Counterfactualism In History: The Spanish Case – Analysis


By Jeremy Black*

(FPRI) — The “what ifs?” of present-day speculation should become the “what ifs?” of history. Too often, however, we fail to understand this uncertainty because we shape history to try to make it clear and obvious, and far clearer and more obvious than it was to contemporaries, domestic or foreign. In Other Pasts, Different Presents, Alternative Futures (Indiana, 2015), I showed how counterfactualism, the “what if?” approach, is a valid way to appreciate the contingency of history. Recent Spanish political developments are chosen as an example to indicate its continued validity. This should encourage readers to think of their own countries.

A host of counterfactuals indeed can focus on the recent fall of the Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, and on the Catalan dispute. Counterfactuals in Spanish history tend to focus on its recent history. In Historia virtual de España, 1870-2004: Qué hubiera pasado si? (Virtual history of Spain, 1870-2004: What if?, 2004), contributors discussed what would have happened if Spain had avoided war with the United States in 1898; if the republican parties had been united in the 1933 elections; if Spain had entered the Second World War (as Franco would have done had Hitler offered better terms); if Admiral Carrero Blanco, Franco’s designated successor, had not been murdered by Basque separatists, in 1973; and if Spain had not joined in the Iraq war in 2003. One of the chapters considered whether the Civil War would have been avoided had the Socialist Indalecio Priesto accepted the premiership in May 1936, concluding quite possibly so and thus drawing attention to contingencies and leadership.

Civil wars tend to encourage counterfactual thought. The impact of the Civil War and of Franco (as both man and symbol) on recent Spanish history, however, has been especially profound. Thus, it is not surprising that the majority of the chapters in What If? related directly or indirectly to one or the other. Counterfactualism offered a way to address these issues and this impact. Furthermore, in 1976, the year after Franco’s death, two books, El desfile de la Victoria by Fernando Díaz-Plaza and En el día de hoy by Jesús Torbado, offered counterfactuals based on Republican victory in the Civil War.

Looking further back, there are even more possible counterfactuals in Spanish history, as in the question of what would have happened had the Reconquista been completed soon after the fall of Toledo in 1085. Also, as a reminder that external factors are also important, one wonders what would have happened to Spain but for the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. The Hispanic world would have been more powerful both had there been no Dutch Revolt and had Philip II’s dynastic alignment with England been maintained and produced an heir, either to his marriage with Mary or, once she had died in 1558, to her successor, Elizabeth I, had she accepted Philip’s proposal. The futures possibly offered by Philip II’s eldest son, Don Carlos, represent other counterfactuals. Continued dynastic unity with Portugal, rather than the rift in 1640, would also have been highly significant, certainly in the international sphere and possibly also domestically. For the 18th century, the foremost questions are those of a continuation of the Spanish Habsburg dynasty in 1700, and of a competent successor to Charles III in 1788, rather than the baleful Charles IV.

Thereafter, the avoidance of the Napoleonic takeover in 1808, or the success of Joseph I (Joseph Bonaparte), invites reflection. Each focuses attention on the impact of international power politics on Spanish developments. The counterfactuals relate not only to France, but also to the wider international context. For example, was Spanish history in the 19th century ultimately dependent on Napoleon’s defeat outside Moscow in 1812? Did this at least in part explain why one French dynasty, the Bourbon, was successfully imposed from 1700, but another, the Napoleonic, was not from 1808? The total mishandling, by Ferdinand VII in the 1810s and 1820s, of Spanish American demands for autonomy also invites consideration, notably with different policies and events in Spain and Spanish America, and with Britain adopting a less hostile stance. This mishandling is an instance of the baleful impact of the monarchy on many occasions in Spanish history. To some, this baleful impact can even be widened out to include the question of the role of the Church and of religious commitment.

The subsequent political history of the 19th century is shot through with counterfactuals, notably with reference to the First Carlist War, the political crises of 1868-74, and the outbreak of war with the United States in 1898. In Cuba, as, very differently in Catalonia, there was an inability to find an effective compromise between opposition to rule from Madrid, and a determination to preserve central control. Looked at in another counterfactual light, Catalonia remained with Spain, unlike Ireland and Hungary with Britain and Austria, respectively.

