“There was no Reconquest. No military campaign lasts eight centuries”

In his new book, British historian Henry Kamen debunks the myths that are bound up in Spain’s identity, arguing that “current politicians have no idea what makes a nation”

‘The Surrender of Granada,’ by Francisco Pradilla.
‘The Surrender of Granada,’ by Francisco Pradilla.

British historian Henry Kamen is irritated by the debate among politicians over whether Spain is one nation or a collection of nations – some say as many as eight. He is also disturbed by the tendency of those in power to manipulate the past, from the Reconquest to the defeat of Catalonia in 1714, allowing them to bolster their arguments with self-serving versions of history.

“Today’s politicians have no idea what a nation or a nation of nations might be,” says Kamen, who was born in Burma in 1936 and now lives in Barcelona. “They have done no research into the term, nation. It’s just a play on words.”

Kamen warns that most experts have abandoned the debate on what a nation is because it will always be a moot point. Politicians, he adds, would do well to do the same

Not only has Kamen earned a doctorate from Oxford University and membership of the Royal Historical Society of London, he has also penned around 30 books on Spain and warns that most experts have abandoned the debate on what a nation is because it will always be a moot point. Politicians, he adds, would do well to do the same.

Kamen has just published La invención de España (The Invention of Spain, Espasa), which unmasks the myths on which the country’s national identity has been built. It’s not that invention is bad; all modern states have had to create an identity over the last two centuries based on fantastical interpretations of the past. It’s just that some, such as France, have been more successful at it than others, such as Spain. “In the 19th century, France also had problems concerning cohesion, nationalism and linguistic unity,” he says. “As late as 1870, they were unable to recruit peasants for the army because they did not understand their language. There was no reason why Spain could not have followed the same path.”

The basic problem, he argues in his book, is that “to unite Spain, a nation had to be invented while simultaneously trying to assimilate a thousand years of diversity and contradiction.” The British author makes no bones about debunking each and every one of the nation’s legends, from Sagunto and Numancia to Covadonga and Lepanto – figures as ambiguous as El Cid and concepts as vague as the Hispanic race and its inexorable decadence.

Franco had no ideology because he had no idea about anything. There was little in the way of culture when it came to those who triumphed in the Spanish Civil War, with the exception of a handful of intelligent Falangists such as José Antonio

The greatest myth of all may be that which surrounds the medieval Reconquest. Kamen explains that not everything that has happened on the Iberian Peninsula over eight centuries can be considered part of the same phenomenon. “No military campaign in the history of mankind has lasted that long,” he writes. The term Reconquest does not even appear until 1796 and has been used ever since by conservatives “to emphasize the supposed glory of Spain, using a mistaken concept to serve an ideology,” he says.

The circumstances of Granada’s capture in 1492 have nothing to do with those affecting the outcome of the battle of Navas de Tolosa almost three centuries earlier in the context of an international crusade. “Ferdinand and Isabella did not restart a process that had been interrupted; they embarked on a different one,” he says. And that’s without going back further to the rebellion of Pelayo in Covadonga, which was never documented and is probably fictitious.

Kamen doesn’t buy the story of an idealized Al-Andalus either, which he says is the fabrication of 19th-century foreign romantics who were fascinated by Spain's Islamic heritage. The splendor of Al-Andalus, he says, is limited to a very brief period in Cordoba during the 10th century and another subsequent spell in Granada.

The Catholic Monarchs have long been viewed as symbolic figures in Spain on both sides of the political divide. The 19th-century liberals considered them to be exemplary monarchs compared to those who came in their wake – foreigners, incompetents and absolutists. And Franco placed Queen Isabella I of Castile on his private altar.

British historian Henry Kamen.
British historian Henry Kamen.víctor sainz

“When I was a student I didn’t like studying Isabella – I thought she was a fascist queen,” Kamen jokes. “There was little in the way of culture when it came to those who triumphed in the Spanish Civil War, with the exception of a handful of intelligent Falangists such as José Antonio [Primo de Rivera]. Nor did they expect to come to power, so they had to search the past for the essence of an ideology that didn’t exist. Franco had no ideology because he had no idea about anything.”

The author refuses to accept the union of Castile and Aragon as the moment when the Spanish nation was founded. “In reality, it did not even create a state. In the two centuries and more that came after the merging of Isabella and Ferdinand’s crowns, no measures were taken to achieve the political union of the Peninsula,” he says. It was only from 1700 onwards that the Bourbons undertook the gradual political unification, which was initially confined to administrative issues. It was a slow process.

“It was not until the Cadiz Cortes of 1810 [Spain’s first national assembly to claim sovereignty] that the spark of patriotism was ignited in Spain, but even then the fusion of the regions into one nation was a process that depended a lot on myth and legend,” says Kamen. For example, Spain did not have a flag until well into the 19th century, and the Royal March was not adopted as the national anthem until the 20th century, which Kamen believes was due to weak national sentiment.

