Printer Friendly

Thwarted aspirations: Catalonia from Versailles to Brussels: Marcal Sanmarti suggests that Catalonia faces the same barriers to secession that it did at the end of the First World War.

On 14 December the London Daily Telegraph headlined 'Crisis in Spain. Catalonia secedes'. The interesting thing is that the article talks about the Catalan political crisis, though not from this past year 2018; it is rather from a hundred years ago, in 1918. That takes us to the times of the end of the Great War and the Treaty of Versailles. It is not a coincidence.

Catalan secessionism has a centuries-long history behind it. In fact, Catalan roots lie behind a group of counties seceding from the Frankish Empire in the 10th century. But let us focus here on a topic which New Zealanders are much more familiar with: the Great War and the Western Front.

How can we relate Catalonia with the Great War when Spain was officially a neutral country? After Spain's defeat in the Spanish-American War in 1898 and its loss of Cuba, Guam, the Philippines and Puerto Rico to a new world power, it was left behind in the international arena. The old Spanish Empire sold the rest of its possessions in the Pacific to the German Empire a year later, leaving it with just a few tiny possessions on the West African coast. Spain was isolated in the international scene.

The situation inside Spain was just as bad at the beginning of the 20th century. The economy was outdated and completely unable to support any war effort. The restoration political system based on the alternation in power between liberals and conservatives was in deep crisis; between 1913 and 1919 the presidency changed nine times. Complaints about the absence of democratisation became widespread in Spanish society.

Deep division

Spanish society at the same time was deeply divided on several fronts, including the Great War. Whereas the clergy, aristocracy, army, bourgeois and landowners were leaning towards the Central Powers, regionalists, republicans, socialists, middle classes and intellectuals favoured the Allies. Joining the conflict could mean igniting a civil conflict inside Spain. Even the Spanish King, Alfonso XIII, had dynastic ties to both sides. His wife was a granddaughter of Queen Victoria and his mother was a member of the Austrian royal family.

The Spanish Army at the time was weak and unable to fight a modern war. It relied on conscription from the lower ranks of society; rich people could buy their way out of the service. As a result, the regular soldiers were seen as expendable and were under-equipped and often under-trained. On the other side, the officer class was quite heavy, having one officer for every ten soldiers.

Spain was not ready to join the conflict, but also had no reason to do so. Taking part in the First World War would have ruined the country, ignited a civil war and made clear Spain's lack of resources and forces. The situation was well known inside and outside Spain. That is the reason why neither side of the conflict actively pursued Spanish involvement. In fact, war contenders from both sides were afraid of an unstable Spain. Neutrality was then the only option and turned out to be a quite beneficial one.

Interrupted flow

With the outbreak of war, suddenly all the traditional flows of trade, financial exchanges and migrations were interrupted. The belligerents expelled more than 42,000 Spaniards in a few days. But then the world economy turned upside down. World powers started to import almost everything from neutral countries like Spain, instead of exporting to them.

It did not matter that Spain's economy was weak, outdated, inefficient, unable to export, barely competitive and protected with high customs tariffs. And since imports from the rest of Europe were suspended, competition disappeared and Spaniards found a new market in their own country. Agricultural production almost tripled, coal mining almost doubled and the Central Bank of Spain increased its gold reserves from 720 million pesetas in 1914 to 2554 million pesetas in 1921, becoming the fourth central bank in the world for volume of reserves. (1)

Unique place

Catalonia has for centuries been quite a unique place on the Iberian peninsula. At the beginning of the 20th century Catalonia had a series of particularities that set the territory apart from the rest of Spain. First and foremost is its geographical position. Located on the top north-east of the Iberian peninsula, a third of Catalonia borders France. And with that comes ethnic links. The county of Rousillon in France (referred to as northern Catalonia sometimes) is still nowadays a Catalan-speaking area. Furthermore, that made Catalonia better connected to European developments than other parts of Spain.

Also because of a unique industrialisation process in southern Europe, Catalonia became the manufacturing powerhouse of Spain during the 19th century. Catalan society was an industrialised one and several times felt quite isolated inside a much more rural Spain. Barcelona, the capital city of Catalonia and biggest Spanish city of the time, was looking much more towards Paris than Spain's political centre, Madrid. In fact, even though we can see an intellectual and political debate inside Catalonia during the conflict, most of Catalan society leaned very clearly towards the Allies.

As a consequence, Catalanism, a regionalist movement back then, was already a major player not just in the cultural arena but also in politics. The so-called 'nationalities question was seen for Catalanism as an opportunity to push its political agenda and recover a fully autonomous government for Catalonia for the first time in 200 years.

But in fact Catalonia was the only region in Spain that enjoyed a sort of self-government at the time. The short-lived Mancomunitat de Catalunya or Commonwealth of Catalonia (born in 1914, suspended under the Primo de Rivera dictatorship in 1925), was basically a federation of the four Catalan provincial councils with a semi-autonomous government and very limited powers. Still the Commonwealth of Catalonia recorded remarkable achievements in the fields of infrastructure, health care, education and culture. Despite the sympathies of most the Catalan people towards the Allies, the Commonwealth of Catalonia had to remain officially neutral.

