The Spanish Civil war took place between 1936 and
1939. It was a tumultuous period of great violence and political unrest in
Spain where the Nationalists and the Republicans fought for political control
of the country. The Spanish civil war caused a complete upheaval of Spanish
politics and culture. As historian Antony Beevor argues, “That past is indeed
‘another country’. Spain itself has changed completely in a matter of decades.”1
Evidently, there are both “long term structural origins and immediate political
causes” of the Spanish Civil War.2
The beginning of the Spanish Civil War can be greatly linked to the general
disenchantment with the Spanish governments in the years leading up to the war
and may also be attributed to the tendency of the people towards violence as a
solution to societal issues.3
Both the regime of General Primo de Rivera and the administration of the
Republic were great examples of the failures of the government in Spain. Primo
de Rivera was unable to fulfil his promises to better the country and the
Republic can be seen as a failure of democracy.
The people of Spain had been dissatisfied with the
performance of their political leaders and the rule of the monarchy prior to
the civil war. When Primo de Rivera became leader of Spain he promised to
improve every aspect of life in Spain. “The Dictatorship of Primo de Rivera
came in on a wave of good wishes and optimism.”4
Primo de Rivera made great promises to improve the Spanish economy which was a
welcome change to those who struggled under the ineffective regime of the
previous government. Primo de Rivera’s rise to power was seen as a positive
development for Spain. He established public work schemes, improved
communications, modernised Spanish industry, and, overall, Primo de Rivera
aimed to make the Spanish economy more prosperous.5
However, this “golden age” of the Spanish economy was not a long term solution.
By 1930, almost every sector of the Spanish economy was dissatisfied with Primo
de Rivera’s leadership and the outcomes of his reforms. His schemes were
well-intentioned but poorly planned. His administration led to a serious
decrease in the value, and eventual collapse, of the peseta, his land reforms
hugely displeased landowners who did not appreciate having legal obligations to
pay their workers a certain amount or standards for working conditions. As Paul
Preston simply put it, “by 1930 there was hardly a section of Spanish society
that Primo de Rivera had not offended.”6
This disenchantment with their leader led the people of Spain to look for an
alternative form of leadership. However, this dissatisfaction with Spain’s
leadership ignited anger among the Spanish people with their government.
The reign of Primo de Rivera led the people of Spain
to turn to an alternative form of government. They looked towards democracy to
give the country a new lease of life. However the administration of the Second
Republic was not welcomed by the upper class, who saw the government’s movement
for social reform as a threat to their position in society. The Second Republic
promoted very left wing ideas of socialism and class equality. The wealthy
landowners, who previously had great control over politics in Spain were
unhappy with this shift in political alignment. “The establishment of the
Republic meant that for the first time political power had passed from the
oligarchy to the moderate left”.7
The Republic had to recover from the economic failings of Primo de Rivera
whilst simultaneously bringing in new political and social reforms, which
proved very difficult for the new government. The Republic attempted to find a
way to satisfy the needs of all of Spain, however there was no way for them to
bring in reforms without upsetting some section of society. They wanted to improve
the lives of land workers (braceros and jounaleros)8,
to create a secular state, reorganise the army, appease the wishes of the
working class, and to improve schools. However, many of these changes faced
great opposition. There was no way for the Republic to satisfy one group
without frustrating another.
“Las reformas políticas de la República satisfacían a los
burgueses liberales, interesaban poco a los proletarios, enemistaban con la
República a la burguesía conservadora. Las reformas sociales, por moderadas que
fuesen, irritaban a los capitalistas. Las realizaciones principales de la
República (reforma agraria, separación de la Iglesia y el Estado, ley de
divorcio, autonomía de Cataluña, disminución de la oficialidad en el ejército,
etcétera), suscitaron, como es normal, gran oposición. También fue rudamente
combatida la fundación de millares de escuelas y de un centenar de
establecimientos de segunda enseñanza, porque la instrucción era neutra en lo
Republics hopes of creating a better Spain were hugely unsuccessful due to the
fact that they stretched themselves too thin in trying to solve all of Spain’s
issues at once. “The Republic was attempting to carry out a process of
political reform in a few years, which had taken anything up to a century
crucial aspect of this argument is that the Spanish public had become
completely disenchanted with its unsatisfactory governing system. The people
were discontented with the regime of Primo de Rivera and that of the Second Republic.
They saw no solution to the never-ending cycle of poor leaders other than an
outbreak of violence. Those who viewed the Republic’s regime as ineffective and
who were unhappy with their rule decided that they needed to take action to rid
Spain of its leaders, however those who supported the Republic and were
satisfied with the developments they had made since the resignation of Primo de
Rivera opposed them. This conflict of opinion caused an outbreak of violence
which developed into the Spanish Civil War.
many historians claim that the people of Spain believed that violence was the
only solution. Historically, the Spanish public always took up arms in order to
solve their social and political problems. Revolution and strikes had always
been used to solve conflict and disagreements. Essentially, Spain did not have
the tradition of solving problems peacefully or politically, instead “the civil
war was the result of ancestral hatreds in a country with a historical identity
and destiny very prone to ‘fraternal’ violence.”11 When
divisions occurred in Spanish society, the public viewed bloodshed as the most
effective solution: the Reconquista
of Spain from the Moors was successful due to the use of violence, the Spanish
Inquisition used violence to rid the country of Jews and other non-Catholics,
the comuneros used violence to
dethrone Emperor Charles V.12 One can clearly see from this how the people
of Spain may have thought that violence was the only solution to their
problems. When divisions arose in society extreme force had always been used to
end it. Spain in the years leading up to the Civil War had been very divided in
many ways: political allegiance, class divides, and social differences all
created conflict within the Spanish population and, in turn, led them to hate
their governments. This incompatibility eventually led to the outbreak of
violence which became the Civil War.
