The political evolution of the Second Spanish Republic


The Spanish Second Republic coat of arms.


Today’s post is dedicated to the political evolution of the Second Spanish Republic, from 1931 until the end of the civil war in 1939. The new regime was proclaimed after the victory of the republican candidates in the local elections (12/04/1931), specially in big cities because the corruption in the electoral system was very strong in rural Spain. The Spanish Republic was supported by some elements of left-wing parties, intellectuals, workers, the middle class and parties from the liberal right-wing. The Republic had big challenges right from the off: the economic crisis of 1929, the threat of fascism and others like the power of the national army and the Catholic church, a poor and not very productive agricultural sector, the lack of an education system or a very centralized administration. Part of the Spanish oligarchy fought against the political programme of the Government and supported a coup d’état in July 1936 and a war. This war ended three years later with the victory of the participants in the coup and the end of democracy in Spain.

The situation prior to the Second Republic can be described as follows. There was hostility towards the monarchy due to its complicity in Primo de Rivera’s dictatorship (1923-1930) and King Alfonso XIII’s attempts to return to constitutionality in 1876 under the governments of Berenguer and Aznar were unsuccessful. Meanwhile, republicanism was becoming a mass phenomenon. In order to prepare for the coming Republic, on 17th August 1930, a group of republican politicians met in San Sebastián. These were Maura and Alcalá Zamora (conservatives), Francesc Macià and Lluis Companys (ERC) and Casares Quiroga (ORGA), amongst others. The Spanish Workers’ Socialist Party (PSOE) and the General Workers’ Union (UGT) joined them after a meeting on 20th October. Towards the end of that year, an uprising was organised in Jaca by military officers Galán and Hernández, which was supposed to be supported by a general strike against the king. The failure of these two events, in addition to the execution by firing squad of the two officials, further decreased the prestige of the monarchy.

After winning the local elections, the King abdicated and went into exile. Two days later came the proclamation of the Republic and the members of the republican committee who had been imprisoned since events in Jaca, were liberated and they, in turn, formed the provisional government. Niceto Alcalá Zamora, a conservative, was named the first President of the Republic and formed a government which was made up of Alejandro Lerroux (radicals), Manuel Azaña, (left-wing republicans), Largo Caballero (PSOE), Lluís Nicolau (ERC) and Antonio Maura (right-wing liberal), amongst others. The following measures were amongst those passed by this government:

1-Updating of the census and reforms to the Electoral Law of 1907

2-Creation of a law which favoured local employment, the Town Limits Law

3-Implementation of the 8-hour working day and the minimum wage

4-Reduction of obligatory military service to one year and the number of regiments to 8.

5-Creation, by decree, of more than 7,000 public teaching positions in order to improve education.


Niceto Alcalá Zamora, first president of the Spanish Republic.


Following this, elections to create a new constitution were called for and were to be held on 28th June 1931. These elections were won by a coalition between republican parties and PSOE. It was a typically reformist parliament, lacking a solid extreme right-wing element, and, for the first time in Spanish history, there were three female Members of Parliament: Clara Campoamor (who was fundamental in the fight for female suffrage), Victoria Kent and Margarita Nelken. This period lasted until November 1933 and it was known as The Progressive Biennium.

In regards to the economy, Keynesian measures were taken to enhance production, employment and consumption. Laws were created such as the Contracts Law, which allowed the government to mediate in workplace conflicts and the Agricultural Reform Law which, amongst other things, obliged the big landowners to work the lands which had not thus far been cultivated and which opened the door to expropriation of property and their subsequent distribution in order to create a rural middle class.

In regards to education, at the same time as passing a decree for the creation of 10,000 schools throughout the country, a 1933 law stated that religious orders could not teach classes in schools.

In regards to the military, the macrocephaly of the army was reduced (there were too many officers) and so was the number of regiments. Military justice was eradicated and soldiers who wanted to become officers were required to have completed at least one year of university education. Also, the Zaragoza academy was closed and colonies were de-militarised.