Deep effect

Local art, literature and culture were deeply affected by the conflict. Art events in support of France and Belgium were displayed, a war museum was created in Barcelona representing trenches and siege guns, kids played with Great War related miniature soldiers and collectable cards, and even soldier uniforms became a fancy-dress outfit for carnival. The figure of the war correspondent emerged among journalists and, even though they were writing for a neutral country, they had to face not just the propagandists pressure from the outside but also censorship inside Spain.

After the initial uncertainty, the Catalan economy began to notice the consequences of the conflict, as observed in the banks and the stock exchange. Nightclubs and textile and agricultural industries experienced years of spectacular growth, attracting a flood of migrants from other regions to Barcelona. On the other side, winemaking and cork production were adversely affected. Also a high inflation rate and a crisis in food supplies created social unrest that challenged the authorities. These authorities had to face a much worse situation following the war as the substantial profits made by the industrialists during the conflict were not reinvested. In the 1920s Catalan industrialists lost the markets they had won during the conflict, causing the economy to suffer again.

The combination of its geographical position and economical importance made it impossible for Catalonia to escape even direct warfare. Catalonia's coast became a battlefront for submarines. Barcelona was home of the headquarters of the German Transatlantic Bank and field of operations of a local company connected with another German industrial giant, Siemens Schuckert. The French and the British consulates and the respective fleets had to maintain a blockade in the Gulf of Lion to prevent war contraband from making its way to Germany, as well as the entry of German products to the Catalan ports. Catalan industrialists, on the other hand, were desperate for German chemicals that were vital for the booming local textile industry. German U-boats responded to the blockade by sinking ships all around the Catalan coast.

In addition, spies were deployed in ports and beaches to report on steamship cargoes and the routes that supplied submarines with fuel and provisions. But war was not just on the sea, as Barcelona itself became a nest of spies. Mata Hari, among others, worked hard to undermine the conditions of neutrality using sabotage and even murder. The activity in the French and German consulates was frenetic. The promulgation of the 'Law against espionage and for the defence of neutrality' by the Spanish government did not help at all; in fact it imposed severe censorship measures on the press.

Catalan soldiers

Catalonia deepened its involvement in the conflict as around a thousand Catalans took up arms under the French flag. Catalans fought and died in places such as Arras, the Somme, Verdun, Macedonia in the Balkans and even Gallipoli. A number of Catalans found themselves already in France when the conflict broke out; some enlisted as volunteers in the French Foreign Legion, while others were conscripted into the regular army because they had taken French nationality. This was barely known by most of the Catalan people at the beginning of the conflict, but that changed. In 1916 a group of intellectuals advocated for Catalan participation in the war and created el Comite de Germanor amb els Voluntaris Catalans, the Brotherhood with the Catalan Volunteers Committee. Their main objective was to support Catalan soldiers by sending them letters, clothes, food, tobacco and offering them accommodation in centres created in Paris, Perpignan (French Catalonia) and Barcelona.

Another objective was to internationalise the Catalan cause for political freedom within the framework of support for the Allies. It was inspired by similar movements created by Italians (when Italy was still officially neutral) and Czechs and Poles who were still under rule of the Central Powers.

A series of initiatives were organised to create awareness of the support that Catalonia had given to the Allies. The names of the streets and squares in Catalonia were altered and various tributes were organised in honour of French Marshal Joseph Joffre. Joffre was born in French Catalonia or Rousillon and a Catalan speaker himself. At the invitation of the committee, he made an official visit to Barcelona in May 1920. Joffre even had a taste of the political situation in Catalonia during his visit. His speech in Catalan energised the audience to the point that the crowd started to sing the Reapers, the Catalan national anthem, and shout proclamations against the Spanish government and the Spanish king. The Spanish police stormed the meeting using their batons and further activities related to his visit had to be cancelled. Joffre left Catalonia after five days quite shocked.

At the same time Barcelona's City Council and the Commonwealth of Catalonia allocated 500,000 francs (a very considerable amount of money at that time) to the reconstruction of Belloy-en-Santerre, a small French village near the Somme liberated by several Catalan volunteers. In acknowledgement, Belloy erected a monument to the Catalan volunteers in the Foreign Legion and named its two main streets after Barcelona and Catalonia. Catalans have their own little Le Quesnoy somehow.

Versailles plea

A small group associated with the Brotherhood with the Catalan Volunteers Committee attempted in vain to have Catalonia recognised as an interlocutor in the Versailles talks in April 1919. Many Catalan political and cultural institutions supported the idea of making contact with US President Woodrow Wilson after the Allied victory. It might seem naive to us nowadays, but it was not a unique move at that time. They were following the example of the Polish, the Irish and many others. Several minorities were going to try to have a voice on the 'nationalities question' during this time, including Scottish nationalists. Historian Xose M. Nunez Feix notes that, as even a member of the British War Cabinet said at the end of 1918, Wilson became the idol of the French radical socialists, the Irish Sinn Fein and the Catalan separatists. (2)

The meeting of international delegations in Versailles is another interesting episode. The British delegation asked the Spanish if all of the political parties in Spain were willing to join the society of nations, but also if there was any internal affair to be resolved. Hearing that, the delegate of El Salvador, Javier Mateu (son of Catalans), announced that the Catalan question had yet to be resolved. The Spanish ambassador, aware of the potential threat, contacted the Spanish government. Catalonia was not mentioned at all during the Versailles peace talks. It was in all the powers' interest to have a stable Spain in revolutionary times.

