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The Contemporary World

1945 to the present


After World War II, a new world order came into being in which two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, played the leading roles. Their ideological differences led to the arms race of the Cold War and fears of a global nuclear conflict. The rest of the world was also drawn into the bipolar bloc system, and very few nations were able to remain truly non-aligned. The East-West conflict came to an end in 1990 with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the consequent downfall of the Eastern Bloc. Since that time, the world has been driven by the globalization of worldwide economic and political systems. The world has, however, remained divided: The rich nations of Europe, North America, and East Asia stand in contrast to the developing nations of the Third World.

The first moon landing made science-fiction dreams reality in the year 1969.
Space technology has made considerable progress as the search for new
possibilities of using space continues.



Spain: From Military Dictatorship to Constitutional Monarchy

SINCE 1945


see also: United Nations member states -


General Francisco Franco was Europe's last fascist dictator. After the end of World War II, the country was politically and economically isolated, and the situation improved only with the opening up of Spain to the world economy in the mid-1950s. Spain became industrialized and developed a tourism industry that attracted visitors from across Western Europe, but still remained a dictatorship until Franco's death in 1975. His successor, King Juan Carlos I, oversaw a smooth transition to democracy. This opened the way to membership in the European Economic Community and a rapid rise in living standards.


The Development of the Constitutional Monarchy since 1975

King Juan Carlos I helped shape the transformation of the Franco dictatorship into a democracy. This system change took place largely peacefully.


1 Juan Carlos I ascended to the Spanish throne on November 22, 1975.

Together with the premier he appointed in 1976, 3 Adolfo Suarez, the king introduced the structure of a democratic system.

Suarez's middle-of-the-road Democratic Center Union won a victory in the election of the constituent National Assembly in 1977. A new constitution, approved by the people with a large majority in 1978, made Spain a constitutional monarchy. This and the dissolution of the former state party, the Movimiento Nacional, in 1977 brought an end to the fascist system shortly after Franco's death.

However, this change did not take place completely without resistance.

On February 23, 1981, 4 Lieutenant Colonel Antonio Tejero stormed parliament with members of the paramilitary Guardia Civil and took members of parliament hostage.

1 On November 22, 1975, two days after Franco's death, Juan Carlos takes his oath on the Bible and the constitution, becoming king of Spain

3 Adolfo Suarez is sworn in as prime minister with the Spanish king

4 The rebel Antonio Tejero holding a raised gun
in the Spanish parliament

The military took a wait-and-see stance, even approving in part. It was the king's staunch public declaration of his belief in democracy that thwarted the attempted coup.

The elections in 1982 brought a change in government. The winning party was the leftist Spanish Socialist Workers' party.

Prime Minister 5 Felipe Gonzalez Marquez was confronted with a dissatisfied military and a rise in unemployment.

At the same time, Spain was moving closer to Europe and the West.

In 1982 Spain became a member of NATO and on January 1, 1986, joined the 2 European Community.

5 Felipe Gonzalez Marquez

2 The Spanish national flag is
raised in front of the headquarters
of the EC in Brussels on December 25, 1985

After losing the election in 1996, Gonzalez relinquished the government to the conservative Popular Party.

Spain's recurring problems awaited the new premier, 6 Jose Maria Aznar: The concentration of industry in a few centers, a weak middle class close to 7 the poverty line, and a high unemployment rate.

Spain has made the jump from an agrarian country to an industrial nation within one generation. Its political processes also harmonize well with those of the rest of Europe, despite its history as a dictatorship.

6 The Spanish prime minister, Jose Maria Aznar (left), congratulates his successor Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who was elected in 2004

7 Beggar in front of a bank in
Madrid, 2002



Juan Carlos I

Juan Carlos, born in 1938, attended several military academies and the University of Madrid. In 1969, he agreed to be Franco's successor, taking over on November 22, 1975. With the aid of a reform program he had introduced and owing to his personal authority, he was able to transform the Spanish dictatorship into a democracy without great political upheaval.

Juan Carlos's greatest hour came during the attempted coup in 1981. With his appearance as the supreme commander of the military on television and with a speech unambiguously in favor of the new form of government, he was able to isolate the leaders, bring the military over to his side, and secure the new democratic system.

