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The two faces of modern Spanish history


Historian Richard Baxell reviews ‘Violencia: A New History of Spain: Past, Present and the Future of the West’ by Jason Webster (Constable 2019). Originally published in ¡No Pasarán! 1-2020.

Based in his farmhouse in Andalusia, Jason Webster has spent much of the last 15 years writing with great affection about Spain, its people, culture and history. Many readers will already know ‘Duende’, his account of years obsessing over flamenco, or ‘Guerra’, an examination of the enduring legacy of the Spanish Civil War and Franco dictatorship. His latest publication, ‘Violencia’, is a bold attempt to write the history of Spain in less than 400 pages. This has earned one or two disdainful remarks on social media, unfairly, for this book is aimed at the everyday reader, rather than specialist academics. It’s very engagingly written and should be read as an occasionally irreverent introduction to Spanish history.

The author’s fondness for his adopted country is made abundantly clear by a detailed description of its influence around the world. ‘Without Spain,’ he points out, ‘emblematic aspects of “Western” civilisation as diverse as rational thought, modern surgery and the American cowboy would all be missing.’ Likewise, he highlights the powerful impact of centuries of Arab rule over Spain. The ‘Moors’, he argues, were not (and are not) ‘the other’, but a vital part of Spanish history and culture.

However, as the book’s title would suggest, it is not just a celebration of Spain’s past greatness. The main tenet of the book is an argument that Spain has a long and unfortunate tradition of turning to violence as a means of solving political crises. Spanish history, Webster argues, has been an enduring struggle between two sides, personified by the two faces of Santiago (St James), the patron saint of Spain: on the one hand Matamoros, the violent Moor-slayer, and on the other the peaceful sage. This ‘dark side’ of Santiago has been turned against many different forms of enemy, for Spain has always needed an ‘other’, against which to unite a disparate country. Sometimes that enemy has lain overseas, but on other occasions it has existed within the ‘indivisible’ Spain itself. The expulsion of the Jews, the Reconquista, the Carlist wars of the 19th century and the civil war itself thus all become symbols of this struggle.

At the end of the book, the author considers whether this thesis might be applied to contemporary Spain. Franco’s dictatorship was, of course, built on violence and, though the transition appeared to signify that Spain was at last turning away from violence, many would argue that the transition is still not over. As Paul Preston and others have pointed out, there was never a denazification (or de-Francoisation) in Spain. Many on the Right still resent any perceived challenge to their inalienable right to rule. The government’s heavy-handed response to the Catalan referendum of October 2017 and the draconian sentencing of the separatist leaders up to 15 years for their crimes – originally portrayed as rebellion – could be seen as further evidence of the trend.

The author is certainly right to state that Spain currently faces many challenges. Yet another election has taken place, with concerns over Catalan nationalism and immigration seeing support for the neo-Francoist Vox party spread well beyond its Andalusian cradle. The recent disinterring of Franco’s remains from the Valley of the Fallen was not supported by a third of the population (according to a recent poll in El Mundo) and has infuriated the family and supporters. In these circumstances, the author wonders if Felipe VI might be the last king of Spain. Does the country’s future lie with democracy or authoritarianism? Could Spain return to the violence of the past? 

Personally, despite the recent angry protests in Catalonia, I think that’s unlikely. Franco is long dead and Spain has been a democracy for more than 40 years. In many ways, the importance of disinterring Franco’s remains was symbolic, more than anything else. However, it’s hard to disagree with the author when he concludes that ‘pretending that the ghosts from the past don’t exist, only makes them stronger in the long run’.

Posted on 10 July 2020.