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Spanish history at a glance

The early Spanish nation building is closely connected to the Christian reconquering of the Iberian Peninsula from the Muslim Moors between 718 and 1492. The Christian kingdoms (mainly Castile, León, Aragón and Portugal) led the Reconquista against the Moors who had controlled most areas at the Iberian Peninsula since 711. Through the marriage between Isabél I of Castile and Fernando II of Aragón in 1469, the foundation for the political unification of Spain was laid. During their leadership, the Reconquista was completed and the voyages of exploration finally established the basis for Spain’s powerful world empire in the 16th and 17th centuries. Under the reign of Carlos I of Spain (who was also emperor of the Holy Roman Empire) and his son Felipe II, the Spanish Empire reached its maximum extent covering the whole Iberian Peninsula, southern Italy, Germany, the Low Countries as well as most of South and Central America and Pacific Asia. In the early 18th century, the Habsburg dynasty became extinct in Spain. Following the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–1714), control of the territory was passed on to the Bourbons. The 19th century was marked by series of revolts and disputes over dynastic succession, which resulted in three civil wars. Spain experienced a brief period of republican rule from 1873 to1874 (the First Spanish Republic). During the same period, Spain lost control in all of its overseas colonies in the Americas and Asia-Pacific.

Spain was declared neutral during World War I. Following wide electoral support for republican forces in the municipality elections in 1931, King Alfonso XIII fled the country and the Second Republic was established. Increased political polarization during the early years of the republic threw Spain into a civil war (1936-1939) in which the right-wing nationalists, led by General Franco, effectively defeated the Second Republic and the left-wing groupings and established the personal dictatorship of Franco.

Spain remained officially neutral in the World War II, although informally adopting a pro-Axis non-belligerency stance between 1940 and 1943. Owing to the regime's sympathy for Hitler and Mussolini during the war, Spain was largely isolated – economically, politically and culturally – in the years after the war. However, as the Cold War commenced, Spain became an important anti-communist allied of the US and the era of isolation came to an end.

The year 1975 was marked by escalating terrorist activity in the Basque Country on the part of the militant separatist organization ETA (Euskadi ta Askatasuna), along with the death of Franco and the beginning of the reign of King Juan Carlos I. With Prime Minister, Adolfo Suárez González, the king ushered in a period of political reform and rapid decentralization. Juan Carlos opened the new bicameral Cortes in 1977. A new constitution, which replaced the fundamental laws under which Spain had been governed since 1938, was ratified in 1978, formally establishing a parliamentary monarchy and universal adult suffrage. In 1977, the Union of Democratic Centre (UCD) won the first democratic elections. The completion of the democratic transition was marked by the electoral victory of the Spanish Socialist Workers' Party (PSOE), led by Felipe González, in 1982. During the following 13 years under PSOE leadership, Spain joined NATO in 1982) and the EU in 1986. The country continued to enjoy economic growth as a result of increased domestic and foreign investment in the 1980s and 90s, but had one of the highest unemployment rates in West Europe.

Politics in the new era

Spanish politics have traditionally been characterized by marked class conflicts and territorial antagonisms between the regions. Constant issues in Spanish politics have thus included the relationship between central and regional administration levels, as well as conflicts regarding the organization of the state structure.

The ruling Socialist party suffered losses in the 1993 elections but was able to form a minority government with the cooperation of the Catalan nationalist coalition. Following the March 1996 elections however, a centre-right government took office and José María Aznar, leader of the Popular Party (PP) became prime minister in coalition with the Catalan Nationalists. Factors in the Socialists' fall included economic problems, corruption scandals, and charges that Socialist officials had endorsed a “dirty war” against Basque separatists in the 1980s. Aznar introduced a government austerity and privatization program, and the economy experienced significant economic growth. A cease-fire called by the ETA in 1998 led to unsuccessful negotiations with Aznar's government, and in 1999 the ETA ended the cease-fire.

Spain became part of the European Union's single currency plan in 1999. Benefiting from a prosperous economy, Aznar led the PP to a parliamentary majority in the March 2000 elections. Despite strong opposition from the Spanish people, Aznar was a strong supporter of the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq in 2003. Spain did not, however, commit troops to the invasion force, but it subsequently contributed to the occupation force. Four days before the general election, on March 11 2004, Spain was thrown into turmoil when a largely Moroccan group of Islamic terrorists killed 190 people in multiple bombings of Madrid commuter trains. Although the PP had been expected to win the mid-March parliamentary elections, the opposition Socialists secured a plurality of the seats. Their win seemed partly due both to continuing popular opposition to sending Spanish forces to Iraq and to the government's strongly asserted, presumptive mischaracterization of those behind the bombings. Immediately after his party's victory, PSOE leader José Luis Zapatero reiterated his pledge to withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq. 

In May 2005 the Congreso de los Diputados approved government plans to open negotiations with ETA, should the group consent to disarm. ETA continued its bombing campaign around Spain during 2005 and early 2006, although no fatalities were caused. On 24 March 2006 a permanent cease-fire, which had been announced by ETA two days earlier, came into force.


Recent History (Spain) , in Europa World online. London, Routledge. University of Bergen.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2006, Columbia University Press.

Heidar, K. and Berntzen, E. (1998). Vesteuropeisk Politikk: Partier, Regjeringsmakt, Styreform. Oslo: Universitetsforlaget.