A Nationalist View of Spanish History

from Catalonia Is Not Spain: A Historical Perspective by Simon Harris

Catalonia Is Not Spain: A Historical Perspective by Simon Harris

Spanish nationalists have an idealised version of the history of Spain. It centres on the history of Castile and ignores the existence of other nationalities such as the Catalans and Basques. The idea that Spain has existed since the time of the Romans or was reconquered by the Christians from the Moors are both modern inventions. Unfortunately, this propaganda version of history is still taught to children in Spanish schools.


Chapter 2: A Nationalist View of Spanish History

In October 2012, Esperanza Aguirre, former Minister of Education, Culture and Sport made a statement criticising the Catalan education system in which she claimed that "Catalonia has never been independent" despite what they teach in some schools. She went on to say that the purpose of education is to teach children to "add up, read and about true history, not history invented by nationalists ... Spain is a great nation, with 3,000 years of history. This is what children should learn."

Such a statement would be laughable had it not come from a former Education Minister and were it not symptomatic of a view of Spain that has changed very little since the time of Franco's dictatorship. The main purpose of Aguirre's statement was to show support for current Minister of Education, José Ignacio Wert, who a few days earlier had expressed his desire to españolizar or "hispanicise" Catalan schoolchildren.

One thing is very clear. In Spanish schools, history and language education are used for political purposes so some explanation is in order.

Early Iberia

Around 3,000 years ago, in 1000 BC, the land mass now known as the Iberian peninsula was occupied by various peoples including Celts, Phoenicians, Vascons, Tartessians and Iberians. None of them were aware they belonged to a country called Spain. In fact, the term Iberia was first used by the Ancient Greeks, who arrived on the northern coast of what is now Catalonia in around 600 BC and founded Emporion, modern Empúries

.The Greeks didn't come to conquer the surrounding territory but rather founded Emporion, which translates as market, as a trading station with the locals. Having named the main river in the region the Iber, which is the modern River Ebro, they used the name Ibers or Iberians to refer to the people who inhabited the area between the Pyrenees and the river. Consequently, it is reasonable to claim that the original Iberians were actually very early Catalans.

The Greeks used Emporion as a trading base for the next four centuries and it is the Greek influence that lays the foundation for the commercial culture that the Catalans were to develop in later periods. This is obviously also due the territory's location in an accessible corner of the Mediterranean. For this reason, Greek along with the local Iberian languages forms part of the substrata of the language that was to develop into the Catalan language in the early middle ages.

Roman Hispania

Few educated Spaniards would claim that Spain has existed for 3,000 years but many would put the date at around 2,000 years ago. This is when the Romans arrived on the Iberian peninsula and established Hispania, from which Spain gets its name.

In 218 BC the Romans landed, once again, at Emporion, which was now an established Mediterranean trading port. The Romans' initial purpose was to combat Hannibal and the Carthaginian threat. By 200 BC they had consolidated a major colony along the Mediterranean coast, which soon extended down as far as their future capital Tarragona, just north of the River Ebro.

As the territory they controlled expanded, the Romans realised they were conquering different peoples and divided the territory into two. Hispania Citerior or Nearer Hispania covered the area now occupied by modern Catalonia and Valencia and was inhabited mainly by Iberian tribes. Hispania Ulterior or Farther Hispania roughly corresponded to modern Andalusia and beyond and was inhabited mainly by Tartessians.

By the time of Augustus, Roman Emperor from 27 BC to 14 AD, the peninsula was fully under Roman control and was divided into Tarraconensis, Baetica and Lusitania. The latter corresponded more or less to modern Portugal and was created because another distinct people had been conquered and had to be governed differently. The borders were to change many more times during the next four centuries of Roman rule.

Although Hispania is the Latin root for the modern name Spain, substituting Spanish for Hispanicus or Hispanic, or Spain for Hispania, though sometimes done by historians in the more general context of a common peninsular history, is anachronistic and misleading. The borders of modern Spain do not coincide with those of the Roman province of Hispania or of the Visigoth Kingdom of the same name which succeeded it. They have always shifted, and consequently modern Spain doesn't include the territory of present day Portugal.

Furthermore, the Romans always referred to the Iberian peninsula as the plural Hispaniae or Spains. Incidentally, for a brief period, Augustus made Tarragona in southern Catalonia his official residence so it could be said that the city was not only capital of the Hispanias but of the entire Roman Empire.

La Reconquista

The Spanish nation myth par excellence, though, is the story of La Reconquista, which recounts the heroic reconquest of Christian Spain from the Moors over seven centuries.

The basic story is that after the Saracen invasion of the Iberian peninsula in 711, the previous Christian Visigoth society was completely conquered apart from a few isolated enclaves in the mountainous north.

According to legend, the 'reconquest' of the peninsula began relatively soon after in 722 in Asturias, when Pelayo, a local Christian nobleman, beat the Saracens at the battle of Covadonga. This led to the founding of the Kingdom of Asturias, which as it conquered more territories first became the Kingdom of León and, pushing further south, much later became the County then the Kingdom of Castile.

El Cid Campeador made a dashing appearance in this swashbuckling tale in the middle of the 11th century. He conquered a good bit of Galicia and León as well as more Moorish territories in Al-Andalus for Sancho of Castile before getting into trouble because Sancho's dastardly brother had inherited the crown of Castile.