More ambitious reforms were achieved in the legal administration arena. On the one hand, a parliamentary commission, presided by Luis Jiménez de Asúa, was created whose duty it would be to form a new constitution. This was created on 9th December 1931 and it contained 125 articles, from which the following points can be highlighted:

1-Recognition of individual and political rights

2-Reduction in voting age from 25 to 23 years old and recognition of universal suffrage for both men and women

3-Proclamation of the separation of Church and State and of not financing the clergy

4-A single-chamber parliament. The executive functions were made up of a Prime Minister and a President of the Republic

5-The passing of a law on civil marriages and divorce

6-Political and administrative decentralisation (autonomous regions)

In relation to this last point, and to delve a little deeper, in Catalonia the statute of autonomy was passed in September 1932 (an initiative led by ERC and Estat Català). Francesc Macià was their first president. In Euskadi, given the nationalist right-wing opposition and the divisions within the Basque nationalists themselves over whether to include Navarra or not, the statute was not passed until October 1936 with Josean Aguirre becoming the first President of the Basque Country government (lehendakari). In Andalucía, autonomy revolved around the figure of Blas Infante. In Córdoba in 1933 a project aimed at creating the foundations for the Statute of Autonomy of Andalucía was prepared, but which was aborted due to the coup d’etat and later the civil war and dictatorship. Similar things happened to the possible statues of Galicia (led by Irmandade Nacionalista and FRG), the Balearic Islands (led by Emili Darder), Valencia, Asturias, Aragón, and so on.

After the coalition between republicans and socialists broke, part of the right-wing opposition, which was being reorganised around the CEDA (Spanish Confederation of Autonomous Right-wing Groups), began to put pressure on Azaña’s government with the aim of destabilising it, using work conflicts and events such as that of Casas Viejas in Cádiz to undermine it and force elections (the government was accused of ordering soldiers to open fire on country people, when, in reality, the person responsible for this event was a trigger-happy captain of the Assault Troop called Rojas. This captain would go on to participate in the dictatorship’s repression in Granada). This event was later used as anti-republican propaganda during the dictatorship.

The majority of the right, which was organised at that moment around CEDA and under the leadership of Jose María Gil Robles (1898-1980), won the elections in November 1933. Alejandro Lerroux was named Prime Minister. His electoral programme revolved around cutting back the most “socialist” aspects of the previous government’s reforms (Lerroux’s own words) and undertaking a “total rectification” (Gil Robles), doing away with entire laws.

During this period known as the Conservative Biennium, Lerroux’s governments were marked by an even larger instability and brevity as those of the previous period, with governments which didn’t last more than three or four months, on average. This happened, in part, due to the continual pressure from Gil Robles for him to govern and to apply his electoral programme. His influence meant that the governments during this period rolled towards inflexible political and religious conservatism. Moderate politicians like Ricardo Samper, Manuel Marraco and Manuel Giménez Fernández (in agriculture, he attempted to apply some of the laws from the previous period) were looked down on and this meant, in the words of Edward Malefakis, “the end of serious social reform”.

By 1934, Gil Robles was opposed by many as he was friends with Mussolini and he had attended Nazi party congresses in Berlin, due to which many saw him as a threat to Spanish democracy. On the other hand, there were arguments with the left, with marginal nationalist groups and also with the President of the Republic (Alcalá Zamora) as the President refused to pardon Sanjurjo and the rest of the participants in the failed coup d’état of August 1932. And finally, there was infighting as the fascist groups were able to freely hold protests and marches without any pushback.

During all this, a revolutionary general strike was being prepared to be held on 5th October 1934 in order to put pressure on Lerroux and his government. The strike didn’t have the desired effect, it failed in parts of the country and it was especially tense in Catalonia (where Lluís Companys had proclaimed the Catalan State within the Spanish Federal Republic) and in Asturias (where there were armed clashes between miners and the security forces). The then Minister of War (the name for the present day Ministry of Defence), Diego Hidalgo ordered General Franco (amongst others) to repress people. The failure of this strike ended up with between 1,400 and 2,000 dead, almost 2,000 injured and more than 15,000 arrested. The Catalan Parliament was dissolved and its government detained. Gil Robles’ CEDA was reinforced and in May 1935 they finally managed to be represented within the government.

However, the authoritarianism enforced by the head of the CEDA (he threatened war if he was not allowed to govern), would have repercussions even within his own party. There were resignations and in addition, the government was affected by corruption, like the case of Estraperlo or of Navà-Nombela, due to which the government resigned and the then-Prime Minister Portela Valladares called for new elections for February 1936.

