Spain is at once very young and very old. For most historians, modern Spain was born in 1469, though some argue that something resembling Spain existed as far back as fifth century B.C. Yet the political structure that governs Spain today has been in place for just 40 years.

Spain is, moreover, at once very strong and very weak. Few countries in the world have governed empires as vast as Spain’s was in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Spanish language attests to its legacy: The only language in the world with more native speakers than Spanish is Mandarin. Yet in the past 200 years, few countries in the Western world have had as turbulent and violent a history as Spain.

In the 1960s, Spain was a backwater, politically isolated from much of the world and economically stunted compared with its European neighbors. By 1981, its fortunes had changed, and it has been making up for lost time. Spain is now the fourth-largest economy in the European Union and the 13th-largest economy in the world, with a gross domestic product of roughly $1.2 trillion. It is also the fifth-most populous country in the eurozone, accounting for just under 10 percent of its total population.

Now Spain’s political foundations are shaking once more. Catalonia, a wealthy autonomous region in the northeast, has declared independence, as it has been inclined to do in the past. But the prospect of a new nation-state is not in question. Catalonia will not secede from Spain. The government in Madrid will not allow itself to preside over the dissolution of the country. But Catalonia’s independence referendum raises a difficult question: What happens when two peoples claim the same land for different nations?

Spain’s peculiar history explains how Madrid and Catalonia have come to ask themselves this very question again in 2017. Theirs is a story shared by nearly every nation-state – and every would-be nation-state – in the world. And though the outcome is all but certain, a better understanding of why this is so can teach us much about the geopolitics of nations.

Lower Stakes

Geography affects the development of all nations in profound ways, but rarely has it done so more strikingly than in Spain. Today the country is renowned for its beaches, but its defining geographic feature is its mountains. On the European Peninsula only Switzerland boasts a higher mean altitude. It is the existence – and more important, the location – of these mountains that has fostered the distinct, regional communities that make Spain so difficult to govern.

The Iberian Mountains have peaks as high as 7,500 feet (2,300 meters) and have always isolated northeastern Spain from the center of the country. In the northwest are the valleys and low mountains of Basque Country, another of Spain’s autonomous communities and, aside from Catalonia, the one with the most well-defined national consciousness. Farther west, the Cantabrian Mountains separate the coast of northwestern Spain from the interior of the country. The region of Galicia in the northwest corner of Spain has had serious independence desires of its own at various points in Spanish history.

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South of the Cantabrian Mountains is the Northern Meseta, or the northern plateau. The central mountains border the Northern Meseta to the south and separate it from the Southern Meseta, which is home to the capital, Madrid. Together, the Northern and Southern Mesetas account for almost 40 percent of the land of the entire Iberian Peninsula, yet they are sequestered by mountain ranges. South of the Southern Meseta are yet more mountains – the Sierra Morena – which separate the Southern Meseta from the Guadalquivir River Valley. This valley is bordered to the east by the Baetic Mountains and the Sierra Nevada range, with snow-capped peaks that reach almost 12,000 feet.

Last and most important are the Pyrenees, in northeast Spain, which separate France from the Iberian Peninsula. The region was named by the Greeks, and later the Romans stayed close to this moniker, calling it “Hiberia” after the Iber River, known now as the Ebro River.

It’s hard to overstate the geopolitical significance of the Ebro in the ancient world. The area between the Ebro and the Pyrenees was the de facto “demilitarized zone” between ancient Carthage and Rome. When Hannibal crossed the Ebro, he started the Second Punic War, a war that determined that it was to be Rome, and not Carthage, that would rule the Mediterranean.

The stakes are not nearly as high today, but the Ebro River Valley is where Spain’s current crisis is unfolding. Sandwiched between the Pyrenees and the Iberian Mountains, the Ebro River Valley flows through Aragon and Catalonia. It is the lifeblood of these regions.

