Updated:03/26/2020 23: 09h
We know of the three failed attempts to proclaim the Catalan State during the First and Second Republic, in addition to the current independence challenge that has led many of its leaders to exile and prison. We have also suffered Basque separatism and the bloody past of the terrorist group ETA, with its more than 800 dead. Less well known is the episode in which Asturias declared himself independent for two months in the middle of the Spanish Civil War.
It was proclaimed, on Tuesday, August 24, 1937, by the Interprovincial Council of Asturias and León, the regional authority in which left-wing parties such as the PSOE, the Communist Party (PCE) and the Republican Left were represented, in addition to unions such as UGT, CNT or FAI. All of them decided to assume the power of their community against the legality of the Madrid Government and the orders of their then president, Juan Negrín. It was renamed the Sovereign Council of Asturias and León and he established his capital in Gijón.
The news was given by the Madrid edition of ABC three days later: “All civil and military agencies that function from now on are fully subject to this council.” Other newspapers such as “We” or “Freedom” did the same in headlines such as “The fight in the north”, and reported the context in which this declaration of independence had occurred: “At three o’clock yesterday afternoon Nine factional devices flew over Gijón and threw thirty bombs that fell in the La Guía neighborhood. They caused some damage, six died and ten wounded. Later they launched other artifacts in the parish of Somió ».
The rejection of the Republic
The first thing they did was create a series of commissions that functioned as “ministries,” all led by members of the aforementioned left-wing parties and unions. There were the departments of War, Interior, Public Works, Finance, Industry, Communications, Social Assistance, Agriculture, Health, Public Instruction, Marine and Fishing.
The reason given by these conjunctural independentistas, chaired by the socialist Belarmino Tomás, was the impossibility of communicating with the republican government installed in Valencia from the Principality, since it was divided and for the most part surrounded by the Francoists. Still, the news shook Defense Minister Indalecio Prieto out of his boxes. As he wrote Manuel Azaña: “Prieto is outraged and hurt by the crazy behavior of the Asturians.” He himself was furious and immediately summoned the new Asturian president to Valencia, but he refused to attend.
For a long time, the territories of the Basque Country, Santander and Asturias were surrounded by Franco’s troops. Even by sea, from where the rebels bombarded relentlessly from their ships. The support of the Republic was less and less and had almost disappeared, since it was focused on the defense of the Mediterranean coast and Madrid. In fact, they practically gave up on the northern front, which is why some historians like Gabriel Jackson described that corner of Spain as “The separate war.”
As if that were not enough, military collaboration between these three communities was scarce. They lent it to him between reproaches, only by mandate of the republican central Executive. In the north there was no unity of action between Basques, Santander and Asturians. There were practically three armies. All republicans, yes, but each fighting for his own side. This made it difficult to defend against the nationals, which caused Bilbao to fall in mid-June 1937 and, two months later, the Basque Country. Santander was the penultimate stage of the Northern Campaign and was fought in just 12 days, leaving the Principality as the only redoubt in the Cantabrian Sea.
The “sovereignty” decreed by Belarmino Tomás caused many displeasures among the authorities of the Republic, who had suffered similar declarations from Catalonia in 1931 and 1934. Despite this, the socialist turned a deaf ear and decided to go ahead. Prieto did not dare to intervene for fear that a contempt of his orders by the separatists would give greater importance to that statement, which only seemed justified by the nervousness of the Asturians before the rapid fall of Santander and the military desertions.
One of the first orders given by the new separate government was to strictly prohibit anyone from leaving Asturian territory, even with the bombs falling. According to the historian Octavio Cabezas in his biography of Indalecio Prieto, the expression used by Belarmino Tomás was: “God does not come out of here.” And then he began to govern, turning a deaf ear to what was being ordered from Valencia or Madrid, managing himself the shortage of supplies and weapons and the increase in Basque and Santander refugees.
During the time that the Sovereign Council exercised power in Asturias, among its most important actions were the issuance of postage stamps and its own currency, the banknotes popularly known as “belarminos”, which were signed by the new president. He issued 52 edicts, many on economic or citizen security issues. He celebrated 51 political causes that ended with 17 death sentences, of which in the end only three were executed.
He also organized with daily life. It ruled the closure of cafes, restaurants, bars and taverns. It established the curfew at 22:00 and extended the State of Siege to the entire region. It prohibited the possession of weapons, radio devices, and road transportation without the corresponding permit. And last but not least, some of its advisers initiated international contacts with organizations such as the League of Nations, as if it were a state. They reported that, if the bombings on Gijón continued, they would shoot all the political prisoners. This felt very badly in the Council of Ministers of the Republic, which brought to Thomas his “surprise and disgust.” All this self-government led the Hispanicist Hugh Thomas to describe the region as the “Republic of Asturias”.
Jesús Ángel Rojo explains in his book “Great Traitors to Spain” that Tomás and his comrades were not always loyal to the different governments of the Second Republic. In fact, the socialist was one of the leaders of the 1934 Revolution in Asturias, where nearly 2,000 people died during clashes with the authorities and the Spanish Army. He was even sentenced to death, although he was later granted amnesty. According to the historian, it seemed evident that he would take advantage of the political situation of the war to achieve his personal benefit.
Republican ministers moved between stupor and outrage. In Madrid they called that Asturian Government, with contempt, the «Government». A name promoted, apparently, by President Azaña himself, who rejected that proclamation. He saw in it the first step of a much bigger insurrection and criticized Belarmino’s supposed desire for power, whom he saw as a secessionist threat to the Republic.
Despite this, throughout the month of September, the Asturian president sent several reports to the central executive in which he explained the situation that had led him and his colleagues to make that decision. He spoke of “an army in defeat and lacking in morale; a rearguard resigned to the advances of the enemy and convinced of its impotence to prevent the blockade that prevents supplies from continuing, and an immediate panorama of hunger. With these factors, within hours, a total collapse can occur.
This occurred on October 20, 1937, 57 days after the Sovereign Council was formed, with the city about to fall into the hands of Franco. That same day they held their last meeting. The report reflects the pessimism of Colonel Adolfo Prada: “It is not possible to resist any longer.” And he proposes to concentrate all possible troops in the ports of Avilés, Candás and Gijón, so that they can be transferred by boat, “if possible today, since tomorrow will be late.” Belarmino Tomás and the rest of his government members left the city in fishing boats, on a difficult journey to the French coast. At the end of the war, they all scattered across different countries. The president of the “Gobiernín” settled in Mexico and made a living selling espadrilles.