Spain - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion

Read about Spain: language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate ...



Spain (Spanish España), parliamentary monarchy occupying 85 percent of the Iberian Peninsula in the southwestern corner of Europe. Portugal and the British territory of Gibraltar occupy the remainder of the peninsula. Spain’s territory also includes islands in the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea and two small enclaves on the coast of Morocco. Madrid is the capital and largest city of Spain.

A large plateau rises in the heartland of Spain and makes up much of the mainland. Mountains surround and crisscross the plateau, and the city of Madrid stands at its center. The climate of the plateau is harsh and arid, and most of Spain’s people live near the coasts or in a few major river valleys.

Spain is cut off by the Pyrenees mountains from all other countries of Europe except Portugal, and thus has had a history notably different from those countries. In the 8th century Arabic-speaking Muslims from North Africa, called Moors, conquered most of the Iberian peninsula. During the Middle Ages Christian kingdoms of northern Spain waged wars to reconquer the peninsula from the Moors.

After the Christian reconquest was completed, Spain’s monarchs sent Christopher Columbus on the voyage in which he reached the Americas in 1492. In the hundred years that followed, treasure from the Americas helped make Spain the strongest power in Europe. Spanish soldiers and priests explored and colonized the Americas from Mexico to Chile, spreading Spanish culture and the Spanish language. Spain’s economy stagnated in the 17th century, however, and its power waned. In the 20th century Spain was scarred by the Spanish Civil War, between 1936 and 1939, and by a dictatorship that lasted from 1939 to 1975. Afterward, Spain underwent a remarkably smooth transition to democratic government.

In economic terms Spain was a late developer. Until the 1960s nearly all of the country’s industry was confined to the northern regions of Catalonia and the Basque Country. Since then Spain’s economy has grown rapidly. The major contributions to this economic turnaround came from light manufacturing industry—such as food products—and from service industries, especially tourism. Millions of tourists visit Spain each year, attracted by its sunny climate, beaches, and historic cities.

Spain also has a strong cultural and artistic tradition. Historically, its main cultural contributions were to painting and literature. More recently, while maintaining its presence in these two areas, Spain has also produced major figures in the fields of filmmaking, architecture, and music.

Spain is bordered on the north by the Bay of Biscay, part of the Atlantic Ocean, and by the Pyrenees, which form its frontier with France and the tiny country of Andorra. It is bounded by on the east by the Mediterranean Sea; on the south by the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean; and on the west by Portugal and the Atlantic Ocean. The Canary Islands in the Atlantic Ocean and the Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean also form part of Spain. In addition, Spain administers two cities in Morocco—Ceuta and Melilla—as well as three island groups near Africa—Peñón de Vélez de la Gomera and the Alhucemas and Chafarinas islands. The British dependency of Gibraltar is situated at the southern extremity of Spain.


Spain occupies about 85 percent of the Iberian Peninsula. Its area, including the African and insular territories, is 505,990 sq km (195,364 sq mi), making Spain the second-largest country in western Europe after France. Water borders about 88 percent of Spain’s periphery. Its Mediterranean coast is 1,660 km (1,030 mi) long, and its Atlantic coast is 710 km (440 mi) long. The long, unbroken mountain chain of the Pyrenees, extending 435 km (270 mi) from the Bay of Biscay to the Mediterranean Sea, forms the border with France on the north. In the extreme south the Strait of Gibraltar, less than 13 km (8 mi) wide at its narrowest extent, separates Spain from Africa.

Spain is a mountainous country. In Europe, only Switzerland has a higher average elevation. Spain’s extensive central plateau, called the Meseta, has an average elevation of about 600 m (2,000 ft) and slopes generally downward from north to south and from east to west. Various mountain ranges, or sierras, cross this tableland. The two largest—the Sierra de Guadarrama and the Sierra de Gredos—divide it into northern and southern sections. Several more mountain ranges border the plateau: the Cantabrian mountains along the northern coast, the Iberian chain to the east, and the Sierra Morena to the south. The country’s two highest peaks, however, lie elsewhere. The Mulhacén (3,477 m/11,407 ft) is in the Sierra Nevada in the extreme south, and the Pico de Aneto (3,404 m/11,168 ft) is in the Pyrenees, which form a continuous barrier along the French border to the north. Spain’s highest mountain of all is the Pico de Teide (3,715 m/12,188 ft), an extinct volcano on Tenerife Island in the Canary Islands. Between many of the mountains are narrow valleys, drained by rapid rivers.

The two most important rivers in Spain are the Ebro and the Guadalquivir. Their broad valleys bound the central plateau, the Ebro to the northeast and the Guadalquivir to the south. The two rivers lie entirely within Spain, and their mouths form the country’s only major deltas, the Ebro on the Mediterranean and the Guadalquivir on the Atlantic. The Ebro and the Guadalquivir are also Spain’s only navigable rivers. The Guadalquivir River, flowing through a fertile plain in the south, is the deepest river in Spain and the only one navigable for any extensive distance. Large ships can travel only a short distance inland on the Ebro.

Other major rivers in Spain are the Duero (Douro), Tajo (Tagus), and Guadiana. All three rivers rise on the plateau and flow through Portugal before reaching the Atlantic. The first two, like most of the country’s smaller streams and rivers, flow rapidly mostly along steep-sided valleys. Spain also has some 2,400 lakes, the majority of them glacial in origin. Almost all the lakes are very small. The largest is the Lago de Sanabria close to the northern Portuguese border.

Spain’s mainland coastline extends for about 3,960 km (2,460 mi). The Balearic Islands have a combined coastline of about 1,060 km (620 mi), and the Canaries of about 1,160 km (720 mi). For most of its length the mainland coast is rugged. The coastal strip adjoining it rarely exceeds 30 km (19 mi) in width, and in many areas the coastal plain is broken up by mountains that descend directly to the sea. More extensive coastal lowlands occur only around the Gulf of Valencia on the central Mediterranean and near the mouth of the Guadalquivir on the southern Atlantic. Galicia, a region of northwestern Spain, is distinctive for the numerous shallow inlets (rías) that indent its coast. Galicia’s coast also offers a number of good harbors, in particular Vigo and La Coruña. Good harbors elsewhere in Spain are rare; the main exceptions are Bilbao, Santander, and Cádiz on the Atlantic, and Barcelona on the Mediterranean.

Climate in Spain

The climate of Spain is generally marked by extremes of temperature and low rainfall. The country’s rugged landscape accentuates these features. The main exceptions to this harsh, arid climate occur along the northern and northwestern coasts, which are damp and cool to mild in temperature. The central plateau, by contrast, has summers so arid that nearly all the streams dry up, the earth parches, and drought is common. Around Madrid, at the middle of the plateau, winter cold is sufficient to freeze streams, while summer temperatures in Seville to the south rise as high as 49°C (120°F). The southern coast has a Mediterranean climate, with hot summers and mild winters. For example, Málaga, on the southern coast, has an average winter temperature of 14°C (57°F). The climate of the Canary Islands is subtropical.

Most of Spain receives less than 610 mm (24 in) of precipitation per year, and Almería Province in the southeast boasts Europe’s only genuine desert. The northern mountains get considerably more moisture.

Natural Resources of Spain

Spain has a number of mineral resources. The largest known deposits are of iron ore, zinc, and lead. Spain also produces significant quantities of copper and mercury. These deposits are mined mainly in Huelva province in southwestern Spain, around Cartagena on the Mediterranean, and at various points along the Bay of Biscay in the north. Additionally, uranium is mined in the region of Extremadura, near the Portuguese frontier, where pyrites, fluorspar, gypsum, tungsten, and potash also occur.

Spain has only minor energy reserves. There are small fields of petroleum and natural gas off the Biscay coast, with additional offshore deposits of gas in the Cádiz area and of oil in Catalonia. Coal mining takes place in the northwestern regions of Asturias and León, in the Basque Country and around Teruel in Aragón. However, the poor quality of the coal makes it economically worthless, and the industry is being shut down. Much more important are the water resources of the Pyrenees, where a number of rivers have been harnessed to provide hydroelectric power.

Plants and Animals in Spain

Only a small part of Spain is forested, and forests are located mainly on mountain slopes, particularly in the northwest. A common Spanish tree is the evergreen oak. Cork oak, from which the bark may be stripped every ten years, is abundant, growing chiefly as second growth on timbered land. Poplar trees are grown throughout the country, and the cultivation of olive trees is a major agricultural activity. Other Spanish trees include the elm, beech, and chestnut. Shrubs and herbs are the common natural vegetation on the central plateau. Grapevines flourish in the arid soil. Esparto grass, used for making paper and various fiber products, grows abundantly in both the wild and cultivated state. On the Mediterranean coast sugarcane, oranges, lemons, figs, almonds, and chestnuts are grown.

The Spanish fauna includes the wolf, lynx, wildcat, fox, wild boar, wild goat, deer, and hare. Among the more famous domesticated animals are the bulls bred near Seville and Salamanca for bullfighting, the Spanish national sport. Birdlife is abundant, with varieties of birds of prey. Insect life abounds. Mountain streams and lakes teem with fish such as barbel, tench, and trout.

Soils in Spain

Although Spanish soils need careful irrigation and cultivation, they are a rich and valuable resource. Semiarid chestnut-brown soils cover the central plateau, and red Mediterranean soils cover the southern area and the northeastern coastal region. A gray desert soil, often containing salt, is found in the southeast. The forest of northern Spain has gray-brown forest soils, and the forest in the Cantabrian Mountains has leached, infertile soils.

Environmental Issues in Spain

Spain faces numerous environmental threats. Deforestation and the erosion and river pollution that accompany it are major concerns. Other problems include the encroachment of agriculture onto land designated as protected, desertification in badly managed agricultural zones, and soil salinization (contamination with salt) in irrigated regions. Increased use of nitrogen fertilizers has added to the problem of nitrates in rivers.

In April 1998 a serious toxic waste spill occurred as the result of a burst reservoir at an iron ore mine in southern Spain. Attempts were made to divert the spillage from an important wetland area toward the Guadalquivir River, which flows into the Atlantic Ocean. It was estimated that the toxic mud from the spill threatened millions of birds and other wildlife. The black toxic mud covered farms, fields, and orchards, causing farmers to suffer enormous economic losses.

In November 2002 a single-hulled oil tanker, the Prestige, ruptured and sank in a storm off the coast of Galicia in northwestern Spain. The ship lost much of its cargo of 77.5 million liters (20.5 million gallons) of fuel oil, spilling nearly twice the amount of oil that was lost in the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska in 1989—the worst oil spill in United States history. The oil coated the beaches of Galicia and spread south to Portugal and north to the beaches of southwestern France. The spill devastated fish stocks and destroyed hundreds of thousands of seabirds. Estimates put the cost of cleanup and fishing sector losses at more than $9 billion over a decade.

Spain participates in an international convention on wetlands, with 17 sites designated. Fourteen biosphere reserves have been set aside under the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Man and the Biosphere Program. Spain has ratified international environmental agreements concerning air pollution, biodiversity, climate change, endangered species, environmental modification, hazardous wastes, marine dumping, marine life, the ozone layer, ship pollution, tropical timber, and whaling. Regionally, Spain has designated several protected areas for wild birds as part of the European Wild Bird Directive and six protected marine sites under the Mediterranean Action Plan.


The Spanish population is relatively homogeneous in its racial and ethnic composition. Apart from the Basques, a small but ancient group whose origin remains a mystery, the basic stock seems to have consisted of Celtiberians. As their name suggests the Celtiberians were a mixture of Celts and early inhabitants of the Iberian peninsula. They later intermingled with successive waves of conquerors. First came the Romans, then various Germanic tribes of whom the most important were the Visigoths, and finally the Moors, themselves a mixture of North African and Arab elements.

However, Spain has experienced little immigration since it became a nation within its current boundaries, around 1500. Indeed, for much of this period, Spain had limited contact with the rest of the world. Even though marked regional differences form a distinctive feature of the country, they mainly reflect economic and political factors rather than ethnic differences. The country’s gypsy community (gitanos) forms a notable exception.

The estimated population of Spain for 2009 is 40,525,002, giving the country an overall density of 81 persons per sq km (210 per sq mi). Spain is increasingly urban, with 77 percent of the population in towns and cities.

Spain’s population trends have been somewhat unusual as a result of the country’s late economic development. As late as 1960 infant mortality stood at 43 deaths per 1,000 births, a relatively high level usually associated with the developing world. Thereafter, the rate declined rapidly and is now lower than the infant mortality rate in the United States. The reduction in infant mortality brought a dramatic increase in life expectancy, which is now among the highest in the world for both males and females. It also resulted in very rapid population growth during the 20 years after 1955.

Another abrupt demographic change occurred more recently, halting the rapid growth rate. Although Spain’s birth rate remained extremely high into the 1970s, it subsequently decreased. In 2009 it stood at 1.31 children per female, one of the lowest birth rates in the world. As population growth slowed, the average age of Spain’s population increased. By the early 2000s annual population growth had slowed to less than 1 percent, and in 2009 it stood at 0.07 percent. If this trend continues, the number of Spaniards was expected to start falling by 2020.

By European standards Spain has a low population density. The great bulk of the population is concentrated in just a few areas: along the coasts, in the Ebro and Guadalquivir valleys, and around Madrid. Far fewer people live in the rest of the plateau that covers most of the country. In addition, a large migration from rural areas to towns and cities took place between 1960 and 1980. Today, large tracts of the country lie more or less deserted. A small drift back to the land among better-off Spaniards, reacting to overcrowding in the cities, has had no noticeable impact on the overall picture.

Principal Cities of Spain

Spain’s capital and largest city is Madrid (population, 2007, 3,132,463); it is also the capital of the autonomous (self-governing) region comprising the city and its surroundings. Situated at the country’s geographical heart, Madrid was long a purely administrative center, but since the 1960s it has developed thriving industrial and service sectors. The second largest city is Barcelona (1,595,110), Spain’s largest port and capital of the Catalonia region. A traditional commercial center, Barcelona also has the country’s oldest textile industry. In recent decades the city’s industrial and service base has been greatly extended and diversified.

Valencia (797,654), capital of the Valencia region, is a commercial center with a relatively diverse economy. Seville (699,145) is a major tourist center and, as capital of the country’s most populous region, Andalucía, is a major administrative center. Zaragoza (654,390), capital of Aragón, grew rapidly in the late 20th century, thanks to its strategic location in the Ebro Valley. Málaga (561,250) is the chief center of the country’s major tourist area, the Costa del Sol. Bilbao (353,168) is both a busy port and the Basque Country’s commercial and industrial capital.

Religion in Spain

Spain has long been associated with the Roman Catholic Church. Following the country’s unification around 1500, Spain’s sizable Jewish and Muslim communities were forced to choose between expulsion and forcible conversion. Later, Protestantism had only a minimal impact in Spain. Until 1978 Catholicism was Spain’s official religion, and it is still the country’s dominant faith. Spanish monasteries and convents account for almost two-thirds of the world’s closed Catholic communities, and Catholic references abound in popular speech.

Although more than 90 percent of the population identifies itself as Roman Catholic, only about 35 percent of Spaniards attend church regularly. This percentage is falling, as many of the regular churchgoers are old. At the same time, the Church retains a strong presence in society. This is apparent in festivals (fiestas) that take place in nearly every city, town, and village, and have a strongly religious flavor. The Easter Week processions of Andalusia are especially notable. In addition, the Church continues to be an important provider of social services; in particular, it runs a considerable number of schools and hospitals.

The influence exercised by the Catholic lay organization Opus Dei is another aspect of the church presence. The Opus, as it is commonly known, was established in 1928 by Spanish priest José María Escrivá de Balaguer, who was canonized (declared a saint) by Pope John Paul II in 2002 only 27 years after his death, an unusually short period. During the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, Opus Dei acquired immense influence, not only in politics but also in the business world. Rumors of its close connections with the ruling, conservative People’s Party persist today.

Languages spoken in Spain

Spain’s official language is Spanish (español). It is spoken by the vast majority of its people. Spanish has two major dialects—Andalusian and Castilian—which differ in their pronunciation of certain sounds. In a number of regions of Spain other languages are also important. Catalan, a relative of Spanish and French, shares official status with Spanish in Catalonia and the Balearic Islands. Since 1980 the regional government of Catalonia has promoted the use of Catalan in public life and in education. Such efforts have led to tensions with the sizable minority of Catalonia’s residents who speak only Spanish.

Similar developments have occurred in Galicia, where the Galician language is widely spoken. Since achieving recognition as an official language in 1980, Galician has begun to blossom as a literary language, as well. Galician is a member of the same language subfamily as Spanish, but it is more closely related to Portuguese. Language controversies have also arisen in Valencia, where many of the inhabitants speak what most experts regard as a dialect of Catalan. For political reasons Valencian has been designated a language in its own right, with official status.

The Basque language, by contrast, is not a member of the Indo-European language family, to which the other languages of Spain belong, and it appears to be unrelated to any known language. By the 1950s Basque seemed close to extinction; it was used only in rural areas near the border between France and Spain. Since that time, however, Basque has experienced a considerable revival, thanks to the active support of Basque nationalists. Their control over the Basque Country’s government assured that Basque received equal official status with Spanish in that region.

Education in Spain

The golden age of Spanish education occurred during the Middle Ages, when the Moors, Christians, and Jews established strong interreligious centers of higher education in Córdoba, Granada, and Toledo. The University of Salamanca (1218) served as a model for the universities of Latin America from the 16th century on, thereby extending the international influence of Spanish education. Thereafter, stagnation set in, however. In 1867 Spain became one of the first countries to pass compulsory education legislation, but the law was never enforced. Education remained the preserve of a small elite into the second half of the 20th century, while Catholic belief in its most conservative form heavily influenced teaching content and methods. The dictatorship of Francisco Franco, from 1939 to 1975, reinforced these characteristics. The government was forced to attempt some reforms in 1970, but the effort proved largely unsuccessful because few funds were made available.

Only after Franco’s death in 1975, and the election of a Socialist government seven years later, did real change come in education. The last two decades of the 20th century saw a massive expansion of educational facilities at all levels. Illiteracy, previously a significant problem, was reduced to around 3.5 percent, while universal schooling from ages 6 to 16 finally became a reality. At the same time new issues emerged, in many cases similar to those in other European countries. These issues include how to cope with severe overcrowding of the universities, and how to design a secondary school curriculum that is both attractive to, and relevant for, today’s teenagers. Another important development was devolution (delegation of power) to Spain’s newly autonomous (self-governing) regions. These autonomous regions enjoy wide powers to regulate their own education systems, with the result that significant differences in approach have emerged.

Preprimary, Primary, and Secondary Schools

Spain’s school system was restructured in three levels by a law passed in 1990 and implemented over the next 12 years. Preprimary education is for children under the age of 6, primary education for those ages 6 to 11, and secondary education for those ages 12 to 16. At age 16 students may choose either a vocational training course for one or two years, or a two-year baccalaureate-style (bachillerato) course designed to prepare them for higher education. Preprimary education was a major innovation under the 1990 law. Previously, kindergarten or nursery facilities provided little more than supervision. Preprimary education is voluntary and not necessarily free. Primary and secondary education is free and compulsory for children between the ages of 6 and 16. Prior to 1990 compulsory education extended only to age 14, when many children from poorer families left school.

Today, education free of charge applies not only to public schools but also to private schools that receive government funding. Self-funding schools, most of which are run by the Catholic church, may charge tuition. About one-third of Spain’s pupils at the primary and secondary levels attend private schools. In the 2006 school year, Spain’s primary schools were attended by 2.5 million pupils, and secondary schools (including bachillerato and vocational courses) by 3.1 million.

Higher Education

Spanish institutions of higher education enrolled 1.8 million students in 2006. The main providers of higher education are Spain’s 60-some universities. In addition, many students attend schools offering shorter university-level curricula in business and vocational subjects. Others attend technical institutes, especially specialist engineering colleges. The number of students enrolled in higher education in Spain has increased enormously since 1980, and overcrowding has become a serious problem.

