A Brief History of Catalunya

What follows is a brief outline of Catalan history compiled quite hurriedly from notes I made whilst living and working in Spain where I was repeatedly exposed – over and over again – to a pseudo history of a forever unified Spain where Catalunya had barely ever existed. This is not and was never intended to be a comprehensive account of the events that brought Catalunya to the current situation of UDI. It is merely a write up of some of my notes to help people make sense of the historical context to the conflict. It is intended to be brief and to the point.

In 1469 Isobel the Catholic married Ferdinand of Aragon. Spain was not in the least unified when they got married. It was a dynastic marriage. Ferdinand was the Count of Barcelona and in fact he was more important as the Count of Barcelona than he ever was as King of Aragon. The two areas maintained their own language, laws, customs, currency, cuisines, town planning, architecture, tariff customs and duties between each other. The idea of half a millennium of unified Spain is a myth propagated by a centralist and unionist Spanish establishment for political ends.

In the late 17th century Europe began a process of nation state building and the Castillanos too began to do this. Their two problems were the Portuguese to the west who had gained their independence after the war of Aljubarrota 1385 and the Catalans to the east . This came to head when the Castillanos opted to have a centralist king, a view opposed in Catalunya where a more federalist figurehead was desired. The Bourbons and the Hapsbergs fought for several years ending with the two year siege of Barcelona. Catalunya was finally subdued on 11th September 1714. Today Catalans remember this day as La Diada.

In the 19th century Catalunya – now forcibly a member of the Spanish state – was despised by the Castellanos for their retention of Catalan identity, language laws and customs. Throughout the century the Castellanos passed many laws and decrees to try and coerce the Catalans to become Spaniards. In 1881 any legal document written in Catalan from a testament to a train ticket was declared officially null and void. In 1896 it became illegal to speak Catalan in public places and on the recently invented telephone. The overwhelming majority of Catalans at that time spoke no Spanish at all. In 1923 all road and street signs had to be in Spanish and teachers caught using Catalan to monolingual children were sacked on the spot.

In 1924 the esteemed architect Antonio Gaudi was arrested for speaking Catalan. When asked why he refused to speak Spanish and whether or not he was able to, Gaudi – a middle class and educated man – replied, “Of course I can speak Spanish, I just don’t want to”. He was then taken away and thrown into a police cell where he was threatened with a beating. Gaudi was an old man of 72 years at this time. So there we have an idea of a conflict that permeates into today’s situation but has a very strong historical background.

In 1907 one newspaper headline read, ‘Catalunya must be Castillianised’. It continued, ‘…People there must speak in Spanish, think in Spanish and behave like Spaniards whether they wish to or not!’ This is still the attitude of some very powerful people working within the centralised Spanish media and centralised Spanish government on both left and right which is why the problem persists such as it is today.

In the early 1930s a brief moment of democracy shone a little light of hope of a way forward when the Catalans managed, democratically to restore their government which had been taken from them forcibly in 1714. This lasted for six years until the fascist dictatorship of Franco took over after the civil war. For the following thirty eight years under Franco the Catalan experience would intensify markedly in terms of the use of their own native tongue. One could be arrested, beaten and imprisoned for merely chatting to people on their own street. There are documented cases of people being thrown off of moving trams for speaking Catalan and assaults on little children for the same natural act.

In a seemingly benevolent move from the post dictatorship government autonomy was granted to Catalunya in 1979 a year after the drafting of the Spanish constitution. This however, was vastly undermined by the granting of autonomy to a further eighteen more areas, most of whom didn’t and still don’t want it. Anything to make sure that Catalunya would never be seen as a separate nation within the nation state of Spain. The logic also extends to lessening the case for increased autonomy as the argument becomes clouded and distorted when the various other autonomies are dragged into any reasonable discussion on the matter.

It’s all a wonderful way for the Spanish central government to have its cake and eat it because if the Catalan government does anything that the Madrid government doesn’t like, they just put in a decree and try to change it from central government. It’s not federalism, it’s not even really autonomy. This highly unsatisfactory situation of haggling and argument has only served to make a great many lawyers rich from both the Spanish and Catalan people’s money.

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