Almost everyone is familiar with 1492 as the date when the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus finally obtained permission from the joint monarchs King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella and set out from Spanish shores to establish colonies in the New World. What far fewer people are familiar with is the tale of other significant events that happened in that same year: events which had a most decisive impact on the Spanish nation.
Under the leadership of Ferdinand and Isabella, the ‘Reconqusita’ reached its climax when Spanish men at arms reclaimed Granada and Andalusia from Moorish control. It was a brutal war which culminated in the Moors being obliged either convert or go into exile. (ISIL make a particular point on their propaganda websites of saying how determined they are to take Spain back for Islam).
As a result a large number of passionate and experienced men at arms were left roaming the land but with no enemy to fight – something that would have direct and ominous consequences in the New World. Sadly, as we know, the greed for gold and lust for power as well as the desire for souls to be converted to the Catholic faith marred Spain’s pioneering activities in the New World.
The retaking of Andalucía also contributed to the forced conversion or exile of tens of thousands of Jews from Spain; the money taking from them going some way to making up the loss of revenue for the Crown from its Moorish citizens.
In that same year Ferdinand and Isabella set up a new institution to enforce the fight against Jews and heretics: the soon-to-be-feared Spanish Inquisition. Under the leadership of the relentlessly implacable Dominican friar, Tomás de Torquemada, whose energy and appetite for the task astonished his contemporaries. Under this man, justice triumphed over mercy – and an entirely unexpected explosion of anti-Semitic hatred broke out in the nation. Ever on the lookout to persecute God’s people, the powers of darkness had found a vessel ideally suited to further their purposes.
Torquemada undoubtedly his assignment much further than either Isabella or the pope had ever intended, showing no mercy to either old or young. In a bid to stamp on anything that even smacked of heresy, neither men, women, children nor even pregnant women were safe from his enforced attempt to ‘purify’ the land.
In all, something like 40,000 non-converted Jews were driven out from Spain. Even Jews who had professed conversion, but were suspected of backsliding, were tortured. The Inquisition continued its work until the early nineteenth century, the last death sentences being passed in 1826. A century on from there, the country had become all but ungovernable, deeply divided between right-wing Nationalist forces and left-wing Republican parties.
As a result it was ripe for exploitation by new and deadly forces.The Nationalists comprised supporters of the monarchy – typically landowners, employers, the Roman Catholic Church and the army. The Republicans meanwhile consisted of the workers, the trade unions, socialists and peasants, and an increasingly influential contingent of anarchists and communists in Catalonia.
Hard hit by the Great Depression that followed the Wall Street Crash of 1929, the military dictatorship that had ruled Spain for nearly a decade collapsed. When the Republicans came to power in 1931, the King abdicated – but Spain remained so divided and unstable that the army seized power again in 1936, forcibly removing the Republicans from power. The stage was set for civil war.
Is there not an echo of this today in the tension we are once again seeking between nationalists and republicans? As I watched the king’s hard-line address to the nation last night I could not but wonder whether he was not reflecting bitter root judgements passed during the upheavals of the 1930s . . . I also noticed that while leading Spanish right wing newspapers were strongly supportive of Madrid’s robust actions on voting day, whereas newspapers in regions where independence is a long held dream are taking a very different standpoint: particularly in Galicia and the Basque region. Once again, as in the 1930s, what is happening in Catalonia is serving as a rallying cry for other regions seeking independence. I noticed flags in Barcelona from Quebec, for instance – which, you may recall, came within just one percentage point of obtaining independence from Canada in 1995.
It is obviously important to pray for how the rest of Europe and indeed the world respond to this. France and Britain certainly found the volatile situation that developed during the 1930s decidedly awkward. The last thing they wanted was for Spain to become solidly affiliated to the Nationalists, because that would only serve to strengthen the Fascist alliance that was being forged between Germany and Italy. They were equally unhappy, however, at the prospect of Spain being in the hands of Soviet-backed Republicans at a time when Communism was increasingly being recognised as a major threat to world peace.
Unsurprisingly considering the long diplomatic tradition of these two nations, the French and British set up a Non-Intervention Committee that was chiefly concerned with preventing aid from other interested nations from reaching Spain. The policy was a complete failure. German and Italian forces and equipment flooded in to support the Nationalists, leaving the Republicans to rely on hoping for the best that Stalin would supply them with all that they needed from Russia.
The Anarchist and Syndicalist Revolution of 1936, which was led by anarchists and communists in Catalonia, was the most far reaching proletarian uprising in western Europe for centuries. Bosses were forced from their factories leaving workers to attempt to run institutions for themselves. It also led to the Republican International Brigade, which was influenced by Stalin and backed by Soviet arms, exciting the support of liberals and communists all around the world. It soon came into conflict with the rising star of the fascist cause, General Franco, who made it quite clear in a declaration from Las Palmas in Spanish North Africa in July 1936 that should the Spanish generals ‘win the day,’ their parliamentary republic would be replaced by an unashamedly authoritarian state, modelled closely on similar regimes in Germany and Italy.
Mussolini and Hitler, of course, felt strengthened by having another potential ally in Franco. It served their own best interests to do so at that time when Mussolini was setting out to dazzle the world with his supposed military prowess, and Hitler was eager to try out his new and deadly Stuka dive bombers in preparation for the terror he intended to unleash across the continent.
The conflict that followed proved to be the most terrible civil war to engulf the European continent in the 20th century. This included the first mass bombings of civilian populations: Guernica in the Basque country, along with hundreds of raids on virtually defenceless Barcelona from Mussolini’s bases in Majorca. The destruction that rained from the skies finally drove the Republicans from their strongholds in Catalonia, Valencia and Madrid.
By the time it was finished, 300,000 would lie dead, and far a greater number again maimed, wounded or displaced. In one month alone half a million people had to flee for their lives from Barcelona, huddled and shivering together in the winter of 1938/39 as they wrestled to cross the Pyrenees into France. Despite having been warned ahead of time, the French were utterly unprepared to receive them, and initially allowed in only women and children until sheer force of numbers finally prevailed. For the most part, these refugees endured truly grim conditions in France until they were finally able to return home at the end of the Second World War.
The permutations are complex. Spain could activate article 155 of the country’s constitution and impose direct rule on Catalonia – a small region, but which has the population of the size of Belgium and is by far the most economically prosperous region in in Spain. This has a distance to go. The crazy thing is that a legitimate referendum would almost certainly have shown more people in Catalonia NOT in favour of succeeding from Spain. That may be changing now in the aftermath of the violence. Incidentally, Spanish viewers were not shown the full extent of the police violence that I saw on French and Russian television. Catalonia already enjoys much autonomy including its own schools language and police – but it wants to be a nation in its own right. The EU, of course, deals with nations, and fears regions: France not Brittany or Corsica; Spain not Galicia, the Basque regions or Catalonia; Belgium not Flanders and so on.
Catalonia has attempted to declare itself an independent republic on four occasions in past; the most recent being in 1931 and 1934. All of these attempts proved short lived. This will not be an easy ride, with division in its own parliament, outright opposition from Spain and no support from the EU. See this article from The Week about Catalonia’s dream of independence.
Events will have moved on by the time you get to read this – but may this serve as an active reminder to be praying into the tensions schisms and splinterings that lie not far below the surface across Europe.
With attitudes hardening and events escalating close to out of control, it is important to pray for something to happen to break the deadlock and to find a suitable way forward.
Catalonia already enjoys much autonomy, including its own schools, language and police force – but it has long hankered to be a nation in its own right. The EU, of course, deals with nations as opposed to regions: France not Brittany or Corsica) Spain not Galicia, the Basque regions or Catalonia; Belgium not Flanders and so on.
With escalation currently happening so fast, and attitudes likely to harden still further; Our role for whatever political or spiritual intervention will prove most effective to defuse the tension.
Whether or not this stand-off ranks in the same category as the Israel-Palestinian power pairing, (or Eire and Northern Ireland in days gone by for that matter) simply suppressing the memory of the 1930s and its aftermath runs all the usual days that whatever is less unprocessed and forced down (whether by individuals) runs the risk of breaking out again in highly inconvenient ways. It certainly falls far short of the fuller reconciliation that is needed.
Nations respond very differently when it comes to facing the troubles and challenges of the past. See for example the section ‘When Grief and deception engulf nations’ in my book Vale of Tears. At this time when passions are running high, may there be inspired initiatives to bridge the gulf, rather than to inflame it.
A couple of months ago I happened to tune to Quest TV to catch the second of a powerful two part series by Michael Portillo showing hitherto unseen footage in a documentary about the Spanish Civil War. (Michael’s own father had been very much caught up in it, on the Republican side, but fearing lest he kill his brothers who were all on Franco’s side he escaped to England, where he initially worked in a refugee camp for evacuated Spanish children). The scars and wounds of this gruesome conflict, in which more than 300,000 were killed, and far more wounded or displaced, are a constant reminder of why we need to pray for Spain and Catalonia.
So this is a call to face the past in prayer and to pray God’s grace, mercy and revival power upon a country that so many of us have viewed more as a place to go on vacation than to labour over in prayer. There have been amazing revivals in Spanish-speaking former colonies; may the Lord now touch the homeland, and cleanse and lift dark shadows over Spain before they find fresh ways to erupt again.