Carles Puigdemont, the President of Catalonia, is taking grave risks by trying to advance the Catalan independence project. He could face serious penalties for promoting last Sunday’s referendum. His predecessor Artur Mas, who organized a similar poll in 2014, was convicted for civil disobedience, fined and temporarily banned from holding  public office.

Many Catalans, however, do not view Puigdemont and other like-minded – that is to say ‘referendum-minded’ – politicians as criminals. Indeed, over 2 million of them turned up to vote last Sunday, as was the case back in 2014. “Those politicians are simply looking out for the wellbeing of the Catalan people and their country,” says Montse Morales from Palafrugell, Catalonia. “I should say ‘region’, but I call it a country,” she continues.

Although Morales does not belong to the independentistas or the ‘pro-independence camp’, the idea of Catalonia as a país or ‘country’ apparently still prevails. Where did this idea come from? How did it mobilize millions of people into a (sub)nationalist movement? What other factors have contributed to the sentiment of unity and solidarity felt so strongly among the constituents of that movement? How did Catalan nationalism change over the years? What does poetry have to do with that? And what about Francisco Franco? In other words, how did we get here?

Early history

The story of Catalonia as a unified whole began with the mystical figure of Guifré el Pilós or Wilfred the Hairy, the first Count of Barcelona, who lived in the ninth century. He ruled a vast part of the Catalan Counties under the Frankish Empire and protected them from foreign enemies. Regional folklore tells that the four red stripes on the Senyera, the flag of Catalonia, represent his blood on his yellow battle shield.

The Count merged the Catalan lands into one hereditary dynasty. After his death, the Counties gained autonomy and broke with the Frankish Crown. The formal breakup occurred in 988. Catalonia was born. Its inhabitants were described as ‘Catalan’ for the first time somewhere between the eleventh and twelfth century. This was also when the first use of the Senyera was documented.

In 1137, the Catalan dynasty became allied with the House of Aragon. The political power of this alliance lay in Barcelona and the union conquered many different regions in the years that ensued. In 1192, Catalonia-Aragon invoked the Catalan Courts, a sort of parliamentary institution, to oversee its territories, which all had different laws and  were governed by their own political organs. The Courts later evolved into the Generalitat de Catalunya, Catalonia’s government.  

Tensions between Castile and Catalonia began to boil more or less after 1469, when Ferdinand of Aragon married Isabella of Castile. Their marriage united the two Kingdoms – Castile and Catalonia-Aragon – and laid the groundwork for what would later become the Spanish Empire. Catalonia retained most of its laws, but did not enjoy the same level of political power and the same economic rights as the Castilian region.

In 1641, the Generalitat had had enough of its inferior position and declared Catalonia an independent republic. Then, it quickly aligned itself with France for protection. What followed were many years of conflict and violent confrontation between Barcelona and Madrid.

In the early eighteenth century, Catalonia was retaken by the Spanish Crown. The recaptured territories – some remained under French rule – were now fully controlled by the central government. The Catalan language and laws became subjugated to those of Castile and the region’s political institutions were entirely suspended. Nevertheless, Catalonia benefited from the reunification. Economically and demographically, it prospered again.

In the nineteenth century, three cultural movements revived and uplifted the Catalan cultural identity: la Renaixença, la Modernista and la Noucentista. One of the first Catalan poets to create literature in the Catalan language and glorify his homeland through his art was Bonaventura Carles Aribau. Many more artists followed suit. The Jòcs Florals of Barcelona, where poets competed for flowers, became a popular festive occasion for showcasing such art.

Nurtured by the artistic movements, numerous Catalan intellectuals began writing about the idea of an autonomous Catalonia. In 1882, most of their political tendencies were assembled into the Centre Catalá, an umbrella group that strove for more economic, political, judicial and social rights for the inhabitants of Catalonia. After that, more political associations proliferated and the political movement expanded.

The first Catalan party, la Lliga Regionalista, was established in 1901 by Enric Prat de la Riba, who wanted Catalonia to become an autonomous region within Spain. The intellectuals that took part in the political movement around the subject of Catalan autonomy back then did not strive for independence. Only after the end of the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, did they embrace a separatist ideology.

