Dedicated to Peace:

The Foreign Policy of the Spanish Republic, 1931-1936

Wayne H. Bowen, October 2000, Ouachita Baptist University

In April 1931, the 2nd Spanish Republic was declared. Taking seriously the spirit of the Kellogg-Briand Pact, an international treaty that had outlawed war, in its constitution and official declarations, Spain promised to refrain from war and other forms of armed conflict as state policy. While it did not end conscription, the new Republic recognized conscientious objection as a legitimate means to avoid military service, at the same time as other European states were eliminating this possibility. Movements for peace, justice and women’s rights enjoyed greater freedom and prominence during this period that in any other period of Spanish history, at least until the 1980s.

The Spanish government also made commitments in the 1930s, subsequently fulfilled, to the League of Nations, collective security, and international cooperation. In 1935, for example, Spain sent members of its national police to oversee a plebiscite in the Saar: the last democratic vote in Germany before World War II. Despite this engagement, when a rebellion erupted in 1936, led by General Francisco Franco, none of Spain’s democratic partners supported the Republic’s requests for military and diplomatic support. Only the Soviet Union sent aid, leading to an ever-increasing role in Spain for the previously minuscule Spanish Communist Party.

Using archival material, newspapers, and autobiographical works, this paper will examine several questions: was Spain an example or a pariah because of its nonviolent approach to foreign policy? What did the leaders of Spain hope to achieve through adopting nonviolence in the midst of a militaristic Europe? Finally, why did the international community, including the US, Great Britain and France, abandon a government which was committed to democratic values, collective security and non-violence?

My hypothesis points to hopes for peace, but also unrealistic expectations, on the part of the Spanish government in the early 1930s. While Spain hoped its attitude would gain it the protection of the Western Powers and perhaps a transformation of the nature of diplomacy, the other states of European were not influenced to change their behavior or support Spain’s new policies. While an interesting experiment, the Spanish government’s adoption of a nonaggressive foreign policy in the midst of a rearming Europe was unwise and dangerous, as evidenced by the ease with which it fell victim to a violent military uprising in 1936.

When the 2nd Republic was declared in April 1931, replacing decades of dictatorship and liberal monarchy, a new utopian spirit entered Spanish politics, at least those of the Left. While the government the new republic replaced, that of the military dictator Gen. Miguel Primo de Rivera and his successors, had been widely seen by the working classes and literati as corrupt and self-serving, the men who comprised the leadership of the new state presented themselves as untainted by the previous regime and ready to create completely new structures and policies. While some of these radical policies, especially in land reform and restrictions on clerical activity, proved very difficult to undertake, in foreign affairs the 2nd Republic managed to achieve more significant results, although these, too, proved short-lived.

The new state came to be at an unusual time in European history. At the same time as many countries on the continent had abandoned democracy for dictatorship, Spain was moving in the opposite direction. Of the dozen or so states which were democratic in 1919, nearly had become military or monarchical dictatorships by 1931, with most of the others to follow by 1935, the last full year of the Spanish Republic.

Spain and the League Before the Republic

Spain under the monarchy before 1931 took an active role in the operation of the League of Nations. Spanish diplomats, speaking on behalf of the liberal monarchy then ruling in Madrid, participated in the founding of the League, and their nation gained an initial seat as one of the four non-permanent members of the Council, the executive body. Monarchist Spain, as would Republican Spain later, saw the League as a forum through which the Spanish state could regain its role as an important power, definitively lost at least as far back as the Napoleonic era. Spain’s representative in Geneva, José Quiñones de León, was elected to chair the League’s Secretariat and Budget committee, a body of some importance, and also led a campaign, ultimately unsuccessful, to add Spanish to French and English as official languages of the organization. Spain did gain for its fellow Hispanic states the right to speak Spanish in the General Assembly, however, provided they furnished a translation of their remarks into French or English. Spain also gained one of ten seats on the Permanent Court of International Justice, elected in 1921 to serve until 1930.

Emboldened by the expansion of the Council of the League to accommodate Germany when that nation joined in the aftermath of the 1925 Locarno Treaty, Spain, along with Poland and Brazil, insisted on receiving similar treatment, with Spain even threatening to withdraw if it did not receive the position. Spain’s campaign in 1925 and 1926 to gain a permanent seat on the Council did not entirely succeed, although it did gain the concession of an expansion of the Council, enabling Spain to be re-elected to one of the non-permanent positions. Although Brazil withdrew from the League in protest, Spain along with Poland took as a victory this new status. Its profile in the organization was high enough to be deemed worthy of hosting a League summit in 1929, and Spain continued to be re-elected to the Council of the League by wide margins every year, thanks to the support of Hispanic countries and the neutral states of Europe.

In 1931, the military dictatorship of Miguel Primo de Rivera and other generals collapsed in scandal and economic difficulties, taking with it the monarchy. The new state, the second republic to rule Spain, came to power in April after a round of elections gave a resounding to the forces of republicanism, liberalism and socialism. In its 1931 Constitution, Spain incorporated three articles, which explicitly endorsed the principles upon which the League of Nations was founded:

Article 6. Spain renounces war as an instrument of national policy.

Article 7. The Spanish state will obey the universal rules of international law, incorporating them into its legal system.

Article 77. The President of the Republic may not declare war without following the prescribed conditions in the Covenant of the League of Nations, and only after exhausting defensive methods, which do not have a belligerent character and the judicial, conciliatory or arbitrative proceedings established by international conventions of which Spain is a part, registered in the League of Nations.

These three articles were approved with little discussion, as the republicans who dominated the convention believed that it was only through the League of Nations that medium-sized nations such as Spain could exert influence in the world, and see their belief in secular democracy strengthened.

Despite this agreement, there was little interest in foreign affairs among the politicians who led the Spanish Republic. No fewer than ten different men held the office of Foreign Minister during the five years of the Republic, and many of the diplomatic posts remained in the hands of monarchist diplomats who had served the king and dictator Primo de Rivera in the decades before 1931. Virtually all of the energy and interest of Spain’s political classes were focused on the domestic problems and turmoil, which plagued the brief years of the state. Restructuring the military, land reform, reconciling class inequalities, and remaking the relationship between church and state seemed far more important to common Spaniard, and the politicians who courted their votes and support, than the machinations of diplomats in Geneva. For most Spanish politicians, despite the efforts of Madariaga, the League of Nations and Spain’s role in the organization remained "a question mark."

Spain’s chief representative to the League of Nations was the scholar Salvador de Madariaga, who from 1931 to 1936 promoted what became known as "active neutrality:" an effort to promote international peace and cooperation among the nations of the world through forging coalitions with other democratic and small states in the League. His experience as a staff member of the League’s Secretariat, where he served from 1921 to 1928, prepared him well for his time as Spain’s de facto delegate to the organization. Until 1936, aside from a brief stint as Minister of Education, Madariaga took on important roles in the operation of the League, as historian Stanley Payne has noted:

Madariaga served on the Commission of Twelve that investigated the invasion of Manchuria, chaired the Aviation Committee at the International Disarmament Conference that met in February 1932, was one of the official mediators in the Chaco War between Bolivia and Paraguay and also in the border dispute between Peru and Columbia, and later presided over the League committee that recommended sanctions against Italy for the invasion of Ethiopia.

Although less than entirely successful in these efforts, Madariaga nonetheless exercised influence in the League at a greater level than that of other smaller powers, acting on occasion as an informal leader of the neutral European democracies and Latin American states. His was a remarkable achievement, especially given that he received no instructions or communications from any of the Foreign Ministers who served above him during these years. His personal faith in the League of Nations and in the possibilities of creating "a true and sincere world community spirit," contributed more to the status of Spain in the organization than any other factor.

With the increasing electoral popularity of Spanish rightist parties after 1933, Spain’s foreign policy began to shift. Madrid froze relations with the Soviet Union, which had only been opened in July 1933, and began to move closer to Portugal, the UK and Nazi Germany. Among its new proposals was a plan, organized by Army Chief of Staff Francisco Franco, but which never came to full fruition, was to buy arms from the Third Reich. The conservative coalition that dominated Spanish politics from 1933 to 1935 collapsed at the end of the latter year in scandal, however, leading to new elections in February 1936. To the surprise of many observers, an absolute victory went to the Popular Front, an electoral coalition of left Republicans, Socialists, anarchists and Communists, leading to a radical change in the direction of the state. Many on the right felt the election had been stolen and, fearing the coming of communism to Spain, military officers, monarchists and conservatives began planning for an uprising against the Popular Front. Political violence from all sides escalated dramatically through the spring and early summer of 1936, with assassinations, arson and violent demonstrations occupying much of the public landscape.

As late as spring 1936, however, even after the victory of the Popular Front and the turmoil that accompanied it, Spain was still on cordial terms with all of the great powers. Even Nazi Germany, later to become the most effective foreign enemy of the Spanish Republic, ratified a major trade agreement with Madrid in March. France, the UK and the United States remained important to the Spanish, but trade with the Third Reich, as well as the influence of German expatriates in Spain, were rising dramatically in 1934 and 1935. Germany imported more Spanish goods than any other nation except the US, and was second only to Britain in its share of the Spanish domestic market.

With the new government of the Popular Front, however, there was even less interest in pursuing an active foreign policy. Despite their opposition to Fascism, Spain limited its support for sanctions against Italy for its invasion of Ethiopia, and expressed no interest in participating in a progressive anti-fascist alliance against Germany and Italy, until the coming of the Civil War renewed Spain’s interest in international coalition-building. Frustrated at the lack of support for the League, and at a number of leaks of his confidential correspondence, on July 9, 1936, Madariaga declared that he was "no longer at the disposal of the government" as its de facto representative to Geneva. Eight days later, the Spanish Civil War began with a military rebellion in Morocco. While the Republicans, forces loyal to the government and the Popular Front, initially held the lion’s share of population, territory and industrial capacity, the military rebels, or Nationalists, had nearly all experienced army officers on their side, as well as the well-equipped colonial forces from Spanish Morocco and other territories. Additionally, the Nationalists, led by Gen. Francisco Franco, could also count on early and consistent military assistance from Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and the Portuguese dictatorship.

As the internationally recognized government of Spain, the Popular Front government appealed to the great powers to sell it weapons and ammunition. Initially France, under the Leftist Popular Front government, agreed to send aircraft and weapons, but under British pressure soon backed away from this initial committment, limiting its assistance to permitting foreign volunteers to travel to Spain through France’s territory. Fearing a broadening of the conflict, the British proposed that an multinational non-intervention agreement, including an arms embargo on the Spanish Republic and the rebels, would be the best hope for containing the struggle. This proposal became the Non-Intervention Agreement, adopted in late August 1936 by the six relevant powers (UK, France, Italy, Germany, the USSR, and Portugal), and subsequently signed by nearly every state with an arms industry, except the United States, which promised to abide by its terms.

Unable to buy arms from the UK or France, and seeing German and Italian assistance flowing to the Nationalists, the Republic turned to the USSR, which was willing to sell weapons and send advisers, so long as this assistance was paid in hard currency and was channeled through the Spanish Communist Party, which consequently grew dramatically in its influence. Rebuffed in its efforts to grain practical aid from other states, throughout the Civil War the Republic pleaded for diplomatic and moral support from the League of Nations. In a pointed speech to the Assembly of the League in December 1936, Spanish Foreign Minister Julio Alvarez del Vayo reminded the organization of Spain’s support for the original treaty of the League of Nations:

The Spanish people … when setting up the Republic, were the first to incorporate the fundamental principles of the Covenant in their Constitution — not because they could foresee the military rebellion of July and the armed assistance from abroad, but because the cause of peace is dear to their hearts — have been disappointed to see how the institution that was created to preserve the peace of the world is repeating, in the case of Spain, the indecision it has displayed in the past. … Spain has done everything that could be required of it as a Member of the League in order to serve the cause of peace. But peace cannot be obtained at the instance of only one nation: it must be the result of the collective endeavor of all who feel equally bound by the obligations of the Covenant.

Over the next two years, Spanish diplomats succeeded in placing the Spanish Civil War on the agenda of the League, but never in convincing the organization to take united and forceful action. Fearing that any international intervention could not help but widen the war, the remaining League states were able to offer little but proposals for mediation of the conflict, an unhelpful suggestion given the deadly warfare being fought on Spanish soil. Spain did ask for League supervision of the evacuation of international volunteers in 1938, a request followed by the organization, but this was primarily an effort on behalf of the Spanish government to snub the Non-Intervention Committee. The Spanish Republic’s only real hope was that a general war would end the unwillingness of the democracies to aid Popular, although this proved a misplaced dream, as the Spanish Civil War ended five months before German tanks invaded Poland in September 1939.

Why did the League fail to live up to the faith the Spanish government had placed in it in 1931? Why had the principles enshrined in the Covenant of the League of Nations and the Spanish Constitution not been echoed in the decisions of the Great Powers? By 1936, when Spain most needed the League, the body had already failed as an institution. It achieved successes only when the interests of the Great Powers were not threatened, as in deciding the fate of the Aaland Islands in 1920, claimed by Finland and Sweden, and mediating peace between Greece and Bulgaria in 1925.

The faith placed by Spain in the League had its origins in the utopian days of 1931, when Spanish Republicans believed they could create a new state of peace and harmony, both at home and abroad. This faith was misplaced, but crashed more on the rocks of Great Power rivalry than through any failing of Spain. Small states have nearly always been vulnerable to Great Powers, and it should not have been expected that Spain in the 1930s would or could have been an exception to this historical condition, no matter the high-mindedness and lofty ideals of the writers of the 1931 Constitution.

A little over one month after coming to power, on May 8, 1939, Franco withdrew from the League of Nations. This decision represented a gesture to satisfy the Axis powers, both of whom had already withdrawn from the League, Germany in 1933 and Italy in 1937, although by this point the League was an empty shell, long side irrelevant to European and world politics, as the debacles of Manchuria, Ethiopia and the Spanish Civil War had so clearly demonstrated. Franco need not have bothered, except that to him and others of the Spanish Right, the League of Nations and support for that body had become during the years of the Republican inextricably linked to republicanism. As such, the failure of that body became even greater, as its failures simultaneously turned an entire political class away from faith in international institutions as a reaction to the flaws of one organization.