Contemporary Spanish culture is a paradox: it simultaneously empowers and besieges the far left’s destructive ideology. The ruling coalition of Socialists, which includes the Communists of Podemos/Izquierda Unida, abetted by Catalan and Basque separatists, is narrow and fragile. Opinion polls show that if elections were held today, this leftist conglomerate would lose to a right-wing coalition. But aided by elites in academia and a media that mostly skew left to far left, Spain’s modern-day Jacobins are intent on remaking the country—even if that means dismembering and destroying it in the process.
Underlying the ambitious political program of the Spanish Left is a deep contempt and hatred for much of Spanish history and tradition—a contempt that draws as much from the “Black Legend” propaganda of 16th century Dutch and English Protestants as from revolutionary leftist ideologues of the 20th century. Despite the dominance of this toxic narrative among elites, in recent years Spaniards intent on reclaiming their country and historical narrative have pushed back. Among these ‘counterrevolutionaries’ is Spain’s right-wing VOX party—the third largest in the Spanish parliament—and brave individual politicians in other parties (the Partido Popular’s Isabel Díaz Ayuso and Toni Cantó, for example).
Although the media (some of it dependent on government funding) often seems allied to the ruling leftist coalition, there are new contrarian voices—especially in alternate and social media—that aggressively counter officialist propaganda. Historian María Elvira Roca Barea’s book Imperiofobia y leyenda negra: Roma, Rusia, Estados Unidos y el Imperio español was a controversial, surprise bestseller in 2016, giving a vigorous response to five centuries of anti-Spanish propaganda.
In this vein, writer and ABC newspaper columnist Javier Santamarta del Pozo’s new book, Fake news del Imperio español, is a irreverent rejection of the “Black Legend” narrative and a much-needed excoriation of its contemporary advocates among the Spanish Left. Where Roca Barea aimed at a more scholarly audience (some of whom were furious at her conclusions), Santamarta del Pozo’s book is more accessible, targeting a younger crowd with its lashings of popular culture references, jokes, and sarcasm. It is very much of the moment. As such, it fills an important niche, encouraging Spanish youth and reminding them that their country (and its history) is not the unmitigated monstrosity portrayed in Spanish (and foreign) schools by leftist ideologues and in the entertainment media.
As one commentator noted, Santamarta unleashes a “secret weapon” against the “Black Legend” and similar types of ideological reason: humor. The book is a useful complement to the author’s previous book, Siempre tuvimos heroes (We Always Had Heroes), which documents little-remembered “humanitarian heroes” of Spanish history, including kings, soldiers, scientists, inventors, and aristocrats—from Queen Isabella I of Castile who defended the Indians of the New World to Manuel Jalón, the 20th century inventor of the mop and the plastic disposable syringe.
Santamarta himself is not an instinctive right-winger. He notes that he learned his love of Spanish history from his grandfather, who had been punished by the Franco regime for a connection with the UGT Socialist labor union. But he differentiates between the old “liberal” Left and today’s “strange, modern” Left, which rejects the concept of a liberal republic in favor of an intolerant and uniform dystopia where the only diversity is among fashionable strands of leftism.
The “fake news” of the book are the age-old “tricks and hoaxes” promulgated by the enemies of Spain throughout the centuries: those who have sought to paint the country in the worst possible light. This was not done out of humanitarianism. It was done because Spain’s rivals wanted Spanish gold, political power, and colonies. Santamarta imagines them sitting together—Italian, Dutch, German, English, American—motivated by greed and hatred: William the Silent, Richelieu, Voltaire, Luther, John Foxe, William Randolph Hearst, Teddy Roosevelt, and others. Santamarta writes: “Is everything said about Spain through the centuries false? No. But the intentional exaggeration of certain events, focusing solely on the sordid while ignoring or minimizing the luminous, is another way of lying.”
There is no legend as persistent and pervasive as the Spanish “Black Legend”—not in Russia or England or the United States or France. The author chooses to deal with this by introducing the concept of “Schrödinger’s Spain,” a riff on the famous cat that may or may not be there. Thus, a generation of leftist writers in Spain seek to deny the ancient heritage of Spain and, at the same time, blame Spain for all sorts of real or imaginary political maladies. These ideologues thus deny that Spain had a historic identity; it was, they say, “just a group of nations.” But when it comes to supposed wrongs, guilt falls squarely on Spain. Think of the Spanish Inquisition or the Spanish decimation of New World native peoples. The culprit in such cases is Spain, not a group of imaginary nations. (If it were, of course, this would mean that Catalans and Basques, Valencians and Andalusians all bear some sort of responsibility.)
If there was an intentional genocide in the Americas, then it was Spain (and only Spain) who did it. But if the first documented example of a modern parliament in Europe was the Cortes of León in 1188, then it was not Spain. If it is the Inquisition, it is Spain. But the pathbreaking humanistic Laws of Burgos of 1516? Not Spain.
This “Schrodinger’s Spain” fallacy appears more often among Spain’s progressive political class than among 16th century Protestants and Manifest Destiny-era Americans. That same Spanish elite today claims that Euzkadi (a term for the Basque country invented in 1896) is a country but that Spain is not, and that Catalonia and Andalusia are ancient countries but that Spain is some sort of 20th century Francoist neologism. The long-dead dictator looms large in the fever dreams of modern left-wing revisionists.