In the 1930s, tensions over sovereign rights between the Spanish and Catalan governments reared their heads again. For the second time, Catalonia declared itself an independent state within Spain. The central government did not agree with this act and cracked down on institutions and politicians that supported the initiative. This conflict flowed over into the Spanish Civil War. By the end of the 1940s, the Catalan region was captured by Francisco Franco, who would rule it with an iron fist, for decades to come.

Contemporary history

The dictatorship of Francisco Franco was of a centrist and repressive nature. Expressing Catalonia’s regional identity in any form was criminalized. “The Catalan people were very oppressed, in everything: in their language, in their customs, in their culture. They were simply not allowed to be Catalan,” recounts Morales, who now lives in Leeuwarden, The Netherlands, but grew up under Franco’s rule, in Catalonia.

Certain recent events in today’s Spain remind some Catalans of the dictatorship. “There were several times when I returned from work, passed by a manifestation on the streets and saw the police chasing after the protesters and beating them up. Well, that is exactly what happened last Sunday,” says Marta Torrente. She has lived twenty-six years in Franco’s Catalonia, before moving to The Netherlands.

After Franco’s death in 1975, Spain’s transition toward democracy was set in motion. In terms of Catalan autonomy, things began to change for the better. The region gradually gained more and more rights, such as the right to speak its regional language and teach it in schools. Other regions of Spain obtained more self-governance rights as well. The Basque Country, for instance, obtained a considerable amount of freedom with regards to regulating its tax system.

Recent history

The most recent call for Catalan independence stems from around 2008. Among the Catalan people, the grave consequences brought on by the global financial crisis, such as cuts in public spending, were coupled with a certain feeling of being left behind by the Spanish authorities. In the words of former Catalan President Arthur Mas, “with the growing sensation that the state that we helped to construct neither protects us, nor defends us, nor respects us.”

Catalonia brings in around a fifth of Spain’s total revenue, but a part of this money is never reinvested into the region. This has been one of the central issues at stake with regards to the conflict between Spain and Catalonia. The Catalan government has tried to adjust the deficit by asking Madrid for greater fiscal independence, but its proposal was not accepted.

In addition to the economic question, some recent centralization measures laid hands on the linguistic rights of Catalonia, worsening the relationship. In 2015, the Supreme Court of Justice obliged schools to teach at least a fourth of their subjects in Spanish, which meant that less classes could be given in Catalan. “That was when the chaos that we are left with now, actually started, think: when Mariano Rajoy started removing the Catalan language from schools and other public institutions. Just like Franco did,” remarks Morales.

There were other cultural rifts as well. A heated public debate and legal battle around a proposed ban on bullfighting in Catalonia, for example, also contributed to the tense relationships between and among the Catalan people, the central and regional political and judicial institutions and the Spanish population

In 2014, the tension culminated in an unofficial referendum in which a vast majority of voters expressed a desire for Catalonia to become an independent state. Jorik van der Wal, a Dutch national who has been working, studying and living in Catalonia, off and on, for years, has noted that the independence movement has become more widespread ever since. “Since the 2014 referendum, I have been seeing increasingly more Catalan flags, and less Spanish flags. The number of pro-independence municipalities has also gone up. From what I hear, this is due to a perceived lack of respect on the part of the government of Madrid.” Some of the Spanish nationals that were interviewed for this series also feel that Catalonia has been leaning more and more toward independence in recent years. However, the data on this remains inconclusive.


Thousands of people in Girona, Catalonia, protesting against police brutality of October 1st

It is clear, however, that the police violence that occurred on the day of the 2017 poll did intensify negative feelings toward the central governors of Spain. “I was never in favour of independence, but when I saw the police brutality on October 1st, I did think: we should leave, and the sooner the better,” says Torrente.

The speech given by the Spanish King Filipe last Tuesday, again caused feelings of resentment. “He acted as a politician, not as a King. I have already signed an online petition for organizing a referendum about the monarchy, as well as one for holding a referendum about Catalan independence” Torrente says.

Ultimately, the heart of the Catalan matter does not revolve around wanting or not wanting to secede from Spain. For the Catalan people, it is primarily about being heard and having the right to decide how they are governed. Throughout centuries, this has always been the case. “The people should be able to decide. That is democracy. And if we have to change some article in the Constitution for that to happen, well, let us just do that,” concludes Torrente.