Culminating in the year 1936, the Spanish Civil war is considered one of the most brutal landmarks in 19th-century history. Fundamentally, the conflict was the product of nearly three decades of widening political polarisation and a tussle for power between the two dominant ideological groups: The Republicans and the Nationalists.
While the conflict itself took place in the 1930s, an understanding of the historical contextualisation starting from the late 1800s is crucial to understanding the long term changes that led to the infamous war. Fundamentally, from the year 1871, Spain was functioning as a constitutional monarchy; the king was the head of the state and appointed a prime minister per term who was constitutionally required to have a majority in Parliament (cortes). Despite this requirement, however, unofficially, administrative power was held by the oligarchs. This meant that the two dominant political parties, the nationalists (conservatives) and the republicans (liberals) were largely defunct and could not be considered legitimate democratic political parties. As historian Paul Preston aptly stated, “Elections (in Spain during the time) changed virtually nothing. Only a relatively small proportion of the electorate had the right to vote”.
The lack of political freedom and representation, over time, began to anger the citizens of Spain and fault lines began to emerge as legitimate political parties formed. The wealthy oligarchs, the landowning class, the military and the church, grew to identify as Conservative Nationalists while the socialists, and working-class of peasants identified as the Liberal Republicans. These parties disagreed on a number of key issues regarding political ideology in the early 1900s, all of which were exacerbated greatly by 1936 when the conflict broke out.
Military- The first of these issues was concerned with the long-established military. Throughout the 1800s, the military assumed a powerful political position because of Spain’s imperial past. In essence, it believed it was the protector of Spain during times of political turmoil due to the numerous occasions (most significantly 1820, 1871) when it intervened to protect the Spanish citizens from domestic violence or from external influence; the army, however, was also increasingly growing unpopular among the citizens, because of its reputation for extreme brutality. Furthermore, the citizens began to grow apprehensive due to the massive expenses and taxation that went into maintaining the army, which was in need of reform, and increasingly inefficient. The republicans, during this period, were increasingly vocal about their desire to reform the army, on more than one occasion asserting that the military was far too large, and consisted of several officers serving their own political interests. This opinion grew popular among the masses. The nationalists, on the other hand, opposed reform for fear of losing the political power and status quo that was guaranteed by having such an army, supporting the interests of wealthy landowners and the church.
Religion- Another prominent issue that significantly worsened tensions between both parties was their stance on the role of religion in the government. As early as 1851, the Concordat deemed Catholicism as the state religion, guaranteeing the role of religion in education and economy.. Having held a monopoly over the state for a long time, therefore, the church expressed a desire to maintain the existing status quo. They were supported by the Nationalists, who shared the desire to concentrate power in the hands of a few. Power in the hands of the church often enabled them to censor scholarship, control the curriculum and suppress criticism under the guise of “Anti-Christianism”. With time, this triggered resentment among the masses, particularly in the rural areas, leading to a series of protests. These protests were backed by the Republicans, who also shared the view that separation of Church and State was a necessity.
Economic tensions- Economic triggers were also crucial to increasing inter-party hostility in the leadup to the war. By the early 1900s, a series of protests broke out by the peasants. There was widespread agricultural discontentment triggered by the outbreak of civil war. Spain, at the time, was primarily an agricultural economy, but was largely inefficient; work was often seasonal, food was insufficient and peasants had to migrate in search of work throughout the year. Moreover, the gap between the rich and the poor was massive. The land was concentrated in the hands of the “Grandees” who owned huge estates or Latifundias. Some peasants, if fortunate, owned smaller plots of land. Yet these often proved to be insufficient. When riots against inequality broke out in the state, the military, backed by the nationalists, brutally used the civil guard to suppress dissenting voices, leading to the rise of anarchist groups and several republicans harshly demanding redistribution of land. This grew to become a major facet of the republican manifesto, arguably one that allowed them to tap into the peasant vote back, close to the conflict in 1936.
Provincial demands for autonomy- Finally, another crucial cause of political polarisation and tensions between the Republicans and the nationalists, was the response to growing demands of autonomy from the provinces of Catalonia and Basque. They asserted their desire for decentralisation on the claim that they had their own language, culture, economy, church and were fundamentally a nation separate from the rest of Spain. Both of these provinces were vital to the Spanish economy because they were significant industrial hubs; Catalonia was well known for its textile and iron industries, while Basque rose to prominence for its shipbuilding industry. By the 1920s, however, growing demands for the autonomy of these provinces came to the forefront. These demands were met with harsh repression. The nationalist leader during the time, Prime Minister Primo de Rivera, who soon assumed the role of the dictator by 1923, rejected any notion of autonomy during the time and used the military to suppress revolts. These further worsened hostilities in the region, and with time, the autonomy of Catalonia and Basque became a cornerstone of the Republican campaign for power.
Each of these played a vital role in causing the catastrophic events of 1936.