With the victory of several left-wing parties, in a coalition that was called Frente Popular (PSOE, Izquierda Republicana and PCE amongst others. CNT was not in the coalition but it supported it), in the elections held in February 1936 (with a high level of participation, and, for the historian Javier Tusell, they were quite free from corruption), we come to the third stage in the political evolution of the Republic in peacetime. It lasted until the coup d’état on 18th July of that same year.

The new government made Alcalá Zamora step down as President of the Republic, who was substituted by Manuel Azaña and at the same time that Santiago Casares Quiroga was named Prime Minister. This government promoted several amnesty decrees, which were directed, above all, towards those detained during the revolutionary general strike of October 1934 (amongst them the Catalan autonomous government), it restored the autonomous processes that had been set in motion and continued with the programme of reforms. The social tension of the previous period continued, with anarchists and the extreme right taking the lead (there were even shoot-outs between these two).


Manuel Azaña, second president of the Spanish Republic.


With the victory of Frente Popular in the elections, the extreme right-wing parties, which had never accepted neither democracy nor the Republic, started to prepare a plan for a coup d’état to overthrow the Republic. From the end of February, General Franco himself was preparing for it. The presence of Falange (the most important Spanish fascist party), some military officers, landowners, clergy and the military and financial support of Italian fascists were also sought.

The government suspected what was going on and took some measures, like transferring military personnel they suspected of involvement (Franco, Goded, Mola) to other places, however, the government could not avoid the coup that finally took place during the afternoon of 17th July in the Spanish-controlled area of Morocco. This coup was the start of the civil war, which, caught both the government and the people involved in the uprising, who had expected victory to be quick, by surprise. The war lasted until April 1939, and although the Republic was still working, its organisms and institutions were affected by the event, thus limiting its capabilities. Manuel Azaña resigned as President of the Republic in February 1939 and was substituted by Diego Martínez Barrio (who was the president-in-exile until 1962), and Juan Negrín continued to be the Prime Minister until 1945, when he was substituted by José Giral.

For Julio Aróstegui, the civil war was the answer of the Spanish oligarchy to the reformist republican programme. In a previous blog post I wrote about how the war developed: For historians such as Julián Casanova and Carlos Gil Andrés, the Spanish Republic had difficulties solidifying from the off and had faced very important problems. Even if in the summer of 1936, social coexistence had deteriorated a lot (and there was strong objection to democracy, in favour of totalitarianism, something which was very similar to what had happened in many other European countries, except for maybe the United Kingdom), this does not justify the civil war of 1936-1939. The civil war began due to a coup d’état which weakened the ability of the government to maintain order and due to the support received from the army and security forces by this uprising. This meant that the participants in the coup did not get to power as quickly as they had thought.

Original blog post in Spanish:

Translated by: Teacher Nicola


-Casanova, J y Gil Andrés, C. “Historia de España en el siglo XX”  Ariel Historia, Madrid 2009

-Gil Pecharroman, Julio “La II República, esperanzas y frustraciones” Cuadernos Historia16, Madrid 1996

-Aróstegui, J “La guerra civil (1936-1939): La ruptura democrática”  Cuadernos de Historia16, Madrid 1996

-Preston, P. “Esperanzas e ilusiones en un nuevo régimen” (pags 53-71) en Viñas, A (ed) “En el combate por la Historia”  Pasado y Presente, Barcelona 2012

-Preston, Paul “The Spanish Holocaust” Harper Press, London 2012

-Balfour, S. “Spain from 1931 to the Present” (pags 243-282) en Carr, R. (ed) “Spain. A History” Oxford Press, Oxford 2000

-Gil Pecharromán, J. “La II República. Esperanzas y frustraciones” Historia16, Madrid 1996

-Tuñón de Lara, M. “La Segunda República Española” Cuadernos de Historia16, Madrid 1995

– YouTube video of events in Madrid on 14th April 1931 with images from a film which used the unedited images and sound of the temporary government of The Second Republic:

-Articles by Julián Casanova ( and Alejandro Torrús ( Photos found from a Google search and Wikipedia.





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