Santamarta relates some of the recent historical idiocies committed by self-loathing Spanish politicians—such as boycotting celebrations of the 500th anniversary of the First Circumnavigation of the Globe (by Juan Sebastián Elcano, part of Magellan’s Armada of Molucca) and claiming that this was not a Spanish success. The 500th birthday of Hernán Cortés of “New Spain” was more celebrated in Mexico, the land of the conquered, than in Spain, the land of the conquerors, where the ruling politicians were too embarrassed to address the topic to celebrate or even acknowledge it. These are the same politicians who say that Spain didn’t exist in the 16th century. In 2012, the Socialist-led government of the Andalusia autonomous region downplayed the 800th anniversary of the great Reconquista victory at Las Navas de Tolosa, preferring instead an event that would highlight “multiculturalism.”
The most common political epithet used by the ruling class in contemporary Spain is “facha”: fascist. Every political party not explicitly left-wing or separatist is facha (except the extreme nationalist Catalans, with their gangs of street thugs, xenophobia, and banning of the Spanish language: they, of course, are never fachas). Just as Spain was allegedly invented by Franco (despite Saint Isidore of Seville penning “In Praise of Spain” in the 7th century and Alfonso VII using the title of “Emperor of All Spain” in the 12th century), the Left sees Spain’s flag (dating from 1785) as Francoist. The Cross of Burgundy—that other flag of the old empire that flew in the 18th century from British Columbia to Tierra del Fuego and from the Gulf of Guinea to the Philippines—is also dubbed Francoist. Santamarta does an excellent job of rescuing national symbols from this sort of ahistorical selective opprobrium. He notes sarcastically that the Left denounces the Catholic Kings, Ferdinand and Isabella, as fachas and compares them to Nazis because of the expulsion of the Jews in 1492—as if Jews hadn’t been cruelly expelled by other European countries throughout the centuries.
Nowhere do we see this bizarre, selective outrage more clearly than when the conversation turns to the notorious Spanish Inquisition (there were, of course, many Inquisitions). Santamarta acknowledges the record of that institution being mocked by the likes of Monty Python and Mel Brooks, while noting that Northern Europeans (both Protestants and Catholics) killed many more people for alleged witchcraft than the Spanish Inquisition killed for any reason in its entire existence.
Another chapter explores the myths associated with the Spanish conquest of the New World. Somehow, Santamarta points out, historians can believe that other conquests brought all sorts of benefits to the conquered—like Alexander the Great’s, or the Islamic Conquests, or Roman expansionism (which even earned the name Pax Romana!)—but not the Spanish. Only the Spanish were an unmitigated evil, managing to destroy an idyllic society built along the lines of John Lennon’s “Imagine.”
This myth is no accident of history; it was a deliberate invention. Santamarta explains the sordid history of how anti-Spanish propagandists in 16th century Holland devoted 62 publications to manipulating good-faith criticism of elements of the Spanish conquest into a narrative of utter depravity. Dutch propagandists twisted the work of Spanish priests like Montesinos and De Las Casas—works in which these men of God criticized Spanish behavior on the island of Hispaniola—and ‘weaponized’ those criticisms in their ongoing war against Spain. They conveniently ignore the fact that authorities at the time listened to these criticisms from Spanish priests themselves—and responded by writing the first ordinances in history designed to protect indigenous people. Over and over, the Spanish are depicted as monsters while their peers—such as the English in Virginia—are treated with kid gloves, as in Disney’s “Pocahontas.”
Ironically, Spain’s contemporary Left demonizes the 12th of October—the Spanish National Day that commemorates the discovery of the New World by Columbus—as a Francoist innovation, conveniently forgetting that the celebration began in Spain in 1918—long before Franco, surely, but also years after Latin American nations began celebrating the day. Further undermining the contemporary Left, the Second Spanish Republic—that idealized imaginary utopia still exalted by the country’s Socialists and Communists—also celebrated the discovery of Columbus on this day.
The author pushes back on the superficial and misleading Leftist narrative—the same narrative motivating the statue topplers in 2020 America—of the Spanish-indigenous ‘encounter.’ At last, the complex reality has its due. And, as with all encounters between two civilizations, there are lights and shadows. Sixteenth-century Spanish America saw oppression and injustice; but it also birthed faculties of indigenous languages in universities in Lima and Mexico City that recognized Nahuatl as an official language of New Spain. In later centuries, Spain honored the descendants of the indigenous rulers of Peru and Mexico as nobles, and to this day, large indigenous populations exist in formerly Spanish provinces—something that cannot be said of other conquests.
In other chapters, Santamarta dissects and debunks fake news on the Emperor Charles and his son Philip II; on the Bourbon dynasty; on the Spanish Navy; and on the Spanish-American War. He closes on a positive note, expressing hope that his work will inspire a renewed spirit of curiosity and free inquiry among Spaniards—about themselves and their past—and “that they will enjoy a history rich with black, white and all the palette of colors to be found in the ceiling of the library of the Monastery of San Lorenzo del Escorial.” This is a call to understand more—and to look beyond the superficial, the trite, and the politically convenient for the truth. This message should be heeded not only by those looking at Spanish history but by anyone looking at the history of the world.
Alberto M. Fernandez is a former U.S. diplomat and Vice President of the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) in Washington, D.C.