The Second Republic, which was largely
unpopular amongst the people faced great opposition from workers, in 1934 the
UGT (Unión General de Trabajadores) and the CNT (Confederación Nacional del
Trabajo) organised strikes and risings to
contest the government, for example the general strike in Saragossa in March
and the miners’ strike in Asturias, October 1934, which is often considered
“the first battle of the civil war”14 However, the military coup d’état of July
1936 really marked the beginning of the Civil War. The intervention of the
Spanish military marked a turning point in Spanish history. Without this martial
involvement, the people may have just continued with their small risings and
the conflicts might not have developed into all-out war.
for this uprising, there would not have been a Civil War. Other things would
have happened, but certainly not this war of extermination. It was, therefore,
the coup d’état that buried political solutions and gave way to armed measures.
And this counter- revolutionary coup d’état, whose intention was to halt an
alleged revolution, finally ended up unleashing one. Once the wheels of this military
uprising and revolutionary response had started turning, it was only arms that
had the right to speak.”15
The members of the army felt a responsibility to
“intervene in politics to defend both the social order and the territorial
integrity of Spain.”16
Military leaders gathered to organise a coup which would overthrow the Spanish
government and allow them to take control. The leaders spread across Spain and
its colonies to quickly and efficiently carry out the coup. This well planned
armed rising signalled the beginning of a nationwide battle and ultimately
began the Civil War. The people of Spain took the military’s involvement as a
cue to step in and begin fighting. The rising became increasingly violent
especially in rural areas. This initial rising grew as time went on and
developed into full-scale warfare. With all hope of finding a political
solution to Spain’s problems, the people again, turned to violence as their
The Spanish Civil War was in many ways a tragic period
for all of Spain. It changed the course of Spanish politics and changed the
people of Spain. The most crucial theories regarding the underlying causes of
this Civil War are that the outbreak of said war essentially was caused by a
lack of efficient political leaders and a history of using violence to solve
societies problems. The reigns of Primo de Rivera and the Second Republic were
completely unsatisfactory. Neither government was able to solve Spain’s
problems and, ultimately, they created more. The failings of these governments
caused mass disenchantment among the people. Without a doubt, the poor
governmental systems that were in place in Spain were a key element in the
beginning of the Spanish Civil War. Had there been a popular, or a successful
leader in place, there may have not been a war at all. The administrations of
both Primo de Rivera and the Second Republic showed the people of Spain that
they needed to take drastic measures in order to solve their political issues.
Their solution: war.
history of violence also greatly contributed to the outbreak of the war. Unlike
other nations, Spain had always used physical means to end disputes. They did
not see the merit of peacefully coming to a compromise. Instead they took arms against
each other in order to discover whose side would prevail over the other. This
tendency towards violence made civil war inevitable when there was such a
divide in the Spanish people’s views. Without a model of non-violent strategies
for conflict resolution, the Spanish people had no way to approach solving
their differences without resorting to violence. To summarise, out of the many
prominent causes of the Spanish Civil War, it is evident that a lack of
political structures which satisfied the people and a history of violence led
the people of Spain to resort to war as a solution. The culmination of these
two factors could lead to nothing other than the Spanish Civil War.
Azaña, M., 1986. Causas de la Guerra de España. Barcelona:
Beevor, A., 2012. The Battle for Spain: The Spanish
Civil War 1936 – 1939. London: Phoenix, Google Books version.
Brenan, G., 1960. The Spanish Labyrinth. London: The
Syndics of the Cambridge University Press.
Casanova, J., 2017. Republic, Civil War and Dictatorship:
The Peculiararities of Spanish History. Journal od Contemporary History, 52(1).
Preston, P., 1996. A Concice History of te Spanish CIvil
War. London: Fontana Press.
1 Beevor, A. (2012), ‘The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War
1936 – 1939’ e-book, London:Phoenix.
2 Preston, P. (1996),
‘A Concise History of The Spanish Civil
War’, London:Fontana Press pg. 9.
3 Casanova, J. (2017)
‘Republic, Civil War and Dictatorship: The Peculiarities of Spanish History’, Journal of Contemporary History, Vol.
52, Issue 1.
4 Brenan, G. (1960) ‘The Spanish Labyrinth’, London: The
Syndics of the Cambridge University Press.
5 (Preston, 1996), pg.
6 (Preston, 1996), pg.
7 (Preston, 1996), pg
9 Azaña, M. (1986) ‘Causas de la Guerra de España’, Barcelona: Crítica, pg. 13,14.
15 (Casanova, 2017)
16 (Preston, 1996)