Politics and the Military in Modern Spain
The Goodbye Land
As everyone knows, the present regime in Spain had its origin in a rebellion of the Army against the constitutionally elected Government. Such military rebellions, though not occurring in other West European countries, have had a long history in Spain and in Latin America and are now becoming almost the rule in new and undeveloped countries. A study of how they first came about should therefore have its interest, and that is what Stanley G. Payne provides in his lucid and scholarly work, Politics and the Military.
The beginnings of the intervention of the Spanish Army in politics go back to the period that followed the Napoleonic War, when it made itself the champion of the weak Liberal middle classes against the autocratic leanings of the clergy and the Court. From its success in putting down the Carlist rebellion in the 1830s, it acquired the belief that in times of stress it represented the national will, so that whenever the government appeared to be moving too far to the Right or to the Left it “pronounced” against it. This was a role that in theory at least the country accepted. The interventions of the military, first to dethrone Queen Isabella and then to put an end to the chaotic Federal Republic of 1873-4, were popular, and, though after this date the strengthening of the civil government kept them out of politics, it was generally agreed that in times of disorder or subversion they had the right to step in to save the country.
Yet it should be noted that none of the generals of the nineteenth century who made successful pronunciamientos set up military dictatorships. They merely became prime ministers in another civilian administration and held elections which, since all elections were rigged, they won. Thus they acted, as they claimed to do, as a regulating force, for in the weak and top-heavy political structure of the country, a pronunciamiento was often the only way of getting rid of an unpopular government.
THE ARMY, however, had another function, which was to provide light employment, followed by a pension, for the middle classes. Thus it was hugely over-officered. On an average there was one officer on the active list for every seven or eight men, and one general for every hundred. So much money had to be assigned to officers’ salaries that there was hardly anything left over for equipment or for decent living conditions for the men. Yet even so, no married officer under the rank of colonel could support himself on what he got, but had to find some civilian job to supplement it. The training of the men, such as it was, was left to the sergeants. The natural consequence of this was that when the Army was called on to fight in a colonial war it showed itself incompetent. This happened in the two Cuban rebellions in the 1870s and 1890s. Tens of thousands of untrained conscripts were drafted out to die of disease, while officers were not sent abroad unless they volunteered for foreign service. The end came in the war with the United States and the loss of what was left of Spain’s colonial empire.
The sense of shame and discouragement which this defeat aroused led to a drawing together of the officers’ corps and to a great increase in their touchiness. After wrecking the offices of two newspapers which had criticized them, they obliged the government to pass a law by which any offense, however trivial, against the Army or the police was to be tried by court martial. Later, to protect their interests, they set up the Military Defense Juntas, that is, trade unions which made certain demands. Then in 1921 a terrible disaster occurred. A Spanish army was completely destroyed at Annual in Morocco by a greatly inferior number of Moors. The commission of inquiry set up afterward found scandalous examples of incompetence, lack of discipline, and corruption.
Two years later General Primo de Rivera made the first successful pronunciamiento since 1874. As the politicians were by this time discredited, he formed a military dictatorship which for some years was popular. It was a mild dictatorship, much given to public works, and it scored one great success. With the help of the French it subdued the whole of the Spanish Zone of Morocco and so put an end forever to that useless drain of life. But Primo did not feel strong enough to reform the Army. This was left for Azaña, the first war minister of the Republic that followed the dictator’s fall, who cut down the officer corps from 22,000 to 8,000 and retired the rest on full pay.
RATHER MORE THAN half of Mr. Payne’s book is devoted to the period between 1813 and 1931. The chief impression that emerges from it is of the passiveness and egoism of the Spanish officer corps, which, of course, was a reflection of the stagnation, tempered by brief periods of revolutionary fervor, of civilian life. As a body all they cared about was pay and promotion, for most of the pronunciamientos were the work of ambitious generals. Yet this officer corps, though oversensitive to criticism, was never infected, as the German officers were, by a militaristic spirit. As time went on, it showed less and less inclination to play a part in politics, and the only things that aroused its concern were the lapse of the country into disorder and a threat to its unity.
But perhaps the most absorbing part of Mr. Payne’s book is that which deals with the period from 1936 to the present time. His account of the military conspiracy, which is based partly on new data, shows the great obstacles it had to overcome in the hesitations of all the generals, so that but for the fear and horror created by the assassination of Calvo Sotelo, the leader of the extreme Right, it might never, though already decided on, have taken place. This hesitation was due almost entirely to the difficulty and danger of the enterprise, for by the rules of Spanish politics the military had a duty to intervene if they thought that the country was lapsing into anarchy. The Popular Front majority at the elections had been very small and could not be held to justify a takeover by the revolutionary working classes. Yet this was what they said they were going to do, so that the only question each garrison commander had to ask himself was whether the weak Liberal Government would be able to prevent it.
In the situation that spring when everything hung in the balance, the moral collapse of the prime minister, Azaña, was the decisive factor. Like everyone else he expected the rising to come from the Left, and forgot that, so long as he had the Army behind him, no successful revolution would be possible. But to be sure of the Army he would have to invite the support of the moderate Right, appoint a leading general as Minister for War, and set up a more or less dictatorial regime. His past as a Liberal forbade him to do this. Instead he allowed the country to lapse into a state of revolutionary and counter-revolutionary permissiveness, forgetting that this was something the armed forces would never tolerate. They would rise, and their rising would either end a century of struggle toward parliamentary democracy or it would trigger off a social revolution in which half the militant working classes would be under anarchist leadership and half under socialist.
