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On the History of Catalan Separatism: an Interview with Jesús Laínz by Carlos Perona Calvete

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On the History of Catalan Separatism:
An Interview with Jesús Laínz

"Embarque de la primera espedición de voluntarios catalanes a Cuba" (Embarkation of the first expedition of Catalan volunteers to Cuba) (ca. 1874), a lithograph by P. Serrallonga, published by Miralles y Cª Editores, located in the National Library of Spain.

Recent surveys conducted by the regional government of Catalonia indicate that support for independence from Spain is now at a low-point. For its part, the EU General Court has upheld the seperatist politician Carles Puigdemont’s ban from the European Parliament on the grounds that he violated Spanish law. And yet, in this climate, the separatist Catalan party Esquerra Republicana (ERC) has recently rejected appeals to carry out an exhumation of seven hundred bodies in a Catalan municipality, given that these were Civil War era victims of the Left, whose crimes it seeks to whitewash. The political conflict, then, is one between memory and ahistorical constructions. 

In this climate, it is worth looking back at the origins of Catalan separatism with one of its most exhaustive and prolific historians, Jesús Laínz

When has Catalonia been independent, and at what point did Spain invade Catalonia? 

Never. The Spanish region now known as Catalonia was part of the historical unity of Spain for more than a millennium before the term Catalonia came into existence. For example, the capital of Roman Hispania was Tarragona, and Barcelona was the first Visigothic capital after the fall of Rome. During Spain’s peculiar Middle Ages, characterized by the long process of the Reconquista in which northern Christians retook lands that had been invaded by the Muslims, Catalans participated in the military conquest and subsequent repopulation of the whole of Spain. The various Catalan counties that emerged in the early days of the Reconquista were linked to the Carolingian empire before becoming a de jure part of the kingdom of Aragon in 1258, but they had, by then, not been a de facto part of the Frankish kingdom for three centuries. 

The separatists have been poisoning their population for more than a century with the false narrative that Spain invaded Catalonia in 1714. What actually took place at that time was a civil war in which Spaniards fought each other over a question of dynastic succession, without regard for regional differences. There were as many Catalans fighting on one side as on the other. Barcelona was the last stronghold of the supporters of the Habsburg candidate to the throne. They were not fighting for the secession of Catalonia, but precisely in favor of what they considered the legitimate king of all Spain and, given Catalonia’s traditional Francophobia, to prevent the French Philippe d’Anjou, grandson of Louis XIV, from reigning in Spain. Yet, all arguments are superfluous here: one has only to read the primary sources, the texts, and proclamations produced by combatants themselves to settle the question. 

Is the historically-consistent self-understanding of Catalans that of constituting an identity separate from the Spanish one?

Even a cursory look at history reveals that it is not. For example, and going back to the above mentioned 1714—that all-important year in which, according to the nationalist fable, Catalonia lost its independence—the military chief of the besieged, Antonio de Villarroel, addressed his people and soldiers with these words: “today is the day in which [you] must remember the courage and those glorious actions that our nation has always displayed. We fight for ourselves and for the whole of the Spanish nation.”

A century later came the 1808 French invasion. It would have been so easy for Catalans to abandon that nation which, according to today’s separatists, was alien to them. Yet they fought relentlessly against the French and sent their representatives to the court at Cadiz to draft the first Spanish Constitution, precisely under the presidency of a Catalan, Lázaro Dou.

Without exception, in all the texts and proclamations issued by Catalans during this, the War of Independence, the term “nation” was only ever used to refer to Spain. Specifically, in its proclamations, manifestos, and other documents, the Junta Superior de Cataluña, invoked the term “nation” forty-one times, all of them referring to Spain and none to Catalonia.

The exact same thing can be said of 19th century Catalans—philosophers, historians, economists, politicians, military men, artists, writers—who in their writings always applied the concept of nation to Spain, never to Catalonia. 

Privileges of the Catalan Bourgeoisie

Separatism seeks to present Catalonia as a historical victim, even a colony, of Spain. In your work, you show how its bourgeoisie has constituted a privileged class, suggesting that separatism operates to maintain and expand those privileges. Broadly speaking, what did the privilege of the Catalan bourgeoisie consist of during the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries? 

In the 18th century, since the arrival of the new Bourbon dynasty in 1700, protectionist legislation made it possible for Spain’s nascent industry to survive foreign competition in such important sectors as that of textiles. The great textile power of the time was England, whose industrial revolution had placed it ahead of other European countries in terms of price and quality. But tariffs allowed the Spanish textile industry, mostly Catalan, to benefit from both Spanish and American captive markets for more than two centuries. Catalonia was the region that benefited most from Spain’s ironclad protectionism throughout the 19th century and a good part of the 20th. It should be borne in mind that Spain was a uniquely protectionist country compared to other Western European countries.

