Blowing Up Buses and Reciting Poetry: A Very Short Primer on Spanish Separatist Nationalisms

This post responds to a question raised by a reader of the earlier posts “Wilfred the Hairy: Fake Blood at the Invention of a Nation,” and “Wilfred Returns: From Flag to Fingers.”

Those posts had to do with Catalan nationalism and, more broadly, the universal passion for flag waving and other symbols, myths, and practices of nationalism. The reader, Jessica, asks whether the Basque and Catalan situations are similar….

Basque nationalism certainly shares characteristics with the Catalan situation, although we can also find prominent differences. I will not pretend to be an expert, so I beg forgiveness and seek correction if readers find that I miss the mark on some details.

First is the question of the origins. Most people who call themselves Basque or Catalan see themselves as belonging to nations that are distinct from other communities within the Spanish nation-state. They tell stories of the very ancient origins of their people. I should qualify this to add that there are many people, we can call them, cultural Basques or cultural Catalans, who are not Basque or Catalan by ancestry or heritage but who have adopted their cultural attributes. It is absolutely true that both regions possessed political and legal institutions, languages, dress, and cuisines, and other demonstrably distinct features well before Spain became Spain.

Both peoples have made linguistic differences especially prominent. Basque is a “language isolate,” meaning that it predates and has no relationship to any other languages spoken in Spain or France. Catalan is a Romance language, like Castilian Spanish, although expert linguists consider it much closer to Italian and French than to the latter Castilian offshoot.

Next is the question of membership and identity. State repression and local resistance have been the double helix of a political DNA that has fortified nationalist reaction in both peoples. Spain is not unique in this regard, so I will posit the point in general terms: states seek to unify their peoples by minimizing differences; meanwhile, groups within states seek to maximize distinctiveness. I will leave for readers to ponder whether state violence or local defense of difference is the original sin in this equation; regardless, a structure of push and shove, of imposition and reaction, of prejudice and animosity is clearly at work.

Here are just a couple of the important events in the contest between the Spanish state and each of these national groups. For Basques a crisis came around 1830 when King Ferdinand VII changed the rules of succession so that his as-yet unborn heir (a daughter) would succeed him rather than his brother, the infante Carlos. From this event (with its own prehistory) emerged a succession of Carlist Wars that pitted the Basques (and others) against the central government. Catalonia’s contest against Spain began earlier, either in 1412, when the Compromise of Caspe gave the Principality of Catalonia and its attached kingdoms to a Castilian monarch, or to the 1640s, when Castilian armies trampled Catalan lands and peoples under the guise of repelling a French intervention, or in the period after 1714 when Spain’s new Bourbon dynasty punished Catalonia, by denying its historic legal autonomy, for siding with the losing side of the War of Succession.

The result was that the continued participation of each region within Spain remained fraught, not only because of cultural distinctions but also because of accumulating historical grievances. Much later, after generations of evidence of a misfit between the parts, Spain’s Civil War, Franco’s rise to power within it, and the Franco dictatorship that lasted from 1936 until his death in 1975 then became its own symptom and cause of further grievance.

As Franco’s repressive regime grew more brutal, Basque extremism intensified in response. In 1959 a group of young nationalists created the group ETA. The group grew more violent after learning that Franco’s police had been torturing Basque activists. Into the 1970s, the group metastasized in ways that fit radicalization trends in the US, Vietnam, Latin America, and elsewhere at the time. They adopted Marxist revolutionary methods and succeeded in perpetrating hundreds of attacks, most notably car and bus bombings, for the purpose of assassinating politicians, police, and others. Here is Wikipedia’s list:

In addition to repression of language, culture, and political rights, Franco flooded Catalonia with migrants from other parts of Spain to dilute Catalanism, a policy that had some success, although the comparative strength of the Catalan economy meant that even migrants benefited from participating in pro-Catalan policies against centralizing ones. Catalan youth also radicalized in the same years that Basque youth did, but they mostly remained committed to political confrontation rather than directed violence. Catalans found a variety of ways, for example through music and civic events, to build and maintain Catalan solidarity (when the Beatles performed in Madrid and Barcelona in July of 1965, much to the displeasure of Franco, it helped to give rise to a youth counterculture that was a thorn in the dictator’s side for the next decade).

