It is interesting to note that some of the oldest known Homo remains in Europe were found in Spain. It is also believed that Spain was the last refuge of the Neanderthals and one of the few places that were inhabited and populated during the ice ages.
Ancient Spain and the Roman Period
The first inhabitants of the Iberian Peninsula that we know in detail were Iberians, Celts (linguistically and culturally related to the Gallic, British and Central European Celts) and Basques. Since most of these groups had little or no written records, we only know about them from descriptions by the Greek, Punic and later Roman settlers and conquerors who colonised southern Spain from the 3rd century BC. Roman culture lasted on the peninsula for about half a millennium when the Visigoths conquered the Roman province of Hispania at the time of the migration of the peoples.
It is interesting to note that most people in the region still speak Latin or rather Latin-derived languages/dialects and that only a handful of Germanic words enter the Spanish language (“ganso” is the most common). Soon after their conquest, the Visigoths formed a series of rival “kingdoms” and small noble states that were in almost constant conflict, in unstable and shifting alliances with or against each other, resulting in constant wars.
The Muslim Conquest and “al-Andalus”.
In 711, a Visigothic leader is said to have called on the Umayyad Muslims to help him in his fight against one rival or another”. (Historical documents from this period in Spain are rather scanty and there are no contemporary Muslim sources, for example.) ) This proved more fruitful than he could have imagined, and by the end of the 8th century most of the peninsula was in Muslim hands. While the eight hundred years of Christian and Muslim rule in the Iberian Peninsula were by no means peaceful, the modern account of a reasonably concerted effort to “reclaim” the “lost lands” for Christianity was never the first, second or any priority for the majority of Christian leaders. In fact, Christian leaders have often allied with Muslim leaders against other Christian leaders and vice versa. While the situation of Muslims in Christian countries and vice versa and that of Jews in both countries depended largely on the mood of the leader and could range from benign ignorance to murder and expulsion, the religious minorities in Spain at that time were far better off than in most other European countries. In fact, the Sephardic Jews (whose name comes from the Hebrew word for Spain) were not only one of the most important groups in Spain at that time in terms of science and education, but also a dominant group within the Jewish people worldwide. It was estimated at the time that 90% of Jews were Sephardic. (In contrast, in the 19th century, about 90 per cent of Jews were Ashkenazi [German and Eastern European, mainly Yiddish-speaking]. However, this period ended when, through conquest and marriage, the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon and some smaller Christian countries were reunited and their rulers began a war of conquest against the Muslim rulers. During the reconquest of Spain, many large mosques and synagogues were desecrated and converted into Christian churches.
Some of Spain’s most glorious historical sites date from the time of Muslim rule, including the Mezquita, built as the Great Mosque of Córdoba, and the Medina Azahara, also in Córdoba and now in ruins but still visible as such and built as Madinat al-Zahra, the Palace of al-Andalus; and the Alhambra in Granada, a magnificent intact palace. There are also two synagogues built during Muslim Spain: Santa María la Blanca in Toledo and the Synagogue of Cordoba in the old city.
The Reconquest and the Imperial Period
This so-called “Reconquista” ended in 1492 with the fall of Granada, and all Jews were forced to leave Spain or convert in that year; by 1526, all Spanish Muslims had suffered the same fate. The year 1492 also marked the moment when Spain began to become the most powerful empire in the world, with territories in North, Central and South America, Africa and the Philippines (named after the Spanish King Felipe). The “new Christians”, as they were called, were often not sincere in their (forced) conversions, and to ensure religious “purity” the famous Spanish Inquisition was introduced. Genetic studies carried out in modern times suggest that a large percentage of modern Spaniards have at least partial Jewish and/or Muslim ancestry, which may surprise some, since the concept of “true Christian” (instead of “converso”) quickly took on hereditary connotations with the expulsion of all descendants of forced converts from Islam in 1609.
Under the House of Habsburg, Spain personally united with the Austrian Empire and reached its peak in Europe in the 16th and early 17th centuries, controlling much of the Benelux countries and Italy. Spain was weakened when the House of Habsburg lost the Thirty Years’ War in 1648.
The colonisation of Central and South America and Mexico was particularly profound, with millions of indigenous people dying through disease, warfare and outright murder as the Spanish sought to enrich themselves in these ‘undiscovered’ lands. Today, many countries in this region are dominated by the Hispanic language and culture (Spanish is now the second most spoken native language in the world after Mandarin and before English, and Catholicism dominates in all former Spanish colonies). In the 19th century, independence movements fought against the Kingdom of Spain, with leaders such as Simón Bolívar and Augustín de Iturbide successfully establishing new independent nations throughout Latin America. In 1898, Spain lost most of its remaining territories in the Spanish-American War: It lost Cuba and then sold Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam to the United States. The war of 1898 was a great shock to Spanish culture and shook Spain’s self-image as a great power. It inspired an entire literary movement that became known as “Generation 98”.
