SEVEN YEARS AGO this spring, Spain held what should have been a valedictory sort of election. Here was a modern European success story. Spaniards were richer and freer than ever before. Their country was a European power. The ruling right and the opposition left shared equal credit for establishing a democracy and a booming economy after Franco’s death in 1975. Spain had every reason to feel proud and confident. And yet the 2004 campaign turned unusually bitter. The threats of Basque terrorism and Catalonian separatism hung over the election. The country split over the government’s support for America’s involvement in the Iraq war. Historical ghosts thought buried, among them Francisco Franco’s, floated to the surface. On the Wednesday evening before, I met a longtime resident American correspondent in Madrid over a glass of wine. “For the first time in this campaign,” she remarked, “I fully understand how the civil war could have taken place here.”
The next morning, a series of bombs killed 191 Madrid commuter train passengers. The Basque ETA was blamed first, before the fingerprints of a local al Qaeda offshoot became obvious. It was a tragic pivot. The attacks of March 11, from then on known as “11-M” or “el once eme,” tore apart assumptions about the maturity of the new Spain. A tacit agreement to leave the Civil War past alone came undone; anti-Americanism flared up, with many saying the Iraq war was to blame for the attack; eventually the economic bubble popped, too. To this day the wounds are raw. 11-M revealed a fragile nation beneath the twenty-first-century gloss—a place still haunted by “familiar demons” that once were said to make Spain unsuited for democracy and different, in some essential ways, from its Western European peers.
As in Goya or El Greco, Spain is a luminously dark place—what one of its most prominent historians, half a century ago, called “un enigma histórico.” Stanley Payne has spent a professional lifetime unraveling Spanish enigmas. “A Unique History,” his new book’s subtitle, describes the subject more than the ambitions of this slim volume. Payne offers a series of thoughtful, provocative, and uneven essays that range from the founding of Spain to the present. Not a straightforward history, the book is historiographic and polemical, for better and worse.
Spain was not always an outlier in Western Europe, of course. This is the first of several myths that Payne sets out to correct. He records that about five centuries into the modern era, the Visigoths founded a kingdom that “was the first, most successful ‘European’ or ‘Western’ country of that era.” Spain was a pioneer in merging the Germanic and Roman traditions, which together became the basis of Western civilization. In Payne’s telling, the Visigoths are unfairly maligned as “decadent and dreary,” easy pickings for the Islamic conquests that began in the year 711.
What knocked Spain so far off this path that Talleyrand allegedly remarked that “Europe stops at the Pyrenees,” a phrase that stayed current well into the 1970s? Start with geography and Islam. Payne writes that the invaders from across the Straits of Gibraltar were, contrary to another myth, neither relatively tolerant nor progressive. The Muslims were no less brutal in converting or repressing non-believers than the Christians of the day. Islam was a militant and expansionist creed that “unlike the imperialism of Rome and some later Western imperialisms . . . in most areas steadily erased native languages and largely suppressed independent native cultures.” Only when the Arabs went into decline—long after Charles Martel stopped their advance into Europe at Tours and then the most successful reconquest of Islamic land in world history took place at the end of the fifteenth century on the Iberian peninsula—would they come to be seen, above all in their own eyes, as history’s victims.
This reminder of Islam’s expansionism is refreshingly frank. More contentious is Payne’s view of the Moorish legacy in Spain. He says the era left little mark, except perhaps on literature and less so food or music. There was no influence, he writes, on “religious culture, theology, or church organization and administration, or in philosophical thought, high culture, or political philosophy and practice.” He makes a defensible case here. Yet it is hard for many foreigners or Spaniards to escape the strong feeling that the Arab inheritance, while not always visible or easily quantifiable, sets the place apart from the rest of Europe. It’s a bit like what makes Sicily not fully Italian, molded as it was by many different passing invaders, the Moors also among them.
Setting aside arguments over physical evidence of the Arab legacy, the nature of the Spanish state was fundamentally changed by the centuries-long conflict with Islam. Payne stands on solid ground here, calling it “the major formative, as well as major de-formative, factor in Spanish history.” Beginning in the eighth century and ending with the Catholic monarchy’s conquest of Grenada in 1492, the encounter turned the country from a budding “core” Western European nation to a peripheral frontier state. Spain was forced to become militaristic to an extreme, and partly as a result of this development it later turned expansionist. This came at a cost. Spain missed out on an important growing period that put in place the foundations of Europe’s richer powers. Spain, writes Payne, “failed to develop fully all the institutions that would become common to the Western core, and the consequences helped to set Spanish society on the differential path it trod.”
