Resistance to the Dictatorship
Had an outside enemy not brought the people of Barcelona together, the fortunes of Macià's Estat Català might have been quite different from what they proved to be—for the dictatorship of General Miguel Primo de Rivera, which began in 1923 and ended in January 1930, sparked a movement of resistance against cultural repression.
For over a century, the Spanish army and generals like Primo de Rivera had viewed themselves as guardians of national order. Of late, with the king and his ministers apparently incapable of establishing economic stability or social harmony, the army had become increasingly restive. The war in Morocco had flared up again in 1919, and especially bad losses in 1921, believed to be the fault of the king, had led officers to seek a military presence at the head of state. The army wanted victory abroad and order—by which they meant suppression of Socialist and anarcho-syndicalist unions—at home. On September 13, 1923, Miguel Primo de Rivera staged a coup in Barcelona and stepped in to carry out their will.
Primo de Rivera, heir to gigantic sherry vineyards and landed estates in southwestern Spain, was the captain general of Catalunya in 1923. A jovial, cultivated man with aristocratic bearing, he socialized with members of the Regionalist League and led them to believe he understood their ideas about Catalan culture. Conservative Catalan nationalists like the architect and politician Josep Puig i Cadafalch thus regarded Primo as their friend. Moreover, they presumed that he, like the captains general who had preceded him, would support their interests against the workers. Prat de la Riba, the leader of the Regionalist League for more than a generation, had believed that Catalanism would prosper under dictators, who could reduce civil strife and enable Catalan culture to develop peacefully.
Prat de la Riba had died on August 1, 1917, a little more than six
years before his presumptions were proved untrue. A week after Primo de Rivera seized power, he issued a decree making the use of the Catalan language in public and in print a crime, subject to the jurisdiction of military courts. During the Primo dictatorship, the government censored newspapers, prohibited flying the Catalan flag, and even outlawed dancing the sardana , the traditional regional circle dance.
Police roundups of suspected dissidents began as early as January 1924. Leftists and Catalan nationalists (except for certain members of the Socialist party [PSOE], who agreed to serve on mediation boards with employers), fled underground or into exile. By March 1925, those leaders of the small Communist party and the massive anarcho-syndicalist movement who had remained in Barcelona had disappeared behind bars.
Catalan business interests had already demonstrated in the period 1919–1923 that, like feudal lords, they could exercise their own military force by hiring gangsters to act against provincial insurgents. Had Primo and the army been less obsessed with destroying Catalan identity, local businessmen such as the banker Cambó would have been more than happy to carry out a far-ranging policy of repression in Catalunya while gloving the iron hand inside Catalan culture. But the fear of regionalism in Spain is like the fear of communism in the United States, in that reasoned arguments do not begin to address the problem.
Workers, many of whom spoke Catalan, had had no illusions about a community welded by Catalan culture—after all, the police who beat them and the gangsters who attacked them also frequently spoke Catalan. With the gratuitously petty repression of Catalan culture by Primo's forces, however, Catalanism emerged as a culture of resistance for people from all walks of life, workers and businessmen alike.
A common reaction to twentieth-century authoritarianism has been civil disobedience. Under normal circumstances, civic rituals would have provided opportunities for republican Catalan nationalists and anarcho-syndicalists to struggle for civil rights. But the first Saint George's Day of the dictatorship on April 23, 1924, and May Days thereafter, indicated how much control Primo had already gained over civic traditions.
Ordinarily on Saint George's Day, flower vendors from the Rambla would set up shop on Bishop Street, to the right of the Generalitat, where Catalunya's medieval regional government had met. People would congregate there, on the Patio of Oranges just outside the
Chapel of Saint George. Everyone, especially engaged couples and newlyweds, would buy roses on Bishop Street and carry them to the chapel and patio. Crowds customarily thronged the square in front.
Saint George's Day in 1924 was to be quite a different affair. First of all, rumors circulated that the government had closed the Generalitat to the rites, though no decree appeared. Flower sellers, acting on hearsay, boycotted their usual places in Bishop Street and instead dispersed their stalls throughout the Gothic Quarter. Many people, hoping to avoid trouble, simply stayed away from downtown, and the crowds grew thinner. Those who subscribed to shared civic culture were made uncomfortable.
Repression intensified throughout 1924, and, as was usual in Barcelona, the anarcho-syndicalists bore the brunt of the government attacks. The former captain general of Barcelona Severiano Martínez Anido, who once had gunned down labor activists, became Primo's minister of the interior and thus the chief policeman in Spain. Militants faced stepped-up persecution. In retaliation, anarcho-syndicalists shot the city executioner of Barcelona at the end of May 1924. The government then rounded up hundreds of people they suspected of anarcho-syndicalism, whether or not evidence linked them to the assassination. In November, anarcho-syndicalists marched on the Atarazanas Barracks near the harbor. The effort to seize the barracks failed, and the Spanish authorities executed two anarcho-syndicalists they named as ringleaders.
In May 1925, a month after the peaceful celebration of Saint George's Day, an attack in the Garraf Tunnel south of the city on the train carrying Spain's king and queen toward Barcelona was foiled, thanks to an informer's tip. Authorities traced the plans to four young supporters of Macià, all seventeen to twenty years of age, arrested them, and set their trial for April 30, 1926, a week after Saint George's Day and just before May Day.
Early in 1926, the government provoked local anger by decreeing that the Rosary be performed in Latin, not Catalan. In opposition, Catalan separatists organized massive demonstrations of civil disobedience. It was decided that official Catalan worship of the region's patron saint would take place at the Saint George Chapel of the cathedral, not at the government building. People convened at the cathedral "in the morning and at noon to pray for Catalunya, for prisoners, for exiles, and especially for those the prosecutors had asked to be executed in connection with their attempt on the lives of the king and queen at the Garraf Railroad Station." Secret handbills offered detailed instruction on how
people should proceed. Civic ritual thus gave way to political mobilization as people acted on the half-inch-by-quarter-inch tissue-paper messages that urged them to buy their flowers only in front of the Saint Lucy entrance to the cathedral and to place the bouquets on the Saint George alter inside the cathedral. People also took their candles to the Saint Just Chapel, Barcelona's oldest shrine.
At the trial the next week, the court decreed a death sentence, which outraged many sections of the population. An attempted coup was scheduled for Saint John's Day, June 24, 1926—a joint scheme of anarcho-syndicalists, clergy, monarchists, army officers, separatists, and even a former prime minister. By choosing another holiday as the date for the uprising, Macià's supporters assured that most people in the city would be off from work and available to observe the opposition to Primo; perhaps they might even be persuaded to take part. Saint John's Day, of course, honored the saint; it also traditionally celebrated the summer solstice with huge bonfires, firecrackers, and all-night celebrations the night before, making it a cross between New Year's Eve and the Fourth of July in the United States—a perfect occasion for an insurrection. Police, however, uncovered the plot before the leaders could try to seize power, arrested suspected dissidents, and held them without trial. Still, demonstrations did take place on Saint John's Day, and those angry about the persecution of Catalans continued to look for ways to show their opposition to the regime.
The success of the civic rite of disobedience on Saint George's Day followed by the demonstrations on Saint John's Day aroused the dictator's fears. No sooner did the anarchists Buenaventura Durruti and Francisco Ascaso arrive in Paris in July 1926 from exile in Argentina than they were accused of plotting to assassinate the Spanish king during his visit to France. Possibly under pressure from Primo, the French tried them and handed down three-month sentences. Then in August, an anarchist named Domingo Massach tried to assassinate Primo at the government center at the Plaza of the Palace in Barcelona. The attempt cost him eight years in jail. Even the celebration of the Virgin of Mercy Day on September 23, 1926, only exacerbated the sense that Barcelona was living in chains. Although the associated religious rites took place, the carnivalesque parades and costume balls were suppressed.
In November 1926, Macià was arrested with fifty followers of his Estat Català on the French side of the Pyrenees, just as the group was about to invade Spain. Twenty alleged supporters in Barcelona were de-
tained and held as well, despite the absence of any evidence that they had conspired to organize an insurrection. Upon his release from jail, Macià left France to raise money from Catalan émigrés to South America. When he returned to France, he gathered together a hundred or so young Catalans for another invasion. Informers denounced them, and they all were tried in France, where they received light sentences.
Although another military plot, known as the Valencia Conspiracy, failed to materialize in 1928, not even the gala opening on May 18, 1929, by Primo de Rivera and the king of the Barcelona International Exposition could win Catalan support for the regime. Unlike previous exhibitions in 1888 and 1902, the 1929 fair was designed to promote Spain rather than Catalunya. Among the most notable of the projects the exposition launched was the Spanish Village, with arts and crafts and replicas of architecture from all over the country. Although building the village and the National Palace (which later became the Museum of Catalan Art) provided employment for forty thousand workers, and the dictatorship paid about one-third of the enormous costs, the financial burden was too great for the city and it went bankrupt, leaving large numbers of workers unemployed once the exposition opened.
By the end of 1929, Primo's chiefs of staff warned him that they could no longer keep him in power. He resigned on January 28, 1930, thirteen days after the exposition closed, and he died within the year. He was succeeded by a caretaker general who ruled for a little over a year.