Seed of Disaster, the Spanish Constitution of 1931

Over the centuries, the Spanish monarchy learned very well how to use religion as an instrument of social control. Catholicism had been enshrined as the official religion of the State since AD 859. These twin strands of Spanish political DNA were broken for the first time by the new Constitution of 1931.

King Alfonso XIII abdicated, swept away by broad popular support for the liberal reforms of the newly elected Republicans; and Church was separated from State. The Catholic hierarchy was horrified to find its traditional privileges threatened by the new constitution’s integral anti-clericalism, and openly supported the coalition of right-wing opposition to a government seeking reforms through negotiation rather than the traditional Spanish route of repression and violence.

Without the intransigence of the Catholic Church, the moderate government might have survived; but in the see-saw of right- and left- wing power coups that followed, the essentially bourgeois government was forced to use the same tools of repression created by the Church during its centuries of dominance. Public order disintegrated as left- and right-wing extremists weakened the moderate center by inciting violent response to each other’s violent provocations.

The 1931 Constitution was characterized by decency and nobility of purpose. It established universal suffrage, women’s fundamental rights, regional autonomy and freedom of speech and worship. It was a disaster because it was far too radical for the exaltados (bigwigs) of the political right (monarchists, falangists, the army and the Church) and not nearly radical enough for the socialists and anarchists of the left. Its offer of human rights for all polarized Spanish society by invoking centuries of prejudice: in fact nobody knew how to implement such a manifesto of social magnariimity. The subsequent tragedy of the civil war was inevitable – but the 1931 Constitution also planted the seeds of Spain’s transforming success after Franco’s death, during the late 20th century.

When: April 1931

Where: Madrid, Spain

Death toll: Five years of growing civil unrest culminated in the revolt of the garrisons of Ceuta, Melilla and Tetuan on July 17 1936, and the start of a bloody civil war between General Franco’s Nationalists and the Republic in which some 100,000 lost their lives. After the civil war ended in the winter of 1938-1939, Franco abolished the 1931 Constitution and sought revenge. Between 1939 and 1943 an estimated 200,000 people died in his prisons.

You should know: The 1931 Constitution of Spain’s Second Republic survived just eight years in all its variations, it is sometimes compared to Guernica’s ‘shattered tree’, the symbol of the town’s disaster immortalized by Picasso. Today, residents point at the tree on the same spot in the same square and tell you ‘it’s not the actual tree, but it’s like the one that was here’. They should know.

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