The Spanish literary critic, historian, and jurist Rafael Altamira y Crevea (1866-1951) was, in his generation, the foremost Spanish proponent of the scientific method in history. He devoted his life as a jurist to international peace.
Rafael Altamira was born in Alicante on Feb. 10, 1866. He formed a lifelong attachment to his native city and was once described by a disciple as a man with "a southern character, always enthusiastic and optimistic." He received his doctorate at the University of Madrid in 1887. His first major work, History of Communal Property (1888), established a European-wide reputation and was soon translated into Russian and German. His next work, The Teaching of History (1891), marked him as the major advocate of scientific historical writing in Spain. It gave a new direction to historical scholarship on the Peninsula.
Altamira had already published critical literary articles as a student. He maintained this interest through his early years as a professor, writing novellas and stories as well as literary criticism. In 1895 he founded the Revista critica de historia y literatura Españolas, Portuguesas y Hispanoamericanas, the first review of its kind in Spain.
In 1897 Altamira won a professorship at the University of Oviedo. He now set out to promote popular education through the creation of a university extension and to renew Spanish historical scholarship. During the next 15 years he published a monumental History of Spain (4 vols., 1900-1911), a History of Spanish Law (1903-1904), history textbooks for secondary schools, and numerous articles on Spanish history for the Grande encyclopédie, the Cambridge Modern History, and the Revue historique. In 1909-1910 he made an extended tour of Latin America to establish contacts between Spanish universities and the universities of that area. From 1911 to 1913 he was director of primary education in Spain.
Throughout his work Altamira maintained that true history was cultural history "which the history of kings and battles obeys passively, like the skin obeys the muscles." In the intellectual world of Spain these views were considered revolutionary and made him one of the leaders of the generation immediately preceding World War I.
In 1919 Altamira was named to the committee to create an international court of justice, and in 1921 he was elected to the Permanent International Court at The Hague. Although he continued to teach and write on Latin American history as a professor at Madrid, he now devoted most of his energies to the cause of international peace, lecturing and writing on the subject in addition to his work on the Court.
The Spanish Civil War drove him into exile, first to The Hague, then in 1940 to Bayonne, France, and finally in 1945 to Mexico City. He maintained his interest in historical scholarship to the end. In 1951 he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, but he died on June 1 before the vote was taken.
John E. Fagg's chapter, "Rafael Altamira," in Bernadotte E. Schmitt, ed., Some Historians of Modern Europe: Essays in Historiography by Former Students of the University of Chicago (1942), discusses Altamira's historical writing and his reforms in Spanish education. □