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The Iberian Peninsula has been occupied for many millennia. Some of Europe's most impressive Paleolithic cultural sites are located here - the famous caves at Altamira contain spectacular paintings that date from around 12,000 BC. However, evidence of human habitation goes back nearly 800,000 years with the discovery of Europe’s oldest human remains in Spain. The Basques are the first identifiable people of the peninsula and are the oldest surviving group in Europe. Iberians arrived from North Africa during a more recent period.

Beginning in the ninth century
BC, Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, and Celts entered the Iberian Peninsula, followed by the Romans, who arrived in the second century BC. Spain's present language, religion, and laws stem from the Roman period. Although the Visigoths arrived in the fifth century AD, the last Roman strongholds along the southern coast did not fall until the seventh century AD. In 711, North African Moors sailed across the straits, swept into Andalusia, and, within a few years, pushed the Visigoths up the peninsula to the Cantabrian Mountains. The Reconquest-efforts to drive out the Moors-lasted until 1492. By 1512, the unification of present-day Spain was complete.

During the 16th century, Spain became the most powerful nation in Europe, due to the immense wealth derived from its presence in the Americas. But a series of long, costly wars and revolts, capped by the defeat by the English of the "Invincible Armada" in 1588, began a steady decline of Spanish power in Europe. Controversy over succession to the throne consumed the country during the 18th and 19th centuries, leading to occupation by France in the early 1800s.

19th century saw the revolt and independence of most of Spain's colonies in the Western Hemisphere; three wars over the succession issue; the brief ousting of the monarchy and establishment of the First Republic (1873-74); and, finally, the Spanish-American War (1898), in which Spain lost Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines to the United States. A period of dictatorial rule (1923-31) ended with the establishment of the Second Republic. It was dominated by increasing political polarisation, culminating in the leftist Popular Front electoral victory in 1936. Pressures from all sides, coupled with growing and unchecked violence, led to the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in July 1936.

Following the victory of his nationalist forces in 1939, Gen. Francisco Franco ruled a nation exhausted politically and economically. Spain was officially neutral during World War II but followed a pro-Axis policy. The victorious Allies isolated Spain at the beginning of the postwar period, and the country did not join the United Nations until 1955. In 1959, under an International Monetary Fund stabilization plan, the country began liberalising trade and capital flows, particularly foreign direct investment.

Despite the
success of economic liberalisation, Spain remained the most closed economy in Western Europe - judged by the small measure of foreign trade to economic activity - and the pace of reform slackened during the 1960s as the state remained committed to "guiding" the economy.

Nevertheless, in the 1960s and 1970s, Spain was transformed into a modern industrial economy with a thriving tourism sector. Its economic expansion led to improved income distribution, and helped develop a large middle class. Social changes brought about by economic prosperity and the inflow of new ideas helped set the stage for Spain's transition to democracy during the latter half of the 1970s.

Upon the death of General Franco in November 1975, Prince Juan Carlos de Borbon y Borbon, Franco's personally designated heir, assumed the titles of king and chief of state. Dissatisfied with the slow pace of post-Franco liberalisation, in July 1976, the King replaced Franco's last prime minister with Adolfo Suarez. Suarez entered office promising that elections would be held within one year, and his government moved to enact a series of laws to liberalise the new regime.

Spain's first elections to the Cortes (parliament) since 1936 were held on June 15, 1977. Prime Minister Suarez's Union of the Democratic Center (UCD), a moderate center-right coalition, won 34% of the vote and the largest block of seats in the Cortes. The left-of-centre Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE), led by Felipe González Márquez, came in second.

Under Suarez, the new Cortes set about drafting a democratic constitution that was overwhelmingly approved by voters in a December 1978 national referendum.

In the elections of 1982, the PSOE and their charismatic leader González were voted into power with a sizeable overall majority. González remained prime minister for 14 years.

1993, the economy was in trouble, unemployment had reached 22.5%, and various scandals had rocked the PSOE. They did however hold onto power in the 1993 elections, but without an overall majority and reliant on parliamentary support from the Covergència I Unió (CiU) party.

In the 1996 general election, the centre-right Partido Popular (PP), led by José María Aznar, won. They did however fail to get an overall majority and had to govern through partliamentary alliances.

By 1998, the economy under the PP was doing well, and in 2000 with Spain having the fastest growing economy in the EU, employment down to 15% (although in reality this was lower since many dole claimants worked in the thriving ‘black economy’), the PP swept to an overall majority in the general elections.

In 2003, Aznar sends troops to aid the American-led invasion of Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein. This unpopular decision along with the March 2004 Madrid bombings that claimed 200 lives, were key factors in the unexpected win for José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero's PSOE party in the 2004 general elections. A large turnout of 77% of the electorate (up 9% on 2000) also suggested a backlash as a result of previous week's bombings. The PP did however hold on to power in the Senate.

See also
Culture & Leisure
Painting & Sculpture
History at a Glance

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