A Brief History of Catalan Statehood and Nationhood



The Shortcomings of Classical Dynastic History

Students of Spanish history usually learn first about how Isabella of Castile married Ferdinand of Aragon, thus uniting their two Iberian kingdoms and creating modern Spain. The new country would then go on to be an imperial power, following the expulsion of the Moors from Iberian peninsula, the discovery of new territories to be plundered in the New World and the acquisition of a European empire through dynastic union with the Habsburgs.

According to this narrative Catalonia was first a part of the Kingdom of Aragon, then a very small chunk of a far greater Spanish empire and finally a region within the modern nation-state of Spain. How does one then account for the resilience of Catalan culture and language over the centuries? Where do these aspirations to nationhood come from? To answer this one needs to go beyond the above story of dynastic unions, which conceals more than it tells, in terms of the underlying social and state structures, and their evolution over time.

Catalan State Institutions from the Middle Ages to 1714

Catalonia was actually never part of the The Kingdom of Aragon, which lay to its west. Initially Catalonia was made up of a number of connected counties that had become independent from carolingian (French) rule at the end of the 10th century under the leadership of the County of Barcelona. It was through the marriage of the Count of Barcelona to the heir to the throne of Aragon in 1137, that Catalonia came to be part of the Crown of Aragon, but not part of the kingdom. As far back as the early 11th Century Catalonia started to develop proto-state structures, basically laws limiting the power of the Count (later king): these were the Usages of Barcelona and of other towns and cities that would subsequently constitute the Principality of Catalonia. Under the Crown of Aragon, the kingdom of Aragon and the Principality of Catalonia preserved their own separate systems of government. The King, in order to raise taxes with which to fund his armies, had to with an increasingly structured parliamentary system, whose approval he needed. By 1283, the Constitutions of Catalonia were brought together as a coherent legal system at the time when the Courts of Catalonia, were established. So the Catalan polity was in fact one of Europe’s first constitutional systems.

Usages of Barcelona

By this time the Crown of Aragon, under James I, had gone on to conquer the Balearic Islands and Valencia, which were under muslim rule, and subsequently expanded its reach in the Mediterranean to include Sicily, Naples and Sardinia, and even Greek colonies in Athens and Neopatria. Catalan merchants and fleets led these enterprises between the mid-13th and mid-14th centuries. Throughout this period the Catalan Principality was the powerhouse of the Crown of Aragon: demographically, economically and culturally. Let us bear in mind that the kingdom of Aragon as such was landlocked, so not   very well suited for maritime expansion. But this mainly Catalan expansion   came to an abrupt end in the mid-14th century, when crop failures and the   black plague decimated Catalonia’s population. The centre of gravity of the  Crown then shifted to Valencia, and later on to Naples.

By the time of the dynastic union with Castile, Catalonia’s power and influence had been greatly diminished, but the Catalan institutions that had consolidated over the previous three centuries remained. Spain too became a composite kingdom, with Castile as the dominant force, particularly following the “discovery” and plunder of the New World, an exclusively Castilian venture. Catalans were in fact not allowed to settle in, or trade with, the American colonies. Raising taxes and recruiting armies in Catalonia for the Habsburgs’ European wars, however, continued to entail the consent of the General Deputation, the Generalitat, as well as the Council of the 100 of Barcelona, where the various estates of the realm were represented. Under the Habsburg monarchs Catalonia was as independent as the other parts of the composite crown, which included The Netherlands, Naples, Milan, etc.

Over time, and largely due to the Spanish Crown’s never-ending wars in the Europe, the relationship came under stress, and in 1641, the Generalitat proclaimed the Catalan Republic for the first time in the midst of a major European war (the Thirty Year’s War) in which the Catalans were caught in the middle between France and Castile. In Catalonia this was the Reaper’s War, to which Catalonia’s current national anthem Els Segadors (The Reapers) refers. When Castilian troops occupied Catalonia on their way to fight the French the Catalans revolted and proclaimed for the first time the Catalan Republic. They established this short-lived experiment under the protection of the French (who ultimately turned on them). When the war ended Catalonia had lost part of its territory to France, but remained under Habsburg rule. Self-rule, however, survived for another 64 years. 

The Abolition of the Generalitat

In 1700, with Spain’s power in Europe waning, a war of succession over the Spanish crown erupted, pitting the Borbon’s, supported by France, against the Habsburgs, supported by England, Austria and the Netherlands. Unfortunately for the Catalans, they picked the losing side and, although by the time the war was over the Spanish -now Borbon- Crown had lost most of its European possessions (Milan, Naples, Sardinia, Luxemburg and Sicily), the victors took advantage to crush Catalan self-rule. Barcelona was razed and a huge military fortress, from which to control the city, was built on what had been a heavily populated neighbourhood.The Decree of “Nueva Planta” followed, abolishing Catalan institutions and bringing centuries of self-rule to an abrupt end. The leaders of the resistance were executed and the six existing universities were suppressed. It is hard to calculate the impact this had on intellectual, scientific and cultural life, as not as late as 1837 was a new university established in Barcelona. The official use of Castilian Spanish, replacing Catalan, was imposed. All printed versions of the Catalan Constitutions were burnt and street names and education would henceforth be in Castilian Spanish only. Today, the 11th of September is the national day of Catalonia (“La Diada”). It commemorates the defeat and the loss of sovereignty in 1714.