Though mountains are Spain’s most conspicuous geographic feature, they are not the only one to impede government efforts to unify the country. The weather patterns in Spain differ profoundly from region to region. Northwestern Spain gets a great deal of rain each year – sometimes as much as 80 inches a year. Compare that to the Southern Meseta, which sometimes sees as little as 10 inches of rain per year. Central and southern Spain are much dryer, though the Guadalquivir River Valley is a notable exception. Northeastern Spain has comparatively less rainfall too, but Catalonia has the Ebro River (and Valencia the Turia River) for irrigation.

None of Spain’s major rivers, though, connect to one other. This is true of most European states, but it is especially pronounced in Spain because of the way the mountains and the climate serve to define the country’s regions. A unified Spain, where a strong central government can execute its authority, requires the expensive work of building the infrastructure necessary to stitch the country together. Spain’s geography challenges central rule because it creates resilient national and linguistic identities.

Geography has confounded every ruler from Isabella I to Mariano Rajoy. But it’s not that simple. If geography alone defined political power, Spain would never have unified as a country, let alone become one of the richest and most powerful empires in the modern world. Spain has never lost the legacy of its diversity, but in modern times it has always tried, and mostly succeeded, to consolidate that diversity under the idea of the Spanish nation. When Catalonia declared its independence, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said, “Spain is a serious country and a great nation.” He wasn’t wrong. Spain is a serious nation-state, and it is serious not because of its geography but despite it.

Most history books teach that modern Spain was the result of the marriage of Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon. There is, of course, a slight problem with ascribing the birth of the Spanish nation to Isabella and Ferdinand’s nuptials – neither of them was, or became, “of Spain.” Both were rulers of separate kingdoms, and when Isabella passed away before Ferdinand, he simply returned to Aragon. The dynasties that ruled Spain in the centuries after Isabella and Ferdinand were family dynasties – first the Hapsburgs, then the Bourbons. Isabella and Ferdinand gained more power than any of their predecessors, but they did so by maintaining the laws and local constitutions of the various lands under their dominion.

Still, two important things happened during the reign of Isabella and Ferdinand: the Reconquista and the discovery of the New World. The Reconquista was the result of centuries of conflict. Muslim forces invaded the Iberian Peninsula in 711, and by 717 they had reached the Pyrenees. Muslim rule of the Iberian Peninsula would ebb and flow for almost 800 years. Sometimes the Muslims occupied nearly the entire peninsula, but mostly they controlled the southern half of what we now call Spain. They named this territory al-Andalus.

Medieval Spain, then, was diverse not just because of Spain’s geography. The Muslim invasion of Spain created a religious diversity that is present nowhere else in Europe except perhaps in the Balkans, where the Ottoman Empire exerted control for many centuries. There was also a large and influential Jewish population in medieval Spain.

This diversity was a source of intellectual creativity – and of cultural provocation. Christian rulers in northern Spain never accepted the legitimacy of the Muslim invaders, and for centuries they pushed the Muslims farther and farther south. Their efforts culminated under Ferdinand and Isabella, who drove the last Moorish kingdom of Grenada off the peninsula in 1492. That same year, the Spanish Inquisition, which had begun in 1478, decreed that all Jews and Muslims remaining in the Iberian Peninsula should convert or leave.

Most of Europe was staunchly religious, but no Western European country remained as religious for as long as Spain. Spain’s national identity grew partly from the idea that it was where the Muslim invasion of Europe had been stopped. Spain may well have needed religion to hold its society together, since it could not depend fully on the peoples’ identification with a unified and indivisible Spanish nation. Being monarchs was not enough for Ferdinand and Isabella to receive support, but being the Christian vanguard in the fight against Islam substantiated their claims. Their tactic has been used throughout modern Spanish history. Francisco Franco, who helmed a military dictatorship in Spain for 39 years in the 20th century, was a devout Catholic who did not shy from using his faith to legitimize his rule and bring the country together under a common banner.