The Bourbon unification did not, according to Kamen, completely do away with the provincialism that was so deeply rooted in the Peninsula. As far as he is concerned, the Spanish identity was built around that of Castile, but he questions whether the Bourbon centralization policy was as repressive as it is depicted to have been. For example, Catalan remained the common language in Catalonia both among the people and in the churches after the Castilian language had been introduced as the official language of governance.

I don’t see any reason to use the concept of the black legend. It doesn’t make sense. If unpleasant things happened in a country, they need to be analyzed

Kamen refuses to be drawn into the controversy between Empirephobia and Empirephilia, the books written by Elvira Roca Barea and José Luis Villacañas, respectively, which present clashing interpretations of the “black legend” – anti-Spanish and anti-Catholic propaganda allegedly generated by Spain’s north European rivals, starting in the 16th century. “I don’t see any reason to use the concept of the black legend. It doesn’t make sense. If unpleasant things happened in a country, they need to be analyzed. A lot of the strongest and most sweeping criticisms were made by Spaniards.”

Kamen denies that the Inquisition played as important a role in Spanish history as is often made out and estimates that the Holy Office carried out no more than 3,000 executions in Spain in total. The persecution, he maintains, never gripped the entire land and the aim was mainly one of social control. In his view, the reason Spain lagged behind culturally and scientifically lies in education. He even minimizes the influence of the Catholic religion in the modern age. In the 16th century, he says, members of the Church complained about people’s general ignorance regarding their own religion. “The Church had power and wealth, but the people had little in the way of devotion,” he says, while adding that there were of course folkloric manifestations of faith.

The image of a profoundly Catholic Spain is rather due to thinkers such as Marcelino Menéndez Pelayo, who in the late 19th century “exaggerated the reality of the religiosity of the Spanish people in order to confront the anticlerical liberals.”

Kamen takes a critical view of the Spanish Empire, but rejects the idea of the conquest of America. “There is a misconception that all empires are based on conquest, but that cannot be said of any of them following the Roman Empire,” he says.

Colonization, he adds, was not a conquest, but trade with international participants. Locals fought on the side of Hernan Cortés against enemies in America, just as in Flanders troops of many nationalities were pitted against one another; and the Spanish occupied no more than a small portion of the territory in the Philippines. “Nor did England conquer India, because she wouldn’t have been able to. Today the United States dominates the world without having conquered it,” he concludes.

According to Kamen, the Inquisition didn’t have that much impact. Nor were the people as devout as is sometimes made out

Kamen’s new book may be irreverent about the idea of a Spanish nation, but it also scoffs at the idea of Catalan independence. He is particularly irritated by the myth of September 11, 1714, the date Barcelona fell in the War of Succession, which is presented by some as a heroic resistance by the Catalans against Castilian absolutism. “They have produced a mythical version of a mass uprising of the people that never happened; it is a total falsification,” he says.

In his view, what did happen was a plot conceived by a handful of Catalan leaders to invite the British to occupy Catalonia and help separate it from Spain. “Did the British find a people eager to free themselves from their Bourbon oppressors? Not at all,” he writes, adding that the conflict was rather a civil confrontation between Catalans within the framework of an international war.

The same can be said of The War of Independence. “What these two conflicts have in common is that the decisive element was foreign intervention,” he says, remarking that from 1808 onwards, it was English interests that were imposed on the French, unlike in 1714. Kamen debunks what he considers the myth of the Cadiz Cortes while he is at it, recalling the words of José María Blanco White to describe the 1812 Constitution as “a fantasy on a piece of paper.”

The mythical version of 1714 as the uprising of the Catalans is a total forgery

A resident of Barcelona since the 1990s, Kamen is surprised by the way “Catalanism” has evolved recently from nationalism to separatism, which, he believes, is far from being the same thing. According to the author, the classic aspiration of nationalism was “to play a strong role in the destiny of Spain, to be important in Madrid.” He says it’s a shame that the electoral system in Catalonia favors the countryside over the city, thereby ensuring the nationalist dominance of the Catalan Parliament. He also notes that political fragmentation has led to a weak central government, which in his opinion makes it difficult to find solutions to stabilize the country.

So after studying all Spain’s monarchs does he believe the Spanish monarchy still has a future? “I think the current one works very well,” he says. “It does what it has to do.” He adds that the Spanish royals have a complicated history behind them because the Spanish “are always expelling their monarchs, inviting or rejecting royal families, and declaring republics.” He concludes that this has led to the Spanish royals to have less support than their British counterparts. “It’s a shame,” he says. “But it’s a very important institution that has to be maintained.”

English version by Heather Galloway.

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