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Richelieu & Olivares

In response to:

Holding Up the Empire from the September 27, 1984 issue

To the Editors:

It seems to me that H.R. Trevor-Roper has carried the parallelism between Richelieu and Olivares (and their states, France and Spain) much too far [NYR, September 27, 1984]. The consequence is that the differences between two kinds of Empires and of policies highly relevant also at the present time, are not perceived.

Richelieu was faced, after all, by a pro-Spanish party at home (“the devouts”) who opposed both his internal and foreign policies. When he smashed the Protestant political power in France, Richelieu scrupulously observed the peace of 1629, by which their religious privileges and their right to be employed by the French state in almost all civil and military dignities was confirmed. Can we even imagine something similar in the Spanish Empire of Olivares? For example a party advocating a limited tolerance of heretics and their admission to the highest dignities? Trevor-Roper mentions the deals of Olivares with “New Christian” and crypto-Jewish financiers. They were always overturned by the influence of the Inquisition within a short time, while under Richelieu the rights of crypto-Jews to live in southeastern France were secured. Not for nothing Richelieu went out of his way to condemn the expulsion of Moriscos from Spain as the greatest crime of his times. Although this crime was committed a short time before Olivares came to power, there is not the slightest sign that he was aware of its deeper significance.

One could multiply other examples, such as the rise of Paris under Richelieu to the rank of a centre of scientific discussion, the much more profound nature of religious discussion (or disputes) in France which he ruled, and many other social characteristics. The important difference is, however, in my opinion, the following one:

Trevor-Roper correctly characterizes Richelieu as the supreme Realpolitiker. Olivares, contrary to him, appears as a believer in an empire based on an intolerant religion, which he tried to defend by what were merely tricks. I don’t want to defend either the concept of supremacy of the state or Realpolitik; but in comparison to a state based on religion or an ideology and inferior to it, Realpolitik appears as a lesser evil, even now. Foreign policy based on the concept of alliances between states of different ideologies in pursuit of “naked” state interest, however predatory, and often illusory as well, is yet not as bad as foreign policy based on real or supposed ideological or religious identity or similarity. Richelieu stood for the first, Olivares for the second. They have both their modern successors.

The same concept can, indeed, be found in Trevor-Roper’s early work. I refer specially to his “A Case of Co-Existence” (published as chapter XXVI of Historical Essays, Harper Torchbooks, 1957) in which it is cogently argued that it was the absence of “ideological” foreign policy of Christian Europe against the Ottoman Empire which turned in fact to be the correct policy. This was in fact the policy of Richelieu and the former French politicians whom he followed.

Israel Shahak

Jerusalem, Israel

H.R Trevor-Roper replies:

I agree with Professor Shahak’s generalities but not with all his particular statements. Any politician is constrained by the structure of society around him, but, allowing for these constraints, which were very different in France and in Spain, it seems to me that Olivares was only a little more ideologically committed than Richelieu and far less committed than previous Castilian statesmen. After all, it was not he who had expelled the Moriscos, and what other Castilian statesman openly patronized Jews? Richelieu (once he had crushed the Huguenot organization) could afford to be more liberal: there was no French Inquisition. That alone made a great difference and sufficiently explains why France was more comfortable than Spain for crypto-Jews.

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