Catalonia, too often misunderstood

By James Falconer

After spending a period of time in central Spain I started to become increasingly aware of a persistent mentality and felt it was time to make note its aspects. The view of many Spaniards, with respect to Catalonian identity and possible independence, appears to lack much-needed historical context. When questioned about why Catalonia has a feeling of autonomy, there is common perception that Franco moved a lot of industry there during his dictatorship, thus giving them their sense of autonomy. However, tensions between the Spanish centralist state and Catalonia are centuries old. This simplistic view is one that seems to persist in many circles in Spain. It dismisses so much of the history that its blinkered view should be classed as a popular misconception. It is worth appreciating the full gamete of historical complexities in order to attain a deeper understanding of the situation.

The region of Catalonia was, and is, one of the most distinct of the Iberian Peninsula. In 988 A.D. the counties of the region of Catalonia broke from the Frankish Empire and became attached as a self-governing principality under the Counts of Barcelona. In 1137, Catalonia united with Aragon and became the main base for Aragon’s naval power and expansionism, which spread to Valencia, the Balearic islands, Sardinia, Sicily, Naples, and even as far as Athens for a short time. This led to the development of a distinct Catalan culture under the auspices of the Counts of Barcelona. However, as a result of this unity with Aragon it would gradually become subsumed and later dominated, by Castile.

Not many know that Christopher Columbus actually spoke Catalan. Spain has always hidden this by maintaining that he was Genoese. Castile had monopolized trade links with America and used the port of Seville to keep commerce out of Catalonia. It wasn’t until the 18th c that the trade blocks were lifted from Catalonia. In 1640, King of Spain Felipe IV forced the Catalan peasantry to give food and shelter to 20,000 Spanish soldiers when they were at war with France. To say that these soldiers abused their hospitality would be an understatement. They robbed, raped and laid waste to properties throughout Catalonia. In 1641 there was a revolt by an “army of harvesters”. These peasant bands mobilized and sacked many garrisons before entering Barcelona disguised as harvesters. Once inside, this latter day Trojan horse managed to rout the city garrison, after a brief, bloody struggle. Thus it was that a rebellion, infused by hostility to the government in Madrid and their army, which had metamorphosed into a social revolution against a coercive and unrepresentative authority. Moreover, the local aristocracy in Catalonia had become increasingly disaffected by Madrid’s constant demands for more money.

At the beginning of the Catalan revolt, which had its roots in the continuing presence of Castilian soldiers prosecuting Spain´s Thirty Years War against France, the 94th president of Catalonia Pau Claris (later poisoned by Spanish agents), managed to turn the social unrest into a political cause and proclaimed a republic in 1641. This was done under the protection of France and independent of the crown of Aragon. However, in 1652 a Spanish offensive captured Barcelona and brought the Catalan capital under Spanish influence again. At the turn of the 18th c there was a power struggle between the Hapsburgs of Austria and the Bourbons of France due to Charles II’s (King of Spain) ill health and inability to create an heir to the throne. The golden allure of unique opportunity to inherit the vast Spanish Empire must have been immensely attractive to rival powers.

In 1701, the centralizing Bourbon dynasty, represented by Philip V, became King of Spain. This new shift in power culminated in a fourteen-year war, which became known as the War of the Spanish Succession. What is the relevance of this internecine jousting to Catalonia? Well, the Principality of Catalonia, which previously fell under the Crown of Aragon, officially became part of Spain on 11th of September 1714. This occurred only after the fall of Barcelona. After been let down by their fair-weather allies (the English), Catalan troops capitulated. Subsequently, Philip V enacted the Nueva Planta decrees, which outlawed all the key Catalan political institutions and rights. The Catalan administration was then incorporated into Castile as a province. Philip V abolished the ancient privileges of all Spain’s medieval kingdoms, with the exception of the Basque Country.

The turbulent history between Spain and Catalonia has gone through many different phases. In the 18th and 19th centuries there were a number of modest attempts at nation building by the Spanish. These overtures were made whilst the Spanish Empire was essentially crumbling. In the late 18th c Catalonia experienced a rise in commercial activity when the Bourbons ended Castile’s trade monopoly with Spain’s American colonies. The shockwaves generated by the Napoleonic occupation and subsequent war in the early 19th c rocked the superstructure of Catalonia and precipitated a lengthy period of political and economic disorder. In the latter half of the 19th c Catalonia managed to generate the first industrial revolution in southern Europe. Furthermore, a Catalan renaissance reinvigorated the identification of Catalonia’s inhabitants with their perceived common history.

This helped to modernize the Catalan language and the regional culture became immersed in Catalan literature, music, and theatre. Catalan was now a language at the very centre of everyday Catalan life. This cultural renaissance can be compared to the Gaelic Revival in late 19th c Ireland. As in Catalonia, the Irish language was revived through the energetic work of an organization called the Gaelic League. It wanted to fight back against the seemingly ineluctable erosion of Irish culture, language, and traditional sports. The League also wanted to reintroduce the language back into schools. The leadership of the League insisted that it stay apolitical and in so doing the movement initially attracted significant support from Protestants and Unionists. However, given its obvious political overtones, there were differences between Nationalists and Unionists. League members played a prominent role in the 1916 Rising (Irish revolution against British rule) and in the subsequent growth of Sinn Féin (‘We Ourselves’) and the Irish Republican Army (IRA).

Just like the imperial crown of England suppressed the Irish language through its Penal Laws, the Castilian crown and lawmakers systemically tried to eliminate Catalan by introducing Spanish as the language of instruction. This was part of a gargantuan effort to centralize the state in Madrid, introduce large-scale Castilianisation and propagate the idea of a common Spanish identity. Through its administration, laws, and education the Spanish language was enforced upon Catalonia, just like the English language was in Ireland. Successive Spanish administrations ordered decree after decree in order to curtail the use of Catalan. In 1881, it was banned on legal documents; in 1896 it was banned in public meetings and on the telephone, and in 1900 it was banned from the theatre. After the bloody Spanish Civil War, 1936-39, the Fascist dictator General Franco prohibited the use of all regional languages and identity-establishing symbols. This was a harsh attempt to finally solve the perceived problem of Spain’s diversity through brutal homogenization. One of the worst victims of this policy was Catalonia. Throughout the long winter of Franco’s dictatorship, which lasted from 1939-75, the use of the Catalan language was forbidden throughout all sectors of society, was banned from the sphere of education, and forcefully ousted by Castilian.

Another noteworthy point is that, during the Spanish Civil War, Barcelona underwent the greatest anarchist experiment of all time. Due to the harsh economic conditions workers and peasants faced, the ideas of anarcho-syndicalism were embraced in the belief that all the workers would be stronger in one grand union. Moreover, they believed that the strength of the union could achieve more than just reforms, but could also be the catalyst for the overthrow of the capitalist system. The Confederacion Nacional del Trabajo (CNT) was an industrial union formed in 1910 in Barcelona. It grew so rapidly that by the outbreak of the Civil War it had almost 2 million members. The workers instantaneous mobilization in the face of Franco’s coup was a testament to the CNT and its non-allegiance to a rigid hierarchical structure, which could have impeded the ability to react expediently. The workers mobilized and formed militias, which became the units of the revolutionary army. One of the best-known columns was that of Durruti.

Some Spaniards feel aggrieved that Franco moved industry to Catalonia during his dictatorship and they believe that this relocation helped to foster a feeling of autonomy there. However, if we consider the fractious history between Catalonia and Spain, and Franco’s consistent and outright repression of the region, we may come to a better understanding. Was the industry moved there out of love and respect for Catalonia? No. Based on evidence at hand, one cannot believe that, unless of course one is unequivocally biased. Franco did, however, manage to relocate a large amount of Spanish speakers to the region. One can infer that by firstly outlawing and suppressing the local language, and then strategically moving Spanish industry and a Spanish-speaking workforce in tandem to Catalonia, the Franco dictatorship was as imperialist as it was tyrannical, dictatorial, and despotic. One may argue to the contrary and try to maintain that Franco was well intentioned. Personally though, I prefer to err on the side of skepticism.

From my experience Spanish people generally can’t seem to have a serious discussion about, or countenance the possibility of, a part of Spain becoming independent. The emotions run high and it is quickly dismissed as “It is Spain, Catalonia is Spain”. Spanish nationalism appears to be fractious and reactionary when confronted by other nationalist sentiments. When Franco died in 1975, Spain found itself going down a democratic road. So, how would the political elite handle the challenges of the various regional, cultural, and linguistic identities? A new constitution was proposed and realised. The necessity for compromise was paramount as wounds were still open from the Civil War and the subsequent dictatorship. However, the partition of Spain wasn’t open for debate. To safeguard against any nascent separatism the new government tried to bring as many political parties to the table as possible. The outcome of the muddled inception of the new Spanish state was nothing but puffs of ambiguity. The reality is that the Spanish state purported to recognize the existence of several nationalities within its boundaries, but failed to recognize or attest to the differences between them.

This problem persists today, as Madrid continues to deny Catalans acknowledgment as a distinct entity. In November 2014, when Catalan politicians were vocal in their intention to hold a referendum on independence (the neo-fascist Popular Party wouldn’t grant them permission), the Spanish government deployed tanks and squadrons of Guardia Civil (Franco’s men) to Catalonia. The Falangist yoke and arrows never went away, you know.

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