The underlying causes of the Spanish Civil War
This “article” is a synopsis of a far more detailed analysis by Antony Beevor in his seminal work – The Battle for Spain. This book is essential reading for anyone with an interest in the Spanish Civil War as it is the most up to date analysis of that conflict in recent years which has also been revised in light of new material that has come to light in the last decade.
As an Anglo Spaniard with over 45 years experience of visiting, working and, for the last 10 years, living in Spain, and whose parents were raised in Spain during the Spanish Civil War, I am sometimes asked what were the true causes of the Spanish Civil War and often told by foreigners with little knowledge of Spain or its history, how terrible it was that Franco won and how he set Spain back 40 years.
This last point is a moot point and perhaps one that I will return to another day (but see my post re Franco’s economic miracle or “los anos de desarollo”), for now I’d like to summarise the root causes which have been set out superbly by Antony Beevor in the Introduction and opening Chapters of his seminal work – The Battle for Spain.
At the outset, I have to admit that I have never read one serious book about the Spanish Civil War – apart from Homage to Catalonia many, many years ago. What I do know from my Spanish roots, family history and experience is that the conflict was not as black as white as many people believe and, as Antony Beevor says in his Introduction, “The Spanish Civil War remains one of the few modern conflicts whose history has been written more effectively by the losers than by the winners.” and “Truth was indeed the first casualty of the Spanish Civil War.”
The common perception of at least 80% of the people who ask me about this and who also purport to know about the cause of the Spanish Civil War, state with certainty that Franco over threw a democratically elected Republican government – end of story.
That statement, read as is, is correct. However, if only it were so simple and clear cut. Franco’s intervention was not only the results of several years of political infighting, intrigue, machinations, violence, etc. (which Beevor covers admirably) but, equally importantly, the seeds of the conflict were sown over the centuries, not decades or the few turbulent years prior to 17 July 1936. In fact, the Spanish Civil War was, in my opinion, the inevitable consequence of Spain’s economic and political decline after its Golden Age, although, as Beevor points out “this view contravenes the informal yet important rule of history that nothing is inevitable”. This decline was, of itself, due to three key factors identified by Beevor, namely:
- Class conflict;
- Authoritarian rule versus libertarian instinct; and
- Central government against regionalist aspirations.
To quote Beevor (which I will do with some frequency!) – “The genesis of these three strains of conflict lay in the way the Reconquista of Spain from the Moors had shaped the social structure of the country and the attitudes of the Castilian conquerors.”
In essence, the monarchy, the aristocracy and, following closely behind, the Church, took possession of Spain – a Spain that had never previously been united (except perhaps under the Romans). To complete and sustain this “united” Spain money, not food, was required and, as Beevor points out, Merino wool was the cash crop. So, common land was seized for sheep grazing and agriculture and food production suffered accordingly. Tending sheep is not labour intensive and the “only alternatives to starvation was the army and, later, the empire.” As a result, Spain’s population is estimated to have fallen from about 14 million in the Middle Ages to a little over 7 million at the end of the eighteenth century. Here were the seeds of class conflict.
The Church’s role in the Reconquista was vital – initially promoting and often participating in military action, moving to a more political role once the Moors had been expelled. “The army conquered, then the Church integrated the new territories into the Castillian state.” The power of the Church was based on fear and culminated, as we know, in the creation of Inquisition by Isabella.
The Church controlled every aspect of education and promoted Castilian qualities “such as endurance of suffering and equanimity in the face of death.” It encouraged parsimony, mental and physical, and rejected the papacy because of its corruption. “The Church provided spiritual justification for the Castilian social structure and was the most authoritarian force in its consolidation.” Here we find authoritarian rule.
Lastly, centralism against regionalism: As mentioned above, Spain had never really been united but the Reconquista, along with marriages between different royal families, created a centralised government (Monarchy) with the Church effectively in control. A monarchy which disregarded the local rights and customs of regions or Kingdoms which had previously been independent, for example Catalonia and the Basque country.
“Castile had established a central authority in Spain and built the empire but …. the wars in northern Europe, the fight against the French in Italy and destruction of the Armada..” presaged the decline of “imperial power, developed in less than two generations.”
In short no lessons were learnt and the Catholic Church’s unbending conservative orthodoxy and disdain for trade “made the Castilian ruling class introverted.”
So we have an increasingly impoverished and marginalised Spain with limited natural resources being ruled by a highly conservative Catholic Church disconnected from the more liberal and less overtly political church emerging in other parts of Europe and a Castilian Monarchy who saw the rest of Spain and its dwindling empire as a source of funds.
In 1640 the Catalans, who had had considerable autonomy and power in the Mediterranean, along with the Portuguese, rose against Philip IV. Portugal won her independence but Barcelona, who had acknowledged Louis XIII of France as its king, fell to Philip IV in 1652.