The effects weren’t immediately visible. From the fifteenth century on, global trade and the rise of empire that came as a byproduct of the hunt for new trade routes and markets made Spain a world power. Just 300,000 Spaniards were sent to administer and populate its possessions throughout the colonial period. Latin America was built in the flawed image of Spain, a legacy seen there to this day. Spain threatened Britain’s supremacy on the seas. But then, in relatively short order, came national decline, which endured for centuries. The wound was largely self-inflicted. Lacking any serious external threat, the country was prone to internal conflict. The economy was neglected. Its social mores discouraged creative enterprise and led elites to search for ways to avoid work and taxes. During the reign of Carlos II, the last Habsburg king of Spain, who died in 1700, nearly three hundred new titles of nobility were created. While the first dominant stock type of the Black Legend portrayed the Spaniard as a “violent and sadistic . . . fiend,” it came to be replaced in the more decadent Habsburg period by “the Spaniard as proud, pompous, vainglorious, and invincibly indolent, incapable of working or studying,” Payne writes. Eventually by the nineteenth century, this too gave way to the caricature of the Spaniard as a lazy romantic who loves bullfighting, flamenco, and long siestas, which holds with small variations to this day. Some of these character traits are delightful, of course, but none of them are usually associated with successful nations.
Spain’s weaknesses were complemented, or offset, by flashes of brilliance. In politics it was ahead of its time—and of itself. The Spanish gave the world the broader global meaning of “liberal,” from the constitution signed at Cádiz in 1812; “guerilla” also originated in the War of Independence against Napoleon. Yet Spain could never make liberal politics stick until the adoption of its current constitution, in 1978. Throughout the nineteenth century, the country was economically and educationally backward. Madrid did not centralize its domain as Paris did, and there was no compelling unifying idea to bind a modern state together. For this reason, as other parts of Europe experienced rising national feeling, Spain saw instead the blossoming of regional nationalisms, in the Basque country, Catalonia, and elsewhere. Spain’s cardinal flaw was the absence of a “liberal center” (something that may also, worryingly, be missing in many of the would-be Arab democracies today). Extremes dominated Spanish politics, most of all in the Civil War that began in 1936. Liberal democracy did not take root until the late 1970s.
Eight decades on, the Civil War is still contentious for historians and politicians. Payne seeks to rescue this complex conflict from mythmakers of various stripes. Though it was a prelude to the clash between totalitarianism (both fascist and, until “Operation Barbarosa” in 1941, Soviet communist) and liberal democracy—both sides in Spain of course carried all three of those banners—the war had uniquely and familiar Spanish roots. The war pitted the revolutionaries of the Republican Left, and its communist allies, against the counterrevolutionaries of the Catholic Right, who were eventually backed by the military. Payne has written elsewhere at length on the war and its causes, and here rather briefly but clearly gives an honest account without favor to either side. While many of its supporters thought they were battling for democracy, the Republican government pushed religious and economic reforms that didn’t enjoy the support, Payne reckons, of more than a fifth of the Spanish public. Though elected in free elections, the Republic ended up trampling on the constitution, arming the unions and welcoming in the Soviets. These were no pure democrats.
No more so, of course, were those on the other side. The military rebelled, won the backing of fascists in Italy and Germany, and committed a larger share of atrocities during and of course exclusively in the purges after the war. The Spaniards were not fascists of the classic type; before the 1936 rebellion, Payne says, the military did not even lean particularly hard to the right. The nationalist right in Spain, he adds (in a judgment that will rankle some), resembled less Germany or Italy of the time than Austria or some of the Central European authoritarian regimes, such as Poland under Józef Piłsudski. Simply put, the absence of a “liberal center” sank the democratic experiment again in the 1930s, though with a far bloodier toll than in past civil conflicts. Spain’s punishment was to end up with Franco for the next forty years, missing out on the democratic awakening in the parts of Europe liberated by the Americans.
The Generalissimo looks slightly better with time, and Payne offers a useful reassessment. Though fully aware of Franco’s crimes and personal limitations, he chalks up the rise of modern Spain in no small part to Franco—“the most successful counterrevolutionary of the 20th century and in terms of the positive transformation of his country, the most successful dictator.” He repressed his opponents, got into bed with Hitler, and kept Spain a dowdy backwater for far too long. Yet unlike most other dictators, Franco did lay the ground for a transition to constitutional monarchy. Payne calls Spain the “first example of a democratization from the inside out, in which the laws and institutions of the authoritarian regime were used to carry out a complete transformation into a democracy.”
