The “Catalan Question” (I)

The Catalan identity and Catalonia

The Catalans are the people who live in the territories of Spain in the autonomous-historical region called Catalonia. Their significance for the Spanish inner politics can be understood as the best if we know that Catalonia (Catalunya) is being since 1975 the most politically and economically powerful autonomous self-governed region in the Kingdom of Spain – during the last 20 years, basically, a kind of “a state within the state”. As a matter of fact, the Catalans are the most integrated ethnohistorical groups of Spain together with Basques.[i]

What makes the Catalans so interlinked could be understood if we know how the Catalans historically understand the concept of group identity. First of all, they identify a Catalan as “a Catalan is whoever lives and works in Catalonia”, and “a Catalan is whoever speaks Catalan.” [ii] These explanations indicate that both hereditary and by converting everybody could be a Catalan what, practically means that a Catalan ethnonational identity is founded on both political (French) and linguistic-cultural (German) concepts or models.[iii] In short, according to French model, ethnonation is made by all people who want to live together in a single (national) political entity (autonomous region, province or state), while, according to German concept, persons speaking the same language, adhering to the same religion, or with the same history and culture are the people in ethnonational sense. However, it is obvious in Catalan case that a common culture and especially the language are creating the fundamental framework of ethnonational identity: “Nobody will be a Catalan until he speaks like us until he makes our needs his own[iv]. This indicates that a struggle is needed to get a Catalan identity and it is believed that the people will hardly give up their already achieved identities after that effort.

It is seen that the language is the hallmark of integration in Catalonia but not the only one. People who convert to Catalan participate in a popular culture of the Catalans too. This means not only the linguistic but also the traditions and habits of the Catalans are imposed on the newcomers who, all together, have a sacred task of Catalan nationalism expressed as:

“Nationalism is the will to have a particular way of being and the possibility to build up one’s own country”… “Our [Catalan] identity as a country, our will to be, and our perspectives for the future depend on the preservation of our language”… “It is the task of all those who live in Catalonia to preserve its personality and strengthen its language and culture”.[v]

All the factors creating a common ethnonational identity mentioned above show that the consciousness of Catalan identity is taught to all newcomers and exercised by both old and new citizens in order to make Catalonia as stronger as political unity and the Catalans as stronger as an ethnonational society. In essence, a cultural nationalism as a form of nationalism that places primary emphasis on the regeneration of the nation as a distinctive civilization rather than on self-determination is becoming a fundamental cement of Catalan group identity.

Catalonia is not Spain
Barcelona football fans make their feelings known about Catalan independence at a game on October 18, 2017

Cultural nationalism is, however, usually backed by ethnic but not civic nationalism. Ethnic nationalism emphasizes the organic and ethnic unity of the nation while civic nationalism allows respect for ethnic and cultural diversity that does not challenge core civic values. In other words, Catalan ethnonational identity is based on ethnic or ethnocultural nationalism which naturally is struggling for the realization of its basic political principle – national self-determination or the principle that the ethnonation has to be a sovereign political entity. National self-determination, therefore, implies the idea of national independence what means the creation of an independent national state. In practice, such principle and politics based on it brought Catalonia to direct political conflict with the central authorities in Madrid and with the rest of Spain – a country which was never properly united since its foundation in 1479.

The factor of history

As a matter of historical fact, the Catalonian region always struggled with the central government of Spain for several reasons among them the most important are:

  1. Catalonia was economically the most developed and industrialized region of Spain, having at the same time significant economic sources but feeling to be financially exploited by Madrid. The Catalan industrial, financial, and commercial élites identified the landowning and financial interests from Castilla and Madrid as responsible for all the ills of Spain, and time to time the attempts to tax the profits of neutrality was resisted by Catalan industrialists as Madrid’s attack on their liberties.[vi]
  2. The Catalans developed the highest degree of the spirit of ethnonational unity in Spain and, therefore, they always understood themselves to be spiritually superior in comparison to all other administrative-historical regions of Spain.
  3. Catalonia, in fact, together with Castilla is a founder of the state of Spain in 1479 (under the historical name of Aragón) giving to the Kingdom of Spain the king and subsequently Catalan regional autonomy together with Catalan ethnic nationalism are seen as the measures to preserve historical identity of the region.