By this time, Castile was the main player on the Iberian peninsula and continued pushing south. In 1212, the brave Castilians got a little bit of help from the Aragonese and Navarrans at the crucial victory of Navas de Tolosa, which was a turning point in the territorial battle against the Moors.

The moment of glory came when Isabel of Castile married Fernando of Aragon in 1469 uniting the Christian kingdoms. They became known as the Catholic Kings, and polished off the last remaining Saracens by conquering Granada in 1492. In the same year Christopher Columbus came back having discovered America. At this point not only was the great nation of Spain officially born but it also happened to have the biggest empire in the world.

The really simplified story, which most Spaniards know by heart and forms part of the Spanish psyche, goes like this. The battle of Covadonga led to the creation of Asturias, which expanded into León and then Castile. The Catholic Kings united Spain by completing the conquest of Andalusia and then brought glory to its name by discovering America. All this was done for the glory of God and the Catholic church.

A Nation Myth

One of the problems with the story is that it concentrates on Castile's battles against the Moors and fails to mention that other Iberian peoples, such as the Basques, the Portuguese, the Catalans and others, went through similar processes. The Basque Country soon became cut off from the main conflict and Portugal ended up becoming another country, but if Catalonia is considered part of Spain, surely the heroic fight of the Catalans against the Moors should be included in the nation myth.

Furthermore, the story of La Reconquista is clearly a nationalist invention. All nations have them. The English have Queen Boadicea, King Arthur and Alfred burning the cakes. The Scottish have Robert the Bruce and William Wallace. As we shall see later, the Catalans have Wilfred the Hairy and a whole host more. Most are a mixture of legend and a little bit of historical fact and were created in the 19th century as the majority of European nation states were coming into existence.

As Professor Javier Peña, who as Professor of Medieval History at the University of Burgos in Castile certainly cannot be accused of any anti-Spanish bias, points out "this myth, unlike others ... which have their origin and moment of most importance in the Middle Ages, didn't come about then. Not even in the Modern Age. Nobody talked then of the Reconquista. The word wasn't even known. It was used first by Spanish chroniclers around 1800."

In a speech he gave to the Academia Fernán González, a respected society of Spanish medievalists, in November 2013, he asserts that the idea of La Reconquista began with the romantics and liberals and adopted a meaning which "little by little became identified with the idea that Reconquista was the same as the recuperation of national unity, the idea of the nation, the idea of the fatherland, which is the backbone of the new model of the state that is being created in the 19th century".

As the concept of nation was relatively recent "they make it start in the Middle Ages. And this way, the word Reconquista takes on all the baggage it didn't have in the Middle Ages, it is projected backwards and it is considered contemporary since then, used since then to argue in favour of the idea of nation and of the Spanish state. The well-known medievalist Sanchez Albornoz claims that Pelayo didn't start fighting at Covadonga in order to restore the kingdom of the Goths but rather to begin to found the Spanish nation. Saying this is a barbarity. I don't know how he could say such a thing. The notion of Spain as a political unit didn't exist then, and even less the idea of fatherland."

The reason why this is worrying both for Catalans and democrats is that this invented view has since been adopted by the political classes that have ruled the diverse peoples of Spain from a centralised administration in Madrid. For centuries Spanish rulers have tried to impose a one-dimensional view of what is, in fact, a very culturally diverse country.

Franco used medieval symbols to give himself historical weight. He identified with historical figures such as Fernán González and El Cid. His belief that he was fighting a 'crusade' against Rojoseparatistas, literally Red-Separatists, gave spiritual and patriotic appeal to the Civil War. His use of terms such as Crusade and Reconquista implied that this didn't finish with the Catholic Kings, whose symbols of the yoke and arrows were adopted by the regime, but rather that it was Franco that completed it.

Attitudes Persist

Under Franco, schoolchildren throughout Spain, including Catalans, were taught a propagandised version of Spanish history. Even today most Spanish schoolchildren leave the education system believing that Spain, if not three thousand years old, has existed as nation since Roman times. Much of this misinformation is reinforced by the Spanish media, including the public television company RTVE.

One of the main arguments behind this book is that Catalonia is often not allowed to be part of real Spain and its cultural, linguistic and historical differences are not respected. They are not seen as consistent with this one-dimensional view of Spanish unity. Article 2 of the 1978 Spanish Constitution mentions the "indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation" and this context, Catalonia is an anomaly.

Of course it is wrong to tar all Spaniards with the same brush and informed and intelligent people from all walks of Spanish life have an open and tolerant attitude to Spain's other nations. However, Catalan and Basque bashing wins votes and sells newspapers. There is an information imbalance that means even the foreign press get a biased view on things.

Politicians like Esperanza Aguirre are active today and her Partido Popular colleague, José Ignacio Wert wants to 'españolizar' Catalan schoolchildren by introducing a new standardised education law called the LOMCE. Not only will this law make it possible for schoolchildren in Catalonia to go through the education system without studying the Catalan language at any point but school leavers will now obtain certificates by passing a national exam. The national syllabus will be imposed by central government so it will become increasingly difficult for Catalan students to learn about their own history.

Listen to A Nationalist View of Spanish History on YouTube

Now Read Chapter Three of Catalonia Is Not Spain - The Medieval Origins of Catalonia

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