The Spanish Civil War lasted from 1936 to 1939 and cost approximately half a million lives. It ruined cities, towns, and the countryside. For some, the victors, it was a crusade against godless revolutionaries. To others, the defeated, it was a fight against the forces of reaction that they claimed oppressed Spain for generations.
The Spanish Civil War is a window into a larger clash of ideologies. The war’s origins lie with the overthrow of a traditional state by a liberal democracy, which was radicalized from its inception. That liberal republic gradually slipped into anarchy, its conservative faction growing restless over the inability of the republican state to provide meaningful solutions to growing unrest.
As the Republic continued its leftward drift and violence began to be exercised against right-wing dissidents, the specter of communism raised its ugly head. The military high command, eventually led by Generalissimo Francisco Franco, responded by instigating a large scale rebellion against the Republic. After a bloody civil war, the military managed to wrest control of Spain away from the radicals and establish a conservative authoritarian regime cloaked in the insignia of fascism.
Despite a 30-plus year rule, the Francoist regime was unable to cement the majority of its gains. The Spanish monarchy was reestablished, but on a shaky footing, and Spanish culture regressed towards modernity and post-modernity.
This brief study seeks to divine some of the causes of the Spanish Civil War, the way the Spanish Right was able to claim victory over the Left, and how the Right eventually failed to achieve the great bulk of its agenda — all the while seeking to apply this knowledge to our present age.
Eleven lessons gleaned from the war and its aftermath will be interposed in this brief historical sketch. They are intended to help those interested in Tradition see commonalities with this conflict and their own time, replicate the successes of the Nationalists, and avoid their failures.
The Spanish Civil War still haunts the world’s imagination. Many came to see it as the prelude to World War II, as a battle between democracy and fascism. Thousands of volunteers came from around the world to fight and die for ideals they believed in, but the Spanish knew that the war was a Spanish war and had Spanish causes.
Five years before the war crowds greeted the proclamation of the Spanish Republic, La Niña Bonita, the Beautiful Girl. The monarchy had fallen without violence. To the crowds, the Republic meant that Spain had broken through to the twentieth century, to progress, to a long awaited period of social and economic change. While the crowds rejoiced King Alfonso XIII was spending his final hours in the Royal Palace.
One section of Spanish society after the next had lost faith in the monarchy: the middle class despised Alfonso for tolerating a seven-year military dictatorship; the aristocracy did not think he could protect them and their interests from growing unrest; and the working class felt that the monarchy was the lynchpin that held an oppressive system together. On April 12, 1931, royalist parties were badly defeated in parliamentary elections, and the King went unresisting into exile.
Lesson 1: A traditional order must not ostracize every element in society. Even a minority of powerful elites supporting the order is better than no supporters at all. In this instance, the monarchy should have solidified its support in the military and thereby demonstrated its ability to protect the interests of the aristocracy. Additionally, the King should have made overtures to the interests of the middle and working class by co-opting trade unions seeking protection of worker rights, which is aligned with Catholic social teachings.
The King was replaced by a government of mostly middle-class liberals, but their plans for an advanced democracy were out of step with history. Elsewhere in Europe, liberalism was weak due to the Great Depression and curtailed by dictatorship. With the newly proclaimed Spanish Republic, titanic forces were released in the conservative society especially among the agrarian poor and the growing working class.
For many, the Republic was the revolution they had dreamed, but the leaders of the Republic knew that beneath the surface the pillars of the old Spain were left intact. The Roman Catholic Church, military, and land-holding aristocracy were resented by the peasantry for whom the search for food was often an unfulfilled desire.
The republican government believed it could transform Spain through a series of liberal reforms. It began by initiating land reforms, but these efforts largely failed, resulting in the landless poor seizing the property on which they worked. The unrest grew and the peasantry began to turn against the Church, which was seen as the ally of the aristocracy. This anticlerical movement united secular liberals with socialists and other far-left partisans.
