François Desset: On The Decipherment Of Linear Elamite Writing

We are so greatly pleased to present this interview with Dr. François Desset, who recently accomplished a remarkable scholarly feat – he deciphered an ancient and elusive writing system that used in Bronze Age Iran.

Dr. Desset is a French archaeologist, who earned his doctorate at the Sorbonne. His primary interest is Bronze Age Near Eastern Archaeology (ca. 3500-1500 BC), particularly in Iran, where he has lived for the most part since 2014, working at the University of Tehran, as well as with the French research team, Archéorient (Centre national de la recherche scientifique). He has conducted numerous excavations, especially in South-Eastern Iran, at sites pertaining to the Jiroft civilisation. Another interest of his is in Iranian writing systems.

In this latter field, along with four collaborators, Kambiz Tabibzadeh, Mathieu Kervran, Gian Pietro Basello and Gianni Marchesi, he has recently been able to decipher the long-elusive Linear Elamite writing system. At present, some 95% of the signs can be read. This is a monumental achievement, comparable to Champollion’s decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphic writing and Ventris’ decoding of Linear B.

This interview, on behalf of the Postil, is conducted by Robert M. Kerr, who heads Inarah, the institute for the study of early Islam.


Robert Kerr (RK): How did you first get interest in Linear Elamite writing?

François Desset.

François Desset (FD): During my first excavation in Jiroft (South-Eastern Iran), in 2006, four tablets with a “very weird” geometric writing system were discovered. My curiosity in undeciphered ancient Iranian writing systems, such as this geometric one, linear and proto-Elamite script, was sparked. This inspired me to write a book on the subject. At this time, most colleagues preferred to keep their distance from this material as it was still undeciphered.

RK: So, a healthy curiosity of the unknown took an un-relinquishing hold of you. As we both know, even deciphered writing systems of lesser-known languages, such as the language isolate, Sumerian, still pose considerable difficulties. Undeciphered writing systems, on the other hand, tend to deter serious scholars and attract dreamers, as for example with Linear A. Your approach, much like that of Champollion and Ventris was logical and systematic, leaving no room for wild speculations.

FD: Indeed. For me the turning point was the realisation that the proto-Elamite (as the early phase of the proto-Iranian writing system) and the linear Elamite (as the late phase of the proto-Iranian writing system) must be one and the same writing system, but at two different, chronologically distinct periods. Between the two is a middle proto-Iranian script, which, however, is still not well known. Crucial for me was that I was able to gain access to a collection of inscribed silver vessels (kunanki) in London (the Mahboubian collection) from which I could make exact copies. As pointed out by Gelb many years ago, the first step in decipherment, is to establish precise copies of the texts themselves.

François Desset with columns from Iranian Baluchistan.

RK: Certainly, without autopsy, you know nothing. Drawings in my experience are often detrimental to reading such texts.

FD: Initially, in my case, when I started in 2006, I only had photographic access to one side of the objects, the silver vessels; thus, I had only one half of the inscription. It was only in 2015, after considerable efforts, when I was granted access to the artefacts themselves that I was able to start to make progress. Two years later, I was able to present my first readings.

RK: Access to the written objects is the sine qua non of any philological endeavour. However, successful decipherments, yours being no exception, pursue in their analysis a three-pronged approach: Is the language previously known? Are personal names known? Are there bilingual texts?

Kunanki silver vessel with Linear Elamite inscription Y. Mahboubian collection.

For the first point, the key for the later decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs was the conclusion by Athanasius Kircher, a Renaissance polymath at the Collegium Romanum, that Coptic must be the last phase of the Egyptian language. Although he was unable to decipher the hieroglyphs themselves, this realisation was later crucial for Champollion.

We see this too with Ventris, who concluded that the language of the Linear B tablets must be a form of Greek, and Knozorov’s decipherment of the Mayan hieroglyphs. As per your second point, personal names, the realisation that such must be contained in cartouches was essential for Champollion’s work on the Rosetta Stone. The Rosetta Stone of course is triscriptural (hieroglyphs, demotic, both forms of Egyptian writing) and Greek and bilingual (Egyptian and Greek).

Detail of the so-called Marv Dasht vessel. National Museum of Iran.

FD: With linear Elamite we do not have bilingual texts stricto sensu. We only have “partial bilingualism;” that is texts recorded in different languages and containing. e.g., the same anthroponyms, titles, etc. So, for example, those referring to the Susian king Puzur-Sušinak (2150-2100 BC), which display a cuneiform inscription recording an Akkadian text, and a Linear Elamite writing one, recording what we could prove as being an Elamite (or Hatamtite) language text. The texts themselves, although they share the same onomasticon and titles, deal however with different subjects.

Distribution of writing systems in the late 3rd/early 2nd millennium BC Near East, showing the locations of the cuneiform (in red), Indus (in green), LE (in yellow) and geometric (in white) texts.

The texts themselves, although they share only the onomasticon and titles, deal however with different subjects. Then, we also have what one might term “biscriptualism;” that is, two objects with the same text (in the same language), though written in two different writing systems.

Linear Elamite inscription on the so-called Marv Dasht vessel 1. National Museum of Iran.

This was the jackpot – the same Elamite or Hatamtite text written on one artefact in cuneiform, and on the other in Linear Elamite. This is a classic knowledge-driven decipherment based on our capability to make connections between Cuneiform and Linear Elamite scripts inscriptions recording the same Hatamtite (or Elamite) language text.

Linear Elamite inscription on the so-called Marv Dasht vessel 2. National Museum of Iran.

RK: An excellent point, especially in this day and age when many seek to replace knowledge with technology.

FD: Certainly. I wish in this regard to emphasise that I have been asked a lot about computers, statistical data, etc. All hogwash! Knowledge, especially cultural knowledge and of the languages used at the time, some luck, and most important perseverance were essential.

Proto-Elamite tablets of Susa (CDLI). Louvre Museum.

RD: Often today, computers are employed to avoid thinking, as an ersatz for genius – information nowadays often is mistakenly equated with knowledge. Technology is no substitute for ingenuity, the feat of you and your team is a true intellectual achievement. Here, with regard to the first criterium, previous knowledge of the language, you were sailing somewhat on uncharted waters.

Proto-Elamite tablets of Susa (CDLI). Louvre Museum.

FD: Not entirely. We had Hatamtite (Elamite) proper nouns recorded in cuneiform. Without that, we would have been unable to make any significant advancements. The language though, like Sumerian, is a language isolate (i.e., has no known cognates). We know now, after decipherment, that cuneiform is rather unsuited to render the Hatamite language.

Proto-Elamite tablets of Susa (CDLI). Louvre Museum.

So, for example, the name of the 14th century BC king rendered in cuneiform as Untaš-Napiriša is rather to be rendered Ontaš-Napireša, because we now have a graphic rendering in Linear Elamite closer to contemporary phonetic reality, i.e., how it was pronounced. This writing system is well adapted to the morphophonology of Hatamtite, much more so than (the au fond logographic) cuneiform.

na-pi-(r)-re-sha

We have now also made considerable progress towards understanding the phonology of the language. I have the impression that Linear Elamite is in a way more “advanced” than cuneiform since it provides a more precise rendition of phonemes.

Curiously enough though, many scholars thought that the silver vessels bearing the inscriptions were forgeries. After their publication in 2004, nobody seemed interested in these objects. I thought I must have missed something.

RK: There was of course in the 1990s the famous “heist” of supposedly Achaemenid metalwork in New York, which turned out to be modern forgeries.

FD: We must always be careful with objects which are not unearthed in the course of official, professional excavations. Metal in the Middle East, a scarce, hence mostly imported commodity, was nearly always recycled. We usually only find such objects in graves. My suspicion is that the Mahboubian artefacts may come from graves dated around 2000-1900 BC.

RK: Looted artefacts lack archaeological context and hence are of limited scientific value. And they aid in the dissemination of forgeries. In your case, your decipherment has shown that the objects must be authentic. Could you now briefly explain to us the distribution of writing systems on the ancient Iranian plateau.

FD: I am proposing a new history of writing in the Near East. Things in this regard have now become a lot simpler. Until 2018, I thought that we had proto-Elamite, Linear-Elamite and this geometric writing system only attested in Jiroft. Then I came to the conclusion that the first two must be one and the same writing system. Their different appearance is due to chronological development. My thinking now is that in this region, “Iran” (archaeologically speaking), there was only one ancient writing system which appeared around 3000 BC. It was used, based on the names of the kings attested until about 1880 BC. These I divide roughly into three distinguishable phases.

The first phase, traditionally known as proto-Elamite, I term Early proto-Iranian writing; these appear to be mostly administrative tablets, found on eight sites, primarily in Susa during the French excavations at the end of the 19th/early 20th centuries, on the Iranian plateau. They are datable to circa 3300-3000/2900 BC. Although these texts are hitherto undeciphered, now that we have deciphered what I call Linear Elamite (Late proto-Iranian writing phase), we will be able to work backwards (as was done with cuneiform).

Then, we have the Middle proto-Iranian writing phase, about which we have only sparse information, and which probably should be dated in between, ca. 3000/2900-2300 BC.

Then comes what has been conventionally known as Linear Elamite, Late proto-Iranian writing (phase III), that which we have deciphered and is more or less datable to 2300-1880 BC. For this last stage, the present corpus is not large, with currently some 43 inscriptions, found in Southern Iran, in Susa, in Fars and in Kerman province (Shahdad and Jiroft). Thereafter, this (proto-Iranian) writing system falls into disuse around 1880 BC.

I believe that there were two reasons for this: first, in the early 2nd millennium BC, there was a large-scale urban collapse in Eastern Iran, in what is now Kerman Province; all the cities, Jiroft, Shahdād (Khabīs), etc. were abandoned – but this was not limited to the Eastern Iranian plateau; this was also, for example, when the Indus Civilisation came to an end. Second, in South-Western Iran in this period, in Susiana and Fars, Mesopotamian cuneiform was adopted by Hatamtite speakers.

RK: Often with urban collapse, writing systems, whose primary function is administrative, fall into disuse. We see this elsewhere, for example at the end of the Bronze Age in the Eastern Mediterranean. Could you now briefly walk us through your decipherment of Linear Elamite?

FD: By being able to access the artefacts in the Mahboubian collection, I was able to distinguish specific, repeated sequences of characters which were likely to be names. Of special note was a sequence of four tokens, which I thought in all likelihood must render the name of a king. The first sign, /ši/, had been previously identified in 1905 by a German scholar, Bork; the third and fourth signs were identical. Thus, I just needed to find the name of a king whose first syllable was Ši- and which ended in two identical syllables and who ruled in the early 2nd millennium BC. The names of the Elamite kings are known (e.g., from cuneiform sources). And there was only one king to whom these criteria applied, namely Šilhaha (20th century BC). This was the key. It gave me the phonetic value of two further signs, from which I could proceed.

ši-l-ha-ha

RK: I do not wish to diminish your intellectual achievement in any way, but could one say, that what aided you vis-a-vis previous scholars such as Hinz and Merigi’s brilliant and painstaking work, was that you had a larger corpus?

FD: Indeed, access to the Mahboubian collection was essential; in this regard I was quite fortunate.

RK: It was indeed your perseverance, gaining access to the collection while others showed no interest. This is an essential trait, especially for epigraphists.

FD: Yes, especially since the writing system itself is not as complicated as for example cuneiform.

RK: Yes, and with regard to writing systems, we must never forget that orthography and phonology are two related though quite distinct manifestations of language.

FD: Of course, language sound is not visual language/graphemic rendering. So, for example, there are logographic writing systems, such as Chinese characters (Hànzì), which do not record sound.

RK: And, as for example speakers of English and/or French know, how you write something is not how it is pronounced. These are two related, yet entirely different phenomena. We see that the advantage of the alphabet is that we can graphically produce words with a limited character-set, which then are read “hieroglyphically;” we recognise the word shape. Children and language learners have difficulties until they are able to master word shapes (cf., with smartphones, Chinese is written phonetically using the Latin alphabet, whereupon the user selects the correct character).

FD: Yes, speaking and writing serve two different goals.

RK: Moving on then, can you provide us with a brief overview of the Linear Elamite texts that you have deciphered.

FD: At present, we have a corpus of some 43 texts, which is not really a lot. We can roughly divide these into seven different corpora, periodically and geographically speaking. The first, the best preserved, longest, and the most important genre is votive or dedicatory royal inscriptions; those of Puzur-Sušinak (cf. supra) from Susa (2150-2100 BC). A second corpus in this genre is represented by the somewhat more recent texts on silver vessels of the late Simaški/early Sukkalmah dynasty (2000-1880 BC), by Eparti II and his probable son, Šilhaha (cf. supra).

e-pa-r-ti

On the silver vessels we can also glean two important conjugated verbs, “I made” and “I gave;” e.g.: I am … the King of Hatamti, I made … and I gave (scil. presented this object to deity x). We only have one text containing historiographical data, a campaign by Puzur-Insušinak previously known from cuneiform sources. We do, however, have important data pertaining to anthroponyms and the names of their gods which were previously unknown. Also, because as elsewhere in the ancient world, names had an apparent meaning, i.e., they are grammatically analysable and hence supplement our knowledge of the language. Sometimes it is hard to distinguish between a simple sentence and a “sentence name.”

Graphic rendering of the Persian Gulf type seal with Linear Elamite inscription V.

Now that we can read some 95% of the Linear Elamite signs, the challenge with which we are faced is the translation – as mentioned, distinguishing names from sentences, but also due to our limited knowledge of Hatamtite/Elamite grammar and lexicon. The latter especially, since we can now read the texts, we are continually encountering previously unknown lexemes and grammatical forms.

Kunanki silver vessel with Linear Elamite inscription Z. Mahboubian collection

RK: These are the problems which one faces when reading a linguistic isolate. As we mentioned, Champollion had Coptic to work with, Ventris, Greek. And there are very few bilingual texts involving a Hatamtite/Elamite version, including most notably the much more recent royal Achaemenid trilingual texts (Old Persian, Akkadian and Hatamtite/Elamite). I read many years ago the works of David McAlpin, who proposed a relationship with Dravidian languages. This has not been widely accepted, and hard to prove due to the chronological distance between the recording of the two posited groups.

FD: Indeed, this is a very unlikely proposition. To the best of our knowledge, it would seem that Hatamtite/Elamite remains, for now, a language isolate. Of course, no language can be a real isolate; it is just due to the data available to us. A lot changes over the course of three millennia. I choose, however, to leave this for what it is. I am not a historical linguist.

Kunanki silver vessel with Linear Elamite inscription K’. Mahboubian collection.

It is however possible that Hatamtite/Elamite was spoken up to the tenth/eleventh century AD. Indeed, Persian geographers, writing in Arabic, make mention of a language (Khuzi) spoken in Khuzestan, which would seem to have been a late form of Elamite or preferably Hatamtite.

The so-called “Table au lion,” with LE (text A) and cuneiform texts of Puzur-Sušinak, found in Susa. Louvre Museum.

Here I wish to make a brief note on the terminology. I am a fervent advocate of using “Hatamtite” as a glossonym, based on the auto-toponym Hatamti found in Linear Elamite texts themselves. “Elam” is a Mesopotamian allo-toponym which can roughly be translated as “Eastern Highlands.” Hatamti was probably the most important designation for the political structure of the Iranian Plateau during the third millennium BC.

RK: Your point is well taken. When the Louvre has its displays rewritten accordingly you will know that you have won. Let us return to your point on proto-Iranian writing, that this is one system with three (chronologically distinct) manifestations (One might compare the decipherment of the Shang Dynasty ‘oracle bones’, whose writing system represents the first attested stage of Hànzì). Indeed how many independent writing systems might one expect in one culturally homogenous region?

FD: The idea is not new. In the early twentieth century, it was widely thought that they were related. Thus, I am rather promoting classical ideas. It was only in the 1970s/1980s that what I call proto-Iranian writing Early, Middle and Late phases were viewed as distinct and independent writing systems. Although a general scientific consensus remains in this regard, I believe that I have good reasons to dispute this. So, for example, even a superficial glance at the shapes of the tokens themselves strongly suggests that the Early (Proto-Elamite) and Late (Linear Elamite) phases (the Middle phase is still poorly documented) are one and the same writing system.

Broken boulder with LE (text B) text of Puzur-Sušinak, found in Susa. Louvre Museum.

I have now started to work on the most ancient texts, the Early phase, using the phonetic values of tokens from the Late phase or Linear Elamite. It is still early days, but I can unequivocally state that there is a continuity.

RK: I do believe that you are on the right track and look forward to the completion of this work very much. Let us now turn to the implications of your decipherment and your thoughts about the origins of writing in the Ancient Near East, especially your suggestion that the earliest cuneiform writing and Early proto-Iranian (or Proto-Elamite) writing are contemporary, i.e., sister scripts. The communis opinio states that cuneiform is the mother of all writing systems. You posit a chronological and a logical argument.

FD: Yes, I have published extensively on this. Firstly, in my 2012 monograph, usually ignored by the academic world, and again in 2016, which received slightly more interest. This discussion is however completely unrelated to the decipherment of Linear Elamite.

However, I want to use the attention which the decipherment has attracted to promote my ideas on the origins of writing. Simply put, Carbon14 datings and the stratigraphy of the respective texts show that both Proto-Cuneiform in Mesopotamia and Proto-Elamite in Iran are contemporary. Conventional wisdom dates the Uruk (proto-cuneiform) texts to 3300-3200 BC. If we accept such, we must note that proto-Elamite (or Early Proto-Iranian) texts found in the1970s in the Iranian site of Tal-e Malyan were C14 dated to precisely the same period. From the point of view of pure chronology, based on the current data, both are consequently contemporary..

Goddess statue with LE (text I) and cuneiform texts of Puzur-Sušinak found in Susa. Louvre Museum.

As for my second argument, logic, let me note that if proto-Elamite (or Early Proto-Iranian) was a daughter script of cuneiform, then it should manifest numerous shared elements or borrowings. However, both differ for roughly 95% of the time. There is only 5% which is shared, especially, the numeral signs and systems employed and several logograms or sign-objects. Both of these, however, can also be found in the “numerical tablets” which are somewhat older, ca. 3500-3000 BC and are attested from Syria to Iran. It is clear that both proto-Elamite/ Early Proto-Iranian writing and proto-cuneiform share a common ancestor, namely, these numerical tablets. Thus, they are sister scripts.

Although I have been criticised for this thesis, my evidence is solid. I would of course be willing to reconsider should an excavation in the South of Iraq produce proto-cuneiform tablets which can be unequivocally dated to circa 3500 BC or earlier. Mine is the most parsimonious explanation with the data currently available.

RK: One must not forget that these “numerical tablets” do not render a language. They display logographs which are language independent and numerals.

FD: earliest writing systems were not very related to (a specific) language. We also see that they were only employed in specific domains, mainly accounting. This can be done without rendering specific linguistic information.

RK: Furthermore, if one accepts the theory of Schmandt-Besserat, that writing emerged from the use of symbolic tokens, “tags,” clay envelopes which only then became tablets, then the origins of writing are logographic. The latter, especially in light of their distribution, both chronological and geographical, could well be the precursor to both writing systems.

FD: With regard to her theories, we must be cautious. So, there is the discussion about the simple tokens dating back to the sixth and seventh millennia BC, which I do not view as the precursors to writing. The complex tokens on the other hand, which date to the fourth millennium BC, along with the clay envelopes, may well be the precursor to writing stricto sensu.

RK: The envelopes are convincing because they were used into the early second millennium BC. Thus, the evidence for a common ancestor for both proto-Iranian and cuneiform Mesopotamian writing is very credible.

FD: When I refer to the common ancestor, I mean the “numerical tablets” and not the complex tokens. The former have been found throughout the Middle East, from Syria to Iran, and date to the mid fourth millennium BC. It should also be noted that these tablets did not immediately fall into disuse after the invention of writing, and continued to be used for accounting and administration alongside the writing systems.

Detail of the so-called Marv Dasht vessel. National Museum of Iran.

RK: (Complex) Bureaucracies tend by their nature to be conservative, and these served the required purpose well. Can we turn now to the nature of the proto-Iranian writing system itself?

FD: Here we must proceed with caution. We must not conflate the Early proto-Iranian phase (proto-Elamite; late fourth millennium BC) with the Late proto-Iranian phase (Linear Elamite; late third/early second millennium BC). Let us discuss the latter first. Until 2018 – put yourself in my position at that time – what other writing systems were present? Mesopotamia, Egypt and Indus. Let us ignore the latter, it is still undeciphered.

Focusing on Mesopotamian cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphs, we see that they are mixed writing systems, employing both logograms and phonograms. Initially, I was convinced that this would also apply to Linear Elamite, and tried to identify these in the texts. I slowly however came to the realisation, confirmed, now that we can read some 95% of the graphemes, that this writing system was purely phonetic, using both syllabic and graphemes rendering one phoneme, without any logograms – it is an alpha-syllabary. It is thus the most ancient, purely phonetic writing system known to us. This is spectacular!

I believe that the Hatamtites were strongly attached to phonetic writing. So, for example, when they later abandoned proto-Iranian writing in favour of Mesopotamian cuneiform (cf., supra), they initially rejected the logograms and the logographic values of the characters. This has been known for a long time. Previously though, many scholars claimed that this was due to the Hatamites poor grasp of the essentials of cuneiform writing and its logograms; they were only able to use it at its basic, phonetic, level. We now know that this is not the case. The Hatamtites had a long tradition of phonetic writing, and kept this when they adopted another, scil. cuneiform.

They wrote cuneiform just as they wrote Linear Elamite. Later in the second millennium BC, logograms began to re-appear – here we see the influence of Mesopotamian scribal habits.

Late Proto-Iranian or Linear Elamite works on the principle of a phonetic grid with vocalic and consonantal values. It is perfectly logical. I could even use it to write French. Due to this, it works with quite a limited number of signs, especially when compared to cuneiform and hieroglyphs. Excluding some variants, we have about eighty characters. It is my impression, at present, that the Early Phase had not yet reached this degree of abstract rationalisation.

I am now trying to use our knowledge of the Later Phase to read the Early Phase texts, starting with the proper nouns, i.e., anthroponyms and theonyms. In these texts, we have longish sequences of characters, which do not seem to render numeric data, and which I suspect render onomastic information, which are often theophoric sentence names that undergo little innovation. My impression is that in the Early Phase (Proto-Elamite tablets), we have a hybrid system employed to record proper nouns, both logograms and phonograms.

Semantic structure of a Proto-Elamite tablet found in Susa using the decimal system. Some of the sequences in red may record anthroponyms.

My aim is to read the syllabically written parts of the personal names, and then try to deduce the value of the logograms. All in all, the corpus of tablets belonging to the Early Proto-Iranian Phase amounts to about 1700, mainly found in Susa and now in the Louvre – but also throughout the Iranian Plateau, with a more wide-spread distribution than in the Latest Phase. We have a good knowledge of the Susian onomasticon from the late 3rd millennium BC (i.e., written in cuneiform).

Using both the Late Proto-Iranian/Linear Elamite deciphered signs and the onomastic data available for the inhabitants of Susa in the cuneiform sources could lead to some progress in understanding the names recorded in the Proto-Elamite tablets. This is on the assumption that naming practices did not change dramatically during the third millennium BC. Of this though we can be fairly certain; so, for example, there is little change between ca 2300 and 1500 BC.

RK: This is certainly a good starting point. Just for the sake of clarity, in your Early proto-Iranian Phase, we find no cuneiform influence. The fact that it is a mixed logographic-syllabic system is what one would expect in the initial stage; this cannot be considered external influence. However, if the Early proto-Iranian writing was a daughter script of cuneiform, one would expect borrowings, since writing systems cannot be entirely separated from the language(s) which they rendered. So, the use of Sumerian logograms in Akkadian, and the use of Akkadograms in Hittite, etc. The borrowing of writing systems presupposes bilingualism in both the donor language and the target language. Cf., the historical influence of Latin in languages that use the Latin alphabet. When there is no bilingualism, it is the idea of writing that is borrowed, not the writing system itself (cf., e.g., Sequoyah’s Cherokee syllabary).

FD: Yes, as we discussed previously, the commonalities are largely restricted to the numerical signs and systems employed. Both Mesopotamian cuneiform and proto-Iranian inherited these from a common predecessor. The absence of Mesopotamian cuneiform influences supports both being contemporary and does away with the notion of cuneiform primacy, for which there is no evidence.

RK: I think that you have made a strong argument that proto-Iranian writing and Mesopotamian cuneiform are sister writing systems with a common ancestor, the numerical tablets. And again, my congratulations on your brilliant achievement in deciphering Linear Elamite – we eagerly await the publication of your findings. We also look forward to the progress of you and your team on proto-Elamite. Many thanks for your time.


The Necessity Of Opposition

Under communism, the political system in which I spent the first four decades of my life, there was no political opposition. This statement requires a short explanation. After WWII ended and Poland found herself under a de-facto Soviet occupation, there were anti-communist soldiers who continued their struggle for independence. During the entire communist period, occasional protests broke out against the regime’s economic policy, censorship, religious persecution etc. When the system became less brutal over time, there appeared small groups whom Western journalists called “the dissidents” and who protested against the regime and demanded its democratization. At one point, a powerful Solidarity Union emerged but soon was crushed by martial law imposed in 1983.

There was, of course, the Catholic Church, which in my country was and had been for a long time a place of refuge, a carrier of historical and cultural continuity, and a source of spiritual life for the believers and non-believers. But within the system, as the communist constitution constructed it, there was no place for the official opposition. This does not mean there was only one political party. Obviously, the communist party had a constitutionally inscribed “leading role.” But there were other parties, for instance, the Peasants’ Party, but they were not the opposition to the communists, rather their allies or, to be more precise, their satellites.

The communists had a justification for such a political construction. The argument was as follows. The communist revolution made a historical change. Poland was on the road to a system where there would be no exploitation, and everyone would receive everything according to his needs. The Communist Party leads the way to a better world. Who needs the opposition? Everyone who accepts communism and wants to work for a better communist world is welcome. The opposition to this process would be absurd and dangerous: absurd because the process, as Marx et al. had proved, is inevitable, and dangerous because it would mean turning us back to the world of exploitation, inequalities, injustice, colonialism, racism, imperialism, class struggle, etc.

Many people accepted this argument, not on its merits, but because challenging it was risky. One could lose one’s job, be imprisoned, or suffer other unpleasant consequences. When a larger group challenged this, as the Solidarity Union did, it became even riskier for the entire country because the communists always had the last word – the Soviet tanks.

Living in a society with no opposition was a peculiar experience. For one thing, it was extremely boring: a monotonous repetition of the same phrases and slogans, which did not serve communication, or if it did, it was in a limited way. The purpose of the political language was mostly ritualistic. The language was a major tool in performing collective rituals whose aim was to build cohesion in the society and close it, both politically and mentally, within one ideological framework.

Another feature of the system was an omnipresent sense of the enemy. The official ideology and its rituals were telling us that the nation is more and more united by and attracted to communist ideas. Still, at the same time, we had to be more and more aware of the enemies who wanted to destroy this harmony and plotted against our communist fatherland. I remember a teacher warning the high-school students before they went to a West-European country that they could become a possible object of the foreign intelligence agents. She advised them not to answer any questions regarding their school or families. And the teacher’s behavior was not considered extravagant.

One of the joys of being a dissident or joining a non-communist movement, such as the Solidarity Union, was that one could have access to a different language and talk to people who did not treat language as a repetitive ritual but as a tool of communication. Also, the problem of the enemies disappeared or rather was reversed. It was now the communists that were the enemies. Apart from them, the world did not look threatening.

At that time, it never occurred to me that the Western world may produce a society and a state of mind where the opposition as a permanent constituent of political and social life may disappear or become unwelcome. The assumption of my confidence in the vibrant state of the Western world was that its societies were pluralistic, that is, that the Left, the Right and the Center continued to be in a dynamic equilibrium, not only politically, but also culturally; that is, that they have grown out of and cherish different traditions, have different sensibilities, use a slightly different language and employ a different cultural idiom. But the assumption turned out false.

The danger of homogeneity has been looming over Europe and America for several centuries. The inherent tendencies of the Western world – egalitarianism, democratization, spectacular progress of technology, internationalization of the economy, the weakening of boundaries and measures – could not but lead to homogenization. All these processes had to undermine social diversity and were bound to make the societies more and more alike. This might be a paradox: the more accessible the world we live in, the more homogeneous it becomes. In other words, the larger it becomes, the smaller it is.

The problem of the opposition is a tricky one. On the one hand, the existence of opposition indicates that a large part of the society is represented, that it may influence its development, and that its voice contributes to a better grasp of the problems with which every society has to grapple. On the other hand, when the division between the government and the opposition is too big, it may not only destabilize the system but may prompt one of the conflicting sides to eliminate the other, not necessarily physically, but to marginalize them – intimidate, impose severe legal restrictions targeting them, and ostracize them, etc. – so that they practically disappear as a political and cultural opponent. This will generate the same results as a society without opposition – the destruction of language and an excessive sense of the enemy.

The communists, in their logic, were right in undertaking a crack-down on the Solidarity Union because there was no way these two sides could find some modus vivendi and modus operandi. The differences were too basic, and the objectives – sharply contradictory. Therefore, the communists found it necessary to present the Solidarity Union as an enemy and obliterate the language and symbols the Union used and equipped the Poles with.

How does this apply to a current situation? Suppose my diagnosis is correct and the Western world is sliding into deeper homogeneity, being reflected in the ideological proximity of the major political forces. In that case, it means we nowadays face a similar problem and should expect similar consequences. The political Left has dictated the agenda for the Western world: Socialists, Liberals, neo-Communists, Greens. The erstwhile conservative parties such as Christian Democrats have capitulated and have either incorporated the Left’s main points into their program or decided not to oppose and remain non-committal (which, in practical terms, is also a capitulation).

Today’s Left may differ from the Left of old in particular objectives and policies, but the frame of mind is similar: it aims at a radical restructuring of the society. Economic experiments of the old Left fizzled out, so there is no nationalization of industry and agriculture; no five-year plans are being considered. But the restructuring is equally radical: the Leftist governments, organizations, and movements have started waging war against a family based on the union of two sexes and in favor of multiple “gender” configurations; against the nation-state and in favor of what they call a multicultural society; against religion in the public square and in favor of radical secularization; against nationalisms and in favor of a united Europe; and in favor of a green world with zero-emission; in favor of ideological purity in art and education; against all forms of thoughtcrimes in history, literature, etc.

These and other items of this program meet with no opposition, that is, no legitimate opposition; those who question them are the dissidents, freaks, fascists, populists, and notorious troublemakers. This sweeping program of recycling our societies has been accepted by a tacit consensus of all major and not-so-major forces and institutions in the entire Western world. Why should there be any opposition, given that everybody who is somebody is in favor? The program leads to a better world without discrimination (who can object to this?), with harmonious coexistence of races, genders, and what-not (likewise), with a clean green environment (fantastic), with people’s minds freed from harmful stereotypes and prejudices (as above), with brotherly relations among groups (at last), etc. The opposition would only harm what looks like a beginning of a new promising stage in human history, superseding all previous ones in grandeur, justice, and human flourishing.

When the then president of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Klaus, spoke in the European Parliament several years ago and told the MEPs, in rather delicate wording, how important the existence of the opposition was, the deputies felt offended and walked out of the hemicycle. Klaus’s words were considered offensive and foolish. In their opinion, modern European parliamentarianism represents a higher form: no longer a Hobbesian dog-eat-dog world, but consensual, dialogical cooperation of the people of goodwill. And this higher form is being jeopardized by irresponsible national firebrands who want to turn us back to an unpleasant world of partisanship and national egoisms.

Whoever, like myself, remembers the political system without opposition immediately recognizes the entire package, perhaps wrapped differently, with different details, but otherwise quite similar. The degree of linguistic rituals is so high that it almost becomes nauseating. When sometimes I have to spend too much time during the plenary in the Brussels or Strasbourg hemicycle, I feel I desperately need some detoxing to clean my speaking and thinking faculties of the EU gobbledygook.

The behavior of the MEPs confirms the second observation. The Left majority of Communists, Socialists, Liberals, Greens, and (former) Christian Democrats, an alliance that composes about seventy-five or eighty percent of the entire Parliament, looks at a minority with growing hostility. They do not treat these remaining twenty percent of their colleagues as opponents but as enemies that can be bullied, lied to, insulted, and kept in check by a cordon sanitaire. Their views are not legitimate views that can be debated, but absurd opinions that are, on the one hand, inconceivable, and on the other, odious and contemptible.

And the EU is just pars pro toto. In today’s Western world, the list of enemies increased and the number of possible crimes far surpassed those in the communist system. Today one can be accused of racism, sexism, eurocentrism, euroscepticism, homophobia, transphobia, islamophobia, binarism, hate speech, logocentrism, patriarchy, phallocentrism, misogyny, ageism, speciesism, white supremacy, nationalism, illiberalism – and the list tends to grow. Some of the concepts – such as gender – have been particularly fecund in generating enemies: the more genders we have, the more enemies appear as each gender must have its own enemy.

Language has become loaded with these expressions, which are no longer qualified as invectives but have acquired the status of descriptive concepts. No wonder that the language of political exorcism has gained such popularity. One can insult at will in the belief that one describes. “The right-wing nationalist government in Warsaw, known for its homophobic and populist policies fueled primarily by the Catholic bigots, has launched another offensive of hate speech with clear racist undertones against the European values of openness, diversity, and the rule of law.” Perhaps the sentence is slightly exaggerated, but this is roughly what one usually finds in all major media in the Western world, from FAZ to NYT, from CNN to Deutsche Welle. The maxim audiatur et altera pars has been abandoned: there is no altera pars, so there is no point in giving it a hearing. Needless to say, the Poland they depict is not a real Poland.

This monotonous and deafening drumbeating spills over the entire society and penetrates all layers of social life. Among other things, it unleashed verbal and not only verbal aggression against the dissenters, which over the last decade has got out of control. And since the mainstream groups believe themselves to represent the enlightened world in its entirely, the dissidents are, by the same token, an inferior kind of people with inferior minds, and therefore, no foul word is too abusive to give them what they deserve. The fact that those inferior creatures can win elections or receive an important position or award seems not only unacceptable; it is a blasphemy that triggers an impetuous reaction of radical rejection and puts a protester in a state of frenzy. A massive hysteria and furious verbal aggression against president Trump were perhaps the most visible example of this. But such aggression can be directed against a university professor, an athlete, an actor, a priest, if their dissenting voices are heard.

No country is a better place to observe this than Poland. One of the few conservative governments in the Western world found itself outside the mainstream even before the party that composed it succeeded in winning the election. The Polish opposition to this government is, as they called themselves, “total,” which also expresses itself in the language it uses: escalation of insults, threats, wild accusations, physical attacks, all foul words one can think of shouted out loud in the face of those who are believed to be despicable puppets of Jarosław Kaczyński, that dangerous psychopathic despot – as they say – not really different from Hitler cum Stalin. No opposition in my country behaved like this before, not even when the neo-communists won the elections and ruled Poland for one parliamentary term. Whence this wild fury?

The answer is simple. One can easily imagine what goes on in the minds of the enemies of the conservative government. They believe they represent the world at large, and in a way, they do. They represent the real majority – the European Union, Hollywood, the Council of Europe, rock stars, international and national courts, TV celebrities, the United Nations, Ikea, Microsoft, Amazon, Angela Merkel, the new American administration, universities, media, governments, top models, parliaments. It is difficult to find any institution, corporation, or organization in the world that would not support them directly or indirectly. The “total” opposition knows they can do and say anything, and they would get away with it. When one looks at the Polish government from this perspective, it no longer presents itself as a legitimate government having a democratic legitimacy, trying to reform the system that had been inefficient, but as a villainous usurper, cancer on the healthy body of European politics. This is the government that, by its sheer existence, is a slap in the face of the European civilization. It had no right to come into being, and it has no right to exist. Insulting it and subverting it is a service to humanity.

