The outrageous bashing of Catalan historians

The current political climate raises its ugly head in no end of controversies and debates

The current political climate raises its ugly head in no end of controversies and debates. Not even the review of and the reflection on historiographical production are spared. Over the last few months we have witnessed a proper onslaught --launched through many Spanish media outlets, as well as some Catalan ones-- that casts doubt on the rigour and professionalism of Catalan historians. Every Catalan historian gets shelved under “Catalan historiography”, which has allegedly become an instrument of the Catalan independence process. It is as simple as it is shocking.

Evidence of such allegations can be found in the vehement bashing of Josep Fontana’s La formació d’una identitat. Una història de Catalunya (“The Shaping of an Identity. A History of Catalonia”). Some of its reviewers --not all of whom are historians-- have chastised Fontana’s book, essentially resorting to personal invective rather than scientific argument. Some have even referred to the volume as a typical product of “romantic nationalism” or as a “romantic, nationalistic and communist” piece of work. To top it all up, some are routinely using the figure of historian Jaume Vicenç Vives and his role as the great renovator of Catalan historiography to put into question the work of contemporary Catalan historians.

Two warnings are in order, apropos of such claims: firstly, one cannot make sweeping statements and oversimplify the state of a scientific community as varied and extensive as that of historians; neither in Catalonia, nor in Spain or China. Secondly, when one intends to criticise the work of a historian such as Fontana, one should first seek to be well-informed and accurate, read Fontana’s book and understand the author’s thesis, instead of resorting to hearsay, as some have done. As the old saying goes, nothing is so bold as ignorance.

The underlying problem behind such an aggressive stance is the existence of a community of Spanish pundits who are truly obsessed with arguing for and justifying the official discourse on the identity and history of Spaniards. Actually, they are nationalist writers but they are never prepared to acknowledge it. It is the well-known, time-honoured tactic of many Spanish propagandists: they deny that they are nationalists while they accuse others of being precisely that, as if that meant that they are professionally flawed, necessarily. They have even claimed that Catalan historians are intellectually unable to historify their own country because they have been contaminated by nationalism --this is Antonio Elorza’s thesis--. Yet they themselves claim to be rigorous, objective professionals because they opine and write without any ideological prejudices. Such ludicrous claims are unworthy of debunking, as they would hold no water in any international scientific forum.

As in any other country, Catalan historiography today is plural and diverse. All kinds of works are published: some good, some average and some bad, too. Besides, there is a good deal of armchair historians; that is, propagandists who wish to spread their theses --some rather absurd or even provocative-- which careless publishers put into print. This has happened in Catalonia, as well as in Madrid and Madagascar. Unfortunately, apprentices and ignorant propagandists can be found anywhere, even in Spanish historiography. And not just a few.

Lately, some Spanish pundits and a few Catalan ones have been particularly hostile towards everything published in Catalonia on the events of 1714 and, in general, about the War of the Spanish Succession. A FAES (1) associate even said that a “shocking legend” full of nationalistic prejudice is being woven in Catalonia. On the interpretation of the significance of 1714, I would advise those pundits --as well as some misinformed historians-- to first read, for instance, the excellently detailed articles of bibliographic review recently penned by Joaquim Nadal and Joaquim Albareda. The latter writes that, while “it would have been desirable for historiographical practice during the 300th anniversary” (of 1714) “not to be so conditioned by the political debate”, the commemoration in Catalonia “has left a good legacy”.

Both historians are exceedingly critical of the idealistic, simplifying stance of some of the official Catalan commemorations and they do not conceal their disapproval of some innaccurate works written in Catalonia on the subject. Yet, above all, they highlight many valuable contributions made these last few years. They also review the Spanish historiographical production on the topic and, besides pointing out major methodological issues in many of those works, they identify an underlying predominant political message of an obvious “unionist tenor”.

No historiography can call itself serious unless it is bold enough to sit where the true scientific debate of professionals is and shun the realm of crass politics. Indeed, we Catalan historians ought to be more careful and denounce some publications and even attitudes that do our community’s prestige no service. Nadal and Albareda have done so and their articles showcase an honest, rigorous intellectual exercise that has not been matched by Spain’s historiographical community thus far. I wonder why.

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(1) N.T. FAES is a Spanish think-tank with close ties to Mariano Rajoy’s Partido Popular.