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The Beginning of the Spanish Civil War: July 17-20, 1936

The fall of the monarchy gave hope to socialists, anarchists, and other radicals that they could at last take revenge against the “conservative” forces that had oppressed them. On May 11, 1931, anarchists along with some radical socialists looted monarchist headquarters in Madrid and then wrecked or set fire to more than 12 churches in the city. As a fearful sign of what was to come, Madrid’s republican authorities either did nothing to stop the rampage or actively aided it.

Pro-Republican Spanish Civil War Memorial

Socialists and radical republicans received most of the votes in the June 1931 election for the new Cortes. The constitution drawn up by the Cortes established a secular and anti-Church state. Church and state were separated, members of religious orders were forbidden to teach anything but religion, Church schools were closed, Church property was seized, and religious processions outside the walls of church buildings were forbidden. The republican government attacked the family by making divorce easy to obtain. The new government passed laws to help workers obtain better wages and safer working conditions. The lands of large landowners were to be seized and redistributed among poor farmers. But of the more than 80,000 acres the government seized, most had belonged not to large landowners, but to small or medium-sized farmers.

The actions of the republican government pleased neither traditional nor rightwing groups (the Church, large landowners, industrialists, and the Carlists) nor anarchists and radical socialists, who thought the government was not radical enough. The traditionalists joined in a coalition called CEDA (Confederación Española de Derechas Autónomas—“Spanish Confederation of Autonomous Right- Wing Parties”), which won the largest number of seats in the Cortes in the election of 1933.

Francisco Largo Caballero

The conservative victory turned many socialists against the republican government. Led by Francisco Largo Caballero, socialists began to embrace Bolshevik ideas. In October 1934, socialist miners in Asturias rose in a revolt and shot down nearly 100 people (mostly priests and police) in cold blood. In response, government troops executed about 100 rebels. In the end, the government crushed the rebellion and, throughout 1935, passed laws that favored the wealthy classes of Spain.

In late 1935, socialists joined with the new and growing Spanish Communist party and other radical groups to form the Popular Front, which, in the election of February 1936, was able to win a majority of seats in the Cortes. The day following the election, socialists and anarchists carried out acts of terrorism and street violence in Spanish cities, especially against members of a small political party called the Falange Española.

Founded by General Primo de Rivera’s son, José Antonio, the Falange was in some ways similar to the Italian Fascist party. Falangists were nationalistic, favored a highly centralized government, and praised military glory. They wore blue shirts (as the Fascists wore black shirts) and revered José Antonio Primo de Rivera as their Jefe or “chief.” The Falangists saw the Catholic Church as necessary to Spanish culture and so opposed attempts to destroy the Church’s influence on society. They looked to the Church’s teachings on social justice and government as guides to reforming Spanish society.

José Antonio Primo de Rivera at a rally

Opposition parties belonging to CEDA also opposed the government, but for different and often contrary reasons. The Carlists opposed the government’s anti-Catholic laws and proposed a Catholic government in Spain with laws based on the social teachings of the Church. Yet, the Carlists differed with the Falangists on the sort of government they wanted. While the Falangists favored a powerful central government for Spain, the Carlists wanted a weaker central government and strong local governments. Industrialists and landowners who belonged to CEDA did not necessarily agree with either the Falangists or the Carlists but were chiefly interested in maintaining their power in society. They cared nothing for workers’ rights or improving conditions for poor peasants.

Francisco Franco in 1930

Fear that Spain was heading toward Communism and that the Cortes was undermining the strength of the military won the conservatives powerful friends. In May 1936, several Spanish generals secretly began planning a revolt against the government. Their moment came on July 12, 1936, when leftist police and Communist militiamen in Madrid murdered José Calvo Sotelo, a conservative leader of the Cortes. The murder stirred up fears of a Bolshevik revolution in Spain. Five days later, several Spanish generals issued a pronouncement, calling for the overthrow of the government. The army in Morocco, under the command of General Francisco Franco, rose in revolt. By July 20, 1936, rebel generals and their troops had taken control of Morocco, the Canary Islands, and north-central and northwestern Spain. The terrible Spanish Civil War had begun.

Anthems from Opposing Sides

The three pieces, below, are anthems from the opposing sides in the Spanish Civil War. The first, Oriamendi, is the Carlist hymn, named for the Battle of Oriamendi, fought during the First Carlist War in 1837. The second is the Falangist anthem, Cara al Sol, “Face the Sun." The third was sung by the anarchist CNT-FAI, A Las Barricadas, “To the Barricades.”

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