The Catalan Committee made contact with President Wilson's secretary, Tyler, who very politely accepted several items the committee gave him, including an American flag, the pro-independence flag and a letter directed to Wilson requesting that Catalonia be allowed to join the society of nations. The Catalan Committee, together with a hundred people, gave in ceremony a Catalan flag at Les Invalids in Paris and some members also read a message from the president of the Catalan Commonwealth. It was a message thanking them for strengthening the fraternal friendship between Catalonia and France. The committee made contact with Serbian ambassador in Paris and Serbian delegate at Versailles, Milenko Vesnic. The result was the same: just kind words.

Most probably the Catalan Committee was not received by any head of state--following the example of Bretons, Ukrainians or even the Irish. The Versailles peace conference was ruled by cold harsh realpolitik. The Catalan volunteers had become popular figures in Catalonia to pursue not just self-government for Catalonia but also political democratisation. However, the Great War became a dramatic turning point in almost every aspect of life in Europe, Spain and Catalonia. Unfortunately those heroes soon became forgotten and Catalan ambitions for political freedom completely disappeared; General Primo de Rivera's coup d'etat in 1923 (not to confuse with the one led by General Franco in 1936) led to the takeover of the Commonwealth of Catalonia and he abolished it after two years.

Hard truths

The current Catalan situation indicates that the hard truths of realpolitik remain the same now as a hundred years ago. Two years have passed since more than two million Catalans tried to vote on a self-determination referendum not authorised by the Spanish laws. Even though local self-government in Catalonia has been restored after seven months of direct rule from Madrid, politicians and activists have remained in detention without sentencing for two years. On the other side, Catalan leaders who left Spain, including the former Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont, continue their political activity freely in other parts of Europe, such as Belgium, Scotland or Switzerland.

There have been several attempts by the Catalan government to have the European Union as a mediator in the political conflict with the Spanish government. The European Union officially states that Spain is an advanced democracy. But as a theoretical guarantor of rights and liberties, the union should be concerned about Amnesty International stating that the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly of Catalan independence supporters were disproportionally restricted.

Amnesty International also calls for the immediate release of the political activists that have been in pre-trial detention for around two years. (3) Other organisations such as Advocates for Justice and Human Rights also warn that the trials of Catalonian leaders imperil human rights. But even though the Council of Europe will look into the situation of jailed politicians in both Spain and Turkey, Catalans are learning that first and foremost the European Union is a lobby of states. That is the reason why the Catalan question still remains, at least officially, a Spanish internal affair. Again, the last thing that Europe needs is an unstable Spain.

The cold reality is that to achieve the human right of self-determination, you need more than a majority of people inside the territory willing to vote on it; you also need external support. And that requires perseverance, time and timing.

Some people attribute to Mark Twain the maxim 'History doesn't repeat itself but it often rhymes'. In the case of the political conflict in Catalonia, it might seem so. Even though the images of the Spanish police storming Catalan voters are still fresh in people's minds and the political conflict continues, the 'Catalan question* is an old issue. It is a situation that has appeared periodically in the Iberian peninsula through the centuries. One of the less known episodes happened during a period of history quite familiar to New Zealanders--the Great War and the Western Front.

Marcal Sanmarti is an historian and member of the Catalonia Aotearoa New Zealand Association.


(1.) Miguel Martorell Linares, Flames a la Frontera, Catalunya i la Gran Guerra (Barcelona, 2018), p. 135.

(2.) Catalan TV3 documentary, 'L'estelada de Verdun.


Caption: Catalan volunteers visited by journalists and politicians in 1917 (Museum of Catalan History, MHC, IaGM_Jori_600ppi_90001)

Caption: The flag given to the Catalan volunteers by the Brotherhood with the Catalan Volunteers Committee (Museum of Catalan History, MHC 4)

Caption: Raul Romeva, former Catalan minister of foreign affairs, inaugurating a memorial plaque dedicated to one of the Catalan volunteers who died liberating Belloy-enSanterre, France, in July 2016

Caption: The Christmas dinner in 1917 organised in Paris for the Catalan volunteers (Museum of Catalan History, MHC7507)
COPYRIGHT 2019 New Zealand Institute of International Affairs
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2019 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Catalonia, Spain
Author:Sanmarti, Marcal
Publication:New Zealand International Review
Geographic Code:4EUSP
Date:Jul 1, 2019
Previous Article:Brexit: the need to think again: Rita Ricketts considers the current state of the United Kingdom's bid to leave the European Union, especially in...
Next Article:NZIIA Publications.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2022 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |