La Gloriosa, 1868 (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

The Whig view of Spanish history

For left-wing author Giles Tremlett, concord is the telos of Spain’s history — on the left’s terms, that is

Artillery Row Books

The introduction to España (2022) — an attempt at condensing all of Spain’s history into 36 vignettes the length of fairy tale chapters by columnist and historian Giles Tremlett — begins with a non sequitur the size of an Andalusian bullring. A longtime Madrid correspondent for The Economist and The Guardian, Tremlett is the author of a 2020 bestselling history of the International Brigades that rallied the republican forces during the country’s Civil War (1936-1939). In this introduction, he invokes the 2010 football World Cup final in Johannesburg as a snapshot of Spain’s troubled relationship to its own past. In the minutes prior to the game against Holland that Spain would go on to win, Dutch players were seen “shouting out the words” to the Wilhelmus, their country’s 1572 anthem commemorating William of Orange’s revolt against Spanish rule. Spain’s players, meanwhile, merely hummed to the wordless rhythm of theirs. Why such a contrast? In Tremlett’s words, “because Spaniards disagree so profoundly about their own history that they dare not put words into it”. Deductive fallacy, much?

España: a Brief History of Spain,
Giles Tremlett (Bloomsbury, £12.99)

 The truth is more banal. The country’s repeated attempts — not least in 1830 and 2007 — to crowdsource the lyrics to the 18th century La Marcha Granadera anthem have failed to unanimously please the taste of the successive assembled juries. Thus the words remain to be fleshed out. Nonetheless, Tremlett skillfully deploys throughout the book the narrative of a Spain at odds with itself over the meaning of its history — not least to propound his own biassed account of that history. To situate that account, Tremlett cites the 19th century poet and novelist Miguel de Unamuno, who declared that “the Castilian soul was great where it exposed us to the four winds and spread throughout the world”. On one side lies the idea of a Spain turned outwards, “of many identities and continually refreshed by Unamuno’s four winds”. On the other lies an inward-looking idea of Spain “as a single, pure and homogenous entity that can only be corrupted by the outside world”. The tension between these two accounts, Tremlett affirms, “has never been resolved”.

 Tremlett’s celebration of Spain’s diverse, fluid, multicultural and progressive view of itself begins in earnest in the pre-Roman era, with Iberia relegated to the fringes of the Eurasian landmass and thus unable to contribute to its development. Long before Christ, Iberians and Celts coexisted in Spain with various North African and Mediterranean communities, settled in a pattern that persists to this day, with most population not in the heights of the peninsula’s centre but at sea level, along the coastline. Soon after, Tremlett grapples with a core dilemma of Spanish history: mediaeval Moorish rule, with its long “list of achievements”, was at once a period of unprecedented vibrancy for Iberia — and a repoussoir. Spain’s identity was later built on rejecting that identity as “built on conquest, expansion and opposition to Islam”. Tremlett’s embrace of outward-looking Spain does not translate into glib acceptance of the myth of Al-Andalus as a land of religious tolerance, which “does not survive close scrutiny”. He does, however, celebrate it for becoming the “European capital of Judaism”.

That ambivalence is heightened under Ferdinand and Isabel, who birthed Spain’s modern idea of itself whilst funding and overseeing the taming of the wilderness across the Atlantic. “The world, writes Tremlett, “began to know itself through Spain. The country’s role at the core of globalisation comes with downsides, not least abetting and partaking in the sin of slavery. On this score, Tremlett peddles what other historians have deridingly called the “black legend” (la leyenda negra) by ascribing to Spain a role — beyond its capabilities at the time — of masterminding the extermination of indigenous peoples and the shipping of millions of indentured Africans in replacement. Spain “started the slave trade and was the last to end it”, claims Tremlett, omitting the illegal trade that survived into the 19th century. Yet as Hugh Thomas has demonstrated, the longevity of Spain’s experiment does not erase the same practice by other powers, which Tremlett all but brushes aside. He does, however, refute parts of the black legend, such as claiming that “the Inquisition was not as bad as we assume”.

