Libertad Digital has an extensive interview this week with Stanley G. Payne, who I think is the best historian of Spain; he is also one of the least leftist. The interviewer is Fernando Diaz Villanueva, who I have met a couple of times; nice guy. The questions are in boldface, and Payne's responses are in normal type, for legibility reasons.
Mr. Payne, you were born in Texas. Why did you become a historian of Spain? What attracted your attention to our country?
My interest in Spain did not begin until I began my doctoral studies. When I was 19 or 20, I knew very little about Spain and its history. I knew something about Spanish literature because of some university courses, and little more. A few years later, the summer I began my doctorate, I read two books that called my attention to Spain, one British titled "The Spanish Temperament," and another on Spanish medieval art, which I liked very much.
When I began my doctorate I decided to specialize in contemporary European history and the question came up: Which country? I decided on Spain, because I already knew some Spanish and because I met a series of professors who motivated me, to become self-educated in Spanish history, since at that time there were almost no Hispanists, and even less so in the United States.
Your first books about Spain were censored, so they had to be published (in Spanish) in Paris by the Ruedo Ibérico publishing firm. Why were they censored?
For obvious reasons. My first two books were about, first the Falange and then the army, which at that time were the dominant forces in the Franco regime. I think it was inevitable, because both studies were critical.
Why does the Spanish Civil War still have so much international repercussion? Was it that important an event in twentieth-century history?
I don't think it has that much international repercussion today. There is some interest, but not the same as thirty or forty years ago. When I began my studies there was great interest in the Spanish war, both because of its political components and having been the preamble of the World War. Today, memories of the war are still alive inside some groups, but there is no doubt that there has been a serious decline. In fact, among American historians, their main specialization is modern history, the period of the Spanish empire. Specialists prefer the Golden Age to the Civil War, which has long lost that special air it had forty years ago.
The Spanish left has been using the Civil War for electoral purposes for more than a decade. What do you think this anomaly is due to?
It's the process of a complex. It began during the 1993 election campaign, when for the first time Felipe Gonzalez waved the bloody shirt of the war despite the fact that he had always respected the pact of the democratic transition. He did it because it was the first time in ten years that he saw his power in danger. In Spain the Left has a historical complex that goes back to 1931. Since then the Left has had a super-legitimacy complex, as if it had the right to govern. That is, they are the only ones worthy of the people, and the others, the conservative parties, are nothing more than decorative elements that represent nobody. In this way the Spanish Left does not accept the fact that it might lose, it does not accept any adversaries. In addition, by the 1990s the army had already lost its role of preponderance in Spanish politics and this, which had meant the end of the specter of the risk of a coup, made the left feel stronger. Don't write off the ideological factor, either. In the last fifteen years the worldwide Left has experienced an ideological evolution toward the dominant ideology today, which is political correctness or do-gooderism. Finally, the culture of victimism, which has taken root in the Spanish Left, has something to do with it. This can be seen in its interpretation of the Civil War in a sectarian and victimist manner.
In contrast with other European countries which suffered dictatorships (which are almost all of them), Spain has not learned to live with its past. Why?
European history is complex, and curiously, the Germans have confronted their past better than the other Europeans. They have accepted their historical past and have found a democratic balance. In the Spanish case, what I see is a cultural deficit whose roots are in the belated modernization of Spain. The fact is that today, the modernization of Spain has been a total success, but nevertheless, the same effects as in the rest of Europe have not happened.
I think there are a lot of factors. The dictatorship, for example, lasted much longer than in Italy or Germany, until a very late date. But there is also another aspect: in Spain there is a Leftist culture of opposing the adversary that is more extreme than in other Western countries. There has been a tendency toward maximalism among the Spanish Left that is stronger than in countries like Germany. In any case, there is so much in this question that I'd have to write a whole book about it.
Is there a "Spanish singularity" in comparison to other Western European countries, or is our history in general similar to that of the French, the Germans, or the British?
The answer is both yes and no. Spain is a fully Western country, it has always had the same institutions: the monarchy, the parliament, the Church...Nevertheless, the history of these institutions, the way of using them, has been different. Spanish history is very much marked by the Islamic invasion and the Reconquest. After this period, which was very long, there was another dominated by constant war and world preponderance. Other European countries do not have these peculiarities. Religion, for its part, has always been very closed in Spain, for centuries. Finally, modernization was very slow, and it came late. By the 20th century, revolutionary movements were much more virulent than anywhere else in the West. This revolutionary effervescence wound up in a civil war and an abnormally long dictatorship, in Western terms. The weakness of Spanish nationalism, that is, the process of national integration during the 19th century, was also important. This was nothing like France or even Italy, which is the most similar country to Spain.
Going back to the Civil War, what would have happened in Spain if the army had not risen up?
There would have been a Leftist government for some time, that's for sure. Then, anything could have happened. The Popular Front government might have broken up as in France, where it lasted only one year. Another possibility is that the revolutionary forces would have taken over the situation by turning the government over to Largo Caballero, who would have tried to carry out his revolution. It is possible that as time went on, there would have been some sort of civil war among the Left, as happened in the real Civil War in May 1937.
Was the Spain of July 1936 still a democracy with completely guaranteed rights?
No, by that time no. It was a democracy with most rights, not all of them, guaranteed. Since February, due to the policies of the Popular Front government of not enforcing the laws and of violating the Constitution, democracy had been devalued. During those months, the activities of the revolutionary movements, illegal demonstrations, and generalized violence put democracy up against the ropes. By July it can be said that Spain was no longer a full democracy, but something similar to a Latin American country...The truth is that the military rebellion was a rising more against the lack of democracy than against the excess of it. If democracy had been maintained, the officers who were not democratic would have had no complaint, and this would have made the rising much more difficult. What happened in the end was that democracy was not recovered with the rising, but another class of republic was formed.
Seventy years after the Civil War, debate about it has become sharper. Why didn't this happen before?
Among many cultural sectors, there is no debate, but rather a very biased and distorted line of interpretation. What is dramatic now is not the abundance of debate, but the absence of debate. What there is, is a well-organized movement on the Left to use the Civil War with political ends. This is linked to the idea of super-legitimacy that I discussed before. The Left feels very strong in the cultural and academic spheres, and it shows its power in this way. In addition, the Communists, parties like the United Left, or the Catalan left wing, have an imperious need to use their version of history as a political argument. Really, it's the only thing Communism has left in ideological terms.
Pío Moa is today, probably, Spain's most controversial historian. What do you think have been his principal contributions to the history of the Second Republic and the war?
Moa has succeded in opening up debate and making a very important analysis of the Republic and the origins of the Civil War which, I think, is his most important contribution, his research on the period between 1933 and 1936. His analysis is really original and his conclusions have not yet been refuted. He has been denounced and ostracised but they have not managed to disprove his theses about the Republic. I consider what he has written on the war and on Francoism to be more controversial.
The "battle of historians" taking place currently in Spain is especially virulent, and personal attacks are not uncommon, at least against historians like Moa or Cesar Vidal. How did we arrive at this?
Because of the convergence of two historical-cultural processes. One, which has occurred in the entire West, is the unstoppable rise of political correctness, whcih wants to impose its version of everything, exclusively, silencing the voices of those who disagree. The other, more specific to Spain, is the development of this new Leftist culture in the state universities, which are the majority. This has made discourse monolithically Leftist and always dominated by the same people. Those who disagree are denounced and eliminated from the debate.
The United States, your home country, also suffered a civil war in the 19th century. Did its effects last as long as in Spain?
The effects are always more traumatic among the defeated than among the victors. In this case we would have to compare the South with the Republic. Half a century later, in the first decade of the 20th century, there was no longer so much interest on the part of Southern society about the war, and it began to be considered one more historical event. In some social sectors there was a certain resentment, but without political ends. I think that by the time of the Spanish-American war reconciliation had already happened. In Spain a similar point was reached during the transition, which is when the idea of "the two Spains" began to decline...Sixty years after the war, this desire for revenge on the part of the defeated did not exist in the United States. Anyway, it was not the same kind of civil war. In the war between Confederates and Unionists, there were no major differences except for the emancipation of the slaves and the right to secession. In Spain there was a very ideological civil war, framed within the revolutionary struggles of the 20th century. Spain's was a fight to the death, a battle between two ways of understanding civilization, almost a religious war, radical and revolutionary, which opened up an abyss between the two sides.