The Magazine

At War with Itself

Spain, the Spaniards, and their internecine history.

Aug 11, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 45 • By MARK FALCOFF
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The Disinherited

Exile and the Making of Spanish Culture, 1492-1975

by Henry Kamen

HarperCollins, 528 pp., $34.95

Henry Kamen is the finest historian of Spain presently writing in any language.

Born (somewhat improbably) in Rangoon in 1936 and educated at Oxford, he arrived in Spain in the early 1960s, at the time completely ignorant of its language. Since then he has produced more than a dozen ground-breaking studies on various aspects of peninsular history, from Spain's expansion overseas to cultural and religious conflict in 17th-century Catalonia, as well as major biographies of Philip II and the Duke of Alba.

Well do I remember, as a graduate student, the excitement of coming across his Spanish Inquisition (1965), in which he put forward the (to me) original argument that the persecution of crypto-Jews and conversos in the 16th century was inspired by the need of Spain's ruling elites to neutralize potential class antagonisms on the part of poor (usually "Old Christian") Spaniards by offering them abstract compensation in the form of racial superiority. As it happens, Kamen no longer believes in this interpretation, and in 1998 he produced a drastic revision, the main lines of which he restates in this volume.

Broadly speaking, The Disinherited is a history of Spanish culture, with the theme of exile forming a unifying thread that nonetheless disappears at times under the weight of the author's vast erudition. Unquestionably, Spain's political and social upheavals across the centuries caused exile to be central to the national experience. Kamen estimates that, between 1492 and 1975, perhaps as many as three million people left the country for political or religious reasons. This was true not merely for Jews and Muslims, officially expelled in 1492 and 1568 respectively, but also for the Jesuits, for members of the Hapsburg nobility who fled after the victory of the pro-Bourbon forces in the War of Succession (1700-1715), as well as collaborators with the regime installed under Napoleon's brother Joseph (1808-1812) and defeated partisans of the Carlist pretender in the 1830s and again in the 1870s.

One could also add the economic emigrés--some 3.5 million of them--who left for Cuba, Argentina, and Mexico between 1880 and 1936. The most significant outmigration in recent times took place during and immediately after the civil war (1936-39).

Kamen is dealing here not merely with the human consequences of regime change or political allegiances, but a Spanish version of what French historians like to call the guerre franco-française--a culture war over national identity.

As he puts it with a great economy of words, "Continuing expulsions .  .  . produced a constant turnover of native elites, making it impossible to establish continuity in the formation of an acceptable cultural tradition."

In point of fact, every ruler of Spain after Isabella the Catholic (1474-1504) was of foreign origin. The Hapsburgs were Austrians; both the Bourbons and the Bonapartes were French (in the latter case, technically Corsican); the present king's grandmother was English and German and his mother Bourbon-Two Sicilies (that is, both French and Italian). His consort, though formally Greek, is actually German and Danish. (They are said to converse with each other in English.) Who, Kamen properly asks, are more authentic Spaniards: "Those who leave or those who remain?" The answer, evidently, is neither or both.

The Disinherited is full of revisionist propositions, some of which will clearly startle even those who think they know something of Spanish history. To begin with, Kamen drastically revises downward the actual number of Jews expelled from Spain after 1492--not more than 50,000, which is barely a third or a quarter of previous estimates. He disputes the notion that the purpose of the Edict of Expulsion was promulgated to unify the country religiously. (How could it be, he asks, in the presence of a Muslim population five times as large?) Rather, it was to end public acceptance of the Jewish religion, which disappeared on Spanish soil for four centuries. Jews or, rather, people of recognizable Jewish descent forcibly or willingly converted to Catholicism ("New Christians" or conversos), continued to play an important role in Spanish life, some as distinguished members of the clergy, scholars, poets, and writers.