Why was Spain industrialized so late?

Hans Hautmann: Spain 1936


The Spanish Civil War, which this year marks the seventieth anniversary of the outbreak, was an event of international importance, a crucial link in the chain of the great conflict between democracy and fascism in the run-up to World War II. Alongside the Austrian labor movement, the Spanish labor movement was the only one in Europe that tried to put a stop to the takeover of power by the fascists, weapon in hand. All essential questions of the anti-fascist struggle, the united front and the popular front for the preservation and expansion of democratic achievements were expressed in the Spanish civil war in an almost classic way. At the same time, the national-revolutionary war of the Spanish people had peculiarities that are rooted in its history, social and political development in the 19th and the first decades of the 20th century.


What were the special features?
1) The delayed, regionally very uneven and inconsistent industrialization process in the country, with the result that a working class emerged relatively late and this working class was inhomogeneous in many respects.
2) The stubbornly asserting feudal, pre-industrial structures in the agricultural sector. In Spain, the feudal system, peasants' liberation and land reforms that were not implemented in most European countries during the course of the bourgeois revolution had not been smashed. The vast majority of the Spanish people lived in the countryside under oligarchic and extremely backward conditions. In northern and central Spain small and micro-farmers dominated, in southern Spain wage labor of agricultural workers on the latifundia of large estates dominated. As recently as 1931, two million farm workers were landless, while 50,000 large landowners owned half of the land in Spain. The average yield per hectare in agriculture was the lowest in Europe.
3) The belated industrialization and the dominance of a pre-capitalist agrarian economy caused the simple production of goods to predominate in Spain. This was one of the reasons why anarchism had a sizeable following in Spain, including among the working class. When anarchism had lost its former importance everywhere after the First World War - in Italy, in France and in Switzerland - it remained strong in Spain. This factor should play a not insignificant role in the civil war.
4) The pronounced centralism of the Spanish state apparatus, the structures of which originated from the time of Spain as a world power in the 16th century. It was in constant opposition to the Basques' aspirations for autonomy1, Catalans2 and Galicians.3 Before 1936 and during the civil war, this had a major impact on the internal conflicts.
5) The extremely strong position of the Catholic Church and its hierarchy, the symbiosis between Church and State, the lack of a constitutionally anchored separation of Church and State. The clergy, together with the aristocracy and the large estates, formed a bulwark against any attempts at liberal-democratic reforms, no matter how hesitant. The rigid reactionary attitude of the Spanish Church, which was able to “boast” of a tradition such as the Inquisition that the Spanish people have not forgotten, aroused a sharp and radical anti-clerical stance in some sections of the population.
6) The unusually large influence of the military on Spanish domestic politics. The army and the generals had, precisely because of the lagging economic and social development, such a special political weight that the civilian force could not, or only with great difficulty, assert itself against the military force. As early as the 19th century, the officers' mess were centers of political decisions, starting points for conspiracies and coups d'état.
So the history of Spain in the century before the civil war was essentially the history of a constant struggle between reaction and progress, between dictatorship and democracy.

