In 1898, Spain and the United States went to war. The outcome was never in doubt, as Spain had long ceased to be in the first rank of world powers, and the United States would soon openly join it. In the Treaty of Paris, which ended the war, Spain renounced all claims to Cuba and ceded Guam and Puerto Rico to the United States. In addition, the United States paid Spain $20 million dollars for control over the Philippines. This war marked the final stage of Spain’s long decline into political and economic impotence, which had begun with the Peace of the Pyrenees in 1659.
Spain’s decline was rooted in long-term structural problems in the Spanish empire and economy. The Spanish Empire was never as commercial as the British or the French; it was always based more on plunder and extraction than trade. Moreover, Spain had never industrialized with the same vigor as the other European powers; it lagged badly behind Italy, for example, which was the weakest of Europe’s major industrial states. Thus, with the last of the empire gone, Spain’s economy virtually collapsed. Gross income inequality and little industrial or agricultural production left Spain in a cul-de-sac, from which it would not escape until the European Union financed its modernization in the 1990s.
The war with the United States had significant effects on Spanish politics. After the loss, Spain’s constitutional monarchy appeared weak and ineffectual, and numerous calls came from both the extreme left and extreme right for drastic political change. This was not good news, since Spain’s constitutional monarchical government had already been born into instability. The constitution went into effect in 1878, after a tumultuous period of conflict in which liberals of various stripes and rural traditionalists known as Carlists fought for control of the government. The Carlists were put down in the end, but the upshot was that the Spanish military became ever more central to daily Spanish politics, since the need for order began to overwhelm desires for liberal democracy. The military accepted the Constitution of 1878, but over the next decades it watched carefully for signs of weakness. One person who watched closely was a young military man named Francisco Franco. Franco came from a naval family and wanted to pursue a naval career. Unfortunately, the Americans had sunk the Spanish navy in the year of his birth, which caused the Naval Academy to scale back its admissions. Thus, in 1914, Franco chose to enter the Military Academy, a decision that would have important consequences thirty years later.
In 1902, Alfonso XIII came to throne amidst promises to uphold the constitution and provide moderate reform. The trouble was, however, that the constitution was being attacked from all sides. The strongest attacks came from the left, as Socialists, Catalonians, and Basques all wanted a new constitution, though for different reasons. The Catalonians and Basques, for example, both wanted independence from Madrid. To this mix were added Anarchists and Syndicalists, who both wanted to overthrow all government. The only difference between them was in the choice of method. These two movements later merged, becoming a destructive force in large part because they did not shy from using violence. And there were, of course, still remnants of the traditionalist right that had caused so much trouble from the 1830 to the 1860s. Thus, by the early twentieth century Spain witnessed street violence of all sorts, coming from all sides and aimed against the existing constitution.
The unstable political situation was then exacerbated by the pressures of two wars, only one of which Spain joined. In 1909, Morocco, Spain’s last colony, rose up in rebellion, and the Spanish instituted a military draft. This offended an already agitated population and threw much of the country into turmoil. The Catalonians, for their part, used the turmoil to gain more provincial autonomy. Then in 1914 World War I broke out and the Spanish government remained neutral. This had three important effects. First, many saw this as a national humiliation: the biggest fight in the world was going on and the great conquerors were sitting it out. Second, Spain now entered a period of rapid industrialization, as the Entente Powers ordered large quantities of materials from the Spanish. Third, industrialization brought to Spain, for the first time, a large working class that, in turn, became a source of political agitation. This was particularly the case later in the war, as European inflationary pressures caused real wages to fall.
In the meantime, the war in Morocco was not going well. Morocco’s tribes were not so much interested in independence as some form of autonomy. Spain’s politicians were willing to cut a deal, but Spain’s generals felt that military victory was preferable, so they launched a further attack that resulted in a major defeat and massacre. In 1921, local armies destroyed a Spanish army at the Battle of Annual. Opposition party leaders were determined to use the massacre against the royal government and parliament launched an investigation that was to be published. Before it could be made public, however, a Spanish general named Primo de Rivera staged a coup and established a military dictatorship. The Spanish King Alfonso XIII supported the coup, since he was tired of politicians bringing nothing but disorder to Spain.
