'We Weren't the Only Ones Deporting Jews': In Spain, the Inquisition Is Getting a Facelift

Against background of Catalan movement, Spanish nationalists wage information war

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The inside of a jail of the Spanish Inquisition, with a priest supervising his scribe while men and women are suspended from pulleys, tortured on the rack or burnt with torches. Etching.
The inside of a jail of the Spanish Inquisition, with a priest supervising his scribe while men and women are suspended from pulleys, tortured on the rack or burnt with torches. Etching.Credit: Wellcome Library, London
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Bullfights, beautiful beaches, sunshine, sangria, siestas and fiestas – these are the first clichés one conjures up when thinking of Spain. Later, this list grows, with less pleasant items such as the notorious Spanish Inquisition, the expulsion of Jews and Spanish conquests in the Americas, which wiped out millions of their indigenous peoples.

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Although 500 years have elapsed, the stains on its history continue to haunt Spain in the 21st century. At least that’s what one group of Spanish intellectuals feels. They’ve just set up a new organization called The Hispanic Civilization Foundation, which set itself the goal of correcting Spain’s negative image while returning some dignity to the term “Spaniard,” ceasing to feel guilty and apologizing for dark chapters in the distant past.

“We want to expose the truth about Spain’s history,” said Borja Cardelus in conversation with Haaretz this week. He is a novelist and documentary director, prolific in many areas, as well as being one of the organization’s founders. The group includes journalists, jurists, diplomats, businessmen and academicians.

He juxtaposes the word “truth” with what he terms slanderous propaganda that was spread by Spain’s enemies over the centuries. At its core stands the ‘Black Legend,’ Spain’s term for attempts, made mainly by Britain, to demonize Spain’s empire as a cruel one, describing its members as bloodthirsty.

During Inquisition, Jews who refused to convert or leave Spain could be burned at the stake as heretics.Credit: Bocourt / Wellcome Library, London

This new reading of Spain’s past covers its steps one by one, providing explanations. Even the expulsion of Spain’s Jews in 1492, perceived by Jews as a central trauma, is cast in a new light. “Spain wasn’t the only country to expel Jews at the time,” says Cardelus, recalling events that may be unknown to Israelis, such as the expulsion of England’s Jews in 1290 and France’s Jews in 1306. “Despite this, the ‘official’ title of Jew-deporters goes to Spain, which is really unfair.”

The narrative he presents is different than the official line taken by Spanish authorities in recent years. Spain’s willingness to grant citizenship to descendants of expelled Jews and its announcement of the establishment of a Ladino academy to preserve their old language have for many people marked Spain’s readiness to recognize its past crimes and to attempt to atone for them.

It’s not only the expulsion of Spain’s Jews that is up for a new review, it’s also the image of the Spanish Inquisition. “The religious courts of other countries were much crueler that the Spanish ones,” says Cardelus. According to figures he presents, “only” 2,600 Spaniards were executed by the Inquisition whereas in Germany, for example, 25,000 people were put to death over the same period for practicing witchcraft.

With regard to Spain’s conquests in North and South America, Cardelus presents quite a rosy picture. “Spain is accused of genocide even though Spanish laws saved the Indians from being annihilated,” he says. “The Indians remaining in America today are the ones who lived in Spanish-conquered areas, not ones that were under English rule.”

Pedro Berruguete's painting of Saint Dominic Guzmán presiding over an Auto da fé (Portuguese for "Act of Faith") in 1495.Credit: Museo del Prado

On a roll

It’s hard to stop him when he gets going on this topic. “Spain is accused of destroying civilizations although in practice it filled the continent with cities, universities and other institutions,” he continues. He notes that famous Spanish conquistadors such as Francisco Pizarro (who destroyed the Incan Empire) and Hernan Cortes (who conquered Mexico) were ‘liberators’ who introduced a “progressive and humanitarian system” into the empires they overran.

The new organization intends to embark on a campaign to clear Span’s name, mobilizing for this purpose television, films, exhibitions, books and social media. “This hasn’t been done until now, which is why Spanish history has such a bad reputation,” says Cardelus.

Among the factors responsible for Spain’s problematic profile, he numbers the state itself. “The U.S., Britain and France took pains to foster, through education and cultural means, a positive international image. They did this very well, something that cannot be said for Spain,” he adds.

One of the “guilty” persons he specifically names is the Spanish Dominican friar Bartolome de las Casas, who worked in the 15th and 16th centuries to protect the rights of Indians in Spain’s American colonies. He determined that they cannot be enslaved or killed and that their possessions may not be taken from them. However, other Spanish historians have criticized him, arguing that his descriptions of the Spanish conquerors’ barbarity were mendacious and exaggerated.

Spanish Conquest of Mexico, meeting of Cortés and Moctezuma II. Credit: Thomas Townsend, Esq / Library of Congress

This image campaign has a potential army of 600 million people, the number of Spanish-speakers around the world. “We have to unite around our common history and contributions to humanity,” says Cardelus. These soldiers, he hopes, “will defend the common house we’ve erected – Hispanic civilization.”

Such arguments have been heard before, but have never left their mark. Fifteen years ago the British daily The Guardian, for example, ran a story with the caption: “Historians say the Inquisition wasn’t that bad.”

In attempting to explain what aroused this debate again, Spanish historian Ricardo Garcia Carcel notes Catalonia’s struggle for independence, which evoked anxiety among many Spaniards regarding Spain’s image around the world, as well as questions about its national unity.

Comparison to Poland

In this context one should note the rising nationalist sentiments evoked in Spain by Catalonia’s striving for independence. One could also compare this debate to processes taking place in other countries such as Poland, where there are politicians who are trying to rewrite history books in order to beautify and correct chapters that don’t compliment the Polish nation.

Members of the new Spanish organization may find allies, or at least attentive ears, here in Israel as well. Historian Prof. Miri Eliav-Feldon, chairwoman of the Historical Society of Israel, says that overall they are right. “I certainly don’t wish to defend conquerors and settlers or institutions like the Inquisition,” she told Haaretz this week, “but this story is much more complicated.”

She says that “the worst atrocities against populations in the colonies were not committed by Spaniards, but by the Dutch and the Belgians, but nowadays these nations seem nice and pleasant and we don’t remember what they did.” This is also true, she says, with regard to the expulsion of Spain’s Jews: “The Spanish expelled other minorities with no less brutality.”

From a historical perspective, she determines, “The Spanish were no worse than the others.” In that sense, she says, Spaniards who argue that their image is a result of anti-Spanish propaganda are right. “I really understand their desire to put historic memories in perspective or to cleanse them. There is no doubt that they were slandered so I can understand their wish to clear their name or to minimize their negative image.” Given that, she warns against overdoing it through changing things from a negative image to a sweeping denial of past stains in Spanish history. “A historical image is a complex and complicated issue,” she maintains.



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