Most universities in Spain are public institutions. Despite efforts to increase their independence, they are still controlled to a large degree by government authorities. Today, these authorities are primarily part of the regional governments. The oldest and most famous Spanish university is the University of Salamanca, founded in 1218. Other well-known universities of Spain include those of Madrid (1836), Barcelona (1450), Granada (1526), Seville (1502), and Valencia (1510); the autonomous universities of Madrid and Barcelona (both founded in 1968), which despite their name are public institutions; and the technology-oriented polytechnic universities of Madrid, Barcelona, and Valencia (all founded in 1971). Until the 1980s the only nonstate universities were run by the Catholic Church. Since then a number of other private institutions have been established, but the number of students enrolled in these institutions remains small.

Social Structure of Spain

Up to the 1960s Spain had a highly traditional class structure that was dominated by agricultural workers: generally peasant farmers in the north and landless farm laborers in the south. Both the industrial working class and the middle class, which was employed mainly in public service or commerce, were much smaller than those of other western European countries. A tiny, often aristocratic, elite made up of large landowners and a few industrialists held most of the wealth. Upward social mobility was minimal and depended primarily on the acquisition of land.

Since the 1960s major change has occurred in Spain’s social structure. The rapid decline in the importance of agriculture decimated the rural workforce and destroyed the social significance of landowning. Meanwhile, the industrial working class has grown. As elsewhere, it has begun to merge with the lower reaches of the middle class, a greatly expanded group employed in a vast array of semiskilled, nonmanual occupations. Like industrial workers, this labor force is employed mostly by small firms or government bodies. Only in Madrid, Barcelona, and a few other cities do significant numbers work for large companies.

The upper levels of the middle class also have grown considerably, with the increasing importance of managerial and professional occupations. The most successful members of this group have become part of an upper class now defined purely in money terms. This class is composed of leading figures from the worlds of business and finance, as well as a few sports stars, popular singers, and media celebrities, and the remnants of the landed aristocracy.

Way of Life in Spain

Although the way of life in Spain has undergone considerable change since the 1960s, it retains a number of traditional and distinctive features. Perhaps the most dramatic change has occurred in the status of women. Into the 1970s women remained legally tied to the home. Now most younger Spanish women take up a career of some sort, and the number of women in responsible positions is rising, though slowly. Relatively few young women are willing, or able, to devote the long hours their mothers did to household tasks. Yet despite the increase in working women and a rapid decline in family size, the family has retained its central position in Spanish life. According to polls, Spaniards regard the welfare of their family as by far their highest priority, and they spend the greatest portion of their leisure time within it.

Spaniards also have much more contact with their neighbors than is usual in developed societies. This gregariousness is encouraged by the fact that the great majority of Spaniards live in apartments, usually as owner-occupiers. Around a fifth of families have a second home, typically in the town or village of their origin, or at the coast. Car ownership is rising toward the level common in western European countries. By contemporary standards, however, Spaniards in general seem rather unconcerned with material possessions, preferring to spend their money on social activities such as eating out.

Food and drink play an important part in Spanish life. Regional dishes remain a source of pride, and typically use local ingredients, often vegetables, strongly flavored sausages of various types, or fish. Spaniards in general eat an uncommonly large amount of seafood. In the form of tapas (appetizers served with a premeal drink), regional dishes are an essential element in informal socializing. At the same time, fast food has made inroads into Spanish eating habits, meat consumption has grown markedly, and beer has replaced wine as the country’s most popular alcoholic drink. Little change, however, is apparent in the most distinctive feature of Spanish meals: their timing. The preferred hour for lunch remains 3 PM, while evening meals rarely begin before 9 and may go on past midnight.

Although socializing in its various forms dominates Spaniards’ list of preferred leisure activities, sport is increasingly popular among the young. The most popular spectator sport is soccer, followed at some distance by basketball. Cycling, track-and-field events, and tennis also attract considerable interest. Bullfighting is enjoying renewed popularity, but only a minority of Spaniards follows it seriously and more than a few actively oppose it. A more genuinely national Spanish field sport is hunting, mainly the shooting of rabbits and game birds.

Social Issues in Spain

At the root of most major social issues in Spain is the country’s unemployment problem, which since the 1970s has been the worst in the developed world. Especially hard hit are women and, above all, young people. Moreover, benefits for the unemployed are meager by European standards. As a result unemployment is closely associated with poverty, which remains relatively common in Spain. The lowest average income levels are found in the rural western part of the country. But most of Spain’s poor live in cities, where poverty is often related to other social problems including homelessness and drug addiction (see Drug Dependence).

Social welfare experts believe that the use of illegal drugs is widespread in Spain, especially among the unemployed. Drug use, in turn, is linked to the country’s rate of HIV infection, the highest rate in Europe, as well as to crime. Assaults, burglaries, and other offenses often connected with drug abuse have become a major concern, although Spain’s crime rate is low by international standards. However, crime in Spain has risen in recent years and also changed in nature: Organized crime is now a significant problem in Madrid and along the Mediterranean coast.

Severe understaffing of Spain’s police forces and social services makes it hard to respond to these issues, although awareness campaigns have helped slow down the spread of AIDS. Some regional governments have attempted to reduce poverty by providing income support for the most destitute. But the central government policy has primarily sought to attack the problems indirectly, by continuing to reduce unemployment, an approach that has had only limited success.

A new issue came to prominence in Spain in the late 1990s and early 2000s: racism. Until then there was little evidence of hostility toward foreigners in Spain, which has traditionally been a country of emigrants rather than immigrants. Apart from the gypsy (see Roma) community, which continues to encounter considerable prejudice, Spain’s population was remarkably homogeneous (uniform) in its ethnic makeup. That situation began to change with the arrival of considerable numbers of immigrants, mainly from Morocco and other parts of North Africa, and from Latin America. These immigrants suffer both at the hands of unscrupulous employers and as the target of resentment from poor native Spaniards. In 2001 the government introduced a restrictive and discriminatory Aliens Act, but that policy was reversed when a Socialist government came to power in 2004 and granted legal status to immigrants who were working.


The first great flowering of literature and the arts in Spain coincided with the country’s brief dominance of Europe—and much of the world—a period that lasted approximately from 1550 to 1650. In painting this so-called Golden Age (Siglo de Oro) witnessed not only the genius of El Greco and Diego Velázquez but also a string of lesser masters. In literature its major figures included Miguel de Cervantes as well as a host of other writers, several of whom were inspired by Catholic mysticism. In architecture and philosophy the country also produced major works during the Golden Age.

After the Golden Age a decline took place in Spanish power and in its cultural life. A long period of stagnation was broken only by a few individuals, notably the painter Francisco Goya, who worked in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Reaction to Spain’s stagnation came primarily in the form of cultural expression, namely by the Generation of 1898 (see Spanish Literature). This literary movement represented the most significant response to Spain’s disastrous loss in the Spanish-American War of 1898 and to what the writers viewed as Spain’s general backwardness. Among its best-known members was the philosopher Miguel de Unamuno. At around the same time, modernismo—a style similar to art nouveau—flourished in Catalonia. Its leading advocate was the architect Antoni Gaudí. Spanish composers Isaac Albéniz and Enrique Granados also achieved international recognition.

The first decades of the 20th century are considered Spain’s Silver Age. In addition to the Generation of 1898 and Gaudí, its representatives included Pablo Picasso, one of the greatest artists of the 20th century; surrealist painter Salvador Dalí; and surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel. Among the greatest literary figures of the 1920s and 1930s were the poets Federico García Lorca and Vicente Aleixandre. Aleixandre was later awarded the Nobel Prize in literature.

This fertile cultural period abruptly ended with the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 and the subsequent dictatorship of Francisco Franco. Censorship and a prevailing atmosphere of conservatism stifled the arts for four decades. With the reestablishment of democracy after 1975 came an upsurge of creativity that continues to the present day. Varied in its influences and styles, it encompasses fields in which Spain has traditionally been prolific, such as literature and painting, as well as other fields such as sculpture, film, music, and dance. Emblematic figures include film director Pedro Almodóvar, sculptor Eduardo Chillida, architect and engineer Santiago Calatrava, and operatic tenor Plácido Domingo.

Literature in Spain

During the Golden Age of Spanish literature, from about 1550 to 1650, Spain produced novels, plays, and poetry of outstanding quality and lasting influence. Cervantes wrote Don Quixote (1605), one of the earliest and greatest novels, which changed the face of fiction. Dramatists of the Golden Age included Lope de Vega, Pedro Calderón, and Tirso de Molina. Spain experienced a renewed period of literary vitality in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. For more information, See Spanish Literature.

Art and Architecture of Spain

Through the centuries some of the world’s greatest painters have lived and worked in Spain. The first was Domenikos Theotokopoulos, who was born on Crete and is better known as El Greco. His portraits, most notably of saints, are characterized by eerily elongated features and a dramatic use of light that also lends great power to his landscapes. Among his best-known works are View of Toledo (about 1610, Metropolitan Museum, New York) and The Burial of Count Orgaz (1586; Church of Santo Tomé, Toledo, Spain).

The 17th-century painter Diego Velázquez was another master in the use of light. His technical virtuosity places him among the most influential painters of all time. Velázquez is best-known for the works he painted at the Spanish royal court, such as Las Meninas (The Maids of Honor, 1656, Prado, Madrid, Spain). However, he also produced many memorable paintings of more humble subjects, such as The Waterseller of Seville (Wellington Museum, London, England).

The painter Francisco Goya was best-known for his realism and his portraiture, evident in his sometimes scathing portraits of the Spanish royal family. Goya’s realism is most evident, however, in his depictions of violence, such as The Third of May, 1808 (1814, Prado Museum, Madrid), which shows Spanish civilians being shot by soldiers from the armies of Napoleon I. As Goya became increasingly bitter and disillusioned later in life, his themes became more grotesque, as in his etchings of war scenes and paintings of mythological subjects such as Saturn Devouring One of His Sons (1821-1823, Prado).

Pablo Picasso was probably the greatest figure of modern art. His 1907 work Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (Museum of Modern Art, New York) is considered to mark the birth of cubism. Although Picasso spent most of his creative life outside Spain, he remained intensely Spanish. His masterwork Guernica (1937), a massive canvas depicting the bombing of the Basque town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War, was bequeathed to his homeland on his death and now hangs in the Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid. The two other leading Spanish painters of the 20th century were Salvador Dalí, whose surrealist images are widely reproduced, and Joan Miró, whose style developed from surrealism into a uniquely playful form of abstraction.

Historically, the most distinctively Spanish style of architecture was the 16th-century plateresque. It is characterized by delicate and elegant ornamentation on the exterior of buildings that echoed the work of silversmiths. Modernism, which emerged around 1900, was essentially a Catalan movement. Its emphasis on organic shapes and intricate patterns combined features of art nouveau, a movement of that time, and Moorish architecture from southern Spain that dated back to the Middle Ages. Modernism’s greatest exponent in Spain was Antoni Gaudí, whose unfinished masterwork, Church of the Sagrada Familia (Holy Family) in Barcelona, was finally nearing completion in the early 2000s. Spanish architects who have more recently acquired international standing include Ricardo Bofill and Santiago Calatrava.

Theater and Film in Spain

The classics of Spanish theater are products of the Golden Age, between about 1550 and 1650, and are associated above all with the dramatists Lope de Vega, Pedro Calderón, and Tirso de Molina. Not until the 1920s did Spain produce another playwright of similar stature: García Lorca. His works, such as The House of Bernarda Alba and Yerma, combine lyricism with the stark portrayal of personal tragedy. Lorca was also prominent in efforts to bring theater to the rural masses.

Under the Franco dictatorship, censorship imposed strict limits on theatrical creativity. Nonetheless, dramatists such as Antonio Buero Vallejo were able to produce reflections on Spanish society and the Franco regime. The removal of censorship after Franco’s death in 1975, along with the creation of new regional governments, produced a surge in independent and alternative theater, especially in Catalonia.

Motion pictures have enjoyed great popularity in Spain since their beginning. One of Spain’s greatest film directors, Luis Buñuel, made his greatest films outside Spain, which he left after the Spanish Civil War. They include The Exterminating Angel (1962); Belle de jour (1967); and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972). A number of talented Spanish directors emerged in the late 20th century. Chief among them was Pedro Almodóvar, whose dark take on the screwball comedy in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988) and Kika (1994) has brought him international popularity.

Music and Dance in Spain

Spanish music has a long tradition as well as a vitality and distinctiveness that reflect a blend of European and Arabic influences. Yet Spain produced no major composers until the 20th century, perhaps because the country’s most typical instrument remained the guitar. The first Spanish composers to achieve international acclaim were Enrique Granados and Isaac Albéniz, both of whom used popular and regional themes as the basis of much of their music. They were followed by Manuel de Falla, whose work, while also distinctively Spanish and relatively limited in quantity, displays a capacity for successful innovation that marks him as Spain’s finest composer. Similarly influenced by Spanish traditional music was Joaquín Rodrigo, who composed a wide repertoire of ballet and orchestral works. His Concierto de Aranjuez (1939) for guitar is one of the most widely played modern classics. The two outstanding Spanish classical performers of the 20th century were guitarist Andrés Segovia and cellist Pablo Casals.

Spain’s contribution to opera has been almost exclusively on the performing side, but there it has been considerable. In particular, soprano Montserrat Caballé and tenor Plácido Domingo have stood at the very top of their profession for many years, while tenor José Carreras ranks close behind. The country boasts its own form of light opera, known as zarzuela, as well as a unique combination of guitar music, song, and dance known as flamenco. Flamenco has a distinctive, half-broken rhythm, which in traditional forms sticks to a limited number of patterns. In recent years, however, “new flamenco” has been influenced by other styles such as jazz, blues, and salsa. Guitarist Paco de Lucía, already a virtuoso in the traditional style, has been at the forefront of these developments. At the same time, flamenco is a major influence on contemporary Spanish popular music. See also Spanish Dance.

Libraries and Museums in Spain

The National Library in Madrid, founded in 1712 as the Royal Library, is the largest in Spain. Rare books, maps, prints, and the magnificent Sala de Cervantes, devoted to the writings of the great Spanish novelist Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, are among the special collections of the library. The Library of the Royal Palace (1760) in Madrid has many rare editions from the 16th century as well as fine collections of manuscripts, engravings, and music. One of the most complete libraries in Spain is the Complutense University of Madrid Library, which was founded in 1341. The Escorial Library near Madrid is known for its collection of rare books. The Archives and Library of the Cathedral Chapter in Toledo is famous for its collection of manuscripts from the 8th and 9th centuries and documents of the 11th century.

One of the world’s greatest art collections is in the Museo del Prado in Madrid. The collection is particularly rich in works by El Greco; by Spanish painters Velázquez, Francisco de Zurbarán, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, and Goya; by Italian painters Sandro Botticelli and Titian; by Flemish painters Peter Paul Rubens and Hieronymus Bosch; and by Dutch painter Rembrandt. The Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid is Spain’s national museum of modern art, which opened in 1990. Its collection focuses on works by the leading figures of 20th-century Spanish art, above all the painters Dalí, Miró, and Picasso, whose masterwork Guernica is its greatest single attraction. The Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, which opened in 1992, contains one of the world’s foremost private collections. It complements the collections of the Prado and Reina Sofía and is especially strong in the areas of impressionism and German expressionism. The best-known Spanish museum outside Madrid is the Guggenheim in Bilbao, famous above all for its titanium-clad design by American architect Frank Gehry. Another modern art museum, the Instituto Valenciano de Arte Moderno, is located in Valencia. Dalí’s former home is now a popular museum in the Catalan town of Figueres.

Spanish pottery, brocades, tapestries, and ivory carvings are in the National Archaeological Museum in Madrid, which houses also the most notable library on archaeology in the country. The National Ethnological Museum in Madrid contains objects from former Spanish possessions, including Equatorial Guinea, the Philippines, and Bolivia. Other museums in Madrid include the Natural Science Museum and the National Museum of Reproductions of Works of Art. Situated in Barcelona are the Maritime Museum and the Archaeological Museum, which has a large collection of prehistoric, Phoenician, Greek, Roman, and Visigothic art.


The Spanish economy has changed dramatically since the 1950s. By the year 2000 Spain had the world’s seventh largest gross domestic product (GDP), a measure of all the goods and services a country produces. However, as late as the 1950s the United Nations classified Spain as a developing country. Spain industrialized late, and only partially, so that until the 1960s the country’s industry was confined almost entirely to the metropolitan areas of Barcelona and Bilbao. With the exception of Madrid, which remained primarily an administrative center, virtually all the rest of the country lived from primary economic activities—mainly agriculture but also fishing and mining.

When wider industrialization finally took place in Spain, it did so under an authoritarian regime—an occurrence unique in the Western world. As a result industrialization was based on special circumstances, in particular the existence of a cowed labor force and massive government protection against competition from imports. Many of Spain’s industries belonged to the public sector. This approach produced a considerable boom in the decade from 1962 to 1972. But it came to an abrupt halt with a jump in petroleum prices in 1973 and the end of the Franco dictatorship two years later. One consequence was that industry never came to dominate the Spanish economy. No sooner had manufacturing overtaken agriculture in the early 1970s than it, in turn, was surpassed by services.

Spain’s next major advance came in the 1980s. Entry to the European Community in 1986, preceded by a program of industrial restructuring (reconversión), led to a second period of rapid growth at the end of the 1980s. This growth was fueled largely by public spending on infrastructure and services, and by internal investment. Thereafter, Spain was particularly hard hit by an economic slump in the early 1990s, but it also recovered particularly strongly. In 1997, against most expectations, it qualified for entry to European Economic and Monetary Union (EMU), the single currency and single monetary authority in the European Union (EU). Subsequently, Spain experienced a third boom, with economic growth rates among the world’s highest. It weathered the economic downturn of the early 2000s rather better than most European economies.

After 20 years of EU membership, Spain’s per capita GDP reached nearly 90 percent of the European Union average. The gross domestic product in 2007 was $1,436.9 billion. The national budget in 2007 included revenues of $399.5 billion and expenditures of $360.5 billion. The economy today has become fairly typical of a developed country, dominated by the service sector and with well under 10 percent of the workers employed in agriculture. Spain’s participation in the global economy has also grown and by the early 2000s came to include significant investment abroad, principally in Latin America. Spain continues to depend on imported energy, and it has a rather strictly regulated labor market with an accompanying high level of unemployment.

Labor in Spain

In 2007 the Spanish labor force included 22 million people. The largest share of the workforce—65 percent—was employed in service industries. Some 30 percent were employed in manufacturing, mining, and construction; and 5 percent in agriculture, forestry, and fishing. Since 1980 the labor force has grown rapidly, mainly due to an increase in the numbers of economically active women, who make up 42 percent of the labor market.

Women, like young people, are disproportionately affected by unemployment, which has been a constant problem for Spain ever since the 1970s. The rate peaked at 24 percent in 1994 and, despite falling steadily since then, is among the highest in the EU, at 8.3 percent (2007). It should be noted, however, that a significant proportion of those officially recorded as jobless actually have employment of some sort in the so-called shadow economy. Both the considerable size of the shadow economy and the persistence and severity of unemployment are usually attributed to the inflexible nature of Spain’s labor market. This inflexibility, in turn, is due partly to the continuing existence of government regulations on hiring and dismissals, and partly to the reluctance of most Spaniards to move to another part of the country in search of jobs.

Compared to other European countries, Spain has relatively few workers who belong to labor unions—about 10 percent. Yet labor unions play a surprisingly prominent role in the country’s public life for reasons that are partly historical. The unions acquired considerable moral authority through their leading role in opposition to the Franco regime (1939-1975). Subsequent democratic governments have sought their cooperation by involving them in discussions and agreements on various aspects of economic policy (concertación social).

Agriculture, Forestry, and Fishing in Spain

Although agriculture, forestry, and fishing contributed almost 20 percent of Spain’s total GDP in 1960, they made up a mere 2.9 percent in 2007. Yet agriculture retains considerable significance for Spain’s economy, as a major employer over large areas of the country, as the basis for a range of food processing industries, and as an important contributor to exports.

