Henry Kamen: “There was no Reconquista. No military campaign lasts eight centuries ”| Culture


This historian is irritated by the debate among politicians about whether Spain is a nation or if there are several nations in it, some say eight. He is also irritated by the tendency of political power to manipulate the past, from the Reconquest to the Catalan defeat of 1714, to give a historic varnish to his (poor) speech. “Politicians now have no idea what a nation can be, or what a nation of nations would be. They have not investigated what is meant by speaking of nation. It's just a pun, ”says Henry Kamen (Rangoon, Burma, 1936), a British Hispanic Hispanic resident in Barcelona, ​​a PhD in Oxford, a member of the Royal Historical Society of London, author of about thirty books on Spain and a friend of the controversy. Most experts, he warns, have abandoned the debate about what a nation is because there is no way to reach an undisputed conclusion. Politicians would do well to do the same.

Kamen publishes now The invention of Spain (Espasa), a devastating essay for all the myths on which the national identity has been built. That being the invention without offense: all modern states have had to create their identity in the last two centuries with fanciful readings of their past. Only some (France) have been more successful than others (Spain). “France also accused, in the nineteenth century, problems of cohesion, national sentiment and linguistic unity. Even in 1870, they failed to recruit peasants for the Army because they did not understand their speech. There was no reason why Spain could not follow the same path. ”

The underlying problem, he defends in his book, is that "to unite Spain, the nation had to be invented, while seeking to accept a thousand years of diversity and contradiction in it." The British author openly disputes each and every one of the national myths: from Sagunto and Numancia to Covadonga and Lepanto, figures as ambiguous as El Cid, concepts as diffuse as the Hispanic race or the discourse of inexorable decline.

Franco had no ideology because he knew nothing at all. In the winners of the Civil War there was no culture, except for some intelligent Falangists like José Antonio

The greatest myth of all may be the reconquest. Henry Kamen explains why everything that happened in the Iberian Peninsula over eight centuries cannot be considered the same phenomenon. "No military campaign in the history of mankind has lasted so long." The same term Reconquista does not appear until 1796. And it has been used since then by conservatives "to underline the supposed glory of Spain, using a misconception to serve an ideology," he says.

The circumstances of the capture of Granada in 1492 have nothing to do with those that decided the battle of Navas de Tolosa, almost three centuries before and in the context of an international crusade. "Fernando and Isabel did not resume a process that had been interrupted, but instead began a different stage," he says. For not going back further, to Pelayo's rebellion in Covadonga, never documented and probably fictitious. Kamen also does not buy the story of an idealized Al-Andalus, the work of nineteenth-century romantic foreigners fascinated by Islamic heritage in Spain. The splendor of Al-Andalus, he says, is limited to a very short period in Córdoba, in the 10th century, and a later period in Granada.

British historian Henry A. Kamen.


British historian Henry A. Kamen.

The Catholic Monarchs have been a national symbol for some and for others: for the liberals of the 19th century they were exemplary monarchs in contrast to those that happened to them, who were foreigners, incompetent and absolutist; then it is Franco who puts Isabel la Católica on her private altar. “When I was a student I didn't like to study Isabel, I thought she was a fascist queen,” he jokes. “In the winners of the Civil War there was no culture, except for some intelligent Falangists like José Antonio. Nor did they expect to come to power, so they had to look in the past for the essences of an ideology that didn't exist. Franco had no ideology because he knew nothing at all. ”

The author refuses to accept the dynastic union of Castile and Aragon as the founding moment of the Spanish nation. “Actually, it didn't even create a State. In the more than two centuries that followed the union of the crowns of Isabel and Fernando, no measures were taken to achieve the political union of the Peninsula. ” It is from 1700 when the Bourbons will undertake political unification, initially only administrative. It was a slow process.

"Until the Cortes of Cádiz of 1810 the spark of patriotism did not explode in Spain, but even then the merger of the provinces into a single nation was a process that depended heavily on myth and legend." Spain did not have a flag until well into the nineteenth century, and the Royal March was not adopted as a hymn until the twentieth century, which for the Hispanic is an indicator of a weak national sentiment.

