Currency unit













 Spanish Empire






Not a lot is known about the pre-Roman history of Spain. In the north west there were peoples related to the Gauls of France, speaking a Celtic language. In other parts the ancestors of the Basques lived. On the Mediterranean coast there were Greek and Carthaginian colonies. The language of the interior peoples is not known.

This whole area was conquered by the Romans who ruled it as the province of Hispania, and later divided it into a number of small provinces. As the western empire declined the area was invaded by German speaking tribes, including the Vandals (who gave their name to Andalusia) and the Visigoths (western goths) who formed the first Spanish kingdom. The language of the administration remained Latin, while the ordinary people spoke "popular Latin". The rulers probably gave up their Germanic language to adopt Latin and proto-Spanish, as the Franks and Norsemen did in Gaul. Their disunity allowed an easy conquest by the Arabs and Berbers from north Africa.

The modern history goes back to the reconquest of Spain from the Muslims who occupied it from 711 when Tariq crossed into Spain at Jebel al Tariq (Gibraltar) until finally defeated in 1492. Before the Muslims arrived it was a Roman province ruled by a German kingdom, the Visigoths. All except the northern coastal mountains came under Muslim control, ruled by Arabic speakers. The culture is a synthesis of Latin and Arabic forms and still shows some elements of continuity with North Africa, especially in music.

Arab Period (Usually called Moorish)
During the period of Arab rule a great civilization was built including the cities of Cordoba and Granada. From 756 until 1031 Cordoba was the site of an exiled Omayyad Emirate and then Caliphate, after the Abbasids overthrew the Omayyads in Damascus. The caliphate collapsed and was replaced by a series of small Muslim kingdoms - the Taifa - which made it possible for the Christian kingdoms of the north to expand into the Muslim area. The ordinary people in the Moorish area spoke modified Latin - early Spanish - as well as Arabic, the language of science, education and government. The three religions, Islam, Christianity and Judaism existed for the most part in a state of tolerance in the Muslim area. (Exceptions were during the occupation by some of the fanatic rulers from North Africa, the Almohades - similar to the Wahhabis of modern Saudi Arabia). But gradually the Muslim area was conquered by the Christian kingdoms of the north which tended to be peopled by fanatical Christians who denied the validity of Islam.

During the Muslim period Spain acted as a bridge between medieval Europe and the Muslim world. In Toledo there was a school of translation where Arabic scientific and philosophical texts were translated into Latin, to become the basis of much of modern western culture. The texts from Toledo were the basis of much of the teaching in the new universities of Europe. It is perhaps not an over-statement that this activity was the root of the later cultural growth of Europe. The later strengths of European science came out of the mathematical work of the Muslim, Jewish and Christian schools of Cordoba and Toledo, themselves derived from Central Asia and North Africa. The writings of the Greeks became known via translations from the Arabic translations, in some cases the only surviving version of such writers as Aristotle. Perhaps too Spain's greatest cultural period was during the 13th century rather than its imperial power of the 16th century.

A number of kingdoms emerged in the north which conquered or merged with each other. By 1479 there were three: Portugal, Castile and Aragon (Catalonia). A fourth kingdom, Navarre, was associated more with France (and was largely Basque). In that year the two kingdoms of Castile and Aragon were united when Fernando of Aragon became king of Castile, being already married to Queen Isabella of Castile. It does not seem inevitable that the peninsula should be made of two sovereign states as it is now. A union of Portugal and Castile, with a separate kingdom of Aragon (Catalonia) was possible, or three sovereign kingdoms. There are at least three Romance languages spoken and written in the area: Portuguese; Castilian; Catalan (related closely to Provencal in France), as well as Basque, probably the aboriginal language from before the migration of Indo-European speakers.

The northern Christian kingdoms tended to be hostile to non-Christians. Thus there were massacres and attempted forced conversions of Jews and any Muslims who remained in the territories reconquered. 1391 is notable for a massacre of large numbers of Jews. It was in the Muslim ruled areas that Jews were safest.

