Spanish History for Dummies

I am one of those dummies. I know next to nothing about 20th century Spanish history but let me tell you why today is important – today is the anniversary of the Spanish constitution, which was ratified on 6th December 1978. Dictator Franco had died only three years previously. 

It is wild to me that both of the two languages I am studying, Spanish and German, were part of European dictatorships so recently, which only ended in 1978 and 1990 respectively. What is more crazy is that these democracies were rebuilt so peacefully – setting aside for a moment Spain’s attempted coup, which had no casualties.

This history occurred too recently to have made it into a British school syllabus, and my understanding has only developed in the last few years of trying to glean a little Spanish and German culture. (See my post on German reunification, also known as Die Wende).

I would be interested to know what others have learned about history and culture from their language journey!

A War By Two Names – Podcast Recommendations

Have you heard of the Falkland Islands? Or Las Malvinas? I am British and my awareness of this tiny territory next to Argentina has always been minimal. Among millenials – people I know – very little is known about the 1982 conflict, and the name ‘las Malvinas’ is known even less. In doing a little research, I found this video from The Guardian newspaper explaining why the military action was successful for the British, which is accompanied by scores of jingoistic and xenophobic comments.

I respect that the concern for the UK government at the time was that  British citizens – albeit a very small number of them – could potentially be forced into a dictatorship, but the issue is not black and white. It felt like a real wake-up call when the Duolingo podcast featured this story back in 2017, which examined one Argentinian soldier’s memory of the war. In what feels like a deliberately diplomatic stance, the episode covers an unlikely friendship between the young soldier and an English local.

In contrast, just last week NPR’s podcast Radio Ambulante put up an episode about two Argentinian soldiers’ experience of the war, which occurred six years into a dictatorship. (Available with transcripts in both Spanish and English). Their belief in victory was quickly shattered and hundreds of lives were lost.

I would be interested to learn more about the conflict, which is yet another example of how choosing to learn Spanish has challenged my assumptions about politics and history. Those depressing YouTube comments (yes, I know, don’t read YouTube comments) has strengthened my conviction to learn more, ask questions and look for more to the story.

What Makes a Flu Spanish?

This month’s centenary of WWI has put the conflict back in focus. But what about the greater disaster which started in 1918?

In the UK, the mythology of the war has a long development which has slowly expanded to include discussions about trauma, conscientious objection, and the racist attitudes of various sides. (See the November 13th episode of podcast The Europeans for some introductory information of treatment of non white soldiers and labourers).

Lesser known is the Spanish Flu pandemic, which in my history class was barely mentioned. It lasted from 1918 to 1920 and wiped out between 2.5% to 5% of the world’s population (the huge margin shows how much epidemiologists still do not know). Last week I picked up Laura Spinney’s book Pale Rider which gives an great overview for dummies like me who knew nothing about the extent of this “Spanish” tragedy.

The flu was not a result of the war but the mass movement of people surely intensified its spread and the consequences. Tragically, it had the worst mortality rates for adults in the prime of their life, and often killed recently returned soldiers – whatever your view of the war, these deaths could not be seen as glorious. There were no memorials for these men, women and children.

Why Spanish? The flu almost certainly did not come from Spain, but the journalism did. The country, being neutral in WWI, was the first to allow wide reporting of the illness. The rest of Europe, unable to know the full extent of the flu in their own towns and cities, assumed the sickness came from Spain. The Spanish called it “The Naples Soldier”, after a catchy song of the time (get it).

Applying distance and stigma to the flu echoes the naming of many illnesses throughout history – such as syphilis, which was called the Spanish/French/German/Italian/Polish disease – depending on where you lived.

Also this week I learned that the Spanish dub of Terminator changed “hasta la vista” to “sayonara, baby” which to me makes him sound like that Simpsons character Troy McClure. You might remember him from such self-help videos as “Smoke Yourself Thin” and “Get Some Confidence, Stupid!”

A German Word from History (No.3)

The previous post in this little series was a word from German history but this week I’m picking something from Austria:

Psychoanalyse (f.)

This is Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis and a bloody hard word to pronounce. (Something like “puh-soo-show-anna-loser”, but quickly).

Sigmund Freud, 1905

In researching these German words my starting point is my own knowledge of German history, which in school was focused on 1933-1945, and then later I became fascinated with the East German state.

Beyond Nazi history, Freud was included in my 2 years of school psychology – though don’t test me – and I think as teenagers we all found his theories a bit ridiculous but super interesting because of their drama and absolutism. He captured concepts in his work which are still part of our language now, such as defining the subconscious.

On a related note, there is a great fictionalised version of Freud in Robert Seethaler’s book Der Trafikant, about the elderly psychologist befriending a young man in 1938 Vienna. Short, charming and sad.

Time travel in Spanish!

Netflix will soon open their first European production hub in Spain, dedicated to producing original content. The current Spanish-language options – the ones found on Netflix UK – are pretty limited, although some are big hits. These include the heist show Casa de Papel (Money Heist), about a bank robbery going wrong, as well as the syrupy-sweet period drama Chicas del Cable (Cable Girls), about 1920s telephone operators.

I did not stick with those shows very long, but the bank heist premise could be kind of fun and Chicas del Cable could be a Downtown Abbey stand-in – maybe try them out if you haven’t already. What I would recommend is the bonkers Spanish TV show El Ministerio del Tiempo (The Ministry of Time). Two seasons were made for the broadcaster RTVE, and the final third season moved to Netflix.

El_Ministerio_del_Tiempo_titlecard
Image: Radiotelevisión Española

It turns out that Spain has a secret ministry which controls a series of portals in time, which have been guarded by dedicated civil servants (!) for centuries. It is like watching a Doctor Who for adults, except the TARDIS can only go backwards. The heroes (a trio assembled from the 16th, 19th, and 21st centuries) get assigned different tasks in each episode, such as saving the life of a Spanish Shakespeare (Lope de Vega).

The characters feel like actual humans, the stories are lots of fun, and I am even being forced to learn a tiny bit of Spanish history. I also appreciate a show in which they use Spain-Spanish, so I can balance it out with all the Latin American Spanish resources. I am more likely to need or use the Spanish of Spain, but of course we should all be aware of both.

Also this week I have been listening to season 3 of the podcast series Coffee Break Spanish. It is a step up from season 1-2 beginner level and involves more listening practice aimed at an A2-B1 level. I love the Scottish presenter Mark, he is a talented linguist, teacher and all-round language nerd. The season 3 song/jingle is dorky as hell but will put a smile on your face, I promise.