Spain had entered the 20th century as one of the most backward countries in Europe

Spain had entered the 20th century as one of the most backward countries in Europe. An aged, decrepit monarchy ruled the country, propped up by the twin pillars of the Catholic Church and an aristocratic officer corps. The Spanish bourgeoisie, although at times critical of the monarchy, lacked the resolve to attempt any serious challenge.
Lacking reliable support from the propertied classes, the monarchy turned time and again to the military for support. In 1923, Gen. Miguel Primo de Rivera took power under a military dictatorship. But Primo de Rivera’s dictatorship could not ensure order against a rising tide of struggle. When the Great Depression broke out in 1929, Spain fell into a severe economic crisis, and the ruling class found that it could no longer contain the growing anger with brute force.
1. In 1930, Primo de Rivera was forced to resign. King Alfonso XIII called for democratic elections, ushering in the Second Republic–the First Republic, formed in 1873, lasted only a year–and five years of social unrest, during which the political right and left vied for control. Elections held in April 1931 went overwhelmingly to the republican parties, forcing King Alfonso to abdicate the throne and flee the country.
Although all the left forces agreed that the main issues facing the revolution were the question of democracy and land reform, very quickly, it became clear that consolidating the gains of the revolution meant challenging the limits of Spanish capitalism.
Land reform was perhaps the most pressing issue in all of Spain. Agricultural products accounted for half of the country’s income and two-thirds of its exports. Seventy percent of Spain’s population worked the land, yet a small class of landowners controlled two-thirds of all the country’s arable land, most of it held in large estates.
Peasants rose up demanding confiscation of the large estates and redistribution of land to millions of poor peasants, but this reform went to the heart of Spanish capitalism. Land in Spain was mortgaged and heavily indebted to Spanish banks. Any expropriation of the large estates threatened not only the large landowners; it would wipe out loans owed to the banks, crippling Spanish capital. The government promised reform, then delayed.
Workers who had thrown off the repressive government of Primo de Rivera wanted pay increases, unemployment assistance and the removal of monarchist managers. They were met with calls for patience and sacrifice by the new government.
The struggle over democratic demands was not simply a fight for a less repressive state; it was at the core of the fight for workers’ power and socialism. The working class was the only class capable of leading the fight for democratic demands for the peasantry and the oppressed minorities. But in that fight, it was bound also to fight for its own socialist aspirations.
The republican government was paralyzed between the aspirations of the workers and peasants who had elected it into power and its continued defense of the bourgeoisie. It was incapable of carrying through even the most basic democratic reforms.
The right-wing government that took power in November 1933, headed by Alejandro Lerroux, did so against the backdrop of the rise of fascism in Europe. Hitler had been appointed chancellor of Germany in January by the conservative president Hindenburg. In March, the Austrian fascist, Englebert Dolfuss, had convinced the Austrian president to cede him dictatorial powers. Austrian workers rose up heroically to defeat Dolfuss, but were crushed.
Many Spanish workers feared that Spain would be next. After the November elections, the largest number of seats in the Cortes went to members of the Confederación Española de Derechas Autónomas (CEDA), a confederation of industrialists, monarchists and admirers of Mussolini and Dolfuss.
By far the most serious negative impact came after 1936 from the heavy destruction of infrastructure and manpower by the civil war, 1936–39. Many talented workers were forced into permanent exile. By staying neutral in the Second World War, and selling to both sides, the economy avoided further disasters.