It is impossible to understand Spain today without using the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) as a guide to everything that has happened since. “Spain’s present starts in 1936,” declared author Javier Cercas Mena. With this in mind, we have no option but to begin there as well.
With the abdication of Alphonso XIII in 1931 Spain was thrust into a modernity it was ill-prepared to confront. Riven by ethnic, class, regional, economic and above all, ideological divisions, the next five years saw three governments composed of ever-diverging motley assortments on both its political Left and Right.
The Left had seized the initiative in the wake of the abdication to form a progressive government that immediately sought to strip landowners of their property and redistribute it to the landless peasants (campesinos), and to separate the all-powerful Roman Catholic Church from the state in order to eliminate what they perceived as its “medieval influence.” Driven by an increasingly extremist wing informed both by Marxism and anarchism, this loose coalition lost popular support as a reaction swung Spain once again to the right, this time under the Catholic banner of the Spanish Coalition of Autonomous Rights (Confederación Española de Derechas Autónomas, or CEDA coalition).
The return of the conservative Right to power only saw the political temperature immediately rise as the mining-rich region of Asturias openly rebelled against the new government (which was put down by a rising young general named Francisco Franco). The Left, having tasted power, sought to collapse the regime through the use of political violence which was met tit-for-tat by the increasingly-radical nationalists opposing them.
Similar to how the current American political scene is divided by “different truths” and where honest engagement between Left and Right has been rendered all but impossible in a hyper-social media environment best-described as “toxic,” Spain was by this point ungovernable. Asked in a brilliant 1983 Granada TV (UK) documentary series called “The Spanish Civil War” why conflict was inevitable, Francoist-era Spanish politician and one-time young conservative military officer Tomás Garicano Goñi poignantly replied, “We couldn’t stand each other.”
Closely monitoring the unfolding disaster was the privileged Spanish military officer class. Imbued with the motto “Dios, Patria y Libertad!” (God, Fatherland, and Liberty), they felt it their duty to be the custodians of Spain, reserving for themselves the right to interfere in politics should the politicians let things get too out of hand. A poorly organized coup attempt was put down by the liberal-leftist government in 1932, but the situation had changed so drastically for the worse by 1936 as the CEDA-led government lost to the Left in a new election that the generals were certain to launch another one. Political assassinations on both sides, murders of priests and nuns, looting of churches, physical attacks on landowners, all combined to force the generals’ hand, leading to a half-successful coup d’etat in July of that year.
The Spanish Civil War deserves a much longer treatment than I can give here so we will have to content ourselves with some broad brushstrokes.
The coup d’etat was only partially successful as anarchist and Marxist trade unions in places like Madrid, Barcelona, and Valencia managed to convince authorities to hand them weapons, alongside significant portions of the various police forces that stayed loyal to the new government. The loyalists, known as Republicans, had in their tent liberals, Marxists (Stalinists and Trotskyites), nationalist Basques seeking self-rule, Catalonian separatists, socialists, campesinos, tens of thousands of foreign volunteers (almost entirely Communist, including the Abraham Lincoln Brigade from the United States) and unique in Europe at the time, anarchists.
As the coup failed to install military rule across Spain, the country was divided in half between the Republicans and the Nationalists. In places like Barcelona and Aragon, anarchists spearheaded a social revolution. One could fairly describe them as proto-social justice warriors. They killed landowners who hadn’t escaped to the Nationalist side, collectivized land through campesino-led councils, torched and looted churches (anti-clericalism led to the left-wing politics typical in the Italian region of Emilia-Romagna today), murdered bishops, priests, and nuns (7,000 in total by the end of the conflict with some help from the Stalinists), eliminated marriage to promote “free love,” and introduced abortion on demand. Dissent was deemed counterrevolutionary, and massacres of class enemies began in earnest.
The Nationalists gave no quarter to the Republicans. An alliance of the top military brass, industrialists, landowners, the Catholic Church, nationalists, and fascists, they quickly consolidated power in their half of Spain, arresting all those associated with the Republicans, annihilating labor unions, and also engaging in massacres of perceived enemies.
Thanks to support from Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany, the Nationalists were able slowly to begin squeezing the Republicans whose only aid came from Stalin’s USSR. The Soviets had flooded Republican Spain with their own GRU agents (the forerunner to the KGB) and this resulted in a “civil war within a civil war” as Stalin’s henchmen not only sought out anti-Stalinist Trotskyites but eliminated the Anarchists as a rival force as well. George Orwell, targeted by the GRU for being part of the quasi-Trotskyite POUM militia, barely escaped with his life as the Reds took over Barcelona in the May Days of 1937.
From Anti-Communist Bulwark to Political Anachronism
With Spanish leftists mortally wounded by this internal conflict, General Francisco Franco, now head of the Nationalist forces, was able to finish off the Republicans in the spring of 1939. Known as “The Sphinx” because he rarely, if ever, offered up his opinions on politics, Franco ruled Spain for the next four decades with the proverbial iron-grip. Having the wisdom and foresight to opt out of World War II, he bought grace from the victorious allies who saw in him a dedicated anti-Communist.
Buttressed by the “Spanish Miracle,” an economic boom that lasted from 1959-1974, Franco’s regime saw little serious challenge to its rule. Spain became the sunny playground for vacationers from Western Europe while it turned into a political anachronism as World War II and the Spanish Civil War faded in the distance.
Yet problems were bubbling under the surface.
Basque separatists engaged in political violence and terrorism were growing in confidence. The entrenched regime was weakening due to nepotism, corruption, and a weakening of its cadres as unscrupulous opportunists increased in number.
Alongside this, the liberalization in much of the West began to seep into Spain by proximity and osmosis. How could the U.S.-led “Free West” be attached to an authoritarian and dictatorial regime that repressed its political opponents? This was an internal contradiction (albeit not the only one, as Pinochet’s Chile and the Junta’s Argentina exemplified) brought to the fore with the death of Franco in 1975.
Spanish liberals and leftists are teasing the tiger, and the tiger is finding its footing. Is the American conservative tiger made of paper? Or is it real?
Transition and Liberalization
Franco’s body, entombed in the Valley of the Fallen alongside thousands of civil war dead, was still warm when those charged with perpetuating the regime immediately started to work to reform it either out of principle or self-interest. Juan Carlos began his reign as monarch and blessed a democratic transition that took form in the 1978 Constitution under Prime Minister Adolfo Suarez.
Motivated more by selfishness than by philosophical principles, nepotistic and corrupt products of the Franco regime chose sides to solidify its prospects in the new democratic constellation. Moving too quickly for reactionary elements to react, these liberalizing reforms saw the return of the socialists and even more disturbingly, saw the homecoming of the dreaded Communists, including civil war butchers like General Enrique Lister and arch-propagandist Dolores Ibarruri, a.k.a. “La Pasionaria.”
All the ghosts of the past were returning as if the Franco era was merely an intermission.
Despite a last-ditch (and pathetic) effort by a tiny group of Franco-era nationalists to overthrow this New Spain, liberal democracy began to take root on its hard soil. In 1982, the socialist PSOE managed what was once thought impossible and returned to power in a landslide election victory.
Defeated and demoralized, devoted Francoists were now a marginalized remnant as Spain’s future belonged not only to the PSOE but also the PP, the center-right party that rejected Franco’s legacy. The two parties traded governments, with their duopoly characterized by increasing corruption and the immediate reality of Basque terrorism from ETA. After joining NATO and the European Union, Spain’s transition into a modern liberal-democratic state was complete.
Throughout this new era of freedom Spanish society was changing. The Catholic Church’s privileged role in Spanish politics and culture quickly subsided as Spaniards secularized. Never a homogeneous country, regionalism beyond that of the Basques began to shout out its names, with Catalonian autonomists leading the pack. Free-market politics led to construction booms, while tourist development continued its brisk pace. Immigrants began to arrive in ever-increasing numbers, with Moroccans the most prominent. Spain now resembled France, Italy, and Germany where once it was the odd man out.
Many observers began to ask the question: “Who really won the Spanish Civil War?”
Photo by Keystone/Getty Images
Economic Shock and Secessionism
On my way to a wedding in Valencia in 2011, I decided to take a leisurely drive from Barcelona, hugging the coast the entire way. The impact of the 2008 banking crisis was on display as I drove past dozens of uncompleted large-scale construction projects that dotted this part of Spain.
Spain’s banking sector was significantly exposed to bad loans, with sky-high youth unemployment creating a class of cynics and pessimists, seeing no future for themselves. It is a truism that bad economic times lead to political radicalism and Spain is not only not an exception to this rule, but can be seen as its poster child in light of its tumultuous 20th-century history.
The ghosts of the past were being disinterred. Now-institutionally entrenched political liberals and leftists declared war on history, seeking a symbolic victory by demanding that Franco’s remains be removed from his tomb (which they succeeded in doing in 2019).
History would have to be rewritten in order to control the present narrative so as to determine the future course of events. Much like the attacks on “dead, white males” in U.S. history (as with the removal of Confederate statues, renaming of schools, and the leftist influence on the Common Core state standards), the Spanish Left moved to erase all reminders of the Franco era. Yet by doing this they also resurrected old political conflicts that belonged to that same past. Wanting to rid the country of Franco, Spain’s liberals and leftists also opened the door to the old cry of Catalonian Independence.
Scoring concession after concession from Madrid in the new democratic era, Catalonian separatists began to make moves to secede from Spain.
The great fear among anti-secession Spaniards is that Catalonian independence will result in a Spanish “domino effect,” whereby granting Catalans the right to leave would eviscerate any argument insisting that Basques, Galicians, Valencians, and Andalusians remain united in one country. Riven by increasingly hostile polemics between the PSOE and PP, the ruling duopoly has continued to act meekly (in the minds of many Spaniards) toward the separatism emanating from Barcelona.
A sputtering economy, high youth unemployment, Catalonian secessionism, a significant immigrant population that not only had terrorist elements embedded within it but also alienated many of Spain’s have-nots and middle class, the country’s political scene quickly began to resemble the turbulence of the 1930s.
Without charismatic leaders of their own, challengers to the ruling duopoly’s right and left began to appear. Podemos appeared on PSOE’s left, protesting against what they saw as the latter’s corruption and adherence to neoliberal economics. Vox appeared on PP’s right, disturbed by the perceived weak response to Catalonian secessionism, and as a reaction to what they saw as PP’s inherent wimpy behavior and broken promises, mirroring the populist movement supporting President Trump against the Republican Party establishment.
It’s Political War—and They Want Your Children
Until recently, there has been a de facto gentleman’s agreement in U.S. politics between the GOP and Democrats in terms of the tone of discourse. This has been upended due to the arrival of the 24/7 news cycle with its focus on sensationalism, and exacerbated by the emergence of social media.
The sunny optimism, deference, and politeness associated with U.S. politics by outsiders such as myself made America seem unique to many. Yet like the tragedy of the commons, the democratization of information and media has witnessed a race to the bottom in polemics and discourse, unmasking the true intentions of many across the political spectrum.
Frustration with those failing to adapt to this new manner of communication is why President Trump steamrolled his way through the Republican presidential primaries in 2016 and why Spain’s Vox is now that country’s third-largest political party, having scored 15 percent at the polls in November.
Led by the photogenic Santiago Abascal, Vox represents the rightist objection to the neoliberal consensus. Soaring on its hardline toward Catalonian secessionists (which then saw the government co-opt some of its language and imprison some of secession’s leading proponents) it also took aim at the PSOE’s social policies. However, despite the perceived softness of PSOE towards Catalonian secessionists, the party continues to cement its social policies as if 1936 never happened.
The history of Europe since the medieval period has been one where the royals (and later the state) sought the monopolization of power by reducing that of the Church, which acted as a rival center. This cycle of history was completed for the most part by the turn of the last century.
The appearance of Marxism on the political scene diagnosed another center of loyalty, the family unit, which stood in the way of total state power. Spanish leftists used the freedom of action achieved during their civil war to implement anti-family policies, declaring marriage a “reactionary institution,” free love as “freedom,” and abortion on demand as a “fundamental right.”
Typical of the Left, they intend to overplay their hand and invite a reaction. This reaction now has taken form in Vox.
Pursuing a policy that allows parents to have a veto on education that violates their ideological, moral, or religious views, Vox is threatening to vote down a proposed budget in the Spanish region of Murcia where it holds the balance of the vote. Rejecting the claim that children belong to the state, they have been ironically denounced as “authoritarians” and “fascists.”
We are now seeing a replay of CEDA versus Spanish Socialists and anarchists/Communists from the 1930s. Hostile polemics, aggressive denunciations, and uncompromising attitudes towards all those not aboard the progressive train are wrenching the country back to a bloody era. Spain already has experience in this type of internal ideological conflict and its right-wing, absent from the scene for four decades now, is roaring back with a vengeance, ready to defend its people, nation, and families.
Spanish liberals and leftists are teasing the tiger, and the tiger is finding its footing.
In the United States, there are striking similarities between the civil war era in Spain and American politics today. One important lesson to be learned is that progressives cannot tolerate compromise and they view politeness as weakness. They have a religious fervor in their stated social and political goals as we see with PSOE in Spain today, who are trying to implement changes that led to their country spilling the blood of half a million of its own people.
The state is coming after your children and politeness, fairness, and compromise are all demanded of you, but not of them. Is the American conservative tiger made of paper? Or is it real?