We never have to forget that modern Catalonia is, in fact, a legal successor of historical Kingdom of Aragón – a state founder, together with the Kingdon of Castilla, of the Kingdom of Spain within the legal framework of the union of Castilla and Aragón in 1479. It practically means that Catalonia included its own state-historical independence into Spain by the political marriage of the Roman Catholic monarchs, Isabel I of Castilla and Fernando II of Aragón in 1469. Isabel I succeeded her crown in 1474 while Fernando II did the same with his crown in 1479.[vii]

Nevertheless, Aragón brought to the new state, together with its mainland territory in the Iberian Peninsula, the Balearic Islands, the islands of Sardinia and Sicily, and South Italy (the Kingdom of Naples).[viii] At that time, the Kingdom of Aragón was much bigger than present-day Catalonia which was an autonomous duchy of Aragón together with the autonomous Kingdom of Valencia.[ix] The Kingdom of Aragón was a federation of autonomous principalities. The titular head of the Aragonese feudal federation ruled the various member-states separately and in each case, there was an individual contractual relationship between monarch and vassals, institutionalized by a representative chamber, Cortes, which the Catalan representatives first assembled in 1218, the Aragonese in 1247, and the Valencians in 1283.

The Catalan „empire“ started to be formed when the territorial expansion southwards reached the boundaries agreed with the Kingdom of Castilla and as a consequence, Catalonia turned her attention to the territorial expansion to the Mediterranean Sea. Catalonia established a permanent presence in North Africa and intervened in the political affairs of the states at the Appeninian Peninsula (later Italy). Sardinia became the first Italian victim of the Catalan expansionism followed by Sicily and South Italy.[x] Catalan consulates were opened up from the Levant to Flanders, and two Byzantine duchies of Athens and Neopatras were incorporated into the Aragonese federation.[xi] Two Catalan provinces – Cerdenya and Roussillon existed north of the Pyrenees, today in France.

With the creation of Aragonese maritime empire, Catalan industrial export tremendously grew in return for slaves and spices from the east. The Catalan language became the lingua franca of the Meditteranean Sea basin concerning the trade followed by Catalan trading customs becoming the first set of rules of maritime law that was finally codified as Libre del Consolat de Mar. In the mid-14th century, the golden age of Catalan mercantile and maritime expansion reached its peak with clear spectacular evidence of such power and economic prosperity visible in Barcelona[xii] which was the political and economic center of Aragonese maritime empire until the unification with Castilla into Spain when Madrid became the epicenter of the Spanish overseas empire.

The historical dispute between Castilla and Aragón/Catalonia upon a political leadership over Spain and its overseas colonies in America (since 1492), basically, broke out in 1504 when the Queen Isabel of Castilla died. Aragón’s representative, King Fernando claimed that now his original crown land had to have leadership of Spain while the aristocracy of Castilla argued that according to the political marriage in 1469 between Castilla and Aragón, the first had to be the leader as:

  1. Castilla was three times larger than the combined kingdoms of Aragón, Valencia and Mallorca and the Principality of Catalonia.
  2. Castilla was more heavily populated with five million inhabitants (and taxpayers) against under a million of Aragón.
  3. Castilla was much richer in taxable wealth and disposable income.
  4. Castilla was more dynamic and expansionist having in her hands an American colonial empire.

What was since 1469 keeping Spain together it was rather a Roman Catholic Church than a common ethnic origin which in reality never existed.[xiii] The fragility of Spanish common identity followed by regional-historical separatism was in full evidence during the Spanish Civil War of 1936−1939 when the presence of the Republican government in Barcelona from the end of 1937 caused endless friction between the centralist authority and the proponents of Catalan autonomy or even secession. While many Republicans looked upon Catalonia as a state within the state, not fully contributing to the war effort against the forces of General Franco, the Catalans felt that the central government was constantly seeking to erode their autonomy and even regional-historical identity. When Barcelona fell on January 25th, 1939, the war was nearly over – Madrid capitulated on March 28th. Spain entered the time of the Roman Catholic supremacy in all spheres of life under the open dictatorship of Caudillo de España.

Refugees from Spain
Spanish refugees from the civil war arriving in France in June 1939

In March 1939 General Francisco Franco came to the head of Spain and he was the main political figure of the country until his death in 1975.[xiv] The problem of Catalonia was left to be solved and the leading political forces of Spain were aware that the Catalans are the only organized ethnic group in the country even under the dictatorship of Franco being very affluent in the sense of economy. The first serious strikes in Franco’s Spain occurred exactly in Barcelona in March 1951 followed by the rest of Catalonia and some other regions. Spain did not want to lose a region which was that much mobilized and rich and, therefore, the central government in Madrid had to do something special for the Catalans in order not to lose them.

