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review 2018-04-30 05:46
A Spanish-centric take on the Peninsular War
The Peninsular War: A New History - Charles J. Esdaile

Napoleon Bonaparte's decision in 1808 to occupy Spain typically is ranked second only to his invasion to Russia in terms of the disastrous mistakes made by the French emperor. What began as a swift military operation soon degenerated into an "ulcer" that tied down thousands of troops, slowly bleeding France's strength. For this reason, the Peninsular War has never wanted for attention, especially among British historians who have long chronicled the campaigns waged by Arthur Wellesley in his ascent to glory as the Duke of Wellington.

 

Yet for all of the attention the war has received Charles Esdaile is able to offer something different from most English-language accounts of the war, which is a Spanish-centric focus. This allows him to highlight a number of important points lacking from previous accounts, not the least of which is the importance of the war to the history of Spain itself. This self-evident point is detailed superbly in his book, which shows how the French occupation played into Spanish politics. Dominated by the royal favorite Manuel Godoy, Spain agreed in 1807 to support France invasion of Portugal. Godoy's unpopularity with both the Spanish public and the heir, the future Ferdinand VII, did little to warm the Spanish political nation to their involvement. The political crisis created by the Mutiny of Aranjuez gave Napoleon the opportunity to intervene by exploiting the request to arbitrate the succession crisis between Ferdinand and his father Charles IV by installing his own brother Joseph as king.

 

Esdaile is sympathetic to el rey intruso, presenting Joseph as a man with good intentions thrust by his younger brother onto a throne he did not desire. These intentions were often thwarted by Spain's limited resources (which Napoleon expected to finance the occupation) and by the war. Esdaile does not minimize the brutality of the conflict, detailing the outrages and atrocities committed on all sides. He is particularly judgmental about the sometimes romanticized guerrilleros, viewing them as having a negligible military impact and describing how they were often viewed as the greater evil by many Spaniards. Esdaile is no less critical of the activities of the Spanish junta and their armies, though he gives them due credit for their performance in several battles.

 

Nonetheless Esdaile argues that for all of the efforts of the junta and the Anglo-Portuguese army to resist the French occupation, the French were enjoying considerable success in establishing control over Spain prior to 1812. In this respect, the key event in Spain's liberation was not a military campaign in the peninsula or a domestic political development but Napoleon's decision to invade Russia, which resulted in the withdrawal of French units necessary for maintaining control. Facing a weakened opponent, the Spanish-Anglo-Portuguese forces were able to unravel French control, driving French forces out fo most of Spain by 1814 and setting Spain down a path of political turmoil that would last for over a century.

 

Esdaile's arguments may challenge the assumptions of some of his readers about the war, but his arguments are difficult to deny. Based on an impressive range of Spanish, English, and French sources, they offer a valuable multi-dimensional account of a complicated and often vicious conflict. While his prose is often blunt, his combined analysis of military operations and Spanish politics make his book necessary reading for anyone interested in the Peninsular War or the history of modern Spain. Though it will hardly be the final word on the subject it will long be one that people will need to consult to understand this event and its lasting repercussions for all involved.

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review 2018-04-26 12:17
A book for those who are not afraid to ask uncomfortable questions and are willing to challenge the status quo.
Memory Battles of the Spanish Civil War: History, Fiction, Photography - Sebastiaan Faber

Thanks to Edelweiss and to the publishers (Vanderbilt University Press) for providing me a copy of the book that I freely chose to review.

I was drawn to this book because although I was born and grew up in Spain, I have spent the last 25 years of my life in the UK, and between the time invested in education and work, I know I have missed some of the big debates about the past that have taken place in the country. From personal experience, I know that living abroad gives you a different perspective, usually wider, on a country’s history and society, and I was interested to learn the opinions of a foreign Hispanist on the controversial topic of the book.

This book was illuminating for me. I’ve discovered that I need to catch up and read books, watch documentaries, and explore the memory movement in Spain. I know some details thanks to my mother’s family, but it is a drop in the ocean compared to the many initiatives and projects that have been implemented. I learned about laws (helpful and, mostly, unhelpful), about controversy and debates, about the origin of well-known photographs and documents (including the fact that photographers shared cameras and subjects during the Spanish Civil War, and no matter what their intent, those photographs also had, even at the time, a commercial value), about the uneasy relationship between Culture, cultural objects, and History. Is fiction less valuable when it comes to documenting the reception and the collective memory of a historical event? Or more?

