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Confederación Española de Derechas Autónomas
Spanish Confederation of Autonomous Right-Wing Groups

The mass right-wing party of Spain's Second Republic, formed in 1933. On paper, CEDA was happy to work within the democratic system; but their full commitment to the Republic was questioned at the time by their opponents, and their responsibility for the Republic's breakdown and the onset of the Spanish Civil War has been the subject of controversy to this day.

The Origins

CEDA arose from the so-called accidentalist wing of the Spanish right, which had been left in disarray by the abrupt departure of King Alfonso XIII in 1930. Early outbursts of church burnings, when the coalition government of centrists and Socialists was no more than a few weeks old, had alarmed harder-line monarchists, who remained alive to opportunities for a coup against the Republic.

The failure of General José Sanjurjo's plot in August 1932 appeared to discredit these 'catastrophist' conspirators: moderates rallied around the Republic, and a contentious agricultural reform to which powerful landowners objected finally made it through the Cortes, Spain's parliament, the very next month.

The initiative on the right was handed to Ángel Herrera, the accidentalist whose daily newspaper, El debate, became CEDA's journal of choice. Herrera and the eventual CEDA leader, José María Gil Robles accepted that the character of the regime was less important than the measures it could bring about - or equally, could block, and went about appealing to the Catholic smallholders of north and central Spain.

From the outset, CEDA positioned itself as the mass party of the right, the counterpart to the Socialist PSOE. Gil Robles, however, had declared in Salamanca two months before CEDA was born that monarchists too would fit into his confederation so long as they refrained from publicly attacking the Republic.

Gil Robles himself came from a family of Carlists, a monarchist splinter group whose candidate for King had been on the losing side in the nineteenth-century Carlist Wars but who were as vehemently opposed to the Republic as the supporters of Alfonso, and had their own red bereted militia, the Requeté, to prove it. More worrying to the left was the sympathy revealed throughout the pages of El debate for Mussolini's institutions as a means of preserving order.

However, CEDA also contained a wide streak of social Catholicism: many local CEDA affiliates had developed from existing organisations which offered smallholders cheap credit, communal granaries and the chance to club together for a threshing machine. The CEDA leader in Valencia, Luís Lucía, belonged to this tradition, and liked to take credit for the national party's formation.

El Bienio Negro

To PSOE's horror, CEDA obtained a pivotal role in the Cortes after the elections of November 1933, in which they ran in conjunction with the centre-right Radical Party. Its elderly leader, Alejandro Lerroux, may have hoped that he could bind CEDA more closely to the Republic by involving them in government. Lerroux was also notoriously venal, and may have been out to find any coalition partner who would propel Radicals into ministries where they could see out their terms of office on the take.

The ensuing two years were to go down in Spanish history as the bienio negro - the Two Black Years - for the number of socialist and centre-left reforms, passed between 1931 and 1933, that the new government reversed. On top of decisions taken in Madrid, latifundistas seized the chance to take reprisals against the labourers who worked their estates and who had won more secure employment during the primer bienio.

Gil Robles' strategy of provoking political crises paid off in October 1934, when Lerroux was forced to bring three cedistas into his cabinet. PSOE answered back, as they had warned throughout the year, with a three-pronged uprising in Catalonia, Madrid and among the miners of Asturias; only the Asturians held out for more than a few days, until they were put down by troops from Spanish Morocco advised by one Francisco Franco.

Perhaps much of the Socialists' increasingly radical stance during the rest of the Republic was owed to their fears of CEDA: PSOE were well aware that Hitler had taken over by making a show of legalism, and that the Austrian chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss had come to power on a similar social-Catholic ticket to Gil Robles' before crushing the Socialists of 'Red Vienna' in February 1934.

Their suspicions that CEDA were only a stalking horse for the further right appeared partially confirmed when its latifundista backers turned against one of its own ministers: Manuel Giménez Fernández had had the audacity, as Minister of Agriculture, to advocate a limited land reform. They had no such qualms about the nominally Radical interior minister, Rafael Salazar Alonso, who demonstrated his credentials with his tough action against the left.

The Last Months

After inserting coup-worthy generals into key army jobs during his tenure of Minister of War, Gil Robles went a ploy too far when he attempted to replace Lerroux as Prime Minister and his bluff was called by the President, Niceto Alcalá Zamora. A Popular Front of the left lined up in the February 1936 elections against CEDA, whose Radical ex-partners only managed to get eight deputies into the new Cortes after a particularly damaging financial scandal involving a roulette wheel.

Tens of thousands of CEDA members switched allegiance to the openly Fascist Falange after the Popular Front victory, a flood which Gil Robles made little attempt to stop. In fact, by the time the war broke out that July, remaining cedistas already had instructions as to how best to co-operate with the insurgent army.

The CEDA youth wing, Juventud de Acción Popular, had already been particularly enthusiastic to adopt the Fascist aesthetic: Gil Robles himself had visited Nuremberg and apparently been favourably impressed, translating what he had seen into the JAP's rally at Covadonga in September 1934. The site, from where the reconquest of Spain from the Moors had been launched in 718 AD, reflected the common theme in militant Spanish nationalism that equated the left with a foreign - be it Moorish or Muscovite - invasion.

During the springtime disorder, Gil Robles made a number of parliamentary speeches threatening an imminent civil war. Not quite as inflammatory as the avowed monarchist José Calvo Sotelo, he may have been attempting to alert moderate conservatives to the danger, but even his supporters must explain his level of inaction during the crisis.

Based on CEDA's origins, some would account them incipient Christian Democrats, only provoked into rebellion at the last minute by the militancy of the left. On the polarised periphery of 1930s Europe, however, democrats of the Right may have been few and far between.
Follow the debate in R A H Robinson, The origins of the Right in Franco's Spain, vs Paul Preston, The Coming of the Spanish Civil War, but don't leave them alone in the same room together.

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