Spain in 1931 was a country riven by inequalities. Still predominantly an agrarian country, traditional divisions endured between wealthy landowners, doggedly preserving their position, and a huge number of landless labourers and poverty-stricken smallholders, desperate to lift themselves from an existence of near-starvation. One of the largest landowners was the Catholic Church who, in addition to any theological motivations, were thus determined to maintain the status quo. Opposing the Church was the largest Anarchist movement in Europe, with a history of incendiary anti-clericalism. ‘Spaniards’ it was said, ‘followed their priests either with a candle or a club’.
In the very few areas witnessing industrial change- chiefly Catalonia and the Basque regions- corresponding social and political change was largely absent. Aspirations by these regions for some degree of autonomy were bitterly opposed by the Spanish army who, fighting in Morocco to regain an empire which had been lost with the catastrophic defeat to the United States in 1898, strongly resisted any attempts to break up Spain. Large, powerful and extremely top-heavy in officers, the Spanish army had a tradition of involvement in politics; Primo de Rivera’s military dictatorship had ruled Spain as recently as the 1920s. The dictatorship’s legacy was a huge budget deficit at a time when the world was already sinking into economic depression, and its collapse spelled the end for the Spanish monarchy.
In April 1931, municipal elections were taken to be a plebiscite on the monarchy and the result was an overwhelmingly hostile vote against it. The King, Alfonso XIII, realising that he had lost not just the support of the populace but, crucially, the support of the military, fled Spain. Thus, on April 12, 1931, Spain’s Second Republic, la nina bonita, was born.