Why to Read Twentieth Century Spain: A History?

Written by: Julián Casanova


The ruins of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War, 1937

Inside Modern Spain

The 20th century was a difficult time in Spain, where the last 100 years saw civil war, fascism, and a bloody battle for power. Julián Casanova, the co-author of Twentieth-Century Spain: A History, explains the importance of Spain's last century and why it demands to be studied.


Many works on twentieth-century Spain have been published in the last decade, some of them extremely good. But a non-specialist reader, a university student or a foreigner interested in learning about Spain’s most recent history will all have problems in finding a compact book that relates the essential facts and explains the fundamental changes and processes of an intense, controversial and extraordinarily complex century.

Historical knowledge needs to break out from the academic sphere and reach a broader public, a new generation which needs to understand the complexity of past events to address the problems of the future.

This is the gap that this book aims to bridge. The narrative follows the unifying thread of political history and the rhythm of conventional chronological divisions; later, at the end of each part and in the epilogue, it takes a more measured look at some of the more interesting thoughts and arguments of current Spanish historiography. Did the end of the Restoration clear the way for democracy? What was the significance of Primo de Rivera’s dictatorship? What brought on the civil war? What were the reasons for the Republic’s defeat? Why did Franco’s dictatorship last so long and what mark did it make? What assessment can we make of the Transition after more than thirty years of democracy? Questions, issues and problems that continue to occupy the minds of experts in contemporary history.

Today we know that the history of Spain in the first third of the twentieth century was not the chronicle of a secular frustration foretold which of necessity was to finish up as a collective tragedy; an accumulation of failures and defects — of industry and agriculture, the bourgeoisie and the middle class, the State and civil society – which prevented the country from following the European path to progress and modernisation. The Restoration era was not a stagnant pool in which nothing moved; neither was the brief democratic experiment of the Second Republic the inevitable prologue to the civil war; nor was the long, drawn-out Francoist dictatorship a parenthesis which, at the end of the day, favoured economic development and the advent of freedom; and the transition to democracy was never a perfect script previously written from the upper echelons of power.

The history of Spain did not run its course independently of the rest of Europe, nor was it any stranger to the social, economic, political and cultural transformations experienced by the rest of the continent.  There were many more similarities than differences, particularly with her southern European neighbours. We historians also know that there is no ‘normal’ model of modernisation with which Spain could be contrasted as being an anomalous exception. Hardly any country in Europe resolved the conflicts of the thirties and forties — the century’s dividing line – by peaceful means. Seen from a comparative perspective, the distinctive feature of the history of twentieth-century Spain was the long duration of Franco’s dictatorship after the civil war. It was not a parenthesis in the history of Spain in that century but the central element that dominated the scene absolutely for almost four decades.

The book also aspires to be an invitation to read other books, such as those appearing in the annotated bibliography at the end. Historical knowledge needs to break out from the academic sphere and reach a broader public, a new generation which needs to understand the complexity of past events to address the problems of the future.  We historians are not antiquarians buried in archives, mindless of the world we live in. We are committed to society, writing from the present and aware that research is just part of our work.

 Other recent articles by Julián Casanova appear in El Pais and Eurozine

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About the Author: Julián Casanova

Julián Casanova is the co-author of Twentieth-Century Spain: A History and the author of The Spanish Republic ...

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