Rightly sensitive about national stereotypes, including the Black Legend, William Chislett has produced a concise yet nuanced account of the history of Spain for an Oxford University Press series. The Franco regime may have exhibited many of the traits that reinforced perceptions about the extent of bigotry and cruelty in Spain, but as Chislett also observes, the political term “liberal” was first coined to describe the remarkably progressive (though short-lived) Cádiz constitution of 1812.
Chislett was Financial Times correspondent in Madrid during the democratic transition of the 1970s. His account spans the arrival of the Moors to the economic crash from which Spain is still reeling. Structured around a series of leading questions – “What was the Disaster of 1898?” or “What was the economic legacy of the Civil War?” – the format has a whiff of the school textbook about it, redeemed by Chislett’s energetic style and eye for the telling anecdote.
A recurring trend, seen in various contexts from the seventeenth-century Golden Age to the property boom of 1994–2008, has been a reluctance to invest in human capital. Chislett succinctly shows how the nineteenth-century Carlist wars spawned a political culture that weakened Spain’s civil society during the decades that followed. In addressing the slide into conflict in 1936, Chislett avoids military history,chronicling instead the tragic collapse of the political centre ground
Even-handed on the atrocities of either side, he nevertheless refers only to the total figures for wartime executions cited by Paul Preston in The Spanish Holocaust (reviewed in the TLS , September 7, 2012).A broader overview of this disputed area would have been welcome.
For all the admiration Chislett bestows on Spain’s democratic transition, he notes a failure to tackle judicial reform, and the abiding challenges posed by regional nationalisms. A contemporary “black legend” about Spain is that its
desire for a united territory encapsulates a reactionary mindset. Throughout, Chislett reveals how extreme localism could be just as retrograde, whether in the 1870s or the 1930s. As the Catalonia–Spain debate becomes ever more polarized, such insights are all the more welcome.