Federico Lorca wrote, “In Spain the dead are more alive than the dead of any other country in the world.” Certainly there were many of them in Spain’s bloody history. Born at the end of the Reconquista with the union of Castile and Aragon, Spain would survive devastating wars and centuries of political unrest, as well as golden ages and religious movements. From its (re)discovery and colonization of the New World, to its world-spanning empire, to its contributions to culture and the romance of life, to its involvement in countless wars, Spain is one of the few nations which can claim an encompassing influence on global civilization.
In 711 AD, the Islamic Umayyad dynasty crossed the Straits from North Africa and swept across Iberia in seven short years, converting or killing the Visigoths there. Despite a shared religion and purpose (profit), the invading Moors were hardly unified; several Moorish kingdoms arose by the onset of the 11th Century, notably the powerful ones centered on Valencia and Granada. The Islamic rulers were fairly tolerant of other faiths, allowing the Jews and Christians in their lands to continue their heathen ways, provided they pay special taxes to do so and submit to a few discriminatory practices. Despite these minor – for the times – discomforts, many locals began to convert to Islam.
But the Moors were a contentious lot, and warfare among them was not unusual. Unfortunately (for them), this in-fighting allowed some of the remaining Christian kingdoms in the north to expand their borders … and ponder “freeing” Iberia from the Muslim yoke. And thus began the Reconquista, a few hundred years of bloodshed as the Christian kingdoms – Leon, Navarre, Aragon, Castile and eventually Portugal – led the crusade to expel the Muslims, encouraged by the Papacy and good Catholics everywhere. Of course, these Christian kingdoms fought among themselves without cessation as well, so Iberia was a muddled mess … until the fateful union of the kingdoms of Castile-Leon and Aragon, joined by the marriage of Isabella I and Ferdinand II in 1469. The two monarchs led a concentrated attack against the last Islamic stronghold of Granada, and in 1492 finally ended the 781-year presence of the Muslims in Iberia.
And to insure that the new realm of Spain stayed Christian, at the urging of the pope Ferdinand and Isabella (mostly the latter) established the Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition. The office was under the direct control of the Spanish monarchy, with the Church advising. A succession of Grand Inquisitors commencing with de Torquemada diligently sought out unrepentant Muslims, Jews, Protestants, Moriscos and anyone else who denied – or might challenge – the rule of Rome. And crimes such as witchcraft, blasphemy, bigamy, sodomy and freemasonry also fell under the Inquisition’s purview. In tribunals across Spain (and spreading to other European kingdoms in diluted form) the accused were tortured, tried and often found guilty. If condemned (and most were), their property was confiscated and they were given the choice of an auto-de-fé (a public return to the true Church) or execution. Of the roughly 150,000 “processed” by the Inquisition until its abolishment in July 1834, some 5000 were put to death. The Inquisition also oversaw the fight against heretical texts, and burned those books censored by the papal indices (but such pyres were not near as entertaining as burning heretics and sodomites, and thus drew far less attention).
Isabella – Ferdinand was more skeptical – also funded a Genoese madman who thought that he could reach the fabulous Far East by sailing west across the open ocean rather than contending with greedy Portugal, which had reached there already by sailing around Africa. In 1492, Christopher Columbus bumped into the New World, and Spain would become the first true “world power” in history. He was followed by adventurers of all ilk, including conquistadors such as Cortez and Pizarro just out for a quick buck, as well as missionaries and colonists with longer-term plans. The Spanish led the world in this “Age of Discovery,” accumulating vast amounts of wealth from their numerous colonies and principalities. At its height, the Spanish Empire counted holdings across the entirety of the known world, from large chunks of North and South America and small pieces of Europe, to various cities in North Africa and the entirety of the East Indies. It was said, and rightfully so, that the sun always shone somewhere (despite the hurricanes, volcanos and smoke from slash-and-burn farming) in the Spanish Empire.
