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Was Spain So Bad?

In response to:

The Lost Jewish Culture from the June 28, 2007 issue

To the Editors:

Professor Harold Bloom’s interesting article “The Lost Jewish Culture” [NYR, June 28] makes some statements about Spanish history which are so sweeping as to be gravely inaccurate or misleading, especially when he writes that “the persecution [of Jews and Moors in the period extending from the late fifteenth to the early seventeenth century] in some sense extended to most of the Spaniards in Christian Spain from the seventeenth century on to the death of the fascist dictator Francisco Franco in 1975.” Of course it all will depend on what he means by “in some sense.” In any case it is well to remember (as a perusal of, for instance, Raymond Carr’s Spain, Oxford University Press, several editions, should make clear) that with many interruptions and drawbacks, Spain’s political regime from 1834 to 1923 was a constitutional parliamentary system. This was preceded by the gathering of one of the earliest elected parliaments in history (the Cortes de Cádiz, 1810–1814), which produced one of history’s earliest written constitutions in 1812.

The word “liberal” was first given a political meaning at the debates at Cádiz. Spain was also one of the first countries where universal male suffrage was enacted in 1868; it was later abolished and then definitively reenacted in 1890. Women were enfranchised in 1931, not very early, but earlier than in France or in Italy. Spain’s twentieth century showed a lot of violence and upheaval (two dictatorships and a civil war), but then again most of Europe suffered from not too dissimilar experiences.

As to the Inquisition, it was a despicable institution, but there were other similar institutions in Catholic countries, and religious persecution was at least equally harsh in many Protestant countries. For instance, according to Henry Kamen (The Spanish Inquisition, New American Library, 1971, p. 203): “The total number of so-called witches executed in the seventeenth century in Germany alone has been put as high as 100,000, a figure which is probably four times as great as the number of people burned by the Spanish Inquisition in all its history. For Great Britain alone the figure given is a total of 30,000 victims.” The Inquisition rapidly lost power in the eighteenth century, especially after 1756, and was abolished by the Cortes de Cádiz in 1813. Legally restored soon after by Ferdinand VII, it nevertheless remained inactive and was definitively abolished in 1834.

Gabriel Tortella

Universidad de Alcalá

Madrid, Spain

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