In Troubled Times


Martin van Creveld

Martin van Creveld lives and teaches in Jerusalem.  He has written several books that have influenced modern military theory, including Fighting Power, Command in War, and most significantly, The Transformation of War.

Copyright 2005, Martin van Creveld

Published with permission of the author.

In troubled times, people tend to suddenly re-discover history and turn their minds back to it. A close historical parallel to the near-civil war now threatening to engulf France is formed by events in Spain during the years 1492-1612. Those events repay close study.

Warfare between Christians and Muslims in Spain started when the Muslims crossed the Straits of Gibraltar in 711, quickly overrunning the entire peninsula. By the end of the thirteenth century much of the country had been reoccupied, but intermittent campaigning was to last for another two hundred years. It was not until 1492 that Granada, the last Muslim stronghold, fell and the reconquista was completed. That, however, was not the end of the story. The fall of Granada still left considerable numbers of Muslims under Spanish rule. While nobody knows exactly how many there were, modern historians estimate them at 15 to 20 percent of the entire population.

Like all medieval and early European monarchies, that of Spain claimed to have received its authority from God—in fact the rulers of the time, Ferdinand and Isabella, were the first to call themselves the Catholic Kings. Since nobody had got it into their minds to separate religion and politics, the two formed a single entity; in most countries, they continued to do so until the French Revolution three hundred years later. In this way anybody who was not a Christian was ipso facto refusing allegiance to the regime as well. No wonder Ferdinand and Isabella, though they were certainly among the most able rulers of their time, did not know how to handle the matter. Not knowing how to handle it, for over a hundred years they and their successors wavered.

In sixteenth century Spain conversion to Christianity was strictly enforced, making it impossible for people to openly live as Muslims. That, however, did not solve the problem. Many of the Muslims who converted continued to practice their own religion and culture, including—a feature that at one point raised the ire of the Spanish authorities—taking frequent baths. To combat the phenomenon, the Inquisition was established. However, it only enjoyed limited success. Individual "backsliders" and "heretics" could be apprehended, tried and executed (though in fact the Inquisition, in spite of its reputation, only executed a very small number of offenders, the great majority receiving lesser penalties such as being made to wear special clothes, the confiscation of property, and banishment). But the organization had not been designed for, nor was capable of, dealing with very large numbers of people.

Taking over from his paternal grandfather in 1517, Carl I—better known as Emperor Carl V—in 1517, did not know how to handle the problem either. Neither did his son and grandson, Philip II, and Philip III. All three frequently referred to it. All three also called on the best available counsel, both ecclesiastic and secular, in an attempt to solve it. Depending on the period, various courses were tried. At one time the Muslims were ordered to live in certain town quarters so they could be better supervised. At others orders were given to disperse them throughout the country in the hope of facilitating their assimilation. Compulsory instruction in the Christian language—in many ways, the equivalent of the present attempt to make immigrants learn German—was tried. So was the forced removal of Muslim children from their parents' home and their education either in Christian households or state-run institutions; the outcome, in 1568, was the uprising of the Alpujarras which took three years to suppress. As it happened, this was just the time when Ottoman power in the Mediterranean peaked. Hence the Spaniards tried to prevent the Moriscos, as they were known, from living in coastal districts lest they would join an invasion of otherwise support the enemy—not an unfounded worry, as it turned out.

As is also happening in modern Europeans states, many of the programs failed. The Moriscos' own resistance was one reason for this. However, there were others: such as insufficient financial means, inadequate enforcement, and corruption on the part of officials who, in return for bribes, preferred to turn a blind eye. Taking over in 1605 Philip IV and his prime minister, Olivares, were forced to the conclusion that no progress was being made and that the problem remained as acute as ever. This in turn led to a desperate decision, namely to expel the population in question. The process was organized district by district and took a number of years to carry out. At times it was extremely barbaric, at times less so. When it was completed in 1613, about 300,000 people had left the country and the history of the Muslims in Spain came to an end almost exactly nine hundred years after it had begun.

As Machiavelli says, defeat is the result of men not having the courage to be either completely good or completely bad. Reports coming out of France suggest that its government has not yet made up its mind on this point, and indeed it may still be too early to decide which course is the most appropriate. Clearly, however, if France and perhaps other European countries as well are to escape civil war one of the two will have to be chosen. And the longer the decision is postponed, the more difficult things will become.


Return to Home