Modern Spain
In 1492, when the Muslims of Granada were finally conquered, Spain began to occupy an overseas empire in the Americas and Asia. (Columbus set out a few months after the fall of Granada.) The Jews were expelled. The Muslims were promised security within the new Spain "for ever". This turned out to be ten years. A reign of terror comparable to the Nazi period followed with the expulsion of all Muslims and Jews and the killing of former Muslims who had been converted, sometimes forcibly, to Christianity, similar to ethnic cleansing. In 1609 even those Muslims who had converted to Christianity (or pretended to) - the Moriscos - were expelled. With them went the economic skills that had made Spain wealthy. Some accounts suggest that a few Moriscos survived this event and only re-emerged after the fall of Franco. Some say that Columbus was secretly a Jew.

Propaganda then obliterated the memory of the Muslims who had created the Spanish culture. The Inquisition which was set up to investigate people suspected of secret adherence to Islam was the medieval equivalent of the KGB or Gestapo. Only in the late 20th century did toleration of non-Catholics occur again. The expelled and murdered peoples had been the economically useful people, especially of the southern provinces, and it was their absence which helped accelerate the economic decline of Spain. A further result may have been that the economic culture imposed on the Americas lacked the entrepreneurial abilities that the Muslims and Jews of Andalusia had supplied. Thus the whole Spanish empire had the form of an exploitative organization and plundered the world rather than adding to its wealth.

Throughout the 16th century Spain was the leading European power based on the gold derived from South America (but the gold caused inflation in Europe and ruined the economy of Spain). This may be compared with the effect of oil on modern economies - easy money saps enterprise. From the 17th century came decline. This followed its passing by marriage into the domains of the Habsburgs, whose emperor Charles the fifth (born in Gent in Flanders) ruled (1519-1556) the Spanish empire as well as the German and eastern European possessions - though these were split off again after his resignation and retirement. It was also marked by wars with England, mostly over colonial possessions and trade. England did not recognize the Pope's award (at the Treaty of Tordesillas) of the western half of the world to Spain. Out of these wars came the occupation by England of North America and the Caribbean.

In 1580 Spain and Portugal were united under the same monarchy after the Portuguese king died without a successor. This union lasted until 1640, but it was too late to create a united Iberia, and its main result was the loss of the Portuguese colonies to the northern Europeans, mainly the Dutch.

The decline continued as Spain became a matter of dispute between the then dominant France and the Habsburgs in the War of the Spanish Succession. France wanted a relative of the French king placed on the throne of Spain in 1700 (when the last Spanish Habsburg family died out), which threatened to give France control of all the Spanish territories, threatening the rising power of England throughout the world.

They lost the modern Netherlands in the 17th century when the Protestant Dutch rebelled (assisted by England) and successfully resisted their Spanish rulers. Spain continued to rule Belgium - as the Spanish Netherlands - until the Treaty of Utrecht in 1721 when they passed to Austria.

By the 19th century, after wars with France and the long Peninsular Campaign by which the Duke of Wellington defeated Napoleon, Spain had become a poor and barbarous fringe of Europe, failing to adopt new methods and suffering frequent civil wars. In the 1820s Spain lost control of the American colonies to the revolutionaries, partly because of the destruction of the Spanish fleet at Trafalgar, partly because impoverished Spain could not supply the colonies and was constantly in a state of either impending or actual civil war.

Only Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines remained, and they were lost to the United States in the war of 1898. In Africa, Spanish Morocco was established in 1912 and the colony of Rio de Oro occupied in 1884-6. Equatorial Guinea was retained from the time it had been a slave base, with the islands off west Africa.

1868-1874 First Republic.
A brief interlude in the civil wars of the decline followed by a reinstatement of the monarchy.

In the period up to the Civil War the government swayed between military dictatorship and occasional democracy. In 1923 General Prima de Rivera seized power in the name of the king and dissolved the parliament. His regime lasted until 1931. The king was then forced to leave and a Second Republic proclaimed. A quasi-federation was agreed with the Basques and the Catalans. However, there were great divisions between the cities, which tended to vote for the parties of the left, and the countryside, which voted for conservative and monarchist parties. As in most of the Hispanic world the officers of the army did not believe in democracy. Nor did the Church which lost its official privileges, dating back to the terror of the 16th century. The republic's governments were weak and short lived, oscillating between moderate right and left.

