The Spanish Civil War: A Modern Tragedy

By George R. Esenwein | Go to book overview

4
The mosaic of politics: Conflict
and consensus in the Republican
and Nationalist zones

The outbreak of civil war in July 1936 did more than just divide the country into two mutually opposing camps: it dramatically and permanently reshaped the whole of Spain’s political landscape. On the Republican side, the rebellion produced a crisis of authority that led directly to the near-collapse of national and local government institutions. Above all, these events produced a significant realignment of political power on the left. The first and most significant casualties of this crisis were the middle-class Republican factions. The inability of either Martínez Barrio or José Giral to form a viable administration in the immediate aftermath of the uprising demonstrated beyond a doubt that the liberal politicians of the prewar Republic were in no position to play a leadership role. The fracturing of the Republic’s political framework instead produced a new constellation of forces. One source of power radiated from the far-left organizations which had responded to the breakdown of traditional authority by launching a sweeping revolutionary movement. As we have seen, their control over a variety of economic and social institutions as well as over their own militias enabled them to rise to a commanding position in the Republican camp. The separatist Republican parties in Catalonia and portions of the Basque country also sought to fill the vacuum created by the dissolution of central government institutions by pressing hard to achieve their longstanding claims for greater regional autonomy. At least for a brief period, the creation of semi-autonomous regional governments within the boundaries of the wartime Republic represented yet another hub of power in the anti-Nationalist zone. The moderate socialists of the PSOE and Communists of the PCE constituted a third Republican force that vied for power during the war. Though they were divided over a number of fundamental ideological issues, these two factions were united over their opposition to the revolution as well as to the decentralizing efforts of the regionalists. Both groups also shared a common belief that the war against the Nationalists would not be won unless political and military unity prevailed on the Republican side. From 1937 on, an alliance between these two groups became the core of the ‘Popular Front’ coalition that ruled the Republic until the end of the war.

Like the Republican organizations, the Nationalist factions were linked not so much by a common ideology as by their shared fear and loathing of a common enemy. Yet, in contrast to the other side, the absence of formal government rule did not give rise to a corresponding devolution of power. In this chapter we shall see that this was partly because, from the outset, the military assumed a dominant

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