HomeDocumentationThe early years of Opus Dei1935-1936: Political and social developments. Deteriorating Political and Social Situation
The early years of Opus Dei

1935-1936: Political and social developments. Deteriorating Political and Social Situation

John Coverdale

Tags: Spanish Civil War, Youth, Opus Dei, Vocation, Isidoro Zorzano, Juan Jimenez Vargas, St Raphael work, first members
- Deteriorating political and social situation
- Plans for expansion
- The descent into chaos
- New members and Zorzano’s move to Madrid
- Difficulties in the apostolate with priests and women
- The last weeks before the Civil War

Deteriorating Political and Social Situation
As 1935 progressed, the political and social situation in Spain deteriorated even further. The country was feeling the effects of the worldwide depression, and the parties of the Left were increasingly determined to bring about radical change in Spain. On the Right, extremist parties were growing in size and virulence. The Falange, founded by the son of the former dictator Primo de Rivera, looked to Italian fascism for much of its political vocabulary and style, and part of its program. It was becoming a significant factor in political life and on the streets, where its blue-shirted youth confronted the youth groups of the Left in increasingly violent clashes. Financial scandals brought down the center-right government at the end of 1935. Early in 1936, the president of the Republic dissolved the parliament and called new general elections.

The working-class parties of the Left and the middle-class parties of the Center-Left united to form a Popular Front. Various factors facilitated the formation of the Spanish Popular Front. The government’s repression of the uprising in Asturias provided a rallying point. The Comintern, the international Communist organization directed by Moscow, was encouraging popular fronts throughout Europe to counter the rise of fascism and national socialism. And the electoral disaster of 1933 had taught the parties of the Left the importance of presenting a united front in elections – something that at this stage, Catholics and other members of the Right and Center-Right were far from doing.

The rhetoric of the electoral campaign further inflamed passions. The Socialist leader, Largo Caballero, declared, “I am a Marxist Socialist, and therefore a revolutionary. Communism is the normal development of socialism, its ultimate and definitive stage.” Perhaps even more frightening to conservatives, he publicly declared that “if the Right wins, we will have a civil war.”

The Communist party, though still small, multiplied its membership by five in the course of a few months. Its official newspaper called for “completing the bourgeois democratic revolution until it brings us to a situation in which the proletariat and the peasantry themselves assume the responsibility of making the people of Spain as happy and free as the Soviet people.” It repeatedly talked about Spain’s “undergoing the same historical process as Russia in 1917, … a brief transitory phase and then the Soviets.”

Although it now seems clear that there was no real probability of a leftist revolution in early 1936, the Spanish Right was convinced that a Communist revolution was imminent. Conservatives drew few distinctions between Communists, Socialists, and Anarchists. In the view of the Right, all three were “reds,” and their victory would bring with it complete social subversion, like that in Russia or, closer to home, like that in Asturias in October 1934.

Unlike British and American conservatives, who have typically been pragmatists, willing to yield to pressure to preserve as much as possible, Spanish conservatives were predominantly unyielding. They believed that an entire way of life was at stake and that the only recipe for survival was resistance – to the death.

In terms of votes cast, the 1936 elections represented a moderate shift of votes from the Center and Center-Right toward the Center-Left, although the exact details of what happened are unclear. As a result of the balloting, which was generally fair, the Popular Front won something over forty per cent of the total vote, the parties of the Right about thirty per cent, and centrist parties about twenty per cent. The remaining votes went to candidates who cannot be classified. In many districts, relatively moderate left-wing parties such as the Left-Republicans won the largest number of votes within the Popular Front. Communist candidates invariably came in last among the parties of the Popular Front. On the Right, the extremist Falangist party won less than one half of one per cent of the popular vote.

In terms of seats in parliament, however, the shift was far more dramatic. Thanks to the system of alliances and workings of the electoral law, the Popular Front won about fifty-six per cent of the seats in Parliament. The parties of the Right won thirty per cent, leaving a badly fragmented Center with only fourteen per cent of the seats and virtually no influence.

The Socialists had participated in the Popular Front, but under the influence of the resolutely Marxist Largo Caballero, they refused to participate in the government formed after the election by the Left-Republican Azana. This meant that the government was clearly middle class and certainly could not be called revolutionary, but the absence of the Socialists from the cabinet also meant that the government was weak. It was unable to resist increasing pressure from the labor unions or to control violence in the streets.

Among the government’s first acts was an amnesty for those jailed in the uprisings of October 1934. This amnesty inflamed political passions on the Right. During the spring and early summer of 1936, violence was widespread. Peasants, encouraged by the electoral results, occupied large areas of land in the south. In the cities, attacks on public and private buildings, especially churches, became common. General strikes and riots broke out frequently. Armed right-wing squads patrolled the streets in Madrid and other cities, often shooting at random from passing cars. Between February 3, 1936 and the beginning of the civil war on July 17, 1936, approximately 270 people were killed and almost 1,300 wounded in political incidents and assassinations. Violence was not confined to one area; about 150 were killed in the cities, but another 120 died in small towns and rural areas.