The Polish government and its supporters are not powerful despots. They more resemble a David defending himself against an aggressive Goliath. But the problem is more general, and a reaction to Poland is just a symptom. The crucial question that one has to ask oneself today is whether this Goliath can be stopped and some kind of plurality returns, particularly whether Western conservatism will revive to the degree that it can prevent the Left’s march to a brave new world.


Ryszard Legutko is a philosopher and member of the European Parliament. He is the author of the well-known works, the Demon in Democracy and The Cunning of Freedom, as well as, Society as a Department Store: Critical Reflections on the Liberal State.


The featured image shows David and Goliath, in the Maciejowski Bible, or the Shah Abbas Bible, ca. 13th century.

The Last Imperialist. Sir Alan Burns’ Epic Defense Of The British Empire

We are so very pleased to offer to our readers a first look at Bruce Gilley’s latest book, The Last Imperialist. Sir Alan Burns’ Epic Defense of the British Empire. This excerpt is made possible by the kind generosity of Regnery Publishing. Please support this important research and purchase a copy – and tell others.

Bruce Gilley is a Professor of Political Science at Portland State University. His research centers on the empire, democracy, legitimacy, global politics, as well as the comparative politics of China and Asia.


By the 1930s, most colonial governments were under pressure to set out a plan for self-government if not outright independence. India was the furthest along, and African, Asian, and Caribbean nationalists wanted to follow. Good government was losing its appeal amid the allure of selfgovernment. British socialists and communists, including Alan’s brother Emile, were calling for the empire to be handed over to the League of Nations. The Belize Independent columnist and Battlefield general Luke Kemp told his readers that they should follow the advice of Emile, “reputed to be the greatest exponent of the Marxist (communist) doctrine in England” and treat colonial rulers like his brother as temporary “aliens.” “It is the ‘great brains’ that ran this colony to the rocks. Now we ask that men we feel are honest be given a chance,” Kemp demanded. Universal suffrage was needed, because national unity would “be as strong as the political latitude granted to the entire population.” When colonial officials complained about the desultory singing of God Save the King on one occasion, Kemp riposted: “I am quite sure the English taxpayers and the Secretary of State for the colonies would be shocked at the result of a plebiscite in British Honduras as to whether a change to the Stars and Stripes would be desired.”

London had imposed direct rule on British Honduras after the 1931 hurricane to speed recovery. Alan returned the colony to partial self-rule in 1936 with the election of 5 of the 13 seats in the legislature. He gave women the vote for the first time. Even so, the number of votes cast in the 1936 election was a meager 1,300 (less than 5 percent of the adult population), compared to 1,900 in the election before direct rule. Many people had fallen below the income or property thresholds, while others simply could not be bothered to register or vote. Most of the votes, about 1,200, were cast for the two seats in Belize Town. Of the other three seats, two were acclaimed. One returned a candidate whose nomination papers had been signed by a road crew. Robert Turton, the chewing gum nationalist, won the northern chicle district by sixty-five votes to forty-four. Given Alan’s legislative experience in the Bahamas and his “great ability as a speaker,” the Belize Independent bemoaned, the government bloc in the legislature—consisting of six officials and two appointees—was “so well clothed with power that their position” was “nigh impregnable.” Alan was “a Mussolini” for the way he “swept aside” opposing views in legislative sessions.

As in the Bahamas, London argued that any attempt to loosen voting qualifications would cause a backlash from white elites fearing mob rule. Luke Kemp, for instance, wanted only blacks and Creoles to be given the vote under his “natives first” plan. The Maya would be relegated to a secondary
role while whites would be disenfranchised or even expelled. Kemp wrote that “fascism or Nazism is a superior form of government” to colonial rule “for food, shelter, and medical treatment are within the reach of citizens and it is only the small minority that suffers unjustly.” Soberanis and Kemp
appealed for “closer association” with military-ruled Guatemala despite its comparative poverty and instability. Law and order “would be so under any flag,” Kemp wrote. Just as Haiti provided a sobering reminder to citizens of the Bahamas of the dangers of popular government, Guatemala, which had thrown off the colonial “yoke” in 1821 and similarly descended into a century of chaos, did
so for British Honduras. When Alan arrived, the conditions of the working class in Guatemala were far worse than in British Honduras, and labor leaders there were simply killed by the government. For the colony’s middle classes, a populist politics that led to control by Guatemala or by a native fascist regime would spell disaster. When Guatemala mobilized troops on the border in 1938, even the Belize Independent scurried for cover: “British Honduras must ever remain a British colony.”

For Alan, demands for political advance were rooted in demands for social dignity. “The one problem at the bottom of all their troubles, and the ones for which they passionately seek a solution, is how they are to obtain from the white world that recognition of social and political equality which has, up to now, been denied them,” he would write. When the German boxer Max Schmeling defeated the black American boxer Joe Louis in the first of their two fights in 1936, Alan recalled, “The gloom among the coloured inhabitants of British Honduras was worthy of a major national disaster.” Colonialism had, for better or worse, brought “social restrictions and personal insults” to subject peoples which prevented them “from recognizing or admitting” its great benefits. “The inevitable effect of this is that the unthinking mob . . . will follow the noisy and irresponsible persons who freely express their hatred of the white man and promise the people fantastic and impossible things.” The task was to expand democracy without handing over power to demagogues. Holding ultimate power in the hands of the governor for as long as possible, Alan would later write, was critical because it “ensured that British humanitarian and liberal principles should prevail, for the benefit of the underprivileged and often illiterate classes, against the selfish policies of the members of the old Assemblies.”

Alan drove this lesson home in his reform of the Belize Town Board. Since its founding in 1912, the board had been treated as the de facto democratic legislature of the colony because of its elected majority (eight out of fourteen seats). Board members typically debated issues far outside their purview, and the board was diligently covered in the local press. But it was also dysfunctional,
constantly in turmoil over committee battles and mutual recriminations. It failed to collect most of its taxes and most of its elected members were in arrears on their own taxes. One local merchant called it “effete, dishonest, and a menace to the progress of our City.” Without consultation or explanation, Alan cut it down to five elected and five appointed members for the 1936 election.

The act by Il Duce caused outrage on the Battlefield. But locals noticed that municipal affairs were working better and that day-laborers on town projects were being paid on time. A new “Sanitary Brigade” kitted in khaki replaced the slovenly food market and street inspectors of the defunct board. In 1938, Alan suspended the board altogether pending a reorganization. He made himself chairman of an interim board and was seen on the streets inspecting clogged drains and filthy latrines. Kemp eventually admitted that “90 percent of the citizens of Belize wanted the defunct board to be abolished” and congratulated Alan on “a master step.” Alan had proven his point: when faced with a choice between good government and elected government, colonial peoples would prefer the former. Clean latrines and operable sewers might not stir the passions on the Battlefield, but they made lives better and laid the foundations for durable democracy.

True to his word, Alan restored the democratic nature of the Belize Town Board in 1939 with six elected and three nominated members. All nine were non-European, marking the first all-local and majority-elected council in the colony’s history.101 He also added one elected member to the colonial legislature in the 1939 election, replacing a nominated member, leaving the government bloc with a slim majority of just seven to six. In these ways, Alan was balancing his liberal instincts with his attention to administrative efficiency. “It is not logical,” he would write, to tell colonial subjects that “all men are equal before the law and then to deny him the equality which he claims.” Democracy was clearly desirable. On the other hand, if that “right” came at the cost of death and destruction, it would be a poor trade. Like his growing interest in racial questions, his political reforms in British Honduras presaged a growing interest in the question of when and how a colony could be brought to independence. He rejected the idea that “independence should be given forthwith to those colonials who ask for it, whatever may be their competence to govern themselves, and regardless of the consequences to the mass of the population.” There would be nothing noble about decolonization if it caused countries to implode. “It would probably save us a lot of trouble and win us the applause of the unthinking if we surrendered at once to all the demands for self-government and rid ourselves of the burden of trusteeship,” he would later comment. “But we have a duty to the people of the dependent territories and to the world at large that it would be cowardly to shirk, and we could not later escape the responsibility and the blame for the disasters that would follow if we abandoned our trust.”


The featured image shows the map of the British Empire by Walter Crane, printed in 1886.

Listening To Eastern Europe

The difference between the two regions of Europe, Western Europe and Central Europe, is profound. It is less a question of the dross of recent history, of the difference in the tempo of progress, than of two forms of humanism, or if one prefers, two interpretations of European humanism.

The countries of Central and Eastern Europe are indeed authentically European, in the sense that their Greek, Latin and Christian sources are the same as ours. And it is not abusive to claim this affiliation. However, their way of thinking differs from ours. If we want to risk a simple statement to begin with, they are not Cartesians in the same way. The cold and rational clarity of the logico-deductive thought, which seems to be enough for us, seems to them very abrupt. To understand the world, they give importance to the poetic and the spiritual as much as to the rational. The influence of German Romanticism is certainly felt here.

Many consequences follow from this. For example, their cultural vision of the nation, as opposed to ours, which is mainly contractual. And the fact that, in one way or another, depending on the geographical and cultural area, modernity has not blossomed in the same way as it has here. To understand Central Europe, one must appeal not only to the logos and to well-handled Western reason, but also to the abysmal mysteries on which every culture feeds, to the myths and to the symbols that carry their meanings. Thus, Central Europeans often have the impression that Westerners are missing a slot, so to speak, the one that connects to the sacred.

Resistance And Culture

Political oppression naturally gives rise to an uprising and resistance of cultural identity – culture becomes power and names the identity that politics can no longer name. In this process of surviving under totalitarianism, Central European writers come to believe that they are, in the end, the guardians of European culture – for Western Europe has abandoned culture in favor of economic ends alone.

Kundera set the tone in his now classic essay, “A Kidnapped West” (1983). In this work, which succeeded in making the French intelligentsia aware of the fate of Central Europe, he recalled the major role of European culture and thought. He accused the Western part of the continent of having lost the sense of its own cultural identity, of no longer feeling its unity as a cultural unit (but only as a political and economic unit). Kundera was a precursor at that time. The life of the spirit in Central-Eastern Europe plays the role of sentinel and guardian of the temple: “All the great Central-European creations of our century, up to our time, can be understood as a long meditation on the possible end of European humanity.” It is well in this precise point that there emerges the incomprehension from which is woven, for the two Europes, the common life of today.

A Severe Criticism Of The West

Central European writers are severe towards the West. I would like to point out these criticisms, which partly explain, what can be called today, a clash between the two Europes, a quarrel that is well concretized in the emergence of “illiberal democracies” and Western commentaries on this subject.

Indeed, many of the most important authors describe Western economism as the entry into a form of soft totalitarianism – in any case a kind of avatar or twin of communism. Communist totalitarianism and Western economism are the two monstrous faces of modernity – and they look alike.

I only understood later,” writes Milan Kundera, “that communism showed me, in a hyperbolized and caricatured version, the common features of the modern world. The same omnipresent and omnipotent bureaucratization. The class struggle replaced by the arrogance of institutions towards the user. The degradation of artisanal know-how. The imbecilic juvenilia of the official discourse. The vacations organized in herds. The ugliness of the countryside where the traces of the peasant’s hand are disappearing. The uniformity. And, of these common denominators, the worst of all – the disrespect for the individual and for his or her private life.”

For Vaclav Havel, the totalitarian society of the 20th century would represent “a magnifying mirror of modern civilization in its entirety,” “the extreme point,” “the frightening fruit of its expansion”, “a vanguard of the global crisis of this civilization”, a “possible prospective portrait of the Western world”, “the most advanced reef of dehumanized power.”

We can only benefit from meditating on this comparison.


Chantal Delsol is a French philosopher, essayist, novelist and university professor. Her work has been translated into 15 languages. Her essentials include, Icarus Fallen: The Search for Meaning in an Uncertain World, Unjust Justice: Against the Tyranny of International Law, and The Unlearned Lessons Of the Twentieth Century: An Essay On Late Modernity. This articles appears through the very kind courtesy La Nef.


The featured image shows, “Autumn,” by František Dvořák; painted in 1912.

Marc Fumaroli: Between War And Peace

There are men whose very appearance makes them sturdy and dazzling; at times sober, at times flambotant; who say everything and justify everything, like a crusader’s armor or a bishop’s paramour. Marc Fumaroli (1932-2020) was one such man. His attire was always impeccable: three-piece suit from Arnys, club tie, velour jacket. He went with the old buildings, the silks and the tapestries, belonging to the altar as well as the throne. If elegance, the last marker of civilization, was to put forward its man, both a great academic and an eminent man of letters, then it could be none other than he, among the great Frenchmen of our time.

One does not need to be a great soul to see that the world of the university is a cesspool, made up of people who have sacrificed everything to it. If they succeed, it’s because they had an idea once long ago, which they keep recycling for years on end, and rest on comfortable academic laurels. Their bourgeois conformity outweighs their worldliness, and if they dare to think, it is often sideways.

There are however some great names, some beautiful figures, who have understood everything, acquired everything, conquered everything. “Fuma” had the insolent lightness to float in the honors, to hold a bibliography as a work; and this way to be a library addict and to give thanks and account with measure; to arrive at fascinating ideas, the whole formulated by admirable syntheses, handled with panache. His Excellency Fumaroli was of those breed of lords, if I may say so, to which Albert Thibaudet, Julien Benda, Claude-Levi Strauss, Roger Caillois or Paul Valéry belonged; these people of letters with superior intelligence, extensive science, profound erudition, and substantial traits that we lack.

The work of Marc Fumaroli is abundant but concentrated around a beautiful unity: the Europe of letters, ideas and spirit. It would be too long to elaborate it in detail, but let us note the importance that his Eminence gave to the Republic of Letters and the circulation of ideas, from the humanists to the 18th century salon; to this Europe that spoke and wrote in French. In the field of rhetoric, of which he held the chair at the Collège de France, the master was interested in its modern leanings and in the reception of Greek and Roman rhetoric in the Grand Siècle, mastered and studied earlier by Professor Laurent Pernot; hence the remarkable pages devoted to the quarrel between the ancients and the moderns.

Above all, Fumaroli was a literary historian who devoted part of his research to the history of the French language, to the institution of the language and to the way in which France became aware of the greatness and the supreme and precious good of its language. Hence the genius of the French language, the lavish allegory, and the Académie française. The notion of taste animated in a particular way the work of this prince of letters, with all its variations, the nuances between the style and the sensitivity. One might see finally, in the twilight, an old man rehearsing the correspondence between the arts, passing from literature to painting, from poetry to sculpture, declaiming his love for Watteau and Fragonard; the last refuge, if it is such, of beauty and elegance.

Fumaroli was of the Right. That is understood. Liberal, he was close to Raymond Aron; conscious of the inequality among men; vindictive towards egalitarianism. The cultural state he never forgave, and yet incisive as a cut of knife on steak he hinted at a theory of the free arts and the freedoms in the most priceless of art, right in front of the sad passions of the sinister Jack Lang, from the cultural to the sewer.

Nationalist and sovereigntist, Fumaroli was hardly any of that. Deducing that custom is better than reform, he was conservative. Reactionary, he conceived the love of the glorious past and of the monarchies of the Ancien Régime, nostalgic of the big and beautiful Europe, of the books, of the thought, of the great names.

His sharp pen, shielded under some corduroy and tweed canvases, could be acidic, even malicious. When a socialist circular sought to impose the feminization of the names of professions in French, he could refrain from irony and brilliant wit: “notairesse (“notaryess”), mairesse (“mayoress”), doctoresse (“doctoress”), chefesse (“chefess”)… rhyme importunately with fesse (butt), borgnesse (“one-eyed woman”) and drôlesse (“hussy”), only very distantly evoking a duchess. Let’s choose between recteuse (“rectoress”), rectrices “rectrix”) and rectale (“rectal”)…”

In the posthumous book just published, Dans ma bibliothèque, la guerre et la paix (In my library, war and peace), Marc Fumaroli expresses once and for all his views and observations about Europe. Like ideas nurtured for decades, this old man in his green suit delivers a fascinating cornucopia, made incredible by the truths that it delivers, all the ideas that are linked. As the author indicates, this book does not follow any method. Rather, it is a ramble, which follows winding paths, forks in the road, deviations.

The book sometimes gives the impression of a messy work, where the author puts down everything he knows, adding reference after reference, one idea after another, giving the feeling sometimes of losing his purpose – war and peace. It must be said that we are far inferior to the master in following him. It is Europe that we hold in our hands; just like that feeling with la Litterature europeenne et le moyen age latin (European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages) of Curtius.

It is not possible to repeat all the ideas put forward in this book by Marc Fumaroli, so numerous are they. But here is its essence – war and peace have been two opposite poles that have built European civilization, a creative and destructive principle, a kind of duet in which one part does not go without the other; but also a duel that feeds, according to the reigns, wars and peace treaties, artistic creation, taste and consciences.

Thus, Fumaroli developed and detailed an entire triptych. The Iliad and the Aeneid are, first of all, founding texts of war and peace. The Greek work resembles a perpetuum mobile of conflicts between lordships, as one finds them in the Italy of the Renaissance, which fed the history of men like a kind of dynamic.

The Trojan war had a moral reason – the unfaithful wife and the deceived husband; but it does not have a political or economic purpose. Menelaus returns with his lady; Agamemnon is murdered; Achilles as well as Ajax are killed; Ulysses struggles to return; and Aeneas has an appointment with his destiny. War does not create vast ensembles; it sanctifies lives and destinies.

As for the Aeneid, it prepares Rome. Aeneas is, before being a pious civilized warrior, a diplomat who prepares the reign to come of Augustus. The Latin work announces the pax romana, based on the need to make war to impose peace, the perpetual peace, that we will find in two times – at the time of the respublica christiana, developed by Augustine in the City of God, and then with the Treaty of Westphalia, following the Thirty Years War.

Fumaroli masterfully devotes a large part of his work to France, mother of ideas, arts and letters, domina of Europe from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century: “Richelieu invented the concept of the European concert. He made the European Republic of Letters admit that the role of conductor was reserved for France.”

