"In this globalized world, there is no such thing as independence"

British historian Sir John Elliott is an expert on the golden age of Spain

He takes a historical perspective of the country's political and economic challenges

The British historian Sir John Elliott. / C. ÁLVAREZ

For anyone interested in the history of empire, of Europe and of Spain, here is a book to keep within reach, to read, to study and to enjoy." So said The Times Literary Supplement in 1990, when the British historian Sir John Huxtable Elliott published Spain and Its World, 1500-1700. Over the last six decades Elliott has explored the history of Spain and the Hispanic world with originality and insight, producing some of the most influential work in the field.

Born in Reading, England, on June 23, 1930, he was educated at Eton, before earning his doctorate in history at Cambridge. After teaching there, and then at King's College, University of London, he went to Princeton in the early 1970s, returning to England in 1990 after being named Regius Professor Emeritus of Modern History at Oxford, retiring in 1997.

His work has been recognized in Spain through honorary doctorates from the Autonomous University of Madrid and Barcelona University, and he is the recipient of Spain's Order of Isabella la Católica, the Grand Cross of Alfonso the Wise, and the Prince of Asturias Prize for the Social Sciences. His first book, Richelieu and Olivares , won the American Historical Association's Gershoy Prize, and he was then awarded the Wolfson Prize for History as well as Spain's Antonio de Nebrija prize for his monumental biography The Count Duke of Olivares: the Statesman in an Age of Decline , in 1986.

In his latest book, Making History , Elliott steps back from his work to consider the progress of historical scholarship. From his own experiences as a historian of Spain, Europe, and the Americas, he provides a deft and sharp analysis of the work that historians do and how the field has changed since the 1950s.

Catalans have not played the role in political life that I would have liked"

He begins by explaining the roots of his interest in Spain and its past, and then analyzes the challenges of writing the history of a country other than one's own. In succeeding chapters he offers acute observations on such topics as the history of national and imperial decline, political history, biography, and art and cultural history, addressing the independence question in Catalonia, a region he knows well, and whose language he speaks fluently.

Over a simple but delicious lunch in the conservatory of his home in Oxford, I asked Elliott how a boy from Reading become the world's foremost historian of Spain's golden age of empire. After all, while the English tradition of writing about Spain and its history began centuries ago, it was disrupted during and after the Spanish Civil War. General Franco's Spain enjoyed little foreign support and remained taboo for British intellectuals sympathetic to the Republic that Franco defeated. Consequently, Spanish culture and history were scarcely taught in post-war British universities, and Elliott himself says that he knew little about the country until, in the summer of 1950, he went to Spain for the first time with a group of students from Cambridge University.

"Like so many others from the North who make contact for the first time with the civilization of Southern Europe, I was immediately enthralled," he says. "Here was a society which, amidst all the sadness of the post-war period, gave the impression of possessing an extraordinary basic vitality amid its austerity, something that had a profound effect on me; and I felt an immediate desire to pursue my own exploration of these mysteries."

Prince Filipe awards Elliott his Prince of Asturias prize. / DENIS DOYLE (AP)

The defining moment of the trip, he says, was a visit to the Prado art museum, where he was impressed by the portrait of the Count-Duke of Olivares, Philip IV's prime minister, and the man who tried to centralize Spain in the 1630s, sparking revolt in Catalonia, which brought about his downfall.

"I was particularly affected by the work of Velázquez. My attention was attracted to the great equestrian portrait of the Count-Duke of Olivares. Here was a man about whom we had been taught nothing at university. When I got back to England, I found even the basic text books on 17th-century Europe had little to say about the Count-Duke."

Question. After visiting Madrid, on your next trip you went to Catalonia...

Answer. That trip was crucial. It was a turning point in my career as a historian. I immediately identified with the Catalans, whose language and culture was being suffocated by the regime. But there has been much mythmaking in Catalonia.

That is why the role of the historian is so important. I think our obligation is to show that the past is complicated, that there are many shades of gray. We have to think and rethink what has been said about the past, and show those who want to reduce things to simplistic formulae that the past isn't like that. It is very dangerous to live with a deformed vision of the past: we can see in the case of Kosovo recently that such thinking can lead to very dangerous situations.

