Manuel Azaña was born into a prosperous family in Spain on 10th January 1880. Azaña was educated at the University of Saragossa and Madrid University. He qualified as a lawyer and in 1911 was employed in the Registry Office of the Ministry of Justice.
He became involved in politics and was a member of the Reformist Party. He was a candidate for the province of Toledo in 1918 and 1923 but lost on both occasions. In 1925 he founded his own political party, Accion Republicana.
Azaña wrote a large number of articles on law and politics and in 1920 began publishing the journal, La Pluma. He was also on the editorial board of España which was closed down by the government in 1924. Later he turned to writing plays and novels and in 1926 won the National Prize for Literature.
In 1931 Azaña joined with other liberal politicians that took part in the successful revolution that led to Alfonso XIII leaving the country. In the first government of the Second Republic Azaña became minister of war. He introduced a series of reforms that upset senior army officers.
Azaña believed that the Catholic Church was responsible for Spain's backwardness. He defended the elimination of special privileges for the Church on the grounds that Spain had ceased to be Catholic. Azaña was criticised by the Catholic Church for not doing more to stop the burning of religious buildings in May 1931. He controversially remarked that burning of "all the convents in Spain was not worth the life of a single Republican".
On 16th October 1931, Azaña replaced Niceto Alcala Zamora as prime minister. With the support of the Socialist Party (PSOE) he attempted to introduce agrarian reform and regional autonomy. However, these measures were blocked in the Cortes.
The failed military coup led by José Sanjurjo on 10th August, 1932, rallied support for Azaña's government. It was now possible for him to get the Agrarian Reform Bill and the Catalan Statute passed by the Cortes. The November 1933 elections were a victory for the Catholic Party (CEDA). Azaña's party only won five seats and he was forced from power.
In April 1934 Azaña managed to unite his party with the Radical Socialist and the Gallegan Autonomists. Later that year there were violent demonstrations in Barcelona and Asturias. Azaña was accused of encouraging these disturbances and on 7th October he was arrested and interned on a ship in Barcelona Harbour. However, no evidence could be found against him and he was released on 18th December.
Azaña was also accused of supplying arms to the Asturias insurrectionaries. In March 1935, the matter was debated in the Cortes, where Azaña defended himself in a three-hour speech. On 6th April, 1935, the Tribunal of Constitutional Guarantees acquitted Azaña.
On 15th January 1936, Azaña helped to establish a coalition of parties on the political left to fight the national elections due to take place the following month. This included the Socialist Party (PSOE), Communist Party (PCE) and the Republican Union Party. In the elections held on 16th February 1936, 34.3 per cent of the vote went to the Popular Front, 33.2 per cent to the conservative parties and the rest to regional and centre parties. This gave the Popular Front 271 seats out of the 448 in the Cortes and Azaña was asked to form a new government.
The Popular Front government immediately upset the conservatives by releasing all left-wing political prisoners. The government also introduced agrarian reforms that penalized the landed aristocracy. Other measures included transferring right-wing military leaders such as Francisco Franco to posts outside Spain, outlawing the Falange Española and granting Catalonia political and administrative autonomy.
As a result of these measures the wealthy took vast sums of capital out of the country. This created an economic crisis and the value of the peseta declined which damaged trade and tourism. With prices rising workers demanded higher wages. This led to a series of strikes in Spain.
On 10th May 1936 Azaña replaced the conservative Niceto Alcala Zamora as president of Spain. Edward Knoblaugh has argued: "Now he blossomed out in a new role - one that was to carry him to the Presidency. He organized the Left Popular Front. Socialists, Anarchists, Communists and Left Republicans were summoned to his banner. The Rightists vowed that it could not be done, but Azaña welded the groups. The feat earned him the admiration of even his bitterest enemies. The Socialists and Communists had reached an entente, but the Left Republicans and the Anarchists were as far apart as the stars, and they in turn had nothing in common with the Socialist-Communists. In getting these discordant elements together Azaña lived up to his reputation as the shrewdest and cleverest politician in Spain."