Although I am not an expert in History, I have read some History books over the years and one of the things I found more refreshing about this volume, which collects a variety of essays on topics that fit in well together, is the fact that rather than offering an authoritative version of events or pontificating about the right or wrong way of looking at a particular period in history, it asks questions. On relevancy: how can an academic book written in English discussing events and recent debates about Spanish history and politics reach a wider audience? Are academics simply talking to themselves without ever reaching the general public (unless given an “official” status)? On the approach and the position historians should take when researching and writing their findings: Can historical essays and books ever be “neutral”? And should they be “neutral”? Isn’t it better to be open about one’s point of view and allegiances? (As the author observes, WWII historians are clearly positioned when writing about the war, but in Spain, this is frowned upon). On comparative studies and the risks of conflating similar events in different countries and eras, thereby missing the most interesting and fruitful aspects for analysis: Is it legitimate to apply international models (like those developed through the Holocaust studies) to the Spanish Civil War and the Francoist repression?  On the position of the intellectuals and how politics and affiliations affect even those who try hardest to be rigorous. How can those intellectuals who were heavily invested in the Transition open up to other opinions and not consider them a personal criticism? On the memory movement, the hurdles faced by those trying to find out more about relatives or friends, and about the resistance of historians to see any value in memory narratives. Is forgetting the past the best option, or do the unhealed wounds and traumas that have been festering, no matter how long for, always find a way to resurface? About the boom in historical fiction novels about the Civil War and what they tell us about society and popular opinion. Although the author’s opinions are clearly stated, the questions hang there and readers can take them up and find their own answers.

As I said, I cannot claim to any expertise on the topic, and I suspect experts will have much to take issue with in this book, but for me, it helps provide the tools to answer some of the questions that inform the author’s work and that are the same that a large part of the Spanish population are asking. Quoting from the book:

How have history, fiction, and photography shaped Spanish memory? How has democratic Spain dealt with the legacy of the Civil War, the Franco dictatorship, and the Transition? And how have academics, writers, filmmakers, photographers, and journalists in Spain and elsewhere engaged with a collective process that is central to the country’s future as a unified, functioning democracy?

In view of recent events, these questions are more pressing and relevant than ever, and I hope this book reaches as wide an audience as possible. I recommend it to anybody who is open to fresh perspectives on the subject and is up for a challenging — but ultimately rewarding— read.

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review 2018-04-07 18:12
Spain's empire project
Empire: How Spain Became a World Power, 1492-1763 - Henry Kamen

Long before there was a Britain to have an empire upon which the sun never set, Spain established a presence that spanned the globe. From the Caribbean and Central America to the Philippines, the Spanish empire thrived as the first expression of European global dominance — an achievement even more remarkable when set against the unpromising circumstances from which it started. How Spain achieved this is the subject of Henry Kamen's book. A longtime scholar of Spanish history, Kamen marshals a career of study to explain the nature of Spain's dominance, one that he reveals is all too often misunderstood.

At the core of this misunderstanding is the nature of Spain itself. Kamen begins by highlighting the often-overlooked fact that in the 15th century "Spain" was an abstraction consisting of a collection of Iberian territories united only by a common monarchy. Because of this, the monarchs were constrained in their ability to deploy Spanish resources to achieving their goals. Fortunately for them, their resources were not confined to Spain alone. One of Kamen's main contentions is that the "Spanish" empire was actually more of a pan-European one, as Spain's leaders in the 15th and 16th centuries frequently drew upon the resources of their extended empire —including Italy, the Netherlands, and the Holy Roman Empire —to finance and staff their presence throughout much of Europe

While this mobilization was key to Spain's presence in Europe, their overseas empire was more of a purely Spanish operation. Because of this, as Kamen makes clear, their control was far less secure than their cartographic assertions made it appear. Spain's "empire" in the New World was concentrated mainly in the Caribbean, Mexico, Peru, and a few other coastal regions, while their control over the Philippines was limited mainly to their outpost in Manila. Much of this depended upon cooperation with (or co-option of) local elites, further underscoring the non-Spanish nature of Spanish control. While effective and profitable, this structure came under increasing strain as European competitors emerged in the 17th and 18th centuries, first to displace Spanish dominance in Europe, then to undercut Spain's presence in the wider world. Though the Spanish fought back against this, Kamen makes it clear that their efforts were ultimately unsustainable with their traditional imperial structure, forcing them to follow the example of their competitors and establish more of a truly "Spanish" empire by the 18th century.

Kamen ends his book short of Spain's loss of their Latin American empire early in the 19th century. While he makes it clear that the writing was on the wall by that point, it is unfortunate he did not carry his analysis forward to that point, for he has provided a superb overview of the rise and decline of Spain's empire in Europe and elsewhere. It does so by blending the political, social, cultural and economic history together, showing the multifacted interactions that defined Spain and the Spanish presence in the world. While this comes at the understandable cost of a lack of coverage of events within Spain itself, supplementing this book with a national survey covering these years (such as J. H. Elliot's classic Imperial Spain or Kamen's own Spain, 1469-1714 fills this gap nicely, giving readers a good understanding of Spain and its "Golden Age" of global preeminence.