Juan Carlos I and Queen Sophia




Juan Carlos I

Juan Carlos I

king of Spain
in full Juan Carlos Alfonso Victor María de Borbón y Borbón

born Jan. 5, 1938, Rome, Italy

king of Spain from Nov. 22, 1975. He acceded to the Spanish throne two days after the death of Francisco Franco. Juan Carlos was instrumental in Spain’s peaceful transition to democracy.

Juan Carlos was the grandson of the last king, Alfonso XIII, who left Spain in 1931 and died in exile 10 years later, after renouncing his rights in favour of his third son, Juan Carlos Teresa Silverio Alfonso de Borbón y Battenberg, conde de Barcelona (1913–93), popularly known as Don Juan. (Alfonso’s eldest son had been killed in an automobile accident, and his second son renounced his rights in 1933 for medical reasons.) Don Juan married María de las Mercedes de Borbón y Orleans, and their elder son was Juan Carlos.

Juan Carlos spent his early years in Italy and first came to Spain in 1947 for his education. After his father suggested in 1945 that Franco should step down as leader of the country and generally began opposing Falangist policies, Franco grew resentful and turned with increasing interest to Juan Carlos and his education, especially his military education. In 1955 Juan Carlos entered the General Military Academy at Zaragoza and later attended the Naval Military School at Marín in Pontevedra, the General Academy of the Air at San Javier in Murcia, and the University of Madrid.

Although a 1947 Francoist law abolished the republic and established Spain as a “representative monarchy,” throughout Franco’s lifetime Spain remained without a ruling monarch. On July 22, 1969, however, Franco presented to the Cortes (parliament) a law designating Juan Carlos the future king of Spain. The move was facilitated by two events: in December 1968 the Carlist pretender, Carlos Hugo de Borbón-Parma, had been expelled from the country; and on Jan. 7, 1969, Juan Carlos said for the first time that he would accept the throne if offered (previously he had maintained that his father’s claim preceded his own).

Although Juan Carlos swore loyalty to Franco’s National Movement in 1969, he demonstrated far more liberal and democratic principles after his accession to the throne in 1975, appointing reformist prime minister Adolfo Suárez in 1976 and encouraging the revival of political parties and amnesty for political prisoners. In 1981 Juan Carlos underscored his democratic credentials by taking swift action to deflate a military coup that threatened to topple Spain’s nascent democracy and return the government to Franconian reactionary lines; in doing so, he alienated the military sector but preserved the state of democracy that made possible the accession of a socialist government in late 1982. Also, a liberal divorce law was passed in 1981 and a law granting limited abortion rights in 1983.

In 1981 Juan Carlos became the first Spanish king to visit the Americas and was the first crowned monarch to make an official visit to China; in so doing, he became the first Spanish head of state to visit a communist country. Throughout his tenure as king, he traveled abroad on many goodwill missions, including a 1985 trip to France, where he and French Pres. François Mitterrand signed an accord calling for military and political cooperation between their two countries; a meeting with U.S. Pres. Bill Clinton in 2000; and a surprise visit to Spanish troops in Afghanistan on New Year’s Eve 2007. The king remained popular with most Spaniards at home, but in the early 21st century, he was criticized by leftists who called for independence for Catalonia province.

Juan Carlos was married in Athens on May 14, 1962, to Princess Sophia of Greece, daughter of King Paul. They had two daughters, Elena and Christina, and a son, Felipe.

Encyclopaedia Britannica



The Regions of Spain

The Spanish regions gained more rights through democratization. At present, Spain is transitioning into a federal state.


In a concession to the desire for cultural identity in the Basque Region, Catalonia, and Galicia, King Juan Carlos granted the Basque, Catalan, and Galician languages the status of official state languages in the respective regions in 1975, However, this was not sufficient for those striving for autonomy.

In September 1977, 10 Catalonia demanded self-governing rights that the region had already been granted once in 1931.

10 Catalonian flags in Barcelona

Demonstrations in other regions followed. New parties were formed that raised the demand for autonomy.

A national solution was found in the constitution of 1978. Under Article Two, Spain was divided into 17 autonomous regions. The whole national parliament, the Cortes, from then on faced a Senate made up of regional chambers. The authority of the regions, as differentiated from the functions of the central state, is laid out in the text of the constitution.

The regions have the right to self-government in, for example, public works, environmental protection, and economic development: the national government regulates 8 defense and foreign policy, among other things.

The particulars of power vary from region to region, but Catalonia, 11 Galicia, and the 9 Basque Region have had a high degree of autonomy from the outset.