Soon after Azaña gained power, Spanish Army officers, including Emilio Mola, Francisco Franco and José Sanjurjo, began plotting to overthrow the Popular Front government. This resulted in the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War on 17th July, 1936. To protect the Popular Front government, José Giral, the new prime minister, gave orders for arms to be distributed to left-wing organizations and trade unions that opposed the military uprising. Azaña had no desire to be head of a government that was trying to militarily defeat another group of Spaniards. He attempted to resign but was persuaded to stay on by the Socialist Party and Communist Party who hoped that he was the best person to persuade foreign governments not to support the military uprising.
In September 1936, Azaña appointed the left-wing socialist, Francisco Largo Caballero as prime minister. Largo Caballero also took over the important role of war minister. Caballero brought into his government two left-wing radicals, Angel Galarza (minister of the interior) and Alvarez del Vayo (minister of foreign affairs). He also included right-wing socialists, Juan Negrin (minister of finance) and Indalecio Prieto (minister of navy and air) in his government. Largo Caballero also gave two ministries to the Communist Party (PCE) and the rest went to the Republican Union Party.
Joseph Stalin appointed Alexander Orlov as the Soviet Politburo adviser to the Popular Front government. Orlov was not very impressed with President Azaña: "He was a man with an ugly face. He was an apparent weakling, deeply in love with himself and with the lofty positions he had held in Spanish public life since the abdication of the king. The events of the Spanish Civil War proved him an egotist and veritable coward, who deserted his people when the war reached a critical stage."
After taking power Francisco Largo Caballero concentrated on winning the war and did not pursue his policy of social revolution. In an effort to gain the support of foreign governments, he announced that his administration was "not fighting for socialism but for democracy and constitutional rule." Caballero introduced changes that upset the left in Spain. This included conscription, the reintroduction of ranks and insignia into the militia, and the abolition of workers' and soldiers' councils. He also established a new police force, the National Republican Guard. He also agreed for Juan Negrin to be given control of the Carabineros.
On 13th November 1937 Azaña made a speech where he argued: "We are fighting in self-defense, defending the life of our people and its highest moral values, all the moral values of Spain, absolutely all - the past, the present, and those that you will know how to create in time to come. We, the innovators of Spanish policy, we, the restorers of the Republic, the workmen of the Republic, who labored to make it an instrument to bring civilization and progress to our community, we have denied nothing of all that is noble and great in the history of Spain - absolutely nothing."
Largo Caballero resisted pressure from the Communist Party to promote its members to senior posts in the government. He also refused their demands to suppress the Worker's Party (POUM) in May 1937. The Communists now withdrew from the government. In an attempt to maintain a coalition government, on 15th May, Azaña sacked Largo Caballero and asked Juan Negrin to form a new cabinet.
Negrin now began appointing members of the Communist Party (PCE) to important military and civilian posts. This included Marcelino Fernandez, a communist, to head the Carabineros. Communists were also given control of propaganda, finance and foreign affairs. The socialist, Luis Araquistain, described Negrin's government as the "most cynical and despotic in Spanish history."
Negrin now attempted to gain the support of western governments by announcing his plan to decollectivize industries. On 1st May 1938 Negrin published a thirteen-point program that included the promise of full civil and political rights and freedom of religion.
In August 1938 President Manuel Azaña attempted to oust Juan Negrin. However, he no longer had the power he once had and with the support of the communists in the government and armed forces, Negrin was able to survive.
Azaña attempted to oust Negrin in August 1938. However, he no longer had the power he once had and with the support of the communists in the government and armed forces, Negrin was able to survive.
On 26th January, 1939, Barcelona fell to the Nationalist Army. Azaña and his government now moved to Perelada, close to the French border. With the nationalist forces still advancing, Azaña and his colleagues crossed into France on 5th February.
On 27th February, 1939, the British prime minister, Neville Chamberlain recognized the Nationalist government headed by General Francisco Franco. Later that day Azaña resigned from office, declaring that the war was lost and that he did not want Spaniards to make anymore useless sacrifices.
Azaña went to live in the south of France near Bordeaux. He suffered a heart attack in February 1940 and was still recovering when the German Army invaded three months later. Manuel Azaña was moved to Mountauban where he died on 3rd November, 1940.