23 AUGUST, 1917: World Invades Spain!

No real reason for the date at the top, except that it matched the date I started writing this post – just before the laptop fried, a long way from home.  That’s my excuse for running late, and for what will almost certainly turn out to be a somewhat lightweight, top-of-the-head wander through the War.  So anyway…

A hundred years ago, Western Europe was engaged in an outburst of unseasonal fighting.  The Third Battle of Ypres was into the fury of its second phase, the Italian Army had just launched its eleventh assault on the Isonzo, and the French Army was two days into a minor offensive around Verdun.

None of these attacks was destined to achieve anything very significant.  We know what happened at Passchendaele, and the French operation –essentially a test-run of the Army’s military competence after the mutiny of the spring – achieved the recapture of one stubborn (if symbolic) German outpost on the hill known as Mort Homme on 20 August, and then stopped.  The Italians meanwhile made moderate initial gains with their latest, and last, attempt to dislodge weakening Austro-Hungarian defences at the Isonzo, but progress halted when large-scale German reinforcements arrived from the dormant Eastern Front, leaving Italian forces in exposed positions pending an Austro-German counterattack.

Posterity may not make much of these battles but they certainly hogged the headlines at the time, leaving barely a paragraph for news of serious internal disturbances in one of Western Europe’s biggest countries.  Spain’s experience of the First World War gets even less treatment from today’s heritage industry, so here’s a look at why the country was under martial law in August 1917.  It should be a long, complicated look, in line with the subject’s complexities, but I haven’t got time to put in the kind of research I’d need to get the details right so you’ll have to make do with a bunch of sweeping generalisations.

Broadly speaking, Spain in 1914 was a mess, economically and politically backward after centuries of sociopolitical stasis under an aristocratic oligarchy that used colonial wealth to keep a modernising world at bay.  A restored Bourbon monarchy had been in power since the end of 1874, in theory constitutional and liberal, but in fact operating along lines that pre-dated the advent of mass, or even bourgeois political influence in more advanced states, so that national politics were controlled by and for an oligarchy of nobles and their clients.  Trade and industry were similarly marooned in the pre-industrial age, and Spain’s capacity for external military activity was generally and rightly regarded as non-existent, a condition confirmed by a disastrous war colonial against the USA at the end of the nineteenth century.

This one was originally captioned ‘life in Spain, 1917’, and I guess that sums it up.

Military uselessness meant nobody was very interested in triggering the government’s pre-War defensive alliances with Britain and France in 1914, but mere decrepitude was not in itself enough to keep Spain out of the War.  Other countries in southern Europe with essentially pre-industrial economies and little military clout spent the first three years of the War being bribed or bullied into the conflict by one side or the other, but unlike Bulgaria, Romania or Greece, Spain was in no geographical or political position to harbour territorial ambitions, and unlike Portugal it had no colonial possessions near other people’s war zones.

So Spain was spared extreme pressure from either side to join the fighting, and was able to remain neutral throughout the War, but as warfare went total the country became part of the global battle for supplies.

For some neutral countries this was no bad thing.  Those neutrals outside Europe, particularly in the Americas, could enjoy economic good times based on massively increased demand (though British control of long-range trade routes prevented large-scale business with the Central Powers), and had little to fear beyond the occasional loss of ships and lives to U-boats or saboteurs.

Neutral European states could more easily trade with both sides, especially if they had overland links to the Central Powers, but ran a much greater risk of interference from, or even invasion by the belligerent empires on their doorsteps.  Those that managed to maintain and even benefit from neutrality tended to be prosperous, politically stable countries, equipped with social structures capable of withstanding the pressures brought by wartime economic change and political uncertainty – northern European countries like the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden, but not like Spain.

In Spain, as in other neutral countries, debate about whether to join one side or the other rapidly became a major political issue, fuelled by the activities of agents from both sides seeking a monopoly over Spanish exports.  Where in some states, Greece springs inevitably to mind, the debate boiled over into civil war, in Spain it woke up politics.  The limitations and uncertainties of the government’s vaguely pro-Entente stance provided a platform for dispute that effectively reignited a system hitherto controlled from above by a combination of rigged elections and institutionalised bureaucratic corruption, but above all maintained from below by the political apathy of most Spaniards.

At the same time the flood of work and money into Spain, as it strove to meet escalating demands for raw materials from both sides, swept in a storm of modern ideas and circumstances that the monarchy and aristocracy couldn’t begin to control.  Seasoned by a smattering of rapid industrialisation in the textile and iron industries, rampant inflation fuelled the social discontent that bred mass politicisation, while socialist ideas flourished under the yoke of profiteering employers, and the concentration of incoming wealth in the relatively developed north of Spain fed tensions between the centre and the provinces.

The ruling oligarchy was forced to turn for support to the newly rich merchant and landowning middle classes, and to an army much more interested in internal affairs than foreign adventures, but by 1917 it faced serious opposition from elements of both groups.  As pressure for Catalan independence mounted in Barcelona, and the Army began organising its own political institutions in the name of centrism, the monarchist government of Count Romanones was forced to resign in April 1917.  Romanones was replaced by a series of prime ministers increasingly sympathetic to the military, which gained further influence at the centre in direct proportion to the threat level posed by the regime’s third big problem – the socialist revolutionary forces that were gaining support in the wake of Russia’s world-shaking February Revolution.

Displaying the same, almost touching optimism that characterised some of the Russian Provisional Government’s behaviour, Spanish socialists made a bid for revolution in August 1917.  The Workers’ General Union (UGT), by far the biggest in Spain, reacted to the failure of a railway workers’ strike to halt traffic by announcing its expansion into a general strike on 14 August.  Called in conjunction with the anarchist National Confederation of Labour (CNT) and the small Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), the strike’s stated aim was the downfall of the monarchy, but the end of apathy isn’t quite the same as revolutionary fervour.  Despite strong support in some cities (especially Barcelona) the strike was ignored by most workers, caused only temporary disruption and collapsed within a few days.

Troops attacking strikers in Madrid, August 1917. They had it much worse in Barcelona, where 70 were killed.

After a period of falling membership and squabbling between moderate union reformers, separatists, anarchists and socialist revolutionaries, mass, left-wing politics would return to the national stage with a second, far more successful general strike in 1919.  In the meantime the failed strike of 1917 gave the regime and the Army an excuse to impose martial law, and to use violence to suppress strikers wherever they took to the streets.

Military support would continue prop up the regime for the remainder of War, representing the strengthening right wing of an increasingly, irrevocably polarized political landscape.  The Army would eventually run out of patience with separatists, socialists and liberals in 1923, when a coup d’état saw Catalan General Miguel Primo de Rivera take power as dictator under the nominal leadership of King Alfonso XIII.  Alfonso was driven into exile less than a year after Primo de Rivera’s death in 1930, but all the divisions exposed by Spain’s hothouse exploitation during the First World War resurfaced under a Spanish Republic that presided over the nation’s slide to civil war in 1936.

So the links between world war and civil war in Spain are as definite as they are generally ignored, and history offers a fairly straight line from civil war via Franco to modern Spain.  Nobody’s pretending the old Bourbon monarchy would still be presiding over a semi-feudal sump of decadent corruption if the First World War hadn’t come along, but there’s no denying that, hundreds of kilometres behind the backs of Haig’s poor, mud-soaked Tommies, a fundamental strand of European culture was being painfully resuscitated to meet the conflict’s insatiable demands.

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