Spain: A Unique History, Stanley G. Payne
What makes this book a unique history is something that will either likely win over or alienate the readers of this book, and that is the author’s personal touch and his replacement of a narrative flow for Spanish history with a discussion of vital historical questions and problems that historians of Spain (and Portugal) have to wrestle with when writing their own histories. I found this approach to be a welcome one, and as I am an autodictat concerning many historical matters in the same way that the author is about Spanish history, my ability to relate to the author’s approach and his idiosyncratic blend of amateur and professional history as well as his early adoption of the practice of oral history in understanding the Spanish Civil War. The author also hilariously shares what it is that Franco’s spies thought about the author and his efforts to understand the Falangists from a not-unsympathetic view that demonstrates his essential honesty as a historian. All of this was immensely refreshing to me, and it may be to a reader who has some knowledge of the narrative scope of Spanish history and the various stereotypes of Spain as a backwards country as well as romantic views of the country as different and a bit exotic.
This particular book is a bit more than 250 pages and it is divided into three parts and sixteen chapters. The first part, after a list of maps and abbreviations and a discussion of the image of Spain in an introduction, is the author’s account of how he became a Hispanist through the course of his graduate school education and writings (I). This sets for the context of how he went about doing historical research. After that the author provides a reading of the history of Spain (II) in several chapters that explore various contentious matters, such as whether the Visigoths and Asturians can be considered as Spaniards (1), the myth of Muslim tolerance in Al-Andalus (2), the question of the Spanish ideology that was involved in the Reconquista (3), the peripheral nature of Spain to the West (4), the problems of identity and monarchy and empire within Spanish history (5), the relationship between Spain and Portugal and how the two are not often viewed in relationship to each other (6) by historians of either, as well as the problem of decline and recovery (7) and the problematic nature of Spanish liberalism in the 19th and 20th centuries (8) and its lack of popular support. After that the author closes with several chapters on contemporary dilemmas in Spanish history (III), such as the nature of the Spanish Republic and its absence of centrist democrats (9), who was responsible for the Spanish Civil War (10), the controversial relationship between Madrid and Moscow during the Spanish Civil War (11), whether the Spanish Civil War was the harbinger of World War II or the last post-World War I conflict (12), the strange case of Spanish Fascism (13), how Francisco Franco is to be viewed (14), as well as the question of the shadow of the military (15) in contemporary Spain as well as the controversies over history in contemporary Spain (16), all of which the author has opinions about, after which there are the usual notes and an index.
What this book does particularly well is to demonstrate the difficulty one has in writing history well. The author is especially apt in pointing out the ideological biases of many leftist thinkers that have blinded them to important truths in Spanish history that also blind them to the implications of Spanish history for how it can better serve as a warning for contemporary American society and other societies. The author’s honesty in pointing out that all too many leftists simply view Fascist as a term of abuse rather than as a political system that has to be dealt with by its own definitions, and in showing how it is that the political violence of the left has often (as it did in Spain) prompt its opponents to act out. The author also notes through comparative history the different regions of Spain and how it is that nationalism has exhibited itself through the years, and how it appears to have been ended in the aftermath of Franco’s death and the succession to democracy afterward. It appears difficult to this reader, though, how Spain will stay as a unified nation without some sense of nationalism in the face of separatism from Catalans, Basques, and others. The author, thankfully, does not wade into such waters directly, though, saving his interest for the past and avoiding speculation even while providing insights for those readers who are so inclined.