Less than a month after the proclamation of the Republic riots broke out and half a dozen convents were burned in Madrid. The Republic did not stop these attacks, and moved forward with the dismantling of the Church’s education system, replacing it with a secular one. The government advanced its program by granting Catalonian home-rule. The Catalans, an ethnic minority within greater Spain, were more industrialized and more radical than the rest of the country. Only the Basques rivaled the Catalans in industrialization and radicalism.
Lesson 2: The liberal republic was radicalized from its inception due to its connection with Enlightenment ideals. No liberal republic can stave off radicalism for long; the slide towards radicalism is inevitable once the principles of the Enlightenment are accepted. Religion and property will always be the victims of such regimes. See the French Revolution.
The army saw Catalan self-rule as a threat to national unity, particularly after losing the majority of Spain’s colonial holdings during the preceding decades. Once the government began to reform the army, military leaders staged an ill-fated coup against the Republic. The coup of August 10, 1932, failed and its instigators were jailed. Some saw the attempted coup as premature. Traditionalists and other right-wing groups were not yet ready to overthrow the Republic, but they detested the reformers and an alarm was growing in their ranks.
Lesson 3: Do not strike until ready. The premature coup attempted by the military placed the Republic’s leaders on guard and could have prevented any eventual overthrow of the liberal state. The eventual rebellion was able to succeed only through the government’s own stupidity (i.e. placing dissident generals near sympathetic areas).
Dissolution began to spread on the Left: the hungry, the landless, the unemployed, and underpaid were beginning to see the Republic as a failed revolution. One source of the Left’s disillusion was anarchism, particularly anarcho-syndicalism, which taught that revolution would lead to the overthrow of all governments and bring about worker self-benefit.
By 1932 Spain’s largest anarcho-syndicalist organization claimed over 1 million members. These anarchists proclaimed that they were at war with all governments, monarchical or republican, and would not stop fighting until Spain was free of private property, God, and bosses. The government responded by attacking anarchist strongholds and massacring union members.
Disgusted by the massacres of anarchists, the socialists pulled out of the republican government. New elections were called in 1933. The socialist left was losing faith in the parliamentary system. The anarchists never believed in it anyway. However, the republican right had not lost hope in the electoral process. They hoped that by winning the 1933 election they could stem the tide of reforms and reverse their course.
Lesson 4: Leftism is inherently fragmentary. Only Marxism in its Leninist variety can provide a semblance of order and discipline. The Traditionalist must use this reality to his advantage; order is the friend of the Right. Watch and wait for the Left to fragment then seize the high ground.
CEDA (Spanish Confederation of Autonomous Right-wing Groups) was formed as a means of organizing the Spanish Right and was Spain’s first mass Catholic political party. CEDA turned out the conservative masses and won the 1933 parliamentary election. However despite CEDA’s victory the President of the Spanish Republic declined to allow CEDA’s leader to form a government. He feared that CEDA would undermine the Republic’s agenda and opted to form a government led by a centrist who had CEDA’s backing.
In response to their electoral defeat, the socialists staged an uprising, which was easily defeated and cost over two-thousand lives. The lesson of the uprising was clear: the Left’s inability to unify led to its inability to stage an effective revolution. Over the next two years, the Left drew closer together and supported the government’s reforms.
In the election of 1936, most of the Left united in the Popular Front. As the polling results were reported it became clear that the Popular Front had won the majority of seats in the Cortes, Spain’s parliament. Anarchists, socialists, and other left-wing political prisoners were released from prison. Despite the Left’s gains, workers’ parties refused to join the government. Riots broke out as workers began to claim property they felt they had lost during the previous two years.
While some conservatives clung to the hope that parliamentary elections would bring about the restoration of traditional Spain, most began to realize that electoral politics had failed them and enabled the Left to entrench itself. The Right realized that there was no way out. Peace was not possible.
Lesson 5: Mainstream conservatives will always attempt to seek rapprochement with the liberal order and will eventually cower into a position of the loyal opposition. When right-wing groups eventually make headway and pose an existential threat to the liberal state they will be denied access to the mechanisms of government either through exclusion, marginalization, or intimidation. Keeping this in mind is key in understanding the nature of liberal republics and preparing for other eventualities.