Rivera’s military dictatorship was both brutal and efficient in its search for stability. The new government worked quickly to put down local revolts and strikes. The repression was extensive. People on both the left and the right were routinely executed through asphyxiation. Universities were closed. Catalonia was retaken. In Morocco the government showed a similar iron fist. In September 1925, Spanish troops landed at Alhucemas and defeated the most powerful tribal leader Abd el-Krim. By 1927, Spain had occupied all of Morocco.
Policies favorable to the Catholic Church were also put in place in order to control the populace better. The Spanish Church was an extremely conservative institution. It dominated education, which meant that very little science was taught in Spanish schools, and the poor were not even taught to read. As late as 1927, Spanish schoolchildren were taught that voting for the liberals would damn them to Hell. The Spanish church was also a major property holder, having control over many Spanish farms and even 1/3 of Spanish industry. Thus, revolutionary forces in Spain were fighting not only the state but also the church. When the government finally fell, much violence was directed at the church and its properties.
The government also sought stability through economic reforms. Internally it tried to reform local government structures and supported extensive public works programs to curb unemployment and improve Spain’s rotten infrastructure. Rivera also tried to help businesses by protecting local industries. But he also did a good deal of damage to local business through an intrusive bureaucratic government. More importantly, perhaps, Rivera was lucky. During the first years of his rule a European–wide economic expansion increased demand for Spanish products. As economic depression loomed, however, Rivera came to be expendable. Both the army and the king abandoned him, and on Jan 28, 1930, he was forced to resign.
Alfonso XIII was now left with few options. His support of the dictatorship made him extremely unpopular, and the subsequent military regimes of General Dámaso Berenguer and Admiral Juan Bautista Aznar were too weak to keep order. Plots to overthrow the monarchy proliferated among political liberals and the military. Then municipal elections held in April of 1931 showed that public sentiment was turning Republican. Alfonso abdicated and left Spain rather than fight a civil war.
Thus, in 1931, Spain became a Republic for the second time. (The first Republic had lasted from 1873 to 1876.) Under the new constitutions, the Catalans were given their long sought autonomy, and a major land reform program was put into place. Unfortunately, this did not bring long-term stability. Anarcho-syndicalist violence continued to plague public life, and the Spanish economy did not have enough strength to provide consistent growth. In addition, an anti-religious backlash turned many Catholics away from the new government. Catholics were deprived of public office and all religious groups were prohibited from engaging in business of any sort. Ironically, the constitution’s extension of the franchise to women also created problems. Traditionally, the Spanish church had provided one of the few options for women to engage in public life. The government’s attacks on the church, thus, turned Spanish women against the government. In addition, the government also tolerated a slate of church burnings in 1931, which outraged even political moderates. One result of this outrage was the creation of an umbrella conservative party called CEDA (Confederación Española de Derechas Autónomas.) These two factors had a significant effect on the next few elections, as conservative majorities were elected, which only emboldened the extreme left to engage in more violence. Spain, like Italy and Germany in the 1920s was becoming ever more politically polarized.
An example of this polarization is the growing battle between the Anarcho-Syndicalists and right-wing groups. In 1932, José Antonio Primo de Rivera (the dictator’s son) founded the Falange, Spain’s fascist party. This party engaged in a series of terror operations against the Anarcho-Syndicalists, making Spain’s problems with street violence even worse. The rise of right-wing violence then culminated in another attempt coup on August 10, 1932 in Seville by the Spanish general José Sanjurjo, which was successfully put down. At the same time, however, the Republican government confronted even more serious problems on the left, as the Spanish Socialists left the governing coalition, because they were tired of having to negotiate with the liberals. In the elections of November 1933, the left was split by its division into hardcore Communists, Anarchists, and Socialists, while the right under the CEDA umbrella was becoming ever more unified.
In October 1934, Asturian miners rose up in revolt against the conservative electoral victory. This was a crucial moment in Spanish history, because it set the political landscape for the rest of the republic. On the one hand, the fear of a Red Rebellion now galvanized the right and led the conservative government to repress the strikers brutally. The left responded by creating its own umbrella organization, the Popular Front, which was expressly opposed to fascism. So now both the extreme left and right were represented by umbrella groups, while support for the political center withered away. In the elections of 1936, the popular front won a very narrow victory over the right. The policy result was that the government engaged in more land reform, and gave autonomy to both Catalonia and Basque territories. If that were not enough to outrage the right, the Popular Front was also hostile to business, which depressed the Spanish economy and led to greater unemployment. The result was more instability and greater violence. The rightists engaged in a terror campaign against the government. The Communists refused to give any support to the government, since they wanted a complete revolution. In the countryside things were out of control, as Spanish peasants spontaneously seized all the land they could get their hands on. Political murders also proliferated: well before the Civil War actually began 269 prominent people had been murdered by political enemies.