Thus, the counterfactuals of the last ninety years, which focus on the Civil War, but also include, for example, no Madrid train bombings in 2004 and the possible consequences for the general election of that year, sit in a longer tradition that richly deserves attention. Certainly, there is no reason to argue for inevitability in past, present, or future. To critics of counterfactualism, this process can be taken further by considering its role in what is termed “post-truth” accounts.

The Catalan crisis of 2017 saw counterfactualism about Catalonia’s past, alongside what, to critics, were such accounts as what was termed ethnic parochialism, historical mysticism, and rhetoric. To supporters of Catalan independence, their nationalism relied on the need to understand possible alternative historical developments that had simply been prevented by force. The latter is certainly correct with regard to Philip V’s victory in the War of the Spanish Succession (1700-14)—although what that entails for the present and the future is far from clear. This controversy, however, is very much part of the living history of Spain.

Counterfactualism can contribute to the debates about Spanish “difference” and its failure, until much later, to achieve modernity. Nevertheless, these debates are in part misplaced because they neglect the extent to which there is no common European path from which Spain supposedly diverged. Instead, the emphasis, in European history, should be on multiple pathways and inherent differences, to which Spain contributes invigorating examples. There is a misleading tendency to treat Spain as part of a simple, uniform narrative of European and world history, and notably so with the Spanish Civil War. Parallels are frequently drawn with other European countries, for example of the Reconquista and the Crusades, and of the American and Latin American wars of independence.

This is a helpful approach, but, in every case, there are also not only specific elements in the Spanish case, but also the need to locate this case in terms of longer-term developments in Spanish history. Thus, the Reconquista looked back to the eighth century in a way that the Crusades did not for other European countries. The Civil War can be located not solely in the ideological rivalries and moves against democracy of the 1930s, but also in a longer-term pattern of military intervention in Spanish politics. And so also with future events. They will have to be understood in the pattern of Spain’s past.

About the author:
*Jeremy Black
, a 2018 Templeton Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, is Professor of History at Exeter University. Jeremy Black has recently published A Brief History of Italy (Little Brown).

This article was published by FPRI

Published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute

Founded in 1955, FPRI ( is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization devoted to bringing the insights of scholarship to bear on the development of policies that advance U.S. national interests and seeks to add perspective to events by fitting them into the larger historical and cultural context of international politics.

One thought on “Counterfactualism In History: The Spanish Case – Analysis

  • October 14, 2018 at 12:56 pm

    Counterfactualism is misleadingly presented as an objective tool for understanding the world. The trickery about counterfactualism is that there is an infinite number of questions that can be asked, reductio ad absurdum, then ab absurdum ad paralyticum.

    Perhaps to no purpose. like a child’s game. Perhaps to devious purpose: as a decoy to draw attention away from the real questions that people are asking, like a substitute opiate for the masses. Questions like why the USA is such a brutalising interloper in the rest of the world, such a brutalised cluster of degenerating souls. Ordinary people the world over, touched by this brutality, ask the question every day, as they try to go about their daily routine or try to establish one. Governments dream of a world of mutual respect and they wonder when they will be left in peace to fulfil their responsibilities and build contented societies. The parents of dead children, Yemeni, Iraqi, Libyan, Somali, Malian, Haitian, Ukrainian, ask this question every morning and every evening. The people of China, Russia, Korea, Iran scratch their heads in puzzlement. People of the countries of Europe, of Australia, of Japan and that benighted stretch of lands from Mexico to Tierra del Fuego watch the forward march of globamericalisation and the concomitant impoverishment of cultures, histories, values; and the dream of calling a halt before it destroys us all. Asking “what if” that place were not festering boil it has become helps no one. Asking how to cauterise the excrescence before it overcomes us all may provide practical solutions and hope for a brighter future for the world.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *