How the Republican government could have prevented the Civil War

On July 17, 1936, senior officers launched a military uprising. The government had known about the plot, but by the time it reacted, the rebels controlled half the country and a revolution was underway

There had been talk for months about a military uprising, but when, on 18 July 1936, army officers finally launched their insurrection, few - including many of the conspirators - had any idea that it would spark a civil war. The uprising's initial failure was largely due to the incompetence of the conspirators and their constant improvisations, internal divisions, and failure to act decisively. The same explanation could be given as to why the government also failed to crush the rebellion.

- 1. A wait-and-see approach

The government of the Second Republic, led by Santiago Casares Quiroga, gathered for its customary Friday Cabinet meeting on July 10, 1936. Bernardo Giner de los Ríos, the minister of communication, handed the prime minister a dossier with extensive documentation of conversations that the police had intercepted between several senior members of the army discussing plans to overthrow the government. The military uprising, Casares told his increasingly puzzled ministers, could take place at any moment. He added that President Manuel Azaña and he had been following the conspiracy for some time, and that there were now only two options: to abort the planned uprising by arresting all those involved; or wait until the military acted, and use the rising as an excuse to end once and for all the constant threat that the military had posed since the Second Republic was declared in 1931. It was decided to take the second option.

In fact, the wait-and-see option had been decided long before, in August 1932, when Azaña was prime minister and minister for war, and Casares in charge of interior. The pair had been handed police reports of an imminent rebellion led by General José Sanjurjo. He had a long career, having served in the disasters of Cuba in 1896, the two Rif Wars of 1909 and 1920 in Morocco, although he had taken part in the reconquest of lost territory in Melilla in 1921. In 1928 he was made chief of a main directorate of the Civil Guard.

After the elections of April 1931, Sanjurjo accepted the creation of the Republic; as a commander in the Civil Guard, his influence was a key factor. Thus he became the first general appointed to army command by the Revolutionary Committee of the Republic. He soon clashed with Azaña, and was demoted to chief of the customs officers in 1932. He had issued a pronunciamiento - the declaration of principles that had ushered in so many military takeovers in the previous hundred years - in Seville, on August 10, 1932, which promptly failed to attract any support. Sanjurjo was condemned to death, a sentence that was later commuted to life imprisonment. By March 1934 he had been amnestied and went into exile in Portugal.

This was Casares and Azaña's experience of military uprisings, which is why they stuck to their wait-and-see policy, when the first rumors of a rebellion had begun to spread following the victory of the Popular Front in the February 1936 elections. The Popular Front included the Spanish Socialist Workers' Party (PSOE), the Communist Party of Spain (PCE), the Workers' Party of Marxist Unification (POUM), and the Republicans: the Republican Left (IR), led by Azaña, and the Republican Union Party, led by Diego Martínez Barrio. The Front was supported by the CNT and FAI anarcho-syndicalist labor unions, and regional parties.

Azaña and Casares knew who was involved, and had taken what they thought were sufficient measures to isolate the conspirators: some were arrested, others promoted or given new commands. The idea was to allow the better-known members to continue with their plans. The government believed that it had the resources to crush the rebels when they launched their strike.

This strategy was backed by the Popular Front, including the FAI and CNT. PSOE leader Francisco Largo Caballero refused to allow the PSOE to join in the coalition government believing the party could play a waiting game until the government fell, and assume complete power. Largo also dismissed fears of a military coup, and predicted that, were it to happen, a general strike would be called that would defeat it, opening the door to the workers' revolution. Largo was by now calling himself the "Spanish Lenin." Largo also believed that before the PSOE could assume complete power, the right wing would make a bid to take control of the state, using the military. "If they want to try to launch a surprise coup, let them," he said, secure in his belief that the labor unions and the working classes would take to the streets, sweeping all before them.

The left had been waiting impatiently since at least the beginning of June 1936 for the military to make a move, with each party hoping for a different outcome: Azaña and Casares believed that they could guarantee the future of the Republic by using the rebellion to call a general strike and crush the army once and for all; the PSOE believing that a military uprising would be the catalyst for a revolution; while the anarcho-syndicalist labor unions would take up arms in pursuit of their commune-based society. The few voices that warned that a proactive approach to nip the military conspiracy in the bud was required went unheard. There was near general consensus in the government that all that was required to do was wait patiently, and then events as predicted would take over and the military would be finished.

- 2. Reaction

A week later, on Friday, June 17, Santiago Casares told his Cabinet that the long-awaited uprising had already been successful in the North African enclave of Melilla, and that it would likely prosper in Spain's other territories in the region. The wait was over; the rebels had left the barracks and taken to the streets, and were largely in control where they had done so. Uncertain of how to react, the government did no more than to issue a communiqué on the morning of July 18, saying that the uprising in North Africa had been put down and that the situation was under control. On the afternoon of the same day, Casares called a meeting of his ministers, along with Martínez Barrio, who was the speaker of parliament, and the leaders of the of the two factions that had split the PSOE, Largo Caballero and Indalecio Prieto. Unlike Largo, Prieto had opposed the general strike and the failed uprising in Asturias of October 1934. Up until the Republic, Prieto was seen as having a harder line than Largo, but once in office, was viewed as a relative moderate, and opposed Largo's calls for the sovietization of Spain. In the meantime, the rebellion had spread from Morocco to the mainland. The government's repeated statements that it had the situation under control, as well as its decision to discharge the troops that supported the rebellion, served only to confuse matters, and left many civil governors of the country's regions unsure what to do other than try to control the uprising through loyal troops and police.

