William Chislett’s Spain: What Everyone Needs to Know presents a concise and eminently readable account of Spanish history and political life. The book is overwhelmingly weighted towards modern Spain, particularly from the period of the tumultuous Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) to the present. In many ways, this weighting makes sense for such a general and concise text: after all, someone seeking to understand modern Spain and its contemporary political and social life would not necessarily need or want to know all that much about Spain’s ancient or medieval history, or even very much about its Siglo de Oro, the ‘Golden Century’ of the Spanish Empire in the Americas, and of Spanish preeminence in Europe, centered on the sixteenth century (Chislett ch. 1, 16-20).
Thus, overall the book is good. Chislett’s aims are modest enough, and the book is clearly written for a lay readership. The balance between accessibility of a text, i.e. the avoidance of ‘too much’ information and any particularly specialized terminology, and the informative value of a text is often a tricky one to negotiate. Inevitably, if it is to be written as a general account for a purely lay audience, much will have to be omitted, and what is presented will have to be presented at a very general level of analysis.
Chislett walks this line rather well. The facts presented are topical and interesting, suitable for conveying information and gaining and keeping reader interest. The general reader, knowing next to nothing about Spain at the outset, may pick it up and read it without becoming daunted by its terminology, its scope, or its breadth. Chislett seems to have mastered the art of using an economy of broad strokes to, as it were, paint a general picture of social, political and economic realities, without bogging down the lay reader by exceeding their interest. Crucially, the information and analyses presented are, by and large, fair, honest summations of these economic, social, and political realities in Spain.
However, in some respects Chislett’s text could be improved with a better coverage of some of the pre-20th material. For example, although Chislett discusses the Spanish Constitution of 1812, and the political goals of the liberals responsible for drawing it up, the attainment of independence by most of Spain’s former colonies in the Americas in 1821 is largely glossed over (Chislett ch. 1, 23-24). This, after all, was a very important development, and it was a development thoroughly rooted in the political, social, and cultural life of both the metropole of Spain itself, and the Spanish American colonies. Of course, the role played by the examples of the American and French Revolutions was also important, and while this is touched on it could use further exposition. What Chislett does instead is to gloss over the move towards independence in most of Spain’s American colonies, which draws barely a sentence or two, and then move on to the Carlist Wars.
Other than this, again, Chislett largely handles the major developments of Spain’s important and turbulent 19th century very well, with coverage that rings both authentic and keenly insightful. The instability of Spain’s nineteenth century is detailed as a conflict between conservative and progressive forces, set to some degree within a broader context of European political and social trends. Chislett’s connection of these trends towards instability, exacerbated by the disaster (for Spain) of the Spanish-American War of 1898, with the Spanish Civil War is another thing he is to be commended for.
Chislett’s coverage of Spain’s disastrous (for democracy) civil war of 1936-1939 is one of the book’s strongest points. Chislett does a good job of situating the Civil War in the broader context of Spanish politics and society, notably the tensions between the conservative church and military establishment, largely backed by the rural populace, and the more urban sectors that favored the Spanish Republic (ch. 1, 37-47). He explains very well the key tensions gripping Spanish society, between the forces of religious and social conservatism on the one hand, which ultimately proved victorious under General Francisco Franco, and with aid from none other than Hitler and Mussolini, and those forces favoring either a liberal, capitalist democracy or a communist revolution (47). The wide gulf between the latter, Chislett correctly explains, was a major cause of the Republic’s losing the war: the fact that the forces fighting for the Republic were divided into so many bitterly opposed factions made working towards a common goal quite difficult (51).
However, a reader of Chislett’s work might still walk away with a poor understanding of the tensions between Soviet-aligned Marxists on the one hand, and the anarchists and the anti-Stalinist Marxists on the other. In all fairness this is a particularly confusing chapter of Spain’s history, but although Chislett explains that the United Marxist Workers’ Party (known by its Spanish acronym, POUM), was anti-Stalinist, there is no mention of the further distinction between these anti-Stalinist Marxists and the anarchist FAI (Chislett ch. 1, 49). Given the importance of anarchists in areas such as Catalonia during the war, and the differences between anarchists and communists, this seems a significant omission.
