Spain Declares Neutrality in World War I

Spain’s declaration of neutrality in World War I brought the nation economic prosperity but also heightened its internal political polarization and instability.

Summary of Event

The outbreak of World War I in the summer of 1914 exacerbated the fragmented, increasingly tumultuous quality of Spanish politics. In an unstable political environment, King Alfonso XIII’s control had brought continuity to foreign policy. Now the king’s sympathies lay with the Franco-British Entente, not the German-Austrian Central Powers, because of the former’s potential usefulness in developing Spain’s Moroccan empire (compensation for losses to the United States in 1898). The king’s interest in Morocco also came from the loyalty of the africanista faction of Spain’s army. On the other hand, most of Spain’s conservative classes, military personnel, and Eduardo Dato Iradier, premier in 1914, sympathized with Germany. They admired Germany for its military triumph over France in 1871, and they distrusted British and French liberalism. In addition, Britain and France had largely ignored Spain’s interests in settling Moroccan crises in 1905 and 1911. World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];Spanish neutrality
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[kw]Spain Declares Neutrality in World War I (Oct. 30, 1914)
[kw]Neutrality in World War I, Spain Declares (Oct. 30, 1914)
[kw]World War I, Spain Declares Neutrality in (Oct. 30, 1914)
[kw]War I, Spain Declares Neutrality in World (Oct. 30, 1914)
World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];Spanish neutrality
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[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Oct. 30, 1914: Spain Declares Neutrality in World War I[03640]
Alfonso XIII
Cambó, Francisco
Dato Iradier, Eduardo
Raisuli, Mulai Ahmed el
Figueroa y Torres, Álvaro de
Lerroux, Alejandro
Márquez Martínez, Benito

Spanish efforts to take effective control in Morocco had also been frustrated since 1909 by native resistance led by Sharif Mulai Ahmed el Raisuli in the Rif region. Thus, at the outbreak of the European war, half of Spain’s army was tied down in Morocco; the other half, underfunded, was not up to the standards of modern warfare. From 1908, available money had gone into naval shipbuilding, but Spain’s navy remained far behind the naval forces of the Great Powers in 1914.

Britain had not sought a Spanish alliance in the crucial months before the war’s outbreak, and declaring neutrality seemed the best course. The Spanish also believed that Spain might play a more influential role politically and economically as a neutral nation than as a combatant. An initial declaration of neutrality was made on July 30, 1914, and the Cortes (the Spanish parliament) confirmed Premier Dato’s decision an October 30, 1914.

During the early years of the war, both the Allies and the Central Powers expended considerable effort propagandizing Spain. This effort escalated when Italy joined the Allies in 1915 after promises of postwar rewards. The Germans now promised Spain a free hand in Morocco and in revolutionary Portugal as well as possession of Tangier and Gibraltar. German agents encouraged Catalonian separatists in Barcelona, who also found encouragement in Allied propaganda favoring self-determination for subject peoples. The lively debate between Germanophiles and Francophiles (or aliadofilos) primarily reflected ongoing divisions between the right and the left of the Spanish political spectrum.

Wartime prosperity also aggravated these divisions. Trade increased enormously as orders from belligerent nations poured in and investment funds from abroad increased. Spain’s boom brought inflation, and wages lagged behind prices. Underclass persons not employed in industry suffered greatly, a situation that encouraged already active socialism and anarchism. Wartime profiteers in Barcelona, Spain’s industrial center, refused to pay taxes commensurate with the gains; instead, they rallied behind the Lliga Regionalista (Regional League), which stood for Catalonian autonomy. Increased taxes might have eased the lot of soldiers, who also suffered from wartime inflation.

A crisis came on February 1, 1917, when Germany announced renewal of unrestricted submarine action against neutral shipping to Britain and France (even though German ships used Spanish ports). This declaration prompted the United States to enter the war in April, 1917. Spain’s Francophile premier, Álvaro de Figueroa y Torres, protested the declaration and was fiercely attacked by Madrid’s pro-German press, which treated the protest as portending Spain’s entry into the war. Figueroa y Torres resigned in the midst of general domestic disorder and was succeeded by another Liberal premier, Manuel García Prieto, then by Dato, and then by Conservative Antonio Maura. The policy of neutrality continued despite German submarine attacks on Spanish shipping. In late August, 1914, Dato and Figueroa y Torres, both members of Maura’s cabinet, supported a letter threatening the use of impounded German ships to replace sunken Spanish ships. Although this letter brought another fierce attack from Spanish Germanophiles, Germany agreed in the final month of World War I that six impounded ships might be so used for the duration.

