A brief history of Spain – Part 25, Deplorable condition at the end of the 19th century

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generacion 98

In just three months in 1898, the Spanish-American War unfolded. Herein, the top-heavy, bureaucratic Spanish navy was blown away by the Americans. “It was a splendid little war,” Roosevelt would later say. In the Treaty of Paris, Spain lost its last overseas territories, the Philippines and Cuba.

After the deaths of Canovas and Sagasta and the humiliating defeat of 1898, the country was in a dire state on all fronts. Spain lagged behind politically and economically compared to the rest of Europe. Moreover, the country had reached a low point in terms of morale and international prestige. Industrial development had remained limited, with a thriving textile industry in Barcelona being the main exception. Mining was developed in various parts of Spain, although it was largely in foreign hands due to a lack of financing and expertise.

Railway project

Under Isabella II, a railway network had been developed, following the trend in other parts of Europe. The idea behind the railway development was twofold: to stimulate the economy by improving infrastructure and to create demand for components such as rails. This would result in unprecedented enrichment for the economic elites.

However, the challenging Spanish geography and the lack of supporting industries, which necessitated the importation of many materials, limited the success of the railway project. Problems with financing, especially when a part of the Spanish political class grew tired of the financial manipulations involving the monarchy, led to the project being prematurely terminated.

Country of farmers and soldiers

Unlike other European countries in the 19th century, Spain remained a country of farmers and soldiers. As such, the trade balance was mostly negative. However, this was compensated for by foreign investments, the sale of significant amounts of gold and silver reserves, and remittances sent by emigrants to their families remaining in Spain.

In the 19th century, the liberals had made great efforts to promote general education. Particularly for the progressive liberals, literacy was of great importance in mobilising support. However, due to the weak economy, little was achieved despite the grand plans. The level and performance of Spanish universities also lagged behind those in other parts of Europe.

Growing dissatisfaction

Although the 19th century in Spain did not lead to significant breakthroughs in social, political, and economic fields as it did elsewhere in Europe, the last decades under Sagasta and Cánovas at least saw political stability. However, corruption and the disconnect between politics and the ordinary citizen had led to growing dissatisfaction. This reached a climax with the defeat in the Spanish-American War, known as “El Desastre,” and the Treaty of Paris in 1898.


An intellectual debate, known as Regenerationism, conducted mainly through newspapers, emerged to discuss the causes, decadence, ‘caciquismo’ (local political bossism), incompetence, and apathy, as well as possible solutions to the deplorable situation of the Spanish nation.

The so-called Generation of ’98 also gained prominence, referring to a group of writers who focused on why Spain had failed to develop into a modern state. They believed it was time to move away from dwelling on the glorious past and instead focus on the present and future, education, and social progress.

José Ortega y Gasset

One of the movement’s great figures, José Ortega y Gasset, stated, “There is much to see in Spain but little to eat.” Another quote by Ortega y Gasset that reflects the era well is, “Today’s Spain has little in common with a nation, but more with a dust cloud left behind after a great people has raced down the highway of history.”

Further fragmentation

After the deaths of Canovas in 1898 and Sagasta in 1903, liberalism was left without a leader. Although there were several contenders for succession, none of them possessed the caliber of their illustrious predecessors. The succession led to division and further fragmentation. At the beginning of the 20th century, the splintering within the conservative and liberal parties would continue unabated.

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