Even before the elections, the Escriva family – Father Josemaria, his mother Dolores, his elder sister Carmen and his younger brother Santiago – had temporarily moved to a boardinghouse, out of fear that St Elizabeth’s might be assaulted at any moment. In view of the electoral results, they decided it was not safe to return to the rector’s residence. They rented a small apartment on Doctor Carceles Street in Madrid, while Father Josemaria moved to the DYA residence.

Their fears proved to be well founded. On March 13, 1936, a mob tried to set St Elizabeth’s ablaze. They ran out of gasoline, and while they were looking for more, the police came along and dispersed them before they could do significant damage.

Plans for expansion
Father Josemaria was normally not distracted from his apostolic tasks by the difficult circumstances of the country. Although DYA had only about half as many students in the academy during the 1935-1936 school year as it had had the previous year, by early 1936 Father Josemaria was already planning to purchase a larger facility for the upcoming school year. Not content with expanding DYA, on February 13, 1936, he noted, “I feel an urgent need to open houses outside Madrid and outside Spain. I sense that Jesus wants us to go to Valencia [in the east of Spain] and to Paris…. A campaign of prayer and sacrifice that will be the foundation of these two houses is already under way.”

As early as 1934, he had told the vicar general of Madrid that the students involved in DYA hoped to establish similar centers near the principal universities in foreign countries. Early in 1936, he wrote to the auxiliary bishop of Valencia telling him about his plans for opening a center there. He also wrote to the vicar general of Madrid to inform him that he hoped to have a house in Valencia by the end of the summer and was preparing a small group to go to Paris.

In April 1936, Father Josemaria went to Valencia with Ricardo, the director of DYA, to talk with the auxiliary bishop and to give him copies of the various instructions he had written for the members of the Work. These contacts with the hierarchy were not only necessary preparations for the planned expansion, but also a way for Father Josemaria to burn his bridges behind him. Having officially informed both the auxiliary bishop of Valencia and the vicar general of Madrid about his plans, he would look quite foolish if he failed to carry them out.

Those plans were based on trust in God. Bishop Jose Lopez Ortiz, an Augustinian friar and university profession who had met Father Josemaria in 1924 in Zaragoza, describes a conversation he had with him in Madrid in the spring of 1936:

"He did not speak to me explicitly about the Work, but he asked me with great faith to pray a lot for him, because our Lord was asking from him something that vastly exceeded his strength. He alluded generically to the fact that our Lord was sending him a great trial. He felt like an instrument in God’s hands. He was ready to do whatever God wanted and was carrying out a loving struggle not to obstruct in any way the fulfillment of God’s will. In that struggle, our Lord was taking him down an extraordinarily painful path. Our Lord had shown him what he wanted of him and his life. He saw his vocation very clearly. He considered that it was well beyond his possibilities, but he was determined to follow it with complete fidelity, surrounded by difficulties…"

Seeing him that day without the cheerfulness that characterized his entire life, I was left with the picture of a man who suffers but is ready to do the will of God, knowing that he is nothing and less than nothing, a mere instrument. This humble attitude – and I would even say humiliated attitude – is diametrically opposed to any type of triumphalism. It has always been hidden in him, like the root of a tree, giving weight and meaning to the constant cheerfulness and overflowing optimism that are possible only with submissive acceptance of the cross.

The descent into chaos
As spring progressed, the political climate grew increasingly tense. Although nothing was known for certain, virtually everyone suspected, as it turned out correctly, that the army was planning a coup. Labor unions and political parties on the extreme Left and Right were busy organizing and arming private militias, which clashed with each other and sowed a climate of fear and violence in the streets. In the parliament the debates grew increasingly heated. On April 15, the secretary general of the Communist party openly threatened the assassination of the leader of the right-wing CEDA: “I cannot say for sure how Mr Gil Robles will die,” he said, “but I can say that if the people’s justice is fulfilled, he will die with his shoes on.” The Right was increasingly violent in denouncing the government for its failure to preserve law and order and for pandering to the extreme Left. In the streets, youths armed by parties on the extreme Right and the extreme Left clashed frequently, and political assassinations were common.

In April, the Spanish parliament or “Cortes” voted to remove the president of the Republic, and in early May the then prime minister, Azana, was elected to replace him as president. The new prime minister, Casares Quiroga, headed a government that continued to be dominated by middle-class Left-Republicans. Casares, however, lacked Azana’s authority and prestige, and the new government was even weaker than its predecessor.