The 20th century
Between 1936 and 1939, Spain experienced a devastating civil war that killed half a million Spaniards and ushered in more than 30 years of dictatorship under Generalissimo Franco. The civil war was triggered by a largely failed coup d’état in Spanish North Africa (now part of Morocco) against the left-wing Popular Front regime in Spain (a Popular Front was then a regime that included communist/socialist as well as liberal, Christian Democratic or even conservative parties and arose in France as an answer to fascism). Initially, the fascist side was led not by Franco but by a number of other generals; however, the other leaders soon died in plane crashes or were dismissed. Although the League of Nations (the forerunner of today’s United Nations) tried to make intervention impossible, Italy and Mussolini’s Nazi Germany studiously ignored this, helping the nationalist (Franco) side, while the Soviet Union and, to some extent, Mexico helped the republican (Popular Front) side. Another thing the Republican side tried to do to win the war was to call for volunteers in the so-called “international brigades” and some 20,000 British, Americans, French and even Germans actually joined the fight on their side. However, the Republican side suffered from a shortage of arms and ammunition (some of their guns were from the 19th century) as well as internal fighting between Communists and anarchists and Stalinist purges ordered by the super-paranoid “partisans” of Republican Spain in Moscow. As many members of this generation fought in the Spanish Civil War (including George Orwell, Ernest Hemingway and the later German Chancellor Willy Brandt), there is a well-written literature (and some films) that, although not always historically accurate, manages to perfectly capture the spirit of vain idealism that drove many interbrigadists to come to Spain.
After winning the war for Franco thanks to superior firepower and military support from the Nazis (e.g. the war crime of bombing Guernica), he managed to unite the far from homogeneous nationalist forces behind his uncharismatic leadership and remained in power during the Second World War (in which he remained neutral) until his death, with King Juan Carlos as his successor. The Spanish Civil War is still an open wound in some respects because it was almost never talked about under Franco’s regime, and to this day conservatives and Catholics (the Republicans were more anti-clerical) sometimes apologise to Franco and the “necessity” of the war. Franco’s legacy is that historically important regional identities and languages (such as Catalan and Basque) were brutally suppressed and strong national identity politics were promoted under the Spanish/Castilian regime. While violent groups such as ETA (see below) were active even during Franco’s time, there was virtually no organised opposition, violent or peaceful, during most of Franco’s rule. Moreover, Franco oversaw Spain’s rapid economic expansion with industrialisation in the 1960s. Spain also joined NATO (but not the EU or any of its predecessor organisations) while still under Franco’s rule. Spain’s disorderly divorce (to say the least) from its African colonies, which took place in the last days of Franco’s life, is also one of the reasons for the conflict in Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony.
The peaceful transition to democracy in 1978 lifted restrictions on regional identity and granted autonomy to several regions. The nature of the transition meant that there was little justice for those who had suffered under Franco’s dictatorship, and divisions still exist. Shortly after King Juan Carlos insisted – to the surprise of many – that the country become a parliamentary democracy with a Galleon king as nominal head of state, some right-wing generals of what is now the 23F attempted to overturn the democratic transition on 23 February 1981. The coup failed mainly because of the lack of popular support and because the king – in his capacity as commander-in-chief – appeared on television in full uniform and ordered the soldiers to return to their barracks, throwing democracy out the window.
The Basque Country in northern Spain, which began with violent resistance against Franco in 1959, continued its campaign of attacks and assassinations into the democratic era with the terrorist group ETA (Euskadi ta Askatasuna; Basque for Basque Country and Freedom), although the region gained a high degree of autonomy. The group declared a ceasefire in 2011 and the armed struggle seems to have ended for the time being. Even in the “democratic” 1980s (under the leadership of Prime Minister Felipe González [PSOE 1982-1996]), the Spanish government responded with methods now known to have included “death squads” to fight terrorism.
The uncertain times of the third millennium
The 2000s were marked by strong economic expansion and rising property prices, which then collapsed, leaving Spain with high unemployment and economic difficulties. As a member of US President G.W. Bush’s “coalition of the willing” in the “war on terror”, Spain was hit by a terrorist attack on two commuter trains in Madrid on 11 March 2004 (known in Spain as 11M), a few days before the general elections. The insistence of Prime Minister Aznar (People’s Party, conservative) that the perpetrators were Basque terrorists, with whom the social democratic opposition PSOE (Partido Socialista Obrero Español) wanted to negotiate, led to a landslide victory for José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero of the centre-left PSOE party. However, his government collapsed at the end of 2011 due to the economic crisis that hit Spain particularly hard. Currently, Spain is governed by a rather unpopular conservative caretaker government under Mariano Rajoy, who lost the elections at the end of 2015, leading to a hung parliament and a new round of elections, which in turn led to a hung parliament. The economically important region of Catalonia is also stepping up its demands for independence from Spain.
Spain is historically linked to its neighbours on the Iberian Peninsula, Andorra and Portugal, to its former colonies, to former citizens and their descendants, and to a special category of former citizens, namely the Sephardic Jews.
The Spanish population is growing mainly through immigration from relatively poor or politically unstable regions of Latin America, such as Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador, El Salvador or Peru, from other parts of Europe, especially Eastern Europe, and from Africa and Asia, especially from regions with historical or linguistic ties to Spain. There is also a large segment of immigration consisting mainly of retirees, business people and foreign tourists from wealthier European Union countries such as the United Kingdom, France, Germany, the Benelux countries and the Nordic countries who have settled along the Mediterranean coast, especially on the Costa Blanca (Alicante), the Costa del Sol (Malaga) and the Balearic Islands.
In the interior, there has always been a migration from poor rural areas (such as Andalusia) to the cities and to jobs in construction and tourism. As a result of the economic crisis in the 2000s and 2010, youth unemployment has reached unsustainable levels of around 50% and a number of young people have fled semi-permanently to other EU countries such as Germany to study, work or do internships, either until the situation in Spain improves or for good.