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review 2018-03-29 01:35
A useful introduction to an important monarch
Charles V: Elected Emperor and Hereditary Ruler (Men in Office) - Manuel Fernández Álvarez

Charles V stands as one of the greatest monarchs in history. As king of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor, he ruled over an empire that stretched over four continents to total over 1.5 million square miles. His reign included innumerable wars, dynastic struggles, and the growing challenges posted by the Protestant Reformation to the religious stability of Europe. Yet for all of Charles's prominence there are few biographies available in English about him, leaving readers with few options when it comes to studying the life of this fascinating figure.

 

This problem only enhances the value of Manuel Fernández Álvarez’s short study, which provides a concise description of Charles’s life and reign for interested readers. Álvarez presents Charles as a devout ruler who struggled to manage such a diverse and far-flung empire. Much of his reign was spent in transit, having to deal with various expensive crises at one end of his European realm or another. Succeeding to the Spanish throne after the death of his grandfather, Ferdinand, he had to address the discontent of many Castilians, which broke out into open rebellion. Winning election to the Holy Roman Emperorship in 1519 only added to his burdens, particularly with the challenge posed by the French king Francis I. Francis emerges in Álvarez’s narrative as Charles’ bete noire, particularly after Francis broke his oath to the Holy Roman Emperor after his release from Charles’s custody in 1526, and the two often struggled for dominance in Europe. Though Charles enjoyed further successes, final victory was perhaps unattainable, and a series of setbacks led Charles to retire from the throne three years before his early death in 1558.

 

To summarize such a reign is no easy feat, and it is a measure of Álvarez’s ability that he does so as efficiently as he does. Yet the author’s narrative suffers from a lack of analysis. There is little sense of his subject’s inner life, and his explanation of Charles’s motivations, strategies, or broader goals is similarly deficient. Though such an absence is somewhat understandable in a book as short as this one, it is lamentable given Álvarez’s expertise on his subject and the dearth of English-language biographies of this fascinating figure. As a result, English-language readers desiring to learn about the emperor might find themselves having to settle for this informative yet ultimately limited study, which serves as a good introduction but for now has to fill a larger gap than it should.

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review 2017-04-27 23:57
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Modern Library Volume 3 of 3)
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Volume III (Modern Library) - Gian Battista Piranesi,Edward Gibbon

The finale volume of Modern Library’s three-volume reprint of Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire covers chapters 49 through 71 of the author’s vast magnum opus.  Beginning with the Iconoclast controversy in correlation with rise of the Vatican and Holy Roman Empire in the 8th century and ending with a description of the causes and progression of the decay of the city of Roman in the 15th century, Gibbon relates in detail the political, martial, social, and theological developments in both Europe and the Middle East ultimately led to the end of Byzantine Empire with the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans and the state of the city of Roman at time of the Roman Empire’s complete end.

 

The majority of the 22 chapters deal with the rise of Islam and the resultant political and martial effects that would ultimately determine the fate of the Byzantine Empire.  Although beginning with the Iconoclastic controversy that began the schism of the Christian church as the bishop of Rome rose to power in the West, Gibbon used those developments to launch into how Islam rose in Arabia then spread across not only areas once under Roman control but also their long-time Persian rivals in the aftermath of the reconquests of Heraclius.  While detailing the internal struggle within the Caliphate period, Gibbon reveals how Emperors attempted to combat this new faith and military force to increasing little effect has time went on.

 

The thorough retelling of the numerous political changes throughout Asia that affect the fortunes of the Byzantine Empire shifted the focus away from the ‘Roman’ world to locations as far east as China, but revolutions of people in these areas would play into the fortunes of Constantinople.  Also playing into fate of Byzantine was the barbarian Christian West that the Emperors called for aid not only from kings but the Pope as well.  Unfortunately the resulting Crusades and mercenary arms that went East would inflict a mortal wound to the Empire in 1204 thus beginning a centuries long death spiral that only lasted as long as it did because of internal revolutions with the growing Ottoman Empire until 1453.  This dreary recounting of the end of Byzantium is mirrored by Gibbon in his recounting of the history of the city of Rome itself throughout the Middle Ages until the fall of the New Rome in the East.

 

This finale volume of Gibbon’s life consuming work revealed the struggle of the Eastern Empire of Byzantium to continue against a succession of Islamic powers and its ultimate demise thus completing the fall of the Roman Empire.  Yet in retelling the eventual fall of Constantinople, Gibbon paints a huge picture for the reader about how events both near and far away from the Bosporus affected the fortunes for both good and ill of the New Rome.  And in recounting the history of the city of Rome throughout the Middle Ages, a reader sheds a tear with Gibbon about the loss of the monuments of both Republic and Empire due to the necessity or vanity of the people of Rome after for the fall of the Western Empire.

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