Catalonia: a New History

Review of Andrew Dowling’s Catalonia: a New History (Routledge).

I wrote this review on 1 October 2022, the fifth anniversary of the Spanish state sending in its paramilitary police to try to stop a referendum on independence called by the Catalan parliament. That morning the world’s media showed riot cops breaking into polling stations, seizing ballot boxes and battering voters and those using non-violent means to block their passage. At 12 noon they withdrew, widely believed because of a phone call from Brussels to Madrid saying the operation must cease.

In 2014 we faced a campaign of fear designed to frighten people from voting Yes, and which included a carefully planned intervention by Queen Elizabeth when polls showed Yes in the lead. But we faced nothing like what the Catalans did in 2017.

Back then the BBC and other London based media attempted to portray Scottish nationalism as anti-English. That was rubbish but they studiously avoided British nationalism. The Spanish, or to be more accurate the Castilian media, does the same.

On three occasions in modern history the Spanish state has tried to eradicate Catalan’s identity, culture and, of course, its language. The most vicious was the last when the dictatorship of General Franco, victor of the Spanish Civil War.

History is, of course, a battlefield . Castilian nationalists have attempted  to deny the very existence of a Catalan nation. Dowling states clearly, “that Catalonia is a nation is unanswerable” (P3).

He also addresses their argument that an independent Catalan state has never existed, pointing out:

“Most history writing today is framed and written within the mental maps  created by the frontiers of the present. A thousand years ago those frontier s had little meaning beyond aristocratic or royal control. Just as there was no medieval kingdom of Spain, medieval France was formed by a series of territories,  bearing only a partial resemblance to the state of today” (P39).

Both Scotland and England were unusual in that the existing borders of both kingdoms were established much earlier than their rivals (aside from who ruled Berwick). But the kings and queens of medieval and early modern Scotland only exercised control of a little of the country.

Why this excursion into medieval history? Because when Spanish nationalists attempt to argue no independent Catalan state has ever existed they have to fall back on a myth of a Spanish kingdom forged in the “reconquest” of the peninsula from Muslim rule. 

Their date for the creation of Spain would, most commonly, be 1479 and the marriage of Isabella of Castile and Ferdinando of Aragon. These two Catholic monarchs ruled most of today’s Spanish state, but as Dowling points out this did not mean “the fusion of two different realms” (P79).

Aragon retained its own institutions, laws, tax system and much else – as did the Basque Country and Navarre after Ferdinando conquered it. Aragon itself was made up of three different parts itself; Aragon, Valencia and Catalonia. The latter was dominant, especially during the Catalan “golden age” during the High Middle Ages when a Catalan empire was built containing the Balearic Islands, the kingdom of Naples and Sickly, Sardinia and, briefly parts of Greece.

Often Catalan nationalists picture this through rose-tinted glasses. Catalan culture and trade was at its height but the creation of empire, as always, meant conquest and slaughter. 

Returning to the creation of today’s Spain the independence of the Aragon entities only ended in 1715 when the New Bourbon monarchy conquered Barcelona and swept away any vestige of autonomy, including prescribing the language.

Castilian monarchs had tried this before – angered that the Catalans would not provide men and taxes for their constant wars with the French and Dutch.

As ever Catalonia, lying between the kingdoms of France and Spain, was caught up in great power rivalries. During the War of Spanish succession Britain, Holland and Austria fought to block the grandson of France’s Louis 1V taking the Spanish throne. Catalonia backed his Austrian rival and with a British guarantee of support declared independence. But when the Austrian claimant unexpectedly became emperor in Vienna, Britain did not want him ruling in the Iberian peninsula. They did a deal with France and Spain, got Gibraltar to keep and dumped the Catalans. They fought on alone but went down to defeat. The Catalan national day, the Diada, marks Barcelona’s surrender.

Dowling charts this very well and stresses how the popular forces in Catalonia responded to such events. When Napoleon’s army marched over the Pyrenees to gain the Spanish crown for their emperor, Catalan peasants were to the fore in resisting the French, largely because of their Catholicism.

By then Catalonia had become the first part of the Spanish Kingdom to industrialised, on the British model via small family firms concentrating on textiles.

What Dowling shows well is how in the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries three forces emerge in Catalonia. The first was a Catalan industrial and financial elite who wanted to lead Spain, but not to leave it. They resented at being excluded from decision making in Madrid but would never back independence.

The second were the middle class romantics  who spearheaded the Catalan renaissance, as was happening across Europe. They succeeded in taking a peasant language and turning it into a great European language with a rich culture.

The third was the formation of one of the most insurgent working classes in Europe, culminating in the creation of the anarcho-syndicalist CNT. The first group relied on the Spanish army to suppress the workers when they rose, as they did frequently. The second group vacillating between opposing the CNT or sympathising with it.