On July 17, 1936, the Spanish government had clearly lost control of the situation and the military moved to seize power. The military wanted to strike swiftly, but it had a problem: the Spanish army was in Morocco and the Spanish navy was sympathetic to the political left, which meant that the troops were stuck where they were. The resolution to this problem came from Germany and Portugal. Adolf Hitler sent cargo planes to Morocco that then flew the troops back to Spain, and Portugal’s dictator Antonio Salazar allowed aid to flow through his country. The military landed in Spain expecting to win easily, but they were surprised by workers uprisings in Spain’s major cities against the coup. When the smoke cleared, Spain was divided in half, with the Nationalist forces, led by a thirty-eight year old general named Francisco Franco, holding the West and Republican (or government) forces controlling the East.
The stalemate in Spain invited intervention from Europe’s great powers. Spain was in a strategic position from everyone’s point of view. Great Britain wanted access to Spain’s natural resources, especially its iron reserves. (This was an old story, as both the Romans and Carthaginians had coveted those reserves as well.) France wanted a friendly government on its borders, and since the French government was led by the socialist Leon Blum, a left-wing government was a natural ally. Nazi Germany, for its part, wanted to box the French in by installing a hostile government in Madrid. Italy wanted a conservative government in Spain both as a practical political matter and as a chance to gain foreign policy prestige. Finally, the Soviet Union, which was still a diplomatic pariah, wanted at the very least a left-wing government in Spain if not a Communist one.
In the end, however, only the German, Italian, and Soviet governments provided any real assistance. This was a bigger problem for the Spanish left than the right. Great Britain was under a conservative administration that found the idea of supporting a proto-communist government distasteful. In France, Blum was under political siege from France’s right wing and was in no position to offer support. And then the Soviet Union’s aid was not very useful. Soviet forces flew planes, drove tanks, and offered logistical advice, but they were under strict orders not to engage directly in battle. Moreover, the Soviets sold materials to the Republicans, rather than donating them, demanding gold in payment. This depleted the Republicans’ gold reserves at the very time when they needed them most.
The Germans and the Italians, however, provided direct support. 12,000 German troops went to Spain, and the Germans provided over 80% of Spain’s air power. The Germans were especially interested in testing their equipment and battle techniques, since unlike the French and British they had no colonial empire that could be used as a military training ground. The most infamous such test was the bombing of Guernica in April 1937. This bombing was much less deadly than has been portrayed, but it became an anti-fascist icon, particularly with Pablo Picasso’s unveiling of his famous painting. The Italians, for their part, sent 70,000 troops, who were officially volunteers, to fight on the nationalist side, though they were miserable failures. There was also another source of outside support, foreign intellectuals and activists who joined the International Brigades. About 40,000 foreign writers, thinkers, journalists, and activists flocked to Spain to fight fascism. Among the people who made up this contingent were Ernest Hemingway, W.H. Auden, and George Orwell. The war was hardly a glorious affair. In Homage to Catalonia (1938) George Orwell offered a stark picture of the war, depicting it as both a boring and bloody affair, marked as much by internal fights as military engagements in the mud. During 1937 and 1938, 500,000 people died before the Nationalists took Republican strongholds in Barcelona and Madrid in early 1939.
The war’s end was anticlimactic. Once having defeated his opponents, Franco sent the Germans and Italians home and observed strict diplomatic neutrality in the coming conflict. This was due largely to Spain’s particular political circumstances. Franco may have been right-wing, but he was not a fascist and claimed no spiritual connection to world fascism. Instead, he was an authoritarian leader of a conservative coalition that included fascists, as well as churchmen, aristocrats, monarchists, Carlists, and military men. The Republican side was just as diverse. Its coalition consisted of liberals, socialists, anarcho-syndicalists, Basques, Catalans, and Communists. Had either the fascists or the communists been able to gain control of the Spanish government, things might have been much worse for Spain in the coming years. Ironically, however, the fractured nature of Spanish politics also provided the justification for continued political repression. Franco saw no way out of his coalition other than a dictatorship. Keeping the various factions in line, from the right and the left, mandated, as he saw, it a strongman. And this form of politics dominated Spanish public life until 1975, when Franco died.