agreed that General Primo de Rivera should take control of Spain. He ruled as a military dictator until 1930. Rivera’s approach to leadership was fully supported by Alfonso.

However, Rivera did not display the classic features of a dictator. He introduced public works schemes building roads and irrigating the land. Industrial production increased by three times from 1923 to1930. Rivera also ended the rebellion in Morocco in 1925.

However, the Great Depression of the 1930’s hit Spain hard. Unemployment rose and Rivera did not have the ability to sort out Spain’s financial mess. The army withdrew its support and Rivera had to resign.

In April 1931, elections were held in Spain which resulted in republicans winning all the major cities in Spain. Alfonso decided to abdicate as he feared that if he stayed on, Spain would plummet into turmoil. Those victorious at the election then declared Spain a republic and monarchy was abolished.

The new republic immediately faced a number of major problems:

Two important regions in Spain wanted independence – Catalonia and the Basque region. Had their requests been successful, it would have lead to the break-up of Spain.
The Roman Catholic Church was hostile to the republic and the republic was hostile to the highly influential Roman Catholic Church.
The government believed that the army had too much say in politics and determined to reduce its influence.
Spain was primarily an agricultural nation and the 1930’s Depression had hit prices for crops. Prime exports such as olive oil and wine fell in value and previously used agricultural land fell into disuse.
The little industry that Spain had was also hit by the Depression. Iron and steel were especially hit as no-one had the money to pay for the products. Iron production fell by 33% and steel by 50%.
Unemployment in both agriculture and industry rose and those in work had to put up with a cut in wages as the economy struggled to survive the Depression.
The Republic faced losing the support of those whose support it desperately needed – the working class.

Those who governed Spain had differing views on what to do. The wishes of the left alarmed those on the right and vice versa. Political infighting was in danger of pushing Spain into social revolution.

The middle ground in Spain’s parliament – the socialists and middle-class radicals – did try to resolve outstanding problems.

Catalonia did receive some degree of self-government.
The historic privileges of the Roman Catholic Church were attacked. Priests were no longer paid by the state. Their salaries now came out of the Roman Catholic Church’s purse. The government and the Roman Catholic Church were made two separate entities. Jesuits – seen as hard line Roman Catholics – were expelled from Spain – ironically the country that had founded the movement. Religious education in schools was stopped.
Many army officers were made to retire early
The huge estates in Spain were nationalised i.e. taken over by the government which would control what was done on them etc.
The wages of those who worked in industry were increased but they were to be paid by the owners of those industries not by the government.

The government tried to attack those it deemed as having too many privileges in society. But by doing this it angered all those sectors in society that had the potential to fight back – the military, industrialists, land owners and the Roman Catholic Church. These four (potentially very powerful bodies) were unwilling to support the republican government in Madrid. They were also aware that there were countries in Europe that would be willing to give support to their plight as many nations in Europe were scared of communism and Stalin’s Russia. Fascist Italy under Mussolini would be an obvious ally as would Germany once Hitler had got power in January 1933.

In January 1932, a number of army officers tried to overthrow the government lead by Manuel Azana, the prime minister. The attempt was unsuccessful as the army, for now, was loyal to the government – after all, it had won the elections fairly and, therefore, had legitimacy. However, a new political party was formed called the Ceda. This was a right wing party dedicated to protecting the authority of the Roman Catholic Church and landlords.

The government of Azana, having lost support from the right, also lost support from the left. Two powerful left wing political parties, the anarchists and syndicalists (powerful trade union groups), felt that Azana’s government was too middle of the road. Both wanted a more communistic state and the overthrow of capitalism. Above all, Azana was despised for forming a political union with the middle ground in Spain’s political life. He was deemed to have betrayed the working class. The extreme left organised strikes and riots in an effort to destabilise the government of Azana.

Matters came to a head when in January 1933, 25 people were killed by government troops who were attempting to catch some anarchists near Cadiz. This lost the government a great deal of support among the working class and the socialists withdrew their support from the government. Azana resigned as prime minister and elections were called for November 1933.

In this election, the right wing won a majority of support and the largest party in the parliament (known as the Cortes), was the Ceda lead by Gil Robles.

The new right wing government immediately over-turned all of the changes brought in by the Azana government. This angered many but especially the Catalans who had their privileges withdrawn. This was a serious error of judgement as the Catalans and Basques had supported the government in the elections. The way ahead for Robles became clear to many – an attack on the left wing parties of Spain.

It forced the many parties of the left to come together to form the Popular Front. They organised strikes, riots and took part in acts of violence such as derailing main line trains. In 1934 there was a general strike. Coal miners in the Asturias went on strike but were ruthlessly put down by the army lead by General Franco. Spain appeared to be heading for all out chaos. In a last minute attempt to avoid serious trouble, a general election was called for February 1936. In this election, the Popular Front won and Azana, once again became prime minister.

However, the government of the Popular Front was a farce after the socialists withdrew their support from it; more and more public disturbances occurred and the government had clearly lost control of Spain. In July 1936, a leading right wing politician, Sotelo, was murdered and the right wing politicians and their supporters believed that they were now in serious danger. They wanted to put their faith in a military dictatorship.

The military had, in fact, already made preparations for a takeover of Spain. General Franco assumed control of the military. He took control of Spanish Morocco after overthrowing the civilian government there. His next target was to invade mainland Spain, establish a military government there and rid the country of all those involved in left wing politics. The left would have to fight for survival. The civil war started in July 1936.