If discovering the Americas spawned countless injustices (Tremlett ponders how Spain’s black population almost entirely disappeared in the centuries following the tricontinental slave trade), it surely didn’t help Spaniards back home either, whose “resources were frittered away on maintaining an almost impossibly stretched empire” under Charles I, the first of Spain’s Habsburg rulers. Under his reign, imperialism became embedded in Spanish identity, as Spaniards of all walks of life sought fame and fortune in the Americas. “The empire helped unite Spain, writes Tremlett, “because so many Spaniards could share in the project of despoiling it. As the 16th century gave way to the 17th, a more authoritarian politics at home and a worse squandering of the empire’s fortunes proved the backstory to an unmatched revival of arts and letters called the “golden century”. With the childless Charles II succeeded by Bourbon rule in 1700, “Spain finally turned into a single, if often fractious nation”, launching a centuries-long tussle between centralism and localism. “It also brought prosperity.

Republicans were fighting not for democracy but for a red form of tyranny

If there is a point in the book where a tradition strikes root that Tremlett deems worth conserving, that would be the 1812 signing of La Pepa, one of Europe’s oldest constitutions and largely the template for Spain’s current one that dates from 1978. In fighting between 1808 and 1814 to cast off Napoleon’s yoke, “liberals had added hope, progress and ambition to Spain’s war of liberation”, so much so that “Spain looked as though it could become one of Europe’s most progressive countries”. This whiggish account overlooks the effect of the following decade’s imperial recession, with Spain losing virtually all its possessions between 1810 and 1825. “Not only had Spain been ravaged by war, writes Tremlett, “but it had also shed the power that came with possessing almost an entire continent. With the Carlist wars that came later that century against the backdrop of timid industrialization, there began a “tradition of vengeful massacres” between the forces of progress and those of reaction. Whilst liberals were the centralizers, the Carlists clamoured for regionalism — an irony that likely has not escaped Tremlett’s notice.

When the empire is finally dissolved upon defeat in the 1898 Spanish-American War, Spain’s “idea of itself suffered dramatically”, indulging in a “bout of introspective self-flagellation”. Amongst the literary generation bearing that year as its name stood out Unamuno, who diagnosed biblical Cainism as Spain’s root problem and saw “salvation in the embrace of Europe”. Tremlett’s account of who stood on either side of that divide becomes hopelessly Manichean and tribally overheated by the 1930s. To Tremlett, the onset of the Second Republic in 1931 “freed Spain definitively from the yoke of the church”, a yoke that would be even more forcefully cast off, admittedly, with widespread religious persecution later that decade, which he fails to recognize. Rather than decrying that the Catholic Church-affiliated CEDA party “damned the country’s new left-wing leaders as anti-Catholic traitors seeking to destroy the family, snatch away property and sow chaos”, Tremlett could have in good faith engaged with the plentiful evidence of anticlerical violence stoked by left-wing parties in those years.

Near the end Tremlett’s book condenses Spain’s history to an allegory of man’s nature, a tale of hope, vengeance and redemption. His sense that Franco’s nationalists were orders of magnitude more ruthless than their republican adversaries dooms his account to one-sidedness. Republicans, the average Spaniard knows, were fighting not for democracy but for a red form of tyranny. Tremlett claims that 130,000 died in Francoist hands during the war, and another 50,000 were summarily executed soon after. He claims that the reverse violence, meanwhile, “was never quite as systematic or extensive as Francoist purges”. This is far from a settled truth amongst historians of Spain. Neither would most of them approve of Tremlett’s use of the term “totalitarian” to describe Franco’s rule. Ultimately, Tremlett is at his best straying from the messy terrain of fratricidal warfare. “Moving from a dictatorship to a democracy, he writes about the 1978 democratic transition, “required compromises that stored up problems for later. Those compromises fuel Spain’s fractious story forward.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover