The Spanish: Shadows of Embarrassment. By Yehuda Cohen. (Brighton, England: Sussex Academic Press, 2012. Pp. xiv, 235. $74.95.)
Article first published online: 4 MAR 2014
© 2014 Phi Alpha Theta
Volume 76, Issue 1, pages 168–169, Spring 2014
How to Cite
Crameri, K. (2014), The Spanish: Shadows of Embarrassment. By Yehuda Cohen. (Brighton, England: Sussex Academic Press, 2012. Pp. xiv, 235. $74.95.). Historian, 76: 168–169. doi: 10.1111/hisn.12030_54
- Issue published online: 4 MAR 2014
- Article first published online: 4 MAR 2014
This book is one in a series by the same author entitled “Heritage, Society and National Identity in the European Union,” which aims to analyze the historical and religious trajectories of the nations that make up the European Union in order to show how these might influence its future (1). Already-published volumes on the Germans, French, and British are now joined by this exploration of the Spanish.
The book covers the whole of Spanish history from pre-Roman Iberia to twenty-first-century Spain. A significant proportion of the discussion is devoted to the Muslim conquest and Christian reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula, concentrating on the benefits of the daily coexistence during this period of Muslims, Jews, and Christians with complementary knowledge and abilities. A relatively brief section is devoted to the Spanish Empire and its demise, then the subject turns to the political turmoil of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and, finally, to an examination of Spain's rebirth as a democratic member of the European Union.
Yehuda Cohen presents three main arguments: that Spain's failures since the early modern period have as their “first cause” the expulsions of the Jews and Muslims, whose skills could not be substituted by a Christian population that had never bothered to acquire them; that a particularly Castilian religious fervor was far more important than any other factor in dictating the actions of Spain's rulers for many centuries; and that Spanish national identity today has finally reached a state of cohesiveness thanks to a civil war that eventually led Spaniards to value their commonalities over their differences (191). The first two arguments—in areas where this reviewer is not an expert—strike one as questionable and certainly are not supported by enough convincing evidence or a lucid argument. The third—on which the reviewer is much more qualified to comment—is deeply flawed.
According to Cohen, “Spanish society through its sufferings in the Civil War achieved cohesion by overcoming the particularistic tendencies that had plagued it for centuries” (177). Supposedly, Spaniards have become more secure in their Spanishness, which outweighs “even questions of regional autonomy” and creates a “budding” Spanish ethnicity with European nationality (178, 197). These statements are based on a fundamental lack of understanding of contemporary Spain and even of basic scholarship on nationalism and ethnicity. Balfour and Quiroga's The Reinvention of Spain  (not listed in the bibliography but surely a key text on this topic) presents a much more accurate picture of a country whose manifest failure to create a cohesive national identity has, for example, led to desperate attempts by the Spanish Right to reframe ethnic identity as “constitutional patriotism.” Recent events in Catalonia also challenge Cohen's interpretation: How do his pronouncements on “Spaniards'” new strong and healthy sense of kinship sit with the current growth in Catalan separatism (18)?
In sum, this is a text of questionable usefulness that seems to have been based on a hastily acquired knowledge of the subject, leading to fundamentally erroneous conclusions about the nature of contemporary Spain.