7: Neutral Spain


This 2017 Patreon episode covers Spain, a country that technically stayed out of the war, but which still felt its effects. This is the second of two Patreon Preview episodes before the lengthy series of Paris Peace Conference episodes begins in late November.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Premium episode number 7. After our quite lengthy discussion of cavalry during the war, we now change over to discussing Neutral Spain and how it was effected by the war that was going on around it. This is a topic that I started researching after a listener from Norway contacted me and wanted to discuss what was happening in Norway during the war, and the listener was asking a lot of questions that I did not know the answer to. So the research began, and oddly enough I found way more research material on Spain than on the Scandinavian countries, so that is why it is happening first. I like this topic a lot, and I think that it is very underserved in generally available literature. Because Spain did not actively participate in the war it seems to be mostly forgotten in English language literature, generally warranting only a sentence in most large histories. This leaves us with sort of a blank canvas where most people do not have a lot of knowledge of what was happening in Spain, and hopefully I can start to fill in that picture for you today. This episode will actually start by discussing the events in Spain before the war, because I fear that much like Ireland in the main episode this week, most people do not have a lot of background knowledge about Spain other than “It was a giant colonial empire once, and then it wasn’t.” While this is true there were a vast number of reasons that Spain was no longer a giant colonial empire and while we will not cover that entire story today, although it might end up being my post-World War 1 podcast, we will briefly touch on some of the problems Spain was having in the years before the war. The truth was that Spain was never in a good position to enter the war with any hope of profiting from it in anyway. One of the fantastic sources for this episode is Spain and the First World War: Neutrality and Crisis by Francisco J. Romero Salvado and he has this in his introduction, it seems appropriate to add in here “The European conflict brought about enormous social and economic strains which by strengthening the hand of the national bourgeoisies and working classes against the traditional supremacy of the landowning oligarchies altered the relations of forces in most countries. Food shortages, economic dislocation, social distress, scarcity and inflation produced the political awakening and ideological militancy of the masses. Under these pressures, the existing forms of hierarchical, clientelist and elitist politics broke down. The traditional governing elites found it impossible to put the clock back and return to the world of 1914.” Many of the events in Spain during the war would lead directly into the Spanish Civil War all the way in 1936, that is how far reaching the effects would be. We will not be discussing these later events during this episode, instead we will focus on three questions. First, why did Spain remain neutral during the entire war? Second, what happened in Spain during this period? Third, how did these events effect Spain, and its people in the post-war world. Now I am going to fire off three quotes to set up the rest of the episode and hopefully give you some things to chew on while the rest of the episode plays. Here is Carolyn S. Lowry from her work At What Cost? Spanish Neutrality in the First World War “The belief that neutrality would enhance its status as a Great Power proved false and the Spanish Empire ceased to have any influence. Even more powerless and divided, Spain emerged from the war a mere shadow of its former self.” And here is Luis Araquistain, who was a Spanish journalist after the war who would break down the war into three distinct phases in Spain “During the initial stage of the conflict was followed as if it were a game and people even placed bets as on a horse race; a second and critical period in 1915 when the Spaniards started to take sides, the final and active phase was already evident in 1916 coinciding with a movement of agitation and mobilization around the neutrality question.” Finally, I will close this lengthy introduction with a quote from the Spanish Ambassador to Switzerland who was say after the war that “Looking back on them (the war years) now they seem equally incredible, so fantastic and horrible were the things they brought in their wake, - even to the inhabitants of the neutral countries. For through the screen of well-guarded frontiers there seeped all the backwash of war”