By the late 1920s the experience of a military dictatorship, supported at the start by Catalan industrialists, but which outlawed the language and even FC Barcelona, led to the emergence of the centre left pro-independence ERC (Catalan Left Republicans) becoming the major electoral force. In 1931 the dictatorship and then the Bourbon monarchy fell, a Spanish Republic was declared and the ERC squeezed Catalan autonomy from a reluctant new government in Madrid.

By then the forces of the right and the military command loathed Catalans seeing them as enemies of Spain. Franco, his nationalist supporters and his fascist regime represented that with a vengeance, but it survived the end of the dictatorship and the flawed tradition to democracy.

One thing has changed in the last century, up until, that transition, the Spanish left supported the right of Catalonia, the Basque Country and Galicia to self-determination and a federal state. After that transition they shifted to supporting Spanish unity.

It was that instransingency which led to the rise of support for Catalan independence. In 2010 Spain’s Constitutional Court tore up key clauses of a new Statute of Autonomy agreed between the Spanish and Catalan governments, by the two parliaments and by a referendum in Catalonia.

That decision outraged Catalans and was a game changer. The subsequent repression, some 5000 pro-independence activists are currently facing prosecution. 

Today Spanish instransingency blocks any legal move to independence but it cannot suppress the pro-independence movement. 

In some 150 pages Dowling covers a lot of ground and this book makes a great starting place for understanding Catalonia. I thoroughly recommend it.

Comments (8)

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  1. 220930 says:

    Nations aren’t natural phenomena but are imagined communities whose existence depends on the criteria we employ in the definition of ‘nationality’. Criteria of ethnicity (shared ‘bloodlines’, shared culture, shared history, etc.) have fallen into disrepute following the excesses of nationalism in the 20th century. Nowadays, the preference (at least among ‘progressive’ nationalists) is to define nationality with reference to participation in a shared civic life, irrespective of the genealogy or cultural heritage of the participants. Catalunya can therefore be said to be a ‘nation’ insofar as its the imagined community of people who participate in the shared civic life that’s organised and administered by the Generalitat de Catalunya; things like genealogy, culture, and history have b*gg*r all to do with it,

    1. Chris Bambery says:

      I agree that the crucial thing is Catalans identify as a nation but culture and history are not unimportant. As I argue in my A People’s History of Scotland an independent Scotland would have to come to terms with our upper classes gruesome role in Empire, not least in Ireland. Not faux apologies but taking positive action to address those crimes.

      What drives the rise of support for independence in both Catalonia and Scotland is that both are trapped in two states suffering long term organic crises. In the case of the Spanish state it has not dealt with the toxic legacy of Franco and the flawed transition to parliamentary democracy. The Catalans carry long memories of Franco, and 1 October 2017 brought strong reminders, and the repression it suffers flows from that flawed transition.

      The attempts to destroy the language underlines the determination to ensure it survives.

      1. 221003 says:

        Heritage is indeed important: it provides the perspective from which one narrates contemporary events and thereby enables an understanding of those events.

        My point is that very few nations nowadays are or can be defined by a shared heritage. The role of Glasgow’s ‘tobacco lords’ (say) in exploiting Africa and North America as resources is no more part of the heritage of many contemporary Scots than is the Gaelic language or the spirit of Bannockburn or of Red Clydeside, etc. The equivalent can be said of contemporary Catalonians. The only thing around which the imagined communities or ‘nations’ of Scotland and Catalonia nowadays coalesce is the civic life that its various peoples, with their multiplicity of different historical perspectives, share.

        The trick will be to ensure that, in any future Scotland (or Catalonia), we govern our shared civic life in such a way, and through such institutions, that no one’s particular perspective or understanding is privileged over anyone else’s, including what assimilationists like to atavistically call Scotland’s (or Catalonia’s) ‘native’ heritage.

    2. Joan Pescador says:

      Nations and nationalisms are the most natural organization of the peoples of the whole world.
      What is not natural are the states created by imposing their nationalism on other peoples.
      Catalonia has a huge heritage, culture, history and willing to become independent again.

  2. Patrick Farnon says:

    Why is this book so incredibly expensive? Amazon wants over 50 euros for the paperback. Who can afford to pay prices like that. I lived in Catalunya for nearly ten years and dearly wanted to read it

    1. 221002 says:

      Complain to the publisher, Routledge! The cheapest copy I could find to download back in August was £31.50.

    2. Chris Bambery says:

      Hopefully the paperback edition will be cheaper.

      1. 221002 says:

        The publisher is retailing the paperback edition at £35. The hardback edition is £120. And it’s only about 160-70 pages long.

        ‘Academic’ texts are exclusively expensive. It’s one of the ways academia restricts access to its domain.

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