Causes of the 1936 Nationalist Uprising in Spain – Sound Familiar?

Calvo Sotelo, a stalwart right-wing leader and a former Minister of Finance under the Spanish Monarchy, made a speech in the Cortes on 11 July 1936, in which he attacked the Popular Front government for not taking the necessary measures to suppress the waves of unrestrained anarchy, bloodshed, and arson taking place all over Spain. Soon after, he was dragged out of his home in the Calle Velazquez in the middle of the night by a squad of shock police (Guardias de Asalto), one of whom shot him in the back of the neck for the sole reason of his being a very popular, honest, and fearless nationalist leader. His body was dumped in a suburban cemetary.

Spurred by this assassination, on 15 July 1936, Gil Robles, leader of the C.E.D.A. (Catholic Party) in the Spanish Parliament, summarized the real causes, which, in a matter of days, led to the Spanish Civil War. Among other things, he said:

…has the state of emergency declared by the Government accomplished any of its objectives whatsoever? Has it curbed the wave of anarchy that is ruining Spain morally and materially? Consider what is happening in the country and in the towns. Recall to mind the statistics I read in the last session of the Cortes. I am going to supplement them with statistics covering the current month…From 16 June to 13 July the following acts of violence have been committed, and my listeners must bear in mind that these statistics refer only to plainly established facts and not to rumors, although the latter are being confirmed each succeeding day: 10 churches burned down; 9 priests expelled from their parishes; 11 thefts and acts of confiscation; 5 monumental crosses demolished; 61 violent deaths; 224 wounded, with varying degrees of seriousness; 17 holdups; 31 estates plundered; 16 cases of seizure of private property and confiscation of assets; 10 political buildings burned; 15 general strikes; 129 partial strikes; 74 bombs; 58 grenades; 7 inflammable bottles thrown at people or objects; 19 cases of arson excluding churches. All of this in 27 days. In the final analysis, after the “state of emergency” has been in effect for four months, providing the Government with all kinds of extraordinary powers to impose its authority, what has been its efficacy? Are not these statistics the most explicit admission that the Government has failed utterly and completely in the exercise of its extraordinary powers? – that it has not been able to fulfill the solemn pledge made to the Cortes that these very extraordinary powers which the Constitution bestows upon the Government and which Parliament places at its disposal would serve to bring to an end the state of anarchy and subversion that exists in Spain? The following liberties have been swept aside by or with the extraordinary powers granted to the Government: the right of existence, the liberty of association, freedom of syndication, freedom of employment, the inviolability of the home. On the contrary, the Government has become an instrument of persecution for all those who do not share the same political views as the members of the Popular Front.

The situation is extremely grave, and I must examine it in the true light. I recognize the seriousness of the statements which I am about to make. I am acutely aware of the consequences that my words may have for me personally, but I cannot shrink from this great responsibility…

The Minister, with his characteristic vehemence – and I am sure with the greatest sincerity, which is also one of his characteristics – has come here to refute in the most disturbing manner, the imputations or accusations that could be deduced from the speech read by Mr. Suarez de Tangil in the name of the Monarchist minorities, in which the Government was accused of playing a direct role in the crime. It is not my intention to direct unfounded accusations…Your Excellency will not find in my words anything which might be a calumny insinuating that the Government has taken a direct path in criminal actions of this kind. But…the Government’s responsibility is not only to avoid complicity; its moral and political responsibility is tremendous, and to this I am obliged to refer.

I attribute paramount responsibility to the person who possesses supreme authority, and consequently, the maximum moral responsibility must fall upon the Prime Minister, who, having attained the highest position in the Government, stated that the Government would take action against Mr. Calvo Sotelo, or “persons entertaining similar ideologies.” Imagine!…the Government a belligerent against its own people! But the Government must never be a belligerent, but must be an impartial instrument of justice for all, and for all alike.

On one occasion, Mr. Calvo Sotelo, refuting the Prime Minister’s violent attacks, said: “I have broad shoulders, Mr. Casares Quiroga. I am aware of Your Excellency’s threat: Your Excellency has charged me with a passive and active responsibility for I do not know what incidents. I repeat, my shoulders are broad. I accept and do not shrink from any of the responsibility that can be a consequence of my own actions, and, if it be for the good of my country and the glory of Spain, I also accept the responsibility of others as well. I repeat the words with which Santo Domingo de Silos answered a Castilian king: “Sire, you can take my life, but no more; it is preferable to die with glory than to live in contempt.” Death has come to him with glory. But you, as the Government – even though you may not be to blame, directly or indirectly – are criminally responsible – you are guilty of the enormous crime of having patronized a policy of violence which has armed the assassin’s hand; of having prompted violence; of not having censured those who from the majority benches have uttered threats of violence against the person of the murdered statesman. You will never be able to rid yourselves of this guilt; you can, by means of censorship, prevent my words from reaching the people; no doubt, you can ask for a vote of confidence; but…you can rest assured that his blood is on your hands, and you will never be able to wash it off…

After this, I have few words left to say; perhaps there remain very few to be uttered in this Parliament. With each succeeding day, excitement mounts, provoked on the one hand by the majority groups, on the other hand by the newspapers inspired by you, to the effect that the opposition must be crushed, that a policy of radical extermination must be carried out. You are practicing it daily: people are murdered and wounded. Assaults, coercion, fires, acts of violence are a daily occurrence.

There is a very well-known saying that revolutions are like the Devil; they devour their own children. You are overconfident now now because you see your opponents on the defensive; the day will come when the very violence which you have loosened will turn against you with a vengeance.”

Notably, according to Alejandro Lerroux, a Radical party leader in 1930, who was on the Revolutionary Committee that prepared the way for the Popular Front government, and who was Home Secretary of Spain and the Representative of Spain in the League of Nations, had this to say about the resulting Nationalist Uprising:

“Neither Franco nor the Army infringed upon the law, nor did they rebel against a legitimate and normally functioning democracy. They did no more than replace the [Popular Front Government] when it dissolved in an anarchy of blood, mud, and tears.”

From Combat Over Spain. Memoirs of a Nationalist Fighter Pilot 1936-1939. By Captain Jose Larios, Marquis of Larios, Duke of Lerma.

Posted by Patrick Cloutier.

Mr. Cloutier is author of Mussolini’s War in Spain 1936-1939.

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