The Catalan Republic under Macià and Companys

from Catalonia Is Not Spain: A Historical Perspective by Simon Harris

Catalonia Is Not Spain: A Historical Perspective by Simon Harris

To counterbalance the typical view of the lead up to the Spanish Civil War as a battle between left and right, democracy and totalitarianism, it is worth looking at the careers of the two Presidents of the Generalitat durng Spain's Second Republic. Francesc Macià was a left-wing Catalanist and Lluís Companys was a Catalanist left-winger. It is impossible to understand how Franco came to power without considering the role of Spain's other nationalities.






Chapter 20: The Catalan Republic under Macià and Companys

"Our aim is to open a brief parenthesis in the constitutional life of Spain and to re-establish it as soon as the country offers us men uncontaminated with the vices of political organization." These were the words with which Miguel Primo de Rivera began the first dictatorship of 20th-century Spain.

Primo de Rivera's dictatorship and the Second Spanish Republic form part of the lead up to the Spanish Civil War. Most historians interpret the period as a battle between left and right or democracy against fascism. Whilst true in the main, Spain's relative backwardness compared with the rest of Europe and the tensions between the country's various nationalities make the situation more complex.

From a Spanish point of view, Primo de Rivera was little different from other army officers who had staged pronunicamientos or coups in the previous century. His main objective was to impose law and order and military rule. In fact, King Alfonso XIII named him Prime Minister of Spain so he can be seen as a successor to the long list of army generals who took control of Spain by non-democratic means throughout the 19th century. However, in the light of early 20th century European politics, Primo de Rivera is seen as a contemporary of Mussolini and his slogan of "Country, Religion, Monarchy" bears close similarities to the ideas around which the Franco regime was based.

When Primo de Rivera resigned in January 1930, Spain was once again in a state of disorder and King Alfonso XIII's reputation was in tatters. Alfonso appointed first General Berenguer and then Admiral Aznar as prime minister but the Spanish municipal elections of April 1931 were treated as a plebiscite on the monarchy, which the king clearly lost. The Second Republic was declared and Alfonso XIII was forced to abandon Spain.

A great deal has been written about the political upheavals of the Second Republic and the events that led to the Spanish Civil War from the point of view of a pulse between left and right or between democrats and totalitarians. The importance of Spain's other nations, the Catalans and the Basques, in the lead up to the conflict cannot be overlooked.

The Generalitat was restored at the start of the Second Republic and the left-wing Catalanists of Esquerra Republican de Catalunya or the Catalan Republican Left, governed Catalonia until the end of the Civil War. For a Catalan take on the events, the careers of the two men who were to occupy the position of President of the Generalitat throughout the Second Republic, Francesc Macià and Lluís Companys, are a good place to start.

Francesc Macià

Francesc Macià's progression from monarchist military man to Catalan republican separatist parallels the changes that took place in Catalonia's aspirations during the 70 years that straddle the turn of the 20th century.

Born in Vilanova i la Geltrú in 1859 into a family with a small olive oil business in Les Borges Blanques, Francesc Macià enrolled in the Guadalajara military academy in 1876. He became an engineer specialising in bridges, railways and telegraphs. In 1887, Macià was posted to Lleida where he met his wife, Eugènia Lamarca, with whom he had three children. An unremarkable military career lay before him.

However, in 1905, with the rank of lieutenant colonel, Macià spoke out against the actions of the military in the attack on the Cu-Cut! and Veu de Catalunya offices, mentioned in the last chapter. This led to arguments between Macià and his superiors and the 46-year-old military engineer was approached by various political parties.

The subsequent Ley de jurisdicciones de represión dels delitos contra la patria i contra el ejercito or Law of jurisdiction of repression of crimes against the fatherland and against the army led to the creation of the Solidaritat Catalana coalition. Macià was chosen as a a candidate for the new formation and in the landslide Solidaritat Catalana victory in the 1907 elections, Macià was elected deputy for Les Borges Blanques and, at the height of his military career, was forced to leave the army.

Initially a supporter of  the government's regenerationist policies, Macià was reelected to Congress six times over the next decade. With each election, it appears his views became progressively more Catalanist and republican. He first founded the Federació Democràtica Nacionalista, which supported a federal Spain, before becoming fully separatist and founding the left-wing Catalanist Estat Català in 1922.

In September 1923, following Miguel Primo de Rivera's coup, Macià fled to France from where he continued his activities as leader of Estat Català by raising funds, making contact with anarchists and communists and giving support to all manner of insurrection in Spain. In 1926, the former colonel assembled an army of Catalan volunteers and, from his base in the French Catalan town of Prats de Molló, plotted to invade and free Catalonia from Primo de Rivera's dictatorship.

