Spain and Portugal
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The case of Spain and Portugal


The end of the nineteenth century and the turn of the twentieth was characterised both in Spain and Portugal by a deep socio-economic, political and cultural crisis. At that very moment, both societies faced major changes that led to sharp social conflicts. In spite of the signs of economic modernization of the late nineteenth century, the structural improvements worked slowly and developed unevenly across the territory. Politically, the difficulties in the effective implementation of democracy became evident in the constant change of regimes, the direct participation of the army in them –also encouraged, among others, by the trauma of losing the colonies –, and the deployment of corrupt systems of the so-called turno in Spain and rotativismo in Portugal. During the beginning of the twentieth century, State policy toggled between a timid social reformism and the systematic repression of every hint of social protest; such action being increasingly supported, seconded and driven by the bourgeois owner front. The ongoing repression was a key element for the radicalisation of the workers movement, which gradually turned towards revolutionary and radical positions in both countries.

Unknown Author: El Somaten de El Toboso

However, new repertoires of collective actions were not only developed by the industrial workers, but also in rural areas. Transition to modern forms of protest implied the mixture of anticlericalism, subsistence riots or conscription and fiscal protests, with attacks onto the State, its institutions and its symbols. This is clear in events such as the Tragic Week in Catalonia, well before in episodes as the 1869 protests or in the Portuguese upheavals after the liberal wars in that country. In all of these cases, the objectives of the protests and the identity of its participants were complex. They were also related to this convulsed process of transition to modernity and the defence of various traditions and communal practices that were in conflict with some of the new features of the capitalist system (including some traditional hierarchies). It is by the end of the first decade of twentieth century that the feeling of reaching a point of no return with respect to the social order became more marked. Thereafter, employer and owner organisations deployed a stronger control based in more violent practices. Linked to these initiatives, we find the reinforcement of the civic militia of Catalan Somatén (which was modernized in 1889) and later the yellow syndicalism, with the emergence of the “sindicatos libres” and the phenomenon of “pistolerismo”. Some events as the general strike of 1902, the peasant upheavals of the following years (specially in Andalusia and Extremadura), the traumatic experience of the Tragic Week (Glorious Week according to its protagonists’ denomination) and the future incidents of 1917 and the following years in some other parts of the Peninsula emphasised the vision of the existence of deep threats to the traditional order and hierarchies. Moreover, they showed the capacity of the revolutionary element of knitting long-range networks of mobilisation. These events also implied an incentive to authoritarian and “anti-bolshevik” tendencies strongly rooted both among elites and society. In this sense, the armed bourgeois formations, as the Somatén, halfway between civic and military, were not just reactive platforms in defence of property and order or mechanisms of containment, but a meeting point of the conservative element of both societies.

It seems clear that, despite its neutrality in WWI, Spain experienced high levels of political violence well before the war and continued to experience them throughout the conflict. In the case of Portugal, the entry into the war did not lead to the expected social consensus and it even seemed to strengthen the authoritarian alternatives gathered around Lusitanian Integralism. The existence of an extremely mobilised society, with the prior presence of guerrillas (as miguelistas in Portugal, carlistas in Spain), or police groups beyond the control of the State (as Hermandades in Castilla) lead us to a deeper study of a kind of violence related to centrifugal and autonomous tendencies within the modern State in both cases. Moreover, repression in the streets and in the countryside, added to the failed and convulsed colonial experiences, lead us to the always-thorny issue of the previous brutalisation. The rise of these groups can be also related to the impact of the economic crisis, the loss of economic and political power of the rural bourgeoisie, and the increasingly combative behaviour of organized Catholicism. This was also connected to the strengthening of a discourse of order, patriotism and patriarchal principles against the challenge of modernity and all of its consequences, but two in particular: social mobility and a certain sense of loss of social pre-eminence. Despite of the authorities’ and local elites’ dream of the “oasis-city”, the idea of disorder (and the constant fear of a social overflowing) was closely linked to the phenomenon of roam workers, their concentration in some places (not necessarily cities), and their tendency to create supra-local networks. As a consequence, it is necessary to underline that, even in locations where paramilitarism was not present, the cultural domain of these areas as well as the existence of isolated scattered groups would allow the future acceptance within the community of some stable platforms of organized violence. In fact, it is worth noting that some of the future members of groups such the Somatén had practiced strategies of control and terror before, along with the authorities, economic clusters and public forces.

So far, the study of organized violence in Spain during this period has been mainly based on the Catalan context, the study of the Somatén, and the post-war period. In Portugal, the study has been specially based on the political struggle for power between liberals and absolutists. Although a considerable advance has been made in the study of the relation between rural world and politics, there are many aspects still to explore. The issue of political violence is clearly one of them, often conceptualised as a subordinated reflection of what happened in urban areas.

The investigation on the cases of Spain and Portugal will be based on the detailed analysis of five cities of a ratio up to 10.000 inhabitants in 1900. All of them were located in rural environments that had traditionally been emigrant areas and that were physically, practically and symbolically distant from the regional and national centres of decision. Their character as border towns between regions and states also enables the study of cross-border political relations and the analysis of the formal and informal mechanisms of containment and repression strengthened by the existence of the frontier. The project aims to link this deployment of additional forces outside (or beyond) the State system to the territorial marginalization that affected most of rural areas, and specifically some regions of both Spain and Portugal.


This project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No 677199).

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