In 1700, after the death of the last Spanish Habsburg the first of many wars of Spanish Succession started and Catalonia sided with England against Louis XIV’s grandson, Philip of Anjou. The English betrayed Catalonia in the Treaty of Utrecht (gaining Gibraltar and Menorca), the bourbon King Philip V abolished Catalonia’s rights. The force of the Church was waning and the monarchy resorted to implementing the centralist ideas of his Sun King grandfather “But ruthlessness did not solve the problem; it only stored up trouble for the future.”
Apart from war, the other major factor that held back Spain’s economic development was the Spanish Church’s anti capitalist, anti usury, line and the Spanish nobleman’s disdain for commercial enterprise. In fact the census of 1788 showed that almost 50% of adult males were not involved in any form of productive work, to quote Beevor – “one half of Spain eats but does not work, while the other half works but does not eat” is a famous proverb which appears to have arisen around this time.
The turbulent times continued in 19th, starting with the “War of Independence” (known as The Peninsular War by the British), followed by the Carlist Wars and culminating in the disastrous Spanish-American War in 1898 and the loss of Cuba. Throughout this century liberalism and traditionalism clashed and corruption was rife. The army acquired a taste for overthrowing governments – between 1814 and 1874 there were 37 attempted coups.
Spain became poorer and poorer and in February 1873 Amadeo of Savoy abdicated and the First Republic was declared. It only lasted a few months as the army imposed its will and in 1874 Alfonso XII was proclaimed King. A new constitution returned power to the Church and the landowners and political and economic corruption spread throughout the country from Madrid.
When Alfonso XIII became King in 1902, poverty was so great that half a million Spaniards, out of a population of eighteen and half million, emigrated to the New World in the first decade alone. Life expectancy was around 35 years, the illiteracy rate averaged 64% and two thirds of Spain’s active population still worked on the land – with huge variations in terms and conditions between the regions. Hardly an auspicious start to the century.
At the same time, the colonial war in Morocco was extremely unpopular, leading, indirectly, to the Tragic Week uprising in Barcelona in 1909 – culminating in the execution of Francisco Ferrer, founder of the libertarian Modern School, on trumped up charges.
Nevertheless, the repatriation of money from the old empire and the First World War, in which Spain remained neutral, resulted in a mini economic boom and a significant increase in the birth rate – which was to have an impact twenty years later in the 1930s. The end of the First World War saw an end to the economic boom, unemployment and discontent followed fanning a rise in anarchism and socialism (both of which had been present in parts of Spain – mainly Andalucia and Catalonia, since the last quarter of the 19th century). The large overstaffed army remained a major obstacle to any reform and between 1917 and the declaration of the Second Republic in April 1931 (after Primo de Rivera’s disastrous rule) Spain suffered a series of economic and political crises which ultimately were to trigger the Spanish Civil War.
The new government inherited an economic mess, both from the massive debts from public spending projects and the collapse of the peseta as well as the world depression brought on by the 1929 Crash (sound familiar??). The new government introduced or proposed various reforms, including to the army, its relationship with regions like Catalonia, landownership, personal rights of women, freedom of religious worship etc. reforms leading to regular clashes with the establishment (Church, Army and landowners).
At the same time, there were increasingly violent internal struggles between the various left wing parties themselves, as well as with the Falange, which had been founded in 1933. As a result, between 1931 and 1936 there were several uprisings, strikes, coup attempts, elections and an increasing polarisation between the various political parties, especially on the left.
The general election of February 1936 led to a very narrow victory by a coalition of left wing parties who then fell to bickering amongst themselves, with the hard left faction urging a Bolshevik revolution. It was as turbulent a time as any, ultimately, resulting in the military, led by Franco, feeling it necessary to step in and restore order in July of that year – the Spanish Civil War was officially born, but the country had already been effectively as close to civil war as is possible without it being nominated a civil war.
Books4Spain has a great selection of books about the Spanish Civil War which have been carefully curated to create our Spanish Civil War Theme.
In fact, Martin Ellis of Zymurgy Publishing has commented “Great range of titles and most comprehensive listing I have seen of books in print relating to the Civil War.” Our review of his book, To Make the People Smile Again by George Wheeler, and of other books about the Spanish Civil War, as well as interviews and articles, can be found here.
In addition, Books4Spain has thousands of books about Spain, from books about Travels in Spain to Novels and Crime Fiction set in Spain and books for your Spanish Holiday requirements. Naturally we also have books about Spanish history, Flamenco, the Camino de Santiago, Learning Spanish and much more. Come and browse – Books4Spain can entertain, educate and stimulate!