Peace and war marked the reign of Louis XIV; and Versailles, as the center of Europe, illustrated, by its opulence and splendor, this opposition. The Hall of Mirrors presented to the world the true power of France – it was France that made war on Spain; and above all it was France that imposed peace on Spain. The disastrous outcome of the War of the Spanish Succession, the libertine regency and the bankruptcy, paved the way for a kingdom less sure of itself, in retreat on the geopolitical level, acquiescing to peace.

War and peace were also embodied in two characters: Bossuet and Fénelon. One was a supporter of a Gallican Church, quick to serve the altar and the throne; the other, a critical observer of power, who made ready, according to the theory of quietism, a desirable pax catholica in Europe at war. This peace was the message delivered by les Aventures de Télémaque (The Adventures of Telemachus), a book of bedside reading and of apprenticeship, for the young dauphin, written by Fénelon.

Only the century of Louis XV was one of weakness – the aristocracy was more and more autistic and did not play its role anymore; the bourgeoisie got ready for the next coup d’état – that of 1789. Finance and technocracy joined forces. War was no longer of any use. It is then that one realizes with Fumaroli, that peace is not a value in itself nor war a moral fault or a misfortune; and that, conversely, a war contributes to glory and peace, and peace leads to weakness and failure.

As well, Fumaroli showed the rise of a royal art. This Louis-Quatorzian art, if not a baroque art, borrowed from papal and Catholic Rome, and is properly Gallican on the one hand, perpetuated by the rocaille, country style of a Watteau until 1740, then formed by Greek and Roman art, marked by the conflict between the Ancients and the Moderns: “[This art] concealed in France the fundamental historical quarrel about the establishment and the legitimacy of the French absolute monarchy, a quarrel whose echoes resounded in the favorable ears of several Jansenist circles of the kingdom. The court of Versailles took sides during the lifetime of Louis XIV for the Ancients, which it endowed in 1701 with an Academy of Inscriptions.”

The Comte de Caylus was a craftsman. This man is both unknown and impressive. An antiquarian, he had, in the sense that the literary gives it, the vibrant passion and the sensitive taste of antiquity; engraver, archaeologist and aesthete, he knew how to give the impulse of antiquity to the taste and the aesthetics of the kingdom.

At first, close to Watteau, whose biography he wrote, he spoke of the complicity of a generation which had altogether been distanced from war and brought closer to the arts of peace: “The tender memory that I keep of Watteau, of the friendship that I had for him, and of the gratitude that I had for him all my life, led me discover, as much as it was possible in him, the subtleties of his art.” Caylus broke with Ovid and was renewed by Homer and Virgil, just as he broke with Watteau, and the shepherds, and the gioia di vivere. With Wickelmann, he shared the feeling of having come too late; therefore, he mourned, nostalgically, for the ancient world. The return to Greek aesthetics implied, if not a rebirth, at least a return to war, to the martial tone and to heroic assurance in the arts.

The last part of this triptych covers the twentieth century and the emergence of nationalism with Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Grossman’s Life and Fate. The liberal and romantic inspiration contrasts with absolutism and royal dynasty. Something deep and visceral accompanies the formation of nation states. Napoleon waged wars of conquest, a “crusade for nothing,” as Léon Daudet would say, in the name of an expansion of an idea, that of French universalism, born of the liberalism of the French Revolution. The nation as an everyday plebiscite, according to Renan, is formed by the adhesion of a people.

All this is summarized by Fumaroli, in these words: “It is not a king who makes war on another king nor an army on another army, but a people against another people.” Here is Europe, determined amidst the emergence of nations and the fall of empires. Modern war compared to the classical, ancient war, shows a qualitative leap.

Fumaroli reminds us that modern war reaches the degree of destruction that is attributed to it by the number of soldiers that it digests and carries, the mass levies that the nations have, the patriotism injected into the consciousness of war that formalizes and freezes the belligerents, the use of materials such as coal and the use of technology. War and Peace is the modern version of an Iliad, where the death of Prince Andre, mowed down by a French bomb shrapnel on the battlefield of Borodino, is the equivalent of the death of Hector under the blows of Achilles in Book XXII. The implacable Fate of Homer is transported into the mystery of the God of Christian love. And Fumaroli takes up the association of peace-corruption and war-salvation for the 19th and 20th centuries.

Life and Fate, as Fumaroli points out, recapitulates the poetry of the two great ancient epics, the Iliad and the Aeneid, divided between the celebration of noble warrior heroes and the curse of battle and its ignoble massacres. Grossman’s novel is torn between goodness, hidden in the description of the mutual relentlessness of the fascist and Soviet evil against the impervious goodness that perseveres beneath the apocalyptic surface of the Final Solution and the Battle of Stalingrad. The madness and mystery of war. Tolstoy’s Homeric heroes are succeeded by two totalitarian democracies. inspired, says Fumaroli, by France of Robespierre’s Terror and by Bonapartist absolutism, “engaging more decisively in mass extermination at home and mass warfare abroad.”

With regard to the last part of the triptych, we can make three observations. First, this Mitterrandian vision of a nationalism that leads to war seems rather stale. The idea that Napoleon is the origin of a degeneration of European consciousness and the father of conflicts between nations, which was good enough to explain the Second World War and totalitarianism, is now somewhat outdated.

Nazism is not, then, the consequence of a nationalist sentiment, of a love of one’s country, of a desire to be at home. It is a German problem in Germany. Nazism, even if it is extreme right-wing, is an idealistic and biological productivism that is strictly German; and it is a mistake to believe that all nationalistic paths lead to it. It is not a nationalism that metastasized but, on the contrary, in the wake of the concert of nations, the expansion of a great European project, of which the Reich would be at the head; a project that rebuffed the old generation of Action Française. such as, Maurras or Bainville, nationalists, and which delighted the Lucien Rebatet, Brasillach or Leon Degrelle, fascists. This literary and intellectual point and this quarrel of generations are both missing

If Europe, finally, is better than nationalisms, and if greater Europe interests us, what is the political purpose of this one? Who leads Europe? Which institutions? Which country? Who has the power? The European Union? This vast joke cannot satisfy us. How can we believe that European technocracy, co-opted, would find the necessary resources to substitute itself for elected monarchs, presidents and ministers, subject to a vote?

Now, there will be no more Fumaroli. Our Cheetah has made his last turn. Going through the whole of his work on war and peace, one can resolutely take up the phrase of Marshal Lyautey, “But they are crazy! A war between Europeans is a civil war.”


Nicolas Kinosky is at the Centres des Analyses des Rhétoriques Religieuses de l’Antiquité. This articles appears through the very kind courtesy La Nef.


The featured image shows, “Portrait of Marc Fumaroli, seated,” by François Legrand; painted in 2014.

A New Historical-Political Debate: Greatness And Miseries Of The Spanish Empire

In recent years we have witnessed a very unusual publishing phenomenon. María Elvira Roca Barea, a high school teacher from Malaga, published in 2016 a historical essay, entitled, Imperiofobia y leyenda negra. Roma, Rusia, Estados Unidos y el Imperio español (Imperphobia and the Black Legend. Rome, Russia, the United States and the Spanish Empire). Despite its title, the book met with great success, ending up selling more than 100,000 copies.

The fact that a book whose subject matter revolves around the Black Legend reached such a number means that people without specific training in the field of history are interested in this topic, and that is precisely where the interest in imperiophobia (“the fear of empire”) lies, not only from a historiographical point of view, but also from a sociological, political or ideological point of view.

History is not a static science, but something that often acts as a pendulum swing that oscillates amidst the topics that generate interest and about which it is written. The fact that historiography does not cease to be a reflection of the concerns and interests of society is a recurring theme in historiographical treatises.

As Gonzalo Pasamar has pointed out as an example of the first steps of Contemporary History, these are inseparable from the political and social changes of the 19th century. In the same way, we see the death and birth of new historiographical trends, in step with the times, as when, from the second half of the 1960s, among the background factors that led to the decline of historicism we can cite the disappearance of the main historians of the generation that developed their careers during the Weimar Republic and Nazism, the student mobilization, or the end of the political hegemony of conservative governments.

In the same way, Charles-Olivier Carbonell surmised that in the 1930s an economic history, oriented more towards exchanges, prices or currency, and not towards the modes or processes of production, as well as a social history that was not limited exclusively to the question of classes, but to that of groups and their form of interaction, such as rural and urban communities, minorities or the marginalized, was constituted.

The Annales school itself is the child of a very specific political and historiographical conjuncture without which neither its genesis nor its consolidation can be understood. It was a period between two world wars, when the process of progressive decline and the end of the historiographical hegemony that had been typical of the Germanic world since about 1870, and which would enter into crisis with the First World War and then with the political rise of the Nazi party, took place.

It is pertinent to frame the publication of Roca Barea’s work within a very specific context, which is related to the image of Spain, both within Spain’s own borders, especially in Catalonia, and at the European level. It is a portrait that has become, if possible, less favorable since the massive Diada of September 11, 2012, the beginning, as Enric Ucelay-Da Cal has pointed out, of the so-called “pro-independence process” that became more radical as the “molt honorabilidad” [“great honor”] of former President Jordi Pujol was called into question, for his undeclared fortune abroad, in what can be understood as an attempt to distract attention, and which has ended with some Catalan politicians convicted by the Supreme Court for the crime of sedition.

In reality, the origin of this situation, at least in the Catalan context, should not be sought from the time Carles Puigdemont was elected president of the Generalitat, nor since the ruling of the Constitutional Court on the Statute of 2010, but from the time Jordi Pujol became president of the Generalitat in 1980, with a mandate that, as is well known, would last until 2003, when he was relieved by the socialist leader, Pasqual Maragall.

The feeling of belonging to a wider community, the Spanish one, seems to have been diluted in Catalonia, a society that shows a great polarization between a countryside with a pro-independence majority and a more cosmopolitan and integrated urban centers. At the same time, the decades-long indifference of the hegemonic Spanish parties, the PP and PSOE, captive to the need for votes that the party dominated by Pujol could provide them, led to a tacit agreement – that some would receive support in Madrid, in exchange for “Pujolism” being imposed in Catalonia without too many obstacles.

As a result, the concept of “Spain” was erased from politically correct language, as if it were a cursed word with Francoist reminiscences, and was replaced by the term the “Spanish State,” which seemed innocuous and neutral. All this was due, to a large extent, to the influence of the media as well as to essential elements in the process of building any nationalism, such as education, language or history, always manipulated from a prism aimed at satisfying nationalist anxieties. It is in these circumstances that Imperiofobia appeared as a kind of counterattack that seeks to vindicate the Spanish past, sometimes considered as a taboo, or perhaps as a counterweight that tries to balance the image of Spain.

Of course, the manipulation of history by nationalism is by no means a new element. J.T. Delos drew attention several decades ago to the national sentiment influenced by Germanic thought, whose peak was experienced in the 20th century and according to which, through the invocation of historical rights, blood and soil, there was belief in the “collective soul, in the dark and instinctive forces that prevail in the life of peoples and in the development of their institutions over the decisions of individual freedom,” thus being closer to nature and the physical conditions of life, and less to rationality, and ultimately oriented towards racism, since the principle of their unity was concentrated around race. Delos felt that, in Germany, the language community provided great arguments for national claims, and the poets seized on this argument from the beginning of the 19th century, while politics turned it into a weapon of war.

During the second half of the 20th century, interest in studying the concepts of nation and nationalism increased notably, which led to the publication of numerous works that made this subject one of the historiographical favorites and on which it is very difficult, given the abundant bibliography that continues to be published today, to undertake a detailed study. Ernest Renan, with his work entitled, What is A Nation? gave the initial indication signal for the defense of linguistic and consensualist theories about the nation.

Contrary to what was advocated by the essentialist theses, which served as theoretical support for the Galicia of Manuel Murguía, the Spain of Modesto Lafuente or the France of Jules Michelet, the nation is not in this case something immutable and eternal, but a reality dependent on external instruments, which make up the nation-state, and internal instruments, mainly language and national education, as analyzed by José Carlos Bermejo. This group of theorists also included Anthony Smith, Ernest Gellner, Eric Hobsbawm and Benedict Anderson, who in 1983 coined the famous term “imagined communities,” in one of his books which marked a turning point in the debate that had been taking place on nationalism in recent decades.

In Spanish history we find several examples that show the need for nations to connect themselves with prestigious ancestors. The authors of the great narrative constructions, Juan de Mariana at the end of the 16th century, or the aforementioned Lafuente in the mid-19th century, emphasized the need to remember, for example, the main heroic deeds of Antiquity, which although they did not end in victory, as in the case of the sieges of Saguntum and Numantia, or in the biographies of Viriatus and Sertorius, were nevertheless heroic episodes. Both their memory and the bravery and courage shown in those resistances against the invader were to be internalized by the students who filled the classrooms in order to create citizens committed to the nation and the patriotic values it defended.

This yearning led in most cases to elaborate racist doctrines whose objective was to define “us” very well, since “we” were pure and uncontaminated by the rest of the races, which in most occasions were considered inferior. The case of the Basque Country is very curious, because during the 16th and 17th centuries the Cantabrians stood out as the first representatives of the Basques, a situation that remained more or less stable until the first decades of the 19th century, when this reference was still hegemonic among its cultural and political elites, when referring to the most remote past of Biscay, Gipuzkoa and Álava.

However, from the 1870s, we witness the emergence of the Iberians as the ancestral referent of the Basques, and by the end of the century, Sabino Arana formulated the first Basque national identity, completely separate and exclusive of the Spanish identity, based, as is well known, on race as the nuclear principle of his doctrine. And all this, as is natural, with the aim that the nation would sink its roots in the oldest and most glorious soils possible; or, in Fernando Wulff‘s expression, would be the depository of the “patriotic essences.”

But, as J.T. Delos observed, the nation is a product of social life and nationalism, that complex mixture of doctrines, political claims and passions. This same author, as Anderson would later do in Imagined Communities, stressed that aspects such as national sentiment are nothing more than manifestations of a collective conscience linked to historical conditions and a given environment, in such a way that the community exists insofar as there is a common state of conscience; that is, the awareness of “us” is given by the belief of forming an original entity that is constituted by opposing third parties, who are usually the enemies that all nationalism needs; and, secondly, by the will to perpetuate common life.

On this path, of which all the elements that make up the nation are part, the nation tries to generate a series of differentiating features that make up the identity of that people, since, as David Lowenthal has pointed out in a classic book, the ability to evoke the past and identify with it, both collectively and personally, offers meaning, purpose and value to our existence.

The Imperiophobia-Imperiophilia Debate

The purpose of Roca Barea’s book is, as she states in the Introduction, “to understand why [black legends] arise, what clichés shape them and how they expand until they become public opinion and a substitute for history.” The book, whose subject matter is one of the most controversial in the history of Spain and on which there is an enormous amount of bibliography, is divided into three parts.

The first, entitled “Empires and Black Legends: The Inseparable Couple”, begins with a review of the origin and meaning of the expression, “black legend,” including authors, such as, Arthur Lévy, Cayetano Soler and Emilia Pardo Bazán, who, according to Roca Barea, was the first author to use the expression, in April 1899 in the Salle Charras, in Paris, to refer to anti-Spanish propaganda. The analysis continues with Julián Juderías, who used the expression “black legend” as a title to his well-known book, in 1914.

However, according to Roca Barea, in recent decades there has been a tendency to deny the existence of the Black Legend. To justify this, she mentions a travel documentary broadcast on Spanish Television eight years ago where, under the theme of the discoveries carried out by the Portuguese, English, Turks or Spaniards in the 15th and 16th centuries, only unedifying facts were mentioned in the case of the latter.

On the other hand, there were a number of authors concerned with concealing, if not denying, that the Black Legend had existed or, in the best of cases, that it disappeared a long time ago. Among them, Henry Kamen and his book, Empire, where the British author defends the idea of Spain as a poor country, stand out. Roca Barea, with a certain ironic tone that she does not abandon throughout her book, concludes that Spain only “became an empire by a stroke of a pen; or, in other words, Spain did not build an empire but, let us say, fell upon it by chance.”

Next, and still within this first part of the book, Roca Barea begins to analyze the respective black legends of Rome, Russia and the United States, leaving the Spanish Empire aside, for the moment, since being the most abused, it will need a much larger space than the rest. Roca Barea states that the racist prejudices that affected the United States and Russia were born in France. The first author responsible for this was Arthur de Gobineau, author of the well-known Essai sur l’inégalité des races humaines, when he stated that the mixture that was taking place in the United States would end up provoking “a race without beauty or intelligence,” which would result in “the end of the different races,” and would also put an end to “the clear supremacy of the white race.” Whereas, in the Russian case, the French Enlightenment would be directly responsible; Russia went from being an example worthy of imitation, before the Treaty of Paris, to becoming a historical reality doomed to failure after the signing of the same.

After reviewing the three cases cited, Roca Barea finds a common thread that binds these three examples, which consist of the “mixture of admiration and envy.” In this way, she establishes “a fairly solid model of what we have been calling imperiophobia”. Roca Barea goes on to say that this would be “a particular kind of prejudice of racist etiology that can be defined as the indiscriminate aversion towards the people who become the backbone of an empire.”

She concludes the first part of the book by completing this definition a little more, in order to maintain that imperiophobia is particularized by two basic features. Firstly, that it does not go from a more powerful people against a weaker one, but the other way around. Secondly, by its intellectual immunity, given that, in Roca Barea’s opinion, “it is a prejudice of good tone, that is, it is not considered a prejudice but a completely justified and reasonable opinion,” and even finds “its most perfect accommodation among the literate classes, “which is logical “since it owes to them if not its birth, then certainly its development and spread until it became public opinion.”

The second part of the book, dedicated to the study of imperiophobia against the Spanish Empire, which, in her words, would not differ in essence from the cases previously analyzed, doubles the length of the other chapters because it is the paradigmatic example. Some of the episodes, characters and institutions that have traditionally contributed to forge a certain negative image of Spain that is associated with the Black Legend are touched upon. Thus, she reviews the major highlights, starting with the imperial military expeditions carried out by Charles V in Italy, and continuing with the conflict in the Netherlands during the reign of Philip II; Germany and Protestantism; Great Britain; as well, decisive and controversial episodes such as the Inquisition or the conquest of America and the work of Fray Bartolomé Las Casas, to cite some of the most relevant examples.