At one point Spain had been by far the most powerful of the European colonial powers with vast tracks of land in North and South America along with other colonies spread around the globe. However by the turn of the 20th century Spain was still recovering from losing the last of its overseas empire. IN 1898 the country was defeated in the Spanish American war by the United States which moved Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines over to the control of the North American nation. This was just the last in a long line of defeats for the Spanish brought about by their inability to keep up with the industrialization and modernization that the rest of the world was experiencing in the 19th century. This slow decline had resulted in a rather interesting political situation in Spain where two political groups, the Liberals and Conservatives, had basically agreed to jointly rig the elections that were taking place every few years. The elections were basically setup to allow the Turno Pacifico, or peaceful rotation, whereby both groups would take turns being the one in power. They were able to accomplish this through voter interference and voter fraud on a scale that was massive and it ran throughout the entire country. This was definitely not a good look for a democratic monarchy like Spain was supposed to be during these years. Another of the problems that Spain was experiencing in the pre-war years was around the military, of course it was. The state of the army was critical once the war started, because it was on the basis of this measure that countries like Bulgaria, Italy, and Romania were brought into the war. However, Spain did not have a strong army in 1914, in fact it was the exact opposite. What makes this complete definciency interesting is that Spain was spending a lot of money on the military, in fact it was spending 40 percent of the national budget on defense. This was a huge amount. If this money was not going into making the army a capable fighting force, where was it going? Well, in fact it was going straight into the pockets of the vast officer corps. The Spanish army had a much higher radio of officers to enlisted men, and those officers were paid extremely well in pre-war Spain, they took up 70 percent of defense spending in total. Because the officers made up so much of the army it presented a serious roadblock to any type of possible reform for the Spanish army. They would simply refuse to allow it to happen, and that was that, none of them wanted to give up on their very lucrative status quo. Another problem for Spain, in the military sphere, was that a good portion of the army, and most of the rest of the budget, was currently involved in trying to hold onto the only colony that Spain had left, Morocco. About half of Spain’s troops were engaged in this area and it was seen as impossible to pull them out when the war started, if they were removed Spain would probably lose control of Morocco. The final problem that Spain was having before the war was how the general populace felt about the political situation, the best word to use would be apathy. A Spanish journalist would say “Believe me, political apathy continues to dominate Spain…Even raising the famous spectre of war, the professionals will not succeed in awakening political life in Spain.” The level of apathy is best shown in the fact that after the 1898 defeat at the hands of the Americans, while there were economic problems associated with it, did not create much reaction at home. There was perhaps slightly less faith in the monarchy than before, but not enough to cause any real change. This may seem like a benefit when getting engaged in a war, but without being able to rally up a strong base of support, like say the British did, at the beginning of the war, the chances of the public quickly moving the other direction increased. This would be precisely what would happen after the war started, even though Spain did not enter the war itself.

The decision on whether or not to stay neutral once the war started, in retrospect and because of everything I just mentioned, seems like a forgone conclusion, but it really was not so cut and dry in 1914. There were a lot of things that the Spanish government had to consider when looking at entering the war. One thing that is often forgotten is that neutrality does not just mean not marching your armies off to war, but instead putting your country in a situation so as not to favor either side. However, the Spanish leader, after considering the consequences of either action still chose not to get involved. A big reason was economic and military weakness, what could Spain really contribute to either side that would make it an appealing partner? The apathy of the public also trended more towards neutrality. On July the 30th the Spanish Prime Minister Eduardo Dato would declare Spain’s neutrality with the following message “With great misfortune, war was declared between Germany, on the one side, and Russia, France, and the United Kingdom, while a state of war also exists between Austria-Hungary and Belgium. The government of your majesty believes it should order the strictest neutrality of Spanish subjects.” He would then go on to outline some of his reasoning behind the decision “We would depart from neutrality only if we were directly threatened by foreign aggression or by an ultimatum…Germany and Austria are delighted with our attitude as they believe us compromised with the Entente. France and Britain cannot criticize us as our pacts with them are limited to Morocco…I do not fear that the Allies would push us to take sides with or against them…They must know that we lack material resources and adequate preparation for a modern war…Would not we render a better service to both sides by sticking to our neutrality so that one day we could raise a white flag and organize a peace conference in our country which could put an end to the current conflict? We have moral authority for that and who knows if we shall be required to do so.” This would set the stage for the Spanish situation for the duration of the war. In the beginning it would be easy, in fact neutrality would beneficial for the first few months, however as the war drug out of its first year the war rapidly changed from a positive to a negative for Spain.

