Archive for the ‘History’ Category

On Catalonian independence – 3

November 6, 2017

As the Catalonia crisis evolves, the vindictive actions of the Spanish government toward the leaders of the independence movement become ever more reminiscent — mutatis mutandis — of those of Philip V, mentioned in my previous post. The main difference is that those imprisoned in 1714 were not separatists (independentistes) but Habsburgists (austriacistes) who favored Archduke Charles of Austria as the prospective king of Spain, since they feared that his French rival Philip would take away their historic self-government, as indeed he did, not only in Catalonia but in the other lands of the Crown of Aragon (Aragon proper, Majorca and Valencia) as well.

A specific reminiscence of those times is the revival by the separatists of the pejorative botifler, originally used for the pro-Bourbon faction, to designate anti-independence Catalonians.

Another parallel: then as now, the initial impulse for Habsburgism/separatism came from the region around Vic. In our day, the first two towns to declare themselves “Free Catalan Territory” (on September 3, 2012) are in that region. And, historically, the Habsburgists were also known as vigatans; it was an assembly of landowners and lawyers from that region that sent two representatives to Genoa in 1705 to negotiate an agreement with a representative of Queen Anne that would provide England’s support for the Catalonian cause. Perfidious Albion, to be sure, broke the agreement in the Treaties of Utrecht in 1713. But some sympathy for the cause persisted (see here and here), and today most of the journalism sympathetic to the independence movement is to be found in the British press.

It remains to be seen what happens if the independence movement once again wins a majority in the parliamentary elections called for December 21. Will Rajoy emulate Philip by trying to revoke Catalonia’s autonomy?





On Catalonian independence – 2

November 1, 2017

In my previous post I mentioned that the Popular Party of Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy does not enjoy much support in Catalonia. Rajoy’s administration is regarded by many, perhaps most, Catalonians as especially unfriendly to their land, and the greatest Catalan of our age, the bilingual singer-songwriter Joan Manuel Serrat, has called it “factory of separatists”.

This, too, is reminiscent of the dynastic past. In the War of the Spanish Succession most of Catalonia sided with the Habsburgs, and one result of the eventual victory (in Spain) of the Bourbons, in the person of Philip V, in 1714 was a policy of repression in Catalonia, including especially the banning of the Catalan language from official use and the abolition of Catalonia’s institutions. A petty example of this policy is Philip’s closure of all the universities in Catalonia and the opening of a new one in the small city of Cervera, which had been pro-Bourbon.

Indeed, the same Catalonian nationalists who regard 987 as the beginning of Catalonian independence consider its end to be in 1714, and the date of the final defeat, September 11, is the National Day of Catalonia.

But what was this independence? According to Spanish nationalists, after all, it never existed. Let’s look into the matter.

What may have become de facto independent in 987 was a set of counties ruled by Borrell II. In the Frankish kingdom (Francia) the counties (pagi) had been established around 800 by Charlemagne as administrative units. each headed by a governor (comes or count) named by the king, and supervised by roving royal commissioners (missi dominici).  This system continued in the western kingdom (Francia occidentalis) that split off in 843, but toward the end of the 9th century the power of the kings waned and the counts came to name their own successors, usually their sons, thus establishing the feudal dynasties of Europe. The first count of Barcelona to do so was Wilfred the Hairy (878-897), starting what came to be known as the House of Barcelona. He was the direct ruler of several neighboring counties as well (in particular, those of Osona and Girona were never again to be separated from Barcelona), and was accepted as overlord by others.

This kind of rise to prominence of one count over the others in a given region happened elsewhere in the kingdom. Often these counts took the name of the whole region as their title, so that the counts of Troyes and Meaux became counts of Champagne, and in several cases they became dukes, as those of Burgundy (originally counts of Autun). But the counts of Barcelona (like those of Toulouse) were content with their original titles, along with a listing of all the additional domains that they ruled.

The first reference to Catalonia as a geographic entity dates from early in the 12th century. It was recognized as a legal entity a little later in that century, after the counts of Barcelona had become simultaneously kings of Aragon. Since the 14th century it has been referred to as a principality (principatus).

Now, “Prince of Catalonia” was never used as a monarchic title in Spain (though it was used in legal texts); it was understood that “count of Barcelona” meant that. In the listing of the many titles held by the kings of Aragon, it came directly after the list of the kingdoms and before the titles (such as duke and marquis) that technically ranked above that of count. But elsewhere in Europe the title was used; the Emperor Charles V (Charles I of Spain), for example, called himself as Fürst zu Cat[h]alonia/princeps Cat[h]aloniae in documents issued in his non-Spanish dominions.