The fact that Roca Barea begins the epigraph dedicated to the Netherlands with the anthem of the Netherlands is noteworthy, since it highlights some clichés that are recurrent in the image projected both of the Spanish and the Spanish, as we will see. the image projected both of the Spanish and of what is Spanish, as we will have occasion to see later on. The lyrics read:

O that the Spaniards rape thee,
My Netherlands so sweet,
The thought of that does grip me
Causing my heart to bleed.

This question is interesting because it puts us before the mirror of the foreign vision of Spain and the Spaniards. In this sense, José Varela Ortega has just published a fundamental book. It is about how Spaniards have defined themselves and how they have been seen from the outside in a pendular movement that has oscillated between contempt and exaltation, between misery and exaltation.

Stereotypes, as Varela Ortega points out, although imprecise and inaccurate, have the virtue of being very effective. Vague or unproven assertions are the ideal breeding ground for these types of ideas to be successful. It is not only the merit of those publicists who, from the end of the 15th century to the present day, the period analyzed in this book, have proposed a distorted vision of our history, but also of Spain itself because many Spaniards were incapable of articulating a discourse that would counteract these stereotypes, a discourse that could mix both self-criticism and self-esteem about the image that was being projected from the outside, along the lines that Roca Barea also defends in Imperiofobia.

In fact, Varela Ortega gives an example of the prejudices that would continue to plague Spain, not only from the historical point of view but also from the judicial one, and that would translate into a double yardstick, depending on whether the events took place in Spain or in another country.

According to Varela, it is curious “that the U.S. press pontificates about the little left hand of Spanish politicians,” in a country where not two years ago the Supreme Court “unanimously rejected as unconstitutional a petition for the right to secession, signed by a hundred thousand plus citizens of Texas, who harbored desires and pretensions very similar to those of the Catalan nationalists.” Not to mention the German Constitution, which would expressly prohibit the secession of a federated state, so that the territorial unity of the Republic might remain “inviolable;” or, in other words, a case similar “to the secessionist process [which] would force any government of the Federal Republic to intervene in any land”.

The persistence of certain clichés about the history of Spain is a fact that both Roca Barea and Varela Ortega analyze in their respective texts. If we focus on the profile of Philip II and the Duke of Alba, we will see that their reputation in Europe is far from positive, even today.

Roca Barea mentions that a professor at the University of Ghent, named Lieve Behiels, examined, in the 1980s, textbooks used in Belgian education from 1843 to 1986. Behiels concluded that the Duke of Alba was described in most of them “with negative or very negative adjectives:” nineteen times he was called “cruel” and only five times a positive appellative, “brave,” was applied to him.

In the same vein, José Varela warns that, today, in a recently published and infantile Histoire de la Belgique (History of Belgium), the image presented of Philip II and Alba is that they tried to introduce the Spanish Inquisition in Flanders, an extreme event that is uncertain; and about the duke it is stated that he was “little less than a psychopathic butcher even by [the assessment of] current professional historians, such as Robert Goodwin.” A little further on, Varela argues that the Duke of Alba “came to represent the image of violence and cruelty, associated, from then on, with Spaniards in general,” making the Duke the “bogeyman” of Dutch children to this day.

It is true that both Philip II and the Duke of Alba are true protagonists in the Black Legend. Not in vain, for it was William of Orange who wrote his Apologie in 1581 as a rebuttal to the Edict of Proscription, under Margaret of Parma, which had been made public in August of the previous year, where he was accused of treason, rebellion and disloyalty, with the aim of developing a story or an alibi to justify the crime of lèse majesté that he had carried out against his king, a crime we must not forget was one of the worst that could be committed.

Some of these characters who contributed to the origin and consolidation of the Black Legend have been marked by the taint of treason. Indeed, there were active traitors because they wrote slogans, pamphlets or texts denouncing the alleged abuses perpetrated by Philip II and his administration, such as, William of Orange himself or Antonio Perez and his Relaciones, who perhaps perfectly represents the prototype of the traitor in the history of Spain. However, we also find other traitors who are passive, such as Don Carlos, a young prince who left no testimonies to incriminate his father but was nevertheless used and exploited with the aim of showing the ruthless behavior of his father, the king, and who ended up being associated with the “Demon of the South.”

In the eyes of Spanish historiography, Don Carlos was understood as someone dominated by a lust for power, to the point of wanting to overthrow his father with the help of some Flemish subjects who were very unhappy with the treatment meted out by Philip II; he would end his days without his father’s pardon, in a prison cell at the age of barely twenty. Don Carlos went beyond the limits of history, literature and his time; and proof of this is that Friedrich Schiller was inspired by him to compose his drama, Dom Karlos, Infant von Spanien, and of course Giuseppe Verdi and his work, Don Carlo, which premiered in Paris in March 1867, and which definitively consecrated the image of a despotic and cruel Philip II, even to his own son.

Imperiofobia then turns to two fundamental elements of the Black Legend, the Inquisition and the conquest of America, which are the themes with which Roca Barea closes the second part of the book.

In regards to the Holy Office, Roca Barea devotes herself to demonstrating that from “Frenchified literature to the theater of Martínez de la Rosa,” there has been “what we could call a complete normalization of the myth of the Inquisition in Spain itself within the political-literary world of the 19th century.” Her aim is to demonstrate how that myth was created, and she begins by stating that the identification of the Holy Office “with the Antichrist is already found in some texts from the 1530s; that is, at a surprisingly early date, and not only in Germany.” The procedure, in the author’s opinion, was always the same: “a small part of truth served to raise up a big lie that justified a prejudice of racist etiology that so far refuses to recognize what it really is.”

She then cites some of the testimonies that came to justify this thesis of the myth of the Inquisition. Among the authors she mentions are Reginaldo González Montano, author of the Sanctae Inquisitionis Hispaniae Artes, whom she suspects was a Spanish apostate; Francisco de Enzinas, another apostate of Burgos origins, who wrote, with the help of his brothers Jaime and Juan, a Historia de Statu Belgico deque Religione Hispanica, under the name of Franciscus Dryander; or Matthias Flacius Illyricus, who wrote a complete history of the Protestant Church and its martyrs, Catalogus testium veritatis (Catalogue of Witnesses to the Truth), dated 1556.

Again, as had happened with the Black Legend, “the myth of the Inquisition passed unshaken to the Enlightenment, and then to Romanticism and liberalism, and from there to the present day.” And not only that, but, in Roca Barea’s opinion, the acceptance of this myth is also influenced by the laziness of Spanish society, incapable of counteracting centuries of insults against the Holy Office.

She cites a report broadcast by La 2 of Televisión Española, entitled “The Inquisition: A Spanish Tragedy,” which was aired on May 22, 2013; also the fact that by typing into Google, “tortures of the Inquisition,” “you will find 171,000 results; and these only in Spanish;” or that in a survey carried out by the Council of Europe in 2009 on the occasion of the fourth centenary of the telescope, among students of the European Union, “30 percent of students think that Galileo was burned at the stake by the Inquisition, 97 percent are convinced that before that, he was tortured” and that almost one hundred percent believe that the phrase, “Eppur si muove” (“and yet it moves”) was in reality said by Galileo.

Authors such as Varela Ortega have called attention to the fact that the Holy Office does not need a special appellation. Therefore, it is revealing that not even in English do they refer to the Inquisition as just the “Inquisition,” but rather the allusion is made through the formula “the Spanish Inquisition,” even though the Spanish Inquisition was by no means the pioneer, although it was the one that obtained the most fame or repercussions.

According to José Martínez Millán, the episcopal Inquisition, administered by local bishops, was born with Lucius III. From 1231, with the bull, Excommunicamus of Gregory IX, it became known as the Papal Inquisition, already subordinated to pontifical power. Even within the borders of the Iberian Peninsula, as García Cárcel wrote in a short article, the Castilian Inquisition had antecedents in Aragon. In the words of Varela Ortega, the polemic could be summarized, not without a certain irony, as follows: “It is already known that it [the Inquisition] is Spanish; that of other countries, does not count (the fact that it came from France and that it acted there until almost the French Revolution hardly anyone knows about or is interested in knowing, outside of the odd expert).”

Roca Barea’s next objective is to list data that demonstrate that the Inquisition was not as savage, bloodthirsty and arbitrary as it has been made out to be, adjectives that, incidentally, respond either to the difficulty that often exists with certain institutions, battles or characters when it comes to distinguishing between reality, myth and prejudice, or directly to ignorance. Perhaps, in the history of Spain, one of the best examples of this sense is offered, as we are seeing, by the Inquisition itself.

Furthermore, she establishes a comparison with the rest of the European countries to prove that their legal system was more severe than that of the Inquisition. As an example, she mentions that studies, such as those of Henningsen and Contreras, bring the number of people condemned to death by the Holy Office, between 1550 and 1700, to a total of 1346, while Henry Kamen‘s estimates amount to 3,000 victims. In contrast, Sir James Stephen calculated that “the number condemned to death in England in three centuries reached the chilling figure of 264,000 people,” adding that some convictions “were for crimes as serious as stealing a sheep.”

This series of clues leads Roca Barea to conclude that, in reality, the Inquisition “was never a shadow power, nor did it have the capacity to control society,” since the inquisitors, in general, “worked under difficult conditions and their work was quite routine and bureaucratic. ” Consequently, the Holy Office is for the author “an icon, and its mental representation belongs more to the world of symbolic realities than to that of historical truth.”

From 1480, the Catholic Monarchs, in possession of the functions they had acquired by virtue of a papal bull signed by Sixtus IV in 1478, appointed Juan de San Martín and Miguel de Morillo as inquisitors, and the first act of faith took place in February 1481, in which six people were killed. This is the beginning of a period that Joseph Pérez defines as one of “terror” and about which Modesto Lafuente declares in his Historia general de España: “It was the first step, product of an error of understanding of the enlightened and kind Isabel, whose consequences she did not foresee, and whose results were to be fatal for Spain.”

A chronicler of the time, Andrés Bernáldez, considered that between 1480 and 1488 “they burned more than seven hundred people, and reconciled more than five thousand and threw them into perpetual prisons, where there were such prisons, where they were kept for four or five years or more.” This is perhaps the harshest period of the Holy Office, although the one chosen by Roca Barea to establish her estimates, on the other hand, begins in 1550, some twenty or thirty years after this brutal stage of the Inquisition took place.

Equally problematic are the figures offered by Sir James Stephen, among other reasons because, first of all, Roca Barea does not indicate in which three centuries these hundreds of thousands of murders were committed. Sir James Stephen, who, let us remember, lived in the 19th century, states in his book, A History of the Criminal Law of England, originally published in 1883, that, if the average number of executions in each county was 20 per year, the total would be 800 per year in the 40 English counties, data that Julián Juderías also cites, following Stephen: “And following the same author with his calculations, he arrives at 264,000 executions in three hundred and thirty years.” Naturally these are unrealistic figures which, moreover, would have us to believe, without evidence, that the intensity was always uniform over more than three centuries. In any case, it is difficult to maintain, as Roca Barea does, that the Inquisition belonged more “to the world of symbolic realities than to that of historical truth,” or that it did not have “the capacity to control society.”

The other extreme that attracts Roca Barea’s attention in the construction and maintenance of the Black Legend is the conquest of America, to which she devotes the final pages of the second part of Imperiofobia. The hypotheses she maintains with respect to the Conquest are similar to those defended for the Holy Office: “In the case of America, the deformations reached such a point that it has been impossible to try to make history without adopting a belligerent defensive attitude.”

Under this premise, Roca Barea sets out to bring to light the efforts of the Spanish Empire to provide what was necessary to accommodate life in the Americas. She mentions that between 1500 and 1550 “some twenty-five large hospitals were built in the Indies, in the style of St. Nicholas of Bari, and a much larger number of small hospitals with fewer beds,” to the point that in Lima, she tells us, there was one bed for every 101 inhabitants, which we should not expect in each of the cities of the Americas, although she does think that “this pyramid has a broad base of support, as evidenced by the fact that few of these institutions failed.”

If in the field of health this is just some of the data she brings to bear, in the case of education she offers much more that ranges from the creation of higher education centers, which she estimates at more than twenty, and the number of graduates that came out of them, which she estimates, until independence, at “approximately 150,000… of all colors, castes and mixtures.” Likewise, she does not miss the opportunity to establish a favorable comparison, indicating that one must add “the totality of the universities created by Belgium, England, Germany, France and Italy in the colonial expansion of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to approach the number of Spanish-American universities during the imperial era.”

In relation to the conquest of Tenochtitlan-Tlatelolco, José Varela indicates that, as in all American conquests, it was indispensable to collaborate with other indigenous ethnic groups subjugated by the Aztecs “who forced them to a very demanding regime of tribute and decimated them, imposing on them macabre human sacrifices and systematic and very numerous ritual cannibalism.”

In this sense, Varela Ortega argues that it might even be legitimate to question the term conquest because “in most places there was no conquest at all,” to such an extent that the characteristic feature was “the scarcity of warlike acts and the abundance of negotiations.” In this respect, it cannot be denied that, in the conquest of America, which extended beyond the 16th century, there were new formulas for convivencia or coexistence. However, it is quite a different matter to suggest that the military conquest and political, economic or religious subjugation were not the basic pillars of the process, so it does not seem important to argue that these events did not respond, in effect, to a conquest.

However, the main protagonist in the entire chapter dedicated by Roca Barea to the conquest of America has a name of his own: Fray Bartolomé Las Casas and his Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias (A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indias). Roca Barea dismisses this work as an unreliable historical source; she discredits it because simply, “it produces astonishment and pity,” so no one “with a little intellectual serenity or common sense defends a cause, however noble it may be, as the Dominican did.”

To some extent the life of Las Casas, the Spanish religious, was overshadowed by this work, of which there were many negative comments by prominent authors. But what is certain is that Las Casas had a very broad and systematic bibliographical production, covering several volumes, ranging from the political to the religious, passing through the social and the legal.

In fact, the protective legislation passed in 1542 was inspired by the reflections of the friar. To understand the historical transcendence of Las Casas, it is necessary, on the one hand, to take into account all his work and not only the Brevísima, and, on the other hand, to draw attention to the context in which he lived and avoid the great myths that surrounded him and contributed to create a distorted profile of him. In this way, it is possible to reach a broader understanding of his real persona, a task to which Bernat Hernández devoted himself in his most recent biography.

One of the lasting consequences of Las Casas’ book was, in Roca Barea’s view, to have facilitated “the birth of the myth of the indigenous Eden crushed by the evil white man,” arguing that it did not matter “whether the native is anthropophagous or head-shrinking,” but that “his state of nature makes him intrinsically good.” Subsequent translations into English, French or German, along with the famous engravings of Théodor de Bry in which sadistic, bloodthirsty and brutal scenes, such as that of the natives being devoured by dogs, can be seen, helped to spread and sustain the Black Legend.

Throughout the third and last part that integrates Imperiofobia, Roca Barea links, as she did already in the first part, the French Enlightenment with the creation of Hispanophobic prejudices, to the point of affirming that “Hispanophobia in France does not occupy an eccentric and marginal place, but is part of the central body of ideas of the Enlightenment.” She cites in this sense those authors responsible, among whom she highlights, Pierre Bayle, Montesquieu, Voltaire, Guillaume-Thomas Raynal, the Encyclopédie or the articles published therein by Louis de Jaucourt.

The essential summary drawn from the French cultural environment about the Spanish is, as the author summarizes, the following: “Spain is a country of ignorant and uneducated people; Spain is backward; the Inquisition and, therefore, Catholicism are to blame for the backwardness and uneducatedness of Spain, and in general of any place in contact with it; Spain is not part of civilization.” And again, Roca Barea again draws the comparison with the political, economic and social situation of France at that time, marked by a deficit that it is unable to control, by successive cholera epidemics, by a backward banking system or by the fact that “there is no running water or sanitation in Paris, and it was the most malodorous capital in Europe.”

But the basic idea with which the book ends and which we have already stressed throughout this discussion is the assumption about the Black Legend by the Spaniards themselves, who are responsible, in the final analysis, for not creating a narrative to counteract the accusations and falsehoods heaped on the national past. In the first place, Roca Barea blames Spanish liberalism, saying that all the clichés of Hispanophobia “rejuvenated by the Enlightenment are already assumed with perfect naturalness, as an unappealable and self-evident truth, in El fanatismo” (Fanaticism by Meléndez Valdés).

Regarding Valdés’ book, an author who, according to her, naturally assumes the clichés of the Black Legend, she mentions that during the reigns of Charles III and Charles IV there were four death sentences handed down by the Inquisition, the last one in 1781. A year later, Anna Göldi became the last witch burned by Calvinism, which leads Roca Barea to argue that “the bonfires go out in Europe almost at the same time from coast to coast,” in an attempt to play down the importance of the Spanish case.

According to the scheme proposed by Roca Barea, the relationship of the Spaniards and their elites with the clichés of the Black Legend were structured as follows. During the “golden centuries,” the Spaniards, although aware of the Black Legend, did not take much interest in it, and when they did, it was in a tone of “cheerful contempt.” In the eighteenth century, part of the elites began to take on certain clichés of the Black Legend. And from the middle of the 19th century onwards it became a natural part of Spanish life because society needed these prejudices to explain its own situation and, at the same time, with reasons admitted by all, to evade its responsibility.

In conclusion, Roca Barea suggests the need, on the one hand, to admit that the Black Legend and its consequences are still alive, and, on the other, to create an alternative discourse that combats the inaccuracies and insults perniciously maintained about the history of Spain. As an example of the former, the author delves in the last pages into the cinematographic sphere to note that, in most of the films analyzed, especially those that deal with the prevailing historical themes, the image of a Spain dominated by fanaticism, backwardness, tyranny and cruelty prevails. With respect to the second point, and in the words of the author, the book was written “to help clarify not the past, but the future.”