One of the common areas of discussion every time we have discussed a neutral country on the podcast is how some set of countries was coaxing them into joining the war. So we should probably take just a minute to talk about what the other countries thought of Spain, and why they did not try to get Spain into the war. Before the war Spain had experienced the most friction with Britain and France, both of these countries had collaborated to dismantle what remained of the Spanish Empire in North Africa. This had soured the relationship between the three countries, and had at one point even gotten Germany involved after Spain asked for support. It was, of course, completely impossible for Spain to declare war on the two countries though. Spain was economically and geographically isolated by the two countries leaving it with very little wiggle room against them. When the war started, and especially when it did not quickly end, Britain and France started casting around for other allies to bring into the war and from the beginning they did not completely shut Spain out of the conversation, but it was always extremely unlikely that they would put much effort into bringing Spain into the war willingly. The biggest problem for Spain was sort of Italy in reverse, or the same as what we will discuss with Romania later this year in the main episodes, and that was the fact that everything Spain wanted was French or British territory, which they were not prepared to part with just to get Spain involved. Because of this fact getting the two groups of countries together would have been difficult, and regardless, when Italy entered the war whatever small bit of use Spain would have been for its position in the Mediterannean went out the window. Therefore, even though King Alfonso was open to being brought into the war on the allied side, there was nobody willing to pay a reasonable price. On the other side of the coin, Germany never wanted Spain to enter the war, instead, much like with some of the Eastern countries, Germany just wanted them to remain neutral. They pursued this goal aggressively and successfully throughout the war and much of their strategy was simply to convince the people of Spain that their best choice was to remain neutral and to convince the government of Spain that if they remained neutral they could play a role in the peace talks when the war was over. This was an attractive opportunity to the leadership of Spain, the country was so far down the list of European powers at this point that just the possibility of sitting at the grown up table was enough to sway some minds within the government.

While neither side wanted Spain to enter the war, that did not mean that they completely ignored the country, in fact they would both be active participants in the shaping of Spanish public opinion. Over time the country would split into two groups, one supporting the Germans and one supporting Britain and France. There were of course variations, but if you simplify to two groups enough they can be split into the following. Those supporting the Germans were generally the clergy, army, aristocracy, landowning elites, upper bourgeoisie, and the court. On the other side were the Regionalists, Republicans, Socialists, professional middle class, and the intellectuals. The groups that supported the Entente all generally believed that some form of drastic domestic reform was needed, and they looked to the French and English societies for inspiration, even though they disagreed with what those changes should be. I think the best way to group the two sets of supporters, to simplify it even further, was that “Official” Spain supported Germany while “Real” Spain supported the Entente. It is important to note that many of the groups that supported Germany mostly just hated France instead of really liking Germany, which is always an interesting spot to be in. Throughout the war both sides came into Spain in an unofficial capacity and tried to increase their influence through Spanish newspapers. The Germans were by far the best at this, and would be in control of 500 newspapers during the war. These newspapers would all present German leaning stories and messages which sought to make sure that the country did not start leaning too close to the Entente. One of their tactics was to use Portugal, and the fact that it entered the war in March 1916, as a method of causing friction between the two countries. At this point in history Spain and Portugal were not on great terms, so the fact that Portugal had already joined in against the Central Powers gave the German newspapers a lot of ammunition. This influence which Germany had cultivated over the first 3 years of the war really started to come in handy when they reintroduced unrestricted submarine warfare in 1917. Even the first, far shorter and less destructive, unrestricted submarine campaign in 1915 had caused some economic problems for Spain, since it disrupted some of their shipping. However, the campaign of 1917 would be far worse. By April 1917 33 Spanish ships with 80,000 tons of goods had been sunk by German U-boats and this caused a lot of pressure to be placed on the government by the Entente favoring public. This strain would actually bring Spain pretty close to entering the war in its last year, although it did not end up happening. We are now at the point where we are going to dig into how Spain was affected by the war, and that conversation begins with the economy, since it would see the most changes and would also be the root of all of the other changes that were to come.

