Spain, 1914-1918: European War, Public Opinion, and Politics

Foto: Kaulak / CC-PD-Mark,  Portrait of Eduardo Dato, | Photo: Kaulak / CC-PD-Mark,
After the outbreak of the First World War, Prime Minister Eduardo Dato ordered Spain to remain neutral. (Photo: Kaulak / CC-PD-Mark,

On the occasion of the centenary of the “Great War,” a variety of events are taking place across Europe to commemorate a date that forms a watershed in European history and civilization. It should also be remembered that the conflict had a huge impact on Spain – and Spanish public opinion – despite the country’s official neutrality.

In Spain, the war first of all provoked contradictory opinions. It resulted in a comprehensive cultural mobilization complete with new political discourses about the crisis of the system and the new working-class consciousness, both of which were heightened by the economic consequences of the war. Military and regional aspects in particular factored into this mobilization and these discourses which metamorphosed into a verbal civil war, pitting two ideas of Spain against each other. Surviving the war, these ideas heralded the real and bloody civil war in 1936.

The war of 1914 was supposed to end that same year. This, at least, was the widespread conviction that found its expression in the phrase “We will be home by Christmas” – a phrase that was designed to bolster the morale of the first soldiers who went off to war. But in December 1914, no end of the conflict was in sight. The belligerents had planned their strategies with a view to a short war. Now, they had to prepare for a long fight.

Propaganda and neutrality

This also showed in the war propaganda which was one of the new weapons of this first total war of the twentieth century. Through their propaganda, the warring parties tried to boost their own morale and weaken that of the enemy. In neutral countries, the propaganda was intended to curry the favor of those who were undecided. The neutral countries, Spain among them, were thus the battlefields of a propaganda war. It was there that the propaganda of the belligerent countries found its real raison d’être, especially once the short war turned into a long war, requiring major effort on the public opinion front. Given that many hoped for and expected a German victory, just like in 1871, the propaganda machinery did not run at full throttle during the first months of fighting. This changed, however, later on, and this new battle was fought throughout Spain.

The political conflicts in Spain

In the case of Spain, this propaganda war was clearly a national one, entirely a response to internal conflicts that were defined by the already existing and now heightened political conflicts between those who supported the Restoration regime and those who wanted to reform or topple it as quickly as possible. Public opinion in Spain was divided into two camps, for whom the war was a continuation of their country’s internal conflicts. The pro-German side was composed of the defenders of the old order, the nobility, the church, and the military and supported by the right-wing parties. The Allies had sympathizers among the political reformers, middle-class academics and the petit bourgeoisie, backed by liberal, leftist, Republican and anti-clerical political currents as well as by Catalan nationalists and the majority of the intellectuals of the so-called Generation of 1914.

All of them believed that the war’s end would have more widespread consequences: the victory of one side would strengthen those who supported this side in Spain – even though the values that were defended in Spain were obviously entirely different from the ones that were fought over by the warring countries. This contradiction became particularly apparent in the case of the Spanish Republicans. They certainly did not feel comfortable supporting the British monarchy or the authoritarian Tsarist regime. There were many such contradictions on both sides, and they clearly show that the war of preferences and resentments in Spain was based more on internal conflicts than on international certainties.

War of opinion, political change, and the Generation of 1914

This war of contradictory opinions blended with the debate about the country’s modernization and democratization, which sought to overcome the fact that the country lagged one hundred years behind the rest of Europe and to find an answer to the “Spanish problem,” which had polarized the intellectual elites since the late nineteenth century, especially after the “Disaster of 1898,” i.e., the Spanish-American War. The intellectuals of the Generation of 1914 actively participated in this new mobilization. For four years, they mirrored what was happening on the European stage and urged necessary changes at the national level, representing the Allies as defenders of democracy, reforms, and secularism.

These ideas defined the new political discourses. After the war and the collapse of the Restoration regime and of the monarchy as a form of government, they bore fruit in the project of renewal that was the Second Republic. It was mostly the Generation of 1914 that spearheaded this political change. While it had actively participated in the civil war of the words during the European war, it now had to face up to the civil war in 1936. Officially, Spain was neutral during the “Great War.” The war’s political consequences, however, were far-reaching and lasted for a long time.

Dr. Javier Ponce Marrero
is Professor of Contemporary History at the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria.

Translated (from the German translation) by Manuela Thurner

Copyright: Goethe-Institut Madrid, Internetredaktion
Juli 2014

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