It is pertinent to mention at this time that with Imperiofobia Roca Barea completes her views of the Black Legend, and which she leaves off in the Enlightenment. The basic thesis she defended in Fracasología. España y sus élites: de los afrancesados a nuestros días (Failurology. Spain and its Elites: From the Frenchification to the Present Day), is made clear in the Introduction when she says, “There is a moment from which a significant part of the Spanish elites assume the discourse of the Black Legend because it is the winning discourse of the eighteenth century.” Under this premise, Roca Barea sets out to follow the path that takes her from the time the Bourbons acceded to the throne down to the present, with the aim of demonstrating that the prejudices associated with the Black Legend still survive in Spanish society.

Continuing her account near the end of Imperiofobia, Roca Barea maintains that it was in the century of the Enlightenment when a series of problems were born that Spain still suffers from today, such as, the rejection and moral condemnation of the Habsburg period, for which the Spanish elites were responsible because of the influence of Frenchification. Of course, and in line with her previous book, the source of the necessary breeding ground for the clichés to survive was France, especially with regard to Spain’s responsibility for the Inquisition and the destruction of the Indies. The Spanish inferiority complex would explain not only why these prejudices were present in the 18th century, but also why, by the 19th century, the intellectual and political elites cared little about the dismemberment of the empire and its eventual decomposition.

The Black Legend is, in the end, and in Roca Barea’s opinion, “the hanger from which hangs northern supremacism,” made possible because “not only has the Roman Church been completely defeated, but also because the Spaniard, the last of the sons of Rome to rule in the West, has been defeated.” The essential conclusion that this whole series of arguments brings forward for Roca Barea, what she wishes to emphasize, is that “from the situation of cultural subordination there is no way out without the assistance of the elites.”

She concludes Fracasología by arguing that the weakening of Spain can be seen in how the Fifth Centenary of the Discovery of America was celebrated and how the Fifth Centenary of Elcano’s and Magellan’s Round the World Tour is being celebrated. If Portugal, “with eight million inhabitants, is in a position to impose its presence on an equal footing in the celebration of a historic event, a milestone in the history of mankind,” that means that “our country has reached a state of extreme weakness,” to the point that “Portugal is right now capable of imposing its will on Spain, which has five times its inhabitants.”

The truth is that the theses defended by Roca Barea have raised debates, if not very heated controversies, which have gone beyond, in something that is rarely seen, the scope of academic discussion. This can be seen very well when in the newspaper El Mundo, in its edition of December 26, 2019, a heterogeneous group formed by journalists, lawyers, writers, academics or university professors signed a manifesto “In defense of Elvira Roca,” whose purpose was to reject the information given by the newspaper El País on December 20, 2019, according to which Imperiofobia gave, in at least about thirty instances of incorrect or even non-existent references. Among the signatories in support of Roca Barea were personalities, such as, Carmen Iglesias, Director of the Royal Academy of History, the playwright Albert Boadella, and the philosopher Fernando Savater.

The response published by El Mundo revealed “an astonishing campaign of public vilification directed at the researcher Elvira Roca Barea,” a harassment that had its origin in the pages “of the newspaper El País, with no holds barred,” but which “was taken up by other media.”

The final paragraph of the manifesto closes by linking it with one of the clearest argumentative lines of Roca Barea’s book, that is, the assumption of the prejudices about the Legend believed by Spaniards themselves, who also do nothing to remedy it – an idea which yet persists, although this time in journalism, since as one reads, “the very article in El País, in its efforts to disavow the book, Imperiofobia, does nothing more than confirm one of the theses that its author defends;” and this is, as we have just pointed out, “the resistance of a part of present-day Spanish intelligentsia to admit the survival of the Black Legend among us.”

However, perhaps the most forceful response to Imperiofobia has been the book by José Luis Villacañas, professor of philosophy at the Complutense University, Imperiofilia y el populismo nacional-católico (Imperiophilia and National-Catholic Populism), which is another history of the Spanish Empire.

There were two motivations, according to Villacañas in the Prologue, which prompted him to write this book. In the first place, because he considers Imperiofobia a “harmful and dangerous” book; and in his opinion, it is “an ideological artifact that has initiated the offensive of a reactionary thinking whose effects we are now clearly observing.” And secondly, because Roca Barea’s book attacks “in an insidious and grotesque way” everything that this author defends in his work, to the point of qualifying what Roca Barea does in her book as “reactionary intellectual populism.”

Imperiofilia is an amendment to the entirety of Roca Barea’s book. For Villacañas, both Imperiofobia and the reception it has received are the reflection of something he defines as follows: “The success of the book reveals the limited cultural demands of certain elites of the country, who, faced with a world they no longer understand nor know how to lead, need a legitimacy that Imperiofobia offers them in a brutal way.”

Thus, in the first part of Imperiofilia, he sets out to dismantle the theoretical scheme on which the work he intends to refute is based, by questioning aspects, such as, the distinction he makes between the “superiors” and the “inferiors,” the relationship between intellectuals and the maintenance of imperiophobia or the use he makes of the term “empire.”

According to Villacañas, the essential point in Roca Barea’s book is when she suggests that in order to analyze such complex phenomena, “the variable is still the difference between Catholics and Protestants;” so that “if you go against a Lutheran empire, then you are neither anti-Semitic nor racist.” On the other hand, “if you go, for example, against the Spanish Empire, which expelled the Jews in tragic conditions and exterminated them as a very ancient peninsular people, then, by a strange rule of three, you are anti-Semitic.” In his opinion, this type of approach meets not only with the approval, but also with the complicity, of “famous film directors, influential journalists and far-sighted editors,” who applaud without hesitation Roca Barea’s hypotheses.

In the second part of Imperiofilia, Villacañas exposes what he considers to be the two fundamental categories that constitute Imperiofobia, following the case studies chosen by Roca Barea: Imperial victims and the victimizers. Within the first group we find Rome, Russia and the United States, while in the second group we find Italy, German Protestants, England and Holland.

Villacañas understands that, in the epigraph dedicated to the imperial victims, Roca Barea’s objective is none other than to defend the idea that the use of the power of empires does not produce a bad conscience, which is why she presents a precursor, Rome, in the process of forming Black Legends. From his point of view, she is only interested in proving Rome’s innocence: “At last the eternal city finds its advocate before history. Now its ghost can rise again and put on the white robe of the innocents of history.”

On the contrary, regarding the victimizers, Villacañas thinks that what Roca Barea wants to demonstrate above all is that Protestant Germany is the true enemy of Spain; or, in other words, the precursor and forger of the Black Legend, an opinion that he does not share, since he believes that the beginning should be placed in the wars of the Netherlands. Furthermore, he does not accept Roca Barea’s interpretation of Luther’s or Calvin’s behavior when he says that the latter, in a period of four years, had fifty-four people burned, alleging that Calvin “may be an unsympathetic character, but to turn him into a pathetic criminal is unfounded.”

Villacañas also says that, in general, Roca Barea’s description of Italy, Germany and England is “superficial and inconsistent,” and adds that in the case of Holland it borders on “delirium.” And, finally, he recalls that the entirety of Imperiofobia is riddled with messages that lead to Catalonia, which is why he wonders if, in reality, there is the possibility that Roca Barea “wants to send the tercios to Brussels, to extradite Puigdemont, or to continue celebrating autos de fe, and force the good people to roar after the inauguration of the inquisitor of the day.”

At the part dedicated to Spain, Villacañas simply dismisses Roca Barea’s argument regarding the Holy Office and the conquest of America. At the heart of the matter is his own deficient methodological apparatus. In relation to the Inquisition, he maintains that the sources most used by the author of Imperiofobia to document her assertions are “comics” or “television documentaries;” or what amounts to the same thing, “the sources of the new populist science.” Again, he insists that it is Roca Barea’s intention to compare the Inquisition with the way the French courts used torture, for example, in order to demonstrate in this way, in a view clearly favorable to the Spanish Inquisition, that it was more regimented.

Villacañas summarizes Roca Barea’s view of the American issue as an attempt to limit everything to a battle between the Catholic world and the Protestant world, which prevents the observation of reality with the necessary clarity to understand it. All of this is clothed by the tendency to use “populist anachronisms,” since anachronism is the method most loved by what he calls “intellectual populists.” From Roca Barea’s treatment of Las Casas, valuable because it can thus be demonstrated that a Spaniard initiated the Black Legend, perhaps making good the idea of that negative community which evolves directly towards a lack of community, and to other aspects, such as, the fact that in America, in the 18th century, “the most audacious theories of the Enlightenment were arriving and being studied,” which he regards simply as exaggerations.

Villacañas devotes the end of the book to two other topics to which Roca Barea does not pay as much attention as to the previous ones: the Enlightenment and liberalism. In both cases Villacañas’ opinion is similar. On the one hand, when analyzing the Enlightenment, he says that Roca Barea “is not interested in the movement of ideas nor in understanding them,” but only in “counting the Catholic embassies that were set on fire by the English and pursuing this cosmic battle of which she is the last champion, the last crusade, the Spanish Joan of Arc.” When time comes to say something about liberalism, she does it to point out that “what interests the author of liberalism itself is the will to put into circulation the concept of Latin America as opposed to that of Hispano-America, which affects the Spanish Empire and constitutes the last sign of imperiophobia.”

Imperiofilia closes by recalling that Roca Barea’s success is based on the need that, in the absence of a Spanish nationalist response to the excesses of Catalan nationalism, there is compensation “in a work that calms many insecurities, generates absolute loyalty and attends to the unhappy conscience of many of those who see themselves endangered as a people.” Imperiofobia, he concludes, is ultimately “a product of Steve Bannon’s factory, mixed with the castizo heart of Gustavo Bueno’s imperial melancholy, used by the founding fathers of the Association in Defense of the Spanish Nation in its inaugural proclamation, and current inspirers of the VOX political party.”

The historiographical debate between María Elvira Roca Barea and José Luis Villacañas is nothing more than a reflection of the polarization suffered by Spanish society at present, since it has also had its manifestation in the media. It is not a question of reiterating here the fundamental role that historical knowledge plays in any democratic society, but of vindicating the need not to trivialize it in order to obtain political, economic or ideological advantages.

This becomes even more pertinent in a society dominated by immediacy, where slow and original thinking seems to be disappearing and history tends to satisfy old longings for grandeur. Otherwise, we will continue to be prisoners of a historical narrative riddled with inaccuracies, which refuses to debate with researchers and specialists and which finds in anachronism its best ally; or perhaps this is just a symbol of our own curse, and therefore we are condemned to be haunted by it throughout our history.


Bruno Padín Portela is a historian, with a Masters in Archaeology and Ancient Sciences and a PhD in History from the University of Santiago de Compostela (Spain). He has published articles in Spanish and has written international reviews analyzing topics related to Spanish historiography, especially the role of traitors in the accounts of the histories of Spain. He is also the author of the book, La traición en la historia de España.


The featured image shows, “The Conquest of Tenochtitlán in 1521,” an anonymous work, painted ca. 17th century.

The Banality Of The Humanities In Spain

Lucian of Samosata says in his treatise, How to Write History, that one can only be a good historian if one can tell the truth; that is, if one wanted to tell it; and if one did not wish to flatter the powerful. That is why many times the great historians have swum against the current; and when the data are systematized and the usual interpretations are dismantled, a history book can seem impertinent. Such was the case of the book by Darío Fernández-Morera, The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise: Muslims, Christians, and Jews Under Islamic Rule in Medieval Spain. It is a work based on overwhelming evidence, which puts facts before prejudice and goes against the political and academic clichés in force in Spain, which make the image of the past, which is often offered, an inversion of what the past actually was. An example of this is the book by Jorge Elices Ocón, Respeto o barbarie: el islam ante la Antigüedad. De al-Andalus a DAESH (Respect or barbarism: Islam in the face of Antiquity. From al-Andalus to DAESH), which is a faithful portrait, not of the past, but of the political and academic world of Spain today.

In present-day politics of Spain, ideas, controversies and political debate have almost disappeared. Ideas have been replaced by easy-to-use labels, which lack content and are nothing more than a series of words, which fabricate a world parallel to the real world; and the course of this fabricated world is then followed. This is the world of so-called political correctness. And the natural niche in which its slogans are generated in Spain is the academic world.

It is a world of armchair tolerant people, who pretend to redeem the world with their studies, almost always opportunistic and of low academic level, in which they make anachronistic arguments about tolerance in the past.

Such is the case of J. Elices Ocón, who is a perfect example of politically correct opportunism. His book is a doctoral thesis, which is not a guarantee of academic rigor, which was done under the auspices of a project financed with public money, and which shows that getting public money is not a guarantee of anything either. Elices Ocón establishes a continuity between al-Andalus, that is, the Muslim kingdoms of the Iberian Peninsula (and his focus is solely on the 10th century), and Daesh, born in Syria ten centuries later, and not in Cordoba, where an important caliphate existed. If he wanted to talk about intolerance in Hispanic Islam, then he would have to examine how the Umayyads had already implanted religious rigorism and oppressed the Christians, and then deal with the Almoravid and Almohad invasions, which took religious rigorism to extreme limits at that time. But that is of no interest to him. In Islam, as in other religions, the demon of hatred, fanaticism and violence always nests in a corner of the soul, which the author seems to want to incarnate exclusively into Christianity.

To demonstrate respect for classical antiquity in Islam, the author limits himself to collecting scattered data on the reuse of capitals, ashlars, and even sarcophagi used as containers for liquids, without realizing that such reuse was common since antiquity, because it takes a lot of work to carve a pillar, let alone make a capital. To be surprised, as Elices Ocón is, that Muslims appreciated the value of the Hispanic Roman aqueducts and bridges, or that Ibn Khaldun, a Muslim historian who believed that history begins with Mohammed, said that the pyramids of Egypt were built by the men of the past and not by mythological beings, can only be explained by his intention to defend, in a wrong way, that there can also be tolerance in Islam, and to confuse tolerance with common sense. Curiously, he hides the fact that, as can be seen in the book by Darío Fernández-Morera, the Muslims destroyed buildings and churches in order to reuse their materials, for example, in the construction of the mosque of Córdoba.

To the quotations of isolated materials, he adds the knowledge of classical texts. The author hides the fact that in the Hispanic Muslim world no one knew Greek, and that Aristotle was translated from Greek into Syriac and from Syriac into Arabic – and by Christian scholars under Muslim rule.

Since Elices Ocón focuses only on the 10th century in Andalusia, he forgets that the Byzantine Empire ended in the 15th century and that it was there that monks preserved classical texts unknown in the West, such as Plato. To maintain that St. Isidore of Seville had less knowledge of the classical world than the supposed Hellenistic scholars of the Caliphate of Cordoba, because Isidore was a Christian, makes no sense. Dioscorides’ book De materia medica, which Elices Ocón cites as an example of interest in the past, was translated into Arabic by a monk sent to Abderraman III by the emperor of Byzantium in order to teach Greek to the slaves in charge of the translation. It was translated for use in medicine, just as Dr. Andrés Laguna would do in the 16th century, when he translated it into Spanish for use as a vademecum. If to this we add that Elices Ocón does not mention that in the Toledo School of translators, promoted by a Christian king, Alfonso X, the translators of Arabic were basically Jews, then we will see how political correctness censors the past and stifles everything.

It is because of political correctness, sold as history and financed by public funds, that it is said that the actions of Daesh can make sense in the context of the struggle against imperialism, citing the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamyan (Afghanistan). It is true that the remains of the past have been destroyed at all times, but it is also true that Islamic fundamentalism in Afghanistan punishes, for example, apostasy from Islam with 20 years in prison, the burning of the Koran with public execution, by stoning in the case of women, and any public criticism of the religion with 8 years in prison, if there is a trial, or with execution by the free will of whoever is considered the just executioner.

Spanish humanists today live in a glass bubble. They write their books to win merit, which has nothing to do with knowledge, but everything to do with the standards that their colleagues create to evaluate and finance themselves with public money. They ignore much of the established knowledge, such as that collected by Darío Fernández-Morera in his systematic study, because they only work to accumulate a capital of minor publications, often in journals that they control or create. That is why they believe that to quote an author is to do him a favor. That is why, as J. Elices Ocón does, when there is a Greek author, such as the geographer Strabo, who has been studied from different perspectives in Spain and in Europe by numerous authors in different books, instead of referring to this whole tradition of studies, he limits himself to citing a minor article in a medium level journal, authored by a researcher – probably a friend – who will thus increase his capital of citations, within the networks of reciprocity and distribution of quantifiable honors that the humanities have become in Spain.

Are these new humanities, which ignore the value of systematic work, of the study of texts in their original languages, and which ignore the moral responsibility of the historian, described by Lucian, of any use? Well, no. The humanities thus understood serve no purpose, and nothing would be lost if they were no longer financed with public funds, because they contribute practically no new knowledge, nor do they have any capacity to take root in the concerns of citizens.

So increasingly, what readers demand from the humanities is offered to them by novels and all sorts of works of fiction, not by humanists. The new purple-prose humanists know that they are incapable of arousing interest beyond their academic bubble. They ask to be financed by the state – but as they know that their works can only be accepted, not read, in the field of propaganda and political correctness, they proclaim themselves prophets of a new banal world, which they call the “digital humanities” and emphasize the value of history as a resource to promote tourism. But then Medina Azahara, on whose door, by the way, the severed heads of the enemies of the caliph were hung as a lesson and warning to one and all – was also destroyed by the Muslims themselves.


José Carlos Bermejo Barrera is Professor of Ancient History at the University of Santiago de Compostela (Spain). He has published numerous books in the fields of mythology and religions of classical antiquity and the philosophy of history. Among these are The Limits of Knowledge and the Limits of Science, Historia y Melancolía, El Gran Virus. Ensayo para una pandemia, and most recently, La política como impostura y las tinieblas de la información. He has published numerous works in academic journals, such as History and Theory; Quaderni di Storia, Dialogues d’Histoire Ancienne, Madrider Mitteilungen. He is a regular contributor to the daily press.


The featured image shows, “Moors in conversation,” a mural on the ceiling of the Sala de Los Reyes, at the Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain, ca. 1375.

Afghanistan: The Allies’ House Of Cards

The Taliban’s sweeping advance and the collapse of the state of Afghanistan surprised almost everyone, including some military commanders who did not realize that each war is different from all the previous ones and that doctrines in practice can be useless in the face of new realities. The military tends to have a conservative mentality, not only politically, but in their own profession. That is logical, because war is an extreme situation from all points of view; and to be able to face great dangers it is necessary to have the certainty of method to defeat the enemy, or at least not to lose one’s life, and to be able to withdraw at the right moment.

