Spanish and Catalan history in a nutshell
Manny Gonzalez (The Philippine Star) - October 17, 2017 - 4:00pm

(1st of 3 parts on Catalunya Independence Crisis Explained)

I didn’t want to be around to watch history in the making, but here I am in Barcelona, witness to a tragicomedy that will, one way or the other, affect the future of Europe.

You have surely read about the bid of some people in Catalunya (Catalonia in English) to declare their region independent from Spain. Here’s a complete rundown on what’s been going on, from ancient times to present.

Catalunya and its major city Barcelona occupy a small but strategic part of the northeast corner of Spain. Catalunya was originally established by the Frankish Kingdom (modern France, Northern Italy, and a big part of Germany) as a buffer territory against the Moors. Hence, Catalunya was sort of a French client-state or loose colony.

In 1137, the upwardly mobile Count of Barcelona doubled his domain by marrying into the Kingdom of Aragon, just to the west. We can presume that no one had to twist his arm. Thus, Catalunya merged with or absorbed its western neighbor.

Fast-forward about 330 years to 1469. Isabel of Castile/Leon (from which, our word kastila) made what turned out to be a highly consequential marriage with Ferdinand of Aragon/Catalunya. Both would succeed to their respective thrones, merging Catalunya into Spain though it was more or less left alone. Together, Isabel and Ferdinand drove the last Moors out of Spain, and also incidentally financed Christopher Columbus.

Up to this point in history, Catalunya had done okay. Starting out as a sacrificial border area, through two judicious marriages it became an important part of Spain, which was just on the verge of becoming a superpower.

Now we get to the confusing parts.

In 1641 for not especially good reasons Catalunya declared independence. This started out as a Catalan peasant revolt against Spain, then quickly morphed into a revolt against the Catalan aristocracy. Alarmed, the Catalan aristocrats asked to become part of France, to protect them from Catalan peasants. The French agreed, but Spain then mounted a 10-year war to retake Catalunya, and eventually reconquered most of the region. Catalunya’s first attempt at secession resulted in years of war, tens of thousands dead, and the loss of a bit of territory (the French kept an area called Roussillon).

Catalunya was quiet for almost two centuries, until Napoleon invaded Spain in the early 1800s, whereupon he made Catalunya a kind of protectorate. Now the Catalans had a clear shot at becoming French again, but instead had forgotten their history, and sided with the Spanish, who eventually prevailed.

During the 19th Century Catalunya rapidly industrialized, which meant that it had large numbers of factory workers inclined to foment social unrest. The political movement known as Anarchism (misnamed, the movement aspired to a classless society, a kind of perfect Socialism) spread throughout Spain and especially Catalunya. In 1931, the Spanish King had to abdicate, and Spain became a republic.

By 1934, Catalunya was an “autonomous” state within Spain, largely controlled by leftists and Anarchists. Suddenly, without having any army or other means of actually achieving it, Catalunya’s government declared independence.

Eighty years later, it is hard to see what was the point of this declaration, other than to piss everyone else off, which it did. The Catalan leaders were arrested within 10 hours.

Things were quiet for two years but in 1936, the leftists won the national Spanish elections, and retained power in Catalunya as well. The prospect of Spain becoming Communist incited the losing factions to mount an armed rebellion, thus starting the Spanish Civil War.

In simple terms, the Civil War protagonists were, on one side which was eventually called the Republicans, those loyal to the elected leftist/Anarchist government, plus industrialized working-class regions with Communist sympathies, all inspired by Joseph Stalin. The other side was eventually called the Nationalists, consisting of the landowners, big business, monarchists, and the Catholic Church, inspired by Hitler and Mussolini. (Neither side had good role-models.) Meanwhile, both the Basque region and Catalunya sided with the Republicans, out of conviction and the prospect of more autonomy.

Shortly after the Civil War started, Anarchists in Catalunya launched an opportunistic side-revolution, gaining control of large parts of the region, including Barcelona. Similar movements in other parts of Spain weakened the Republican cause. After three brutal years, the Nationalists under General Francisco Franco won.

To recap, in the course of three centuries, in every case of attempted separation from Spain, Catalunya’s motivation was Leftist. Remember this fact tomorrow.

Next: The unfolding current crisis in Catalunya

(The author is  founder of Plantation Bay Resort & Spa and now a part-time foreign correspondent.)

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