For many Spaniards the birth of the Republic was celebrated by exuberant public rejoicing; this seemed to many to signal the beginning of the end for the powerful Spanish elites, and to offer a relief for millions of landless peasants. However, attempts by the Republic to reform powerful institutions like the church and the army, at the same time as challenging entrenched economic interests in the landed, industrial and banking oligarchies, were never able to achieve the successes expected by the Republic’s supporters on the left, while even limited reforms antagonised their opponents on the right. Separation of church and state, modernisation of the army and attempts to reform the deeply unequal distribution of the land were all regarded with horror by the established elites. In addition, attempts to meet the demands for regional autonomy from areas such as the Basque Country and Catalonia, further outraged the Spanish army.

The situation did not take long to escape from the government’s rather tenuous control. Anarchist and other anti-clerical elements demonstrated their opposition to the Catholic Church by burning churches. The government, unwilling to use the forces of order against workers, some of whom were their own supporters, sat on their hands. If the government’s reformist program had not already alienated the army and church, the government’s inability, or unwillingness, to control its supporters, guaranteed their opposition.

The elections of November 1933 saw a defeat for the republicans and socialists who fought the election as separate parties by a confederation of conservative and catholic parties, including the Radical Party and CEDA. Thus began the bienio negro, the black years, in which the reforms begun by the center-left Manuel Azaña’s government were at best abandoned or, in many cases, overturned. With the entry of CEDA into the government, perceived by opponents on the left as fascistic, the increasingly militant and revolutionary socialist party, the PSOE, responded in October 1934 with a general strike which, in some areas, escalated into armed insurrection. In Asturias, where miners were armed with dynamite, the rebellion endured longest. It was here too, that the governments’ response was most vicious with Moroccan troops under the command of General Francisco Franco committing numerous atrocities. Several thousand were killed or wounded, including women and children, and thousands more were imprisoned.