Between 1931 and 1936, five years and an entire world went by. And one man was an exceptional witness to the upheaval that preceded the battle for Spain: Niceto Alcalá-Zamora, a brilliant lawyer, a liberal landowner, a practicing Catholic, a disappointed royalist-turned-staunch republican, and an equidistant politician at a bad time for moderate thought.
Alcalá-Zamora was the first president of the Second Republic, and was deposed by former colleagues in April 1936 on the brink of the military uprising that led to the Civil War (1936-1939). Aware of his place in history, he carefully annotated documents and dialogues and became safekeeper of these records, which now have their home inside the National History Archive (AHN) after a series of adventures worthy of a John le Carré novel. The leading chronicler of those five years, during which Spain had so many ups and downs, also happened to be its top leader- the head of state.
The president wrote that Barcelona "was a leading example of moderation"
He suspected that the government had tapped his home and office phones
Alcalá-Zamora placed around 1,200 documents inside a safe deposit box at the Crédit Lyonnais bank in Madrid. This material included private papers, his own successive wills, conference notes, speeches, letters, diaries of his time in office and official documents, such as the minutes of the 1936 elections, military reports on the crushing of the Asturias anarchist revolt in 1934, copies of telegrams and records of telephone conversations.
At the beginning of the Civil War, the documents disappeared, and their trail was lost until 1941, when- nobody knows exactly how- they ended up in the hands of the Soria family, who kept them under wraps until 2008. And when they came to the fore, it was in the same shady way they had disappeared in the first place.
The family offered the bundle of papers to several historians, including the high-profile César Vidal. When the descendants of Alcalá-Zamora found out, they reported the business deal to the Civil Guard, who seized the material. A court ordered it to be stored in a safe deposit box at the Culture Ministry, a fact that infuriated the opposition Popular Party as well as the politician's heirs, who asked that the papers be kept instead at the History Academy. There was speculation that the bundle could contain explosive information about Captain Juan Rodríguez Lozano, the grandfather of the current prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, and also about the Socialist Party's involvement in the 1934 Asturias revolt. In the end, the court dismissed the case on the grounds that the Soria family had committed no crime in trying to sell the papers, as they are considered the owners through prolonged use.
The Sorias eventually turned in the papers as payment in kind to settle a debt with the tax office. The collection was estimated to be worth 80,000 euros and stored at the AHN, "where all the documents of heads of state are kept," according to the director general of libraries and archives, Rogelio Blanco. The material will be accessible to the public once it is restored, a job that AHN director Carmen Sierra thinks could take about a month.
Alcalá-Zamora wrote about all the meetings of the republican opposition under the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera, his stint in jail and the advent of the Second Republic on April 14, 1931 after the fall of King Alfonso XIII (there had been a previous, short-lived republican experiment between 1873 and 1874).
In his description of his own arrest on December 14, 1930, Alcalá-Zamora explains that he asked the officers at his door for "tolerance" so he could have breakfast, shave and go to Mass.
"Sandwiched between the officers, I attended Mass at San Fermín, returned home and still managed to get some time from them to write." At the Modelo penitentiary, he joined Fernando de los Ríos, Largo Caballero, Casares Quiroga, Giral and all the other founding fathers of the soon-to-arrive Republic. When it did, the entire country celebrated.
"The revolution was so peaceful and the multitude so noble-minded that the last night the dethroned family spent in the palace never posed any danger or cause for concern," he wrote.
In June 1931, Alcalá-Zamora was president of the caretaker government of the Republic- a Catholic president, that is. He was the perfect person to hear about religious leaders' opposition to the upcoming reforms. There is a document dated May 1931 recommending what to do to preserve the assets and bank accounts of the Church. "Experience teaches us that in the advent of revolution, no property is as respected as the property of foreigners placed under the aegis of their respective states."
Cardinals and archbishops also wrote him a letter from Rome, dated June 3, 1931, protesting against the burning of churches and projected reforms such as the secularization of cemeteries, the elimination of four military orders, the suppression of mass in the army and penitentiaries, and the banning of crosses and other religious symbols from schools (the past always has a way of returning).
"This manifestly violates the sacred rights that the Church has been enjoying in Spain since time immemorial," write the officials.
Tucked among the documents left at the Crédit Lyonnais, there was a collection of aerial photographs of the advance of the troops against the anarchist uprising in Asturias. The army columns were led from an office in Madrid by one General Franco, who enlisted African regulars to brutally repress the civilian population, just as they would two years later. The president of the Republic wrote that Barcelona, which also rose up against the regime, "was a leading example of humanitarian moderation; in the northwest, the rebellion broke out like a civil war."
It is distressing to read Alcalá-Zamora's diaries, Dietario de un presidente, which begin on January 1, 1936 and end on April 8 of that same year, the day after his removal from office in favor of Manuel Azaña. By then, there is precious little left of that enthusiastic and peaceful nation that had welcomed the Second Republic in 1931. Alcalá-Zamora is almost completely isolated, and his relationship with the new president is terrible. "The government is Azaña and just Azaña," he wrote on one occasion. Things get darker as one reads the transcripts of harsh conversations between both men. He even writes that he suspects the government has tapped his home and office telephones. On March 31 he wrote: "The symptoms or heralds of a military coup are there, concrete, insistent and threatening, although I am reluctant to believe in it due to its sheer absurdity."
He was on a cruise ship along the coast of Norway, in July 1936, when the war broke out. One of the plotters was General Queipo de Llano, whose son had married Alcalá-Zamora's daughter. This did not afford him any protection. He was a moderate nuisance in radical times. Before dying in exile, he still had time to sustain further attacks: in 1941 Franco's regime took away his Spanish citizenship, seized his assets and slapped him with a fine of 50 million pesetas 300,000 euros).