Don’t give Franco too much credit, though. Nothing really moved until he died, in his own bed and in power. King Juan Carlos, the current monarch, was the one who led Spain into the democratic era with a new constitution in 1978 and less than a decade later membership in the European Community. Some of Franco’s old officers weren’t happy with the change, rising up in a lame coup in 1981. It is a good guess whose side Franco—from wherever his spirit rested—took.
By then a national consensus had formed that Spain’s place was in democratic Europe. The Spanish Model was instructive for the so-called negotiated transitions in South Africa and much of post-Communist Central Europe, and might now come in handy in the Middle East. Payne reminds us that an important feature of Spain’s democratic experiment was “the rejection of the politics of vengeance, which meant eschewing any political or judicial quest for ‘historical justice’.” The pact held under right-wing democratic governments, who were more or less Franco’s direct descendents, as well as under Socialist Felipe González’s long run atop Spain.
It started to fray, somewhat paradoxically, when Spain’s maturing democracy and thriving economy would seem to have buried that era for good. Maybe it had all come too fast. At the beginning of this century, the government of José Maria Aznar entertained dreams of aggressively building up a global leadership role for Spain as a close American ally and assertive, middle-sized European Union member. The Spaniards were welcome counterweights to the traditional Franco-German condominium in Europe. But Aznar, who served two successful terms, made one mistake: he failed to bring the Spanish people along with him on this adventure, which brought rewards as well as risks. A larger proportion of Spaniards seemed to oppose the Iraq war than any other European country whose government backed the war. More to the point, many Spaniards weren’t ready for the big time in world affairs, even if Aznar was.
The Socialists, who in 2004 ran on Iraq and Bush, trailed in the polls during the campaign. Though Aznar kept his promise to retire from politics after two terms, the People’s Party led by Mariano Rajoy was favored to win. The Socialist leader José Luis Roríguez Zapatero was a handsome but inexperienced backbencher. Then, three days before the election, came the bombings of 11-M. Throughout the day of March 11, both Socialists and the People’s Party pinned the blame on ETA; I spoke with both. By Friday and the weekend, the Islamist (and purported Iraqi) connection was impossible to deny. The ruling party did not rush to admit this and the Socialists pounced. “Liars!” was their cry, building on their campaign against Aznar’s alliance with Bush.
The charge was a bit unfair, but highly effective. The French philosopher André Glucksmann wrote then that the most mature democracies would have found it hard to hold elections under such awful circumstances, and said the poll should have been delayed. The Spanish went ahead to prove their democratic maturity, and the vote went off, freely and fairly. Yet Spain ended up looking like it failed this test. The lack of social trust and national unity that split the country is almost impossible to imagine in any other European democracy, with the possible exception of Belgium. Spaniards attributed the worst motives to political opponents. It was ugly all around.
After the election, reconciliations was not a priority for Zapatero. To Felipe González’s consternation, his successor as a Socialist prime minster kicked up the Civil War history. Zapatero picked fights with the Church hierarchy, an uncomfortable echo of the divisions of the 1930s. Among other politically charged moves, he had the remaining Franco statues in the country torn down in the middle of the night. An academic friend of mine, who was exiled as a student in the Franco years, used to bring visitors to see the last Franco statue in Madrid, standing abandoned and forgotten behind the environment ministry, “to show them how well we had reconciled ourselves with the past.” Now Franco was gone, along with a lot of the reconciliation. Consumed by his dislike for Bush’s America and an eagerness to step in line meekly behind Jacques Chirac’s France, Zapatero dimmed Spain’s profile in Europe and beyond. He consciously set out to be the anti-Aznar. The People’s Party was too distracted by its own petty feuding and poor leadership to challenge him, and lost to the Socialists again in 2008. The European debt crisis has sunk Zapatero in the polls, exposing another shortcoming of the so-called Spanish miracle, a real estate bubble built on iffy foundations. About a million housing units sit empty and unsold across Spain, much of them along its touristy coastal areas. Zapatero in April announced he would not lead the Socialists in elections due next year.
There are plenty of reasons to worry about Spain. The secessionist movements in the Basque country and Catalonia could rip the country apart. Its banks might be even weaker than appearances suggest, and Spain could become the European domino that breaks the euro. And yet for all the setbacks in the last seven years, Spain’s luminous qualities are more prominent today than its darker demons. In a new Europe anchored by the EU, it poses less of a danger to itself. Spaniards reasonably look to the future with optimism: tomorrow will almost surely be better for them than yesterday. The modern era is new and dizzying, but compared to much of what came before, it is still a hopeful one for this enigmatic and unique country.
Matthew Kaminski is a member of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board.