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Monday, July 25, 2011



The Spanish Inquisition
by Cecil Roth
p.  1964
W.W. Norton
The Norton Library

   This is yet another book I have had kicking around for years, simply because I thought it looked like a good, durable treatment of an bona-fide interesting historical subject.  The Author is an English university Professor of Jewish descent, and the ghosts of Hitler haunt his account.   Despite the centuries long duration of the Inquisition, the numbers pale in comparison to the Holocaust.  It's a matter of 10s and 100s instead of ten thousands, hundred thousands and millions.  

      Something that the Holocaust and the Inquisition share in common is the use of genocide as a tool of state craft by nervous 20th century Dictators and 16th century Kings alike.  It just so happens that the Inquisition and Holocaust share a common victim, but it's not like Jews were the only victims of each event.  During the Inquisition, Muslims were co-sufferers, in the Holocaust, Gypsies suffered as well.   The fact is that a weak leader can strengthen his or her hand by targeting a vulnerable minority and taking all their property.   Also, Terror is useful for keeping a fractious, multi-ethnic population placid and compliant.   

   The tactic of obtaining Power by Terror extends beyond the Inquisition and the Holocaust, and beyond the West.  Your Assyrians, your Mongolians, your Turk.   The Inquisition itself was spurred by a Reconquest, of Spain, by Christian Kings against Muslim Caliphates. I was in Spain and Portugal in 2008, and as it turns out, I visited multiple locations that were used FOR CENTURIES to burn heretic Jews and Muslims. (not witches though- the Inquisition was cool about witches.)  Not that you would know it from visiting- I don't think I saw a single reference to the Inquisition in Spain or Portugal when I was there.   I would rank both those countries at somewhere in the middle of the table for "reconciling with their terrible national past."

    Ironically, the Inquisition didn't really get a bad rap until they started going after English and Dutch Protestant soldiers.  The Inquisition was also a victim of its own success, as people learned to keep their fucking mouth shut and heads down.   In fact, I think based both on my own experience there and what I've read in this and other books, the utter success of  Inquisition bears some responsibility for the mentalite of the Spanish today: haughty, close-minded, tightly-knit, orthodox.    Attempts to portray Spain as being "cool" and "forward thinking" are largely justifications put forward by 20th century Artists.

       The Inquisition had a unifying effect on the Spanish state and this method of unification had positive and negative effects.  A negative impact was killing off the smartest and most ambitious part of it's population.  A positive impact was taking all of their money and property.

   The Inquisition was not an "only in the Middle Ages" event- it lasted down to the 19th century.  As a general rule, I don't think you can judge living people based on the place where they're from, but you certainly don't get the feeling that Spain is "sorry" about the Inquisition in the same way the Germans are about the Holocaust. 

         Not to be macabre, but I think there is some interest in the role that Genocide plays in the mechanics of state craft and the emergence of the modern, legal-bureaucratic state.  The fact is that a lot of state effort goes in to legally murdering some small element of your population.  It's like the dark side of the emergence of the modern nation-state.  So, I'm not trying to justify the Spanish Inquisition or the Holocaust, but you have to take the good with the bad when it comes to the distinctive attributes of what it means to live in a modern nation-state.  

     It's not enough to just say "Oh this is terrible," you have to understand how these terrible events were successful from the perspective of the perpetrators.   It's like stopping crime, you can't stop crime without understanding the perspective of a criminal.   If you want to prevent events like the Holocaust and Inquisition, you have to understand why they happened. 

       Of course, the Holocaust didn't end well for the Nazis, but the Monarchs and Bishops who ran the Inquisition came out sparkling.   Total win from the perspective of the Inquisition itself.   But, I think the attribute that they share in common that can be avoided is an excessively legalistic approach to human life.  Perhaps a cautionary note where the application of the death penalty is concerned in America. 

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