top of page

Igniting Rebellion: Exploring the Seeds of the Spanish Civil War

Effects of the Loss of the Spanish-American War (1898)

1898 was an unfortunate and stagnant year for Spain (Graham, 2005, p. 3). During this time, Spain lost its external empire to the United States (Graham, 2005, p. 3). With the loss of four significant territories that hindered its progression in urbanization with trade, imports, exports, and goods, Spain was now forced to look within its own country as its external markets ceased to exist (Graham, 2005, p. 3). These territories were Cuba, the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico; as a result of the Spanish-American War, and the Treaty of Paris, Spain was forced to cede the territories to the United States of America (Ward, 2022, p. 113).

At this time, the officers in the Spanish military felt defeated (Graham, 2005, p. 3). They perceived that it was politics that played a role in the loss of Spain rather than coming to terms that it was a military loss (Graham, 2005, p. 3). This stream of thought in the Spanish military prompted a shift in thinking. This generation of military officers began to view themselves as “defenders” of Spain, and it was up to them to instill imperial greatness on their own soil (Graham, 2005, p. 3). However, much of the Spanish military also wanted to promote and protect their internal groups and beliefs, which proved to be harmful in the 20th century (Graham, 2005, p. 3).

Figure 1: Treaty of Paris signed by the United States and Spain as a result of the Spanish loss in the Spanish-American war (Kurz & Allison, n.d.).

In the early 20th century, several regions in Spain became focused on crafting “social and economic changes” to preserve their identities in order to create a voice for their community (Graham, 2005, p. 3). Urbanization and industrialization began to emerge in cities like Seville, Zaragoza, Valencia, and Catalonia (Graham, 2005, p. 3). These regions focused on individualization and wanted to stray away from the dominant voice of the Church (Graham, 2005, p. 3). Yet, in other regions of Spain, like the center-north, urbanization ceased to exist (Graham, 2005, p. 3).

These center-north regions, known as La España profunda, or deep Spain, lacked means of obtaining modernization or urbanization (Graham, 2005, p. 4). Deep Spain contained farm towns, peasants, and rural communities that did not have the same opportunities as the other modern cities (Graham, 2005, p. 4). In deep Spain, traditional culture flourished, and conservative Catholicism was revered (Graham, 2005, p. 4). The center of focus in these regions was the role of the Church, local priests, and the preservation of monarchy in order to control and protect their conservative values (Graham, 2005, p. 4).

Figure 2: Center-north region in Spain representing an example of the La España profunda (Deep Spain) (Hernando, 2017).

However, this strong belief in the Church was contested in southern Spain. In this region, the rural workers despised the Church (Graham, 2005, p. 5). While working as peasants on estates, the laborers witnessed the allies that existed between the Church, landlords, and the police (Graham, 2005, p. 5). While being victimized and abused, these peasants began to have animosity towards the priests and the church as they perceived the Church as synonymous with the elite of the land (Graham, 2005, p. 5).

From Alfonso XIII's Reign to the Birth of the Second Spanish Republic

In 1902, Alfonso XIII was declared the King of Spain at sixteen years old (McKendrick, 2016, p. 239). The previous successor, his father Alfonso XII, died in 1885 (McKendrick, 2016, p. 239). Alfonso XIII was a fervent supporter of increasing Spain’s involvement in Northern Africa and also of the Spanish military (McKendrick, 2016, p. 240). Amidst these developments, social change began to unfold in Europe due to World War I. Although Spain was not militarily involved in World War I, it became responsive to the changes it witnessed in Europe because of the war (Casanova, 2017, p. 150). Spain witnessed the fall of empires after they were defeated in World War I; as a result, monarchies transitioned to republics through coups, like in countries of Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, and Portugal (Casanova, 2017, p. 150).

During World War I, sides began to form in Spain: on one side, the right-wing revered the army alongside the church; ultimately, right-wing sentiments became correlated with conservatism and militarism (McKendrick, 2016, p. 244). On the other hand, the left-wing was more liberal and held regional nationalistic sentiments (McKendrick, 2016, p. 244). This dichotomy began to exacerbate as the years went on.

