The New New Spanish History

Fascism from Above: The Dictatorship of Primo de Rivera in Spain, 1923–1930

by Shlomo Ben-Ami
Oxford University Press (Clarendon Press), 454 pp., $45.00

Revolution and War in Spain, 1931–1939

edited by Paul Preston
Methuen, 299 pp., $12.95 (paper)

La Encrucijada Vasca: Una vivisección sobre la crisis de convivencia en Euskadi

by Ricardo García Damborenea
Argos Vergara (Barcelona), 250 pp., 850 pesetas

After the intellectual drought of Francoism has come the literary deluge of democracy. The caudillo did not favor an atmosphere conductive to the critical study of contemporary history. His preferred period was the sixteenth century, his hero the monk–monarch Philip II; he built his Pharaonic mausoleum near the monastery–palace of the Escorial. Now the floodgates are open. First, as Francoism fell apart, from the late 1960s onward, many of the books on the recent history of Spain tended to reflect the Marxist subculture of the opposition. Then, as the Marxist enthusiasm of the 1960s withered away and the Spanish Communist party became wrecked by dogmatism and factionalism, what might be called the revisionist school emerged. It includes some impressive scholars. One of the best known is Angel Viñas, who has written important books on German intervention in the civil war, on the “Moscow Gold” sent by the Republic to the USSR in payment for arms during the civil war, and on Franco’s foreign policy. Another major work is Shlomo Ben-Ami’s Fascism from Above, a detailed study of the military dictatorship of General Primo de Rivera, who seized power in 1923, and who was forced to resign in 1930, making way for the Spanish Republic.

Ben-Ami uses scrupulous scholarship (including 2066 footnotes) to support a strong thesis. Primo de Rivera’s dictatorship, he maintains, should not be treated as the passage through history of a bungling, well-intentioned bon vivant, a sentimental patriot who inundated Spain with his inmost thoughts. It should be seen as the serious attempt to create a “new state.” True, the new state was a failure, but, according to Ben-Ami, it inaugurated policies that were to become “corner-stones of the Spanish right and eventually of the Francoist state.” Moreover, Ben-Ami argues, it must be seen in comparison with contemporary authoritarian experiments in the Balkans and elsewhere in peripheral Europe. Spanish history had been bedeviled for a hundred years by short-lived takeovers of power through blustering pronunciamentos, the Spanish way of announcing that democratic government has been annulled. To dismiss Primo de Rivera’s seizure of power in September of 1923 as one of these, in Ben-Ami’s view, would be to mistake the means of achieving power for the ends.

For Ben-Ami, Rivera’s military coup had a social backing denied to previous practitioners of praetorian politics. There was, first, a genuine revolution from below in Catalonia, which Ben-Ami sees as the consequence of modernization and the accompanying growth of a militant proletariat. The bourgeoisie, no longer protected by the rickety institutions of a parliamentary monarchy, and obsessed by the Red scare, rallied enthusiastically to the dictator when he “rose” in Barcelona to install the revolution from above. Once he attempted to tax the well to-do and favored workers’ wage claims, the bourgeoisie deserted him and he fell.

Ben-Ami’s theses are stimulating and have much else to commend them. But comparative history has its limitations as an aid to the understanding of …

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