FOCUS – The separatist movement is rooted in the history of the Spanish state, of which it claims to be the victim.
Catalan nationalism has transformed in recent months into a separatist movement which today threatens to break the unity of one of the oldest European countries. Spain, which had skilfully negotiated the exit from Francoism and the return to democracy in the early 1980s, is once again plunged into a historic crisis of great magnitude. Feeding on a willingly victimizing national discourse, which sees the Spanish central government as an eternal oppressor, Catalonia begins to dream of a distinct destiny. In Madrid, this threat to national integrity is viewed with anger and resentment.
The crisis has revealed the weaknesses of a country that was one of the greatest and richest European powers. Against the background of old traumas, revived by new rivalries, supporters of Catalan independence and defenders of the unity of Spain find themselves face to face, braced on incompatible and opposing positions.
At the center of the Catalan question is the particular history of Spain, very different from its European neighbors. “The Spanish state has always been fragile,” says Bartolomé Bennassar, historian specializing in Spain, and author of a monumental History of the Spaniards. “Its construction is very different from that of France or England, explains the historian. Instead of a progressive aggregation of provinces and regions around a central core, Spain was constituted by the voluntary union of several kingdoms for dynastic reasons.
In a peninsula long divided into various kingdoms, one of which was Muslim, the Spanish state was formed around the union of Isabella of Castile with Ferdinand of Aragon in 1469. Dependent on the crown of Aragon, Catalonia finds itself under the control of the central State, which is built around Madrid and Castile. In 1492, the two sovereigns chased the Arabs from the peninsula, with the capture of Granada which put an end to eight centuries of Muslim presence. They set out to conquer the New World that Christopher Columbus had just discovered for them.
The Golden Age begins, a period during which the influence of Spain, which has become a world empire at the same time as the greatest European power, reaches its economic, cultural and military peak.
But from the perspective of Catalonia, this rise of a Spanish state centered on Castile is seen as the beginning of a dark period. Barcelona, a major port in the Mediterranean, sees itself frustrated of its role as a metropolis by Madrid, a city located high up in the center of the Peninsula, far from trade routes, and solely focused on the administration of the empire. The Inquisition and the garrotte precede Francoism in the black legend narrated by the Catalans, in which the central state always has the bad role.
Constant opposition to Castilian centralism
Catalan history unfolds in parallel, with other dates, other heroes. The Catalans consider the creation of the county of Barcelona in 987 as their first independent state, whose thousandth anniversary was celebrated in 1987. For the Spaniards, the county then being part of the crown of Aragon, not being named Catalonia and having never had a king, this state does not exist.
Another peculiarity is the development from the Middle Ages in Catalonia of a system of local assemblies, the Corts Catalanes, considered as an outline of popular representation and one of the first forms of European democratic institutions, opposed to the military society. and feudal of Castile. These assemblies give birth to the Catalan Generality; this and the municipality of Barcelona are the ancestors of the current Catalan autonomous government.
Catalan history is also one of constant opposition to Castilian centralism. In 1640, a jacquerie opposed to the taxes of Madrid, gave rise to the revolt of the "Reapers", finally crushed by Spain in 1652. This episode gives its name to the Catalan national anthem, composed in the XNUMXth century, Els Segadors ( mowers).
Stranger still is the choice of the Catalan national holiday, the Diada: instead of celebrating a period of Catalan independence, the day chosen is that of its end, September 11, 1714, when Barcelona was defeated by Franco troops. -Spanish after siding with the Habsburgs against the Bourbons during the War of the Spanish Succession. At that time, the Catalan national idea seemed to be extinguished for good. If Catalan remains spoken by the peasants and the working classes, Castilian becomes the language of the bourgeoisie.
Catalan nationalism was however reborn in the XNUMXth century, thanks to the new prosperity of Catalonia. The textile industry develops, and the Catalan cities become cities of manufacture. Fortunes are created, and Barcelona becomes a prosperous metropolis while Madrid, which loses its American empire, enters a period of decline. “A nationalist movement appears, as in the rest of Europe”,explains historian Benoît Pellistrandi. "This movement is centered on language and culture, a bit like in Germany or Italy," he explains. In 1906, Enric Prat de la Riba, a Catalan politician, published Catalan Nationality, book that plays a fundamental role in the emergence of Catalanism, the Catalan autonomist claim. Around it is set up the victimized vision of history, which makes Spain the eternal oppressor of Catalonia.
Powerful anarchist currents
Economic divergences are also creating new tensions. In 1842, riots broke out in Barcelona against a free trade agreement signed with England, which threatened the textile industry. The repression is carried out with harshness, and the Spanish general who puts down the uprising will say: "We must bomb Barcelona at least once every fifty years."
The Carlist wars, which tore Spain apart during the 1873th century, also fueled new separatist tendencies in Catalonia. The First Spanish Republic, a brief decentralizing experience, established a federal state for the first time in XNUMX. The Catalan charters were restored, as well as the Generalitat, the autonomous Catalan government.
Having become an industrial region, in the 1930s Catalonia had a large working-class population and powerful leftist, socialist, communist and anarchist parties. When the Popular Front won the 1936 elections, a revolutionary fever seized Barcelona. Anarchists and Marxist trade unions take up arms, and abuses are committed against their adversaries. Priests and curators are massacred, churches destroyed. The studio of Gaudí, the architect of the Sagrada Familia, Barcelona's emblematic cathedral, is ransacked. This chaotic period, described in the famous Tribute to Catalonia of George Orwell, sees the Republican camp torn apart. The International Brigades fought the nationalists on the Ebro, while the Trotskyists of the Poum and the Stalinist Communist Party clashed in Barcelona.
The withdrawal to Barcelona of the Republican government is also a source of tension between the Catalans and the Spaniards within the anti-Franco camp. The defeat of the Republic on the Ebro in December 1938 saw the fall of Catalonia, and Franco's troops entered Barcelona in January 1939, marking the beginning of a new period of fierce repression.
Summary executions take place, and the Franco regime takes draconian measures against Catalonia, seen both as a separatist hotbed and one of the bastions of the Spanish left and extreme left. The use of Catalan is prohibited and the names of streets are changed, the Catalan flag is prohibited. "The Spanish Civil War remains the deepest wound," says Bartolomé Bennassar. His memory continues to fuel the idea of an eternal Catalonia victim of Spanish oppression, this time embodied by the figure of Franco.”
After the death of the latter, which gave rise to demonstrations of joy in Catalonia, democracy granted wide autonomy to Catalonia. A Constitution was adopted in 1978, establishing a constitutional monarchy, while giving broad autonomy to the Spanish provinces. These autonomous communities grant all regions the same rights as Catalonia or the Basque Country. Nicknamed “Café para todos”, (coffee for all), this system avoids giving the impression of granting privileges only to Catalans. "It's the stroke of genius of Adolfo Suárez, the prime minister at the time," explains Benoît Pellistrandi. But the concessions in cultural matters make it possible to develop the teaching of a Catalan parallel history.
“Catalan nationalism dreamed of a nation and invented a Spanish enemy to exist. The problem is that this vision of Catalonia as the eternal victim of Madrid is passionate, instrumentalized and false. More than a historical problem, it is a fabricated and extraordinarily emotional problem, concludes Pellistrandi. Catalan society is plagued by an anachronistic nationalist pathology, 150 years old, which is resurfacing today. And it has become almost impossible to untangle it all.
Source: © How Catalan nationalism was born