What seems shocking today about the military rebellion is not the fact of its occurrence, but the severity of the repression that accompanied it and that continued until long after its aims had been secured. The first months saw an orgy of killing on both sides, but as soon as the Republican Government had recovered its authority, it put an end to the work of the murder gangs and greatly reduced the number of official executions, whereas on the Nationalist side these last continued steadily and on a huge scale throughout the war and for three years after the end of it. In the early days the White terror could sometimes claim to have a military justification because the small rebel forces were holding down large hostile populations; but the mass executions of the subsequent months and years can only, as Mr. Payne says, be explained by a deliberate policy of destroying and terrorizing the working classes so that they would never be a problem again, and at the same time binding the victors together by a feeling of collective guilt. This “calculated cruelty and premeditated hatred,” as he terms it, sickened many people and sabotaged the program of the Falangists for winning over the workers, but no one except General Yagüe, the conquerer of Badajoz, dared to protest.
LOOKING BACK TODAY one-can see that it was a tragedy for Spain that Madrid did not fall to the Nationalists in November 1936, since that would have ended the war and permitted a less angry and vindictive spirit to prevail. But another tragedy was the imprisonment and and execution of José Primo de Rivera, the Falangist leader. He was a singularly attractive man, imaginative, humane, and averse to violence, who always maintained that he was closer to the Socialists than to the Army or the Right. Under his leadership the Falange had been a party with social as well as nationalist ideals, and though it is unlikely that he could have imposed his views on the Military Government, his charismatic influence over his young followers would have made him a person to be reckoned with. Instead his party, which threw up no men of ability, was forcibly fused with the reactionary Right and its program watered down. Its new chief, Hedilla, was given a long sentence of imprisonment.
FRANCO COMES out of this book as a cold, unemotional, self-contained man who was slow in making up his mind because he had no political ideas of his own to draw on. Hence he did not attempt to create a party of his own, but “interpreted his dictatorial function as that of absolute arbiter between all political, social and economic forces supporting the rebel movement.” Like Philip II, whom in many ways he resembles, he leaned on others for ideas yet changed his advisers often, was full of a deep unshakeable confidence in himself and determined to have no rivals. His cautious, procrastinating temper has suited the troubled times he has been cast for. Indeed one may say that, so far as foreign policy is concerned, Spain has been lucky in possessing a ruler who showed such a marked disinclination for adventures and such an unhurried skill in trimming his sails. In home affairs his grasp of the techniques of power has been his greatest asset.
The regime was able to survive the years of hunger and discontent that followed the European War because the country was shell-shocked and exhausted. Any danger that there might have been of a monarchist restoration was averted by the ostracism of Spain by the victorious powers, which drew the generals around the Caudillo in patriotic solidarity. Then in 1953, with the coming of the Cold War, the military and economic treaty with the United States opened a door. The tourists followed, another million of them every year, and the money they brought in was employed to build up the country’s industry and agriculture to a level far above anything it had previously known and to carry through an ambitious program of public works and housing. At the same time the Army was reformed with American help and converted into an efficient and professional corps without political ambitions.
THE RAPIDITY of the change has been startling. Fifteen years ago Spain was a poverty-stricken and deeply unhappy country that seemed to have no future. Today it is a modern nation with a standard of living that is steadily rising. The possibility of owning a motorcycle or a television set has opened up new horizons to the working classes, while the middle and lower-middle classes are hard at work adding to their bank accounts. The desire to have more money than one’s neighbors, which is the active force in capitalism, may not be a very noble impulse, but it releases energies in a way that nothing else can. If I am right in thinking that most of the misfortunes of Spain since the sixteenth century have been due to its economic stagnation, then it seems likely that a much more vigorous as well as a happier nation is coming into existence.
As to the future, it would seem that the country is committed for some time to come to the idea of a corporate state. To the victors in the Civil War the enemy is not so much Communism as parliamentary democracy, which they hold responsible for all the evils the country has suffered in the past—that is to say, a violent class struggle, regional separatism, and lack of economic planning. Their success in recent years has certainly been owing in part to the elimination of these. But they have yet to solve the problem that any corporate or authoritarian state has to face in the climate of today, which is how to root its system in popular consent. Elections, if they are genuine, open the way to parliamentary democracy; freedom of teaching in the universities leads to criticism of the regime. Yet without some free discussion and criticism, the regime will ossify. It cannot live indefinitely, as the Falangists would like it to do, on good works and propaganda. At present there is a growing movement in the country in favor of a greater liberalization, but the Government with its new Organic Law is trying to block this. As the argument is between those who remember the Republic and the Civil War and those who are too young to do this, it is easy to see who will win in the end.
IT IS A PLEASANT CHANGE to leave the violence and futility of recent Spanish history for a book about the Spaniards themselves. José Yglesias is an American writer of Spanish origin, born and brought up in Tampa, Florida, who had the idea of visiting the village in Galicia to which his father had returned forty years before to see if he could discover how he had spent his last days. So this city-dressed American, with his Russian Jewish wife, and with a camera slung around his neck, turned up in a small, poverty-stricken aldea or hamlet near Corunna and began his inquiry. He met cousins of whose existence he had never known before, some of them leading the life of very poor peasants, and with their at first rather grudging help followed up the tangled tale of his father’s last years and death. The result is a book written with great art in a deceptively simple style. It takes one right into the mysteries of Galician life, as an account by a complete foreigner could never do, yet it is in no way a sociological study but the story of quest that unfolds all the time and keeps one guessing to the end. The picture it presents of the primitive peasant mind—its warmth and kindness, its reserve and suspicion, its strong family feeling, its obsession about land and money—is the best I have read anywhere. Mr. Yglesias is a writer of considerable subtlety and perceptiveness with a strong sense of narrative form, and I do not think that anyone can fail to enjoy or learn from his little masterpiece.