Before General Franco’s dictatorship, Catalonia had a set of autonomous regional privileges but with the rule of Franco, the Catalans lost their autonomous status as the whole country was heavily centralized and the Catalans felt themselves to be the main losers of Franco’s military-ecclesiastic regime. Nevertheless, severe cultural and political repression in Catalonia did not destroy Catalan separate ethnonational and regional-historical identity or desire for separate status and administrative autonomy. The Catalan Church continued to foster Catalan cultural studies and set itself up as a Catalanist focus. Having Catalan example, in 1966 the Basque provinces started as well as to reclaim their regional rights, which the Basques had shortly enjoyed during the civil war.

To be continued

Reposts are welcomed with the reference to ORIENTAL REVIEW.

Endnotes:

[i] On Basques, see in [Roger Collins, The Basques, Hoboken, Second Edition, New Jersey: Blackwell Pub, 1990; R. L. Trask, The History of Basque, New York: Routledge, 1997; Mark Kurlansky, The Basque History of the World, New York: Penguin Books, 1999; M. Bryce Ternet, A Basque Story, Second Edition, Scotts Valley, California: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2009].

[ii]Daniele Conversi, The Basques, the Catalans and Spain, Las Vegas: University of Nevada Press, 2000, 214−215.

[iii] On the concepts or models of ethnonational identity, see in [Montserrat Guibernau, John Rex (eds.), The Ethnicity Reader: Nationalism, Multiculturalism and Migration, Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 1997].

[iv]Daniele Conversi, The Basques, the Catalans and Spain, Las Vegas: University of Nevada Press, 2000, 215.

[v] Pujol J., Construir Catalunya, Barcelona: Pórtic, 1980, 22, 35−36. Compare with: “If you cannot speak Welsh, you carry the mark of the Englishman with you every day. That is the unpleasant truth” [The Guardian, November 12th, 1990, 1].

[vi] Juan Lalaguna, A Traveller’s History of Spain, Fifth Edition, London: Phoenix, 2003, 164.

[vii] There is a dispute among historians which year is to be taken as the official year of the creation of the Kingdom of Spain: 1469 or 1479. The proponents of the first option are taking into consideration the year of the marriage between Isabel and Fernando (1469) [Dragoljub R. Živojinović, Uspon Evrope 1450−1789, Novi Sad: Matica srpska, 1985, 93] while the others are taking into account the year when the last of them (Fernando) succeeded the crown (1479) [Dr Alan Isaacs et al (eds.), A Dictionary of World History, Reprinted with corrections, New York: Oxford University Press, 2001, 590].

[viii] Dragoljub R. Živojinović, Uspon Evrope 1450−1789, Novi Sad: Matica srpska, 1985, 93.

[ix] Josef Engel (Redaktion), Großer Historischer Weltatlas. Zweiter Teil. Mittelalter, München: Bayerischer Schulbuch-Verlag, 1979, 78−79.

[x] A language spoken today in Sardinia is a mixture of the Catalan and Italian. However, the Italians from the mainland cannot understand the Sardinian language. About the history of Sardinia, see in [Luciano Gallinari (ed.), Sardinia from the Middle Ages to Contemporaneity, Bern: Peter Lang, 2018].

[xi] Flocel Sabaté (ed.), The Crown of Aragon: A Singular Mediterranean Empire, Leiden: BRILL, 2017.

[xii] For instance, the Cathedral, the Church of Santa María del Mar, Consell de Cent, Llotja, the palace of Generalitat, Reales Atarazanas, etc.

[xiii] A name of Spain is derived from the name of the Roman province of Hispania.

[xiv] Anita Inder Singh, Democracy, Ethnic Diversity and Security in Post-Communist Europe, New York: Praeger Publishers, 2001, 42.

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3 Comments
  1. ignasi orobitg gene

    Very correct the article. Desiring to read the second part.

  2. Dear ignasi,

    Thanks a lot for the support. The second and last part of the article will come soon in a couple of days.

  3. Thanks for this!
    Small correction: what you call the German model is actually the ancient and modern greek model that the germans adopted when they also used greek to formalise the German language during Martin Luther’s translation of the bible.

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