Catalonia, then, was a monarchy of sorts that was in personal union with the kingdom of Aragon and later with the other kingdoms that those rulers acquired (Majorca, Valencia, Sicily etc.), and ultimately also with that of Castile, first with Ferdinand the Catholic upon his marriage to Isabella (until her death) and, for good, beginning with Charles V.

Charles and his Spanish Habsburg successors are known in Spain as the House of Austria, with de Austria being their formal surname, used in particular by illegitimate but recognized offspring who are mistakenly called “of Austria” in English, like this one.

The Spanish Habsburgs continued — as did their Austrian counterparts — the ancestral Habsburg policy of leaving their various domains as self-governing entities. And Catalonia maintained its laws, language and political institutions until they were replaced by the Bourbons, whose French tradition was the opposite — one of centralized rule. This explains Catalonia’s choice in the War of the  Spanish Succession.

But can Catalonia be said to have been independent during those centuries of personal union?

No one would deny that in our days Canada, Australia and New Zealand are independent countries, even though they are all monarchies in personal union with the United Kingdom. But then, nowadays the British monarch reigns but does not rule; the actual governing is done by the parliaments and governments of the respective countries.

It was different in the centuries before the 20th, when monarchs actually ruled, and the constituent units of a personal union, for all their internal self-government, were not really free to adopt policies that were independent of the ruler. And so, Catalonian autonomy — yes. Independence — not really.

On Catalonian independence – 1

October 28, 2017

It’s a common trope among Catalonian* separatists (independentistes) to describe Catalonia’s relationship to Spain as one of colony to empire (see here, for example). It’s no coincidence that the movement has replaced the official flag of Catalonia (the senyera, 1) with a lone-star version (estelada, 2) that is modeled on the flags of Cuba (3) and Puerto Rico (4), former colonies of Spain.

senyera estelada-01211439 cuba  puerto-rico-flag

 (1)                     (2)                        (3)                    (4)

But I think that a better model for the relationship is that between a vassal and a suzerain in the feudal system of medieval Europe. Indeed, Catalonian nationalists (not necessarily separatists) celebrated 1987 as the millennial of Catalonia’s first independence because of what did not happen in 987: Count Borrell II of Barcelona did not pay homage to his overlord Hugh Capet, king of the Western Franks, when the latter was  unable to give him military support against the invading Moors.

The present situation, with the Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, dismissing the government of Catalonia and replacing it with appointees from his own political party, is reminiscent of what happened in Austria in 1276, when the emperor Rudolf I (of the house of Habsburg) dismissed Ottokar II (who was also king of Bohemia) from the dukedom of Austria and placed the lands under direct imperial administration, to be governed by his sons.

Of course, the originally Swabian Habsburgs remained as rulers of Austria until 1918. Rajoy, on the other hand, has promised to hold new elections in Catalonia on December 21, and it’s unlikely that his party (the modern equivalent of a medieval dynasty), the Partido Popular, will do any long-time governing there, not being very… popular in Catalonia: it got 8.5% of the vote in the last election. Most of Catalonia’s center-right vote goes to the main nationalist party, formerly Convergència and now PDeCAT.


*I prefer to use “Catalonian” rather than “Catalan” when referring to the territory (the so-called principality) of Catalonia; I use “Catalan” for the language, culture and ethnicity, both inside and outside this territory. I like to make this distinction whenever the English language allows it, as with Somali and Somalian, Slovak and Slovakian, and even Greek and Grecian. This way I can talk, for example, about Catalonian Catalan as distinct from the Balearic and Valencian varieties of the language. What’s more, the French sculptor Aristide Maillol and the Valencian writer Joan Fuster considered themselves Catalans, but they were not Catalonians.


Grand Tour

July 8, 2017

I wasn’t planning to write about the goings-on of this year Tour de France, only a note about its geography. But I feel compelled to make a few comments after the events of the last few days.

Yesterday’s photo finish in stage 7 was resolved in favor of Marcel Kittel over Edvald Boasson Hagen on the basis of, we are told, the superior camera technology (shooting at 10,000 frames per second) available to the judges. Okay, I’ll take their word for it.

But Tuesday’s decision in stage 4, disqualifying Peter Sagan for supposedly elbowing Mark Cavendish, was based on the same videos that everyone else saw, and as far as I can tell the cycling world — riders and fans — agrees that no such elbowing took place. The videos — from front, back and above — have been shown over and over, and the obvious conclusion is that if anyone did anything dangerous it was Cavendish. Only the mainstream media (AP, BBC, Reuters and their ilk) follow their usual habit accepting the verdict of a judicial authority as fact, and so they write simply that Sagan elbowed Cavendish. But this is not like a criminal case in which one writes “alleged” before conviction but drops it after.

