The Spanish statesman and author Manuel Azaña Diaz (1880-1940) was prime minister of the republic from 1931 to 1933 and briefly in 1936. He became president in 1936, a position he held until the republic fell in March 1939 to the Nationalists.
Manuel Azaña was born on Jan. 10, 1880, in Alcalá de Henares to middle-class parents. He attended the Colegio de Maria Cristina at the Escorial. In 1898 Azaña entered the University of Madrid to study law, after which he spent several terms at the Sorbonne. The experience in Paris gave him an introduction to the kind of Europeanism that was the theme of the literary and cultural movement called the Generation of 1898 in Spain. After practicing law in Paris, Azaña returned to Spain with anticlerical views and a taste for radical politics.
During the 1920s Azaña was secretary general of the Ateneo de Madrid, the most prestigious intellectual club in Spanish society, and worked as a writer, a translator, and a journalist. Perhaps his best work is the biography of the 19th-century writer Juan Valera, an outspoken social critic. In 1930 Azaña became president of the Ateneo.
By this time he had begun to move into politics by organizing a small party called Acción Republicana. With the advent of the republic in April 1931, Azaña was named minister of war in the provisional government and immediately proceeded with a reorganization of the military, which heartened radicals who felt the services had long been too powerful. He also helped draft the republican constitution, and in October 1931, upon the resignation of Niceto Alcalá Zamora, he became premier.
Azaña remained prime minister until September 1933, a time of great importance in the history of the republic. He was particularly instrumental in solving difficult constitutional questions that threatened to divide the coalition active in republican politics. He tried hard to achieve an equitable land reform, improve education, and modernize Spanish society, but his ministry was marred in a number of ways. Azaña's anticlericalism made him reluctant to intervene in anarchist attacks on the Church, but he did pass the stringent Law for the Defense of the Republic to punish political dissenters. His harshness in January and August 1932, and again in January 1933, against his political opponents did a great deal to introduce a climate of violence into Spanish politics. Increasingly he came to rely upon Socialist support and thus fatally divided public opinion, though the division probably was inevitable. In any case, when his administration found it impossible to maintain momentum in the wake of the economic crisis of the early thirties, the right triumphed in the elections of 1933 and Azaña was succeeded by Alejandro Lerrox. Yet, despite Azaña's errors, there was no question that in just 2 years Spanish society had moved significantly forward.
The right-wing government kept a close watch on Azaña, and when, in October 1934, rioting in Asturias threatened to plunge the country into civil war, Azaña was imprisoned for some months. In 1935 he became spokesman for a renewed left coalition that in January and February 1936 won a controversial election under the banner of the Popular Front. Azaña returned to the premiership until May 10, when he replaced Alcalá Zamora once again, this time as president of the republic. When civil war broke out in July, Azaña's influence diminished after he appointed the moderate Diego Martinez Barrio as prime minister. Azaña left Madrid in the fall of 1936, never to return permanently, and he spent much of the civil war period in virtual isolation in Catalonia. After the fall of Barcelona, Azaña went into exile in France. He died in Montauban on Nov. 3, 1940.
A political biography of Azaña is Frank Sedwick, The Tragedy of Manuel Azaña and the Fate of the Spanish Republic (1963). Hugh Thomas, The Spanish Civil War (1961), is an authoritative history.
Portrait of an unknown man: Manuel Azaña and modern Spain, Madison N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press; London; Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, 1995.