What were the different historical explanations of the Disaster of 1898 offered by the following groups in Spain

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Last updated: April 6, 2019

In 1898, Spain lost the last few relics of its once great and immense colonial empire. Following the humiliating military defeat at the hands of the United States, Cuba gained its independence (albeit in the economic and political shadow of the military victors), whereas Puerto Rico and the Philippines were subjected to outright American rule. Some lesser Pacific island clusters were sold to Germany at the ensuing Treaty of Paris. Thus with the nineteenth century drawing to a close, Spain was a nation reeling from the final loss of its precious colonial empire. The sense of national shame was greatly enhanced by the fact that the loss of the colonies had been principally due to the military defeat at the hands of a rival imperialist power and could not be cushioned by the myth of a family quarrel with fellow Hispanics, as the colonial losses at the beginning of the century had been.1 Therefore there was acute concern in Spain amongst the politicians, the military and the intelligentsia. A common sentiment was evoked that there was something wrong with Spain and that ‘regeneration’ was needed.

This essay aims to examine to what the various leading groups in Spain attributed the Disaster.Although it would appear that the final loss of Spain’s empire did produce widespread consternation in the country, Brenan2 points out that there was so little reflection as to its causes and so little change of heart that Silvela, the Conservative Prime Minister remarked with despair that he could ‘scarcely feel the pulse of Spain’. What there were however, were many conflicting recriminations amongst the ruling elites and the military. If we examine the military after the 1898 disaster, we can see they were at their lowest prestige, shamefully humiliated in their naval battles with the United States and extremely bitter after stinging attacks on them by opposition press which came especially from Catalonia and the Basque Country and their new-found nationalisms. Spanish officers believed that the true responsibility for the defeat lay with the Liberals, who had led the war politically and who had failed to provide an adequate budget for the needs of a ‘modern’ war. Indeed, as General Mola, organiser of the rising in July 1936 was later to write ‘What responsibilities should fall on the soldiers of the politicians of that epoch. With their improvisation and negligence they started operations without supplying the troops with the most elemental necessities’.3The infantry, which had taken the full brunt of American and separatist forces in defence of the colonies, didn’t feel defeated, but rather thought it had been abandoned by the fear of its leaders and the ruling political class who had signed ‘una paz humillante’.

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4 They felt betrayed by the corrupt and incompetent liberal politicians. From this we can see that the military’s historical explanation of the Disaster was one of recrimination of the Liberal politicians and the ruling regime. It can come as no surprise that 1898 also marked the return of the army into politics.If we now examine the workers’ movements in Spain. Suffice to say the Socialists saw the loss of the empire as being the fault of the monarchy and the restoration politicians. They regarded the monarchy as a reactionary concern which needed to be turned into a bourgeois democracy as the next step in the historical process that must lead to a socialist society. They effectively criticised all the political order including the ‘turno pacifico’ and the ‘caciquismo’.The socialist criticism of the restoration political system and its failure to hold on to Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines was not a lone opinion.

Indeed many of the more intelligent Restoration politicians, according to Carr5, were aware of the defects of liberal parliamentarianism and conscious of the flood of criticism released by the Disaster of 1898. Many did not want to change or disturb the system of caciquismo which guaranteed them their seats, but others saw the problems which contributed to the downfall of the empire and which could threaten the life of the constitutional monarchy. Conservative reformers attacked caciquismo, concentrating on its roots in local corruption by a reform of local government. They believed this policy would result in ‘sincere’ elections.

They also believed that the country was conservative and therefore these ‘sincere’ elections would ensure their political survival. The reformers on the Liberal side attacked the privileges of the Church and proposed a more democratic programme. They aimed to rally popular enthusiasm behind their party, but were dismissed by many as ‘anti-clerical rabble-rousers’ seeking to regenerate their dying party rather than modernise Spain.Although there were many reformers amongst the Restoration politicians from both camps (Conservative and Liberal), the majority of them, when explaining the Disaster, contented themselves with blaming the loss on their opponents. Therefore, the Conservative Catholics blamed the problems on the Liberal anticlericals and vice versa. There existed a plot theory of history which was to say the least very simplistic indeed.

The Conservatives saw the cause of Spain’s problems as being the fault of secret plotting freemasons instilling anti-Christian and anti-Spanish doctrines in the people and rulers of Spain. They believed that this ‘foreign invasion’ had undermined the Spanish national character. The Liberals believed that the responsibility lay firmly with the Jesuits and other militant clergymen.

6Following the deep loss felt by Spaniards after 1898, a widespread feeling of decline and inadequacy was abound. These feelings gave birth to a strong criticism against the ruling regime known as ‘Regeneracionismo’. The assault on the regime was led by the leading cultural elites of the country. The intellectuals saw the ruling system as being the problem of the country. For them, the caciquismo and clericalism was responsible for the decline and backwardness of Spain. These intellectuals were known as the Generation of ’98, a loosely knit group of writers who stimulated a great revival of Spanish culture, their work putting the whole system into question.Each one of these adopted individual and different stances in their criticism of all that was wrong with Spain. By no means were they a coherent and agreed group.

They gave their support to different groups in the opposition of the system. For several members of the Generation of ’98, Spain’s plight was linked to the Spanish character which they sought to discover with a philosophical and historical approach. They attempted to unravel the Spanish character in Celt-Iberian, Roman, Visigothic, Arabic, Jewish and crusading Catholic culture.7 This alternative to blaming the political system was seen by Carr8 to be a ‘relapse into the racial pessimism which denied to Latin nations the capacity to face the modern world’.He saw the country’s problems lying in their failure to Europeanise, which in his opinion would lead to a more modern and productive Spain.

Ortega y Gasset actually criticised Spanish values, which he believed were at fault and were prominent in Spain’s decline. For this writer, Spanish values were contrary to science and method and he saw a need for non-Spanish ideas and techniques. Spain should ‘suppress its unruly instincts in the interests of order and rationality’9. Ortega also held the view that Spain had no common goal due to its lack of leaders. No one was interested in the common good, only in their private aims.Maeztu, who was half-Basque and half-English thought along similar lines to Ortega y Gasset, believing that Spain should take on the bourgeois-individualist values of the Anglo-Saxon world, learn to love modern industrial capitalism and actually forget it’s own history. From these two members of the Generation of ’98, it is clear that after such a tragedy such as 1898 was perceived to be, there was a strong feeling that Spain and it’s values and character were somehow wrong and not suitable to maintain Spain as a major power in modern times. They both believed Spain should distance itself form its own self and seek to Europeanise.

One member of the Generation of ’98 movement, Ganivet saw Spain’s problem being the fact that it had over-reached itself. He considered that the country had over-stretched its resources, having undertaken enterprises (such as the empire) which were enormously disproportionate to its power. He was definitely not a Europeaniser. In his opinion Spain should retreat into itself and embark on a period of consolidation from within.Miguel de Unamuno explained the Spanish problem as being the fault of the leaders of the country. Both the Conservative and Liberal leaders were to blame according to this Basque writer. He felt that the Conservatives were seeking to copy models of Spain’s past whereas the Liberals were too busy trying to copy foreign models which were not wholly suited to Spain.

According to Unamuno, Spain had lost sight of its intrahistory and a rising of the people was needed in order to oust the political historical views of both Conservatives and Liberals.Having examined the various historical explanations of the prominent groups in Spain after the Disaster of 1898, we can see that a tremendous amount of the blame was placed at the feet of the Restoration politicians, especially by the military who certainly felt a bitterness towards the lack of support that was afforded to them by the ruling elite, in particular from the Liberal government which managed the military battles. Amongst the Restoration politicians there existed many recriminations, with most Conservatives and Liberals blaming each other, with some emphasising the shortcomings of caciquismo and liberal parliamentarianism. The Generation of ’98, whilst joining in the chorus of accusations towards the ruling political elites, also developed ideas that there was something wrong with the Spanish character and it’s values and that Spain should adopt European ideas to remedy this problem. However, considering all views examined in this essay, it cannot be ignored that the majority of the blame and recriminations which surfaced after the Disaster of 1898 were directed at the Restoration politicians and this could be an important factor when explaining the events to come in Spain leading up to the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera in 1923 and eventually the rising of July 1936.

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