A brief history of Spain – Part 26, Spain until the 20th century

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Spain in 19th century

In the nineteenth century, Spanish King Amadeo I once left the country with the message that the Spaniards were not fit to be ruled. Closer to the truth was that the political elite failed to establish a stable government. Polarization, violence, and dictatorship set the tone.

It was a century of coups and restorations, in which three parties, in particular, hindered each other: the monarchists, the Carlists who wanted a different branch of the Bourbon House on the throne, and the liberals who were inspired by the French Revolution. To further complicate matters, there was great rivalry between different regions, with central Castile opposed to Catalonia and the Basque Country.

A marginal, isolated nation

The incompetent Bourbons had turned Spain, except for a period of prosperity under Charles III, from a European great power into a marginal, isolated nation. While most Western countries already had constitutional monarchies with some form of parliamentary democracy, in Spain, the reformers never managed to prevail definitively. Part of the cause lay with the reformers themselves (division, lack of organization and power base), while another part lay within the societal structures and power dynamics of still largely feudal Spain.

Internal divisions

The Spanish Constitution of 1812 had failed due to internal divisions among its designers, the liberals. Furthermore, due to the resistance it encountered from powerful institutions such as the nobility and the Church. The people wanted more freedoms and rights, but not if those freedoms and rights would jeopardize their chances of “salvation,” as priests presented in their sermons. It was opium for the people.

Century of stagnation

The anachronistic policies of Ferdinand VII and Isabella II, in particular, paved the way for a century of stagnation in a power struggle where the reformers (liberals) achieved short-lived successes. Nevertheless, reactionary forces (nobility, Catholic Church, and other large landowners) remained dominant. The 19th century was characterized by political and economic stagnation, marked by various wars, popular uprisings, a civil war, a military coup, and peasant revolts.

Piece of Paris

Politically, the country was torn apart by a struggle between liberal and conservative forces. Spain lost its global empire, fell behind other European countries, and marginalized itself into an isolated and introverted nation behind the Pyrenees. In 1898, it lost its last three American colonies (Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines) in the Peace of Paris after the Spanish-American War. This marked the actual end of the global empire after the dark 19th century for Spain. The sun was setting once again in Spain, leaving only some territories in North Africa.

Emergence of the modern state in other countries

In parts of Europe, Humanism and the Reformation from the early 16th century onwards put an end to the Catholic Church’s monopoly on spiritual experience. This led to a greater desire for freedom among the population and, in some countries, together with the development and increasing prosperity of a bourgeois social class, it resulted in the emergence of the modern state. The bourgeoisie demanded more political power and could do so based on the increased wealth they had acquired through trade, banking, and the liberal professions.

Cogesa Expats

In Spain, however, the Catholic Church managed to maintain its position of power and strong grip on society. The bourgeoisie, elsewhere in Europe the driving force behind reforms and revolutions, was an insignificant factor in Spain. After the elimination of the Jewish and Islamic middle classes, income was mainly determined by the enormous gold and silver yields from the New World. This relatively easily acquired wealth partly paralyzed impulses for economic innovation.

Dominant position of nobility and Church

Thus, Spain became a polarized country where a middle class was developing elsewhere in Europe. This polarization also explains an important division in European mentality: the Spaniards remained in mythical thinking, dependent on fate and higher power. The economy was mainly determined by wealth acquired from outside, rather than internal improvements. In Northern Europe, there was dynamism, while Spain became stagnant due to its relatively easily acquired wealth and the dominant position of the nobility and the Church.

Industrial revolution

The freer thinking in Western Europe and America in the 19th century led to a shift in interest from theology to pure science and technology. This gave rise to the industrial revolution, which led to mass production, growing prosperity, and new technological inventions. Increased prosperity and improved agricultural methods, in turn, resulted in better nutrition for a large part of the population and declining death rates.

Romantic image of a backward Spain

While Europe steadily modernized, once prosperous Spain could not keep up with the progress of nations. Political and economic stagnation meant that Spain retained typical medieval characteristics, which in the 19th century had great appeal to wealthy European tourists. Spain was seen as authentic, exotic, and romantic, with Africa beginning beyond the Pyrenees. Visiting Spain meant truly getting away from it all, but most were also relieved to return home after arduous journeys on the abominable Spanish roads, stays in poor inns, and the dangers of the bandits in Andalusia. Thus, the romantic image of an exotic, romantic, yet backward Spain emerged north of the Pyrenees.

Bourbon Juan Carlos II

The Habsburgs had already left once immensely rich Spain in a financially deplorable state. The corrupt Bourbons, who seemed to pay more attention to their libido than to the needs of the people, left the country impoverished and politically unstable. It is ironic that a Bourbon, Juan Carlos II, played a significant role in the establishment of a modern parliamentary democracy in Spain. Unfortunately, this Bourbon also fell victim to corruption and an uncontrollable libido (he is said to have shared a bed with over 5,000 women).

Spain’s journey until the twentieth century was marked by political turmoil, economic stagnation, and the loss of its global influence. The legacy of divisions, weak institutions, and entrenched power structures left Spain playing catch-up with the rest of Europe. However, Spain’s story continues, and in more recent times, it has made significant strides towards becoming a modern, democratic nation.

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