Javier Tusell

Historian of Spain
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Javier Tusell, historian: born Barcelona 26 August 1945; married Genoveva Garcia Queipo de Llano (one son, one daughter); died Barcelona 8 February 2005.

Best known as a historian of contemporary Spain, about which he published more than 50 books, Javier Tusell was during an early sortie into politics responsible for negotiating the return to Spain of Picasso's anti-war masterpiece, Guernica. Latterly he became well known as an astute and ironical radio and newspaper commentator - respected as a rare public figure who declined to line up with any political party.

The prosperous Catalan Tusell family moved to Madrid soon after Javier was born. As a young man he became interested in politics and joined a succession of Christian Democrat organisations that led him to the Centre Democratic Union (UCD), the centrist party led by Adolfo Suarez whose government spanned Franco's dictatorship and Spain's emerging democracy.

A brilliant history student, he became a lecturer at Madrid's Complutense University in 1968, aged 23. He was elected UCD councillor for Madrid in 1979 and until 1982 headed the department for Artistic Heritage, Archives and Museums, which later became the Fine Arts Department of the Culture Ministry.

He negotiated the return of Picasso's 1937 painting Guernica from the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where it had hung from 1939, thus fulfilling the artist's wish that his visual cry against dictatorship and war be displayed in Spain only after democracy returned. Picasso wanted Guernica in the Prado, and Tusell arranged for it to be housed in the museum's annexe for modern - that is, 19th-century - art, the Casón del Buen Retiro. The canvas returned amid much controversy in 1981: the work had to be protected from possible attacks by the paramilitary Civil Guard, itself tainted by Francoism. Others objected that the Casón del Buen Retiro was no substitute for the Prado proper. But, 25 years on, it is reckoned that without Tusell's determination during three years of haggling, and his historian's talent for producing the definitive catalogue to mark the event, Guernica's homecoming would never have been the political and artistic triumph it was.

Tusell abandoned politics in 1981 when the UCD fell apart, to become Professor of Contemporary History at the National University of Distance Learning (Uned), a post he held until his death. In numerous books and articles, debates and conferences, he addressed - often with fierce polemic - the topic that obsessed his generation of Spaniards: why did Spain's democracy fail between 1936 and 1939, and how did the consequence of that failure - Franco's dictatorship - affect Spanish life and the re-establishment of democracy?

He became increasingly radical, writing a searing critique of José María Aznar's eight-year conservative government, El Aznarato (2004). But he stayed in the democratic centre - a lonely position in Spanish politics - favouring Albert Camus' ideal of joining a party "of those who weren't sure they were right".

Tusell died while proof-reading his latest book, Dictadura franquista y democracia, 1939-2004 ("Francoist Dictatorship and Democracy, 1939-2004"), published this month.

Elizabeth Nash