Figure 3: Alfonso XIII overlooking Spanish troops in Africa, 1909 (WikiMedia, 2023).

Due to World War I, the officers in the military began to watch as the other countries in Europe were collapsing. They began to grow wary, they wanted their own form of insurance, and as a result, they created their own trade unions, known as the juntas de defense in 1917 (McKendrick, 2016, p. 245). These trade unions demanded reform efforts tailored to better pay and wages (McKendrick, 2016, p. 245). This was the first time that military officers in Spain projected their own issues ahead of the country (McKendrick, 2016, p. 246). This was no problem, however, because of the militaristic king, Alfonso XIII, who applauded the military’s every move (McKendrick, 2016, p. 246). Any sort of dislike or opposition by individuals to the army's desires was placed in jail, alongside the king’s support (McKendrick, 2016, p. 246).

The pivotal moment between the left and the right’s relationship occurred in 1917 during a strike in Madrid, Spain (McKendrick, 2016, p. 246). The left party yearned for a new republic in Spain and started strikes, leading the army to intervene and begin killing and imprisoning over 2,000 individuals (McKendrick, 2016, p. 246). Consequently, this led to martial law being declared in Spain (McKendrick, 2016, p. 246). At this moment, the left perceived the army as their nemesis, whereas the right perceived the army as the leader and protector of Spain (McKendrick, 2016, p. 246). As a result, the army and the king jointly emerged into a military dictatorship (McKendrick, 2016, p. 247).

Figure 4: The Spanish army proclaimed martial law during the strike of 1917 (Evans, n.d.).

While Alfonso XIII was facilitating close relations with the Spanish military in Spain, issues in Morocco started to lessen his legitimacy with the Spanish military overall (McKendrick, 2016, p. 247). In 1921, Spain was heavily involved in the territories in Morocco, leading war to erupt between the tribesmen of Morocco and the Spanish military occupying the land (McKendrick, 2016, p. 248). The Moroccan tribesmen launched a surprise attack in Annual, Morocco against the Spanish military, killing over 10,000 Spanish soldiers (McKendrick, 2016, p. 248). In the wake of the attack, the “Spanish commander killed himself” and the repercussions led to a transitional period from one constitutional monarchy into one dictatorship in Spain (McKendrick, 2016, p. 248). The Spanish people began to blame Alfonso XIII for this unfortunate outcome, and on September 23, 1923, Miguel Primo de Rivera announced himself as the dictator now in charge of ruling Spain (McKendrick, 2016, p. 248). Before declaring himself dictator, Miguel Primo de Rivera acted as the captain-general of Catalonia (McKendrick, 2016, p. 248).

Figure 5: Miguel Primo de Rivera declares himself dictator of Spain on September 13, 1923 (Libertat, n.d.).

From 1923 to 1930, Miguel Primo de Rivera ruled Spain in a different way than Alfonso XIII. He “suspended constitutional guarantees”; yet he also spent extensive finances on lavish and large exhibitions displaying Spanish pride (McKendrick, 2016, p. 249). However, his rule came to an end in 1929 when the effects of the Great Depression started to affect Spain, leading Primo de Rivera to step down from the throne in 1930 (McKendrick, 2016, p. 250). Alfonso XIII was forced to step back as king in the monarchy (McKendrick, 2016, p. 250). Those in Spain began to grow annoyed; they believed that if a dictator left, why would not the king? In the elections of 1931, every capital in Spain aside from four voted for a republic (McKendrick, 2016, p. 250). As a result, on April 14, 1931, the monarchy was officially dissolved and the Second Spanish Republic was proclaimed (McKendrick, 2016, p. 250).

Second Spanish Republic

The causes of the Spanish Civil War relate to the opposition by civilians concerning the church, the army, and agrarian efforts (Graham, 2005, p. 10). With sudden and dramatic changes beginning in 1931, the Republican reforms ultimately led to the downfall of the republic itself (Graham, 2005, p. 8). From the establishment of the Second Spanish Republic in 1931 to the events marking the onset of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, three distinct time periods, known as bienios, unfolded from 1931-1936; each was characterized by an ever-changing and dynamic interplay of political and social forces (Schatz, 2001, p. 146). Ultimately, these time periods shaped the trajectory toward the causes of the Spanish Civil War (Schatz, 2001, p. 146).