New members and Zorzano’s move to Madrid
In the midst of the political and social turmoil of the spring of 1936, the prayer, sacrifice and apostolic efforts of Father Josemaria and the other members of the Work were rewarded. In mid-April, Vicente Rodriguez Casado, who was studying both law and history at the University of Madrid, joined Opus Dei. A few days later, during a trip to Valencia, Father Josemaria looked up a young philosophy student, Rafael Calvo Serer, one of the officers of the Catholic University Students Association in Valencia. During March, Rafael had visited Father Josemaria several times in Madrid while on a trip to the capital on business of the Association. On March 19, the feast of St Joseph, Father Josemaria had explained Opus Dei to him and had suggested that he think about his possible vocation. After another long conversation with Father Josemaria while walking through the streets of Valencia, he too joined the Work.

By the middle of 1936, Opus Dei had grown to nineteen members. Father Josemaria was overjoyed at the new vocations, but he needed help from the older members to expand the Work’s apostolates. He was especially anxious to be able to rely more on Isidoro, who had been living in Malaga since he joined Opus Dei. In recent months, Isidoro’s situation there had become dangerous. The city was a hotbed of radical left-wing labor activity. By and large, the men who worked directly for him respected him and appreciated his fairness and the personal interest he took in them. But as an engineer and as a known Catholic, Isidoro was a target for the hostility of workers who did not know him personally. One day a former student of his at the Technical School informed him that a group of Communist and Anarchist workers were plotting his death. To stay much longer in Malaga would not be prudent.

This was not the first time that Isidoro had thought of moving to Madrid. For several years, he had been looking for a position there, because he felt the need for closer contact with Father Josemaria and the other members of the Work. In the midst of the economic depression, however, he had not been able to find a job. The planned expansion of DYA and the projected opening of an academy and residence in Valencia finally provided Isidoro with an opportunity to work in Madrid.

The last weeks before the Civil War
As spring turned into early summer, the political climate continued to deteriorate. People everywhere talked incessantly about plots against the government by the Right, with the backing of the army, or by the labor unions and parties of the Left, with the support of their private militias. By early June, a group of army officers led by General Mola had all but completed its plans for overthrowing the government. They planned to establish a military government made up of General Sanjurjo, who had led the right-wing coup attempt in 1932, and four other senior officers. Once they were firmly in power, they would call a constituent assembly to write a new constitution. Other than restoring order, their political goals were vague, but they seem to have envisioned a government somewhat like that of Primo de Rivera.

On July 1, 1936, the press reported, in banner headlines, that a prominent Socialist deputy had publicly issued a death threat against the right-wing leader Calvo Sotelo. Less than two weeks later, government security forces assassinated Calvo Sotelo and dumped his body along a road outside the cemetery of Madrid.

Like most Spaniards, the members of Opus Dei watched in horror as their country spiraled downward into violence, but they did not allow themselves to become paralyzed by anxiety. Just as Isidoro was arriving in Madrid, the search for a new home for DYA bor fruit. They found a suitable house at 16 Ferraz Street, near the previous site. One June 17, 1936, they signed a contract for the purchase, and at the beginning of July, they began relocating. By July 15, the move was complete, although much remained to be done in the house. They continued to work on preparing the new residence at the same time as they redoubled their prayer and sacrifice for a peaceful solution to the crisis.

The members’ hopes for prompt growth and expansion of the apostolic activities would soon be shattered by the outbreak of a civil war that would last for almost three years. The war and the religious persecution that accompanied it dispersed the members of Opus Dei.
Two of the young men who had recently joined, Jose Isasa and Jacinto Valentin Gamazo, died during the conflict, and some other young men did not persevere in the Work under the harsh conditions of war. When the fighting finally came to an end, fewer men belonged to Opus Dei than when the conflict began, and its only center was reduced to a heap of rubble. The trials of war and religious persecution, however, strengthened and tempered the vocation of those men who persevered, laying the groundwork for a new period of expansion of Opus Dei’s activities for men.

The civil war was even more devastating for Opus Dei’s still incipient activities with women. The available sources are almost completely silent about the experiences of the few womenwho belonged to Opus Dei at the beginning of the war. The handful of young women who belonged to the Work in July 1936 were cut off from Father Josemaria during almost three years. They had not yet fully grasped the spirit of Opus Dei when the conflict began, and by the end of the fighting their lives were settled in other directions.

When peace finally returned to Spain in April 1939, Father Josemaria reluctantly concluded that none of them was in a position to continue in Opus Dei. The only woman member on whom he could count for restarting Opus Dei’s apostolic activities was Lola Fisac, who had joined the Work during the civil war.

The early years of Opus Dei: Historical, political and social situation in Spain. Condensed from the book written by the history expert John Coverdale, Uncommon Faith, chapters 1 and 3-18