Spain’s new holdings not only provided precious metals, spices and agricultural bounty, it also brought new knowledge and culture to Europe. This Spanish “Golden Age” likewise saw the creation of intellectual and spiritual reforms as well, starting with the rise of humanism, beginnings of the Protestant Reformation (despite the Inquisition’s best efforts), and the founding of the School of Salamanca. But, Spain would expend a lot of treasure and blood to hold its empire together – perhaps more than it was worth in the long run.
With great power comes great burdens, at least if one doesn’t want Barbary pirates and English sea dogs conducting raids along the empire’s coastal holdings. Besides the growing British and Ottoman threats, Spain found itself routinely at war with France. Religious unrest and wars shook the Catholic empire, as the Protestant Reformation dragged it into an increasing number of military engagements across Europe. The Hapsburg monarchs faced revolts in such uncivilized places as Mexico and the Netherlands … and a lot of other locales. What unrest and religious fanaticism didn’t touch, the plague did, and in the 1650s the entire empire was rocked by the Great Plague of Seville.
From this point forward, Spain’s power and influence went into a gradual, and then not-so-gradual, decline. Spain even began to lose her European holdings, primarily the separation of Portugal and the Netherlands, and then suffered military setbacks from the highly destructive Thirty Years War. Wars and more wars threatened and decimated the once proud empire for the next two centuries. The War of Succession saw the Hapsburgs toppled from the throne and the coming of the Bourbons. The Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 gave the British Gibraltar, an anachronism that continues to this day. At the end of the 18th Century, Napoleon Bonaparte invaded the country by guile, claiming he was on his way to Portugal. Then in the early 19th Century, a nationalist revolt to overthrow their French-occupation government led to the Spanish War of Independence (better known as the Peninsular War). Despite their eventual victory over the French (mostly due to Napoleon’s disastrous Russian campaign) the country was thrown into political turmoil … and so they restored the Bourbons to the throne.
Spain soon found itself on the opposite side of the cause of freedom due to multiple independence movements – most of them violent – in its own foreign colonies. Spanish America was swept by wars of “liberation” (most of the new nations ended up under dictatorships and military juntas) from 1808 through 1833. To the long list of native revolts could be added those in the Philippines, Cuba and others in Africa and Asia. Towards the end of the 19th Century, the United States of America decided to rip off a few pieces from the tottering empire for itself; hence the Spanish-American War.
Although there had briefly (1873-1874) been a Spanish Republic, the monarchy was restored and “constitutional” kings of the Bourbon ilk continued to sit on the throne until 1931. During this period, besides (or perhaps because of) losing the remnants of their empire, the Spanish dreamed of days of cultural glory past – artists such as El Greco and Goya, authors such as de Cervantes and Lope de Vega, composers such as de Sarasate and Fernando Sor underwent a rediscovery and resurgence in popularity. Regional diversity in language and cuisine was celebrated. But the people proved rather more passionate about politics, unfortunately.
With the elections of April 1931 it became evident that a deep rift existed between the Monarchist and the Republican parties. When crowds gathered in the street to protest the economy and the continued Monarchist control of the Cortes Generales, friends advised King Alfonso XIII (fittingly unlucky) to flee, which he promptly did. The Second Spanish Republic did give women the right to vote and acceded to Basque desires for more autonomy, but it didn’t solve the economic or social woes, and so only lasted five years. A rising tide of bloodshed and violence finally resulted in a military coup and a bitter three-year civil war against the democratic, leftist republic … a conflict that devastated the country, caused an estimated half-million casualties, involved contending European powers, and ended with Fascism, in the guise of General Francisco Franco, the law of the land for the next 36 years.
Franco’s death in 1975 gave rise to the restoration of the constitutional monarchy in the person of Juan Carlos I de Borbon y Borbon. The Bourbons were back, this time to stay. With a hand-picked council of advisors and popular backing, the young king proved himself a sensible agent for change. As a result, the Cortes adopted a new mostly-democratic constitution, ratified by popular vote in December 1978. The Spanish could again return to long siestas and dreams of past glory, and celebrating their rich heritage with world-famous festivals and holidays… despite rampant urbanization, industrialization and pollution.