The first two-year period, known as the bienio, was from 1931-1933 (Schatz, 2001, p. 146). At this time, the Second Spanish Republic comprised a government where center-leftists Republicans, aristocratic elites, and a “coalition of radicals” were in control (Schatz, 2001, p. 146). The second bienio lasted from 1993-1936; at this time, a shift occurred in the government where the centre-right and rightist factions garnered support and won a victory in the elections of 1933 (Schatz, 2001, p. 146). The third and last bienio was from February-June 1936 (Schatz, 2001, p. 146). A swift transformation occurred in the government where Socialists, Communists, and leftist Republicans banded together and formed the “Popular front” which gained support and won the election of 1936 (Schatz, 2001, p. 146). However, this short-lived time period was cut short on July 17, 1936, when the army “rebelled” and staged a military coup, prompting the civil war between the loyalist republicans and the nationalists/army rebels (Schatz, 2001, p. 146).

Figure 6: Spanish Constitution of 1931 (Wikipedia, 2023).
First Bienio

In the first bienio, the Second Spanish Republic was comprised of urban democratic political aristocratic individuals (Schatz, 2001, p. 145). Lacking a centralized government, these political elites began to create new laws based on their wishes related to a democratic republic. This leftist republic began to focus their efforts on changing “labor legislation, anti-clerical legislation and land reforms” (Schatz, 2001, p. 145). In the new constitution created by the bourgeois elites and leftists republicans during the first bienio, there became laws that delegitimized the church, removed the Society of Jesus, permitted divorce by consent, allowed women to vote, closed all religious primary schools, and deemed it illegal for religious orders to engage in any sort of education or political activity (McKendrick, 2016, p. 252). This marked a profound shift in the relationship between the new republic and religious institutions that once were so closely related to the prior monarchial government (McKendrick, 2016, p. 252). Additionally, these policies were created to separate the Church and the state. These Republicans yearned to instill education in both men and women while advocating for a constitutional government devoid of army and church involvement (McKendrick, 2016, p. 252). These democratic elites also began to organize land reforms where they permitted impoverished peasants to work on overlooked estates and territories owned by “landed aristocrats” (McKendrick, 2016, p. 252).

Furthermore, those in power during this first bienio yearned to create a new system of equality for peasants; they instituted laws that were more focused on negotiating better wages and other types of better working conditions for the peasants (Schatz, 2001, p. 147). The government also implemented agrarian reforms efforts tailored to fixing the problems of “inequality in landownership” by asking those who owned the territories to “redistribute [their] lands” in order to create more collective bargaining opportunities for peasants (Schatz, 2001, p. 147). The response by the landowners, businesses, and farmers who owned the land was one of scorn and resistance (Schatz, 2001, p. 147).

During the first bienio, the collaboration between leftists and aristocratic elites led to a consequential move—the cessation of military operations in Morocco and the closure of Spain's primary military academy in Zaragoza (Graham, 2005, p. 9). At that time, the academy in Zaragoza was under the leadership of Francisco Franco, a pivotal military figure who would later emerge as Spain's authoritarian leader (Graham, 2005, p. 9). This decision, which granted the government full "constitutional control on the army," elicited discontent among the Africanistas, also known as colonial officers (Graham, 2005, p. 9).

Second Bienio

When the second bienio government formed, the centre-right party instituted “counter-agrarian” efforts that reversed the prior reforms from the first bienio (Schatz, 2001, p. 148). They implemented a law called the "Law of Reform of the Agrarian Reform" (Schatz, 2001, p. 148). This law mandated that peasants would only be allowed to work on the territories during set times of the year; this, in turn, benefited the property owners since it gave the owners significantly more control over their land while minimizing interference and preserving their personal interests (Schatz, 2001, p. 148). On the other hand, it hurt peasants since it limited their collective bargaining opportunities, therefore inhibiting a stable income for them (Schatz, 2001, p. 148). Simultaneously, conservatives and radicals began to have disdain and animosity towards the republic in 1933; conservatives held Catholicism very near to them, and witnessing their ideology and values being restricted added to their discontent with the current government (Graham, 2005, p. 12). In 1933, the conservatives rose to power in the elections in Spain (Graham, 2005, p. 15). While in charge, the conservatives reversed all prior laws imposed during the first bienio. Shortly thereafter in 1934, strikes began by the leftist republican civilians, socialists, and working civilians, all on the same side as the leftists in response to the new conservative government (Graham, 2005, p. 16).

