The Second Republic in Disarray

The Great Depression hit Spain hard, triggering economic and political upheavals that lasted throughout the 1930s.

Gross domestic product fell about 15 percent from 1929 to 1931 while investment and imports dropped. Exports, especially wine and oranges, trended upward until other nations raised tariff rates, hindering sales.

The Depression coincided with Spanish political turmoil. Dictator Miguel Primo de Rivera resigned in early 1930, and a year later, one of his principal supporters, King Alfonso XIII went into exile. Spain became a republic, and left-wing parties dominated the new Cortes parliament.

Violent disorders followed in early 1932. Monarchists and Catholic militants clashed with Republicans and Communist extremists. After four deaths in Bilbao in January, Socialists declared a general strike, Time magazine reported. Soon after, the government banned the Jesuit order and began confiscating church property. The military then raided anarchist clusters in Catalonia, crushing a nascent “Workers’ Republic.”

In spring 1932, the Cortes turned to address two major issues: land reform and Catalan regional autonomy. Parliament quickly enacted 200 land laws, transferring titles from noble families to peasants and reworking taxation.

In Catalonia, the solution was a loose federal system, with Catalonia authorized to collect taxes, administer justice and improve education, but not to create foreign policies. The measure stalled in the Cortes, but the Catalans moved forward to fashion institutions of self-governance.

The republic began addressing economic stagnation by working on a barter deal with Argentina to exchange iron and steel products for 26 million bushels of wheat. A second pact with the Soviet Union would trade sheet iron for oil.

The government also promised press freedom, because as Premier Manuel Azana said, Spain “knows altogether too little of the world, and the world knows too little about us.”

But despite the republic’s attempts at reform, protests continued. Even students who had helped bring down the monarchy revolted against the new republic. In Valencia, rioters -- who were thought to be either Communists or students protesting rigorous exams -- burned the university library.

Violence and plotting metastasized. Agrarian confiscations generated a harsh push-back from wealthy landowners in a late May conspiracy to restore Alfonso to the throne. Three generals, among others, were arrested, and a week later, the premier removed the army’s royalist chief-of-staff.

Three Republican initiatives reignited resentment and resistance. The Finance Ministry proposed an income tax targeted at the nobility to reduce tariffs and increase revenue. The Public Works Ministry planned to reduce the influence of 80,000 monks and nuns in Spanish schools. Meanwhile, the Education Ministry secured a $40 million private loan to erect 20,000 new schools.

The royalists went on strike again in August. General Jose Sanjurjo mobilized his forces to attempt a coup d’etat in Seville with support from mutinying troops and naval garrisons across the south. When Madrid police dispersed a similar uprising, opening fire on an army unit, the momentum broke. Infantry, artillery and air regiments moved on Seville, panicking the general, who was quickly arrested, along with 1,000 others.

“The Republic is stronger than ever,” one minister announced. Perhaps.

(Philip Scranton is a Board of Governors professor of the history of industry and technology at the University of Rutgers, Camden, and the editor-in-chief of Enterprise and Society. He writes "This Week in the Great Depression" for the Echoes blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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