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Spain - History

Spain is so rich in history that one cannot begin to fathom how to deal with the Spanish without learning something of their history. Spanish culture has evolved from Spanish history and has several persistent characteristics that make it unique: religion, family, tradition, and pride are common elements which are in harmony and which exert tremendous power over the actions of the people. The language, music, and dance may change from Galicia to the Basque country to Cantalonia to Castile and Andalucia, but they all carry the flavor and grandeur of historic Spain.

The people who were later named Iberians (or dwellers along the Rio Ebro) by the Greeks, migrated to Spain in the third millennium BC. Phoenicians, Greeks, and Carthaginians competed with the Iberians for control of Spain's coastline and the resources of the interior. After its defeat by the Romans in the First Punic War (264-41 BC), Carthage compensated for its loss of Sicily by rebuilding a commercial empire in Spain. The country became the staging ground for Hannibal's epic invasion of Italy during the Second Punic War (218-201 BC).

Roman armies also invaded Spain and used it as a training ground for officers and as a proving ground for tactics during campaigns against the Carthaginians and the Iberians. Iberian resistance was fierce and prolonged, however, and it was not until 19 BC that the Roman emperor Augustus (r. 27 BC-AD 14) was able to complete the conquest of Spain. In the fifth century AD, when the Visigoths established a Germanic successor state in the former Roman diocese of Hispania. Successive Visigothic kings ruled Spain as patricians who held imperial commissions to govern in the name of the Roman emperor.

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.

West European governments refused to cooperate with Franco's 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.

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.

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Page last modified: 16-01-2013 19:01:19 ZULU