Spain. Political Regeneration and Restoration 1902-23.

20th-Century: Restoration 1902-1923. Decay and Regeneration.

Alfonso XIII (ruled 
1902-1931; however from 1923-30 the monarchy co-existed with the dictatorship of General Miguel Primo de Rivera).

Following a century of bewildering instability and conflict, Spain entered the 20th century reeling under the disastrous War of 1898 (aka the Spanish American War).

It was a humiliating and costly defeat at the hands of the United States, leaving Spain with only Morocco as the last remnant of its once huge empire. It suffered the loss of its last transoceanic territories, Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam, at the same time that its European imperial rivals –especially England and France– were consolidating their presence worldwide.

All pretensions of being a world power were shattered once and for all as demoralised Spaniards of all persuasions looked for causes of and solutions to the country’s painful decay.

El Desastre (The Disaster), as it was simply called, prompted soul-searching debates. Criticism of Spain was not new, following earlier losses of territory and in reaction to the political instability of the 19th century.

What The Disaster did was provide a concrete focus, and solid and painful evidence of decay. Like a pathological patient, Spain’s “body” was dissected, its “diseases” analysed and cures suggested. Joaquín Costa, one of the most articulate of the critics, called for an “iron surgeon” to cure the ills besetting the country. And, as the geographical centre of Spain and “heart” of the now faded imperial enterprise, Castile was given special attention.

Castile had imposed its vision on the rest of the country, it had “made” Spain as the philosopher Ortega y Gasset later said, only to add that Castile had also “unmade” Spain. The decline of Spain, then, was for many a consequence of Castile’s decay, so that much of the analysis of the country’s illness was in fact a condemnation of a sickness at its very “heart.”

How was the country to recover? “Regeneration” became the catch-word, but what that meant depended on the political or social stripe of those advocating change. Europeanisation was the answer for those impressed by the industrial success of Spain’s northern neighbours. For others a renovation of the political order and the elimination of caciquismo** and corruption were fundamental.

**A corrupt system whereby local political bosses
caciques— were charged with ensuring the desired
electoral results during the period of gobierno de
turno pacífico
. The gobierno de turno pacífico

consisted of conservative and liberal governments
alternating by agreement. The arrangement was
established by the conservative Antonio Cánovas
del Castillo and the liberal Práxedes Sagasta in
the last quarter of the 19th century.

Some called for a renewed spiritual awakening, a crusade against the evils of liberalism. Many looked to agrarian and social reform. Others sought to reawaken those qualities of the past that had made Spain great. Still others saw the solution in overhauling an antiquated and inefficient education system.

But whatever it was, all –except those with particular entrenched interests (e.g. the church, the landed gentry)– agreed that fundamental changes were necessary.

Old Voices – New Voices.
But who was to initiate the regeneration? And what direction was it to take? At the beginning of the 19th century, we can still identify easily those ancient triple powers of monarchychurch, and nobility which had for so long run Spain’s destiny.

Thanks to the convulsive changes of the 19th century, there were, by the beginning of the 20th century, several new voices hatched from the events of the 1800s that challenged these traditional powers: the army, political partiesworkers’ movements, anarchismRepublicanism, and a reborn historical reality, regionalism.

It is against this background of different and conflictive voices that the gobierno de turno pacifico struggled with increasing difficulty to run the country. Three assassinated Prime Ministers in the space of 24 years (Cánovas 1897, Canalejas 1912 and Dato 1921), numerous bombings, attempts on the life of the king, strikes, periodic hostilities in Morocco, uprisings, separatism sentiment especially in Catalonia, and military repression were uncomfortable reminders of the volatile nature of Spanish life in the first quarter of the 20th century.


Balfour, Sebastian    The End of the Spanish Empire Oxford 1997
Barton, Simon  A History of Spain Basingstoke, Hampshire 2009
Carr, Raymond ed.  Spain: A History  Oxford 2000
Esdaile, Charles J. Spain in the Liberal Age: From Constitution to Civil War, 1808-1939 Oxford 2000
Phillips, William D & Phillips Carla R A Concise History of Spain Cambridge 2010
Ruiz, Octavio “Spain on the Threshold of a New Century: Society and Politics before and after the Disaster of 1898” in Rein, Raanan Spain and the Mediterranean since 1898   London, New York 1999