Civil War
The decline of Spain perhaps reached its lowest point in the Civil War (1936-39) when German and Italian fascists and Soviet communists rehearsed the second world war on Spanish soil. It began with an attempted military coup or pronunciamiento in 1936 and ended with the victory in 1939 of the Nationalist forces led by General Francesco Franco who made himself head of state (Caudillo). Foreign liberal, socialist and communist volunteers (the International Brigade) assisted the republican forces; Nazi Germans and fascist Italians were sent to assist Franco. He allied himself informally with Hitler during the second world war, sending Spanish troops to fight in Russia, but not allowing Germans into Spain itself (Hitler refused to offer him the whole of Morocco which he demanded as a price for full support). Hitler wanted him to attack Gibraltar, a British naval base and colony but Franco refused, probably because he doubted the Nazis would win the war. Thus at the end of the war Franco was not attacked by the victorious allies.

Spain was made up of strong regional cultures but only the Castilian language had official status. During the Franco period (1936 -1975) the regional languages: Catalan, Basque, Galician were forbidden to be used in public. Now they are encouraged for local purposes.

The Franco period was undemocratic with a regime similar to the Italy of Mussolini or the Argentina and Chile of the Generals. There were political prisoners, concentration camps, executions and torture (more at the beginning, fewer at the end). He escaped invasion by the allies in 1945 but was not welcomed as an ally until the height of the Cold War in 1959, when Eisenhower visited and gained American bases in exchange for money and a degree of recognition (like many American allies, his lack of democracy was overlooked).

King Juan Carlos has been head of state since 1974, when Franco fell ill. On the death of Franco in 1975 the king, his designated successor, brought about a return to democracy and a parliamentary regime with a constitutional monarchy, one of the most astonishing transitions in European history.

Free elections in 1977 produced a Center Right government and in 1982 a moderate Socialist Party government led by Felipe Gonzales. The deep divisions of the Civil War appear to have been forgotten despite the thousands of people who died in the fighting and in the executions which followed (estimated at up to 500,000).

However not all Basques have accepted the new federal Spain and some of them continue to support ETA, an organization similar to the IRA.

Following the restoration of democracy Spain joined NATO and the European Community (EU).


Castilian (Spanish)


Gallegan (Galician) continuous with Portuguese

Gerald Brenan - The Spanish Labyrinth

The Spanish Labyrinth: An Account of the Social and Political Background of the Spanish Civil War (Canto)
Die Geschichte Spaniens. Über die sozialen und politischen Hintergründe des Spanischen Bürgerkrieges. The Spanish Labyrinth







The twentieth century in Spain opened with a backward political system compared to the rest of Europe. The Empire was gone (except for some African territories) but Spain had not become a simple European power. The ultra-traditionalists were not extinct. Society was divided between a landowning aristocracy and a peasantry as poverty-stricken as any in Europe. From this arose the polarization of extreme political parties, including a strong anarchist movement in the south (Andalucia) and Socialist movements in the industrial regions of Catalonia and the Basque country countered by the very rightwing officer class and landowners. This was the seed of the Civil War.

A republic was proclaimed in 1931. It became polarized between the elected government and the powerful institutions who had supported the previous dictatorship - the Army, the Church and the Landowners.

During the Franco period Spain was ruled as a unitary state and all regional differences were suppressed. This meant in effect the domination by the Castilian speakers. Franco was less a fascist like Mussolini (a former socialist) or Hitler than an upholder of what he saw as "traditional" values - the power of the Church and the landowners. He was reacting against the chronic disunity of Spain which re-emerged during the period of the Republic. He tried to reimpose the power of the Catholic Church against atheism, Protestantism, Judaism, evoking a tradition of bigotry which went back to Ferdinand and Isabella who in 1502 expelled the Muslim subjects they had promised in a solemn treaty (1492) to protect "for ever". Franco met most resistance to his project from the Basques whose language he tried to suppress and from the Catalans. The Basque terrorist organization caused him trouble with its assassination attempts.

Franco regarded himself as Regent of the king (though he did not wish to serve the actual claimant to the crown (Alfonso) whom he suspected of sympathy with democracy). He did not allow any autonomous political parties but promoted a National Union which included the Falange, a party modeled on the Italian Fascists.

