A brief history of Spain – Part 27, Cultural revival (1898 – 1921)

Alfonso XIII (1902 - 1931)

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Alfonso XIII

In 1902, at the age of 16, Alfonso becomes of age and ascends the Spanish throne as Alfonso XIII. He is an energetic young man, athletic and an avid hunter. Upon his accession, Alfonso has little idea of what is happening in Spanish society; his only contacts outside the aristocratic world are with the military.

In 1906, Alfonso marries a grandchild of Queen Victoria, establishing a connection between Spain and England. On their wedding day, an anarchist attack takes place, resulting in 24 deaths, with the royal couple narrowly escaping death.

Weak head of state

Alfonso struggles with his role as a constitutional monarch. He constantly interferes in government policy, often to the annoyance of responsible statesmen. Many ministers, including prime ministers, have resigned due to dissatisfaction with Alfonso’s interference. Between 1902 and 1923, there were as many as 33 different governments.

Alfonso’s weak role as head of state, unlike his father, can be explained partly by the political instability following the relatively calm period under Canovas and Sagasta. Governments often disappeared once Alfonso had seen the ministers. Due to political divisions, he received conflicting advice, and in the early years, the queen mother was also involved in state affairs.

Fairest elections since 1876

In 1899, the regent queen appointed the conservative Silvela as Sagasta’s successor. Silvela called for elections, the fairest since 1876. These resulted in a majority for the conservatives. Like the liberals, the conservatives also split into smaller factions, often named after their leader or their political hobbyhorse. Additionally, there were the republicans, socialists, and anarchists. All of whom abstained from government responsibility. And of course, a handful of Carlists.

The divisions made the country difficult to govern. In 1903, Silvela resigned as Prime Minister and as a member of the conservative party, disillusioned. He had attempted reforms in various areas, including reducing the national debt, modernizing working conditions, and ensuring fairer elections. However, his initiatives led to so much debate that little progress was made.

Cultural revival

In the first quarter of the 20th century, despite the political and economic malaise, the greatest cultural revival since the 16th century took place in Spain. Pablo Picasso, born in Malaga, began exhibiting his work in Barcelona during these years. Other great Spanish painters from this period also gained worldwide fame. Gaudi, a Catalan architect, built a new cathedral in Barcelona, the Sagrada Familia, in an unprecedented style, Art Nouveau, a fusion of medieval mysticism and modern charm, menace, and exoticism. According to Salvador Dali, it was a gigantic erogenous zone. The Sagrada Familia is one of the most visited tourist attractions in the world.

Spanish literature produced several great writers during this period, including three Nobel Prize winners: José Echegaray, Juan Ramon Jimenez, and Jacinto Benavente. “Economically, you are dependent on politics, constrained, but in the arts, you are free and independent”.

Cogesa Expats


In the first two decades of the 20th century, there was increasing industrialization in Spain, particularly in Catalonia, the Basque Country, and Madrid, which also developed a strong banking sector. The growing activity in the cities led to large-scale migration from the poorer regions of Spain, resulting in both significant enrichment and considerable impoverishment of these cities. However, most Spaniards were still employed in the unproductive agricultural sector. Large landownership, climatic conditions, and the poor, arid land in many areas were to blame.

Poor farmers and soldiers

Thus, Spain remained a country of poor farmers and soldiers, as well as officers. Although the army had proven to be inefficient in 1898, its organization remained top-heavy, with nearly fifty percent of the state budget allocated to defense. Alfonso XIII, being fond of uniforms and military display, became a powerful patron to high-ranking officers.

Spanish Sahara

As a result of a conflict between Germany and France, Spain, along with France, gained supervision over Morocco (Algeciras Conference 1906). Spain obtained a narrow strip in the north, while France controlled the largest and most developed part of Morocco. In return, Spain was compensated with the immensely vast (and empty) ‘Spanish Sahara’. In 1909, a handful of Berbers killed a Spanish military column, leading to the decision to call up reservists to teach the Moors a lesson.

Resistance in major cities

However, this faced resistance from the population in major cities. Barcelona, with its relatively high number of anarchists and republicans, witnessed strikes, clashes with the police, and the setting up of barricades. Some of the anger was directed towards the church. Churches and convents were set ablaze, and nuns were raped and murdered. This became known as the Tragic Week. The events in Barcelona eventually compelled Alfonso XIII to dismiss the conservative Maura from his position as Prime Minister, in favor of a liberal, Moret, who was later succeeded in 1910 by the prominent liberal of that period, Canalejas.


Canalejas sought to implement social and economic reforms that would benefit workers and landless peasants. These included a minimum wage law, improvements in labour conditions, tax reforms favouring the poor, and the beginning of land redistribution for the landless peasants. Canalejas was a modern politician, a visionary, and a bridge-builder. He was the only politician of that period who had the prestige and qualities to truly transform Spain. In 1912, Canalejas was assassinated by an anarchist.

Political divisions resurfaced

After Canalejas, political divisions resurfaced, and the liberal government fell over the Catalan autonomy issue. The conservative Dato (who would also be assassinated later) was appointed with the task of calling for elections. He lost, marking the first time in Spanish history that a government failed to secure a majority in elections it had called. Elections had become increasingly fair after the “pacific turn” of Sagasta and Canovas. It became increasingly clear that the Spanish political system was unable to efficiently steer the divided and complicated Spanish society.

There were major divisions in the country, socially, culturally, regionally, and religiously. On average, a new government took office every six months. Th anarchists and socialists noticed a significant increase in the support, and social unrest was particularly prevalent in major cities. The military also experienced unrest once again.


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