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Mirrors and Myths: An Introduction to Spain's Past

How to untangle the present.........

Today’s Spain faces a wide range of chal­lenges. From sep­a­ratist move­ments to rapid­ly chang­ing demo­graph­ics, there are both sta­t­ic and dynam­ic pres­sure points that seem to threat­en the sta­bil­i­ty of Span­ish democ­ra­cy. Hon­est­ly, some of these pres­sure points are close­ly relat­ed to the chal­lenges we face here in the Unit­ed States. I am occa­sion­al­ly asked to write about a spe­cif­ic Span­ish issue such as the Cata­lan Inde­pen­dence Move­ment or the re-emer­gence of extreme polit­i­cal par­ties. I think that would be a bad idea. First of all, these issues are com­plex, dynam­ic, and emo­tion­al­ly loaded. To pre­tend that I under­stand them thor­ough­ly in a mod­ern con­text would be fal­la­cious. Fur­ther­more, while I think that a foreigner’s objec­tive com­men­tary (De Tocqueville’s Democ­ra­cy in Amer­i­ca for exam­ple) can be insight­ful when exam­ined his­tor­i­cal­ly, the same com­men­tary by a for­eign­er, relat­ed to imme­di­ate prob­lems and deliv­ered via key­stroke could be con­sid­ered inflam­ma­to­ry. Things are inflamed enough as they are (on both sides of the Atlantic). 

So how do we pro­ceed? Rather than give you my own flawed opin­ions on cur­rent events and recent his­to­ry, I want to pro­vide you with a blue­print for your own analy­sis. Is the Cata­lan inde­pen­dence move­ment jus­ti­fied? Who real­ly held the moral high ground in the Span­ish Civ­il War? Should Spain still be a con­sti­tu­tion­al monar­chy? These and ques­tions like them are dif­fi­cult, but they are all con­nect­ed to the same his­to­ry. In this con­text, I intend to take you on a jour­ney that begins before the Roman Empire arrived on the Penin­su­la. We must go back if we are to move for­ward and draw fair con­clu­sions about the present. 

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The Flag of Spain flies over the flag of Asturias, one of Spain's 17 Autonomous Communities.

Spain, like our own coun­try, is a nation-state. It’s easy to take this for grant­ed but it is one of the most fun­da­men­tal truths that shape our per­cep­tion of our­selves and of oth­ers. This strange new form of polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tion that began emerg­ing slow­ly as part of the West­phalian sys­tem” in the West, required occa­sion­al con­tor­tions of the his­tor­i­cal record, as well as the repres­sion of cul­tur­al het­ero­doxy. Did you know that at the time of the French Rev­o­lu­tion (1789) it is esti­mat­ed that less than half of the pop­u­la­tion of what we know as France actu­al­ly spoke French? And only about 10% spoke a French dialect that would be rec­og­niz­able today. Mod­ern France, like many west­ern nations, is a con­struct arguably shaped in great part by myth. As Amer­i­cans, we have our own myths rang­ing from the Pil­grim expe­ri­ence to the west­ern expan­sion of the 19thCen­tu­ry. By using the term myth” or leg­end”, I am not imply­ing that the sto­ries that bind us are devoid of truth. Leg­ends are often based on truths. I am imply­ing, how­ev­er, that these sto­ries and the truths that they con­tain are co-opt­ed over time to shape what­ev­er caus­es are con­ve­nient to those that ben­e­fit from par­ti­san inter­pre­ta­tion. Try­ing to fol­low these tan­gled nar­ra­tives back in time and untie them is often daunt­ing; Not only because his­to­ry is com­pli­cat­ed, but more impor­tant­ly because his­to­ry can be a cloudy mir­ror that we often pre­fer not to peer into. 

Mod­ern Spain is a remark­ably diverse melt­ing pot of cul­tures, eth­nic­i­ties, and leg­ends. Like many mod­ern nations, the glue that binds the body politic is thick­er in some places than oth­ers. Over the next sev­er­al months, I will be writ­ing a series of posts on Spain’s roots. Although I intend to fol­low the plan below, I may devi­ate from time to time in the inter­ests of paint­ing a clear­er picture. 

Part 1: Before the Romans

Who were the orig­i­nal Iberi­ans? Where did they come from and what do we know about these foun­da­tion­al cul­tures that the Greeks, Carthagini­ans, and Romans would influ­ence so deeply? 

Part 2: The Clas­si­cal Invasion

Most of this sec­tion will focus on the Roman influ­ence. We’ll look at how the Romans orga­nized the Penin­su­la, influ­enced cul­ture, and intro­duced cer­tain insti­tu­tions that would be direct­ly relat­ed to the Span­ish Civ­il War two mil­len­nia later. 

Part 3: The Visigoths

As Roman influ­ence reced­ed, it was replaced by new pow­ers. We dis­cuss the new rul­ing class, and how they shaped Penin­su­lar cul­ture in last­ing ways?

Part 4: Al-Andalus

The Umayyad inva­sion and sub­se­quent polit­i­cal influ­ence would shape the Penin­su­la in ways that are still evi­dent in dai­ly life and would set the stage for a strug­gle that con­tin­ues to define Spain today, for bet­ter or worse. 

Part 5: The Reconquest

Fact and fic­tion come togeth­er to cre­ate a uni­fied Spain. Here in the kiln of strug­gle against Islam­ic occu­pa­tion was born the spir­i­tu­al vig­or and ener­gy that would car­ry Spain into its emer­gence as a glob­al power. 

Part 6: The Gold­en Age

Spain builds an Empire but strug­gles to heal its own cul­tur­al divides and inequities. In a land of plen­ty, dis­con­tent brews. 

Part 7: Keep­ing A Lid on the Bottle

As the rest of Europe expe­ri­ences, the ben­e­fits of the Renais­sance, and sub­se­quent Enlight­en­ment, Spain and its insti­tu­tion­al pow­er struc­ture lags behind. 

Part 8: The Penin­su­lar War

Napoleon­ic France may have been defeat­ed on the Penin­su­la by a new­ly awak­ened Span­ish uni­ty, but the ideas and changes that the inva­sion brings will launch us towards resur­gent civ­il conflict.

Part 9: The Civ­il War

The his­tor­i­cal apex of the divi­sions that have grown for cen­turies, the Civ­il War (19361939) pro­duces an imposed peace. 

Part 10: The Dictatorship

Franco’s peace comes with a price, and reminders that nation-states are often con­struct­ed with­out the cul­tur­al glue required to form a tru­ly durable nation-state. 

Part 11: Democ­ra­cy Arrives (Again)

We will explore the tran­si­tion to a con­sti­tu­tion­al monar­chy in the 1970s and the con­se­quences of this change. Now it will be up to you to answer the hard questions. 

When our jour­ney is com­plete I sus­pect we will find that although the events that shape Span­ish his­to­ry were unique, the lessons that can be tak­en away are uni­ver­sal; themes that shape our com­mon expe­ri­ence as humans. I look for­ward to shar­ing this expe­ri­ence with you and thank you as always for reading.