The Pact of San Sebastián and its consequences

In a meeting on 17 August 1930, all of Spain’s republican forces agreed to overthrow the monarchy – by force if necessary. The “Pact of San Sebastián” became the basis of the Second Republic.

The revolutionary committee on August 17, 1930 in San Sebastián
Foto: El Correo/CC BY-SA 4.0

In 1930, Spain’s King Alfonso XIII faced a major problem: the country had become ungovernable. With the end of the military dictatorship of Primo de Rivera, a power vacuum was created which he could not fill at all. His hope of returning the country to a “constitutional normality” was placed in General Dámaso Berenguer, whom he had appointed Prime Minister in January 1930.

But the political basis on which the monarchy could rely in the years between the first Spanish Republic (1874) and the coup Primo de Riveras (1923) was destroyed: the conservative and liberal party, as well as the Spanish middle class had slowly turned away from the monarch and now sympathized with a republican form of government. Alfonso XIII was aggravated by the fact that Spain was without a constitution.1 Casanova, Julián: The Spanish Republic and Civil War, New York 2010, p.11 The lawyer Mariano Gómez took up this fact and demanded that the constituent power could now only come from the people.2Julia, Santos: La Constitución 1931. Madrid, 2009, p. 13

The “revolutionary committee” is forming

The republican parties already worked closely together during the military dictatorship. In 1926 the “Alianza Republicana” was founded, which was led by the oldest republican party of the country (Partido Radical). The alienation of large landowners and industrialists was due to grave economic decisions by Primo de Rivera, such as the collapse of the currency ( the peseta) in 1928. In addition, the Catalan bourgeoisie did not see their separatist interests represented.3Preston, Paul: The Spanish Civil War. New York & London 2007, p. 36 The break of some conservative monarchists with Alfonso XIII was clear by spring 1930: from conservative and liberal circles a right-wing liberal republican party emerged.

“A viable and conservative republic capable of governing and attracting the political forces of the middle class and intellectual elite – that is the republic I call upon, I serve and defend”.4 Payne, Stanley G.: Alcalá-Zamora and the Failure of the Spanish Republic 1931–1936. Portland 2017, S. 19
Niceto Alcalá-Zamora
Derecha Liberal Republicana (Right-Liberal Republican)

The core of Spanish republicanism was formed from 1930 onwards by:

  • Partido Radical (liberal)
  • Acción Republicana (left-democratic)
  • Partido Republicano Radical Socialista (socialist)
  • Derecha Liberal Republicana (right-wing liberal)
  • Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (separatists, left)
  • Organización Republicana Gallega Autónoma (separatists, left)

On August 17, 1930, all the republican parties met in San Sebastián and founded the revolutionary committee in a conference. They agreed in a pact to deal with the Catalan question of independence and to make preparations to overthrow the monarchy and then proclaim the Republic. Their success, however, depended on whether the PSOE ( Spanish Socialist People’s Party) and the party-afflicted UGT ( General Workers’ Union) would support the revolutionary plans.5Casanova, Julián: The Spanish Republic and Civil War. New York 2010, p.12

The PSOE in conflict

The PSOE once again found itself at a crossroad at the beginning of the 1930s: having adapted to the regime during the military dictatorship and thus escaping a ban, more radical voices were now being raised. The Marxist Julán Besteiro had been party president since 1925 and the wing around him did not take the offer of the revolutionary committee very seriously. Although two Socialists were present at the meeting in San Sebastián, they were present for private reasons only and not as representatives of the party. The PSOE agreed that the revolution had to be socialist. That is why the Marxist wing insisted that the bourgeoisie itself was responsible for a bourgeois revolution.

Knowing that it depended on the support of the socialists, the Revolutionary Committee promised two ministerial posts for the PSOE. For this, the UGT would have to organize a general strike in Madrid. The prospect of taking part in the government made the party’s General Secretary, Francisco Largo Caballero, in particular, sit up and take notice. In another meeting between the PSOE and the UGT in October 1930, the possibility of taking part in the coup was discussed.

Largo Caballero was now leaning towards the general strike. The British historian Paul Preston assumes that Largo Caballero sensed the dissatisfaction of the party base with the party leadership, so that he took the lead from the background. Finally, the party board voted by eight to six in favour of accepting the now three ministerial posts, as well as calling a general strike.5Preston, Paul: The Coming Of The Spanish Civil War – Reform, Reaction and Revolution in the Second Republic. New York 1978, p.20/21

The army starts defecting

The end of the Primo de Rivera dictatorship left not only the Spanish middle class disappointed, but also the army. In unsatisfactory political situations, coups d’état were a tradition. The regime of Primo de Rivera was created in this way in 1923. In June 1926 (Sanjuanada) generals couped against the military dictatorship and failed.

One reason for the dissatisfaction of the military was the attempted reforms of Primo de Rivera. The promotion system of the army should be standardized for example. Part of the Spanish army placed its hopes in the republican movement, so that without a monarch necessary reforms could be implemented from all sides of the progressive spectrum.6Preston, Paul: The Spanish Civil War. New York & London 2007, p. 36/37

Captain Fermín Galán, who spent four years in prison for his participation in the Sanjuanada coup, belonged to the circle of these military men. Together with Ángel García Hernandez, he had relations with Catalan anarchists and officers who were already conspiratorially planning plans to overthrow the monarchy.

The Failed Coup

This was to take place on 15 December 1930, as planned by the revolutionary committee. But Captain Fermín Galán started the battle in Jaca on 12 December. The military governor was arrested, the infrastructure was taken over and all resistance was suppressed by force. At 11 a.m. the Spanish Republic was proclaimed. Anarchist groups called for strikes in Huesca and Zaragoza, after troops were sent to Huesca. But officers of the 5th military region were able to put an end to the uprising. Ángel García Hernández was arrested in Zaragoza and Galán was forced to surrender. Both were sentenced to death and shot on 14 December.7Casanova, Julián: The Spanish Republic and Civil War. New York 2010, p.16

The actual uprising on 15 December also failed, partly because the planned general strike by the UGT in Madrid never happened. After the fiasco in Jaca, the artillery had abandoned the coup plans. The socialists assumed that the officers in general had buried the plans. Two generals took off as planned on 15 December, but noticed their hopeless situation when the general strike did’nt take place.8Preston, Paul: The Coming Of The Spanish Civil War – Reform, Reaction and Revolution in the Second Republic. New York 1978, p.22

From failure to triumph

Even though a large part of the “revolutionary committee” was arrested, the failed coup had long-term consequences. Some historians assume that the pro-republican forces were indeed able to gain sympathy. Even Alfonso XIII had to realize that General Berenguer could not bring back “constitutional normality”. In February, the King appointed Admiral Juan Bautista Aznar as the new Prime Minister.

To test the mood, local elections were announced for April 12, 1931. The security of the monarchists to use the old power apparatus to win the elections was shattered after the first results were announced from the cities. In 41 of the 50 provincial capitals the pro-republican parties won.