On 27 October 2017, Catalan MPs voted to ignore the Spanish constitution and become an independent republic. Madrid has since re-imposed direct rule, but tensions continue to rise as Spain faces its biggest political crisis in 40 years. This situation is the climax of centuries of simmering conflict in Catalonia’s fight for autonomy. Looking back to this history can help us make sense of what’s going on now.
The north-eastern region of Spain was first referenced as ‘Catalonia’ in the 12th century. However, it didn’t get its first taste of independence until 1640, when it was declared a republic under French protection. This followed a revolt against the Spanish king’s taxation policies. Yet Catalonia was soon reoccupied by Spanish troops. Any remains of Catalan nationalism were extinguished in 1714, when Catalonia backed the losing side in the War of Spanish Succession and had to surrender the small amount of autonomy they had.
Despite these flickers of separatist spirit, the Catalan independence movement did not gather momentum until the early 1900s. This coincided with the industrialisation of Catalonia, making the region a pocket of prosperity in a poor nation. This increased Catalan determination to keep such new-found wealth to themselves. Catalan language and culture flourished, strengthening their identity as a separate state and not just a Spanish region.
The turning point came in 1901 with the formation of the Catalan Nationalist Regionalist League. This became the dominant political party in Catalonia for the next twenty years. Its founder argued that Catalonia’s distinct characteristics made self-government necessary, and that its culture, language and industry were fundamentally different from Castilian Spain.
Today, Catalan pro-independence rallies are notable for the sea of red and yellow striped flags draped over fiery protestors. This flag is the Estelada, an unofficial symbol of support for an independent Catalonia. The Estelada has historical significance as a symbol of protest that was popularised in 1928. The lone white star in one corner represents national freedom.
The flag hit its peak from 1931-1936, during the Second Spanish Republic. After years of oppression under the dictatorial hand of Primo de Rivera, Spain voted in a left-wing government in 1931. The new leadership introduced a range of liberalising reforms, including granting Catalonia full autonomy. The region now had a parliament, a government and court of appeal, which angered right-wing elements in Spain. Catalonia found its independence to be tragically short-lived, with the arrival of the Spanish Civil War in 1936.
The unrest of war saw military dictator General Francisco Franco seize power, marking the beginning of a dark period in the history of Catalan nationalism. Franco outlawed use of the Catalan language, expressions of Catalan culture, and suppressed nationalist spirit. Spain was forced into an era of cultural homogeneity, and Catalan culture stagnated as Castilian traditions were forcibly imposed. The separatist movement was forced to emigrate, and the National Front of Catalonia was established in Paris in 1940. The party declared its aim to be ‘an energetic protest against Franco and an affirmation of Catalan nationalism’. Unfortunately, they had little success and thousands of Catalan activists were executed or exiled under Franco.
After Franco’s death in 1975, the government of Catalonia was provisionally restored. This was cemented by the 1978 constitution which recognised the autonomy of Catalonia, starting the process of regionalisation. The following year, Catalan became the joint language of Catalonia along with Spanish, and Catalan was officially recognised as its own nationality.
The next decisive moment in the fight for independence came just over a decade ago in 2006, when a reformed version of the autonomy statute referred to Catalonia for the first time as a ‘nation’. This statute also gave the regional government more powers and authority. However, some of these powers were later restricted by a landmark government ruling, leading to protests in Barcelona in 2010. Such discontent reveals the fervour that had developed around Catalonian nationalism.
Separatist feeling has grown steadily ever since. In 2014, some 80% of Catalan voters chose independence in a non-binding referendum. This followed an ‘official’ referendum that was ruled unconstitutional. The last three years have followed the historical pattern, as Spain and Catalonia struggle to find common ground. Today’s events may seem sudden and unpredictable, but they are a merely new battle in Catalonia’s war for independence.