Nonetheless, Chislett’s treatment of the causes and consequences of the war is informative, and gives the reader a very clear picture of the devastation that it wrought. Chislett’s portrayal of a backward, impoverished country is certainly poignant, and the contrast with the rapid development Spain experienced from the 1950s on is well handled. This is a clear strength of the book: Chislett’s ability to clearly and concisely convey political, economic, and social realities in a way that is very accessible to a lay readership. If Chislett’s analysis sometimes leaves something to be desired due to omission, this is largely forgivable owing to the purposes of the book.
Spain’s remarkable and historic transition to democracy after Franco’s death in 1975 is one of the high points of the book. Again, the social and economic dimensions are handled capably and suggestively: without specifically arguing for the thesis, championed by many, that democratization is facilitated by the development of a liberalized economy and a middle class, Chislett nonetheless shows this in effect. The discussion of the political opposition to Franco’s regime, ranging from monarchist opposition under Don Juan to the violence of the Basque separatist group ETA, is topical and informative (ch. 2, 27-40).
Chislett is especially to be commended for giving due consideration not only to King Juan Carlos and Prime Minister Adolfo Suárez, but also to grassroots activists (ch. 3, 11-22). Chislett correctly portrays the path towards democratization in Spain as the product of a convergence of forces from below and above. Thus, not only were political elites breaking with the system established by Franco, they were doing so in a political and social environment wherein popular opposition to this system was intensifying, especially after Franco’s death (22-24). The degree to which Spain’s was a ‘negotiated revolution’ is therefore considerable, and this is well explained in Chislett.
The last three chapters cover, respectively, the Socialist era from 1982-1996, the era of the rightist Popular Party from 1996-2004, and the return of the Socialists to power since 2004. These chapters do a good job of explaining many of the important economic and social developments—or lack thereof, in some cases—during this period of Spanish history. The problems with a stagnant economy in the 1980s and the current, terrible recession are also well explained. The portrayal given is very much of an increasingly progressive country, which nevertheless has continued to experience recurrent economic problems.
Chislett’s explanation of the economic boom, which for Spain lasted from about the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s (roughly 1995-2007), is particularly relevant, and a strength of the latter part of the book. The picture of a lucrative but unsustainable bubble, which was based on a real estate and construction boom, is particularly good. The knock-on effects of this for the rest of the economy, and the disastrous consequences once the bubble burst, help to explain so much of Spain’s current woes (15-21). Today, Chislett explains, Spain faces a divided partisan landscape, Catalonian separatism that threatens to tear the country apart, and ongoing economic woes (ch. 7, 10-14). There is no reason to think that it cannot prevail, but to do so it must be prepared to tackle institutional reform, and the Spanish people must pull together as a country (14).
In sum, overall Chislett’s is a good text for a lay audience seeking general knowledge about the political, social, and economic realities of modern Spain. Though it touches on earlier history, beginning as far back as the Islamic invasion of 711, the book is focused on modern history and does a generally good job of bringing those realities to light. Spain, Chislett reveals, has had a tumultuous modern history, with great conflicts between conservative and progressive forces that have ripped open deep divides in Spanish society. It has also made great achievements in overcoming much of this history, with a successful democratic transition from 1976-1982 that replaced the dictatorial political system created by Francisco Franco with a constitutional monarchy organized as a democracy. Where it could be improved mostly concerns issues of omission, notably with regard to Spain’s 19th-century history. These issues of omission are sometimes significant, but are not sufficiently great to detract from the overall efficacy of the book as a guide to lay audiences.
Chislett, William. Spain: What Everyone Needs to Know. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. Kobo Desktop Reader.