Q. You draw parallels between the histories of Kosovo and Catalonia in your latest book...

A. The parallels are frightening, but at the same time, I have every confidence in the common sense of the Catalans and believe that in the end things will be resolved, because in this globalized world, independence no longer exists. It is gladdening to see that we are part of a world in which we are all linked. There is also a thing called generosity: any people that thinks only of itself and is not generous with others is doing itself harm in the long run.

Politicians emerge to impose their own agenda at times of economic difficulty"

Q. Do you think that the current situation in Catalonia is a result of Spain's decline?

A. I don't believe in decline, only in recession, and we will emerge from this recession. That said, it doesn't help. I have always said that it is precisely at moments of economic difficulty when politicians emerge who want to take advantage of widespread discontent to impose their own agenda. That is the real danger.

Q. Would you say that over the last 300 years Madrid has not learned how best to treat the Catalans in order to keep Catalonia within Spain?

A. For many years Madrid's policies were mistaken. If you compare the union of Scotland and England in 1707, for instance, with the Bourbons and Catalonia, you'll see that England immediately involved Scotland in its empire project. A great many Scots held important positions in government, as well as leading the economy over the following centuries. This did not happen with Catalonia. The Catalans have not played the role in Spanish political life that I would have liked to see.

Q. Whose fault is that?

A. Both sides are to blame. The Bourbons imposed an authoritarian rule in the 18th century, shutting down the regional parliaments and ruling from the center, making a balance between the innate diversity of Spain and the concept of a united Spain. And the imbalance remains. I hoped that the 1978 Constitution would have resolved this, but it has proved impossible to give all regions the same level of autonomy.

The Catalan business community isn't interested in independence"

Q. You said that you are optimistic about the recession and a resolution to the Spain-Catalonia conflict...

A. I'm not saying that there won't be problems: there will always be tension between the central government and the regions, but I think that the Catalans will see sense. I would also say that the Catalan business community isn't interested in independence, and finally, the EU doesn't want to see dozens of independent nations emerging. So Madrid and Barcelona will have to work together to find a path forward they can share.

In the second half of the 17th century, the Catalans saw that the relationship with Spain had failed, and so they rebelled against Philip V; then they realized that the French were no different. But in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Catalans began to see the opportunities that being in Spain presented. I think that, like the Scots, they took advantage of those opportunities. But historians are not prophets, and it now looks as though our two countries could break up.

The Spanish elite of the 17th century was unable to adapt to a changing world, in the same way that the British elite was unable to adapt to rapid change after World War II.

Q. Let's go back to the people that you stayed with in Barcelona in the 1950s, the Coderch family, who answered an advertisement that you put in La Vanguardia looking for someone to teach you Catalan. What was it like living with a family that wasn't your own?

A. A lot of people answered, and I went to see different families, but decided on this couple: he was a lawyer, while his wife stayed at home and looked after their young daughter. They lived in a small apartment in the center of the city. They spoke Catalan from the start. My Castilian wasn't very good at the time, but I understood that I had to learn Catalan. So I listened, and learned new words, and they introduced me to people, and I began to immerse myself in Catalan society. Two years later, when I returned, I stayed with another family, and they knew even more people. I was very lucky.

Q. What did you learn from that experience?

A. The most important thing was to learn what it means to lose one's freedom. That had a big impact on me. There were moments when I found the oppression intolerable. The censorship was absurd. I had contacts at Radio Barcelona, and they invited me to do a small program about a translation of some English poems into Catalan. So I wrote the piece up. I started with a bad joke about the pleasures of reading Don Quixote in English. I had to send the script in to the radio station. When I turned up to record the program, the censor had cut the reference to Don Quixote . I was very angry about these absurdities. One couldn't talk about reading Don Quixote in English.

I don't know whether that was the official position of the regime, or the radio station's position. I wrote another article for a history magazine about the Catalan rebellion of 1640. Instead of publishing it in Castilian, we published it in English. It was a delicate subject.

Q. You have written that the Spanish believe they belong to the chosen race, and that the Catalans see themselves as victims...

A. That is the arrogance of imperial power: the English were equally arrogant in the 17th and 18th centuries about their conquests; another chosen people.

I am unhappy when things go badly for Spain, and happy when they go well"

Q. As a historian you have spent a lot of time and energy trying to understand power and the exercise of power. Spain is the result of a power struggle that has taken place over centuries. How do you see us now; do you think that all the time you have dedicated to studying the Spanish has been worth it?