The siege of Barcelona brought Catalan self-rule to an end in 1714. Over the course of the 18th Century, the Spanish state streamlined its administration, removing internal customs, creating a system of rule based on small centrally controlled provinces and opening up trade to the American Empire for all ports. In Catalonia this led to rapid industrialisation, particularly in the textile sector, and in spite of the loss of self-rule Catalonia became, and remains, the most industrialised region in Spain (together with the Basque Country).

Catalan Regionalism and Nationalism before the Spanish Civil War

Politically Spain’s centralist project suffered a brief interruption when Napoleon’s troops invaded in 1808 and Bonaparte separated Catalonia from the rest of Spain. In 1810 an autonomous government was established, which recognised Catalan as an official language together with French. In 1812 Catalonia was annexed to the French Empire and broken down into four “départements” until the French left in 1814. The movement of Catalan cultural recovery termed “Renaixença” (Rebirth) was a byproduct of this period. It gathered pace over the final decades of the 19th Century, encompassing, newspapers, literature and an increasingly structured political movement seeking the restoration of Catalan self-rule. These efforts, however, continued to be crushed every so often by the Madrid government. The bombing of Barcelona by the Spanish army following a popular rebellion in 1943, led Premier Espartero to famously say “in order to keep it in line, Barcelona needs to be bombed every 50 years”.

Catalan culture re-emerged, nevertheless, and by the turn of the century it was flourishing in every domain as rapid industrialisation proceeded. In 1914 the Mancommunity of Catalonia was established and in 1919 delegates from 1046 out of 1072 Catalan municipalities agreed on a Charter (“Estatut”) to be presented to Madrid seeking greater autonomy. The Spanish state rejected it in full, and when in 1923, Primo de Rivera was appointed by the King Alfonso XIII to rule Spain, he quickly took on dictatorial powers and policies which sought once again to suppress Catalan regionalism and identity.

Catalan political aspirations persisted nevertheless. In 1928, gathered in Havana, the Constituent Assembly of Catalan Separatism adopted a provisional constitution and the current Catalan independence flag, with the white star on a blue triangle, in addition to the traditional four red bars on the yellow background. Shortly after, in 1931, in the midst of the economic meltdown triggered by the Wall Street Crash of 1929, Primo de Rivera resigned and municipal elections were finally held, bringing the republican movement and the left to power throughout Spain. In this context the leader of “Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya” (Catalan Republican Left), Francesc Macià, proclaimed “..the Catalan Republic, while we await for the other peoples of Spain to constitute their own republics, in order to form the Iberian Confederation”. Immediately after the Spanish Republic was proclaimed and the king fled. In the end the Spanish Republic was not to be a federation, but the proclaimed “Catalan Republic” was allowed to become once again the Generalitat. Catalonia recovered its ancient institutions and their legality and legitimacy were recognised as prior to the Constitution of the Spanish Republic. In 1932, albeit watered down, Catalonia finally obtained its Statute of Autonomy. This sequence of events was to repeat itself in the 1970s, when ultimately it was to be Catalonia’s (and the Basque country’s) demands for autonomy -independence having been for so many years an unrealistic goal- that led to modern Spain’s decentralised territorial system of autonomous regions.

President Companys addresses crowd following release in 1936

But let us get back to the 1930s. In 1934, a right wing re-centralising government came to power in Madrid once again, threatening what it had taken the Catalan regionalists so much to obtain. Companys, the president of the Generalitat at the time, raised the stakes and proclaimed the Catalan state. The military intervened rapidly and Companys, his cabinet members, and several thousand people were imprisoned; the Generalitat was again abolished. Companys was released and the Generalitat again re-established two years later when a broad left-wing coalition (the Popular Front) won the Spanish elections. This restoration, however, was short-lived, as Franco’s military uprising and the Spanish civil war, which lasted three years, broke out in July of 1936.

Francoism and Transition to Democracy

During and after the civil war all forms of political opposition in Spain were quite literally exterminated. Franco’s rule lasted until his natural death in 1975, and during this whole period, once again, the Catalan language was driven underground; its use in public banned. Companys, who had fled to France, was detained following Hitler’s invasion. He was extradited to Madrid where he was tortured and executed. But the Generalitat’s government continued to exist in exile, and in 1977, Tarradelles, its president at the time, was able to return to Catalonia when, after Franco’s death, the regime began to morph into a democracy of sorts. Suárez, who was the Prime Minister appointed by King Juan Carlos, who had in turn been anointed earlier by Franco to succeed him, met Tarradelles and agreed that Catalonia would have its statute of autonomy back, as the democratic opposition had been demanding. A few weeks earlier, on the day of La Diada, a million Catalans had marched demanding “Liberty, Amnesty and Statute of Autonomy” (see video below). The Generalitat was provisionally re-established once again before the Spanish Constitution of 1978 was drafted and approved.