The first strike was in October 1934 in Madrid, where socialists began to protest for social change and dissatisfaction with the reversal of constitutional laws implemented by the new conservative government in charge (Graham, 2005, p. 16). This spread even further into the infamous strike in Asturias by coal-mining workers (Graham, 2005, p.16). Demanding labor law issue reforms, the workers instituted an armed uprising against the Spanish government (Graham, 2005, p. 16). This two-week battle incited Spanish military involvement and numerous deaths and imprisonments (Graham, 2005, p. 16). General Francisco Franco was tasked with suppressing the revolution; he brought in non-Spanish forces to quell the fighting (Graham, 2005, p. 16). Franco used outside forces, namely the “native Moroccan troops and the Foreign Legion” to fight against the coal mining workers (Graham, 2005, p. 16). As a result of this, the Spanish Left was perceived as untrustworthy by those in government and by the conservatives, radicals, and army, and leftist attempts to fix social change through armed rebellion proved to be futile endeavors (Graham, 2005, p. 16).

Figure 7: Asturian miners preparing for battle against the non-Spanish forces (1934) (Hidden Cause, 2014).

The last episode of counter-agrarian reform occurred seven days after the Spanish Civil War began; on July 24, 1936, the Junta de Defense Nacional (National Defense Council) inaugurated legal measures that allowed property owners total freedom in any decision regarding their property (Schatz, 2001, p. 148). These measures focused on inhibiting land redistribution and restricting peasants from moving to different pieces of land; ultimately, this reform was focused on power and control of property over agricultural resources (Schatz, 2001, p. 148).

Third Bienio

In February 1936, the Republicans had one more opportunity to enact change in the Second Spanish Republic as they won the last election before the rise of the Spanish Civil War (Graham, 2005, p. 17). This was known as the third bienio. Calling themselves the “Common Front” or “Popular Front,” individuals that were republicans, socialists, syndicalists, anarchists, and communists joined together under this umbrella as the last party to rule the Second Spanish Republic for the few remaining months of 1936 (McKendrick, 2016, pp. 254-225).

Figure 8: “Popular Front” advertisements regarding the last elections in the Second Spanish Republic, 1936 (Sanz, 2020).

While the Popular Front constituted the existing government, the Spanish Fascist Party, known as the "Falange," was in the process of forming a movement. Their objective was to unite various right-wing conservative factions under their leadership with the aim of overthrowing the current government (McKendrick, 2016, p. 255). Their goal was to rule Spain and restore “Catholicism, Conservativism, and Tradition” (McKendrick, 2016, p. 257). Leading the Falange movement was José Antonio Primo de Rivera, the son of the former dictator Miguel Primo de Rivera (McKendrick, 2016, p. 255). The fascist’s ultimate goal was to secure endorsements from 'the Church, the Carlists, and monarchists, as well as within the army itself' (McKendrick, 2016, p. 256). Ultimately, the Carlists, the Falange, and the centralist army united to form the rebel forces, forging strong alliances with the church and aristocracy (McKendrick, 2016, p. 258).

In the early summer of 1936, the Falange party converged with the Carlist Comunión Tradicionalista, a prominent anti-Republican organization (Cenarro, 2018, p. 83). General Emilio Mola, the orchestrator of the rebels and the military coup aimed at toppling the Spanish Republic, spearheaded this alliance, recognizing the necessity of securing support from both factions (Cenarro, 2018, p. 83). Leading the collaboration were followers of the imprisoned Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera, who pledged "unconditional support" despite his confinement (Cenarro, 2018, p. 83). This strategic partnership with the Carlist Comunión Tradicionalista facilitated General Mola's acquisition of 8,000 armed militia, known as the "requetés" (Cenarro, 2018, p. 83).