The plan was betrayed by an Italian fascist spy and Macià was arrested by the gendarmerie. However, the trial attracted widespread international media attention and Macià became a hero both in Catalonia and abroad. Forced to flee once again, this time to Belgium, Argentina and Cuba, Macià's ideas were becoming more radical. He founded the Partit Separatista Revolucionari de Catalunya or Revolutionary Separatist Party of Catalonia and drafted the constitution of a future Catalan Republic in 1928. It seemed as if Francesc Macià knew he would have an important role to play in Catalonia's political future.

Following the fall of Primo de Rivera's dictatorship, Macià returned to Catalonia in February 1931. A month later in the Barcelona neighbourhood of Sants, his Estat Català party joined forces with Lluís Company's Partit Republicà Català and other groups to form Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya or the Catalan Republican Left. The coalition would face the forthcoming municipal elections of April 12th as a united left-wing Catalanist front.

Esquerra Republicana swept the board in Catalonia with 3,219 councilors compared to 1,014 from the conservative Lliga Regionalista and just 219 Spanish Monarchists. The convincing pro-republican majority in Catalonia contrasted sharply with the rest of Spain, which returned 29,953 Monarchists and just 8,855 Republicans.

Francesc Macià was the indisputable leader of the Esquerra Republicana but on April 14th, it was Lluís Companys who went to take control of the City Council building in Barcelona. From the balcony, left-wing republican Companys proclaimed the Spanish Republic and raised the Spanish Republican flag. Visibly annoyed, the more Catalanist Macià arrived a few hours later. After meeting with Companys, he made a formal declaration proclaiming "the Catalan State as part of the Iberian Federation." The political differences between the two men were clear.

Despite not winning a majority, the Second Republic was proclaimed throughout Spain later the same day due to overwhelming republican support in the cities. King Alfonso XIII left the country, and representatives of the provisional Spanish government were immediately dispatched to Barcelona to bring the Catalans back into line. Still centralist in attitude, the Republican ministers were worried that a breakaway Catalonia would provoke a violent reaction from the military. After three days of negotiations, Macià agreed to limit Catalonia's independence in return for the restoration of the Generalitat. Catalonia had been an independent state for just three days.

A new Statute of Autonomy, known as the Estatut de Núria, was drawn up. In the original version drafted by the provisional Generalitat, the Catalans described themselves as "a state within the Spanish Republic" but the final version passed by the Spanish Parliament was watered down. Catalonia was just "an autonomous region within the Spanish state".

The first Catalan Statute of Autonomy of the 20th century was passed in September 1932. This was the first time an officially recognised Generalitat had governed Catalonia since 1714 and was a great improvement on the Mancomunitat.

As President of the Generalitat, the figure of Francesc Macià towers over modern Catalan history and he is affectionately known as L'Avi or grandfather. He presided over republican Catalonia until his death on Christmas Day 1933 aged 74. Lluís Companys took over the presidency of the Generalitat on January 3rd 1934.

Lluís Companys

Twenty-three years Macià's junior, Lluís Companys was 51 years old when he became President of the Generalitat in 1934. Initially more of a left-wing republican than Catalanist, Companys had been a member of Unió Republicana prior to the military attack on the Cu-Cut! offices and the formation of Solidaritat Catalana. He was a trained lawyer and his close association with legendary trades unionist leader Salvador Segui led to his arrest and imprisonment in Menorca in 1920. Companys was released the same year and was elected deputy for Congress in Madrid for the Partit Republicà Català.

Still committed to trades union activities, Companys was a founder members of the Unió de Rabassaires, the most important agricultural trades unions in pre-Civil War Catalonia. His active opposition to Miguel Primo de Rivera's dictatorship led to his imprisonment once again in 1930. One of the founding members of Esquerra Republicana along with Macià, Companys was elected to Barcelona city council in the municipal elections that brought about the creation of the Second Spanish Republic in 1931.

More of left-wing republican than the purely Catalanist Macià, Companys' proclaimed the Spanish rather than the Catalan Republic following the election victory. Despite Macià's annoyance, Companys occupied various positions in the first legislature, including Civil Governor of Barcelona and President of the Parliament of Catalonia. Company's left-wing stance, commitment to agricultural land reform and popularity amongst the workers' movements made him the obvious choice as President of the Generalitat following Macià's death in 1933.

In November 1933, just prior to Macià death, the general election in the rest of Spain had been won by José Maria Gil Robles' right-wing CEDA coalition which included the anti-Catalanist Radical Republicans of Alejandro Lerroux. This coalition ran Spain during what became known as the Second Republic's Black Biennial. The new Spanish government not only threatened education and land reforms throughout Spain but also openly questioned the Generalitat and Catalan autonomy. A head on conflict was just a matter of time.