Historical stages

Three major stages can be distinguished in the development of Spain after the First World War:
1) The revolutionary post-war crisis between 1918 and 1923.
2) The era of the dictatorship of General Primo de Rivera from 1923 to 1930.
3) The time of the fall of the monarchy and the establishment of the Second Republic from 1930 to 1936.
Spain had remained neutral during the First World War. Groups of the ruling classes sympathized with Germany and secretly granted it naval bases. Deliveries of ore and food to both warring power groups led to a temporary boom in the Spanish economy, which, however, abruptly broke off in 1917. Due to the economic and social consequences of the declining war boom and under the influence of the Russian Revolution, the workers 'and peasants' movement took off in 1918/19, which culminated in armed revolts in connection with the striving for autonomy of the national minorities (4 million Catalans, 800,000 Basques) . In 1920 members of the Socialist Youth Association founded the Communist Party. The revolutionary popular movement swelled further in connection with the unsuccessful colonial expansion in North Africa (defeats against the Republic of the Rifkabylenes under Abd al-Crimea in 1921).
In view of the growing movement of workers and peasants (with strong anarchist influence, especially in Catalonia), the increasing strength of republican currents and the disintegration of the old political parties, parliamentary means were no longer sufficient to guarantee the continued existence of the monarchical regime. In agreement with King Alfonso XIII. General Primo de Rivera established a military dictatorship on September 13, 1923. But neither through domestic political repression (prohibition of all parties, registration of workers in “corporations”, state-controlled compulsory unions) nor through forced colonial adventures (1925/26 Spanish-French offensive against the Republic of Abd al-Krim) the dictatorship was finally able to stabilize. A democratic mass movement in the years of the Great Depression forced Primo de Rivera to resign on January 28, 1930.
The collapse of the military dictatorship also heralded the overthrow of the monarchy. After the victory of the Republicans in the municipal elections on April 12, 1931, the Second Republic was proclaimed on April 14, 1931, and King Alfonso XIII. fled Spain the day after. These events formed the prelude to a bourgeois-democratic revolution, which initially brought only limited reforms (partial autonomy for Catalonia, until 1933 distribution of only 74,000 hectares of land) and shrank from the resistance of the conservative forces. The bourgeois republicans in power quickly lost their popular base. The temporary weakening and disorientation of the republican forces made possible on November 19, 1933 the election victory of the monarchist forces organized in the Catholic "Spanish Confederation of Autonomous Right" under the leadership of Gil Robles.
Against the policies of the Robles government, which threatened to undo the few achievements of the revolution, a renewed proletarian and democratic mass movement developed. Its high points included the great solidarity strike by the Spanish workers for the February fighters in Austria, the general strike of October 5, 1934, the proclamation of an independent republic of Catalonia and the uprising of the miners of Asturias. All these actions were put down, most of them bloody like in Asturias, where in October 1934 thousands were killed and 30,000 workers were arrested. This is where General Franco excelled for the first time.

The victory of the Popular Front

The decisive event in the run-up to the civil war was the Cortes (parliamentary) elections on February 16, 1936. They ended with a great victory for the Popular Front parties (Socialist Party, Communist Party, bourgeois Republicans of the Left, Catalan Left). The new Cortes consisted of 277 MPs from the Popular Front, 132 from the Right and 32 from the Center. The strongest parliamentary group in the Popular Front parties was made up of 90 members of the Socialists; they were followed with 86 MPs by the left-wing republicans of the CEDA; the rest were made up of groups such as the Catalan Left and the anarcho-syndicalist UGT. The communists entered parliament with 16 members.
The new Popular Front government guaranteed the restoration of Catalonia's autonomy on the basis of the constitution of 1931 and began to implement bourgeois-democratic reforms (amnesty for political prisoners, separation of church and state along with other anti-clerical laws, land distribution to 100,000 peasants, social legislation, educational reform, Women's suffrage), but without consistently fighting the social and political supports of the old regime.
But that alone was enough for the generals, big landowners, the financial oligarchy and the higher clergy to open a campaign against Spanish democracy with the aim of smashing the popular front. In doing so, they found international help, hidden by British, French, American, Belgian and Swiss finance capital, openly by the fascist powers Germany and Italy. As early as March 12, 1936 in Berlin, Hitler and Göring promised full support to the Spanish general José Sanjurjo in the conspiracy against the Popular Front government and it was carried out from the moment. In place of General Sanjurjo, who died in a plane crash, Generals Mola and Franco were then charged with leading the military coup that began on July 17, 1936 in Spanish Morocco and on July 18 in Spain, and immediately joined by Italy and Germany War material was supported on a large scale. This triggered the national-revolutionary war of the Spanish people, which was directed both against the fascist-monarchist putschists at home and against the intervention of Mussolini-Italy and Hitler-Germany.

The beginning of the civil war

In the initial phase, the putschists faced defeat. The revolts in Madrid, Barcelona and many other cities were crushed in a short time. Within a few days, three-quarters of the country was firmly in the hands of the Popular Front. Franco only managed to gain a foothold in the province of Seville-Cadiz, in Old Castile, Navarre, as well as in Galicia and part of Aragon. With enormous forces - men and officers, weapons of all kinds, airplanes and warships - Italy and Germany came to the aid of Franco. On July 27, 1936, German planes began to transport counter-revolutionary Spanish troops (around 15,000 men) and war material (300 tons) from Morocco to Spain. At the height of the intervention, around 330,000 Italian and 16,000 German soldiers, equipped with the most modern weapons, fought on the side of the Spanish reaction.
German and Italian fascism were politically interested in smashing the Spanish Popular Front because it threatened to have a revolutionary influence on Europe. They needed a fascist Spain as a reliable ally against the Popular Front in France, which had existed since 1936 under the Social Democrat Léon Blum. The intervention also served the testing of newly developed weapons, the training of the cadres of the German and Italian armed forces and the testing of new forms of tactical warfare. Spain thus became the run-up to the Second World War.
Franco came to the aid of Germany and Italy in a direct and open manner. He was also indirectly supported by the so-called "non-interference policy" of France, Great Britain and other states, which was an expression of the sympathy of global imperialist big business for him and his goals.