Strategists, and public opinion, which often has a plausible vision of what war is, thanks to good war movies, believe that the core of war is the battle, or the succession of battles. A battle is a confrontation of two armies in a scenario in which victory and defeat are decided. Battles may be in the open field, in a war of tactics, or in the capture of a city. Each battle depends on the number of soldiers in each army, their armament, or firepower (literally, rifles and artillery), but also on who is in charge of the command and the will of the troops not to retreat, to attack the enemy and to take casualties.

After the Second World War, the land-battle model was the confrontation of mobile units, armored or not, maneuvering in coordination with artillery and air forces, which can decide combat at certain moments, destroying armored vehicles, artillery or infantry. The problem is that, as John Keegan rightly pointed out in his book, The Face of Battle, the increase in mobility and firepower has made it almost impossible to conceive of gigantic mechanized confrontations (as was the battle of Kursk in World War II, in which German and Soviet armored vehicles annihilated each other by the thousands) in order to speak of the end of battles.

We conceive the capture of a city in the same way as a battle. In a city like Stalingrad, an army is entrenched, and others attack it with artillery, aviation and infantry. The result is that, first of all, the besieged city becomes a fortress of trenches in its ruins, and its capture is much more difficult. The bombardment of cities during World War II served almost no purpose, neither from the military nor from the economic point of view, as historians and military men have recognized. The Americans and the British invented “massive saturation bombing,” which consisted of drawing a huge area around the city and razing it to the ground like a steamroller. Such bombings serve no purpose, except to destroy indiscriminately and kill civilians, as happened also in Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan.

There are also wars without battles, without fronts, in which the military doctrine is useless, if it is not revised and the war converted into something else. We are talking about guerrilla warfare, fought almost exclusively by the infantry. General Norman Schwarzkopf, who won the First Gulf War in a series of battles to annihilate the Iraqi army, thanks to his air, artillery and logistical superiority, but who actually lost it, as he himself admits, because he was ordered to save Saddam Hussein and allow the withdrawal of Saddam’s elite units, the Republican Guard, at the last moment, in order not to favor the expansion of Iran, as he states in his biography.

When he came to Vietnam, as an infantry lieutenant colonel, he found a unit lacking in discipline, but one which was excellently armed and provisioned. The standard drink for his soldiers was Coca Cola; they were served ice cream for dessert and drug use was quite widespread and allowed by looking the other way. This was because in Vietnam, one out of three soldiers fought in units that were usually no larger than a company. They were replacement soldiers, 18 or 19 years old, serving for one year, who had neither the solidarity of their comrades nor of their officers. Those who were about to be discharged ridiculed the rookies. Only soldiers who had survived a few battles, as in other wars, tended to survive. In the Battle of the Bulge, the average life of a soldier who had just arrived at the front was less than 14 hours; and the same thing happened in Vietnam with rookie soldiers and officers. A rookie officer did not survive more than two days; and the killing of officers, simulated as a fall in combat, was very frequent in Vietnam, as in other wars.

Schwarzkopf says that he would have liked rather to be in command of the Vietcong. A Vietcong soldier survived in the jungle by carrying a cloth tube full of raw rice that he cooked every day. As he knew how to hunt and fish, he did not need to carry more food. And he had the support of the local population, or he could demand it from them with little effort. And above all, the General points out, he had a cause to defend – his country, and so he could face the horrors of hand-to-hand combat.

The American infantryman, who would spend one or two weeks in the jungle, in a war in which the number of classic battles was minimal, left with a kit weighing about 35 kilos: his rifle, the ten standard magazines that he supplemented with as many in cartridge cases, grenades, food and other supplies needed to survive those days. In addition, as their new weapon, the M-16 failed, the soldiers ended up being allowed to carry weapons of their choice. All this to enter an unknown terrain, inhabited by peasants whom they could not know whether they were hostile or not, and who they had come to defend. This often unsurety often led to many surprises. In an effort not be face such surprises, the Americans resorted to destroying entire villages, or razing them to the ground by requesting air support from their superior officers. In Vietnam, for example, no colonel was killed in combat. and because of all this, the soldiers came to the conclusion that they were fighting a dirty and senseless war, which would end in a resounding defeat.

Something similar has happened in Afghanistan. The military commanders did not get to know the country. They did not encourage the study of local languages, but used interpreters, which can be very dangerous in a country with fourteen ethnic groups, and a country which is also very extensive, more or less the size of Spain, with a very high elevation, and fragmented by large mountains. A country without railroads, highways, navigable rivers and few airports, which meant that entire areas were never penetrated by western troops, because of disinterest or inability.

The occupiers, instead, focused on cities and created static defense systems, from large bases to fortified forward posts. This allowed the movement of militias, such as, the Taliban, through an unknown country. As Afghanistan is an agrarian country based on irrigation, the population is concentrated in the large valleys, or lives scattered in small groups among the mountains. In this scenario there were hardly any battles, and when they took place, as in Tora Bora, the infantry soldiers were Afghans, who had about 80,000 dead, in a war that brought the Taliban more than 84,000 casualties and thousands of prisoners. The western dead did not reach 4000, although there were thousands of wounded and casualties of post-traumatic stress, more than a third, as in Vietnam.

The Allies abused their firepower, especially in the air, which caused, as in other wars, dozens of innocent victims, and undermined the support of the population. For the allies, the war was ruinous, both economically (because they had to import everything) and militarily. They invested 2.2 trillion dollars (the USA alone). But that money generated gigantic flows of corruption among companies, the army and the local government. The local-created army was poorly armed, with light infantry brigades, without tanks in its tank units; and furthermore, it was divided among the zones of the country, creating territorial defense units for each of them, but not a powerful maneuver force.

Under these conditions, when a country that was never controlled, even though it benefited from major improvements in education, health, women’s rights, economy, technology and communications, is corrupted from head to toe, at all levels of the army and the civil service, the house of cards begins to shake. The army intelligence units were infiltrated by the Taliban, whose sympathizers increased among the population. These units believed that they could save themselves by grasping at straws. So, there was no need for big battles. The Taliban could not be annihilated because the Afghan army lacked adequate air and artillery resources.

The Taliban were allowed to take over a rural environment, which the politicians never bothered about. And so, given a decayed government, it was only a matter of waiting for it to fall under its own weight, to give birth to a new rural country, with a minimal state, and one ready to become a colony producing raw materials: lithium, copper, uranium, agricultural and livestock products, at the service of the colonial powers that will take over from the Allies, such as, China, Pakistan, Iran or the new Russia, which will probably recognize the new Afghan state, in the face of impotence, bordering on the ridiculous, of the USA and the European Union.


José Carlos Bermejo Barrera is Professor of Ancient History at the University of Santiago de Compostela (Spain). He has published numerous books in the fields of mythology and religions of classical antiquity and the philosophy of history. Among these are The Limits of Knowledge and the Limits of Science, Historia y Melancolía, El Gran Virus. Ensayo para una pandemia, and most recently, La política como impostura y las tinieblas de la información. He has published numerous works in academic journals, such as History and Theory; Quaderni di Storia, Dialogues d’Histoire Ancienne, Madrider Mitteilungen. He is a regular contributor to the daily press.


The featured image shows an untitled piece by Jahan Ara Rafi, painted in 2013.

What Really Happened In Afghanistan?

Early in 2021, Afghanistan once again found itself in a situation similar to the early 1990s, when the Soviet Army withdrew from the country. The then president, a technocrat educated in the Soviet Union, was head of the government in the communist system, installed by the USSR. Poverty, war and violence were widespread. The opposing forces wanted to establish an Islamic system.

The result was an end of support from the Soviet Union, overthrow of the communist government by the mujahideen (the Arabic term for those carrying out jihad; the term also means “strugglers”), civil war between different ethnic groups of mujahedeen, and later the Taliban regime’s takeover of the country and their hosting of Al-Qaeda, which planned the 9/11 attacks from inside Afghanistan – which made the international community and the US intervene in Afghanistan. The Taliban regime was toppled.

There were significant changes in the ensuing 20 years, particularly valuable achievements were made in the cities. But despite all the achievements, Afghanistan remained a poor, violent, corrupt, and one of the worst countries for women, children, and religious and ethnic minorities. As in the 1990s, at the start of 2021, the Afghan president was a technocrat – but this time educated in the US and president of a government backed by the US and the liberal West. The opposing forces, however, were still the same, claiming that they wanted to establish a pure Islamic emirate, in which they would apply their Islamic Sharia.

After the withdrawal of the Soviet Army from Afghanistan in 1989, the Afghan government fell under the mujahideen. There was a bloody civil war in the country, and finally the Taliban took power. Between the years 1996-2001, the Taliban carried out massacres against ethnic and religious minorities, such as, the massacres of the Hazaras in Mazar-e Sharif and Bamyan provinces. As part of the application of their Islamic Sharia, the Taliban flogged and stoned hundreds of women publicly, punished thousands of people for simple things, such as, shaving the beard, having a “western” hair style, having books in foreign languages, listening to music or watching films. As part of their foreign policy, they established close ties with Islamic fundamentalist states such as Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Pakistan (the only three states that recognized the Taliban) and some other Arab states.

Moreover, the Taliban provided shelter to Al-Qaeda, the most dangerous terrorist organization of the time, which planned the 9/11 attacks. After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the United States used its right to Self-defense, a right ensured to States by article 51 of the UN Charter. At the same time, the United States requested its allies to join the war on terror and use their right to “collective defense” given by the same article of the UN Charter. As a result, NATO countries for the first time invoked their article 5, which provides that an “armed attack against one NATO member is an attack against all members and so they will take actions to assist their Ally.” That was how the war against terrorism in Afghanistan started. Primarily, the military camps of Al-Qaeda and Taliban were destroyed and then the Taliban regime was ousted from power.

After the Taliban was toppled, the US also got engaged in nation-building in Afghanistan. The Bonn Conference was held in Germany, which paved the way for an interim government to be formed by representatives of different ethnic and religious groups in an inclusive manner. The interim government, as part of its duties, held a loya jirga (traditional grand council) to make a new constitution, which was ratified in 2004, and in theory, guaranteed some freedom, as long as said freedom did not contravene any religious teaching of Islam. Although some form of religious freedom could be inferenced from the constitution, Islam was established as the official religion of the state.

The main issue with the new constitution was that, as in the last century, it centralizes the power to the center, something that alienates different peoples, as they cannot even select their province and district governors. However, one of the most important thing about the new constitution is that, in theory, it allowed women and girls to enter schools and universities, and the social and political arena.

State institutions were built from scratch. Universities and schools were opened for both women and men, although in many provinces women could never attend schools and universities in large number. Operations against terrorism were carried out, along with development projects in many parts of the country; and despite widespread corruption in the Afghan government a lot of progress was made in communication, media and many other areas. All that progress came at a huge human and financial cost, both for the international Community and for the people of Afghanistan.

Despite all the hard-won achievements and changes, many things did not go well. And so on August 15, 2021, Afghanistan fell and a serious human tragedy began. To understand why things ended the disastrous way they did, there is a need to carefully delve into the past. One of the reasons why things did not go well was because the US, NATO and the Afghan government did not pay attention to how the Taliban transformed itself over time. Thus, the US and NATO always had a static, monolithic understanding of the Taliban, while the Taliban and its strategy kept evolving.

The Greek historian Thucydides explained that war was waged for three reasons: honor, fear and interest. In the case of Afghanistan, many argued it was honor (in both religious and tribal context) for which the Taliban continued to wage war, after they were toppled by a US-led coalition in 2001.

Others argued that the irrational Taliban continued the war simply because they were manipulated by a charismatic leader (Mullah Omar), were indoctrinated in religious madrasas, were closely tied to the Pashtunwali culture that valued avenging dead relatives and blood vengeance. However, these arguments were only partly true. While culture had a significant role in shaping the Taliban’s way of war, the group and its war were explicable within familiar strategic concepts both classical and more contemporary. The Taliban had developed a strategy to succeed and ultimately became winners.

Afghans are more generally survivalists. In that sense, the Taliban, formed primarily by Pashtuns, are no different than the rest of the people. Despite the fact that religiously the Taliban believe in the other world and praise martyrdom, in the battle ground, their top priority is not directly going to paradise, but to survive and succeed. The same survivalist nature is the key to explaining why, in the conflict areas, people change sides, always siding with the expected winner, or playing both to avoid recrimination by the possible top-dog.

In 2001, the Taliban was toppled by the US-led coalition in the course of just a few weeks and by 2006 many American and NATO authorities counted the Taliban as ultimately defeated. However, some historians and military analysts were skeptical of the narrative that said the Taliban were dead. Some years later, the skeptics were proven right. The Taliban, who were pronounced dead several times, refused to die, and went through a process of transforming into the “neo-Taliban” – they gradually adapted to changes that could help them reach their strategic objective of becoming the winner.

Thus, after being toppled, the Taliban gradually emerged and secretly started spreading their handwritten messages in the form of “night letters,” face-to-face warnings, and in some cases, radio broadcasts, emphasizing the narrative that time was on their side and the infidels would have to leave. The Taliban leader Mullah Omar had said, “…the Americans and NATO have all the watches, but we [the Taliban] have all the time…”

As the Taliban positions were being bombed since 2001, they exploited territorial bases in Pakistan to survive, and replenished their manpower with fresh recruits of stateless, transnational jihadists with expertise, money, and weapons, but also with Pashtun, Arab, Uzbek, Chechen and other volunteers. Then the Taliban carried out periodic offensives, mobilized Afghan riots among civilians alienated from the state because of food shortage and the state’s great corruption and failure.

While in power, the Taliban practiced and imposed strict Sharia and “pure” Islam. On the battlefields, the Taliban started to sacrifice their culturally and religiously-rooted beliefs and taboos for survival and success. For example, despite the religious and cultural emphasis on human remains to be buried, the Taliban fighters usually left the bodies of their dead behind and did not risk removing them from the battleground. The “neo-Taliban” resorted to Al Qaeda-style tactics – roadside explosives, kidnappings. That was well-calculated – because the international and Afghan forces were not affected as much by five days of fighting as much as they were affected, for example, by a suicide attack or a roadside bomb.

The Taliban are mainly formed by Pashtuns, but as part of their evolving policy to gain popularity, the group tried to include the rival groups such as Tajiks and Uzbeks in their movement. They were very successful in that. For instance, provinces such as Badakhshan, Takhar, and Kundoz, which are Tajik and Uzbek dominated respectively, fell to the Taliban very easily this year. It was partly because the Tajik and Uzbek locals were divided and many became vulnerable to Taliban ideology.

The Taliban even tried to recruit Hazaras —a group different from the Taliban ethnically, linguistically, and religiously— but were unsuccessful simply because Hazaras remember the Taliban’s ethnic cleansing and massacring of thousands of Hazaras in Mazar-e Sharif and Bamyan and thus still fear their return.

While in power, the Taliban were known for technophobia. The Taliban’s Sharia police were breaking devices such as television and computers. But in the recent years, the “neo-Taliban” have vastly been using every means of technology to spread their propaganda. By 2006, the Taliban had representatives in Iraq to learn video production from Al-Qaeda, so that they could use produce videos and publish them on the internet.

Considering the fact that the Taliban considered depiction of humans as evil, the use of new technology was revolutionary. Similarly, when in power, the Taliban punished people for listening to music; but in the last few years the group has used music with religious content as a way to spread their propaganda, strengthen the morale of their fighters and deliver their message in the most suitable way to the illiterate people. Like modern fascism, the Taliban hates modernity, but wants the benefits of its technology.

The coalition and the Afghan government destroyed opium fields, but the Taliban offered protection and defense of the opium fields, which made the group more attractive to the Pashtun locals in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, in which the largest percentage of the world’s opium is produced. The Taliban’s protection of the opium fields and its direct involvement in the drug industry, although in opposition to their religious beliefs and their leader Mullah Omar’s fatwa in 2001 to ban poppy cultivation, was strategically calculated, and provided the Taliban with an annual income of around $420 million.

The Taliban also used the time during which the US was engaged in Iraq and allocated much of its manpower, spending and political capital to the war in that country, and during which time, Afghanistan was not the priority. For example, in 2007 there were 27000 American troops in Afghanistan, while in Iraq the number was around 155000. This neglect helped the Taliban to strengthen even more.

As part of their evolving policy to gain popularity, they relaxed their restrictions on social behavior. For instance, while in power and even many years later, the Taliban only allowed religious schools for boys and totally forbade girls’ education. Between 2001-2006, the Taliban destroyed over 200 schools, killing tens of students and teachers. Years later, they allowed schools for boys in their territory; but this never meant the Taliban were ultimately sincere or committed in the long term to change their education policy.

Another stereotype which is mainly promoted by the Taliban themselves is that the Taliban are very much tied to martyrdom and going to paradise, which is true, but at the same time, while in wartime, the Taliban have proved to be more subtle operators. There is a famous case in which Taliban leaders trimmed their beards —shaving the beard was punished under the Taliban— to avoid being captured.

Innovation of suicide bombers, an affront to popular understanding of Islam in Afghanistan, came with a utilitarian justification by the Taliban leaders; meaning that as it was proved effective, so it was allowed and justified by their version of Islam. A suicide bomber’s dream might have been paradise, but to a Taliban leader that was an important way to reach their objective.

The Taliban sacrificed dogma for popularity. They sacrificed religious belief for success. They shifted from technophobia to using technology and cyberspace to spread their message and propaganda. They sacrificed the Pashtunwali code, for example, to attack pro-government Pashtuns, again for their ultimate success. The Taliban gradually formed a parallel government and virtual state aiming to become the real government and state over time.

Part of the Taliban success was because of the willingness of the Western media to broadcast the Taliban claims. The Taliban have always used human shields, occupied small towns to maximize collateral civilian deaths caused by Afghan and international forces, and blamed everything on the government and NATO. All their claims were broadcast by the Western media. The Taliban were particularly good at exploiting audience perceptions of the media. For instance, the Taliban removed weapons from the corpses of their dead fighters and made them appear as non-combatant and then showed the bodies to the media.