Spain’s leading crops are cereal grains, such as barley and wheat; alfalfa; corn; sugar beets; olives; grapes; and tomatoes. In addition, a range of other fruits and vegetables are grown in large quantities, including potatoes, oranges, peaches, melons, apples, peppers, and onions. Grapes are used to make wine, and olives, to make olive oil. Much of the cereal and grass production is used as fodder for the country’s livestock. Approximately one-fifth of agricultural production, by value, is exported.

The nature of agriculture varies across Spain. Widespread farming, mainly of cereals and livestock, on unirrigated land dominates much of the center of the country. Dairy farming is concentrated along the northern coast, and olive plantations cover much of the south, although they have diminished in importance since Spain joined the EU. Commercial fruit and vegetable farming, on the other hand, has increased in importance, especially along the Ebro valley in the north and, above all, on heavily irrigated land along the southeastern and southern coasts, from Valencia round to Cadiz. These crops now account for the bulk of agricultural exports.

Spain’s principal forestry resource is the cork oak, and the country is one of the world’s largest cork producers. However, Spain’s overall wood production is insufficient to cover the country’s lumber and wood-pulp needs.

Spain has Europe’s largest fishing industry. Its main centers are the Basque Country in the north and Galicia in the northwest. Its total annual catch amounted to 1.2 million metric tons in 2007. Almost half of the catch is exported. Distant fishing grounds now provide most of the catch, those closer to home having been severely overfished. The principal species landed are sardines, tuna, hake, mackerel, and anchovies, as well as numerous varieties of shellfish, notably squid and mussels.

Mining in Spain

The mineral wealth of Spain is considerable. The principal coal mines are in the northwest, near Oviedo; the chief iron-ore deposits are in the same area, around Santander and Bilbao; large mercury reserves are located in Almadén, in southwestern Spain; and copper and lead are mined in Andalucía. In 2003 the production of the mining sector, in metric tons, included hard and brown coal, 20.6 million; iron ore, 265,000; zinc, 70,000; copper, 5,000; and lead, 2,000. Spain also produced 5,000 kg (11,000 lb) of gold and 5 metric tons of silver. In addition, 2.4 million barrels of petroleum were extracted.

Manufacturing in Spain

Spain’s manufacturing sector developed late and along traditional lines. Until the 1980s heavy industries such as iron and steel dominated manufacturing. Many of these industries were located in the northern regions of Asturias and the Basque Country, both of which were badly hit when these industries contracted. Since the 1980s lighter industries have grown up, especially in and around Madrid and along the eastern coast. Today the largest industrial sectors are those of food, drink, and tobacco; transportation equipment; and chemicals and oil refining. Spain ranks among the world’s leading producers of wine, olive oil, and automobiles, while other important products are chemicals, refined petroleum, textiles, and clothing and footwear. Catalonia, in the northeast, remains the country’s manufacturing heartland.

Service Industries in Spain

Spain’s economy, like other Western economies today, is dominated by the service sector, which accounts for 67 percent of GDP. From 1980 to 2000 Spain’s service sector grew by more than 80 percent. Its most important components are wholesale and retail trade, public administration (government), and tourism. Business services, including banking and financial services, is the fastest-growing subsector of the service economy.

Wholesale and retail trade remains the largest single service activity, and its nature is changing rapidly. The number of smaller outlets is declining fast, while shopping malls and large self-service stores proliferate.

Energy in Spain

Spain is poor in energy resources. It has little oil or gas, and its coal reserves are of low quality. As a result it imports over three-quarters of its energy requirements. Oil is by far the largest source of energy. Fossil fuels generated 61 percent of Spain’s electricity in 2006 and nuclear installations, 20 percent.

Environmental considerations have prompted efforts to develop hydroelectric energy and other renewable energy sources, such as wind, solar, and wave power. Hydroelectric facilities produced 9 percent of Spain’s electricity in 2006. Spain is potentially rich in renewable sources and already has the largest wind farm in Europe. Spain’s total output of electricity in 2006 was 283 billion kilowatt-hours.

Currency and Banking of Spain

The monetary unit of Spain is the single currency of the European Union (EU), the euro (0.70 euros equal U.S. $1; 2007 average). On January 1, 2002, euro-denominated coins and bills went into circulation, and the peseta ceased to be legal tender. The European Central Bank issues the currency.

The commercial banking system experienced considerable consolidation and today is dominated by two of Europe’s largest banks, the Santander Central Hispano (BSCH) and the Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria (BBVA). Their nearest rivals are La Caixa and Cajamadrid. Despite many closures, the number of bank branches per head of population remains high by international standards. Spain has four stock exchanges, located in Madrid, Barcelona, Bilbao, and Valencia. The Madrid exchange accounts for over 90 percent of trading. Even it is relatively small, however, and plays only a secondary role in the financing of Spanish business.

Foreign Trade in Spain

In 2007, Spain imported goods valued at $370.1 billion and exported goods valued at $239.4 billion. With imports outpacing exports, the country has a significant trade deficit. Revenues from tourism help offset the balance of payments deficit. Spanish exports are dominated by motor vehicles, with other important contributions coming from machinery, basic metals, fruit and vegetables, food products, textiles, plastic goods, and animal produce. The largest customer by far for Spanish imports is France. Spain’s other principal buyers are Germany, Portugal, Italy, the United Kingdom, the United States, the Netherlands, and Belgium. Spain’s imports are heavily weighted towards capital goods—machinery of various sorts and vehicles—and fuel, especially oil. Other significant categories are plastic and metal products, chemicals and pharmaceuticals, textiles, and food. The leading sources for imports are France and Germany, followed at some distance by Italy, the United Kingdom, the United States, the Netherlands, Belgium, and China.

Tourism of Spain

Spain was the world’s second most popular tourist destination in the early 2000s, following France. It received 59 million visitors in 2007. In addition, the majority of Spaniards take their vacations in Spain. The climate, beaches, and historic cities of Spain are an attraction for tourists, and tourism makes a significant contribution to the country’s economy. Hotels, restaurants, and other tourist facilities also provide employment for many people, at least in the tourist season. The $19.7 billion tourists spent in 2007 helped make up for Spain’s considerable trade deficit.

Most foreign tourists come from within the EU, above all from the United Kingdom and Germany. The main destinations continue to be the long sandy beaches of the mainland Mediterranean coast—notably the Costa del Sol in the south, the Costa Blanca in the southeast, and the Costa Brava in the northeast—and the Balearic Islands and Canary Islands. However, Spain’s historic cities also attract significant numbers of visitors, especially the southern cities with a strong Moorish heritage, such as Granada and Córdoba. The inland rural areas, many of which are remote and rugged by European standards, have also begun to draw visitors.

Transportation in Spain

Of all the changes Spain has undergone since the 1960s, the change in its road system may be the most sweeping of all. The difference is not so much in the road network’s size—666,292 km (414,014 mi)—as in its quality. As late as 1960 the quality of Spain’s roads was exceptionally poor. By 2000 the country had about 11,000 km (6,900 mi) of expressways and divided highways, while other main and secondary roads had also been greatly improved. More three-quarters of all passenger journeys are made in cars; Spain now has 455 passenger cars for every 1,000 inhabitants.

By contrast, Spain’s railways account for less than 6 percent of passenger journeys. This figure reflects the unattractiveness of the country’s rail network, after decades of underinvestment. Of its 14,832 km (9,216 mi) of track, almost all publicly owned and operated, little over a quarter is double track. This is a significant factor in pushing up journey times, because trains going in opposite directions cannot pass each other. In addition, connections between the Spanish network and those in the rest of Europe remain difficult, because Spanish tracks are of different width. One positive point is the high-speed service between Madrid and Seville. Introduced in 1992, this line was extended to Tarragona in 2006 and to Barcelona in 2008.

Spain’s leading ports are Barcelona and Bilbao. Its main airports are at Madrid and Barcelona. Smaller airports at Malaga, Alicante, and Palma de Mallorca cater to large numbers of holiday charter flights. The national airline, Iberia, formerly government-owned, was privatized in 2001. Buses are the most widely used form of public transport, outstripping rail by some distance, for both long-distance and local urban services. Madrid and Barcelona have extensive subway networks, and Bilbao has a smaller network.

Communications in Spain

Spain has 151 (2004) daily newspapers, although circulation is only 144 newspapers per 1,000 people. The largest-selling papers are the three nationwide dailies, all published in Madrid: El País, generally regarded as Spain’s newspaper of record; ABC; and El Mundo. Even these sell poorly outside the capital, with most readers choosing regional, provincial, or even local dailies. The three largest of these are the Barcelona-based El Periódico and La Vanguardia, and El Correo, published in Bilbao. Virtually all papers appear in Spanish. The only exception of any significance is the Catalan daily Avui. The government exercises no direct control over the press, but it does own the national press agency Efe, on which many daily newspapers rely heavily.

Until the 1980s Spain’s television channels were run by the national broadcasting corporation RTVE, which is controlled by the central government. During that decade, however, a number of stations run by regional authorities began operation. Stations in Catalonia, the Basque Country, Galicia, and Valencia all delivered part of their programming in their respective regional languages. In 1990 privately owned cable channels began operation. Virtually all homes in Spain have radio and television sets, and Spaniards are enthusiastic listeners and viewers.


Spain is a relatively recent recruit to the ranks of Western democracies. Until the 1930s the country remained under the control of a small and mainly conservative upper class. The Second Republic, installed in 1931, was genuinely democratic, but fell victim to the excesses of its own supporters, the unfavorable international situation before World War II (1939-1945), and the reactionary forces within Spain. In 1936 these right-wing forces backed a military uprising that triggered a three-year civil war (see Spanish Civil War). The conflict ended in 1939 with a victory for the right-wing Nationalists (Nacionales) led by General Francisco Franco, who ruled Spain as dictator up to his death in 1975.

After Franco’s death, political change came surprisingly fast and smoothly. Spain held a general election in June 1977 and adopted a new, unambiguously democratic constitution in December 1978. On February 23, 1981, the threat of a return to military rule was finally dispelled by the resounding failure of an attempted coup. In October 1982 the Socialist Workers Party won a landslide election victory. The peaceful acceptance of the Socialist victory by all significant sectors of opinion confirmed that Spain’s transition to democracy was a political reality. Today, Spain is a limited monarchy with an influential parliament.

Executive of Spain

Spain’s head of state is a hereditary monarch whose powers are purely symbolic. Real executive power lies with the head of government, or prime minister (presidente del gobierno). Under the constitution the prime minister is chosen by majority vote of the Congress of Deputies (the lower house of parliament), and Congress’s decision is then formally approved by the monarch. Once in office the prime minister appoints the ministers who make up the cabinet. The prime minister can also dismiss the cabinet ministers. Although the parliament can remove the prime minister only if it agrees on a successor, the prime minister has the power to dissolve parliament at any time during its four-year term.

Legislature of Spain

The Spanish parliament (Cortes) consists of two houses: the Senate (upper house) and the Congress of Deputies (lower house). The Congress of Deputies is the more powerful body and the scene of almost all high-profile debates. There are 256 senators and 350 Congress deputies, all of whom serve a four-year term, subject to the prime minister’s power to dismiss them and call an early election. Forty-eight of the senators are chosen by Spain’s regional parliaments, in rough proportion to regional size. The remaining members of both houses are elected by direct vote. All Spaniards aged 18 and over are eligible to vote.

The main tasks of Spain’s parliament are to scrutinize and approve legislation, and to control the executive, that is, call it to account for its actions. However, most control mechanisms at its disposal (for example, establishing committees of investigation) require a vote of the parliamentary house concerned. Thus, if the party in power has a majority, it can block an investigation. Parliament’s legislative role similarly has been largely reduced to rubber-stamping executive proposals. As a result parliament has suffered something of an identity crisis, especially severe in the case of the Senate. The Senate can delay legislation but not block it.

Political Parties of Spain

Spanish politics is dominated by two parties: the Popular Party (Partido Popular, or PP) and the Socialist Workers Party (Partido Socialista Obrero Español, or PSOE). The conservative Popular Party absorbed the Christian Democrats and the Liberal Party and has existed in its present form since 1989. It enjoys strong support from the business community and the younger urban population. The Socialist Workers Party, Spain’s oldest party, provides the main opposition to the PP. The only other nationwide party of significance is United Left (Izquierda Unida, or IU), which was set up in 1986 as a broad alliance dominated by the Spanish Communist Party. IU later suffered a series of crises and remains a minor player in the Spanish party system.

Many small parties blossomed following Spain’s return to democracy in the 1970s, but they have since faded away. The exceptions are regional parties, which have grown in number and importance. The largest of the regional parties are the Catalan Convergence and Union and the Basque Nationalist Party. These two parties were set up in 1980 and remain the chief representatives of long-established movements for regional self-rule. Both are significant players at the national level, too. Nearly all of the country’s 17 regions have at least one party dedicated to advancing the region’s interests.

Regional and Local Government of Spain

Spain comprises 50 provinces in 17 autonomous regions: Andalucía, Aragón, Asturias, Balearic Islands, Basque Country (País Vasco), Canary Islands, Cantabria, Castile-La Mancha, Castile-León, Catalonia, Extremadura, Galicia, La Rioja, Madrid, Murcia, Navarra, and Valencia. The regions have a degree of autonomy (self government) and control over half of public spending in Spain. Each region has the right to legislate in certain important fields such as education, health, and economic development, although within a framework set by the national government. Under the 1978 constitution all the regions did not enjoy the same powers. This inequality was later largely leveled off.

The 17 regions have nearly identical government structures. Each has an executive branch, headed by a prime minister chosen by the regional parliament. The members of regional parliaments are directly elected by a partially proportional system similar to that used at the national level. Similar arrangements exist in Spain’s two territories on the Moroccan coast, Ceuta and Melilla, which have the status of autonomous cities.

Since 1979 Spain’s 50 provinces have had their own executive councils. Members of these councils are elected indirectly by the municipal (city or town) councils within the province. They are mainly responsible for providing services in municipalities that are too small to take on such functions.

The most genuinely local tier of government is made up of the municipalities. There are more than 8,000 municipalities in Spain, ranging from Madrid down to villages. Their governments are headed by a mayor. The mayor is chosen by a directly elected council in all but the very smallest municipalities. The functions of a municipality depend on its population, with the largest cities having fairly widespread administrative responsibilities in such areas as school provision, urban planning, and housing.

Judiciary in Spain

Spain’s judicial system is organized as a hierarchy (in order of rank). The country’s Supreme Court stands at the top of the hierarchy and acts as the final court of appeal. These appeals come in particular from the high court (Audiencia Nacional), which was established in 1977. It, too, is also essentially an appeals court, although it also hears certain types of high-profile criminal cases—for example, cases involving drug-trafficking. The next level down consists of the 17 regional high courts. Lower courts are at the provincial and district level.

At all levels the judicial system is divided into six different types of court. Two types concerned with civil cases (non-criminal cases between individuals) and criminal cases, respectively. The others are responsible for labor issues, disputes involving the administration of government agencies, cases involving juveniles, and prison supervision. The ministry of justice administers the court system.

A constitutional court stands apart from the judiciary as a whole. Its task is to interpret the constitution. It does this in three main ways: by resolving disputes between the central government and the regions over the extent of their respective power; by checking new legislation for compatibility with the constitution; and by responding to complaints of unconstitutional treatment from individual citizens.

Health and Welfare in Spain

Spain has a health and welfare system comparable to those in other western European countries. The basis for it is a social security act passed in 1990. This law defines the circumstances entitling citizens to benefits, such as old age, illness, widowhood, unemployment, and disability. It also establishes a distinction between contributory and non-contributory benefits. People with no other means of support receive non-contributory benefits funded through taxation. Contributions from employers and employees finance contributory benefits, and entitlement to these benefits depends upon sufficient contributions having been made. The most important contributory benefits are unemployment benefits and pensions paid to older people, widows, and the disabled.

Healthcare is by far the most important non-contributory benefit. It is delivered free of charge, with the exception of medications, dental care, and psychiatric care. The Spanish National Health Service was established by the 1986 General Health Act. Overall coordination is the function of the National Health Service Agency, but the government has transferred wide-ranging management responsibility to regional health services run by the 17 regional governments. Spain’s health system has been criticized, especially for long waiting lists at hospitals. However, it is a great deal better than the system that existed in 1980.

Social services, such as nonmedical care of the elderly and disabled, have been neglected. In the absence of programs from the national government, the services are provided largely by regional and local governments.

Defense of Spain

Spain maintains armed services equipped with modern weapons. It has a professional army made up of volunteers. The system of compulsory military service was abolished by a law passed in 1999. This law also removed the last restrictions on women serving in the armed forces. In 2006 the country had an army of 95,600, a navy of 19,455, and an air force of 22,750. Under an agreement reached in 1953, the Spanish government has had close defense ties with the United States, which maintains naval and air bases in Spain. The country became a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1982, and reaffirmed that alliance in a public referendum in 1986.



Spain began the 21st century as a wealthy, urbanized, industrial, and democratic European country. Spain’s path to modernity differed in many ways from other parts of Europe. Located at the far southwestern corner of Europe and geographically isolated by steep mountains and seas, Spain has often appeared distant from European cultural developments. The Industrial Revolution, which began in Great Britain during the late 18th century, spread slowly to Spain. In the 20th century the brutal Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and the ensuing dictatorship of Francisco Franco seemed to set Spain apart from a prosperous, democratic, and modern Europe.

For much of its history, however, Spain has been a historical crossroads. The Strait of Gibraltar, at the tip of Spain, permits easy travel between Spain and Africa. Since prehistory peoples have entered Spain from other parts of Europe and Africa. The Iberian Peninsula, with its many seaports, made it easy for seafaring Mediterranean peoples to land in search of natural resources. Spain’s earliest written history tells of a long sequence of migrations and cultural mingling. Home to Iberians in prehistory, Spain was colonized by Celtic and Phoenician settlers by the 8th century BC. The name Spain (Hispania) owes its origins to the Phoenicians, who called the Iberian Peninsula “Span,” which meant hidden or remote land. Celtic and Phoenician settlers were followed by Greeks and Carthaginians and then by Romans. It took Roman soldiers 200 years to conquer all of Spain, a process completed in the 1st century BC.

As a part of the Roman Empire, most of Spain’s population became Christian and began to speak languages based on Latin. Romans were followed by Germanic peoples who came overland from Europe and entered Spain in the 5th century AD. These ancient tribes included Vandals, who passed through and settled in Africa, and Visigoths, who settled in Spain to build a kingdom. Persistent conflict among Visigothic nobles weakened the monarchy, and in 711 Spain was invaded again, this time by Muslims from Africa. For centuries the Muslim conquerors would control much of the Iberian Peninsula. The high point of Islamic culture in Spain occurred in the 10th century. Muslim rulers introduced new crops and efficient irrigation systems, trading and commerce thrived, and mathematics, medicine, and philosophy flourished.

Muslim power declined after 1000 as Christian kingdoms in northern Spain, supplemented by migrants from Europe, gradually moved southward to take control of the peninsula. That process was completed in 1492 with the Christian conquest of Granada, the last Muslim kingdom in Spain. The most important Christian kingdoms were Castile, Aragón, and Portugal. Castile emerged as the largest and strongest of these monarchies, and it was central to the construction of the Catholic, Castilian-speaking society of medieval Spain.

By 1500 the migrations were over, but Spain remained an important crossroads. Spain was well located for seaborne trade between the Mediterranean and northern Europe. In the late 15th century navigators in the service of Spain began to explore the Americas, and they discovered great quantities of silver. American silver made Spain central to Europe’s expanding world trade. At the same time, dynastic marriages and diplomacy gave Spain control of a huge European empire. Spain’s American and European empires lasted in various forms until the early 19th century, when they largely disappeared in the wake of the French Revolution (1789-1799) and the Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815).

Throughout the 19th century Spaniards fought and argued about their government and the appropriate amount of popular participation in politics. During this time, Spain gradually entered the Industrial Revolution, and the expanding economy created new political forces. Still, no single faction succeeded in commanding a political majority. Many Spaniards looked to the army to bring order out of chaos, and it became another powerful faction.

By the early 20th century Spain’s government was democratic on paper but it was controlled by an oligarchy that refused to share power. Political groups increasingly resorted to anarchy and violence, and in 1923 General Miguel Primo de Rivera became dictator. Primo de Rivera’s dictatorship was followed by a remarkable experiment with democracy in the 1930s that was suppressed by the Spanish Civil War. The war cost Spain more than 500,000 lives and resulted in the long dictatorship of Francisco Franco. After Franco’s death in 1975, Spain began the rapid transition to the dynamic, modern, and democratic European nation it is today.

Spain in Antiquity

Early Peoples

People have occupied the Iberian Peninsula for hundreds of thousands of years. Fossils of primitive humans unearthed in northern Spain’s Atapuerca hills are at least 780,000 years old—some of the oldest human remains ever discovered in Europe. Anatomically modern humans probably appeared in Spain 30,000 to 40,000 years ago. A remarkable series of paintings of bison, deer, and other animals, some dated at approximately 14,000 years old, adorn the deep cave at Altamira, in northern Spain. These graceful depictions provide evidence of a sophisticated Paleolithic hunting culture.

About 1500 BC a North African people called Iberians began to move northward, across the Strait of Gibraltar. By 1000 BC the Iberians were well established on the peninsula. The Iberians developed a system of writing and built many towns. Another ancient people, the Basques, inhabited the western Pyrenees and probably predated the arrival of the Iberians. About 700 BC a people known as Celts migrated from France into northern Spain and imposed their Indo-European language and culture on indigenous peoples. Iberians and Celts met in central Spain and gradually merged into a people called the Celtiberians. These Celtiberians first dominated the central plateau and the west, and then occupied the peninsula’s eastern coast.

Regional differences among these sophisticated prehistoric cultures foreshadowed distinctions that are still evident today. The northern, central, and western areas were thinly populated, reliant on grazing and livestock, and dominated by Celtic culture. The south was mostly Iberian and dotted with towns. The Iberians and Celtiberians were expert metalworkers. Many southern towns were mining centers that produced finely crafted metal weapons and tools. Over time the metalworkers shifted from copper to bronze and then to iron, all of which were mined in southern Spain.

Spain’s mineral riches drew Mediterranean trade from the earliest times, and many Mediterranean peoples established colonies in the southern and eastern parts of the Iberian Peninsula. According to legend, the Phoenicians, a people from the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, sailed to Spain as early as 1100 BC (see Phoenicia). However, archaeological evidence suggests that Cádiz (ancient Gadir; later Gades), Spain’s oldest Phoenician city, was founded in the 8th century BC. Seafaring Greeks established several colonies on the east coast by the 600s BC, including Ampurias (ancient Emporion) and Sagunto (ancient Saguntum). The Greeks traded with the Celtiberians and the Phoenicians. In the 500s BC inhabitants of the powerful North African city of Carthage, originally a Phoenician colony in modern Tunisia, entered southern Spain. The Carthaginians supplanted their Phoenician predecessors and built several more colonies. In 228 BC Cartagena (ancient Carthago Novo) was founded in southeastern Spain to serve as the capital of Carthage’s Iberian domains. Archaeological evidence, including artifacts reflecting a mixture of Carthaginian and Iberian culture, suggest that these trading centers coexisted peacefully.

As Carthage’s influence in Mediterranean trade grew, a rivalry developed between Carthage and Rome, another rising Mediterranean power. In the First Punic War (264-241 BC) Rome defeated Carthage and forced it to surrender Carthaginian possessions in Sicily and to pay a large indemnity (see Punic Wars). After this costly defeat, Carthage looked to the Iberian Peninsula to rebuild its trading empire. The Carthaginian general Hamilcar Barca conquered southern and eastern Spain from 237 to 228 BC and founded a colony at Barcelona. In 219 BC Barca’s son, the Carthaginian general Hannibal, seized the Greek colony of Saguntum, violating an agreement with Rome regarding the limits of Carthage’s expansion on the Iberian Peninsula. This precipitated the Second Punic War (218-201 BC), during which Hannibal used Spain as the base for an invasion of modern Italy. By 206 BC the Romans had forced Carthage out of Spain.

Roman Conquest

It took the Romans two centuries to gain complete control of Spain. Rome fought several extended wars against the Celtiberians, and its armies had to fight even longer to subdue the Celts and Basques in the north. The Celtiberian capital of Numantia was not captured until 133 BC, after years of fierce resistance against Roman assaults. When the Romans finally entered Numantia, the city’s surviving citizens set fire to it and committed mass suicide. The northern tribes did not submit to Rome until 19 BC.

Spain, like Rome’s other provinces, was governed ineffectively in the early years of Roman rule. Provincial governors appointed by Rome often used their positions for personal enrichment, glory, and to advance their political careers. Corruption was rampant, and provincial governors imposed arbitrary taxes and freely conscripted men for their armies.

The administration of Spain improved after the Roman Republic gave way to the Roman Empire in 27 BC. Rome divided Spain into three separately governed provinces: Lusitania (most of modern Portugal) in the west, Baetica in the south, and Hispania Tarraconensis, in the center, north, northwest, and eastern coast above Cartagena.


The Romanization of Spain proceeded rapidly under the Roman Empire. A code of law was established, and commerce flourished. Roads, bridges, and aqueducts were constructed that still stand today. Port cities carried on active trade in minerals, oil, wine, wheat, and other products. The Romans improved the towns and built large villas (estates) in the countryside that controlled significant numbers of peasant laborers and slaves. The estates relied on agricultural and livestock production, a pattern that persists to this day. The large villas existed alongside smaller farms, some of which preceded Roman occupation. Other small holdings were granted to Roman army veterans—a practice used by Rome to help colonize new lands. Latin became the official language and many Spaniards became full Roman citizens. Indigenous leaders achieved positions of influence and power in Roman Spain and they helped govern the peninsula.

By the 1st century AD the region of Andalucía in southern Spain was heavily Romanized and native languages had largely disappeared. Romanization did not reach all parts of Spain, however, especially in the north. In the Basque provinces, Latin never replaced the ancient Basque language, which is still spoken.


The Roman Empire officially legalized Christianity under Emperor Constantine the Great in the early 4th century. Persecution of Christians ended and the church won legal rights and financial support from Rome. Although Christianity had first entered Spain in the 2nd century, conversion proceeded slowly in some regions. Christian churches and monasteries gradually appeared, but pagan religions continued for a long time, particularly in northern areas defended by Roman army garrisons. Many soldiers belonged to pagan cults, making it politically risky for Rome to push conversion too hard.

Christianity was well established in Spain by the 5th century, but by then the Roman Empire was changing. Epidemics, crop failures, and civil wars had divided the Roman Empire into two parts, the Eastern Roman Empire and the Western Roman Empire. In the Western Roman Empire, which controlled much of Spain, a power vacuum ensued. Civil administration in Spain fell largely to Roman Catholic bishops, and they helped maintain order and continuity with Roman traditions as Roman political authority broke down. About the same time, nomadic peoples spread out across Europe in a series of mass migrations. These migrations would eventually contribute to the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in 476.

Visigothic Spain

In 409 Germanic tribes migrating south crossed the Pyrenees and swept into the Iberian Peninsula. The most important of these, the Vandals, settled in central and southern Spain. Another group, the Suevi, established a kingdom in northwestern Spain. Roman rule in Spain disintegrated as Roman authority gave way to a mosaic of barbarian settlements. In an attempt to stem the havoc brought by the invasions, Rome appealed to the Visigoths, who had settled in parts of modern France (see Goths). Partly Romanized by their contact with the Roman Empire during previous conquests, the Visigoths brought their armies into Spain and soon became the dominant power. In 429 the Visigoths forced the Vandals from the peninsula into North Africa. By 500 Visigoths controlled all of Spain except a strip in the south occupied by the Eastern Roman Empire, also known as the Byzantine Empire.

As the Visigoths advanced into Spain, they established a kingdom in southern France, with its capital at Toulouse. The Visigothic kings ruled Spain from France, treating it as an occupied province and sending royal counts and garrisons to the main towns. However, in 507 another Germanic group, the Franks, routed Visigothic forces in the decisive Battle of Vouillé and drove the Visigoths from most of France. The Visigoths then migrated deep into the Iberian Peninsula. They eventually established a new capital at Toledo in central Spain.

The Visigoths were far outnumbered by their subjects, and they ruled mainly through military occupation. The Visigoths never developed a strong central bureaucracy to enforce royal authority. Instead, they relied largely on the Roman Catholic Church, which had preserved many of the old Roman administrative arrangements and retained significant control over local government. Visigothic kings continued to depend on the Church and the indigenous Hispano-Roman nobility to collect taxes, educate the population, and administer justice.

The Visigothic monarchy was generally unstable and weak. The monarchy adopted royal symbols and titles that imitated the Byzantine court, but it lacked a stable system of succession. Because Visigothic nobles traditionally elected their king from among their own ranks, dynastic struggles for power frequently broke the peace. The high point of the Visigothic monarchy came under King Leovigild (569-586) and his son Recared (586-601). They expelled Byzantines from the south and pacified the peninsula. In the early 7th century the Visigoths conquered the last remaining Byzantine strongholds in the peninsula and established the first kingdom that included all of modern Spain and Portugal.

At first the Visigoths were not well integrated into the native Hispano-Roman population. Most of Spain was Roman Catholic. The Visigoths followed Arianism, a form of Christianity that Catholics considered heretical, and they had a different legal system. This led to strife between Catholic and Arian religious leaders. However, the two societies gradually came together. In 589 King Recared converted to Catholicism, which he adopted as the monarchy’s official religion. The reign of King Recceswinth (649-672) saw the completion of a single legal code for the entire kingdom, the Liber Iudiciorum, published in 654. One of the Visigoths’ greatest achievements, the code fused principles of Roman law with elements of Germanic customary law.

By 700 Visigothic Spain was a complex medieval society that held an important place in Mediterranean learning and commerce. While the achievements of the Visigothic monarchy never matched those of Rome, it did succeed in unifying an area similar to that of modern Spain—a considerable feat. Visigothic Spain was the largest unified region in the Europe of its time, with a developed legal code, a church hierarchy, and a rudimentary bureaucracy. Despite these accomplishments, the Visigoths were too embroiled in internal struggles to mount an effective defense of the realm.

Muslim armies in North Africa posed the most serious threat to Visigothic Spain. In the early 8th century Muslim forces began conducting raids on Spain’s southern coast. North African Muslims included Arabs, who had swept across the region from the Middle East in the 7th century, and Berbers, the indigenous North African peoples conquered by the Arabs (see Spread of Islam).

In 710 a battle for succession to the Visigothic throne erupted following the death of King Witiza. Dynastic conflict prevented the succession of Witiza’s son, and Roderick, duke of Baetica, claimed the throne. In an effort to oust Roderick, Witiza’s family appealed to Muslims in North Africa for help. The Muslims quickly agreed. In 711 a Muslim army under the command of Berber general Tariq ibn-Ziyad crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and invaded Spain. After defeating Roderick’s army at the Battle of Guadalete in southern Spain, Muslim forces advanced swiftly into the rest of Spain.

Muslim Rule

By 719 Muslims controlled most of the Iberian Peninsula. The Moors, as the Muslim conquerors came to be known, pushed northward into France, where their advance was repelled near Poitiers by Frankish leader Charles Martel in 732. The Moors then retreated south of the Pyrenees, and for the next several centuries they dominated nearly all of Spain.

At first Islamic Spain, or al-Andalus, as it was known, was ruled as part of the Province of North Africa, a division of the caliphate of Damascus. At that time Damascus, in modern Syria, was the capital of the Islamic world and the residence of the powerful Umayyad caliphs (religious and secular leaders). The power of the caliphate in Spain was weak, however, and governors (emirs) appointed by Damascus had little real authority. In 750 the Abbasids deposed the Umayyad ruling family in Damascus and claimed the caliphate.

Abd-ar-Rahman I, a member of the Umayyad family, fled Syria and in 756 established an independent emirate at Córdoba in southern Spain. His Iberian Umayyad dynasty centralized power and ruled al-Andalus for almost 300 years. Córdoba reached its peak under Abd-ar-Rahman III, who established the caliphate of Córdoba in 929. By then Córdoba was one of the largest and most cosmopolitan cities in the Mediterranean world.

Over time ruling elites across Muslim Spain challenged Córdoba, and other Muslim cities became independent. This trend accelerated in 1036 with the death of the last Umayyad caliph. Spain fragmented into a mosaic of small, independent Muslim kingdoms, known as taifas. The most important of these were Córdoba, Seville, Granada, Toledo, Lisbon, Zaragoza, Murcia, and Valencia.

Life in Muslim Spain

Spanish society became increasingly complex under Muslim rule. This is partly because Islamic conquest did not involve the systematic conversion of the conquered population to Islam. Islam restricted the ability of Muslim rulers to tax other Muslims, making it financially advantageous for a ruler to have non-Muslim subjects. At the same time, Christians and Jews were recognized under Islam as “peoples of the book.” Christianity and Judaism shared with Islam the tradition of the Old Testament, and Islam considered Jesus Christ a major prophet. Thus, Christians and Jews were free to practice their religion, but they had to pay a prescribed poll tax. Conversion to Islam therefore proceeded slowly. In many areas Muslim rulers found it easier to rely on the existing Christian network of local authority.

The Roman Catholic Church in Muslim Spain continued to function, although it lost contact with religious reforms in Rome. Muslim Spain came to include a growing number of Mozarabic Christians, people who adopted Arabic language and culture and followed forms of religious service different from those of Rome. In addition, Jews held prominent positions in government, commerce, and the professions under Muslim rule.

The Muslim community in Spain was itself diverse and beset by social tensions. From the beginning the Berber tribespeople of North Africa clashed with the Arabs of Egypt and the Middle East. The Berbers, who were comparatively recent converts to Islam, accounted for the largest share of Moors in Spain and they resented the sophistication and aristocratic pretensions of the Arab elite. Meanwhile, many Christians in Spain, including Visigothic nobles, converted to Islam. Conversion was commonplace among merchants, large landowners, and other local elites. Drawn into the politics of Islamic power, many Christians found that conversion made it easier to maintain their influence. Despite being Muslim, however, former Christians often faced discrimination. These tensions led to struggles between the established Muslim leadership and local lords from once Christian families.

Spain was wealthy and sophisticated under Islamic rule. Mediterranean trade and cultural exchange flourished. Muslims imported a rich intellectual tradition from the Middle East and North Africa, including knowledge about mathematics, science, and philosophy, and they continued to build upon it in Spain. Crops and farming techniques introduced by the Arabs, including new irrigation practices, led to a remarkable expansion of agriculture. In towns and cities the Muslims constructed magnificent mosques, palaces, and other architectural monuments, many of which still stand today. Outside the cities the mixture of large estates and small farms that existed in Roman times remained largely intact, because Muslim leaders rarely dispossessed landowners. The Muslim conquerors were relatively few in number and they generally tried to maintain good relations with their subjects.

Roman, Jewish, and Muslim culture interacted in complex ways. A large part of the population gradually adopted Arabic. Even Jews and Christians often spoke Arabic, while Hebrew and Latin were frequently written in Arabic script. These diverse traditions interchanged in ways that gave Spanish culture—religion, literature, music, art and architecture, and writing systems—a rich and distinctive heritage.

Christian Reconquest and the Decline of Muslim Power

The Muslim advance never succeeded in conquering the entire Iberian Peninsula. A remnant of Christian rule survived in northern Spain, even as Muslim power reached its zenith. In the early years of Muslim rule the Christian states fought mainly among themselves. Also, as the Muslims prospered, they lost the incentive for further conquest.

In 718 the Visigothic chieftain Pelayo, a survivor of the Muslim victory at the Battle of Guadalete, founded the tiny kingdom of Asturias in the mountains of northwestern Spain. In an encounter that is based in part on legend, Pelayo’s forces defeated a Muslim army at the glen of Covadonga. This small victory came to be seen as the first decisive action of the Christian reconquest (reconquista), the campaign by Christians to retake Spain from the Muslims.

The reconquest has long figured prominently in stories about Spain’s modern national identity. As such, chroniclers have often portrayed it as a heroic Christian crusade to expel the heretical Muslims intruders. But these accounts oversimplify centuries of intermingling between Christians and Muslims. They also exaggerate the coherence of the reconquest. All told, more than 750 years of intermittent fighting and shifting alliances would pass before the reconquest was complete.

By the late 9th century Christian rulers had gained control of about one-third of the peninsula. Under the rule of Alfonso III the kingdom of Asturias expanded greatly, reaching across much of the northwest and as far south as the valley of the Douro (or Duero). The territorial gains of Asturias came at the expense of Christian and Muslim rulers alike. Several new Christian kingdoms began to emerge in the northeast, including Navarre in the Pyrenees and, farther to the east, Aragón. Frankish rule also extended into northern Spain and included several counties in Catalonia.

With the collapse of the caliphate in Córdoba and fragmentation of Muslim Spain into small and independent kingdoms, Muslim regions became increasingly vulnerable to Christian expansion. In the 10th and 11th centuries, Christian forces gradually moved south, bringing central Spain under Christian rule.

The northwestern kingdom of Castile and León, which included the former kingdom of Asturias, gained the greatest share of lands reconquered from the Muslims. Castile and León captured the Muslim kingdom of Toledo in 1085, annexed its lands, and pushed the frontier of Christian Spain south beyond the Tagus River. The Muslim lands annexed by Castile and León became known as New Castile. The capture of Toledo—the ancient capital of Visigothic Spain—marked the first time a major city in Muslim Spain had fallen to Christian forces, and it served to sharpen the religious aspect of the Christian reconquest. In subsequent centuries this dimension of the conflict would grow stronger.

Christian expansion was slowed at first by new Muslim forces entering Spain. In the early 11th century, a large part of northwestern Africa was under the control of the Almoravids, a fundamentalist Muslim movement led by Yusuf ibn Tashfin, a Berber chieftain. The fall of Toledo alarmed many Spanish Muslims and prompted several Muslim leaders to invite Yusuf and the Almoravids to Spain. The Almoravids invaded Spain in 1086, conquered numerous Muslim kingdoms, and pushed back the Christians. But the advancing Muslims failed to retain control of the kingdom of Valencia, which was captured by Spanish hero El Cid in 1094. El Cid became legendary as the one Christian leader who defied the Almoravids. After El Cid’s death in 1099, however, Valencia returned to Muslim control.

A second conservative Muslim movement from North Africa, the Almohads, entered Spain and attacked the Almoravids. By the 1140s the Almoravids’ power had disintegrated. Once again Muslim Spain became a mosaic of small taifas. Over the next half century the Almohads established control in Andalucía and recaptured much of New Castile. Christian kingdoms, however, gradually learned to collaborate. In 1212 the Almohads suffered a disastrous defeat at the hands of Christian forces in the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa, on the plains of Toledo. Muslim power collapsed, opening the heart of Andalucía to Christian attack.

The Christian kingdoms of Castile and Aragón continued to expand into Muslim territories, and by 1230 Christian armies had captured most of Andalucía. Only the wealthy kingdom of Granada remained Muslim. Muslims maintained control of Granada until 1492, when Castile, with the help of Aragón, conquered the kingdom, ending centuries of Muslim rule in Spain.

The Late Medieval Period

After the mid-13th century Muslims no longer posed a serious challenge to the Christian kingdoms, whose rulers began to establish centralized political control. A period of dynastic struggles and civil wars ensued. Castile and León (permanently joined in 1230) and Aragón emerged as the most powerful kingdoms in Spain. By 1400 Castile and León had a large army and navy and it controlled Spain’s Atlantic trade. Aragón, meanwhile, dominated the western Mediterranean. By the 1460s its empire included the region of Aragón, Catalonia, Valencia, Mallorca, Minorca, Sardinia, Sicily, and southern Italy. Aragón’s influence also reached into northern Africa, especially Tunisia. The kingdoms of Castile and Aragón each had its own interests, and each was important in 15th-century Europe.