In the meantime, wartime pressures had driven Spain to a general domestic breakdown in 1917. The king panicked, in part because of the collapse of Russia’s monarchy in February after a revolt by soldiers and socialists. In June, Spain’s junior officers formed “defense committees” (juntas de defensa) under Colonel Benito Márquez Martínez, calling for increased salaries and general army reform. In the course of that summer, civil servants, taxpayers, and others also formed defense committees. Alejandro Lerroux, Barcelona’s republican leader, offered to support the military junta with eight hundred men, but Márquez did not respond. In May, an assembly of parliamentarians composed of republicans, reformists, and socialists had convened in Barcelona and later in Madrid. The assembly demanded clarification of Spain’s foreign policy and asserted the parliamentary right to control it. The assembly’s larger goal was to reform the parliamentary system toward more effective democracy. Francisco Cambó, the Lliga leader, took the initiative in the Madrid meeting in October. After unsuccessfully inviting the military junta to join them, however, he left to join Maura’s coalition cabinet, and the assembly collapsed. Earlier, Spanish laborers had formed an unprecedented alliance between the anarchist CNT (National Confederation of Labor) and the socialist UCT (General Confederation of Labor). In August, 1917, they declared a general strike. The government now gave in to the military junta in order to gain their assistance in suppressing the strike. A total breakdown—even a revolution—had been averted, but at the cost of putting the army in control.


The wartime experience of 1917-1918 set the scene for Spain during the next fifty years. The nation emerged from World War I with increased diplomatic influence. Within the League of Nations, as a member of the Council, Spain’s continued neutrality allowed it to speak for a coalition of small nations. Spain’s military, secure in its power over domestic affairs, supported revolts and the dictatorships of General Miguel Primo de Rivera (1923-1930) and General Francisco Franco (1940-1975). Both military regimes remained committed to monarchy. Repressed by these dictators, socialists, anarchists, and Catalonian extremists contributed to the failure of the liberal Second Republic (1930-1940) through their infighting and incoherent challenges to government authority. World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];Spanish neutrality
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Further Reading

  • Bledsoe, Gerie B. “Spanish Foreign Policy 1898-1936.” In Spain in the Twentieth-Century World: Essays on Spanish Diplomacy, 1898-1978, edited by James W. Cortada. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980. Succinct account places the problem of Spanish neutrality within its diplomatic context.
  • Boyd, Carolyn P. Praetorian Politics in Liberal Spain. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1979. One of few detailed treatments of Spain’s neutrality available in English. Emphasizes the period from 1898 to 1923 and the activities of the Spanish army.
  • Meaker, Gerald. The Revolutionary Left in Spain, 1914-1923. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1974. Provides a clear and objective account of the complex interaction of socialists, communists, and anarchists in a nation where regionalism and individualism often proved more important than political parties.
  • Payne, Stanley G. Politics and the Military in Modern Spain. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1967. Discussion covering the period 1815-1965 traces Spain’s problems from their roots to their logical conclusion in the dictatorship of Franco.
  • Pilapil, Vicente R. Alfonso XIII. New York: Twayne, 1969. Biography emphasizes the king’s influence on foreign policy, including his manipulation of “praetorian politics,” which is often lost in other treatments.
  • Rivas Cherif, Cipriano. Portrait of an Unknown Man: Manuel Azaña and Modern Spain. Edited and translated by Paul Stewart. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1995. Memoir from the vantage point of the moderate Left (a key element in divided Spain) gives a lively sense of what it was like to live through the turbulent World War I era in Spain.
  • Romero, Francisco. “Spain and the First World War.” In Spain and the Great Powers in the Twentieth Century, edited by Sebastian Balfour and Paul Preston. New York: Routledge, 1999. Discusses the crises that Spain experienced as the result of its neutrality policy.

Entente Cordiale

Outbreak of World War I

World War I

United States Enters World War I

Spanish Civil War Begins