Sunday, 3 January 2016

Tomas de Torquemada, the Inquisitor

16th September 1498 was the day on which died one of the most evil men to have ever lived. However, like many such people he was utterly convinced that he was on the side of justice and was doing “God’s will”. It is amazing how religious zeal can persuade some people to act in the most unspeakably cruel and villainous ways.

The man in question was Tomas de Torquemada, a Dominican monk who, in 1483, had been entrusted by Pope Sixtus IV to lead the “Holy Inquisition” in Spain. The aim of this institution was to root out heresy from Spain, which Torquemada understood to mean discovering and punishing “Marranos”, Jews who had ostensibly converted to Christianity but who still practised Judaism in secret.

Torquemada took his work extremely seriously, gathering a network of spies and arming himself with “enforcers” in the shape of 50 armed knights and 200 foot soldiers. There was nothing he would not do to extract a confession, followed by punishment. It is true that not every victim was burned at the stake – this was the fate of possibly as few as 2,000 discovered Jews – but at least 25,000 others received less severe punishments after they had been tortured into confession.

It seems unlikely that Torquemada’s career was unknown to the Nazis of a later age, because there are distinct parallels between their persecutions of Jews. Torquemada confiscated Jewish property, flogged Jews in public and forced them to wear yellow shirts with crosses sewn on them – a chilling precursor of the yellow stars that the Nazis forced German Jews to wear.

He issued guidelines to enable Christians to identify the secret Jews among them. One was to take note of people who wore clean clothes on Saturdays rather than Sundays.

Torquemada even had his own “final solution”. In his efforts to create a “pure-blooded” Spain he concluded that all the Jews must be expelled. He went to the King and Queen and made this demand, but they were also approached by some wealthy Jews who offered them 30,000 ducats if they refused to do what Torquemada wanted.

This was an unfortunate sum to have offered, because it played right into Torquemada’s hands. He challenged the monarchs by pointing out that Jesus had been betrayed by Judas for 30 pieces of silver and now they were about to do the same for 30,000. The jibe worked, and 160,000 Jews were forced to leave Spain within three months. Any left behind would have been executed.

It beggars belief what some people are prepared to do in the name of religion, which is one reason why the current writer would be perfectly happy if the world gave up religion altogether, although I appreciate that this is not likely to happen any time soon! The problem arises when people convince themselves that their religion is the only true one and that everyone else’s must therefore be wrong. It is a short step, in the minds of many, from this position to the belief that the wrongs of others must be corrected in order that they can be “saved”. The lengths to which they go in order to convert others to their point of view are clearly very varied, but it is when “no, I won’t change my religion” is not taken as the end of the matter that the real trouble can start.

As a footnote to the story of Torquemada, there is another parallel to the excesses of the Nazis. One of the worst Jew-baiters, Reinhard Heydrich, was known to have had a Jewish grandmother. The same was true of Tomas de Torquemada.

© John Welford