The political aversion of many Catalans (and Basques) to Franco and his legacy runs very deep. Here are examples, left slightly out of context just because too much text would be required to describe them. I will offer explanation and resources to those who ask.

The 1978 Constitution, ratified in the democratic “Transition” after Franco’s death, restored limited recognition of the Basque country (Euskadi) and Catalonia as “autonomous” regions. But the 1978 Constitution was a deceit. It referred to each as nationalities but without recognizing each as a distinct nation, a technicality that turned out to be significant. Regional governments in Madrid, Andalucia, and elsewhere inside Spain (regions that had never claimed cultural or political difference) drew on this false pretense to claim equal autonomy with the Basques and Catalans. The result was that Basque and Catalan nationality was further diluted (Spain now has 17 “autonomous” regions and 2 “autonomous” cities). The Constitution similarly recognized Basque and Catalan languages as “co-official,” but offered no protections against efforts by the central government to undermine them.

Recent Developments:

Political and economic developments in recent decades have quelled Basque violence, but many Basques still appear regularly in the streets to maintain cultural identity and proclaim political solidarity against the central state.

Catalans tried to hold a democratic straw poll, called the Referendum, in October of 2017: a yes or no non-binding vote about whether Catalonia should secede from Spain. Spain’s federal court called it unconstitutional, on ambiguous grounds, so that the conservative Partido Popular party then in power could permit the police to crack heads.

Maybe you want to watch more… but I advise caution (this is rough)

What Next?

There are at least three other directions this discussion could now take.

One: Beyond Catalonia and the Basques, there are many groups within Europe and North America who have long histories of separatist interests. Wikipedia provides a list of “Active Separatist Movements in Europe” and a separate list of “Active Separatist Movements in North America.” These lists are extensive, and perhaps surprising. California is on the later list, and not without good reason considering its deepening water crisis among other reasons some of the state’s residents cite for wanting to break away from the US.

Two: To speak generally, cross-cultural and cross-national comparisons are extremely difficult to make intelligently. John Elliott, one of the most distinguished of English historians of Spain, has recently written a book, Scots and Catalans, comparing the Scottish and Catalan separatist trajectories. I recommend the book to anyone who wants to know the histories of those two countries in excruciating detail, but I would not recommend it for the purpose of really learning much about the nature, or natures, of separatism. He has a good sense of the early modern political histories of each locale, but does not have a good theoretical handle on the varieties of nationalisms that such a comparison requires (you can read my review when it comes out in a couple of months in the Bulletin of Spanish and Portuguese Historical Studies).  My own book, Constructing Catalan Identity, tries to put Catalan claims into broader cultural and human perspective, making comparisons at times to the US. It succeeds and fails in ways very different from Sir John’s.

Third: Historians and others would benefit from some serious comparative discussion about how states attempt to coerce their inhabitants into unifying around various national attributes and aspirations. There are, for instance, Basques and Catalans in France as well as in Spain, but those in France have been, we might say, more successfully integrated. Why is that? A general trend in the historiography suggests that Spain’s approach was both more arbitrary and more violent in comparison to France, and thus, as suggested above, drew a more antagonistic response. The US largely succeeded (if that is the right word) in reducing the political potency of its minority populations. Why has the US succeeded where Spain has failed? Probably because of its use from the first of overwhelming force. From the colonial period on, a white European-ancestry majority imposed political, financial, and demographic barriers against American minority communities (America’s white majority, as is pretty well known, has undergone significant change in the last half century, with the largest segment attempting to accommodate itself to its own “melting pot” myths while another slightly smaller and increasingly fearful element struggles to find its way in a world that is leaving behind old-fashioned racialized guns-and-religion politics).

I’ll leave details, lots of them, to another time. Or, better, post a comment to which I can respond….

One thought

  1. Thank you so much for answering my question, Michael! Very interesting how separatism has taken two different paths in both Catalonia and the Basque Country. It shows how multicultural and multilingual the country of Spain really is and how those differences continue to impact Spaniards.


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