The second thing that happened under Ferdinand and Isabella was the discovery of the New World. Christopher Columbus was born in Genoa, but it was Ferdinand and Isabella who agreed to fund his expedition in 1492. Columbus was not expecting to discover the Western Hemisphere, of course, and Ferdinand and Isabella were not expecting him to discover it either. Columbus was looking for a shorter way to get to Asia. But Columbus did discover parts of the New World, and he claimed those discoveries for the Crown of Castile. By 1503, Isabella and Ferdinand were dispatching bureaucrats to their new holdings and organizing what would become the Spanish Empire. By 1545, the new Spanish Empire had struck gold (and silver). The political union that had been made possible by Ferdinand and Isabella’s marriage suddenly came with a dowry of immense wealth. Wealth conferred on Spain the power to challenge the rest of Europe itself.

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Powerful though it may have been, Spain was still a hodgepodge of variegated peoples. The Spanish nation still did not exist. Money helped its rulers forget these differences, but the system that was built around it was difficult to sustain. By the 17th century, that system was beginning to come apart. A great example can be found in the Catalan Revolt of 1640. The crown had to finance its various military conflicts, and so it levied more taxes on the Catalans, lest Castile continue to foot a disproportionate amount of the bill. Catalonia, like other Spanish regions, viewed itself as part of the Spanish Empire but separate from Spain when it came down to culture, language and the rule of law. It revolted accordingly.

Centuries later, when nationalists of the 1800s sought to forge a Spanish nation, they harkened back to the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella and their two great marks on history. It was the perfect grist of a national myth, one compelling enough to bind together Spain’s disparate regions.

With Independence Came Chaos

Europe changed irrecoverably in the 19th century. Nationalism was in the air, and the emergence of new nation-states began to change the balance of power, with frightful consequences to come in the 20th century. For Spain, the watershed event was the Peninsula War of 1807-1814, one of the Napoleonic Wars. Spain and France allied together to invade Portugal, but France betrayed Spain and occupied it. In 1808, an insurrection against the French began in Madrid but soon spread to other regions. In the past these regions had squabbled among themselves, but France gave them a common enemy. Thus began the Spanish War for Independence.

Spain would win its independence, aided as it was by the United Kingdom, but with independence came chaos. The country had, in fact, already begun to destabilize – the Spanish Empire had been in decline for more than a century, and its alliance with Napoleon was a last-ditch effort to reverse the decline. The French occupation was merely the final straw. Now autonomous, Spain had the daunting task of building a system of governance capable of maintaining order in a rapidly changing yet already diverse country. The 19th century would not be a peaceful one. By the end of the century, Spain had tried its hand at nine different constitutions and two different forms of government. It was constantly changing democratic political structures and restoring the monarchs from different families.

Spain’s most famous civil war was fought after the turn of the century, from 1936 to 1939, but it was at war with itself well before then. The preceding conflicts are known as the Carlist Wars. The Carlist Wars had at least three chapters in the 19th century, but in the Third Carlist War (1872-1876) a new king was to be installed, one who meant to restore the local constitutions of Catalonia, Valencia and Aragon. During this time there was even a short-lived state in the Basque Country. The Spanish government managed to crush this rebellion, but the appetite for regional autonomy could not be suppressed. Increasingly a haven for labor movements, communists and even anarchists, Catalonia would revolt again in 1909, only to be put down by King Alfonso XIII. Jose Ortega y Gasset, one of Spain’s most famous philosophers, would write in 1922 that Spain had become an “invertebrate,” a people ruled by a government that hadn’t the slightest idea how to best respond to their needs.

Ortega y Gasset was right. Spain had not yet coalesced into a nation, and its leaders had not yet been able to respond to the needs of all the people. In 1931, yet another constitution was ratified, and for a few years, Spain’s Second Republic tried to bring order to the country. It failed. The new government was actually a friend to Spanish regions, but more traditional elements in the country, such as the military and the clergy, believed regional autonomy threatened the soul of Spain. They believed the electoral process unfairly brought certain groups to power – indeed, the Popular Front won the 1936 elections with less than 50 percent of the vote – and they were unable to fully assert their control.

