CULTURE

Stolen Spanish sentiment

Academics scrutinize the concept of nationhood, from its origins to disfigurement under Franco

Juan Pablo Fusi, Andrés de Blas, Antonio Morales, María Cifuentes, Joan Tarrida and José Varela Ortega.
Juan Pablo Fusi, Andrés de Blas, Antonio Morales, María Cifuentes, Joan Tarrida and José Varela Ortega.SAMUEL SÁNCHEZ

The fact that, just now when nationalism is so much in the air, there appears a book called History of the Nation and of Spanish Nationalism (Historia de la nación y del nacionalismo español, in the original title) suggests a stroke of opportunism on the part of the publisher, or a counter-offensive on the part of some political group. But neither one of these is in the picture, though at the publishing house Galaxia Gutenberg they must be rubbing their hands in glee (the director, Joan Tarrida, was clear: "This firm has no ideology") while Catalan secessionists may interpret it as a reaction against their claims.

The fact is that this collective work began with a course given at the Menéndez Pelayo International University six years ago, when the Catalan premier was the Andalusian-born Socialist José Montilla, and the region's independence movement was at a lower ebb and had not flooded the streets of Catalonia. The origin of the idea was in a lacuna, a perceived lack. "We thought there was a shortage of studies on the Spanish nation, while the historiography of the peripheral nationalisms is abundant. This is not a political book; it is conceived in a spirit of academic rigor," explained one of the promoters, Antonio Morales, professor of contemporary history at Carlos III University, during last month's presentation at the Fundación Ortega-Marañón, co-publisher of the volume.

The 1,518-page work is a chronological overview of the conception of Spain from its mythological origins to the 20th century, with pieces by 48 different authors. Most of them are historians (Juan Pablo Fusi, Santos Juliá, José Álvarez Junco, Ricardo García Cárcel, Fernando García de Cortázar, among others). But there are also a number of experts in philology (Inés Fernández-Ordóñez), geography, literature (José-Carlos Mainer) law, music and economics (José Luis García Delgado) because some chapters deal with the representation of Spain in painting, music or in the work of intellectuals such as Pío Baroja, Ortega y Gasset and Blasco Ibáñez.

A list of almost 50 writers cannot help but include different sensibilities, though Andrés de Blas, professor of political science at the UNED distance-learning university and one of the book's three coordinators, said that he detects a "thread of continuity" in the authors' identification with "an idea of the Spanish nation based on the coexistence of different national sensibilities, under an umbrella of pluralism, tolerance and loyalty to the Constitution." The regional government system is a political formula which, according to De Blas, "has a long road ahead of it, and happily resolves the Spanish national problem."

The authors also share a certain recognition of the idea of nation that arose in the 19th century, when, under the Constitution of 1812, "the nation" is said to be the repository of sovereignty, though the sovereignty of the people, or democracy, does not come until 1931. To the progressive individuals of that time (the liberals) this was their unquestioned watchword, though it is true that the historical context - the war of independence against Napoleon - favored patriotism from every angle.

Two centuries later, the concept of the "Spanish nation" is more contaminated by recent history. "Spanish nationalism is identified with one of its historic forms, that which existed on an official basis in the Franco period," warn the coordinators in the prologue, adding: "Its undue identification with Francoism led to its consequent rejection, despite the years that have passed since that period ended. This is so much the case that, in political parlance, the term Spain has frequently been substituted by that of "Spanish state" - as if all the ideological options had accepted the old peripheral thesis that Spain is not a nation but a state."

Andrés de Blas put forward as an example the use, in international contexts, of the "Spain brand," and the omission of the words "Spanish nation." Is the nickname La Roja, which has caught on in the sports media, in reference to the all-conquering Spanish national soccer team, another ideological qualm about using "nation?" "This may be, this may be. It's an example of that banal nationalism that Antonio Morales refers to," added De Blas. In Professor Morales' view, the Spanish nation implies "a national feeling" which is fairly widespread, and finds expression in banal aspects shared by a majority of society. This leads him to conclude: "The nation may disappear, but the culture cannot." The historian noted that the present tensions between the state and Catalonia have risen to an intensity unknown in the past. "It's unusual; there were tensions in other periods, but the present situation is a new one."

Both the historiographical vacuum and the sidelining of the term nation itself are exceptional phenomena, which the academics blame largely on the hijacking of the term "nation" under Franco's regime.

"There is an anomalous situation in all of this. These terms are put to base uses; we would like to bring the concepts of nation back into common usage," argued Andrés de Blas. In his opinion, this idea is now the "hostage" of sectors of the right and extreme right. "It cannot be bound up with just one vision; there is a plurality of Spanish nationalisms, there is more than one feeling."

José Varela Ortega, a professor of contemporary history, concluded on an ironic note: "For something that is not supposed to exist, it has generated plenty of pages."