His economic policy in the earlier years (1940s and 1950s) was to promote autarky - the production of goods and services without international trade. As with all attempts of this kind the result was poverty and stagnation.

In the 1960s he allowed a change towards modernization which resulted in rapid growth of the economy and the opening up to tourism which made Spain the Florida of Europe for holidays.

Franco caused the present king, Juan Carlos, to be educated, as he thought, to continue the system he had instituted. On Franco's death the new king appointed a liberal Prime Minister who started reversing all Franco's policies as quickly as he could, legalizing all the suppressed political parties, including the communists and socialists. The Civil War did not resume and Spain evolved into a modern democratic state able to become a member of the European Community and NATO.

The character of Spain appeared to have changed. The main difference may have been the growth of a large middle class during the later Franco period thus preventing the polarization between aristocratic landowners and the workers and peasants who fought during the civil war.

The most striking constitutional change in the post-Franco Spain is Devolution. Each region now has its own parliament and the Basques and Catalans have governments almost as autonomous as they had during the 1931 Republic. However, the different regions do not all have the same amount of autonomy. The Basques have the most, closely followed by the Catalans.

The voting system is the Party List by which the voter has no choice of representative but must accept whatever the Party has chosen.

Some observers believe that if the European Union evolves into a political Federation, Catalonia and the Basque country may become sovereign states within it. However, it is not clear that the majority of Catalans and Basques want this. The ruling party has changed several times since the restoration of democracy. Although a conservative government supported the US and Britain in the invasion of Iraq and sent troops afterwards, the people voted against that government and the troops were withdrawn from Iraq soon after the election. (Did a terrorist outrage - a series of bombs on commuter trains in Madrid - affect the result of the election? The then conservative government at first blamed the explosions on the Basques, whereas in fact they were caused by supporters of the late Osama bin Laden. The attempted lie may have been more offensive than fear of the Osamists.) A socialist government was elected.

In the November 2011 general election it was replaced by the Popular Party, promising deep cuts to the national budget.

Interesting Reading

Hugh Thomas - Spanish Civil war

Joseph O'Callaghan - Reconquest and Crusade in Medieval Spain

Reconquest and Crusade in Medieval Spain (Middle Ages)
Gerald Brenan - South from Granada

South From Granada (Penguin Modern Classics)
Südlich von Granada
Paul Preston - The Spanish Holocaust

The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth-Century Spain

El holocausto español : odio y exterminio en la Guerra Civil y después

Guardian review Guardian review







Spain's 16th century wealth was based on Gold from South America and was therefore not soundly based. It was the equivalent of the modern oil producers in the Gulf. The gold allowed them to import whatever they wanted and domestic agriculture and production decayed. The money tended to be spent on the military rather than on civilian investment.

In any case the most productive members of Spanish society had been the Muslims and Jews who were expelled in the Pogroms after the whole country was united in 1492.

From the 17th century until the 1960s Spain's economy was much poorer than the rest of Europe. Since the 1960s Spain has grown fast and is catching up. But there is a 24% unemployment rate and Spain is (2010) one of the worst affected by the financial catastrophe of 2008 and following.

Spain was badly affected by the 2008 financial catastrophe. Unemployment rose and the building industry collapsed.







A bad record on animal rights: bull fighting, various animal sacrifices, hunting of small birds. Lax environmental controls on new roads and rail lines. Poor conservation of wet lands.

There are political moves in Catalonia to ban bullfighting.

Water problems as Sahara moves north (an EU-financed scheme to move water from north to south has been abandoned by the new socialist government, and desalination proposed instead). However, developers are still building Golf courses in southern Spain (Andalusia), despite the lack of water (golf courses are huge consumers of water).

Very low birthrate. High rate of immigration from north Africa (most of it illegal).






Human Rights

European norm, now.

In 2007 there are calls to investigate the massacres of the civil war. It seems the policy of "forgetting" (or amnesty) may have been abandoned.

Climate effects

Southern Spain already suffers from droughts. A northward move of the northern edge of the Sahara is likely to cause water problems similar to those in southern Australia.

Last revised 14/03/12


World Info

Return to the top

Since 5/04/11

eXTReMe Tracker