I see no reason to use that concept of the black legend. Has no sense. If unpleasant things happened in a country, they will have to be analyzed

The Bourbon unification did not just crush, in his opinion, the localities so entrenched in the Peninsula. Kamen shares the criticism that the Spanish identity was built around that of Castile, but argues that the Bourbon centralization was so repressive. Catalan, for example, remained the common language in the streets and churches after imposing Spanish on an administrative level.

The British refuses to participate in the controversy between Imperiophobia and Imperiophilia, the books of Elvira Roca Barea and José Luis Villacañas, respectively, with opposite visions of the black legend. And the root cut: “I don't see any reason to use that concept of the black legend. Has no sense. If unpleasant things happened in a country, they will have to be analyzed. And many of the strongest and strongest criticisms were made by Spaniards. ”

However, Kamen denies that the Inquisition played a role as relevant as is usually considered. He calculates that the Holy Office did not carry out more than 3,000 executions in Spain throughout its history, that it was never deployed throughout the territory and that its role was primarily social control. The reason for the cultural and scientific backwardness of Spain cannot be seen there: look better in education. It even relativizes the influence of the Catholic religion in the modern age. In the sixteenth century, remember, the bishops lamented in their writings the ignorance of the people of their own religion. "The Church had power and wealth, but the people had little devotee," beyond the folkloric manifestations, he says. The story of a deeply Catholic Spain is due to thinkers like Marcelino Menéndez Pelayo, who in the late nineteenth century "exaggerated the reality about the religiosity of the Spaniards to confront the anti-clerical liberals."

He has a critical vision of the Spanish Empire, but refuses to speak of the "conquest of America." "There is the wrong idea that all empires are based on conquest, when after the Roman none was like that." Colonization was not a conquest, but a company with international participation. On the side of Hernán Cortés, he fought local people against his enemies in America; just as in Flanders they fought troops of many nationalities; or the Spanish presence in the Philippines never passed a small portion of the territory. "Nor did England conquer India, because it would not have been able to. Today the US dominates the world without conquering it," the discussion ditch.

The Inquisition did not have much impact. Not even the people were as devout as they say

The book is irreverent with the idea of ​​a Spanish nation, but not less with Catalan independence. He is particularly irritated by the myth of September 11, 1714, the fall of Barcelona in the Civil War presented as a heroic resistance of the Catalans against Castilian absolutism. “They have prepared a mythical version of the mass uprising of the people; that never happened, it is a total forgery ”. What there was was "a plot, conceived by a handful of Catalan leaders, to invite the British to occupy Catalonia and help separate from Spain." And he adds: “Did the British find a people anxious to free themselves from their oppressors Bourbons? No way". That conflict, he says, was rather a civil confrontation between Catalans in an international war.

But the same is true of the War of Independence. "These two conflicts have in common that the decisive element was foreign intervention." Only that after 1808 English interests were imposed on the French, unlike in 1714. Destroy another myth: the Cortes of Cádiz. Kamen refers to 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

Resident in Barcelona since the 1990s, Kamen is surprised by the recent evolution of Catalanism from nationalism to separatism, which, he thinks, was never the same. A classic aspiration of nationalism was "to play a strong role in the destiny of Spain, to be important in Madrid." Not that. He regrets that the electoral system in Catalonia benefits the countryside over the city, and thus ensures the nationalist dominance of the Parliament. As regrets the weakness of the central government for political fragmentation, which in his opinion makes it difficult to find solutions that stabilize the country.

And, after studying all the kings that have passed through Spain, do you think the monarchy has a future today? “I think the current one works very well. It does what it has to do. ” It has a complicated history behind, yes, because the Spaniards "are always expelling kings, inviting or rejecting royal families, and declaring republics." So the Spanish monarchy "does not have as much support as the United Kingdom, it is a shame, but it is a very important institution that must be maintained."

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