Figure 9: José Antonio Primo de Rivera speaking fervently during a Falange meeting in Madrid, 1936 (Alvarez, 2021).

On July 17, 1936, Generals Emilio Mola and Francisco Franco orchestrated a military coup in Spanish Morocco led by the Spanish Foreign Legion army (Cenarro, 2018, p. 83). These rebels, or “insurgents”, performed this military coup to persuade the rest of the Spanish military to become part of restoring Spain’s imperial power (Holguín, 2015, p. 1770). This uprising in the regions of Melilla, Tetuan, and Ceuta marked the initiation of the Spanish Civil War (Cenarro, 2018, p. 83).

From the unraveling of the Spanish imperial empire in 1898 to the collapse of the Second Spanish Republic in 1936, its demise in creating a democratic republic was guided by three key principles: reforms intertwined with Catholicism, conservatism, rural land reforms, and a commitment to tradition. The aftermath of the Spanish-American War ushered in a transformative period spanning from 1898 to 1936, reshaping not only the military's perspective but also influencing rebels, socialists, republicans, communists, and those seeking to overthrow the Spanish Republic.

In the subsequent three years, from 1936 to 1939, the rebels, led by Franco, resorted to violent means to assert their objectives. This turbulent era unfolded an intricate interplay of ideologies, characterized by changes in military philosophy, the motivations of rebels, and the evolving stances of those attempting to confront the nationalists that overtook Spain by violent means. As the conflict escalated, Spain witnessed a dramatic clash of ideals, with each faction fiercely defending its vision for the nation's future.

Bibliographical References

Casanova, J. (2017). Republic, Civil War and Dictatorship: The Peculiarities of Spanish History. Journal of Contemporary History, 52(1), 148–156.

Cennaro, A. (2018). The Spanish Civil War, 1936-39. In Shubert, A. & Álvarez Junco, J (Eds.), The History of Modern Spain. New York, NY: Bloomsbury.

Graham, H. (2005). The Spanish Civil War : A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press.

Holguín, S. (2015). How Did the Spanish Civil War End? . . . Not So Well. The American Historical Review, 120(5), 1767–1783.

McKendrick, M. (2016). Spain: A History. American Heritage Publishing.

Schatz, S. (2001). Democracy’ s breakdown and the rise of fascism: the case of the Spanish Second Republic, 1931–6. Social History, 26(2), 145-165. DOI:10.1080/03071020122223

Ward, S. (2022). Decline and Disintegration: National Status Loss and Domestic Conflict in Post-Disaster Spain. International Security, 46(4), 91-129.

Visual Sources

Cover Image: González, J.P.L. (2022). The Second Republic and the Civil War in a context of international crisis (1931-1939). [Photography]. Gobierno de Canarias.

Figure 1: Kurz & Allison. (n.d.). Spanish-American Treaty of Peace, Paris Dec. 10th 1898. [Photography]. Library of Congress.

Figure 2: Hernando, F.M. (2017). The Deep Spain. [Photography]. UPA Andalucía.

Figure 3: WikiMedia. (2023). Alfonso XIII overlooking Spanish troops in Africa. [Photography]. WikiMedia.

Figure 4: Evans, M. (n.d.). Spain (1917). General strike. The army proclamates. [Photography]. Prints Online.

Figure 5: Libertat. (n.d.). 1923 Coup d'état by Primo de Rivera. [Photography]. Libertat.

Figure 6: Wikipedia. (2023). Spanish Constitution of 1931. [Photography]. Wikipedia.

Figure 7: Hidden Cause. (2014). Asturian Miners. [Photography]. Hidden Cause.

Figure 8: Sanz, M. (2020). The Second Spanish Republic: The Frente Popular. [Photography]. 4 Traveling Across Time.

Figure 9: Alvarez, R. (2021). José Antonio and the conversion of Falange into political arm of Francosim. [Photography]. La Vanguardia.


Author Photo

Alexandra Gimpel

Arcadia _ Logo.png


Arcadia, has many categories starting from Literature to Science. If you liked this article and would like to read more, you can subscribe from below or click the bar and discover unique more experiences in our articles in many categories

Let the posts
come to you.

Thanks for submitting!

  • Instagram
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn
bottom of page