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Spain: Historical Setting
Country Study > Chapter 1 > Historical Setting


The national history of Spain dates back to the fifth century A.D., when the Visigoths established a Germanic successor state in the former Roman diocese of Hispania. Despite a period of internal political disunity during the Middle Ages, Spain nevertheless is one of the oldest nation-states in Europe. In the late fifteenth century, Spain acquired its current borders and was united under a personal union of crowns by Ferdinand of Aragon (Spanish, Aragon) and Isabella of Castile (Spanish, Castilla). For a period in the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries, Portugal was part of that Iberian federation.

In the sixteenth century, Spain was the foremost European power, and it was deeply involved in European affairs from that period to the eighteenth century. Spain's kings ruled provinces scattered across Europe. The Spanish Empire was global, and the influence of Spanish culture was so pervasive, especially in the Americas, that Spanish is still the native tongue of more than 200 million people outside Spain.

Recurrent political instability, military intervention in politics, frequent breakdowns of civil order, and periods of repressive government have characterized modern Spanish history. In the nineteenth century, Spain had a constitutional framework for parliamentary government, not unlike those of Britain and France, but it was unable to develop institutions capable of surviving the social, economic, and ideological stresses of Spanish society.

The Spanish Civil War (1936-39), which claimed more than 500,000 lives, recapitulated on a larger scale and more brutally conflicts that had erupted periodically for generations. These conflicts, which centered around social and political roles of the Roman Catholic Church, class differences, and struggles for regional autonomy on the part of Basque and Catalan nationalists, were repressed but were not eliminated under the authoritarian rule of Nationalist leader Generalissimo Francisco Franco y Bahamonde (in power, 1939-75). In the closing years of the Franco regime, these conflicts flared, however, as militant demands for reform increased and mounting terrorist violence threatened the country's stability.

When Prince Juan Carlos de Borbon became king of Spain following Franco's death in November 1975, there was little indication that he would be the instrument for the democratization of Spain. Nevertheless, within three years he and his prime minister, Aldolfo Suarez Gonzalez (in office 1976-81), had accomplished the historically unprecedented feat of transforming a dictatorial regime into a pluralistic, parliamentary democracy through nonviolent means. This accomplishment made it possible to begin the process of healing Spain's historical schisms.

The success of this peaceful transition to democracy can be attributed to the young king's commitment to democratic institutions and to his prime minister's ability to maneuver within the existing political establishment in order to bring about the necessary reforms. The failure of a coup attempt in February 1981 and the peaceful transfer of power from one party to another in October 1982 revealed the extent to which democratic principles had taken root in Spanish society.

West European governments refused to cooperate with an authoritarian regime in the immediate aftermath of World War II, and, in effect, they ostracized the country from the region's political, economic, and defense organizations. With the onset of the Cold War, however, Spain's strategic importance for the defense of Western Europe outweighed other political considerations, and isolation of the Franco regime came to an end. Bilateral agreements, first negotiated in 1953, permitted the United States to maintain a chain of air and naval bases in Spain in support of the overall defense of Western Europe. Spain became a member of the United Nations in 1955 and joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1982.

Data as of December 1988

Last Updated: December 1988

Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for Spain was first published in 1988. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on

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