The judges’ decision has left aourg bad taste reminiscent of Bush v. Gore.

Back to what I was going to write about.

That fateful stage 4 wended, it so happens, through the territory of what once had been the Duchy of Lorraine. The previous stage (which Sagan won) did so through what is still the Grand Duchy (Grand Duché, Großherzogtum) of Luxembourg.

What makes Luxembourg “grand”?

Before about 1800 there was only one grand duchy in the West, that of Tuscany, resulting from the expansion of the Duchy of Florence under the Medici. But Napoleon, in 1806, made several of the German states allied with him into grand duchies, and the Congress of Vienna (1815) made even more, Luxembourg being among them. Before that, except for the twenty years (1795–1815) of being annexed to France, it had been a just plain duchy within the Holy Roman Empire, like Lorraine, but without its own dukes: the title was held, after 1477, by Habsburg kings or emperors, together with the rest of the Low Countries.

Oddly enough, when Luxembourg was just a duchy, it was much grander (plus grand, größer) — by a factor of more then four! — than the present grand duchy. It was elevated from an originally German (Franconian) county to duchy in the 14th century when it absorbed some adjacent counties, some of them in the neighboring Walloon country,  and from that time on French became the preferred language of government. This remained the case even after the Walloon part was split off (the last of Luxembourg’s partitions) and given to newly formed Belgium in 1839; that part, in fact, included a  the region of Arlon, the provincial capital, where at the time the ut spoken language was Germanic (Luxembourgish), though by now it’s mostly French.

But officially little Luxembourg (the luxem part was originally lucilin, which both means and is cognate to ‘little’) is still grand.

The Duchy of Lorraine was larger than Luxembourg even at its largest, but it never got a chance to became a grand duchy: it was absorbed into the kingdom of France in 1761. But at least it is now a part of the French region called Grand Est.

That damned electoral college, again

November 11, 2016

Sixteen years ago, in the wake of one of the most contested presidential elections in American history (and one in which, as in the recent one, the winner of the popular vote lost the electoral one), I wrote an essay in which, among other things, I analyzed the effect of changing our electoral system without amending the Constitution, by having the electors in each state determined by proportional representation rather than by winner-take-all. The result was that, in that election, Gore and Bush would have received 263 votes each, and Nader 12. Under the Constitution, then, the election would have been decided — even more undemocratically — by the House of Representatives. But of course the different system would probably have produced different results in the vote, and, as I wrote then, “in a system in which ‘third-party’ candidates are potential recipients of electoral votes, the electors might regain some of the discretion that the framers of the Constitution had intended for them to have.” It was perfectly possible, I wrote further, “that the state Green Party organizations would operate on the lesser-evil principle and instruct their electors – ahead of time, of course, so that voters would know – to vote for Gore.”

I subjected the recent election to a similar analysis, and found an equivalent result: 265 for Clinton, 259 for Trump, 12 for Johnson, and one each for Stein and McMullen. If the scenario I just imagined were to occur, what would Johnson’s electors do?

I have always thought of self-styled Libertarians as Republicans who liked to smoke pot, and I believe that their electors would choose Trump over Clinton.

This is exactly what would happen in the impossible case of replacing the electoral college with direct elections. Neither major candidate having received a majority of the popular vote, a runoff would be required, and I suspect that most of the Johnson vote would go to Trump (he is, after all, if not exactly a libertarian, at least a libertine), giving him the victory.

Now all we need is for all fifty states to adopt the principle of proportional representation for presidential electors.

Charisma on the left

November 11, 2016

Let me quote from an article, purportedly written by a German journalist after John F. Kennedy’s Berlin speech in 1963.

[T]here is another term with which American journalists describe John F. Kennedy, and his speech justified the description. The term is charismatic.

We are used to thinking of charisma in Max Weber’s terms: as “an individual’s quality regarded as beyond the everyday (originally… as magically induced), by virtue of which he or she is treated as someone with powers or qualities that are supernatural or superhuman, or at least beyond the everyday and not accessible to just anyone, or as God-sent or as exemplary, and therefore as a ‘leader.’”

