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Catalonia’s cultural struggle against Madrid goes back centuries

It takes a nation of millions to … EPA

Like all constitutions, the 1978 Spanish constitution is a product of a very specific historical moment. General Francisco Franco had died in 1975 and his political heirs understood the need for change: Francoism without Franco in a rapidly modernising country was not sustainable.

The democratic parties, including the Catalan nationalists, recognised they were too weak to impose a clean break and bring Franco’s henchmen to justice. The constitution was a pact between the most forward-looking Francoists and a heterogeneous opposition prepared to turn a blind eye to atrocities committed by Franco’s so-called nationalists during the Civil War and nearly four decades of dictatorship.

It is from this uneasy compromise that all recent political upheaval in Catalonia stems – including the latest instalment, the region’s election on December 21. To understand the conflict, however, you have to go back much further than 1978. Neither can you confine yourself to politics; everything is underpinned by the rise of Catalan culture and its battle to express itself.

Renaissance years

Today’s Catalan nationalism has its origins in the 19th-century Renaixença (Renaissance). This movement sought to revitalise Catalan culture and the language. It followed a century of cultural and political repression by Spanish rulers, starting in 1716. These included abolishing the Generalitat – the Catalan government – in favour of central control.

Joaquim Rubió i Ors. Wikimedia

By the early 19th century, Catalonia had become a major economy, with a sizeable cotton industry and export specialisms like shoes and glass bottles. The accompanying Renaixença sought to turn the Catalan language into the language of culture. It had various prominent intellectuals publishing works in Catalan; and later poets like Joaquim Rubió i Ors, who helped build a literary movement by reviving a medieval poetry festival that continues today.

The Renaixença flowed into the Modernisme of the late 19th century and early 20th century – not to be confused with Anglo-Saxon Modernism or Spanish Modernismo. Modernisme was a broad church, from anarchists to conservatives, united in a genuine effort to Europeanise Catalan culture on all artistic fronts.

Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia. Wikimedia

The new generation had come to see the Renaixença as too parochial for the approaching century. Their focal point, after all, was Barcelona, by now a major European city. Leading lights included the writer Caterina Albert i Paradís, writing under the male pen name Víctor Català; the painter Ramon Casas; and the celebrated artist and architect Antoni Gaudí.

On the back of these movements, a separate identity steadily grew. Catalan culture and politics came together after the Spanish election of 1901, which was won by the new Catalan regionalist party. In 1914 this led to the creation of the Mancomunitat, the first attempt at Catalan self-government since the 1700s.

The Mancomunitat (or Commonwealth) had limited powers but managed to harness the energies generated by Modernisme. It created a cultural infrastructure that included a standardised language and a network of libraries. The language was outlawed during Spain’s dictatorship under General Miguel Primo de Rivera in the mid-1920s, but the Mancomunitat paved the way for the Generalitat to be restored during the Second Spanish Republic in the 1930s.

When the Civil War ended in 1939 with Franco’s victory, he launched a cultural and linguistic genocide against Catalonia. The Catalan language was banned; institutions were suppressed; Catalan names were not accepted. Every manifestation of Catalan culture and language was to be eradicated. This resumed and exacerbated the repression that had begun in the early 18th century.

Spain’s strongman: Franco in 1959 (front). Wikimedia

After 1978, Catalonia enjoyed some 30 years of relative contentment as one of Spain’s 17 autonomous communities, with its own parliament and statute of autonomy. The linguistic situation improved considerably, enabling Catalan culture to flourish once again. Yet crucially the language has always been officially subordinate to Spanish, a constant reminder of the potential for future conflict.

This arrived abruptly in 2010 after the Spanish Constitutional Tribunal set aside the region’s second statute of autonomy. Because the Spanish constitution says there is only one nation in Spain – the Spanish nation – the court held that references to Catalonia as a nation had no legal effect.

So began the process that led to the referendum on October 1, 2017. Some 2.2m of 5.3m registered Catalans voted overwhelmingly for independence – nearer 3m if claims about police removing ballot boxes with 700,000 votes are accurate. The vote was despite Madrid declaring the whole process illegal and countless scenes of police brutality.

The new election took place with regional autonomy suspended and pro-independence leaders either in jail or self-imposed exile. The pro-independence parties held on to their parliamentary majority, despite the fact that the unionist Citizens party won more votes than any other.

Nationalist impulses

Many people are understandably wary of nationalisms, yet it is vital to make distinctions. The Catalan version, for example, is not race-related. It is a civic phenomenon that revolves around cultural values, above all the language. This arguably explains the systematic attempts by the Spanish state to undermine, marginalise or eradicate it: the Other can only be tolerated if they speak Spanish; that is, if they can be assimilated.

Catalan nationalism may not even be the driving force behind the recent push for independence: it is the narrow-mindedness of Spanish nationalism, its inability or unwillingness to accept the Other, that has persuaded a substantial proportion of Catalans that their future would be brighter with independence.

Now that pro-independence parties have again an overall majority in the parliament, they will have to rethink their strategy vis-à-vis the uncompromising Spanish government. As a nation state, Spain has a huge repressive apparatus at its disposal; Catalonia is a stateless nation that’s only strength lies in citizens determined to plough the independence furrow peacefully. The contest is extremely uneven, but then nobody ever said the road to independence would be smooth.

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