Why did the State cultivate this Catalan privilege? 

The influence of powerful Catalan industrialists was enormous in foreign and tariff policy throughout the 19th century and much of the 20th. For example, for decades, it was Catalan business interests that dictated the policy to be followed by the Ministry of Overseas Provinces (Ministerio de Ultramar) with regards to Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines, to the point that wealthy Catalan business-owners kept deputies on their payroll, tasked with defending their interests in Parliament and in the Government.

Regarding the protection of the textile industry, did this measure create inequality among Spaniards? Specifically, what was the impact of this policy on Spain as a whole/did it particularly hurt some regions?

The problem with the tariffs is that they erected two-way walls. The difficulty they imposed on foreign products to enter Spain was also imposed on national products abroad, because, obviously, other European countries responded with similar tariffs. That is why the region that had, for centuries, benefitted the most from protectionism was the highly productive Catalonia, while regions relying on agricultural exports, such as Valencia, were the big losers. It is interesting, in this context, that the minister who promulgated the 1922 tariff, who prolonged the protectionist regime until the liberalization of the Spanish economy in 1960, was the moderate Catalan nationalist leader, Francesc Cambó.

What does Catalan privilege consist of today?

Today’s privilege is no longer so much economic as it is political. The fragility of Spanish governments, both left and right, during the last four decades has led them to continuously make pacts with Basque and Catalan separatists. This has resulted in a series of suicidal measures that have led to Spain being, today more than ever, at risk of fragmentation on account of the many concessions made to separatists. 

It is enough to highlight the following detail, one as important as it is likely difficult for foreigners to believe: the language which is persecuted and discriminated against in Catalonia is the official language of the State, the only one spoken in all of Spain and by the majority of Catalans themselves: namely, the Spanish language. Can the citizens of the United Kingdom or France fathom that children in one of their country’s regions not undergo their education in English or French? Well, that’s what is happening in Spain today. 

Why did the loss of overseas territories in 1898 represent a milestone for the Catalan bourgeoisie, moving it away from Spanish patriotism and towards regionalist and, eventually, separatist positions?

Until the disaster of 1898, when the Spanish-U.S. war led to the loss of Spain’s last overseas provinces (Cuba, Philippines, and Puerto Rico), Catalonia—its bourgeoisie, its institutions, and its press, unanimously—was the most warmongering, jingoistic, and imperialist region in Spain. This was principally due to patriotic feeling, and secondly, to Catalan commercial, industrial, and slave-owning interests in those lands. These interests were enormous, and far greater than those of other less economically active Spanish regions. That is why, when Spain ceased to be as good for business as it had been prior to 1898, the separatist temptation arose.

Falsification of History

Catalan separatism tends to compare its project with that of American republics that became independent from Spain. What was the historically-consistent position of Catalan society and bourgeoisie towards these independences?

Catalonia as a whole opposed not only the Cuban and Filipino separatists, against whom thousands of Catalans enlisted as volunteers, but also the slightest concession of political, administrative, and economic autonomy to those distant territories. For example, one of the measures that most angered Cuban landowners was the obligation to buy all their goods from the metropolis, even sacks of coffee and sugar, which Cubans had to purchase from the Catalan textile industry. Moreover, due to high tariffs, it was difficult for them to trade with the neighboring United States. This strangled their economy. A very significant parliamentary anecdote is that of President Sagasta’s 1901 response to the complaints of Catalan regionalists concerning the loss of overseas provinces, a loss that the president blamed largely on the privileges Catalonia had enjoyed over other Spanish provinces.

How does the Black Legend contribute to separatism?

Hispanophobia was born as a propaganda weapon wielded by enemies of the Spanish Empire (French, English, Dutch, Protestants…) from the 16th century onwards. The surprising thing is that it has managed to last until the present day, but explaining this would take us far afield. What is interesting is that the separatists, both Basque and Catalan, have for a century been invoking the convenient but false claim that their regions abstained from imperial affairs, thereby blaming all evils, real or invented, on other Spaniards, particularly “Castilians.” From this idea stems the refusal on the part of separatists to celebrate October 12th, the day of “Hispanidad,” because they consider the discovery of America that it commemorates, and all its consequences, to have nothing to do with them. The left joins them in condemning the history of Spain. The case is analogous to what is happening all over the world during instances of anachronistic and absurd condemnation of everything that has to do with the European and American past that does not fit today’s ideological dogmas.

