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The Spanish: Shadows of Embarrassment by Yehuda Cohen (review)

From: Hispanófila
Volume 170, Enero 2014
pp. 163-164 | 10.1353/hsf.2014.0008

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The Spanish: Shadows of Embarrassment forms part of a series (authored by Cohen) that endeavors to “show where the European Union is headed, by way of a detailed analysis of the … heritage, the society, and the national identity of the various groups in the Union” (x). The first six volumes in the series focus on France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, The Netherlands, and Spain. In each volume, Cohen underscores a “decisive event or unique social or political situation that provides a window through which one can observe the group in question and analyze the values and motifs that drive it” (1). The “windows” presented in The Spanish: Shadows of Embarrassment are a longstanding tradition of religious fanaticism and a modern national identity that evolved in the wake of the Spanish Civil War, topics that he explores over the course of sixteen chapters that follow the historical trajectory of Spain from the Middle Ages through the early 21st century.

Cohen undertakes his ambitious objective by finding the roots of religious intolerance in the sixth-century union between the Visigothic monarchy and the Catholic clergy, which instituted a policy “of oppressing Jews as polluting archenemies of the Catholic faith … [a] motif of ‘faith overriding reason’ … [that] would repeat itself on a grander scale with the oppression and expulsion of Jews and Muslims in the 15th and 16th centuries” (22). One of the most interesting discussions of this “motif” is found in chapter four (“The Reconquista as a Social Phenomenon”), in which Cohen downplays the influence of economic factors on the success of the Christian conquest of Islamic Spain and instead underscores the importance of religion in shaping this enterprise. According to Cohen, the expansion of Castile “made no economic sense” (31) and was primarily grounded in “spiritual-religious motives” (32) that would continue to shape Spain’s political policies until modern times. While Cohen does not offer any new details concerning the rise of anti-Jewish sentiment in late medieval Spain, he strengthens his argument by siding with Benzion Netanyahu in seeing the Spanish preoccupation with purity of blood as a grassroots movement that came to permeate all levels of society, and also by comparing the impact of the Spanish Inquisition to the ability of modern terrorism to “make everyone in the target population … feel vulnerable” (68).

At the same time, Cohen’s theories lose force once he begins to explore the role of religious fervor in creating the ideology that fueled Spanish imperialism. For example, Cohen neglects to include an in-depth discussion of the importance of Catholic evangelism during Spain’s colonization of America. Other topics that are not adequately covered include the place of religion during the Enlightenment and during the loss of Spain’s colonies in the nineteenth century, as well as the role of anticlericalism during the Restoration. In the chapters dedicated to twentieth-century Spain, the principal focus is politics. Cohen does underscore the impact of Catholicism on the ideology of the dictatorship of Francisco Franco (“Even in the 1950s, Franco continued to call the repressive steps taken by his regime ‘a crusade.’ The path he chose once again demonstrated that religious fanaticism is a sure recipe for economic catastrophe, echoing what happened in the … Reconquista” [170]), although he does not devote a great deal of attention to the place of the Church as Spain moved toward democracy.

Such attention might have provided a more precise view of post-Franco Spain as a nation in which “Spanish nationalism replaced Catholicism as the guiding light for Spanish society and politics” (6). Additional discussion might have also clarified Cohen’s assertion that “a study of Spain’s historical development … [reveals] how Spanish nationalism and budding signs of European nationalism are reconciled in Spain” (8). In sum, conclusions made by Cohen in his final chapter (“Spanish Self-Ascription and the European Union”) – such as “Spain emerged from the crucible of the Spanish Civil War and the Franco dictatorship, for the first time in its long and troubled history, largely at peace with itself” (203), and “Spain today is a collective which is content with being an average-sized member of the European Community, while serving as an active and...

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