Some argued the Taliban’s center of gravity was their leader, but they were proved wrong. Because when their leader died, the Taliban could successfully keep it secret for months and finally overcome the leadership issue. In recent years, the Afghan government tried to create divisions among the Taliban by supplying and creating smaller factions,; but that only empowered the Taliban and endangered the Afghan government. As one Taliban faction leader described it once: “…we don’t depend on government, the government depends on us. They think they use us, but no, it is we who are using them and their equipment to advance our own goals…”

What was interesting about the Taliban factions receiving supply from the government is the significant change in their view of the issues. In their propaganda, the Taliban always refer to the Afghan government as “the puppet of the West,” and to those working for the government as “slaves of the slave;” while in wartime, the Taliban received support from the Afghan government without any hesitation, but then cleverly used it against the Afghan government.

While it is not clear how much the Afghan government and its intelligence services have infiltrated the Taliban, it is crystal clear that the Taliban had many sympathizers and infiltrators in the Afghan National Army, Afghan National Police; but probably not on a serious scale in the Afghan National Directorate of Security.

In early 2021, the Taliban had around 80,000 full-time fighters and had significant income sources, such as, illegal mining and opium money. In the peace deal with the US, in February 2020, the Taliban guaranteed the freedom of their prisoners —many of them accused of committing serious crimes.

A great many of the reasons why Afghanistan fell so rapidly are related to the Afghans and many of them date back to 2014 when Ashraf Ghani became president, after a fraudulent election, in which he was announced the winner, while his rival, Abdullah, who did not compromise, became Chief Executive Officer, after mediation by the US Secretary of State, John Kerry.

During his time as president, Ghani alienated other groups, by depriving them of any real role in decision-making, and surrounded himself exclusively with Pashtuns. In the multi-ethnic Afghan society, monopolizing power has always been one of the main issues why the nation-building process fails and the governments collapse.

In his election campaign, Ghani promised that he would eradicate corruption. But when in power, he failed to address the issue. Ghost schools and ghost soldiers, for which Afghan authorities were paid, were just a small part of the endemic corruption in the country.

What further demoralized people about the democratic system was the moral corruption of those in power, including the people very close to Ghani. The scale and the level of corruption was incalculable. Even widows of Afghan soldiers had to sexually gratify officers to get pensions; and there were allegations that members of the Afghan administration offered posts in exchange for sexual favors.

There has always been ethnic division and ethnic tension among different groups in Afghanistan. Larger groups usually gained power, with the help of external sources, and in some cases committed atrocities and victimized smaller groups – and they have never been held accountable for what they did, which goes in explaining why there has been so much hatred and so little trust. However, after the new constitution was ratified in 2004, there was hope that a nation would be built from the different ethnic groups.

But people have remained divided, up to the point that even at schools and universities, students of different ethnicities have made ingroups, so that even inside the classrooms the interaction was mainly by way of groups.

If anything ever was national, in the real sense of the term, in the last two decades and probably in the last century, that was the Afghan National Army. For the most part, it was because it was largely trained by the US-led NATO forces, in which ethnic composition, as primarily set by the US, was inclusive, in which all ethnic groups could see themselves as belonging. In the Afghan National Army, soldiers developed profound friendships, bonds, trust and loyalty. Even though while the whole country and institutions were drowning in corruption, the national army maintained some positive motivation, and even gradually gained the trust and respect of ordinary people.

Nevertheless, since 2014, when Ashraf Ghani became the president, the Afghan National Army gradually became an instrument in the hand of the populist president who was accused of ensuring Pashtun domination, even if it came at the cost of ethnic and social division of the country, or strengthened the terrorist group, the Taliban. Since 2014, non-Pashtun generals and officers have continuously been fired or sent to the frontline and killed. Politicizing the Afghan National and Defense Security Forces further weakened it.

Late in 2016, Ghani and, as sarcastically described by some, his “three-man republic” started a campaign to engage the Taliban in peace talks. This campaign, in which apparently millions were spent to spread the idea that the Taliban had changed and it was time to negotiate with them, was flawed. The campaign was not launched after a military gain over the Taliban; but rather it begged and bribed the Taliban to start peace talks. As part of the campaign, in 2018, Ghani offered a careless ceasefire to the Taliban. This miscalculated ceasefire paved the way for the military presence of the Taliban in major cities, including the capital, Kabul, which the Taliban had never left. The Taliban’s presence in the cities gave them the opportunity to campaign for their group by exploiting the mullahs who already sympathized with them.

The idea that Afghanistan did not have a military solution also became attractive in the US. “Peace entrepreneurs” like Khalilzad, who was later appointed as the US Especial Envoy to Afghanistan, took advantage of that idea. Khalilzad emphasized that there was no “military solution” and took the lead mediating peace negotiations on behalf of the US with the Taliban.

Regardless of how much the US authorities lied to the American public about the war in Afghanistan and what had been achieved, Khalilzad’s efforts to make peace or find a way out for the US from Afghanistan were deceitful and irresponsible. His negotiations with the Taliban did not end in peace, led to the emboldening and strengthening of the terrorist group which the US fought for its harboring of Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. While the Taliban has never denounced its cooperation or ties with Al-Qaeda, Khalilzad kept assuring everyone that the Taliban had changed and was sincere in its talks, and that the group could become a partner of the US, in fighting terrorism in Afghanistan and the region.

While Khalilzad was selling the idea of a “changed Taliban” and that political settlement was possible, the UN reported that the Taliban continuously violated the conditions of the peace deal signed on 29 February 2020, which included a ceasefire, reduction in violence, and engagement in peace talks with the Afghan government. The report indicated that the Taliban, in fact, had increased their attacks, violence and target killings. Most of the five thousand Taliban prisoners, who were released from Afghan government prisons, rejoined the war.

In addition, the Taliban continued applying their Sharia in the territories under their control. Considering all that, it was foreseeable that the withdrawal of the United States and NATO forces would have serious consequences for Afghanistan, particularly for women, and ethnic and religious minority groups.

At the same time. according to the study “Women, Peace and Security Index 2019/20” carried out by Georgetown University, in cooperation with Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), Yemen and Afghanistan were the worst countries for women among 167 countries that were studied. Such was the situation when the international forces were – still – in Afghanistan, supporting the Afghan government and the Afghan Army. None of this was taken into account by Khalilzad, who was searching for a way out and very soon.

In effect, Khlilzad was negotiating with his eyes closed. For instance, according to different reports, since last year, the political elite and civil society activists, journalists, and in some cases university professors and intellectuals with clear points of view against the Taliban ideology, fell victim to Taliban targeted killings —which were unclaimed or denied but probably in most cases carried out by the Taliban.

There were various other disturbing signs. Young Taliban sympathizers spoke of a “great revenge” on those who in one way or another were against the Taliban ideology. What that indicated was that the Taliban would have no respect for any commitment they made with the United States, or whatever they said in front of the cameras of the international media. The group was deceiving the whole international community and buying more time. That is why, as soon as the foreign forces left, the Taliban continued to take control of the country by force.

In February 2020, the US and the Taliban signed an Agreement in the Qatari capital of Doha, but with the absence of the Afghan government. Based on this agreement, the Taliban was to stop its offensives against the US and NATO forces; end its ties with Al-Qaeda; not allow Afghanistan’s soil to be used by other transnational terrorist groups to attack the US and its allies; reduce violence and begin intra-Afghan peace dialogue. On the other side, the US would withdraw forces from Afghanistan and guarantee the release of 5000 Taliban fighters.

Months after the agreement was signed, 5000 Taliban prisoners were released, most of whom were reported to have rejoined the Taliban in their Jihad. The Taliban indeed remained committed to not attacking the US and NATO forces after the agreement; but its relation with al-Qaeda continued to exist and even strengthened, and its offensives against the Afghan forces also increased.

In April 2021, US president Biden announced the end of the “forever war” in Afghanistan and the total withdrawal of US troops from the war-torn country. Despite some NATO members, for example, Germany’s approval on extending its military mission in Afghanistan for one more year, the US withdrawal plan consequently led to the withdrawal decision of all NATO forces from Afghanistan. While the date set for the total withdrawal was 11 September, most NATO members had already brought their troops home by early July.

Since the announcement of the withdrawal, violence has surged, peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government did not have any result, and the Taliban continued to rapidly overrun a significant number of districts. In June alone, Afghan government forces lost more than 700 military vehicles and other equipment —of course donated to the Afghan army by the US— to the Taliban. The continuous loss of territory and military equipment gave the Taliban fighters’ momentum, and impacted negatively on the Afghan security forces, who no longer had air support from the US forces.

By ending its military presence, the US not only lost its most significant leverage with the Taliban, but also emboldened the group to claim victory by means of jihad. What the international community and the US must take note of is that a Taliban victory in Afghanistan sends a strong signal to other Islamist jihadists in other parts of the world that they too can become winners. Most importantly, the US and the international community should realize that what happens in Afghanistan does not stay in Afghanistan. When terrorism takes stronger roots in Afghanistan, it will pose a threat to the rest of the world.

Now the situation seems pretty similar to when the United States left Iraq, and when ISIS gained strength and started massacring Yazidis and other minorities. The U.S. went back and took part in destroying the ISIS. But in the case of Afghanistan, going back is much more difficult and more costly. What is clear now is that those who were vulnerable before have become even more vulnerable; and as human rights defenders and workers are targeted by the Taliban, the worst fear is that ethnic and religious groups such as the Hazaras could silently face ethnic cleansing or even a genocide in Afghanistan.

As for ethnic minority groups, the Hazaras who make up about 15-20 percent of the country’s estimated 36 million population – but they face a greater danger. Since 2014, they have been targeted several times. First, it is impossible for this Shiite group to adopt to the Sunni Taliban rules. Secondly, they belong to different ethnic groups, possess different physical characteristics, speak different languages, and most importantly, the Hazaras have changed very much in the last two decades.

For example, according to the survey “A Survey of the Afghan People: Afghanistan in 2019,” conducted by The Asian Foundation, “Hazara respondents (92.3%) are more likely to strongly or somewhat agree with women’s equal access to education.” That is the highest level in the country.

Education for girls almost became a universal phenomenon among the Hazaras. But now with the Taliban in power, Hazaras are much more under threat of the Taliban, ISIS-K and other terrorist groups than they were before. Different UN reports indicate that there have been several cases of targeted attacks against the Sikh minority and the Hazara community in the last few years. The last remaining Sikh and Hindus left Afghanistan for India, meaning there is no Hindu left in Afghanistan.

Some groups are preparing for resistance against the Taliban. Compared to other groups, Hazaras have less access to arms, as they handed in their arms as part of the process of Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR), administered by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in 2003.

What really happened? Corruption and tribalism among the Afghan elite, and the inability of the US and NATO to understand the enemy. How could the Taliban not win?


Gabriel Vilanova is the pseudonym of a young Afghan scholar whose memoirs, Afganistán: Una república del silencio. Recuerdos de un estudiante afgano, have recently been published in Spain.


The featured image shows the work of the graffiti artist, Shamsia Hassani, in Kabul, ca. 2013.

Open Letter To The President Of Mexico, On The Aztecs And Their Cannibalism

The Argentine political scientist and historian, Marcelo Gullo Omodeo, professor at the National University of Rosario, recently published an important book with the evocative title, Madre patria (Mother Country), dismantling the Spanish Black Legend from Bartolomé de las Casas until today.

This book, with a preface by Alfonso Guerra, former vice-president of the Spanish government (1982-1991) and former vice-secretary of the PSOE (1979-1997), has not failed to raise some controversy.

The president of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (whose name clearly testifies to his Spanish origin), recently responded with disdain for the idea expressed by Gullo, according to which Spain, for the majority of the indigenous peoples, liberated Mesoamerica from the dreadful Inca oppression.

It should be kept in mind that on March 1, 2019, López Obrador even sent a letter to the King of Spain, Philip VI, demanding an apology for the conquest of America.

In an uncompromising open letter, reproduced in the newspaper, El Mundo and the website ElManifiesto, Professor Gullo dispels doubts and sets the record straight. [Arnaud Imatz]


Mr. Andrés Manuel López Obrador,
President of the Republic of Mexico

Dear Mr. President:

On August 13, on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the liberation – though for you, the fall – of Tenochtitlán, you quoted verbatim, without naming me, a paragraph from my interview that appeared in the newspaper, El Mundo, on Friday, July 23, following the publication in Spain of my book, Madre Patria. Desmontando la leyenda negra desde Bartolomé de las Casas hasta el separatismo catalán.

In your speech, you said, “There are issues that need to be clarified as much as possible. For example, a few days ago, a pro-monarchist writer from our continent claimed that Spain did not conquer America, but that Spain liberated America, because Hernán Cortés, and I quote, “gathered 110 Mexican nations that were oppressed by the anthropophagous tyranny of the Aztecs and fought with him.” You have also accused me without any evidence – and without even bothering to examine my academic background or gather information about my anti-imperialist political trajectory – of being a representative of colonialist thought.

Since I agree with you that some points need to be clarified, I would like to remind you that the Mexican archaeologist, Alfonso Caso, former rector of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, states that “human sacrifice was essential in the Aztec religion.” That is why in 1487, to celebrate the completion of the construction of the great temple of Tenochtitlán – of which you inaugurated a monumental model on August 13 – sacrificial victims were gathered in four rows that stretched along the causeway connecting the islands of Tenochtitlán. It is estimated that during these four days of celebration, the Aztecs killed between 20,000 and 24,000 people.

The North American historian, William H. Prescott, who can hardly be suspected of “Hispanophilia,” gives an even more frightening figure: “When the great temple of Mexico City was dedicated to Huitzilopochtli in 1486, the sacrifices lasted several days, and 70,000 victims perished.” In his book Historia de América, the Uruguayan, Juan Zorrilla de San Martín, explains that “When they took the children to kill them, if they cried and shed tears, they rejoiced more because it was for them the sign that they would have a lot of water in the year.” The number of victims sacrificed each year was immense,” Prescott admits, even though he is one of the most critical historians of the Spanish conquest and one of the most fervent defenders of Aztec civilization.

Hardly any author estimates it at less than 20,000 per year, and there are even some who raise it to 150,000. In his famous work Cannibals and Kings. Origins of Culture, the North American anthropologist, Marvin Harris, writes, ” The main source of food for the Aztec gods was prisoners of war, who were marched up the steps of the pyramids to the temples, seized by four priests, spread-eagled backward over the stone altar, and slit open from one side of the chest to the other with an obsidian knife wielded by a fifth priest. The victim’s heart—usually described as still beating—was then wrenched out and burned as an offering. The body was rolled down the pyramid steps, which were built deliberately steep to accommodate this function.”

What became of the sacrificed dead? Where were the bodies of those human beings whose hearts had been torn out at the top of the pyramids taken? What was done with the body of the victim? What was the fate of these bodies sacrificed to the gods day after day? Anthropologist Michael Harner, who has analyzed this question with more intelligence and courage than many other specialists, answers, “There is really no mystery about what happened to the corpses, since all the eyewitness accounts largely agree – the victims were eaten.”

The numerous scientific works – doctoral theses, books published by world-renowned researchers – that we have today leave no room for doubt that in Mesoamerica there was one oppressor nation, the Aztecs, and hundreds of oppressed nations, from whom the Aztecs not only took their raw materials – as all imperialism in history has done – but also their children, their brothers and sisters. … to sacrifice them in their temples and then distribute the dismembered bodies of the victims in their butcher shops, as if they were pork chops or chicken legs, so that these human beings could serve as substantial food for the Aztec population.

The nobility reserved the thighs, while the entrails were left for the general population. The scientific evidence we have today leaves no room for doubt. The number of human sacrifices practiced among the peoples enslaved by the Aztecs was such that they built the walls of their buildings and temples with skulls.

That is why, on August 13, 1521, the Indian peoples of Mesoamerica celebrated the fall of Tenochtitlan. You even had to acknowledge in your speech, Mr. President, even though you did so reluctantly and between the lines, that it is materially impossible that with only 300 men, four old arquebuses and a few horses, Hernán Cortés could have defeated Montezuma’s army of 300,000 disciplined and courageous soldiers. It would have been impossible even if the 300 Spaniards had had automatic rifles like those used by the Spanish army today.

Thousands of Indians from oppressed nations fought alongside Cortés against the Aztecs. That is why your compatriot José Vasconcelos says that “the conquest was made by the Indians.” And what happened after the conquest, after those first hours of blood, pain and death? It is precisely the opposite of what you say. Spain merged its blood with that of the defeated and with that of the liberated. And let us remember that there were more liberated than defeated. Mexico now teemed with hospitals, bilingual schools and universities. Spain sent its best teachers to America, and the best education was directed at the Indians and mestizos.

Let me remind you, Mr. President, that the Spanish liberators – sorry: the conquistadors – were so respectful of the culture of the so-called indigenous peoples that in 1571 the first grammar book in the Nahualt language was published in Mexico, that is to say, 15 years before the publication of the first grammar book in English, in Great Britain. All the facts show that when Mexico became independent from Spain, it was much richer and more powerful than the United States.

Forgive me, Mr. President, if I risk overstepping the mark, but I would like to suggest, with all due respect, that on February 2, the anniversary of the despicable Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo – by which the United States seized 2,378,539 square kilometers of Mexican territory – you organize a great event like the one you held on August 13.

May I also suggest that, in order to give more importance to this event, you invite the President of the United States, Joseph Biden, and that, in a great speech before the American President, you demand that he apologize to the Mexican people for stealing Texas, California, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Colorado and Arizona, lands that were unquestionably part of Mexico.

Finally, dear President, I would like to tell you that since my childhood I have always felt a sentimental attachment to the oppressed peoples – perhaps because I was born in a humble house, in the city of Rosario, in the Republic of Argentina – and that if I could travel back in time, once or a thousand times, I would join the 300 soldiers of Hernán Cortés who, with the greatest courage known in history, freed the Indians of Mexico from the anthropophagous imperialism of the Aztecs.

Marcelo Gullo Omodeo,
August 27, 2021


The featured image shows a heart sacrifice, from the Tudela Codex, ca. 1540.