Non-interference in the internal affairs of a state is one of the most important pillars of principles of international law. But an example of how intervention can be encouraged through "non-interference" was the policy of the Western powers on the Non-Interference Committee during the Spanish Civil War.
On September 9, 1936, an international non-interference committee was formed with its seat in London, to which 27 states belonged, including France, Great Britain, the USSR and also the fascist states Germany and Italy. The task of the committee should be to ensure that no foreign power interferes in the affairs of Spain. The Soviet Union had joined the committee with the motive to expose the already extensive intervention of Hitler-Germany and Mussolini-Italy before the world public and to ensure that through actual neutrality of all powers of the legitimate Popular Front government in Spain the possibility of a quick and complete victory over Franco -Putschists was given.
The representatives of the Western powers in the non-interference committee, including the Popular Front government under Léon Blum in France since June 5, 1936, pursued other goals, which could be seen in the acts. France and Great Britain confiscated the gold holdings deposited with them by the legitimate Spanish government, deprived it of the ability to buy weapons and obtain loans, forbade all exports and transit deliveries of war material, including aircraft, to the Spanish Republic and also the departure of volunteers who were in wanted to line up the international brigades. Although the USA was not formally a member of the Non-Interference Committee, its so-called policy of neutrality also pursued the strangulation of republican Spain. The United States refused the Popular Front government to buy arms and also banned the departure of volunteers. In fact, the “non-interference” of the Western powers turned out to be a policy of non-interference in the intervention of Germany and Italy in Spain; it was one of the manifestations of the "appeasement" policy towards Hitler and Mussolini.

International aid

When this became apparent, the government of the USSR declared on October 23, 1936 that it was no longer bound by the non-interference agreements. This decision was of great importance for the defense of the Spanish republic, as the Soviet Union provided Spain with a loan of 85 million rubles and sent ships with food, medicine, weapons, planes and military advisers. A total of 2500 Soviet volunteers came to Spain, mainly pilots, tank crews and staff officers. Another state that officially supported the Spanish constitutional government was Mexico.
On November 6, 1936, Franco's troops began an offensive against Madrid. The Spanish capital was to be conquered in a flash by four columns and a “fifth column” - fascist supporters and saboteurs in the republican hinterland - supported by bombing of the civilian population. But Madrid, whose outskirts had already been reached by the attackers, offered bitter resistance under the slogan “No pasaran!” (“You won't get through!”). On November 8, 1936, the first interbrigadists entered Madrid and, supported by the fighters supplied from the Soviet Union, took part in the successful defense of Madrid. In the period that followed, volunteers from all parts of the world grew to around 36,000, including 1390 from Austria, communists, socialists, former fighting Schutzbündler and anti-fascist-minded people who, under often adventurous circumstances, made their way to Spain to support the Popular Front government. They embodied what one should understand by lived internationalism.
Following a call by the Spanish Communist Party on December 18, 1936, the Republican government introduced compulsory military service and began to form a regular army under a single command. In February 1937, the new Spanish People's Army halted the fascist offensive on the Jarama River and then dealt heavy blows to the Franco troops and those who intervened in offensive battles. In March 1937, the Italian Fascist Corps suffered a heavy defeat in the Battle of Guadalajara.