Regarding the Civil War and Franco’s dictatorship, is it correct to characterize Catalan society as a society that confronted the military uprising, seeking its independence, and Francoism as a force of cultural repression in Catalonia? 

As far as the Civil War is concerned, Catalans were as much divided as other Spaniards. Thousands of Catalans enlisted as volunteers in forces fighting the Republic and thousands of Catalans acted as ministers, governors, procurators, ambassadors, mayors, and occupied all kinds of high positions within Franco’s regime. The church in Catalonia, which Franco saved from extermination, was one of his main supporters, beginning with the Cardinal Primate of Spain, the Catalan Isidro Gomá. Catalans were, in fact, the main organizers and financiers of Franco’s propaganda and counter-espionage in France and Italy.

As for the situation in Catalonia during Franco’s regime, this constitutes separatism’s most effective propaganda piece. We may focus on language. Catalan was not prohibited under Franco, with the exception of the turbulent years of the war. Tens of thousands of books were published in Catalan during the dictatorship. National, provincial, local and educational institutions promoted the cultivation of regional languages, albeit these were not official—they could not be used in public education and to relate with state administration. But this was not specific to the Franco regime: it was also the case during those decades in all other European countries, no matter how democratic they were. And it is still the case today in many countries. For example, the use of regional languages is much more limited in today’s France than in Franco’s Spain.

The Separatist Project

How has separatism sought to homogenize Catalan culture (linguistic changes, folklore, etc.)?

The linguistic plurality that Catalan separatists demand from Spain contrasts with the homogenization they pursue within Catalonia. The linguistic totalitarianism suffered by Spanish-speaking Catalans (the majority of Catalans) is unheard of in the history of Spain and would scandalize other Europeans if they knew about it: toponymic imposition; the changing of names and surnames so as to undergo a kind of national mutation; constant agitation in all areas of society to direct the lives of people from the cradle to the grave in an authoritarian manner; the use of public media as instruments in the hands of separatist political powers; the silencing of dissenting voices; ideological indoctrination of children in schools; the impossibility of being educated in one’s mother tongue; government persecution and social lynching of parents and students who demand the constitutional right to be educated in Spanish; the singling out and harassment of children who dare to speak Spanish during school recess; scant and weak protection by the judiciary; disinterest from the nation’s government, etc. 

Understandably, it is hard to believe that all this can happen in a democratic country under the rule of law, but what the rest of Europe must take into account is the overwhelming weight of the anti-Franco myth, which has paralyzed the nation’s governments for the past four decades. Because Franco’s regime was, indeed, hostile to separatists, today, everything that opposed Franco is considered untouchable. Even the terrorist organization ETA (“Basque Homeland and Liberty”) has enjoyed international sympathy because it managed to convince the world that it was founded to fight Franco, an enormous lie refuted by the obvious fact that 95% of the ETA’s 900 crimes were committed after the dictator’s death, in the context of a democratic government. And yet, by means of an absurd reductio ad Francum, all of the old regime’s opponents are, to this day, treated as respectable. That is why successive Spanish governments, especially those on the right, have not dared to stand up to separatist totalitarianism so as not to be accused of being neo-Francoist. And that is why the separatists have their hands free to impose a suffocating authoritarianism, to the point of staging a coup d’état, aware of the weak response capacity of the State and of the sympathies aroused in a thoroughly uninformed European public. 

What is the origin of separatism’s annexationist ambitions with respect to Valencia, the Balearic Islands, etc., and is the designation paisos catalans (Catalan countries) historically valid when referring to these regions?

Since its origin in the late 19th century, Catalan separatism has been essentially pan-Catalanist, in the same way that Basque separatism is pan-Basque (with its undisguised intention to annex Navarre and, if possible, the French department of the Atlantic Pyrenees). This means that they conceive their imaginary Catalan nation as the grouping of the three territories with linguistic kinship: Catalonia (including the eastern French Pyrenees), the Balearic Islands, and Valencia. For this, by the way, they need to extirpate the Balearic and Valencian linguistic varieties in order to impose Catalan as the only language of some provinces where it has never been spoken and where, in addition, the majority language is Spanish. That is why the term Catalan Countries is an absurdity without the least historical, political, or linguistic sense. But it is an essential element of the separatist long-term strategy: the need to accumulate demographic weight with a view to new separatist attempts in the future. And for this they count on the totalitarian brainwashing of the young, which, to this day, has never been countered by any Spanish government. If the situation continues like this for a few more years, the balkanization of Spain will be inevitable.

Carlos Perona Calvete is a writer for The European Conservative. He has a background in International Relations and Organizational Behavior, has worked in the field of European project management, and is currently awaiting publication of a book in which he explores the metaphysics of political representation.