Medieval Christian Spain was organized around several key institutions. Warfare preoccupied the Christian monarchs, and royal institutions evolved to fight and pay for wars. The medieval monarchies collected few taxes until after 1100. They maintained their authority and ability to wage war through a combination of cash income from tolls and commercial taxes, income from the king’s own estates, and the ability to grant jurisdictional rights to nobles in return for military service. In a predominantly agricultural economy, grants of jurisdictional rights over farming towns or districts provided soldiers with a source of income; peasants working the land paid rent and provided services to their masters.

As the economy became more complex, the crown exacted more revenue in the form of taxes. Kings had little bureaucracy to collect these taxes, so they signed contracts with nobles and town governments to collect the taxes for them. As taxation increased, however, wealthy families and representatives from the towns forced the monarchies to consult with them in parliamentary assemblies known as cortes.

Major Institutions

Parliamentary Assemblies

The development of parliamentary assemblies, or cortes, served to check the power of the monarchs and royal officials. The cortes in Castile were relatively weak compared to those that developed in Aragón. The Castilian cortes originally had three houses, one each for clergy, nobility, and the towns. However, after the monarchy stopped convening the first two, the cortes consisted solely of representatives from the towns. The Castilian monarch often deferred to the cortes, and needed its approval to collect taxes, but assertions of royal power were largely unchallenged.

In Aragón the cortes had four houses, one each for clergy, upper nobility, lower nobility, and the towns. Consent of the Aragónese cortes was needed for all significant legislation; it could veto royal initiatives and determine the royal succession. In addition, power in Aragón was more decentralized than in Castile, which had a single royal government. Each of Aragón’s provinces had its own cortes, and a general cortes composed of all of the provincial assemblies occasionally convened. These arrangements forced the monarch in Aragón to negotiate with more groups to get what he wanted.


A powerful aristocracy developed in medieval Spain. By 1400 a few great clans dominated the aristocracy in Castile. In the north, aristocratic estates included jurisdictional rights that gave nobles control of local offices and taxation. Much of the land, however, actually belonged to peasants or the towns. In the south, however, Castilian kings gave large tracts of lands taken during the reconquest to Christian military leaders. These land grants are the origin of the latifundia, large estates owned by powerful families. Lords of the estates hired day workers to herd the sheep and farm the land. This created a system of debt peonage. Poor laborers who owed money to landlords could not afford to move unless they paid up.

A landed aristocracy also emerged in Aragón, but the power of Aragónese nobles was challenged by the wealthy merchant families of Barcelona, who could block decisions that they disliked in the cortes. Aragónese merchants were much less interested in the reconquest than the landed nobility, who stood to gain additional lands and jurisdictional rights. For merchants, the reconquest meant the disruption of profitable trade. In the cortes, merchants generally opposed taxes on trade and preferred taxes on land and agriculture; landed nobles generally favored the reverse.

Local Government

The exercise of royal power depended on the cooperation of town governments. In exchange for the authority to manage local affairs, towns collected many of the king’s taxes and implemented royal edicts. Land grants issued by the monarchy, called propios, provided rents that helped support local governments. Most landowners took part in town meetings and elected the town councils. As towns grew in size and economic importance, local government often became dominated by the local nobility. Some town governments, however, remained independent of the nobility, and they helped the king limit the power of the landed aristocracy.

Roman Catholic Church

The Roman Catholic Church exercised significant power in medieval Spain. The church was important in two ways. First, it made royal authority legitimate, through the doctrine of the divine right of kings. People who did not accept Catholicism were suspected of disloyalty to the monarchy. Second, it asserted spiritual jurisdiction over all Spaniards. As both head of the Catholic Church and a foreign ruler, the pope could call upon church members in Spain to undermine royal policy. The papacy, for instance, frequently opposed royal actions that were perceived as conflicting with the church’s interests in other countries, and it sought to prevent kings from diverting the income of the church into the royal treasury. For these reasons, kings tried to control the selection of bishops in their territory. The church also controlled an immense amount of wealth, which it accumulated in the form of bequests when people died. Wealth and papal political influence gave the church great power that kings often sought to restrict.

The church consisted of several influential organizations. The most important were the monasteries and the military religious orders. Monasteries participated in the Christian reconquest, and several bishops and abbots led armies. As the idea of a crusade grew in popularity, the pope encouraged another religious institution in Spain, the military orders. The most important of these included the orders of Santiago, Calatrava, and Alcántara. Knights in the orders took religious vows to fight the infidels, and they played a significant military role in the reconquest between 1150 and 1250. The orders were granted tracts of land to support the reconquest, and those who were admitted gained the status of nobles. Later, the orders grew wealthy and lost their original purpose.

Economic Development

Spain’s medieval economy prospered. Agriculture flourished, and farmers in central Spain raised wheat, grapes, olives, sheep, and cattle. Most agricultural goods were consumed locally. The exception was wool. As Europe’s economy grew, European demand for Spanish wool rapidly expanded. By the 1200s regional organizations of sheep owners (mestas) were established in Castile, and the monarchy chartered a national Council of the Mesta. The council was granted a special court to resolve disputes with farmers over damage caused to cultivated lands by grazing. In return for such privileges, the Mesta agreed to pay taxes to the king on sheep migrating through key mountain passes. It also became wealthy itself and frequently loaned money to the monarchy.

The Black Death, an outbreak of bubonic plague that swept across Europe in the mid-14th century, reduced farming and increased livestock grazing in Spain. The plague decreased the population in Europe by as much as one-third. Many farms were turned into pasture because it took fewer people to herd sheep than to farm. Grazing also became more profitable than farming because the smaller population needed less food, leading to a decline in food prices. As a result, people had more income to spend on luxuries such as wool cloth. The stronger market for wool reinforced the shift to grazing.

Commerce thrived in medieval Spain. Barcelona was an important banking center by 1200 and Aragón dominated trade between Spain, France, Italy, and North Africa. This trade included cloth, food, gold, slaves, and ransomed prisoners. The Basque region became the largest source of iron in Europe and developed several important industries, including shipbuilding, fishing, and whaling.

The Making of a World Power

In 1469 Isabella of Castile (later Isabella I), heiress to the Castilian throne, married her cousin, Ferdinand of Aragón (later Ferdinand V). Isabella was declared queen of Castile and León in 1474, and by 1476 Isabella had won control of the kingdom amidst a war of succession for the crown. Ferdinand, who ruled Castile alongside Isabella, inherited Aragón in 1479, and the two monarchs became joint rulers of both kingdoms. The partnership between the rulers of the Iberian Peninsula’s most powerful monarchies set in motion the developments that made Spain a great power. During their rule, they established the Spanish Inquisition to enforce uniform adherence to the Catholic faith. In 1492 Isabella and Ferdinand conquered Granada, the last Muslim kingdom on the Iberian Peninsula, and expelled from Spain Jews who would not convert to Christianity. That same year they sponsored a voyage of Genoese navigator Christopher Columbus, who was seeking a westward route to Asia. Columbus’s discoveries preceded a spectacular expansion into the Americas that brought enormous wealth and control of vast new overseas territories to Spain.

Ferdinand and Isabella greatly expanded Spain’s influence on the continent by marrying their children to the heirs of other European rulers. When their grandson, Charles, came to the throne as Charles I of Spain, he inherited a vast amount of territory in Europe. In 1519, as Charles V, he became emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, the largest Western empire since the Roman Empire. Subsequent Spanish kings ruled vast European domains and faced many foreign threats. They met these threats using wealth from Spain’s huge American empire.

Union of the Spanish Kingdoms

After their marriage, Ferdinand and Isabella succeeded in combining Castile and Aragón into an effective political unit. But they were less preoccupied with the task of unification than with stabilizing their authority and building reliable political alliances at home. It was a union of crowns, rather than of kingdoms. The two rulers ruled jointly, collaborating on religious and foreign policies but retaining distinct parliamentary and administrative institutions in each kingdom. Castile and Aragón also kept their different outlooks toward the world. Castile was oriented to Africa and the Atlantic Ocean, while Aragón, the smaller and poorer kingdom, looked toward Italy and the western Mediterranean.

Consolidation of Power

Above all, Ferdinand and Isabella sought to establish law and order in their realms. For much of the 15th century Castile and Aragón were convulsed by civil war. A unified crown and stronger monarchy could help the rulers defend their lands from enemies, especially from non-Christians. Under Ferdinand and Isabella, royal power emerged as the greatest authority in the land. In Castile they reformed the judicial system and weakened the upper nobility by limiting their access to the royal administration. Both these steps laid the basis for royal absolutism. They also developed an efficient bureaucracy by favoring the selection of university-educated candidates as royal officials. This helped make Castile one of the largest and most modern European states of its time. Royal power was further enhanced with the conquest of Granada, the last Muslim stronghold on the Iberian Peninsula, in 1492. This completed the Christian reconquest of Spain.

The Spanish Inquisition

For the Catholic Monarchs (Reyes Católicos)—a title given to Ferdinand and Isabella by Pope Alexander VI for their religious devotion—religious observation was central to achieving domestic peace. The Spanish monarchs, like their European counterparts, were believed to rule as trustees of God. This direct link to divine authority is what made rulers legitimate in Europe. It also made non-Christians or heretics dangerous because their rejection of Christianity implied that they did not accept the monarch’s right to rule.

In 1478 Isabella established the Spanish Inquisition under the leadership of Dominican monk Tomás de Torquemada. The Spanish Inquisition was originally founded to ensure the sincerity of former Jews and Muslims who had recently converted to Christianity, known as conversos and Moriscos respectively. Insincere converts were suspected of disloyalty and punished. As an institution that operated in both Castile and Aragón, the Inquisition was an important source of unity in Spain. It brought both monarchies closer to the Roman Catholic Church and it helped guarantee that Spain would remain a profoundly Catholic country.

In its first decades the Inquisition tried and punished thousands of people, including many conversos involved in commerce and trade. People judged to be heretics were executed, often by burning at the stake. In 1492 all unconverted Jews were ordered to leave Spain, and many thousands emigrated to North Africa, the Ottoman Empire, and other parts of Europe. In the early 17th century the Spanish inquisitors turned their attention to Muslims. Between 1609 and 1614 more than 250,000 Spanish Muslims were driven out of Spain. Later, the Spanish Inquisition sought to discipline persons suspected of practicing Protestantism.

At the time, many Spaniards considered the Inquisition a triumph for Roman Catholicism. However, the costs of the Inquisition were high. Spain expelled many of its most economically important citizens, depriving the crown of a source of much-needed tax revenue. The church, with royal cooperation, also censored books, and students were prohibited from studying abroad to prevent the importation of Protestant ideas into Spain. These practices eventually cut Spain off from intellectual developments in Europe and turned Spanish universities into academic backwaters. This isolation made it more difficult for Spain to modernize in later centuries. In addition, the urge to protect royal legitimacy, power, and prestige led Spain to fight wars it could not win, at great cost to Spain’s society and economy.

The Spanish Empire

Spain rose from a partnership between two Iberian kingdoms to the status of world power in a short time. The new strength of Castile soon became evident to the world. The consolidation of a strong government at home allowed Castilian monarchs to focus the crown’s resources on overseas expansion. At the same time, a series of strategic alliances and military initiatives permitted Spain to achieve dominance in Europe.

Conquest in the Americas

Christopher Columbus’s westward voyages aroused great excitement in Spain, even if the results were at first disappointing. Castile was determined to follow the lead of neighboring Portugal, whose mariners had already traveled around the southern end of Africa and opened a sea route to Asia. Although Columbus did not succeed in finding a westward route to Asia, Castile annexed the islands he found in the West Indies upon his return from his first voyage. The Castilians gradually settled colonies in the Caribbean, beginning with Santo Domingo (in present-day Dominican Republic), and established their first settlement in Cuba in 1509. Then Spain’s stunning expansion in the Americas began.

Over the course of the next century generations of adventurers and explorers, known as the conquistadors, traveled to the Americas on behalf of the Spanish crown. Hernán Cortés destroyed the Aztec Empire in Mexico, and Francisco Pizarro conquered the Inca Empire in Peru. Explorers such as Vasco Núñez de Balboa, Ferdinand Magellan, and Hernando De Soto were chartered by Spain. Spain eventually laid claim to all of Latin America, except for Brazil, and also claimed the southern part of the United States from Florida to California, as well as Jamaica and the Philippine Islands.

At first the conquerors sent home gold and silver accumulated by the Aztec and Inca empires. These riches were soon exhausted, and little moveable wealth remained in the Americas that could bear the costs of shipment to Europe and still be sold for a profit. The conquerors then turned to the land and the labor of indigenous peoples to create wealth in ways that were familiar in Spain. They imported Spanish crops and livestock and attempted to build productive, largely self-contained, colonies.

Spain’s empire in the Americas entered a new phase in the mid-16th century when extensive silver deposits were discovered, first in Mexico and then in Bolivia. By 1560 large amounts of American silver were flowing into the Spanish treasury annually. At the same time, European diseases had decimated native peoples in the Americas. To keep the silver flowing, Spanish colonizers forcibly moved shrinking numbers of indigenous peoples to new towns where they could be put to work in the mines. As native peoples died, Spain imported African slaves to work in its colonies. Spain also organized a system of seaports and regular transatlantic fleets with naval protection to control trade between Europe and the Americas. By the late 16th century American silver accounted for one-fifth of Spain’s total budget. This silver allowed Spain to build a huge structure of credit and to fight many wars. When Spain’s monopoly on American silver broke down after 1630, Spanish power quickly collapsed.

European Power

Spain’s expansion in Europe began even before the new wealth from the Americas became available. Ferdinand’s brilliant use of diplomacy and military power were central to Spain’s transformation into a world power. Spain’s main opponent in Europe was France, both along the frontiers that separated the two states and also in Italy, where Aragón’s traditional interests were threatened by French efforts to dominate the peninsula. Under Ferdinand, Spain succeeded in winning control of southern Italy, all Navarre south of the Pyrenees, and farther north, the regions of Cerdagne and Roussillon.

Ferdinand arranged strategic alliances with other royal houses hostile to France. He married one daughter, Catherine of Aragón, to the heir to the English throne, Henry VIII. He married another daughter, Joanna the Mad, to a member of the Habsburg royal family, Philip of Burgundy (later King Philip I of Castile).

Isabella’s death in 1504 greatly complicated the process of Spanish expansion as Castile’s crown passed to Joanna, who was mentally deranged. Ferdinand and Philip agreed that Joanna was incapable of ruling. Ferdinand served as regent until Philip and Joanna returned from Flanders, at which time Philip became king consort and regent. An alliance between Philip and powerful Castilian nobles forced Ferdinand to withdraw from Castile. In 1506, shortly after taking power, Philip died suddenly. A special council recalled Ferdinand to Castile, although he was denied the full powers of regency, including control over foreign affairs. Despite a contentious aristocracy, Ferdinand eventually regained full control over Castile. Upon his death in 1516, Ferdinand was succeeded by his grandson, Charles, son of Joanna and Philip. As legal heir to both Castile and Aragón, Charles became the first king of a united Spain.

Charles V

With Ferdinand’s death, Charles inherited a vast amount of territory. In addition to Spain—which he ruled as Charles I—and its possessions in Italy and the Americas, he inherited the Low Countries (what are now Belgium, The Netherlands, and Luxembourg) through his father. The accession of Charles to the throne also made Spain the largest and most important domain of the Habsburg family, which ruled the Holy Roman Empire. Habsburg kings would rule Spain for nearly 200 years, until 1700. When his paternal grandfather, Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, died in 1519, Charles inherited Habsburg lands in what are now Germany and Austria. Later that year Charles was elected Holy Roman emperor as Charles V, making him the nominal ruler of Germany. Charles emerged as the most powerful monarch in Europe.

Charles was just 16 years old when he became king of Castile and Aragón. Reared in Flanders, Charles could not speak Spanish, and he tried to rule Spain through foreign advisers. Charles quickly provoked resentment among the Castilian nobility and towns by granting offices to his followers and demanding new taxes. In 1519 this resentment exploded into the comunero revolt, which began in Toledo and quickly spread to other towns. The revolt was suppressed in 1521 with help from the nobility. To alleviate the concerns of his Spanish subjects, Charles agreed to give court positions to Castilians and he negotiated a system of tax payments that satisfied the towns. These compromises proved durable, and Spain’s interior remained peaceful for much of the next two centuries.

After a difficult start, Charles became a popular monarch. Spain’s imperial accomplishments in Europe and the Americas were a source of great pride. In addition, Castile grew increasingly prosperous under Charles’s rule, benefiting from American mineral wealth as well as remarkable growth in population, agricultural output, and manufacturing.

Charles brought Spain into many wars to defend his vast collection of territories. During his reign, Spanish soldiers and wealth were used to fight the Protestant Reformation sweeping northern Europe, the Ottoman Empire in the western Mediterranean, and the French in Italy and the Rhineland. The wars against France eventually made Spain a dominant power in northern as well as southern Italy. However, Charles failed to halt the advance of the Ottomans. Also of significance, he was unable to prevent the establishment of Protestantism in Germany. Under the terms of the Peace of Augsburg in 1555, German princes seeking autonomy won the right to choose between Lutheranism and Catholicism for their subjects.

The political difficulties that the Reformation created for Charles in much of Europe did not develop in Spain. The Spanish Catholic Church was one of the least corrupt in Europe. Church reforms implemented by the Spanish Inquisition had removed many of the abuses that infuriated Martin Luther and other European religious reformers. As a result, Protestantism had far less appeal in Spain than in much of Europe. Charles successfully promoted additional reforms and prodded the papacy into summoning the Council of Trent, which clarified Catholic beliefs and reformed the education of priests. At about the same time a former Spanish soldier, Saint Ignatius of Loyola, founded the Jesuits, a Catholic religious order. The Jesuits set about making converts to Catholicism in Spain’s European possessions and in the Americas.

In 1556 Charles divided his empire, which had proven so difficult to defend. He relinquished the greater part of his realms, including the Spanish throne, to his son, Philip II. He also resigned as Holy Roman emperor in favor of his brother, Ferdinand I, who inherited the Habsburg lands in central Europe.

Philip II

Spain reached the peak of its power during the rule of Philip II. Philip’s reign began with a financial crisis and royal bankruptcy as the new king consolidated the divided empire left by his father. Domestically, Spain was stable, and unprecedented amounts of American silver poured into Castile. Spain’s Golden Age of art and culture began under Philip, and it would continue for a century. In foreign affairs Spain enjoyed some successes. The Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis in 1559 ended the exhausting wars with France, and for the next four decades France was too divided by civil wars and religious turmoil to challenge Spanish interests. However, Spain soon had to confront a major rebellion in the Low Countries as well as the renewed expansion of the Ottoman Empire in Mediterranean lands. Deeply religious, Philip was committed to the eventual triumph of Roman Catholic rule in Europe. However, much of Philip’s long reign was marked by failures that weakened the Spanish empire. At his death in 1598 Philip left a nation with a declining economy and a powerful, but precarious, international position.

Spain’s Golden Age

Spain’s intellectual life flourished throughout much of the 16th and 17th centuries. Generous patronage by the crown, church, and aristocracy stimulated creative work, and Spain earned world renown as a center of learning, literature, and art. Several of Europe’s leading universities were in Spain. The University of Salamanca in central Spain was at the forefront in the new fields of economic and political theory. The University of Alcala, founded by Isabella I, became a center of Renaissance scholarship on the Bible. Experts in Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, and other languages created the Complutensian Polyglot Bible, which compared the best versions of the Bible in several languages.

Literature produced the incomparable Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. His novel, Don Quixote (Part I, 1605; Part II, 1615), a satire of the outmoded values of the Spanish elite, is considered one of the great books of Western literature. In drama the plays of Lope de Vega and Pedro Calderón de la Barca y Henao were enormously popular and influenced many European dramatists.

The era of Philip II witnessed perhaps the greatest painters identified with Spain. El Greco, an immigrant from Crete, produced paintings that emphasized religious themes. The emotional intensity of El Greco’s work gave inspiration to the expressionist painters of the late 19th and early 20th centuries (see Expressionism). The Spanish baroque artist Diego Velázquez, who served as court painter for Philip IV, produced a spectacular series of paintings. Velázquez was part of a remarkable school of Spanish painting that also included Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, Francisco de Zurbarán, and Claudio Coello. After 1665, patronage of art lost its direction and for a time Spain produced few works with broader appeal.

International and Domestic Affairs

International affairs dominated Philip’s reign, and his successes were notable. In the Battle of Lepanto (1571) Philip led the Holy League, an alliance of Spain, Venice, Genoa, and the Papal States, to a decisive naval victory over the Ottoman Empire. The battle was the first major victory of Christian forces against the Ottoman Empire. Ten years later Philip made himself king of Portugal, after overcoming rival claimants to the throne. Because Portugal controlled territories in Asia, Africa, and Brazil, its union with Spain put the Iberian Peninsula at the center of the largest and most far-flung empire in the world.

Despite these successes, Philip’s troubles gradually accumulated. Zealously religious, Philip was dedicated to defending his Catholic empire against the advance of the Protestant Reformation. Philip’s efforts to prevent the spread of Protestantism in the Low Countries proved disastrous. His use of the Inquisition to persecute Protestants in The Netherlands led to open revolt there in 1567. This conflict continued for more than a half-century, draining Spanish resources. It also led to war with England. Under Queen Elizabeth I, England was a Protestant power. England’s foreign policy included unofficial support for the Dutch rebels and for English mariners who raided Spain’s colonies and treasure fleets in the Americas. In 1588 Philip sent a huge naval fleet, the Spanish Armada, to conquer England and reconvert it to Catholicism. However, the armada was defeated in the English Channel, and many remaining ships were wrecked in a storm off the Hebrides. The destruction of the armada reduced Spain’s ability to wage war abroad. Despite this defeat, Spain was able to send another large fleet to Ireland in 1596 in an ill-fated attempt to capture that country. The war between Spain and England continued until 1604.

As Spain struggled with costly military operations abroad, the nation’s domestic situation deteriorated. American treasure alone could not support Spain’s wars. Philip was forced into bankruptcy three times. Crippling taxation caused extreme poverty and brought Spaniards to the point of revolt. Adding to the hardships, a series of epidemics swept Spain in the 1590s, greatly reducing the population. At the same time, Philip strengthened the Spanish Inquisition to crush any threat of Protestantism being imported. Intellectual life, in the midst of a great flowering, became narrower and less open to new currents of thought.

Decline of Spanish Power

At the dawn of the 17th century Spain was still considered a great power. It ruled a vast empire, its diplomatic and military capabilities were widely respected, and Spanish cultural life flourished. But throughout the 17th century Spain suffered from erratic leadership, recurrent warfare with rivals, revolts in Spanish territories, and a perpetually depressed economy. By the end the century, Spain’s power and riches were drastically reduced and its culture was in decline.

The Reign of Philip III

King Philip III, son of Philip II, was religiously devout but cared little for politics. Philip devoted much of his attention to court festivals and other amusements, and royal power largely fell to his prime minister, Francisco de Sandoval, duke of Lerma. During Philip’s reign (1598-1621), Spain curtailed foreign military campaigns and other international ventures. Spain made peace with England in 1604, ending 16 years of continuous war. In 1609 the Spanish and Dutch initiated a 12-year truce. That same year, Lerma’s government expelled the last of the Moriscos (Christian converts from Islam) from Spain. This policy deprived Spain of more than 250,000 of its most industrious inhabitants, leading to further population loss and economic disruption.

Royal finances failed to improve under Philip. Defense was costly, even in peacetime, and Philip spent large sums of money on palaces, festivals, and hunting parties. Philip created an impressive baroque court in Madrid and built the great Plaza Mayor, which long served as the city’s civic and economic center.

The peace enjoyed under Philip abruptly ended with the outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), which began as a conflict between Protestants and Catholics in Germany. Philip’s strong backing of Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II and the German Catholic princes drew Spain into another prolonged military conflict. Spain joined the struggle out of a desire to help the Habsburgs retain power, advance the Catholic faith, and recover, if possible, the Dutch provinces. Philip III died in 1621, but his policies were continued under his son and successor, Philip IV.

Spain Under Philip IV

During the reign of Philip IV (1621-1665), Spain continued its economic and political decline. Like his father, Philip IV was a weak leader. He preferred culture to politics and left the powers of the monarchy to his prime minister, Gaspar de Guzmán, conde de Olivares.

Olivares, a gifted politician, sought to carry out ambitious plans for government reform and to restore Spanish power abroad. He resumed the conflict with the Dutch and continued Spanish involvement in the Thirty Years’ War. At first, Spain met with military success, but the effort could not be sustained at home. Olivares’s attempts to increase taxation and conscription to support the military campaigns led to revolt. In 1640 the province of Catalonia declared itself an independent republic, and for 19 years the presence of French troops helped to maintain its autonomy from Spain. In the same year Portugal also broke away from Spanish control.

With the home front in chaos, Spain began to fail abroad. In 1643 Spain’s last army in the Low Countries was destroyed when it invaded France during the final phase of the Thirty Years’ War. Olivares, who was blamed for the disasters at home and abroad, was dismissed. However, the wars and revolts his policies helped bring about haunted Spain for nearly three decades. Catalonia was recovered in 1652, but Spain was forced to recognize Dutch independence in 1648 with the signing of the Peace of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years’ War. The southern portion of the Spanish Netherlands, a region roughly corresponding to present-day Belgium and Luxembourg, remained a Spanish domain. Spain returned the provinces of Roussillon and Cerdagne to France in 1659 and accepted the independence of Portugal in 1668. In 1655 an English naval force captured Jamaica, the first of many colonies that Spain was to lose in the Western Hemisphere.

Declining shipments of American silver after 1630 weakened Spain further. The cost of Spanish military campaigns had caused the Spanish monarchs to confiscate private silver from Spain’s American fleets. They also used funds meant for the defense of Spain’s American trade for the conflicts in Europe. As a result, fewer fleets came from America and they brought less silver. This was disastrous for the war effort and Spain declared bankruptcy in 1647 and again in 1652.

The End of the Spanish Habsburgs

The long and inept reign of Charles II (1665-1700), son of Philip IV, ended Habsburg rule of Spain. Mentally and physically infirm, Charles never understood government. Charles’s advisers involved Spain in a series of disastrous wars that caused Spain to lose much of its remaining possessions in Europe. Internal strife characterized Spain at home, with domestic policy dominated by competing noble families.

Bourbon Rule

Charles died in 1700 without an heir, bringing to an end the male line of the Spanish Habsburgs. Charles willed his throne to his grandnephew, Philip V, duke of Anjou. Philip was the grandson of the powerful Bourbon king Louis XIV of France and the great-grandson of Philip III.

Much of Europe viewed the Bourbon family’s acquisition of Spain’s still-vast territories with alarm. Philip’s accession to the throne meant an enormous expansion in French power. Thus, many in Europe favored Habsburg claims to the throne, as represented by the Archduke Charles, younger son of Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I. England, The Netherlands, Austria, Prussia, and several smaller countries formed a coalition against Louis XIV. This resulted in the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714), fought mainly in Germany, the Low Countries, Italy, and across Spain itself.

Loss of European Possessions

The war stripped Spain of its last European possessions. Under the settlement reached in the Peace of Utrecht, Spain lost Gibraltar, Milan, Naples, Sardinia, Sicily, Minorca, and the last of its territories in the Spanish Netherlands. However, Spain’s American empire passed intact to Philip, who became the first Bourbon ruler of Spain.

The Early Spanish Bourbons

Spain’s early Bourbon kings—Philip V (1700-1746), Ferdinand VI (1746-1759), and Charles III (1759-1788)—ruled more effectively than their Habsburg predecessors. Under Bourbon rule, government administration became more centralized and efficient and the economy gradually expanded. The Bourbon kings also defended the empire both in Europe and overseas. They successfully prevented further territorial losses and restored Spanish influence in southern Italy.

Administrative and Economic Reforms

Administrative reforms carried out by the early Bourbons made government more effective and reduced the privileges of the church and the nobility. Many of these reforms were modeled on the French system of government. Philip, schooled in the absolutism of Louis XIV, brought the regions of Catalonia and Aragón under central control. In medieval times these regions were independent states and they had retained a degree of autonomy.

The Bourbon rulers also lowered taxes, made efforts to balance the budget, and built roads and other public works. They removed obstacles to trade, reorganized commercial law, and gave financial incentives to industry and agriculture. In addition, Spain’s navy was rebuilt and expanded, local administration of the American colonies was reorganized, and Spain’s commercial ties with the colonies were improved. Partly as a result of these policies, the economy and population began to grow and the volume of Spanish-American trade greatly increased.

International Relations

In foreign affairs, the early Bourbons regained some of Spain’s former greatness. The Bourbon kings were generally allied with France and hostile to Great Britain, Spain’s chief naval and colonial rival. Spain joined France against Austria in the War of the Polish Succession (1733-1735) and the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748). In 1762 Charles III—convinced that Britain was the major threat to Spain’s American empire—entered an alliance with France against Britain in the Seven Years’ War. When Britain won, Spain lost Florida. However, in a secret treaty France transferred the vast Louisiana Purchase in North America to Spain as compensation for its support in the war. Spain and France allied again in 1779 to support the American Revolution against Great Britain, and in the 1783 Treaty of Paris Spain recovered Florida. The Spanish presence now extended over much of the North American continent.

The Enlightenment

An abiding faith in the power of human reason and a deep respect for humanity lay at the center of the 18th-century intellectual movement known as the Age of Enlightenment. Spain was an active participant in the Enlightenment, but the movement’s ideas were applied selectively. The Enlightenment’s emphasis on the value of scientific learning, rational economic organization, and free markets was well received. However, many religiously devout Spaniards resisted anticlerical sentiments expressed in Enlightenment thought. In addition, few Spaniards were concerned about Enlightenment political principles—a belief in elections, parliamentary government, and popular sovereignty—before the 19th century, when these liberal ideas began to take hold in Spain.

During the 18th century the Spanish crown promoted educational reforms and scientific inquiry. Spain’s government sponsored scientific expeditions and constructed new museums and schools. Scientific and medical societies were founded, including the Royal Observatory and the Royal Botanical Garden. At the same time, modern ideas about urban planning became widespread, and Spanish cities began to acquire the boulevards common elsewhere in Europe.

Spain’s contributions to Enlightenment-era art were significant. In opera the renowned Neapolitan castrato singer Farinelli achieved his greatest success in Madrid. The Italian harpsichordist and composer Domenico Scarlatti spent much of his life at the Spanish court, and Spain produced such noted classical composers as Antoni Soler, Carlos Baguer, and Juan Crisostomo de Arriaga. The first Bourbon kings favored French and Italian court painters, but after 1750 Spanish painting came into its own. The Academy of Fine Arts, founded in 1752, was unique in its time for admitting women artists. Spanish painter Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes was a dominant influence in this era. A court painter to Charles III and Charles IV, Goya produced remarkable images of Spanish society, historical figures, and the inhumanity of war.

Effects of the French Revolution

A weak ruler, prey to intrigues and corruption, Charles IV was dominated by his chief adviser, Manuel de Godoy. The reign of Charles (1788-1808) coincided with the turbulent French Revolution (1789-1799). The revolution caused extraordinary upheavals throughout Europe and had particularly adverse effects in Spain.

Many European monarchies watched in horror as the French Revolution unfolded, especially after the fall of the Bastille in Paris in 1789. Fearful that revolutionary ideas might spread to the peninsula, Spain’s Bourbon monarchy introduced repressive policies, revived the Inquisition, and ended plans for new domestic reforms. After revolutionary forces executed French Bourbon king Louis XVI in 1793, Spain joined Britain and other European powers in a war against France. The following year France invaded Spain and ravaged its northern provinces, occupying Bilbao and San Sebastián. After initial Spanish resistance, Godoy admitted defeat.

In 1796, as revolutionary fervor in France abated, Godoy reversed course and formed an alliance with France against Britain. The British navy proved superior to the French and Spanish fleets, however. For the next decade, British blockades largely cut off Spain from its American colonies. The economic consequences for Spain were disastrous, as Spanish colonial trade shifted to Britain and the United States and Spain’s finances deteriorated. Worse still, it soon became clear with the rise to power of Napoleon Bonaparte in France that Spain was a junior partner in the alliance. In 1800 Napoleon forced Spain to return the Louisiana Purchase to France. By 1805, after a joint Spanish-French fleet was destroyed by the British at the Battle of Trafalgar, Spain had been reduced to little more than a French puppet. Two years later, with Godoy’s consent, French troops marched across Spain in a bid to conquer Portugal. On their way, French forces occupied army garrisons in north and central Spain.

Resentment among the Spanish people grew, and they turned against Godoy and Charles. Godoy was deposed and Charles was forced to abdicate in favor of his son, Ferdinand VII. Napoleon, who had already decided to assume direct control of Spain, used the unrest as an opportunity to invade Spain. Napoleon ousted both Ferdinand and Charles and placed his brother, Joseph Bonaparte, on the Spanish throne.

War of Independence

Many Spaniards refused to recognize Joseph as king and angrily opposed the French occupation. On May 2, 1808, a popular uprising drove Joseph from Madrid. In the violent Peninsular War that followed, Spain, aided by British troops, fought a war of independence from France. By 1810 French forces had defeated the major Spanish armies and occupied most of the country. But Spanish irregular fighters who employed guerrilla tactics—surprise attacks and rapid retreats—continually harassed the French forces. Their efforts prevented the French from routing British forces sent to protect Portugal or from completely conquering Spain. Over time the French forces weakened, and British troops under Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, pushed into Spain from the west. In 1813, after a series of bloody engagements, France was forced to evacuate the peninsula. See also Napoleonic Wars.

Constitutional Reform

During the war, Spanish resistance leaders attempted to establish a liberal government in Spain. From 1810 to 1813 they convened a Spanish Cortes (national assembly) in Cádiz. The assembly proclaimed a constitution for Spain in 1812. Advanced for its time, the Cádiz constitution gave Spain a limited monarchy and a single-chamber parliament, curbed the power of the nobility and the Catholic Church, suppressed the Spanish Inquisition, and expanded protection of individual rights. Suffrage was tied to property ownership, giving business interests a strong voice in the new parliament. The constitution was a victory for liberalism in Spain. Thereafter, much of Spain’s history involved struggles to make the constitution’s ideals effective.

Loss of American Colonies

As Spain struggled to gain its freedom from France, revolutionary movements took hold in many of Spain’s American colonies. The Spanish colonists had initially opposed French conquest in Spain. However, they soon were demanding independence themselves, inspired by the revolt of American colonists in the American Revolution, as well as by the ongoing rebellion in Spain. Apart from their desire for political independence, the colonists wished to break free of Spain’s imperial monopoly on American trade and to exchange goods freely with all nations. By 1826 only Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippine Islands, Guam, and several colonial settlements in northern Africa remained under Spanish rule; the mainland colonies in the Americas had all gained their freedom, and their resources were lost to Spain.

The Troubled Monarchy

The Reign of Ferdinand VII

After Napoleon’s defeat in the Peninsular War, Ferdinand VII returned to Spain in 1814 and was recognized as king. In an effort to restore the absolute monarchy, Ferdinand promptly repealed the Cádiz constitution. A harsh and vindictive ruler, Ferdinand sought to repress all liberal elements in Spain.

In 1820 Ferdinand ordered Spanish troops sent to Latin America to reclaim Spain’s former colonies. The troops, however, refused to go. The mutiny quickly spread into a national revolt, the Revolution of 1820. The revolution brought a liberal regime to power that forced Ferdinand to restore the Cádiz constitution. But the liberals were unable to rule effectively, and Spain remained politically divided. France, alarmed by the attack on the monarchy in Spain, intervened in 1823. French troops toppled the Spanish government and restored Ferdinand to absolute power. Leaders of the liberal government were arrested or driven into exile, and Ferdinand’s despotic, antiliberal rule lasted another decade.

The First Carlist War

In 1831 Ferdinand named his infant daughter, Isabella, to succeed him. Ferdinand’s brother, Don Carlos de Borbón, disputed Isabella’s claim to the crown, arguing that a female’s succession was forbidden by the Salic Law. Ferdinand responded by completing the repeal of the Salic Law in Spain, a process initiated by his father, Charles IV. After Ferdinand died in 1833, Isabella was declared queen, with her mother, Maria Christina, as regent. A group of religious traditionalists and political reactionaries, called Carlists, insisted that Don Carlos should inherit the throne. Isabella’s succession was backed by the liberals, known as Christinos, who took their name from Isabella’s mother. The dynastic split soon erupted in a civil war between the Carlists and Christinos.

Carlist support came largely from the rural areas of northern Spain, especially the Basque regions and Catalonia, where the clergy’s influence was strong. Strongly Roman Catholic, the Carlist movement was also fiercely protective of traditional laws, known as fueros, which had long governed many aspects of life in the northern provinces. Spain’s more developed regions opposed the Carlists, as did Britain, France, and Portugal, all of which supported the Christinos. To preserve the liberals’ backing, Maria Christina granted a royal charter in 1834 that took the form of a constitution and granted a modest degree of political reform. The civil war thus pitted supporters of a constitutional monarchy against advocates of absolutist rule, represented by Don Carlos. After a long struggle, the Carlists were defeated in 1839. Don Carlos went into exile and Carlist forces were allowed to become part of Spain’s regular army. Despite this defeat, Carlist sentiment remained a potent political force in the Basque provinces.

Internal conflicts weakened the liberals, and their victory over the Carlists came slowly. Moderate liberals upheld the privileges of the crown and favored a narrow franchise based on wealth or education. Progressive liberals, like the moderates, supported a constitutional monarchy, but they wanted to expand the franchise and promote greater political participation. To the left of the progressives were the radical democrats, who demanded the establishment of a Spanish republic (a representative form of government based on the concept of popular sovereignty).

In 1836 a series of popular uprisings in southern Spain forced Maria Christina to reinstate the Cádiz constitution of 1812. One year later liberals accepted a moderate compromise, the constitution of 1837. In 1840 a progressive revolt led by General Baldomero Espartero ousted Maria Christina, who fled to France, and the Cortes made Espartero regent. But Espartero’s merciless suppression of political opponents triggered an uprising that drove him from power in 1843. Isabella, now 13 years old, was declared legally of age following Espartero’s overthrow, and she assumed the crown as Isabella II.

Dissension and Crisis

Isabella II

Continued struggle between liberal factions marked the turbulent rule of Isabella II (1833-1868). The moderates, favored by the court, came largely from society’s wealthier ranks, while progressives were drawn mainly from the middle classes. Moderates governed for much of Isabella’s reign, which witnessed frequent rebellions, military risings, and cabinet changes. Isabella’s absolutist tendencies and incompetent leadership eventually alienated all major political factions.

Revolution of 1868

A popular uprising led by the military finally deposed Isabella in the Revolution of 1868. A provisional government headed by General Juan Prim assumed power after Isabella’s expulsion.

After the revolution, liberals who had conspired with the military helped set up government committees, called juntas, in most major towns. Military leaders, however, were determined to restore the constitutional monarchy and to prevent moves toward republican democracy. With the juntas largely in control of local government, Prim’s provisional government was forced to concede some democratic demands. These demands culminated in the constitution of 1869, which provided for a limited monarchy, universal male suffrage, and freedom of the press and association.

The new constitution failed to quell political unrest, however, and the provisional government vigorously crushed demands for additional reforms. Prim, convinced that the constitutional monarchy would restore political stability, order, and respect for traditional values, began searching across Europe for an acceptable monarch for Spain.

