Just by reviewing the bibliography of Fernando García de Cortázar, one could understand the complexity of the issue of national identity in the Spain of democracy. 18 of the main 28 books that García de Cortázar published since 1983 (investigations, biographies, outreach works, religious essays and even a couple of novels) bear the name of their country in the title: History of Spain from Art (2007) , The losers of the history of Spain (2006), Spain between rage and the idea (2018), the best-selling Brief history of Spain (2009)… García de Cortázar (born in Bilbao, in 1942) has just died the 79 years without his great subject having found clarity, despite the enormous popularity of his works.
García de Cortázar has also died two years after the disappearance of his teacher, Miguel Artola, the San Sebastian historian who, from within the academy of the dictatorship, renewed, rationalized and professionalized the historical narrative of Spain in the 1950s and 60. Artola, like García de Cortázar, was Basque. He came from a religious family (he had 11 siblings), the sociological type that could feel represented by the coup of 1936. As early as his formation as a historian was his vocation as a Jesuit. He was ordained a priest early and was always linked to the University of Deusto.
However, his attitude was always that of ideological and intellectual nonconformity. García de Cortázar was not a revisionist historian of the dictatorship and the Second Republic. Francoism: 1939-1975, the history of the dictatorship that he published in 2009, was far from the hyper-ideologized allegations that appeared in those years. García de Cortázar, in that book, synthesized data, put it in an international context and provided biographical material to understand the Spain of the dictatorship. The portrait was not friendly.
The Civil War in the Basque Country had been the starting point, the initial theme in the research of the Bilbao historian, but his career was directed towards a type of work that was new at the time: the historiographical synthesis oriented towards the present. Spain, it is already said, was the subject. García de Cortázar synthesized literary knowledge with economic statistics. He searched Clarín, Semprún and Larra for figures that would explain his country and, from there, he analyzed the Spain that had remained.
His speech was both optimistic and pessimistic. García de Cortázar was often compared to the writers of the Generation of ’98, but he kept his distance. While his countrymen Baroja and Unamuno spoke of Spain from fatality, García de Cortázar did so from optimism. Romanesque and rationalist architecture, the literature of the Golden Age and that of the 27th, scientific research in the Middle Ages and the liberal rebellion of the 19th century, the mystical landscape of Castile and that of the Bay of Biscay… Everywhere I saw García de Cortázar elements to offer a proud image of Spain, oblivious to the rhetoric of Francoism and the desperation of his generation, which began to travel through Europe in the 60s, ashamed of the dictatorship.
And the pessimism? Since the 1980s, García de Cortázar warned that this black image of Spain was spreading as the dominant one according to the agenda of the nationalist parties. In the Basque Country during the years of lead, the historian became a dissident, a pioneer in social protest against terrorism, threatened by ETA and a permanent replicator of the Basque religious hierarchy.
His role in Basque civil society led him to reach relevance beyond the academic world. Brief history of Spain (1997) was the book that consolidated his fame, the best-selling history book in Spain at least at that time. If Harari’s superseller Sapiens amazed 21st century readers by his intellectual ambition, someone should remember that García de Cortázar tackled the same project, from the Neanderthals to the Ermua Forum, but in Spain and 20 years earlier.
Politics co-opted him. At a time when José María Aznar came to the Government with the idea of linking the Popular Party with the Third Spain and with the Azañista tradition, García de Cortázar was one of the intellectuals to whom the new Spanish right often referred. That political/commercial yearning lasted only a few years. García de Cortázar, on the other hand, never left his subject: thinking of Spain as a modern European country, as capable of uniting its citizens on a civic project as any other.
“The recent idea that Spain does not exist, that it is an administrative invention that covers up the imperialism of Castile, is new. In 1998 they could feel Spain with the worst pessimism, but they never doubted that there was a shared history and culture”, García de Cortázar said in an interview published by EL MUNDO in 2020. “That idea was in the education that my parents gave us. We did not see the epic in Spain, but the contribution of the Toledo School of Translators, for example.”
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