Everything started off so well for Spain, after the war started they even experienced something of an economic renaissance because in an instant almost all external competition vanished from domestic markets. Even in the countries where movement of goods to Spain was possible, like Britain or France, they were too busy using everything that they could get their hands on for the war. There was also a huge number of new markets available to Spanish goods, as many countries in the fighting were now desperate to augment their textile, iron, shipping, and chemical industries, all of which were things that Spain could help provide. Almost overnight Spain went from having a hugely negative balance of trade to a very positive one, and money flowed into the country in buckets. Unfortunately for some citizens, this wealth was not spread equally among the entire country. The most industrialized areas, which were the northern and eastern regions faired extremely well, while the agricultural areas saw very little of riches. This caused a huge rise in migration from the countryside and into the city due to the economic conditions and general population expansion. Before the war a large number of Spanish citizens left the rural areas and migrated to foreign countries every year, most of these would go to the United States. However, the disruptions of the war had reduced the number by 75%, and this would continue to drop as the war went on. These people generally needed somewhere to go, and they found that somewhere in the cities around Spain. This migration was not really the problem though, it would have probably been okay given the new jobs that were being created, no the problem was massive, unstoppable, unrelenting inflation. During the war years inflation in Spain was nearly off the charts, maybe not modern day Argentina or Zimbabwe, but large enough to cause serious problems. It went from 107% in 1914 to 145% when the war ended. This meant that the actual buying power of money was cut in half or more. This inflation led first to shortages in critical goods, and then the cost of basic products like break and potatoes started to rise and quickly started to move out of the range were most ordinary Spaniards could afford them. Wages simply could not keep pace with the rising prices, and in many cases the rising prices also caused many businesses to go under, which would just then couple rising food prices with rising unemployment. All of these problems, of course, hit the working classes the hardest and as they became more and more unhappy with their situation they began to focus their frustrations on the government.

When the war started the government did not really interfere with the economy, why would it? It was doing great! When the problems started to manifest they continued this course of action and mostly just ignored what was happening. This may have partially been due to the fact that most of the higher governmental officials were among the groups great benefitting from the economic situation, even when inflation started to increase. As the situation worsened it did eventually become evident that the war was not going to end soon and the situation was not going to get better until it did. This led the government down a several year long path of trying many things to try and help the economy, all of which turned out to be failures. In December 1915 a new Liberal government was brought into power under the leadership of Count Romanones. Romanones seemed to have good intentions, and over the year and a half that he led the country many changes were made, but regardless the situation did not improve. Throughout his time in power Romanones would have to deal with German submarine campaigns which were hugely detrimental to national stability, and this coupled with all of the other problems meant that big changes would be made in 1918. Overall Romanones tenure was a failure, and in some ways it marked the transition between eras in Spain, as described by Francisco Romero Salvado “This is regarded as a crucial moment in the country’s transition from elite to mass politics. The social and economic impact of WW1 brought about massive economic dislocation and social distress that in turn generated unprecedented levels of popular mobilization against the regime. Intertwined with domestic uproar, the country was polarized by the question of neutrality. Alienated from the ruling classes by his pro-Allied stance, Romanones was not only the target of a fierce campaign to oust him but also presided over the acceleration of existing movements of social and political protest.” By 1918 both the city and the countryside where at a position of barely contained unrest, and two groups outside of the government would rise to try and change these feelings and channel them into real movements for change. The first were the worker’s unions led by the socialist party and the second was the military.

Before the war the various fringe political groups like the socialists and anarchists were small and disparate groups separated both ideologically and geographically. However, midway through 1917, with the war 3 years old and the situation in Spain circling the drain both of these gaps started to close between the two groups. The gaps were closing both because of the situation, in which coming together might be advantageous and also because the numbers of both were growing. In 1917 a congress of socialist leaders would vote to collaborate with the anarchists to try and bring about real governmental changes. These two groups were shortly to be strengthened by a revolt in Catalonia where a large number of industrial and commercial workers had risen up to protest the economic situation. This combination of factors presented the largest threat to the Spanish government in many years. By all of these groups combining, putting their numbers and their power into a united front they were able to legitimately challenge the state leadership. Even with all that was arrayed against them Romanones and the Spanish government may have been able to contain the situation, if they had been able to count on the military for support. But about that…

As I disgusted earlier, when the war started the Spanish army was in a rough spot. Most of its budget went to supporting its overly large officer corps and that budget started to be a serious problem when the economy started to go to hell. The government took the steps of beginning to investigate cutting out some of the officers as a money saving tactics. This immediately ran into resistance from all of the officers, especially from the lower ranks since they were already feeling the economic pinch from the inflation. In mid-1916 the situation began to come to a head and groups of officers started to organize themselves into trade unions, which were called Juntas de Defensa. While they would claim to be created for the purpose of combatting corruption and other lofty goals, really they existed to try and make sure that the officers continued to get a paycheck, and maybe to try and increase it if possible. In 1917 these groups were all emboldened by what was happening in Russia because in that country a large part of the revolution that was sweeping the country was being led by groups of soldiers, just like them. Eventually King Alfonso felt he had no choice but to order the War Minister Aguilera to get them to disband, they were just too dangerous. However, instead of this happening the Juntas doubled down on their behavior and presented the government with two manifestos. The first manifesto was the less explosive of the two, here is a quote from it “The administration has not improved and the Army is absolutely disorganized, despised, and disregarded in its vital needs: 1 In its moral needs, which produces a lack of inner satisfaction and stifles enthusiasm. 2 In its professional or technical needs through the absence of military knowledge, which there are no means of acquiring, through the lack of unity of doctrine to direct it, and the lack of material to carry out its ends. 3 In its economic needs since officers and men are treated worse than in any other country and are even worse than civilians in analogous circumstances in their own country.” The second of the manifestos was far more ambitious and in it the Juntas demanded the release of a group of officers in prison and demanded a guarantee of no future reprisals, and the recognition of the existence of the Juntas by approval of their statutes, all of which was to be done 12 hours after the manifesto was delivered. They also had one final demand, they demanded a new election, only this time it would be a fair election of a government actually voted into power by popular vote. The king really had no choice but to give into these demands, it was this moment that began the first steps to the takeover of the Spanish government by the military in 1923.

The free elections did not really solve any problems, the government would be fairly elected but it could not solve all of the problems that the country was facing

In 1918 after yet more ships being sank by U-Boats Spain chose again to not enter the war, even though Germany by this point was very much on the back foot and in serious trouble after the failure of the spring offensives. When the war ended Spain also did not get its wish of playing an arbiter role in Europe, instead in 1918 it was not even involved in the settlement, not even earning an invitation to Versailles for the discussions. Instead of upping the countries prestige as hoped, the end of the war just proved once again that it was a second rate power that just did not matter on a European scale. With even this possible positive robbed from the country the war proved to be a complete and unmitigated disaster for Spain. Even though it did not participate in the fighting it found itself a casualty of the war. The fragile economic and political situation that Spain was in before the war simply could not withstand the strains of being on a continent that was tearing itself apart.

Spain was still made up of groups that could only agree on hating the former government and all vestiges of it.

This was a recipe for infighting and instability as the groups strove with each other for dominance. Through all of the instability of the last year of the war and beyond it would be the power of the military that would be able to stand firm, it had proven that it was above the King and the previous government, soon it would prove that it was above everything.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure entering the war would have been any better for the country, and it could have been substantially worse. Spain did not have a good course of action, in a situation with a long European war all roads led to disaster. The only way to have changed this situation would have been to go back in time before the war, probably back before the Spanish American war in 1898, to find a way to put the entire country on a completely different course. Unfortunately for the citizens of Spain the end of the war did not mean the return of some form of stability, instead, between 1918 to 1923 there would be 12 separate governments and 3 parliaments that would come to power and then fall. A postwar Moroccan crisis, which saw the last of Spain’s colonial holdings leave, would be a hard hit as well. By 1923 the calls of the military, still the only steady groups in the country, would take over the government. Unfortunately, once again, this still did not bring stability back to Spain and it would be just the beginning of a new 2 decade series of instability and warfare as the various groups with the country continued to jockey for supremacy. I hope that this has given you a bit more insight into Spain as a country, and how the war could affect those who did not participate in the war. The next premium episode will look at what was happening in some other neutral countries, mostly in Scandinavia where they were weathering the storm much better than their Iberian cousins.