Growing Instability

In 1870 Prim recruited Amadeo of Savoy, a duke from Italy, who accepted the Spanish throne and was crowned Amadeus I. However, Prim was assassinated on the day that Amadeus arrived in Madrid, and the revolutionary coalition quickly collapsed. The new king proved unable to form a stable government as opposition to the constitutional monarchy intensified on the right and the left. The Carlists opposed the reign of Amadeus, and their reactionary insurrection reemerged in northern Spain. At the same time, a movement agitating for republican government gained ground. Events overseas compounded Spain’s problems. In 1868 Cuba revolted against Spanish rule, leading to a long and costly struggle (see Ten Years’ War). Amadeus abdicated in 1873, beset by political and social conflict, popular hostility against him, and the strain of the Cuban and Carlist insurrections.

The Republican Interlude

After Amadeus resigned the Spanish Cortecratic regime based on parliamentary control of government. Supporters of the republic wes proclaimed the First Spanish Republic—a short-lived demore deeply divided among themselves, however, and political anarchy ensued. The constitution of the First Republic called for a federal republic in which power was decentralized to the provinces. When the government rejected demands for an immediate declaration of federalism, radicals in Málaga, Alcoy, Cartagena, Seville, and Barcelona, asserted self-government under left-wing leadership. At the same time, Carlists opposed the regime and intensified their insurrection. Political stability eluded the government, which had four presidents in its eight-month existence. By late 1874 a group of Spanish generals had become convinced that only a restoration of the Bourbon monarchy could put an end to domestic strife. On Christmas Eve the army proclaimed Isabella’s oldest living son, Alfonso XII, king of Spain, and the First Republic collapsed.

Restoration of the Monarchy

The new regime was determined not to repeat the errors of recent failed governments. Under Alfonso XII, the Spanish Cortes drafted a constitution in 1876 that established a system of limited parliamentary government and laid the basis for greater political stability. The constitution introduced a two-house legislature and a cabinet, and it restricted the powers of the crown. In addition, the constitution provided for a two-party system designed to represent the interests of the propertied middle and upper classes. Suffrage was confined to male property owners and taxpayers, and the two major parties—the Conservatives and Liberals—shared the same basic goals and assumptions. A contrived system of rotation, called the turno pacífico (peaceful turnaround), allowed the parties to alternate in office at regular intervals. To produce the desired rotation, elections were supervised by the incoming government and in much of the country were rigged by political bosses. The result was a closed political system controlled mainly by a rural oligarchy of conservative property owners that resisted broader political participation or social reform.

In 1885 Alfonso XII died without an heir, but his wife, Queen Maria Christina, bore him a posthumous son. The son came of age in 1902 and took the throne as Alfonso XIII. Until then, Maria Christina acted as regent.

Under the turno pacífico system, Spain enjoyed greater prosperity than it had known since the 18th century. The government defeated the Carlist insurrection in 1876, and the Ten Years’ War with Cuba came to an end in 1878. High tariffs protected Spanish agriculture from foreign competition, and the Basque iron, steel, and manufacturing industries boomed. Madrid and Barcelona grew rapidly and installed electrical systems, telephones, electric trams, and other modern conveniences. It was also an era of cultural flowering. Barcelona became a vibrant example of avant-garde architecture, the impressionist painter Joaquín Sorolla achieved world renown, and Spanish flamenco dancing became popular across Europe. In literature, Spain produced one of its greatest authors, novelist and playwright Benito Pérez Galdós.

Spain faced several difficult problems during the late 19th century. Stable rule and economic progress led to the emergence of new political forces that could not be contained by the existing political system. Industrialists and merchants in the Basque regions and Catalonia benefited from economic development, but they were largely excluded from political power; many gave their support to regional autonomy movements. A radicalized labor movement also began to develop, and political dissent emerged among the middle classes. In 1890 universal male suffrage was restored. Elections became more honest and representative in urban areas, but the rural oligarchy still dominated the government. Then, in 1898, Spain lost most of its remaining overseas colonial possessions in the devastating Spanish-American War.

Spanish-American War

In 1895 another revolt began in Cuba, following Spain’s failure to carry out reforms promised at the conclusion of the Ten Years’ War. The United States sided with Cuba and in 1898 declared war on Spain after the battleship USS Maine mysteriously exploded and sank in Havana Harbor. In the fighting that ensued, Spain’s naval fleet was destroyed. Badly defeated, Spain withdrew from Cuba and ceded Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippine Islands to the United States.

The war marked the end of the Spanish Empire in the Americas and shattered Spain’s lingering claims to great-power status. The humiliation caused by the war led many young Spanish intellectuals to ponder their country’s predicament. Known as the generation of 1898, these intellectuals included important writers and critics such as Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo, Pío Baroja y Nessi, Jacinto Benavente y Martínez, and Antonio Machado y Ruíz (see Spanish Literature). They began a searching criticism of Spanish institutions and initiated the Spanish cultural renaissance of the early 20th century.

Domestic Upheaval

After the defeat of 1898, Spain’s parliamentary monarchy lost stability amid growing dissidence throughout Spanish society. Political groups increasingly resorted to violence. Republican movements pressing for greater democracy reemerged and demanded constitutional reforms. Support for anarchism took root among farm laborers in Andalucía and industrial workers in Barcelona. A small, though durable, socialist movement appeared in factories and mines in the Basque provinces and Asturias, and regionalist sentiments in Catalonia grew into demands for autonomy. King Alfonso XIII, favorably disposed to the military and authoritarian rule, intervened more frequently to try to achieve stability. As a result, he was accused of meddling and personal ambition, and the monarchy lost prestige.

Conflict also arose within the major political parties. Reforms initiated by Conservative prime minister Antonio Maura, who took office in 1907, attempted to resolve some of the sources of popular dissent. He legalized strikes, reformed the judiciary, and attempted to regulate rural rents and make elections fairer. However, Maura’s harsh repression of anarchists alienated the left and drew strong criticism from the Liberal Party, which had become allied with republican parties. In 1909 Spanish troops were sent to Morocco to protect Spain’s possessions there. Maura attempted to reinforce the military expedition with workers conscripted from Barcelona, Spain’s most volatile city. This sparked bloody riots in Barcelona that deepened class antagonisms. A Liberal ministry under José Canalejas y Méndez replaced Maura, but its reform program was cut short when Canalejas was assassinated by an anarchist in 1912. Throughout the next decade, political and social strife increased, aggravated by World War I (1914-1918) and the economic dislocation that followed.

World War I

Despite many pressures to become involved, Spain remained neutral during World War I. The conflict brought significant economic benefits to Spain, as warring nations purchased large quantities of goods from Spanish factories, mines, and farms. Improvements in infrastructure and rapid industrialization in the early 20th century had enhanced Spain’s ability to profit on the wartime trade. Much wealth had returned to Spain from its former colonies after the defeat in 1898, and new investments in railroads, hydroelectricity, and heavy industries greatly increased Spain’s industrial production.

The war, however, made it difficult for Spain to import goods, and inflation soon became rampant. At the same time, labor unrest increased as workers demanded better wages and working conditions. In Catalonia, regionalists agitated for home rule. Throughout Spain, republican parties gathered force to demand reforms.

By 1917 labor unrest, strikes, and uprisings dominated Spanish life. Amid these troubles, a Conservative government led by Eduardo Dato triggered a new crisis when it attempted to reform the budget and reduce the officer corps. In the summer of 1917 the officer corps, upset over changes in pay and promotion, rebelled. They organized military juntas to press their demands on the state and refused to obey orders. The government backed down and withdrew the reforms. The military crisis was followed by labor protests in Barcelona and other cities that degenerated into urban terrorism by the anarcho-syndicalists (groups who opposed all forms of government and advocated the control of all social and economic institutions by trade unions). The army put down the protests with ferocity. The antagonism between conservatives and the military on one side and left-wing social and political forces on the other grew deeper and more entrenched.

The end of World War I brought Spain severe economic distress. Wages fell and unemployment spread as Spain lost its wartime customers. Violent strikes became common, and the government declared martial law. A struggle for independence in the Spanish sector of Morocco—a protectorate since the 1880s—aggravated the economic crisis. Ruinously expensive, the Moroccan war became especially unpopular when Spanish forces were badly defeated at the Battle of Anoual in 1921. In the next two years a succession of Spanish governments collapsed and domestic violence escalated, especially in Barcelona.

Primo de Rivera’s Dictatorship

In September 1923 General Miguel Primo de Rivera, Barcelona’s military governor, led a coup d’état that gave vent to widespread disillusionment with the parliamentary regime. Rather than resisting, King Alfonso XIII endorsed the coup and made Primo de Rivera head of the government. The Cortes was dissolved, and a military directorate took charge. There were few arrests and little police or army brutality, but political parties were banned. Socialist trade unions continued to operate, however, and Primo de Rivera insisted that his dictatorship was only a temporary measure. One of his most popular achievements was the conclusion of the costly conflict in Morocco in 1926.

In 1925 the military directorate was abolished, and Primo de Rivera appointed a civilian government, which he led as prime minister. The new government focused on economic development and launched a broad program of public works. Major investments were made in roads and railroads, schools and universities, and new irrigation works. Opposition to Primo de Rivera’s administration grew in the late 1920s amid student protests, regionalist discontent in Catalonia, and disaffection within the army. Primo de Rivera became increasingly unpopular with the onset of the worldwide depression in 1929. In 1930 Alfonso, with backing from the military, dismissed Primo de Rivera.

Primo de Rivera’s dictatorship severely weakened support for the crown. Even moderates and conservatives no longer enthusiastically supported the monarchy because Alfonso had betrayed them by accepting authoritarian rule. The socialist, anarcho-syndicalist, and Catalan regionalist movements began to cooperate with the republicans, as did numerous former monarchists and army officers.

Alfonso hoped to bring about a return to constitutional government without threatening the monarchy. After a difficult year under a temporary government headed by General Dámaso Berenguer, Alfonso agreed to call municipal elections in April 1931. The elections gave overwhelming majorities to republican candidates in most of Spain’s provincial capitals. Support for the monarchy collapsed, and Alfonso—who refused to abdicate the crown—went into exile. The second Spanish republic was proclaimed at once, and a provisional government established under President Niceto Alcalá Zamora quickly arranged parliamentary elections. In December 1931 the Cortes approved a new constitution that was modern, democratic, and rigorously secular.

Republican Spain and the Dictatorship of Francisco Franco

The Second Spanish Republic

The Second Republic came to power with remarkable ease, ushered in by a great wave of popular enthusiasm. However, it soon became clear that supporters of the republic had little in common. Some supporters expected the government to be conservative; others pressed for radical change. Political participation grew divisive and increasingly polarized.

Progressive Reforms

The republic initiated many far-reaching reforms during its first two years. A coalition of republican parties and socialists, headed by Prime Minister Manuel Azaña, gave the republic a progressive tone. Elections became more democratic, and women gained the right to vote. Autonomy was granted to Catalonia and the Basque provinces. The republic tried to improve the condition of workers, make taxes more equitable, and divide the large estates in southern Spain for redistribution to peasants. In addition, the republic secularized education and legalized divorce.

Growing Divisions

The government’s ambitious reforms alienated many groups that had at first accepted the Second Republic. At the same time, the deepening worldwide depression in the 1930s reduced demand for Spanish exports and increased poverty and social tensions. The program to break up the large estates alienated landowners, but also lost the support of the peasantry because it moved too slowly. Opposition to the government increased among Roman Catholics who resented republican efforts to reduce the church’s authority. Azaña’s coalition began to crumble in 1933 after the government tried to close private Catholic schools.

In national elections in 1933 rightist and center-right parties won a majority and forced the republican-socialist coalition from power. The newly formed, conservative Spanish Confederation of Autonomous Rights (Confederación Española de Derechas Autónomous, CEDA), led by Catholic politician José María Gil Robles, became the largest party. CEDA entered the government, and the new leadership began to overturn the religious and social reforms of the previous government. Leftist groups bitterly resisted these changes. At the same time, political forces on the far right called for the overthrow of the Second Republic. These forces included monarchists and a new party called the Falange (“phalanx”), founded by José Antonio Primo de Rivera, son of the former dictator. The Falange promoted fascist political ideas and supported a form of nationalist totalitarianism in Spain like that in Fascist Italy under Benito Mussolini and Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler.

Tensions exploded in October 1934 when a socialist-led workers’ insurrection swept Asturias, and Catalonia proclaimed its independence. Spanish troops crushed the Asturian revolt after two weeks of savage fighting, and the separatist rising in Catalonia was suppressed. The government rounded up and imprisoned thousands of leftists across Spain. This repression encouraged many groups on the left to begin building alliances, and the socialists under leader Francisco Largo Caballero began using revolutionary rhetoric. The governing coalition, plagued by scandals, collapsed in late 1935, and President Alcalá Zamora called new national elections.

The Popular Front

The elections in February 1936 pitted a rightist bloc of conservatives against a new Popular Front coalition that included the entire left. Less moderate than the previous leftist coalition, the Popular Front included radical republicans, socialists, the small Spanish Communist Party, and other groups. The Popular Front scored a narrow victory and took control of the Cortes. The new government revived the progressive reform program and granted amnesty to hundreds of political prisoners.

The Popular Front’s reforms and radical rhetoric alarmed conservatives, many of whom feared a communist-inspired, leftist revolution. A conspiracy to overthrow the government soon took shape under General Emilio Mola and other prominent military leaders. Tension mounted as street battles between rival groups, assassinations, and widespread strikes paralyzed the nation. Peasants in the south began seizing the land and dividing some of the large estates. By mid-1936, amid escalating factional strife, many conspirators were ready to take action. The assassination on July 13 of monarchist leader José Calvo Sotelo provided convenient justification for the military rebellion.

Civil War

On July 17, 1936, Spanish military forces stationed in Morocco mutinied and proclaimed a revolution against Spain’s elected government. The uprising marked the beginning of the Spanish Civil War. Many troops based in Spain joined the insurrection. The rebels, or Nationalists, soon found a strong leader in General Francisco Franco. They were backed by conservative forces that included the Catholic Church, landowning peasants, the Falange, and Carlist monarchists. Supporters of the government, known as Republicans, included most workers, liberals, socialists, communists, and Basque and Catalan separatists. Juan Negrin, a moderate socialist, led the Republican cause for most of the war.

The Nationalists hoped to seize power quickly; they had not foreseen a long, bloody conflict. At first the Nationalist forces made great advances. The uprising succeeded in the provincial capitals of rural León and Old Castile, including Burgos, Salamanca, and Ávila. Nationalist control rapidly extended across most of western and southern Spain. However, Republicans soon defeated the insurgents in Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, and several other eastern and northern cities. A prolonged civil war ensued. Nationalist power was strongest in rural Spain; Republicans held most major industrial and urban areas. As the war continued, Nationalist control of agricultural areas led to severe food shortages in many Republican strongholds.

Both Nationalists and Republicans received help from abroad. Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany sent troops, arms, and airplanes to aid the Nationalists. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) furnished military equipment and advisers to the Republicans. The Republicans also received aid from the International Brigades, made up of idealistic volunteers from Europe and the Americas. France, the United Kingdom, and the United States remained neutral, despite concerns that Franco would establish a new military dictatorship in Spain. Western democracies distrusted the Spanish government, which had backed leftist reforms and came to power in a coalition that included communists. The participation of the brigades, who were organized by communists, seemed to offer further evidence that Spain’s government was slipping toward Communism.

The Nationalist forces were more unified and better equipped and trained than their Republican adversaries. They also benefited from larger amounts of foreign assistance and an international blockade against Spain that was enforced mainly against the Republican side. Franco quickly secured military and political leadership of the Nationalists. In September 1936 he was named generalísimo (commander in chief) of the Nationalist troops and el caudillo (the leader) of Nationalist Spain. In April 1937 he merged the Falange, monarchists, and other Nationalist groups into a single party under his control, the Falange Española Tradicionalista y de las JONS, or FET/JONS. The Republican ranks were more divided, hindered by internal conflicts and ideological rivalries. Moderates wanted Republican forces to focus on defeating the Nationalists and to postpone reform until after the war. Other groups, including anarchists, left-wing socialists, and revolutionary Marxists, wanted immediate revolution. In some areas revolutionaries asserted public ownership over private property and turned farms and factories into communes. This created economic chaos and led to armed conflicts between revolutionary and antirevolutionary Republicans. Meanwhile, the Spanish Communist Party’s influence over Republican strategy rapidly expanded because of its organizational skills and its control of Soviet-supplied arms.

After failing to seize Madrid, Franco’s forces launched a campaign in 1937 to conquer the Basque provinces, Asturias, and other industrial regions of northern Spain. During this campaign the first large-scale aerial bombing of civilians took place, including the infamous German raid that destroyed the Basque town of Guernica. As the war continued, a series of Nationalist offensives gradually brought the industrialized regions of eastern Spain under rebel control. In March 1939 Nationalist troops finally took Madrid after a long resistance. When Franco’s troops entered the starving city, the remaining Republican forces were too divided and exhausted to continue fighting. Madrid fell on March 28, and Franco proclaimed the Nationalists’ triumph on April 1.

The civil war devastated Spain. An estimated 500,000 people died in the fighting and much of the country’s infrastructure was destroyed. Between 250,000 and 500,000 political refugees left the country. Spain’s short-lived experiment with democracy was replaced by an authoritarian regime under Franco, who would rule Spain as dictator for the next 36 years.

The Franco Dictatorship

Spain’s savage civil war was followed by an unusually vindictive peace. Franco made no attempt at national reconciliation. Fervently anti-communist, Franco characterized Republicans as anti-Spanish “Reds,” a term that included anyone associated with the Second Republic. The Franco government tracked people suspected of Republican sympathies and persecuted them for decades. In the first four years after the war, the government imprisoned hundreds of thousands of people and executed many thousands of others.

The dictatorship’s main sources of political support included the army, the Catholic Church, and the Falange, which became known as the National Movement after 1945. The National Movement was the nation’s only legal political organization, and Roman Catholicism became the official state religion. The army provided the dictatorship with security, while the Catholic Church and the National Movement gave Franco’s rule a measure of legitimacy. The Cortes under Franco was reduced to an advisory body with little independent power. Most seats in the Cortes were filled by appointment or indirect election, and many members held positions in Franco’s administration.

Once in power, Franco revoked most of the Republican-backed legislation that favored workers and peasants. Strikes were forbidden, and the state required workers and business owners to join syndicates controlled by the government. Franco endorsed rigid laws against abortion and divorce, and he turned control of education over to the Catholic Church. Committed to the ideal of a culturally uniform Spain, Franco suppressed regionalist movements in Catalonia, the Basque provinces, and Galicia. Press censorship and government surveillance of potential political leaders restricted dissent across Spain.

World War II

Spain adopted a policy of neutrality during World War II (1939-1945). Franco clearly favored the Axis Powers, especially Germany and Italy, which had supported the Nationalists during the civil war, and he openly sympathized with fascist ideas. However, Spanish industries were inefficient and the transportation system was largely in ruins, making mobilization for war difficult. Initially, Franco pledged to join the Axis war effort in exchange for raw materials, railroad equipment, and weapons. However, in 1940 German dictator Adolf Hitler rejected Franco’s conditions for Spanish participation as too costly. Thus Spain spent most of the war as a pro-Axis neutral; Franco permitted German ships and submarines to use Spanish ports and sold raw materials to Germany. Franco also sent a division of troops to help Germans fighting in the Soviet Union.

A cautious, pragmatic ruler, Franco shifted policy as the Allied Powers began winning the war. By 1943 Franco had loosened ties with Germany and moved toward greater neutrality. He also diminished the political role of the Falange. Imprisonments dropped sharply, and executions gradually tapered off. During the last phase of the war, Spain sold valuable raw materials to the Allies. By that time, however, the Franco regime was identified with the Axis, and Spain was considered a hostile power by the victors of World War II.

Political and Economic Isolation

Spain emerged from the war politically and economically isolated. In the immediate postwar period, many countries cut off diplomatic relations with Spain. The United Nations (UN) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) excluded Spain from membership. Franco, however, made continued overtures to the West. In an effort to allay international criticism of his rule, Franco declared Spain a monarchy in 1947 and announced that a king would assume the throne after his death, incapacity, or retirement.

