Earlier this month New Statesman reviewed a new book about Spanish history by British historian Henry Kamen. Entitled “Imagining Spain: Historical Myths and National Identity”. The reviewer Jason Webster is an Englishman resident in Valencia. His article makes some good points about the sensitive nature of Spanish history and the country’s “deep insecurities”. Unlike France or the US, says Webster, there is no revolutionary idea that holds Spain together. “More like Britain,” he says, “it is bound by less easily defined concepts such as custom, shared history, or even a state of mind - and then not always very clearly.”
Webster says it would be more accurate to view Spain “less as a country and more as a mini subcontinent.” Another writer of Spanish history Simon Barton also picks up this subcontinental idea in his 2004 book “A History of Spain”. In his thousand year sweep of Iberia’s past, he finds it is an old idea. Barton quotes the fifth century historian Orosius who observed that “by the disposition of the land, Hispania as a whole is a triangle, and surrounded as it is by the Tyrrhenian Sea, is almost an island.
A later English writer Laurie Lee described Spain as having “geographical convulsions”. By this he meant that the country’s striking contrasts of climate, altitude and vegetation have shaped the nation’s political, economic and cultural development as well as endowing the peninsula with a plethora of regional diversity. This is especially evident in the north-east where Catalonia (separated by the peaks of the Iberian mountain range) has closer relations with its neighbours across the Pyrenees and in the Mediterranean than it does with the rest of Spain. The isolation is even more pronounced in the Basque Country which has kept its strange non Indo-European language and culture intact for thousands of years.
The problems with Spanish history spread to when exactly Spain was born as a nation. Some historians claim it began with Roman Hispania or the Visigoth monarchy that replaced it in the sixth century. Others see the key moment as the dynastic union between Isabella and Ferdinand that brought together the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon in 1479. There is also support for the reign of their descendant Philip II who led Spain through its golden age of world power in the 16th century. And Aragon and Castile continued to lead separate lives as kingdoms until the reforms of Philip V after the War of Spanish Succession (when the crown passed from the Hapsburgs to the Bourbons) in 1714. There are some that say that even today Spain is not a true nation in the light of the strong regionalist feelings in Catalonia, Basque Country and Celtic Galicia.
The Muslim influence on Spain cannot be discounted either. Barton quotes an adage attributed to Napoleon: “Africa begins at the Pyrenees”. At its closest point Spain is divided from Morocco by the 15km wide Straights of Gibraltar. The rock itself gets its name from Jabal Tariq, the mountain of the Moorish governor of Tangier named Tariq Zayad who was the first Muslim to invade Spain in 711. Tariq’s invasion began a centuries long struggle for control of the peninsula between Muslims in the south and Christian kingdoms in the north. Although by the 11th century Moorish territory was confined to Andalusia, it wasn’t until the fall of Granada in 1492 that Muslim power was finally extinguished in Spain.
There then followed a remarkable phase of imperial expansion. In 50 years Spain went from being a backwater to the foremost world power. But then Spain lost pre-eminence almost as quickly. Its hegemony under Philip II was undermined by the loss of Portugal in 1640 and Spain suffered the indignity of invading armies in 1704 (the Spanish Succession) and 1808 (Napoleon). When Napoleon installed his brother Joseph on the Spanish throne after his invasion, Madrid rose unsuccessfully in revolution, events dramatically captured by the paintings of Goya For the next five years, Spanish irregulars tied down the French occupiers and their chief tactic would give the world a new word: guerrillas (from the Spanish ‘little war’).
Spanish decline continued through the 19th and early 20th century. Its Latin American colonies broke free in the 1820s and a disastrous war in 1898 with the US saw its fleets destroyed in the Philippines and Cuba. 60,000 soldiers died in the Cuban campaign. While the rest of Europe rushed to colonise, Spain’s days of empire were ended. Positions hardened in the country between those who believed Spain needed an ‘iron surgeon’ (a benevolent military dictator) to recapture its glory days and those who wanted workers’ rights in a new republic. Anarchists inspired by the Russian revolution fomented armed revolt against the centre. Industrialists hired gunmen to defend their interests. A seven-year right wing Falangist dictatorship led by Primo de Rivera in the 1920s sowed the seeds for the discord to come.
In 1931 Republican forces won a bitterly-disputed general election and the Bourbon King Alfonso XIII was forced to abdicate. While the forces of the left demanded social justice, the right feared a popular revolution. The anti-clerical tone of the new government did much to entrench opposition. The government introduced a new constitution to reduce the influence of the Catholic Church ending their control of education, legalising divorce and subjecting the Church to taxation. Government War Minister Manuel Azana declared “Spain is no longer Catholic”. But tensions within the leftist coalition government meant it could not agree on radical measures required to solve the nation’s economic ills as the worldwide depression started to bite. The interregnum from 1933 to 1935 was known as the “two black years” as neither right nor left could form effective government.
The leftists closed ranks again in 1936 to form government under Azana. The alarmed opposition conspired to overthrow the government and in July the Spanish Army in Morocco rose in rebellion under the command of General Francisco Franco. But a naval blockade kept them out of the mainland. Franco turned to an old friend for help: Adolf Hitler. Germany dispatched transport planes, arms and equipment to airlift Franco’s experienced forces into Spain. Mussolini also gave armed support to the Nationalists, rightly figuring that Britain and France would not take up arms in defence of the Republic.
British and French were more worried the trouble in Spain would spread to other parts of Europe and acted to ‘seal off’ the conflict. But their Non-Intervention Agreement was blatantly flouted by Germany, Italy and Portugal who provided massive military and logistical support for the rebels. This foreign support tilted the war in Franco’s favour. Only ferocious resistance from the workers’ collectives in Madrid and Barcelona and support from Russia dragged the war on another two years before the Republic was finally crushed. Franco was brutal in victory and enacted a Law of Political Responsibilities which saw 30,000 executions of enemies, half a million imprisoned and the repression of Catalan and Basque nationalism.
Despite pressure from Falangists in his right-wing coalition, Franco resisted the pressure to join World War II on the German side. As the war turned against the Nazis, Franco toned down his fascist rhetoric and Falangist symbols, but the Allied powers were not fooled. Spain was denied entry to the new UN and was condemned as a Fascist power. UN countries called for a democratic regime and all withdrew their ambassadors with four notable Catholic exceptions: Argentina, Ireland, the Vatican and Portugal. But as the Cold War took off, the West began to warm to Franco’s anti-communism. Spain joined the UN in 1950 and signed the Pacts of Madrid with the US three years later that saw three American bases established on the Spanish mainland.
As Franco descended into old age and illness, his regime began to crumble. By 1975 Spain was becoming a wealthy country again on back of low-wage industrialisation and a burgeoning tourist industry. Franco nominated Juan Carlos (grandson of Alfonso XIII) as his successor and he was crowned king two days after Franco died in November 1975. Since that time, Spain has made a remarkable transition to constitutional democracy. The country is now ranked ninth in the list of the world’s industrialised nations. But with the Basques and the Catalans still fighting for their autonomy, old tensions between the periphery and the centre remain.