Yet another military coup ensued. Its leader, Francisco Franco, would rule Spain as a dictator for almost 40 years. He was supported by the likes of Hitler and Mussolini, who saw in him a shared sense of nostalgia for “better” times. (Spain was “better” in the time of Ferdinand and Isabella, Germany was better in the time of Teutonic knights, and Italy was better in the time of ancient Rome. Such was the cultural currency of fascism.) On the primacy of Spanish nationalism, Franco would not compromise. The nation was all encompassing and all important. More than 500,000 people would die fighting over what it meant to be Spain before Franco emerged victorious in 1939.

Franco was an authoritarian, if not quite a totalitarian in the vein of Hitler. His rule was absolute. His military dictatorship crushed regional autonomy and political dissent throughout the country. And yet for all the regime’s sins, Franco’s government gave Spain its first extended period of political stability in more than a century. By the time he left office, Spain had become an important Cold War ally of the United States, and economic reforms had been made that significantly improved the Spanish economy and primed it for the success Spain would enjoy after it joined the European Union.

His “success,” such as it was, raises an uncomfortable question: Did Spain need a heavy-handed regime to define what it meant to be Spanish? The Spanish people eventually rejected Franco’s vision, of course, but Franco’s desire to unify Spain was nothing if not ambitious, something that all Spanish leaders before him had also desired to accomplish but never quite succeeded. Tellingly, the widespread dissatisfaction with Franco may have brought the Spanish people closer together, much as the contempt for the French occupation had more than a century earlier.

In any event, in 1978, Spain adopted a new constitution, one that recognized the Spanish nation as well as the legitimacy and rights of its autonomous regions. It was unclear whether the constitution would hold, but it did. Spanish King Juan Carlos put down a military coup in 1981 to protect it. It has defined Spanish politics to this day.


Most countries become countries violently. The United States did not become a nation until more than 600,000 soldiers and countless civilians died in its Civil War. Modern China did not become a nation until millions – and perhaps tens of millions – died in China’s Civil War. Birth is bloody and messy and painful, even if the end result is joyous.

All nation-states have demons to face. Even the most homogeneous of peoples are not completely homogeneous. Nationalism is a powerful ideology, one that is based on something very real: the desire of a people with shared language, or culture, or values, to live in community and freedom with and for each other.

But its power cuts both ways. A large portion of the Catalan population wants to be independent, and if history teaches us anything, it teaches us that a large portion of the Catalan population has always wanted to be independent. Not all Catalans do, though, for Catalonia is no more monolithic than is Spain. It doesn’t seem as though there is a critical mass of Catalans willing to pledge their lives, fortunes and sacred honor to prevent the central government from reasserting its control. Until Catalonia has the will and power to make itself independent, the desires of its secessionists will remain stillborn.

For Spain, Catalonia’s independence declaration – even if it represents the will of only some 38 percent of the Catalan population – leads to a dark place. The Spanish Constitution was designed in part to remove Spain from its past, to pave a democratic way forward for a country that could be as proud of its internal diversity as of the unity of the Spanish nation. But wishing something does not make it so, and writing it down in a constitution does not necessarily make it real for the people. In crushing Catalonia’s desires, the government in Madrid is doing the same thing previous Spanish governments have been forced to do when facing revolts in the periphery. Letting Catalonia go would mean the Spanish nation is more myth than reality. Forcing Catalonia to stay at gunpoint means present-day Spain is not exceptional – it is like all previous Spanish regimes.

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This is an issue faced by nation-states around the world. For a time, the ideologies that moved the world were based on ideas, not on personal relationships. Communism tried to universalize the proletariat, wherever he was and whatever language he spoke. Western liberalism, with its emphasis on individual rights, said governments derived legitimacy by protecting the rights of individuals, wherever they lived and whatever personal beliefs they held. But a son does not choose his mother based on ideological preference, and a worker does not choose his or her language and culture.

And so the world, after a move toward larger and larger political bodies, is self-segregating, rallying around familiarity and self-reliance and national loyalty. It is Spain’s turn now. But it won’t stop in Spain. What Spain does will not affect the world – but the demons Spain is facing are not Spain’s alone.