Domestically, Franco’s economic policies further isolated Spain and led to a disastrous period of economic stagnation. During the 1940s and much of the 1950s, Franco’s government pursued a policy of autarky (economic self-sufficiency without foreign trade or investment). Franco believed that Spain could achieve economic recovery and growth through rigorous state regulation of the economy. However, Franco’s government made few investments to rebuild the nation’s shattered infrastructure, and his policies effectively deprived Spain of foreign investment. Agricultural output and industrial production languished, wages plummeted, and the black market flourished. Raw materials and food were rationed until the 1950s. Malnutrition and poor medical care afflicted an entire generation of Spaniards.

The Reemergence of Spain

In the late 1940s Western powers began to reevaluate their relations with the Franco regime. The Cold War pitting communist against non-communist nations was underway, and some governments viewed Franco as a potential anti-communist ally. After the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950, the United States began to recognize the strategic importance of the Iberian Peninsula and resumed diplomatic relations with the Spanish government. Spain soon received loans from U.S. banks. Under an agreement concluded in 1953, the United States gave the Franco regime substantial economic aid in exchange for access to several Spanish military and naval bases. The UN admitted Spain as a member in 1955. Open hostility toward Spain ended, and most nations resumed diplomatic relations with the Spanish government.

By the early 1950s Spain’s poor economic performance forced adjustments to Franco’s policy of isolationism. Franco reorganized the government in 1951, lifted many of the government’s economic controls, and increased public investment. Economic aid from the United States supported these policies, and by 1952 agricultural and industrial production had returned to pre-civil-war levels.

Throughout the 1950s Franco sought to preserve his dictatorial rule, and he continued to suppress political dissent. However, Franco’s efforts failed to contain the expanding political opposition. By the mid-1950s, student agitation, sporadic labor strikes, and the emergence of a reform wing within the Catholic Church increasingly challenged Franco’s authoritarian hold on power. At the same time, Franco’s refusal to seriously open the Spanish economy to foreign trade and investment contributed to an escalating economic crisis. Rampant inflation, falling real wages, and growing debt all seemed to underline the failure of the government’s economic policies.

These political and economic crises forced Franco to accept a major cabinet reorganization in 1957 that increased labor and business representation in government. Power over economic policy fell largely to members of Opus Dei, a socially conservative Roman Catholic lay organization that promoted economic reforms as a means of improving society. The new Opus Dei ministers were competent economic planners and in 1959 they developed a stabilization plan that provided a framework for economic growth. The plan devalued Spain’s currency, opened the country to foreign investors, and obtained more loans from the United States. It also encouraged tourism and permitted Spanish workers to seek employment in other European countries. A period of spectacular economic expansion ensued.

The Economic Miracle

Spain’s opening to the world unleashed unprecedented social and economic change. During the 1960s, industrial production boomed, and gross domestic product (GDP) rose by 40 percent. Foreign currency poured into Spain as the tourism industry rapidly expanded and Spanish workers abroad sent money to relatives back home. Impoverished agricultural workers left the fields for better-paying jobs in the cities. At the same time, mechanization of agriculture increased output and reduced costs of production. A growing labor shortage pushed wages upward, and the middle class grew larger and wealthier. Labor agitation also increased. Workers, dissatisfied with the government-controlled labor syndicates, organized unofficial trade unions to press for better pay, benefits, and working conditions.

Greater worker prosperity brought rapid social change. A massive migration from the countryside to cities accelerated Spain’s transition from a rural to an urban society. A large housing program sponsored by the government eased the social costs of this transition. Secondary and university education expanded, and illiteracy fell dramatically. These changes also drew Spain closer to the rest of Western Europe; Spaniards became more secularized and sophisticated as their exposure to new ideas and ways of life increased.

The great changes underway in Spain created a society at odds with the aging Franco dictatorship. Many workers had lived and worked in European democracies and were impatient with Franco’s repressive labor policies. Confronted by a growing number of strikes and demonstrations, the government moved erratically between compromise and arbitrary crackdowns. Moreover, the Catholic Church, a fundamental source of support for the government, had begun moving away from the regime. By the mid-1960s a new generation of Spanish bishops, encouraged by the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, grew increasingly sympathetic to popular demands for progressive social policies and more political freedoms.

Despite continued repression by the dictatorship, a small amount of political liberalization accompanied the great economic expansion in the 1960s. In 1965 a new law recognized the right of workers to strike for purely economic—not political—reasons, although walkouts remained illegal. The Franco regime relaxed press censorship, to some extent, in 1966. Another reform made the Cortes slightly more representative and increased its powers. In 1969 Franco reaffirmed Spain’s formal status as a monarchy by naming Juan Carlos de Borbón, grandson of Alfonso XIII, to be his successor as head of state.

The gradual liberalization of Spain was also evident abroad. Spain granted the West African colony of Spanish Guinea its independence as Equatorial Guinea in 1968; seven years later Spain ceded Spanish Sahara to Morocco and Mauritania. Still, with Franco in power many European governments remained unfriendly toward Spain. The smaller democratic countries of northwestern Europe remained strongly opposed to the Spanish government’s membership in West European military and economic alliances. Spain’s first application for membership in the European Economic Community (EEC) was refused in 1964, although a limited associate relationship was arranged.

Last Years of Franco’s Regime

Spain’s growing prosperity and moves toward greater liberalization did not end social and political unrest. Many strikes occurred in Spain during the late 1960s and the early 1970s. Students protested against overcrowded facilities and government control. Catalan and Basque regionalists again became politically active.

By far the most important regionalist conflict arose in the Basque provinces. An extremist wing of Basque nationalism found expression in the separatist group Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA; Basque for “Basque Homeland and Liberty”). In the 1960s the ETA launched terrorist attacks against police and army units. The government responded with indiscriminate repression, including arbitrary beatings and arrests of suspected Basque nationalists. A vicious cycle of violence and counterviolence gripped the Basque provinces from 1969 to 1975. In 1970 several ETA leaders were sentenced to death in military trials held in the city of Burgos. Nations around the world protested the trials. The Spanish government eventually backed down and commuted the ETA death sentences.

As Franco aged his control over public affairs diminished. In 1973 Franco created the post of prime minister and separated executive functions from his role as head of state. He yielded the new post to Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco, a longtime friend and supporter. Shortly after taking power Carrero Blanco was assassinated in a spectacular explosion engineered by the ETA. Carlos Arias Navarro, a moderate Francoist, succeeded Carrero Blanco.

Carrero Blanco’s death was a severe blow to the regime. Instead of reverting to massive repression, however, Arias announced further liberalization measures. These included plans to permit the formation of political associations, which had been forbidden since 1939. Arias’s initiatives sparked a revolt by hard-line Francoists, who sought a return to a strong dictatorship. For a brief period it seemed that they might succeed. Conservatives sabotaged Arias’s attempted reforms and passed a law requiring the death penalty for terrorists who killed police. In September 1975 five Basque nationalists were executed, despite international protests and a plea for clemency from the pope. The possibility of further moves to the right diminished, however, when Franco died in November 1975. Arias continued as prime minister, and Prince Juan Carlos de Borbón, whom Franco had designated as his successor in 1969, became head of state as King Juan Carlos I.

The Restoration of Democracy

Franco’s death aroused fresh hopes for a democratic Spain. The new king favored full democratization, but many powerful interests opposed change. The modest reforms proposed by Arias under the dictatorship were soon seen as inadequate by much of the population, including workers who demanded legalization of independent labor unions. Hard-line Francoists viewed the measures as too extreme. The deadlock was broken in July 1976 when Arias resigned at the request of the king. Juan Carlos appointed Adolfo Suárez González as the new prime minister.

A former minister under Franco, Suárez became chief architect of Spain’s successful transition to democracy. Suárez convinced the Cortes to pass the Political Reform Law, which the country overwhelmingly approved by referendum in December 1976. The referendum established universal suffrage and called for a bicameral legislature consisting of a popularly elected lower house and an upper house composed of both elected and appointed members. In February 1977 opposition political parties deemed to be democratic were legalized. Despite strong objections from the military, Suárez even legalized the Spanish Communist Party in April to ensure that the coming elections would be regarded as legitimate. In the same month the National Movement—the official state party under Franco—ceased to exist. As part of the reform process, the unrepresentative Francoist Cortes literally voted itself out of existence, a remarkable end to a long and often painful dictatorship.

Parliamentary Democracy

In June 1977 Spain held its first democratic elections to parliament since 1936. The elections reaffirmed Suárez’s centrist policies. His newly formed coalition, the Union of the Democratic Center (UDC), emerged as the strongest party, and claimed nearly half the seats in the lower house of parliament. The Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party finished a close second. Few seats went to extremist parties, either of the left or right. Suárez governed through consensus, consulting all mainstream parties when formulating national policies.

The 1978 Constitution

The government’s first order of business was to draft a new democratic constitution for Spain. In 1978 the parliament approved a constitution, which easily won the endorsement of voters in a national referendum. The constitution established a constitutional monarchy in Spain with the king serving as head of state and symbol of national unity. It created an independent judiciary and placed significant restrictions on two of Spain’s most historically important institutions: the military and the Catholic Church. Constitutional provisions affirmed civilian control over the military and denied Catholicism the status of a state religion.

One of the most striking features of the constitution was its recognition of limited autonomy for Spain’s historical regions. Catalonia, the Basque Country, and Galicia were quickly granted home rule and their languages were officially recognized. Provisions were made for the extension of limited autonomy to more than a dozen other regions across the country. Thus, the new constitution effectively reversed the movement toward political centralization begun by Ferdinand and Isabella in the 15th century, and Spain began to redefine itself as a nation of autonomous communities. Despite formal constitutional guarantees of limited self-government, however, regionalist demands for greater autonomy from the central government have remained a difficult problem for Spain.

Turbulent Transition

Spain’s young parliamentary democracy faced several challenges. The nation’s economic growth had slowed by the mid-1970s, and inflation and unemployment became increasingly severe throughout the decade. In addition, the limited autonomy extended to the Basque Country failed to satisfy Basque separatists, who resented being tied to Spain; terrorist activity by the ETA intensified. At the same time, democratization produced unrest among right-wing extremists. After the national elections in 1979, which returned Suárez and his centrist coalition to power, rightist segments within the UDC reasserted themselves. Suárez’s style of consensus politics broke down as the UDC coalition dissolved into factions. Suárez resigned in January 1981 and was succeeded by another UDC leader, Leopoldo Calvo Sotelo.

Conservative military officers opposed to rapid political and social change seized the occasion of a change in prime ministers to attempt a coup d’état. On February 23, 1981, armed civil guards led by Lieutenant-Colonel Antonio Tejero invaded the Cortes in an effort to seize power. King Juan Carlos played a key role in blocking the coup by convincing most Spanish military units to remain loyal to the government. Calvo Sotelo resumed leadership of the government. In 1982 Calvo Sotelo secured Spain’s membership in NATO.

Shortly before the 1982 national elections another plot by right-wing extremists to stage a military coup was discovered. Four military leaders were arrested and three were later imprisoned. News of the plot helped swing the elections to the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, led by Felipe González Márquez. The elections gave Spain its first socialist government since the 1930s. The UCD was so badly defeated it went out of existence almost immediately. The Democratic Coalition, an alliance of conservative parties under the leadership of Manuel Fraga, took the place of the UCD and became the official opposition.

The Socialist Era

González and the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party governed Spain from 1982 to 1996. The socialists retained control of the parliament in elections held in 1986, 1989, and 1993. However, the party’s parliamentary majorities steadily diminished to the point where, after 1993, it was forced to rule in a minority government.

Once in power it soon became clear that González’s conception of socialism differed from that of his party’s left-wing constituents, many of whom supported extensive nationalization of the economy. González unveiled a pro-market economic development plan that included privatization of state-owned industries and spending cuts to social welfare programs. Efforts to deregulate the economy under González continued into the 1990s. The socialist government eliminated the monopolistic rights of many state-owned companies, relaxed labor laws, and loosened restrictions on establishing new companies.

For much of the 1980s Spain experienced a major economic revival. Despite the booming economy, however, significant social issues remained unresolved. By the late 1980s high inflation and chronic unemployment had produced growing dissatisfaction among Spanish workers. Even during the booming 1980s Spain was afflicted with major strikes, some of them violent. The strikes included the participation of teachers, civil servants, miners, farmers, transportation and health-care workers, factory employees, and shipyard workers. A one-day general strike in 1988, the first since 1934, paralyzed the nation and won the support of 8 million workers. González offered several concessions to end the strike, including raising pensions and increasing unemployment insurance.

Spain played an increasingly dynamic role in European affairs during the 1980s and 1990s. In 1986 Spain joined the European Community (now the European Union, or EU) as a full member. In the same year Spanish voters approved a referendum to keep their country in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The referendum required Spain to remain outside of NATO’s military command structure, prohibited the basing of nuclear weapons in Spain, and reduced the number of United States troops in the country. In 1992 the Summer Olympic Games were held in Barcelona, a world’s fair commemorating the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s first voyage to the Americas was held in Seville, and Spain ratified the Maastricht Treaty on European Union.

By the early 1990s popular support for González and his party had declined. Dissatisfaction with Socialist rule came from a variety of sources, including a series of political and corruption scandals that had tainted the government. Confidence in the socialist government’s economic leadership fell in the early 1990s when a worldwide recession gripped Spain and the economy sharply contracted. The downturn worsened in 1993, as economic output plummeted and unemployment exceeded 20 percent.

Ethnic regionalism remained an important source of social tension for the national government. Persistent terrorism by the Basque separatist group ETA was blamed for hundreds of deaths between the late 1960s and mid-1990s. The socialist government committed itself to strong antiterrorist measures and arrested many ETA members. However, ETA cells continued to explode bombs in public places and carry out high-profile kidnappings. In 1988 the government was embarrassed by allegations of official support for an illegal militia that had carried out assassinations of ETA members in northern Spain and southern France in the 1980s. By the mid-1990s a growing peace movement helped sway public opinion against the ETA’s violent tactics, and the separatists lost political support.

The socialists, tarnished by scandals, high unemployment, and growing internal divisions over the party’s centrist policies, failed to gain an absolute majority in the 1993 elections. González began his fourth term as prime minister with a minority government. To gain backing for government policies, González was forced to seek support from the small Catalan and Basque parties. The Catalan Convergence and Union Party (CiU), the larger of the regionalist parties, used its new leverage to further Catalonia’s bid for greater autonomy. In 1995, amid renewed accusations of government complicity in the killing of Basque separatists, the CiU withdrew its support from the embattled socialist government and forced new elections.

Recent Developments

In the March 1996 national elections the center-right Popular Party, led by José María Aznar, defeated the socialists. The Popular Party failed to gain an outright majority, however, and was forced to form a coalition government with the Catalan nationalist CiU. In return for the CiU’s support, Aznar conceded additional powers to Spain’s regional governments. In November 1996 Spain agreed to full integration in NATO.

A chief priority for Aznar’s government was to reduce Spain’s budget deficit to qualify the nation for the adoption of a common European currency in 1999. Austerity measures introduced by the government, including cuts in public investment and a freeze in public-sector pay, aroused widespread opposition. Strikes and protests by civil servants, truck drivers, and miners caused serious economic disruptions. Despite popular hostility, however, the measures succeeded in helping Spain meet the EU’s criteria for participation in the single currency.

Aznar’s government pursued a variety of free-market policies, and by the late 1990s Spain’s economy had emerged as one of the strongest in Europe. Aznar cautiously moved ahead with privatization of state-owned industries and introduced labor law reforms to give businesses greater flexibility over employment. Unemployment gradually declined, interest rates fell, and business investment expanded. The Popular Party won a decisive victory in the March 2000 elections and was able to establish a government without coalition partners. Aznar campaigned on the issue of Spain’s impressive economic growth during his tenure, and he pledged to continue his government’s economic policies.

Terrorist Attacks and the Defeat of the Popular Party

In March 2004 the worst terrorist attack in Spain’s history killed 192 people and injured more than 1,500, as ten bombs detonated on four commuter trains in Madrid during the morning rush hour on March 11. The Aznar government almost immediately blamed ETA, the Basque separatist group, and initially refused to consider any other terrorist groups.

Evidence, however, soon pointed to Muslim terrorists linked to al-Qaeda, the group responsible for the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States. Two days after the bombings, Spanish authorities arrested five men who were linked to a cell phone used as a detonator in a bomb that failed to explode. One of the men was associated with an al-Qaeda leader who had been arrested for his role in the September 11 attacks.

The Aznar government’s handling of the attack led to the defeat of the Popular Party in parliamentary elections held on March 14. Spanish voters, who had demonstrated in the millions in several major cities the day following the attack, apparently believed the government was too quick to blame the ETA for political reasons. The Popular Party had won popular support for its crackdown on the ETA, but it had also drawn Spain into conflict with Islamic extremists by supporting the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.

When it became apparent that the terrorist attack was probably the work of al-Qaeda, Spanish voters reportedly blamed the Popular Party for making Spain the focus of Muslim extremists, who vowed political retaliation for the Aznar government’s support of the administration of U.S. president George W. Bush. Spain’s alliance with the United States during the Iraq war was opposed by millions of Spaniards, who held mass demonstrations to protest Spain’s involvement. Some polls showed that as many as 90 percent of Spaniards were against the war. See also Terrorism; U.S.-Iraq War.

The parliamentary elections, which were held just four days after the terrorist attacks, resulted in victory for the Socialist Workers’ Party, which opposed Spain’s participation in the U.S. occupation of Iraq. The Socialist upset was in part due to an unusually high voter turnout, with many otherwise disaffected voters in their 20s and 30s deciding to go to the polls in the final days of the election campaign. Socialist leader José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, who became Spain’s prime minister, had called for the withdrawal of Spain’s 1,300 troops from Iraq and for closer ties with the rest of Europe, especially France and Germany, both of which had opposed the U.S.-led invasion. The Socialist Workers’ Party won 43 percent of the vote and 164 seats in the Chamber of Deputies. The Popular Party’s vote total fell to 38 percent and 148 seats. The Socialists formed a coalition government with smaller parties to have a majority of 183 seats in the 350-member Congress of Deputies.

Within a day of being sworn in, Zapatero followed through on his campaign promise and began the process of withdrawing Spain’s troops from Iraq. In his view the developing political situation in Iraq was not likely to lead to the United Nations (UN) involvement necessary to justify Spain’s continued participation. In April 2004 a Spanish judge concluded there was no doubt that al-Qaeda was behind the Madrid bombings.

In July 2005 the lower house of the Spanish parliament approved legislation legalizing same-sex marriages in the country. The lower house was able to overrule the upper house, which had rejected the controversial bill. The new law gave married same-sex couples the same rights as married heterosexual couples, including the right to adopt children. The new legislation was one of a series of reforms being introduced by Spain’s Socialist government. Although Spain is an overwhelmingly Catholic country, polls showed that between 55 percent and 65 percent of Spaniards support same-sex marriage.

In March 2006 the ETA announced a permanent cease-fire in their decades-long campaign of terrorism. The group pledged to work within the political process to achieve its goal of Basque independence. Spanish government officials were cautiously optimistic about the cease-fire, the first permanent declaration in the ETA’s history. However, the ETA ended its cease-fire in June 2007 and said it would resume its violent struggle. In response Zapatero vowed to crack down on the group.

In June 2006 voters in Catalonia approved a referendum backing a new self-government charter for the region. The charter had earlier been approved by the national parliament. The referendum approval made the new autonomy measure binding and final, and it went into effect on July 1. Under the new charter, Catalonia obtains more control over collecting tax revenues, setting immigration policy, making judicial appointments, and maintaining its infrastructure, such as its highways and train services. The charter requires residents to learn the Catalan language, and it acknowledges that Catalonia considers itself a nation.

In the 2008 parliamentary elections, held amid a downturn in the country’s economy, Spanish voters returned the Socialists to power. The Socialist Workers’ Party won 169 seats in the Chamber of Deputies, giving Zapatero a second term in office as head of a coalition government.

© The Globe Encyclopedia. All rights reserved. Distributed by ASThemesWorld