Catalonia, on the other hand, is a country where oppression has provoked violent extremes. By language and culture she was originally an extension of southern France rather than part of Spain. In the 14th century she built up an extensive Mediterranean empire of her own, and her merchant seamen compiled Europe’s first code of maritime law. Prosperous as a trading nation, she had few contacts in mediaeval times with her semi-pastoral neighbours on the interior plateaux. But when she was united under the crown of Castile early in the 15th century her first decline began. The fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453 had made the Mediterranean unsafe for Christian ships, and wrecked her maritime trade. With the discovery of America the primacy of Spanish ports passed from Barcelona to Seville. Catalans were excluded from transatlantic commerce. At the same time extensive peasant troubles did temporary damage to her agriculture.
But it was not till the 17th century, when royal efforts at centralization became stronger, that the first big Catalan revolts began. In 1640, while Spain was in the middle of a war with France, the Catalans rebelled and placed themselves under the protection of the French king. This was the signal for a number of other provincial risings, in one of which Portugal won her final independence. Barcelona only submitted after 12 years to the King’s forces, and Catalan guerillas in the countryside kept up the fight for seven more. Forty years later—during the War of the Spanish Succession—the Catalans rebelled again. After a fearful siege of Barcelona the King regained control in 1714, abolished the remains of Catalonia’s political independence, closed the Catalan universities and started a new period of repression.
At the beginning of the 19th century the Peninsula War was the signal for a general disintegration of Spain. Until the arrival of British forces under Wellington, operations against the French invaders were carried out on a regional and local basis, and some 20 impromptu committees in various parts of the country declared their independence. Catalonia was occupied by French troops for five years.
There was another Catalan revolt in 1823, and then, under a “liberal” Government in Madrid, a further period of repression, in which Catalonia lost her few surviving local rights—her commercial and penal law, her special tribunals, the use of her language in schools, her coinage, and her local administration. But this was only the signal for a new revival: particularly a linguistic and cultural revival. The Catalan nationalist movement in its present form first began to organize itself about a hundred years ago.
At first it was not predominantly a movement of the left. The big Barcelona rising against the Central Government in 1842 was organized by a combination of factory owners and workers. As industrialization increased the Catalan industrialists and the prosperous bourgeoisie took the lead against the centralism of Madrid. Allied to them at first were the Carlists, who, though reactionary and pro-clerical, also stood for local liberties and interests. After the second Carlist war ended in 1876, the Church herself still supported the autonomists in both Catalonia and Euzkadi. But as the industrial proletariat grew stronger, and as wave after wave of terrorism and repression swept the country in the early 1900s, the leadership of the nationalist movements passed gradually to the people. In 1909 the oppressive policy of the Central Government provoked wild riots which were followed ten years later by the first big general strike. Well organized and relatively peaceful, it paralysed Barcelona and caused the fall of two successive governments in Madrid. This time Government repression was more ferocious than ever before. Upheavals, atrocities and assassinations continued without a pause until 1923, when Primo do Rivera, then Military Governor of Catalonia, made his successful coup d’état.
During his dictatorship, Catalan nationalism was driven deep underground. This, and the declared anti-Catalan sentiments of King Alfonso XIII, made it more than ever republican and left wing. Only after the coming to power of the Republic of 1931, which was actually preceded by the declaration of a Catalan Republic, did Catalonia regain her freedom of expression, her local autonomy, and the right to remember her individuality and her own traditions. The story of the Generalitat of Catalonia, of the autonomous government of Euzkadi, and of how, during the last civil war, the age-old Spanish regionalist tendencies came once again to life, belongs to recent history. But local nationalism and the problems of Catalonia and Euzkadi are not new. They have deep roots in the past. They can never be extinguished by passing wars or military dictators.