On October 2nd 1934, a general strike was declared across Spain against the right-wing CEDA government. Aliança Obrera, the left alliance of socialists, anarchists, communists and Catalanists, staged a mass demonstration on Friday October 5th with the tacit support of Companys and the Generalitat. Barcelona was occupied without violence. The following afternoon a multitudinous but peaceful Aliança Obrera procession made its way to the government buildings demanding firearms for the people and the proclamation a Catalan Republic once again. Lluís Companys spoke from the balcony of the Palau de la Generalitat.

"In this solemn hour, in the name of the people and the Parliament, the government I preside assumes all the faculties of power in Catalonia and proclaims the Catalan State of the Spanish Federal Republic and in order to establish and strengthen the relationship with the leaders of the general protest against fascism, I invite them establish in Catalonia a Provisional Government of the Republic, which will find in our Catalan people the most generous impulse for fraternity in the common desire to build a free and magnificent Federal Republic."

Apart from the limited resources of the Mossos d'Esquadra, the Catalan police force, the Catalan and left-wing rebels were virtually unarmed. When the Spanish Army, which had remained loyal to the right-wing central government entered the city centre, opposition soon folded. By the following evening, the army had installed submachine guns on the roofs of the Palau de la Generalitat and the Casa de la Ciutat. All the left-wing Catalanist members of the Catalan government and Barcelona city council were immediately arrested. This time the Catalan Republic had lasted less than a day.

Companys and many other left-wing politicians were sentenced to 30 years in prison. The Catalan autonomy was suspended indefinitely and Castilian was imposed as the only language of government in Catalonia once again. Leftist Catalan magazines and newspapers were banned and the Catalan Parliament was converted into a military barracks. All Esquerra Republicana town councils were dissolved and were replaced by CEDA and middle-class Lliga Regionalista councils. Just as they had done under Primo de Rivera, bourgeois Catalan conservatives chose to support the right-wing Spanish forces of law and order rather than left-wing fellow Catalanists.

On February 16th 1936, the Popular Front of left-wing parties and workers' organisations won the General Elections and were able to form a national government in Madrid. Lluís Companys and other left-wing Catalanist politicians were released and the Catalan Statute of Autonomy was restored. The rightful Catalan government had returned, Companys was President of the Generalitat once again but the political situation was far from stable. The Catalanists and leftists were not going to be caught unawares again.

Civil War

When the Army generals with the support of CEDA began their attempted coup d'etat on July 18th 1936, the Generalitat and the Catalan left were prepared. General Goded arrived from the Balearic Islands supposedly to take charge of Barcelona the next day but by then the nationalist uprising had already been effectively put down by local militia. As Orwell famously describes in Homage to Catalonia, Barcelona was overtaken by revolutionary euphoria. It is worth remembering that the right-wing bourgeoisie hadn't disappeared but had only gone to ground.

One of Companys' great achievements in the early stages of the war was to include the diverse political factions in government. When the anarchists, Marxists and syndicalists of the Central Committee of Anti-Fascist Militias attempted to take control of the Generalitat, Companys famously gave their leaders ministerial posts. For the first and only time in history, anarchists occupied positions in government.

Just as in the rest of Spain, the random violence was difficult to control. It is estimated that over 8,000 right-wingers, many of them clergy, were executed by militias during the three years of the Civil War. However, Companys managed to organise the safe passage of more than 5,000 suspected nationalists on ships from the Port of Barcelona. The Generalitat could not guarantee their safety and the government at least attempted to abide by democratic principles.

Throughout the early stages of the war, the republican militia defended Catalonia effectively and maintained a successful campaign particularly on the Aragon front. The lack of support from Britain and France and the entry of Hitler's Germany and Mussolini's Italy, whose airforce was responsible for most of the bombing in Barcelona, gradually sapped morale and military strength.

The International Brigades were an invaluable asset particularly on the Ebro front in the later stages. The advantages of the entry of the Soviet Union, however, were not so clear. Russian involvement provoked the internecine struggles between the Trotskyist POUM and the Stalinist PSUC, which Orwell also describes so vividly in Homage To Catalonia.

The arrival in Barcelona of the government of the Spanish Republic under Juan Negrín in October 1937 was also a cause of tension. After the fall of Lleida in 1938, there was a bitter exchange of letters between Companys and Negrín. The Catalan president complained of the Spaniards' lack of respect for Catalan authority and arrogant ingratitude for local hospitality.

On December 23rd 1938, the Catalan and republican forces were finally defeated at the Battle of the Ebro. The 115-day campaign was the longest battle of the Civil War and defeat left the defenders tired and demoralised. The fall of Catalonia was just a question of time.

Francoist troops entered Barcelona on 26th January. After the Catalan capital had fallen, conquering the rest of Spain was little more than a mopping up exercise. General Franco declared the end of the Civil War on April 1st 1939. A bleak period in Catalan history had just begun.

Now Read Chapter Twenty-One of Catalonia Is Not Spain - Francoism and the Falange



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