A. I love Spain. Spaniards have been very generous to me, and I have a great many friends there; I feel at home there. For that reason I am unhappy when things go badly for Spain, and I am very happy when they go well. To a certain degree I identify with what is happening in Spain, whether it is good or bad. The problem there is not just economic, but also political, institutional; aside from the Catalan question, the monarchy also faces serious challenges, and is no longer as respected as it once was.

Q. Do you follow events in Spain closely?

A. The UK faces the same problems: the BBC, the political class, regional politics, the banks... We had a tough time with the monarchy in the 1980s and 1990s, but it is enjoying prestige once more. Things change. Nothing lasts forever.

Q. How would you describe a historian's job, and does Spain still have the capacity to surprise you?

A. By definition a historian must be curious; that is what makes us look into the heart of societies. I think that I was surprised by the relative ease with which Spain moved from dictatorship to democracy after the death of Franco. But thinking about the impact of civil wars on societies I have reached the conclusion that the generation that grows up after a civil war has such terrible memories of what happened that it does everything possible to prevent a repetition in the future. That is what happened in Spain with the Transition: you had to find a way to live together, even if it meant forgetting and burying the past to adapt to new circumstances. And that was done. But the next generation, which had no knowledge or experience of Franco, wants to know more about the past, that hidden past. From my perspective, the best way to face up to that past is through historians, and not through politicians.

Q. Are you referring to the Historical Memory Law?

A. Yes. It was completely absurd. I understand the needs of the families of the dead to know what happened, but I think that there were other ways to address the issue other than by opening up all the old wounds. That said, each country has to find its own way: the South Africans did it their way, the Irish another way, and I hope that the Spanish can find their way.

Q. What is your assessment of the crisis in the EU?

A. We have to learn to navigate this globalized world. Instant communication has changed our lives; those crises of the 18th and 19th centuries were not known around the world, but now we know what is going on everywhere at any time. But we are also seeing a world in which the banks and the large multinationals are playing a bigger role than ever in making decisions about how we live. These supranational organizations are pressuring governments, and that is distancing government from the people. People want more control over their lives, which is why we are seeing a resurgence of regionalism, of ethnicity, of nationalism - everybody wants a place in the sun. We are living through a time when politicians must be extremely agile and flexible if they want to solve our problems. This means more devolution from the center, and more contact between voters and parliaments. We can see in the EU how distant Brussels is from people, and that is absurd, and it also sparks crises and tensions. The task in hand is to find new ways to face the challenges that this distance has caused.

Q. We have just witnessed a key moment in US history: the re-election of an African-American president and the rejection of a candidate who wanted to impose a harsher form of capitalism. What are your thoughts?

A. I lived in the United States for 16 years, and I consider myself a friend of that country. It is a country undergoing rapid transformation, particularly with regard to the Hispanic population, which is growing very fast. The Democratic Party has grasped this and is adapting. I think that the Tea Party is increasingly out of touch with reality - thank God it has not prevailed. I think one of the most important questions is the future of the Supreme Court. New appointments are coming up: with Romney we would have had a very conservative Supreme Court, but there is now the possibility of a more liberal body. It is incredible that there are six Catholics and three Jews [on the Court], but not one Protestant.

Q. What about your own history; what were you like as a child?

A. The life of a historian or any other academic is not very interesting - in fact it's quite boring. I read a great deal as a child. I was always interested in books - both historical and romantic novels. But what most interested me as a child was the diplomatic corps; perhaps because of my interest in foreign countries, or because we couldn't travel during the war. I was born in Reading, where the jail is. My parents were school teachers. As a family we were interested in learning; we lived in the school grounds. Then I got a scholarship to Eton, which changed my life: I entered a world that was very different to mine up until then. But going there allowed me to develop my interests and abilities. I don't know if you were aware of this, but when I was 16, I wrote a book with a friend about the life of the squirrel - it was a children's book. My friend was a talented artist, he drew the illustrations, and we sold 10,000 copies - more than my later books! From the money I made, I was able to go abroad for the first time. I went to Switzerland, where my nanny lived. I decided to study Greek and Latin, and a little French and German.

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