Radical measures

The successes on the fronts were primarily due to the radicalization of the bourgeois-democratic upheaval under the cabinets Largo Caballero and Negrin. Agricultural cooperatives arose in the countryside; the land of enemies of the republic was expropriated; there was the creation of a state-controlled industry and workers' control in the factories; the clergy was disempowered; the solution of the national question was pushed forward (extensive autonomy for Catalonia and the Basque Country). The transition to a revolution of the popular democratic type began.
Hitler and Goebbels, knowing full well what, despite all the contradictions between them and the capitalists elsewhere in the world, formed the common basis - namely anti-communism - shot against the measures of the Spanish Popular Front government from full pipes and presented them as a threat to Christianity, conservatism, Nationalism and western civilization through “godless Bolshevism”. They emphasized to the "appeasement powers" Great Britain and France that the Soviet Union was now about to gain a foothold in Spain and that only a National Socialist Germany would be able to act as a bastion of Europe against Soviet aggressiveness.
Despite barbaric warfare with bombing attacks on defenseless cities, e.g. on Guernica on April 26, 1937 by Hitler's "Condor Legion", the will of the Spanish people to fight could not be broken. In the following major battles near Brunete (July 1937), in Aragon (late August to early December 1937) and near Teruel (mid-December 1937 to early March 1938) Franco and his allies did not achieve their goals.
The situation in the republic only deteriorated when the fascists, thanks to the tremendous armed superiority they had achieved, thanks to the non-interference policy of the Western powers, were able to advance to the Mediterranean on April 15, 1938, and thereby divert the territory of the republic into a northern one (Catalonia) and cut up a southern section (provinces of Madrid, Valencia, Alicante, Murcia, Albacete).
The last major battle began on the Ebro in July 1938. Within a few days, the People's Army wrested 600 square kilometers of territory from Franco's troops. In a counter-offensive of over two months, the fascists succeeded thanks to their superior weapons (15: 1 for heavy artillery, 10: 1 for light artillery, 15: 1 for bomber planes and 10: 1 for fighter planes) to re-occupy the lost positions on the Ebro .

End and outlook

The Spanish civil war was drawing to a close. In September 1938 the international brigades were withdrawn from the fronts. The republican government of Negrin followed a decision of the League of Nations, which demanded the withdrawal of all foreign soldiers and officers from Spain - in the mistaken hope that the fascist powers would then also stop their intervention.
Barcelona fell on January 26, 1939, and Franco's troops marched into Madrid on March 28, 1939. This ended the Spanish civil war in a fascist victory. On February 27, 1939, France and Great Britain had broken off diplomatic relations with the legitimate government of Spain and recognized the Franco government. The non-interference committee in London disbanded in the spring of 1939. The USA recognized Franco on April 1, 1939.
The war in Spain claimed 500,000 to 600,000 deaths, including 300,000 to 400,000 republican opponents murdered by the Franco regime between 1936 and 1944. Around 1.5 million people were arrested and thrown into prisons. Spain experienced a brutal terror under Franco like never before in its history, only comparable to the time of the Inquisition with its auto-dafe. A psychological trauma remained in Spanish society that continues to this day and the symptoms of which the writer Erich Hackl vividly described in a recently published article.4
Franco Spain, which did not take part in World War II, but helped Hitler Germany in other ways (bases for the German submarines, deployment of the “Blue Division” in the campaign against the Soviet Union), was the only fascist regime alongside Salazar Portugal in Europe, which survived 1945 unscathed. The secret support it had always found on the part of western big business continued openly after the end of the Second World War, this time under the aegis of the United States. Only after Franco's death in November 1975 did Spain return to bourgeois democracy.
The struggle of the Spanish people from 1936 to 1939 was not in vain, just as the struggle against fascism in general can never be in vain. The international labor movement and all democratic forces learned from it how to better prepare for the anti-fascist struggle. The solidarity actions of the peoples for the Spanish Republic contributed to preparing the later anti-Hitler coalition and thus paving the way to victory over fascism in World War II.

Slightly changed excerpt from the course cycle “History of Europe in the Age of World Wars 1914 to 1945”, which the author held at the University of Linz for several years.

1 / Basque is a language that is not related to any other in Europe and does not belong to the group of Indo-European languages. Probably the Basques are descendants of the Iberian indigenous people.
2 / The language of the Catalans is a hybrid of Spanish and a French dialect, Provencal. It is spoken in Catalonia with its capital Barcelona and on the Balearic Islands. Catalonia was and is the most industrialized and economically strongest area in Spain.
3 / The Galicians in northwestern Spain are linguistically related to the Portuguese.
4 / Erich Hackl, In one and in the other country, in: Die Presse, Spectrum, March 10, 2006, pp. I to III.

Announcements from the Alfred Klahr Society, No. 1/2006