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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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.