8 Spanish crown prince Felipe visits soldiers on a Spanish air force base, 2002

11 Wind turbines on the Galician coast, 1998

9 The Guggenheim Museum in the Basque city Bilbao

Not all sections of the populace reacted favorably to this development. Even the process of democratization was threatened at first through acts of violence and terrorist attacks. The armed forces rejected the efforts toward decentralization, and many attacks by the extreme right took place. The right wing repeatedly called for the military to take over the government.

On the other hand, the Basque separatist terror organization ETA continued to fight for complete sovereignty of the Basque Region by means of 12 assassinations and kidnappings.

Since 2002 there have been increased discussions in Spain over a new form of the power relationship between the regions and the central state. In addition, because the Senate has demonstrated itself to be rather weak until now, more independence continues to be demanded by the different Spanish regions.

12 An ETA car bomb attack in Santander, 2003




ETA ("Euskadi Òà Askata-suna"—Basque Country and Liberty) is an underground movement that developed as a students'group in 1953 from the Basque National Party (PNV) and reconstituted itself as ETA when the PNV seemed too moderate to them. Their goal is the formation of a Basque state out of the Basque regions in Spain and France.

Their terrorist attacks increased after Franco's death. ETA has been blamed for about 800 deaths since 1968. Thousands demonstrated against ETA terror in 2000. The government refuses to negotiate with ETA as long as it refuses to lay down its arms.

Car bomb explodes, Madrid, 2000





Basque organization
abbreviation of Basque Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (“Basque Homeland and Liberty”)

Basque separatist organization in Spain that has used terrorism in its campaign for an independent Basque state.

ETA grew out of the Basque Nationalist Party (Partido Nacionalista Vasco; PNV), which was founded in 1894 and which managed to survive, though illegally, under the fascist regime of Francisco Franco by maintaining its headquarters in exile in Paris and keeping quietly out of sight in Spain. In 1959 some youthful members, angered at the party’s persistent rejection of armed struggle, broke away and founded ETA. During the next few years the new organization developed groupings associated increasingly with Marxist positions and set revolutionary socialism as their goal. In 1966, at ETA’s fifth conference, the organization divided ideologically into two wings—the “nationalists,” or ETA-V, who adhered to the traditional goal of Basque autonomy, and the “ideologists,” or ETA-VI, who favoured a Marxist-Leninist brand of Basque independence and engaged in sabotage and, from 1968, assassination. The Franco regime’s attempts to crush ETA in the Basque provinces were severe, involving arbitrary arrest, beatings, and torture. By 1969–70 the principal leaders had been rounded up by the police and subjected to military trials in the city of Burgos.

Factionalism plagued ETA in the 1970s and ’80s, with various internal groups alternating between violence and political action. After Franco’s death in 1975, Spain’s democratic governments moved to establish regional autonomy for the Basque provinces and to offer pardons to ETA members who renounced terrorism. In the following decade, however, the number of ETA killings by bombing and assassination multiplied tenfold compared to the occurrences under Franco’s ironhanded repression. Most of those assassinated were high-ranking Spanish military officers, judges, and government officials.

ETA came to rely financially on robberies, kidnappings, and “revolutionary taxes” extorted from businessmen. It formed political front organizations—such as Herri Batasuna, which generally was considered the political wing of ETA—to contest elections in the post-Franco period while continuing to engage in assassinations and car bombings to achieve its goals. Successive ETA leaders were captured by the Spanish government or killed in factional disputes, but the organization remained active. In 1983 two ETA members were kidnapped and murdered by Spanish security forces as part of what many considered a “dirty war” against the group. In 2000 two government officials were convicted for their role in the murders and sentenced to more than 70 years in prison.

In September 1998 ETA called a cease-fire, but it lasted only 14 months. Continued violence by ETA at the beginning of the 21st century once again led the Spanish government to attempt to suppress the organization, and in March 2006 ETA announced a permanent cease-fire. In December 2006, however, ETA members carried out a bombing at Madrid’s international airport that killed several people, and in June 2007 it officially lifted its cease-fire. Although increased policing efforts and the arrests of several high-ranking ETA leaders in subsequent years weakened the organization, violent attacks continued. Bombings occurred in the city of Burgos and on the island of Majorca in July 2009, less than a month before the 50th anniversary of ETA’s founding.

Encyclopaedia Britannica


see also: United Nations member states -



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