By the afternoon of Saturday July 18, events were rapidly spinning out of the government's control. In short, it had miscalculated horribly by believing that the police and the Civil Guard would break the uprising and that a general strike would somehow rally the working class to take to the streets in support of the Republic.

Meanwhile, the rebels, who perhaps initially believed that the age-old formula of the pronunciamiento would be sufficient for the elected government to stand down, now began killing anybody who stood in their way. In the first hours of the rebellion, dozens of soldiers and officers who refused to support the rising were killed by their comrades in arms. And once senior officers had been murdered, there was no going back: the time had come to take the streets and continue the killing, or be killed in the process.

By the time the government realized that it was not dealing with an old-fashioned pronunciamiento of the kind that had bloodlessly paved the way for General Miguel Primo de Rivera's dictatorship in 1923, Casares and Azaña didn't know how to react, other than resigning. Meanwhile, labor union activists, militants and militias had taken up arms, and headed out to the streets to fight the rebellion, calling on the government to arm them further. Following Casares' resignation, Azaña tried to cobble together a government of national unity by inviting right-wingers like Miguel Maura and leftists such as Prieto, along with an offer to Martínez Barrio to become prime minister. The idea now was to negotiate with the rebels.

Mauro rejected the offer, while Prieto discussed the issue with the PSOE. Martínez Barrio contacted the rebels, but was told that it was far too late for negotiations. The following day, a huge demonstration was organized in Madrid for the next day in support of the Republic, with a specific call for Martínez Barrio to resign. This he did, six hours after forming his government, leaving Azaña with the decision of whether to distribute arms to the militants, or to stand down as well.

- 3. The Revolution

Azaña opted for the former. He telephoned Lluis Companys, the head of the Catalan regional government, and was told that the rebellion had been put down in Barcelona, and that all that was left was a small group holding out in the city's military headquarters. Azaña called the leaders of all parties and labor unions to the Royal Palace for crisis talks. The meeting was a disaster, failing to form a government of national unity. José Giral, a member of Azaña's Acción Republicana party, was named prime minister, leading a cabinet that differed little from the previous one. Largo Caballero, who had also attended the meeting, rejected an invitation to join the government, saying he would only support Giral if he agreed to distribute arms to the unions.

Paradoxically, the uprising had triggered the very revolution it was seeking to prevent from taking place, and power quickly passed from the state to armed groups of anarchists, socialists, and communists. The Republican government held on, but the Republic itself was now sidelined, robbed of power. Abroad, the new government, which had sent emissaries to France to buy arms, rapidly came up against the farcical policy of non-intervention. At home, the state's power had vanished when confronted by patrols set up in every town and village to control all movement, often stopping people in the street and then arresting them if they were seen to be supporters of the rebellion. Many civilians were summarily executed in the early stages of the war by these militias. This was the new power, fragmented, atomized, and with a reach no further than the outskirts of the village or city neighborhood. A power that was able to crush the uprising only where it could count on the support of the armed forces or the police, as it had been able to in Barcelona, Madrid, or Valencia, but was unable to do much where the Civil Guard or the police joined in the uprising.

That said, it would be a mistake to say that the government's decision to set about distributing arms is what set off a revolution with a terrible destructive capacity, but one lacking in unity, in direction, or goals sufficient to build a strong power base on the ruins of what it was destroying. By the afternoon of July 18, before the government began distributing arms, there were already trucks patrolling Madrid and Barcelona bristling with armed men and women belonging to militias and who answered only to their party or organization.

In Catalonia, the CNT and the FAI were celebrating July 18 as the day that the most beautiful revolution in the history of the world had taken place. It was not the decision to distribute arms that set off the revolution, as Vicente Rojo, the Republican chief of staff, later wrote. It was the military uprising's sweeping aside of the power of the state that opened the gates to a revolution that aimed to physically liquidate all class enemies, meaning the army, the Church, the landowners, the bosses and anybody on the right. This was a revolution that dreamed of building a new world on the ashes of the old.

Suddenly the Republic faced two enemies: it could not control the armed groups at the same time as dealing with an enemy that was fast-gaining control of huge swathes of territory. The officers leading the uprising grasped this immediately and called on Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany for the military aid needed to convert their rebellion, which neither failed nor had been a complete success, into a civil war. For the political parties and youth organizations that stood up against the rebellion, it took longer, and was harder work to understand that the revolution was doomed if the war was lost. By the time they did, and they joined the Republican government with the aim of trying to rebuild the army and the state, the Republic had already lost more than half its territory.