MADRID: The crisis pitting Spain’s government against leaders in Catalonia over an independence referendum banned by Madrid is but the latest episode of centuries of friction between this region and central authorities.
The separatists who currently govern the wealthy region in northeastern Spain often make references to the short-lived 1931-1939 republic crushed by Gen. Francisco Franco after a three-year civil war.
Last week, after a wave of detentions and police seizures of items such as ballots aimed at stopping the referendum on October 1, Catalan independence supporters shouted “No pasaran!” (Spanish for “they shall not pass”), the anti-fascist slogan of the bloody conflict.
Franco’s troops only took Catalonia months before the war ended in April 1939, sparking a mass exodus to neighboring France.
“The first thing Franco did in Catalonia was to abolish the Generalitat,” the autonomous regional government, says Jordi Canal, a historian at the Paris-based School of Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences.
“The trauma of 1939, of exile, is very present” in Catalonia, adds Joan Baptista Culla, a historian at the Autonomous University of Barcelona.
Even before this during the fledgling republic, the Generalitat’s president Lluis Companys proclaimed a “Catalan state in the Spanish federal republic” in 1934 to oppose the conservatives who governed in Madrid.
With little support, he resisted “six or seven hours, and he came out, under arrest, his hands up,” says Canal.
But the photos of the leader in his cell were widely shared, galvanizing Catalans.
Which is “exactly what the Spanish government is trying to avoid now,” says the historian, pointing out that Spanish authorities have so far spared separatist leaders and have instead detained lower-level—if key—members of the team organizing the vote.
Exiled in France, Companys was denounced by the Nazis in 1940 and handed over to Spain where he was executed.
“It’s the fundamental image of the martyr president,” says Culla.
Way back when
But Catalonia’s history is marked by symbols dating from far earlier in time.
The Diada, the region’s annual holiday on September 11 which since 2012 has been the scene of big separatist rallies, commemorates the fall of Barcelona in 1714 to troops of the Spanish King Philip V, the grandson of France’s Louis XIV.
After this battle, Catalonia, which until then had its own institutions and laws as part of the kingdom, was “subjected to the laws of (the Crown of Castile),” says Culla.
Andrew Dowling, a Catalonia specialist at Cardiff University, says Catalans did lose “their rights and privileges but it was not a nationalist war”.
“The Catalans were punished because they backed the wrong side of the war,” supporting Archduke Charles of Austria during the 1701-1714 European war for the Spanish throne.
He says the first Catalan nationalist party only emerged in 1901.
“The Catalans perceived themselves as an economically advanced, culturally advanced people and looked at Spain as a kind of backward, illiterate society,” says Dowling, at a time when Spain was declining with the loss of its last colonies.
For Canal, this feeling came from the fact that the Catalans had their own language, civil law, and “a much stronger industrial past and present than elsewhere”.
It was around that time that the Catalan hymn was created, with lyrics pointing to a peasant revolt in the 17th century against the presence of soldiers belonging to the crown.
Rise of separatism
But the role of these symbols in the rise since 2010 of separatism, which had until then been marginal in Catalonia, divides historians.
“The current pro-independence movement is buoyed by what happened over the past seven or eight years,” says Culla.
The Catalans were angered in 2010 when Spain’s Constitutional Court cancelled a key part of an official text that gave them bigger autonomy and the status of “nation,” and Madrid’s subsequent refusal to negotiate.
Canal believes it stems more from the role of “schools and media” in Catalonia, which have “convinced the Catalans, especially the younger ones, that they are members of a nation that deserves to be a state.”
Culla, though, doesn’t think schools have systematically promoted nationalism.
“In Catalonia, there are tens of thousands of teachers,” he says.
“To think they are robots and that they are all radical separatists is grotesque.”