In politics, this is the form of charisma that we have seen in dictators. But we see a reflex of it in certain democratically elected leaders as well, leaders whom the people treat with a trust and a deference bordering on awe: Churchill, Eisenhower, De Gaulle, Adenauer. Note that these leaders were all in their sixties when they first attained their positions of power. Their charisma is that of what Freud called a “father figure.” Note also that all these figures are all, politically, on the right.

John F. Kennedy’s charisma is different; Freud might have called it that of a “brother figure.” It power resides in making the people believe that he is one of them, not above them à la Weber. And Kennedy’s German phrase, with the emphasis – perhaps unintentional – on ein, embodies that power.

I posit that it is this kind of charisma, which is already coming to be known as Kennedyesque (the President is said to share it with his younger brother, the Justice Minister Robert F. Kennedy), that is necessary for political victory by a leader on the left.

In a democratic state, a vote is an act that is directed toward the future, and the way one votes expresses the way one feels about the future.

And what are our feelings about the future? Typically, a mixture of fear and hope. If the predominant feeling is fear, then one’s vote represents a desire for the fear to be quelled, and it will go to the party that promises security and stability. That, normally, is a party of the right, whether it calls itself conservative, Christian, or a people’s party.

But if the predominant feeling is hope, then the vote will go to whoever can kindle hope with a promise of progress, and such a vote will typically go to the left. In the United States, this is the role of the Democratic Party, as typified by the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The difference is this: for the promise of stability, charisma is not necessary, except perhaps at times of crisis; an appearance of competence is normally sufficient. But to kindle hope one needs that special something that I call charisma on the left. It was possessed by Roosevelt and by Louis St. Laurent (whom the press called ‘Uncle Louis’), and it is what we find in John F. Kennedy, the embodiment of hope in present-day politics.

And who among us has, on the left, the ability to kindle hope? The man with the greatest potential, despite his loss two years ago (though with greatly improved results for his party), is still Willy Brandt, Kennedy’s friend, who stood with him in front of the Schöneberg City Hall during the speech. Those who wish the SPD well can only hope that it stays with Brandt until such time as hope wins out over fear in the hearts of West Germans.

But as a Hamburger – a relatively new one, but one baptized by last year’s storm tide – I would like to add that our own Helmut Schmidt is another man with the potential of inspiring hope, as he demonstrated by the way he led us out of that disaster.

The reason I wrote “purportedly” is that the German journalist is actually a fictional character in a novel of mine, written in 2009.  It was of course written in hindsight, with the knowledge that Brandt, and Schmidt after him, would be elected (and in Schmidt’s case reelected) as Chancellor. And now I can extend the list of politically successful left-of-center leaders who possessed that kind of charisma: Olof Palme; François Mitterrand; Felipe González; Tony Blair; Bill Clinton; Lula da Silva; Trudeau père (and potentially fils as well); Barack Obama.

The statement I put in boldface has to be qualified by recognizing that occasionally non-charismatic leaders on the left of center do make it to the top, but it’s almost always due to peculiar circumstances, as in the cases of Lyndon B. Johnson (the Kennedy assassination), Jimmy Carter (the scandals of the Nixon administration), José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero (the Madrid bombings), Gordon Brown (Blair’s resignation), and most recently François Hollande (the unpopularity of Sarkozy). Johnson and Zapatero, somehow, managed to get reelected because of genuine accomplishments, but not Carter and Brown, and probably not Hollande.

Hillary Clinton, for all her virtues, is not charismatic. The 2016 US presidential election seemed to have provided one of those peculiar circumstances  — the candidacy of Donald Trump — that might have allowed her to win anyway. But Trump, apparently, projected enough of  that “appearance of competence” to enough people to give him the usual fear-driven right-wing victory.

For the Democratic Party to win in 2020, one of two things is necessary: a disastrous Trump administration, or a candidate endowed with charisma, Kennedyesque or otherwise (such as that shown by Bernie Sanders). Otherwise the party is doomed yet again.


Truth from a Polish Jew

August 10, 2016

I have just read a book titled Leap for Life by Rut Wermuth Burak, published in 2010 and subtitled A Story of Survival and Reunion. It’s the first memoir by a Polish Jew who lived through World War II in Nazi-occupied Europe that has struck me as truthful.

Actually, the book that I read was the Polish original, published in 2002, titled Spotkałam Ludzi (“I met people”) and subtitled (in Polish) “A story about a tragic beginning aend an extraordinary ending.” The author is presented as Ruta Wermuth; not only is her married name absent from the title page but it’s referred to only by its initial in the book, for some reason unknown to me.

I have already written about the tendency of my fellow Polish Jews to overdramatize, if not fictionalize, their experiences during World War II; well-known examples include Jerzy Kosiński, Luba Tryszynska (“the Angel of Bergen-Belsen”), Solomon Perel (“Europa, Europa”) and Herman Rosenblat {“An Angel at the Fence”). I have also found this tendency in personal accounts by acquaintances. Perhaps they took their inspiration from the originator of the genre, Elie Wiesel, whose hugely successful Night trilogy was later admitted by him to be semi-fictional.

But Rut(a) Wermuth, unlike the people cited above, did not write her memoir for a Western audience; the English version seems to have been an afterthought encouraged by her brother’s non-Polish-speaking family in England. Instead, she wrote it for her fellow Poles. (I have long maintained that Polish Jew does not equal Pole, but she chose to become a Pole by marrying one, living in Poland and hiding her Jewishness until late in life.) And not only do Poles know a little more about the reality of World War II in Eastern Europe than Westerners do, but they are likely to judge any such account by a Jew critically if not suspiciously.

Not only is the book (in my view) truthful but it’s fascinating and deeply moving. I recommend it.


May 19, 2016

The Associated Press story reporting on yesterday’s death of the historian Fritz Stern includes this information:

He was born in the former German province of Silesia (now in Poland) to a prominent family that had converted from Judaism to Christianity. But the Sterns felt increasingly menaced by Hitler’s reign and left in 1938 for New York…

Why “but”?

Apparently someone at AP thought that there was a contradiction between conversion to Christianity and being menaced by Hitler. That is, they are confusing Judaism — a religion — with Jewishness as an ethnic or “racial” category. To Hitler, of course, it was only the latter than mattered. In other words, his regime persecuted Jews, not only those who also happened to be Judaists.

A common confusion, to be sure.

Catalanisms in Mexican Spanish?

April 25, 2016

The San Francisco Bay Area has numerous streets and institutions nutamed Alemany, Portola and Serra, and a few named Alberni, Palou and Yorba. These are all Catalan surnames belonging to bigwigs (political and ecclesiastic) during the Spanish and Mexican domination of California. (Palou and Serra were Majorcans, the others Catalonians.) Elsewhere in Mexico, however, one is hard put to find Catalan surnames; they are nowhere near as common among Mexicans as they are among Cubans, Dominicans and Puerto Ricans. It appears to me, from what I have managed to find out from reading, that until the nineteenth century Catalans who went to the Indies to make their fortune tended to return home once they had made it and so did not leave many descendants in those countries that were no longer under Spanish rule. In Wikipedia’s listing of  Mexican people of Catalan descent, most of the names belong to people who are twentieth-century immigrants from Spain or their immediate descendants.

But, oddly enough, Mexican Spanish seems to me to have more elements that correlate with Catalan than any other variety of Spanish besides that spoken in Catalonia itself. Here are some examples.

Nomás, seemingly a calque of només, is the common word for ‘only’, not solamente or solo.

Estimado/a, like Catalan estimat/da, is usually used for ‘dear’ in the salutation of a letter, not querido/a.

Mande, almost the equivalent of Catalan mani’m, is the usual response to hearing one’s name called or to not catching what was said, not or cómo.

Almuerzo is, as in Catalonian Spanish, the equivalent of esmorzar, a mid-morning snack, and not lunch as elsewhere.

I would need to know more than I do about the presence of Catalan-speakers in Mexico during the formative era of Mexican Spanish before I could say that these are indeed Catalanisms. Hence the question mark in the title.


Spain and Syria

April 22, 2016

Yesterday I heard a radio interview with Adam Hochschild, the author of a recently published book about American fighters in the Spanish Civil War. Hochschild pointed out the great disunity among the various factions supposedly fighting on the Republican side — Stalinists, Trotskyites, anarchists, Catalonian and Basque separatists, and others — as being among the factors (aside from the lack of international support, except by volunteers) that led to their defeat by the highly unified nationalists led by Franco.

The nationalists were, of course, rebelling against the Republic, the legitimate government of Spain.

In Syria it is Bashar al Assad who is, technically, the legitimate head of state. But he is a ruthless dictator very much in the Franco mold, and the various rebel groups fighting his forces can be readily likened to the anti-Franco groups in Spain. And, like the letter, they are spending as much energy fighting one another as they are fighting Assad. Similarly, they receive only token support from governments that would be expected to favor them, be they Western democracies or Sunni autocracies, while Assad receives substantial support from Putin much as Franco did from Hitler and Mussolini.

Marx was wrong. Here we have tragic history repeating itself as tragedy, not farce.