During Francoism Catalan language survived in the private sphere, although a huge influx of migrants from Southern and Western Spain, seeking employment in Catalan industry during the 1960s and 70s, led to the language balance between Catalan and Castilian Spanish which characterises Catalonia today. During this period Spanish became the dominant language of the population in large sections of Barcelona’s industrial belt, in addition to its hegemony in public and in official use.

Post-Francoist Democracy

At the time of the transition the Spanish democratic opposition, including the socialist and communist parties, was favourable to full self-determination of the nationalities that constituted Spain. But their commitment was weak and when the constitution was drafted, with the old francoist guard still occupying all relevant positions within the state, it was dropped. The document, although it did mention the nationalities that make up Spain, and allowed for their languages to be co-official, also affirmed that Spain was an indivisible nation, in line with the Francoist Movement principle of 1958: “Spain is a unity of destiny in the universal”.

Once the constitution was adopted the Catalan Autonomy Statute was drafted by members of parliament representing the four Catalan provinces. The text then went to the Spanish parliament where it was watered down through many amendments and finally voted in a referendum by the Catalan people. This is the mechanism foreseen by the Constitution. The modern period of the Generalitat began in 1979. Henceforth the Catalan government would provide healthcare and education, and would create its own media and (later) its own police force. The bulk of taxation however was levied, and still is, on a Spain-wide basis, and subsequently apportioned by the central government for Spain’s autonomous regions to spend. The conservative Catalan nationalist party, led by Jordi Pujol, governed Catalonia until 2003, with the Catalan branch of the Socialist party in the opposition. During this period, through the school system and regional media, Catalan language and culture made a full comeback to the public sphere.

The 2006 Statute of Autonomy and the Constitutional Court Repeal

Frictions with the Spanish government nevertheless remained, largely due to a sense of under-investment in Catalonia, and wide-spread feeling that Catalonia was contributing far more than its fair share in taxes. There were also demands for a more federal kind of relationship with Spain. The Catalan parliament drafted an updated Statute supported by all parties with the exception of the Popular Party: (89% of the Assembly). It was presented to the Spanish parliament at a time when the Socialist Party (PSOE) was in power in Spain. Many amendments were made and a less ambitious document finally emerged, which in 2006 was then voted in a referendum in Catalonia, in which, owing to lack of enthusiasm from those who were unsatisfied with its reach, there was a low turn-out (48%) but clear support (74%). Again the constitutional mechanism had been followed: Two parliaments and a referendum. The Popular Party, however, was not happy with the result. Led by Mariano Rajoy, the PP used its vast resources to collect signatures against it throughout Spain. It then appealed to the constitutional court, where the PPs tactics, vetoing the Socialist-proposed new members, allowed it to have the upper hand. Ultimately this highly politicised court ruled in favor of the appeal in 2010, repealing many aspects of the Statute that had already come into force.

The Rise of Separatism

In Catalonia the reaction was of outrage. Separatism, which had hitherto been relatively residual (somewhere between 10% and 15% of the population) now became mainstream. In addition, as of 2011, EU/central government imposed austerity policies made regional governments shoulder most of the burden of public sector cuts, all but bankrupting Catalonia, as taxes returning from Madrid became insufficient to maintain public services. In 2012, a 1 million strong demonstration in on Catalonia’s National Day in which the independence flag was dominant signalled a new time for Catalan politics as the ruling party in Catalonia, the conservative Catalan nationalists, for the first time picked up the banner of independence, joining a growing Republican Left Party (the same party that had governed Catalonia in the 1930s) and the pro-independence anti-capitalist CUP, which has become a key force in the independence movement.

The rapid rise of pro-independence sentiment came hand in hand with the decomposition of Spanish legality, with the government interfering systematically with the courts to protect itself from multiple investigations into its corruption. During this period many in Catalonia became favourable to independence as a means of breaking with a broken system, and in the hope that, by creating a new republic, a fresh start would be possible. The Spanish state has so far refused to contemplate Catalan self-determination.

To Conclude

Hopefully this article helps to shed some historical light on current events in Catalonia. Catalan culture and a sense of belonging with a strong political component have developed and struggled to survive over the centuries, often being driven underground in the face of violent suppression by a far more powerful Spanish nationalism. These grievances are a key component of Catalan sense of nationhood, as is language. Catalonia today constitutes a densely articulated economic, political, social and cultural world of its own, which is closely intertwined with, but also distinct from, (the rest of) Spain. The current political struggle draws heavily from past experiences in which national liberation went hand in hand with democratic demands. The idea that history, while not repeating itself, does indeed rhyme, holds very true for Catalonia. Whether the cycle of semi-successful struggles for greater self-rule followed by repression will continue into the 21st Century within the European Union, remains to be seen.

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