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.

Moreover, he argues, converso attitudes and lifestyles remained a constant in Spanish life: in folklore, literature, music, even food. Although the Inquisition was originally established partly to root out Jews whose adoption of Christianity was alleged to be insincere, in fact its search for crypto-Jews ended in 1530, which is to say a mere generation after the formal expulsions. What remained was "a subtle and corrosive anti-Semitism that turned into one of the most typical components of Hispanic culture." Even today, Spain's anticlerical government of the left distinguishes itself as one of the Western countries most hostile to the existence of the state of Israel.

On the subject of the Inquisition, Kamen upends most of his previous views. The actual number of its victims was not large, he argues, particularly when contrasted with religious persecution in other European countries during the same period. The French under Henry II executed twice as many heretics; the English under Queen Mary three times as many; and the famously tolerant Netherlands actually did away with ten times the number of their Spanish contemporaries. The Inquisition as an institution was abolished in 1813, restored briefly the following year, abolished again in 1820, and restored once more before being eliminated once and for all in 1834.

In effect, Protestant historians have greatly exaggerated its reach and longevity. They seem not to have noticed, meanwhile, that during the early 19th century much of the emigration from Spain was made up not of anti-Catholic dissidents but priests, monks, and nuns fleeing from recurrent waves of violent anticlericalism.

In certain parts of Spain the Church was effectively driven out and the practice of religion was suspended .  .  . [a] phenomenon .  .  . so astounding that it defied, and still defies all explanation.

During the mid-1830s a majority of monasteries were closed and upwards of 7,000 clergy were killed by mobs, a kind of dress rehearsal for the sanguinary events that took place in the summer of 1936.

If the clerical/anticlerical divide was a crucial variant of modern Spanish history, yet another cultural fault line was introduced by the French Revolution and, very particularly, by its brief Napoleonic expression in Spain. King José I (as he styled himself) was, indeed, imposed upon the Spanish throne, quite literally by French bayonets; but at the same time represented Enlightenment values and modern economic and social ideas that much of Spain's educated elite had long embraced.

Indeed, in some ways, he proposed to merely continue and expand the truncated reforms of his Bourbon predecessor, Carlos III (1759-1788). The war of independence (as it is officially known) was actually a civil war between the forces of tradition and modernity, with much of the population--stirred up by the clergy--confounding the latter with a hated foreign invader. When the Bonapartist regime was driven out, largely thanks to a British expedition under Lord Wellington, some 12,000 families fled in its van. The return of the Bourbons in the person of Fernando VII (misnamed "the desired one") did not represent, as partisans of the ancien régime had hoped, a restoration of the old order but, rather, a new chapter in the confrontation between an authoritarian monarchy and various forms of liberalism.

This unlovely quarrel continued well into the 20th century, climaxing in the civil war of the 1930s. Here Kamen draws upon the vast amount of revisionist literature that has been gradually accumulating since the establishment of democracy in Spain three decades ago.

Popular convention has it that General Franco's victory in 1939, and the subsequent establishment of a quasi-fascist state, produced a huge impoverishment of Spanish culture, driving the best of the country's thinkers, writers, and artists into exile. This is true, as far as it goes, but omits some crucial details that greatly modify the overall picture. On one hand, as Kamen explains,

[M]ost prominent cultural figures went into exile not at the end of the war but at its beginning .  .  . they chose exile because they were disillusioned with the failure of the republic rather than because they opposed a hypothetical future Fascist tyranny.

On the other hand, the proximate cause of their hasty departure was a failure on the part of the revolutionary left to distinguish between bourgeois democrats and fascists. Astounding as it may seem, the anarchist hit list in June 1936 included such figures as cellist Pablo Casals and the diplomat-scholar Salvador de Madariaga, both of whom took flight before they could be "taken for a ride" (in the gruesome parlance of the day). They were promptly joined in exile by a virtual Who's Who of high culture: philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, critic Ramón Menéndez Pidal, poet Antonio Machado, physician-novelist Gregorio Marañón, man of letters Ramón Pérez de Ayala, poet Juan Ramón Jiménez, historian Américo Castro, novelist Ramón Gómez de la Serna, historian Rafael Altamira--the list seems endless.

Ironically, those who remained uncritical supporters of the new regime and left only in 1939--notably poet Rafael Alberti and filmmaker Luis Buñuel--were the ones who prospered most mightily in exile, beneficiaries of the sedulously cultivated myth of a martyred Spanish democracy.

Most of the prominent figures of Spanish culture that fled went first to France, eventually ending up in Mexico, Cuba, or Argentina, where they had plenty of time to reflect upon the fate of their country. There was even a republic-in-exile whose "president" sat in Paris and whose government was diplomatically recognized by Mexico, though by no one else. The question of what had gone wrong with the republic (and whose fault it was) continued to fill the pages of ephemeral publications and to agitate café tables, as well as the question of when it was politically correct (if ever) to return to Spain before the expected collapse or overthrow of the Franco regime.

By the 1960s the Caudillo, now presiding over a modest economic recovery, and granted new international respectability thanks to the vagaries of Cold War politics, felt confident enough to be reasonably forgiving of exiles with no previous Communist affiliations. Marañón defended his decision to return by saying, "I prefer the Inquisition to the Inquisition plus pedantry plus hypocrisy," e.g., the meaningless squabbles of exile factions.

The dictator no longer had any reason to fear intellectuals, since the rise of a consumer society was pushing them to the margins of public life anyway. Those who waited until after his death were in for a far bigger shock than those who had returned earlier. Max Aub, who came back from Mexico, complained that his country was no longer the site of struggle and heroics, but "a Spain of mediocrity, of the refrigerator and the washing machine."

Mark Falcoff, resident scholar emeritus at the American Enterprise Institute, is working on a study of the Hispanic world.

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