“The Deplorable History of the Catalans”

Article written by the international known writter Albert Sánchez Piñol. 

You can download the full book at this link. 

Article translated by a follower, Mr. Mark Wong-VanHaren.

I just turned 50, and in this half century not a single year has gone by, not even one, without the Spanish government passing a law, or creating a policy, against Catalan language and culture. So, perhaps the right question isn’t “why are there so many Catalans who don’t want to be Spanish?”, but rather “why is Catalonia still part of Spain?”.

Until the 15th century, the two dominant powers of the Iberian peninsula were Castile and Catalonia. Two very different countries, as much for geographic reasons as for political ones. In Castile, a land-locked and dry country, they had strengthened the absolutist principle according to which “the king’s word is law”. In mediterranean Catalonia, on the other hand, the monarchs maintained much more complex relationships with popular institutions, such as the Parliament or the Catalan Courts. As one astonished observer would say, “for the Catalans, the king is such only in the abstract,” while another would explain that “recent Catalan Courts have made the Catalans more republican than the English.”

In the 15th century, the two countries become united by dint of royal marriage. But you must understand: they did no blend into one; the respective sovereigns remain intact. Catalans and Castilians owe allegiance to the same monarch, but his privileges, at least in Catalonia, continue to be as limited as ever. The New World became a purely Castilian enterprise because, since Catalonia was a separate kingdom, they had no rights. There are no Catalan conquistadors.

Coincident with the dynastic union – oh, paradox! – was the beginning of the authentic rivalry between Castile and Catalonia. It couldn’t be any other way: we’re talking about polar-opposite political models. Catalans don’t participate in Castile’s imperial enterprises. The laws of Barcelona, for example, don’t allow the king to recruit Catalans to fight outside of Catalonia. So, Castile battles alone in the wars of Flanders and the Americas. The Catalans are accused of being unsupportive. Even Quevedo himself calls them the “lepers of the kings”. But there’s more. With the expulsion of the Jews in 1492, the kingdom needed to find a substitute for the “internal enemy”. Upon whom should this heavy burden fall? The collective Spanish conceit – even today! – of Catalans comes from those times. The Catalan as thrifty, but reserved; hard-working, but strange. The self-made Catalan, perhaps because he speaks another language, and does so in bad faith so we don’t know what he’s planning. Bright, or rather astute, but selfish.

The tricky balance between the two kingdoms came to an end in the year 1700 when the War of Spanish Succession broke out. In reality, it was a conflict on European scale between the two superpowers of the time: France and England. Warring parties look for allies; Castile allies herself with France, and Catalonia with England. In battle fields elsewhere in Europe, they fought for continental dominance; in Spain it’s a fight to the death. The Catalans know that if their absolutist enemies conquer them it will be the end of their popular political institutions. It’s not an ethnic war, but rather one of political projects, which allows individuals to cross lines: the Catalan leaders actually choose a Castilian as the military commander of their troops.

The war is ferocious. And in 1713, for political reasons, England abandons Catalonia, leaving it to fend for itself. Isolated, Barcelona resists siege for an entire year. It succumbs in 1714, after a terrible assault in which thousands of citizens and soldiers die. It’s the 11th of September: currently the National Day of Catalonia, known as “The Diada”. But if the fighting was ferocious, the ensuing oppression was even more so. Catalonia’s political institutions were annulled, its language prohibited, and dozens upon dozens of its towns burnt down. Even 300 years later, official Castilian letters from the time are still overwhelming: “We should have hung them all” wrote a commander in Madrid, “but sadly it couldn’t be: we don’t have enough gallows.”

Since 1714, Spain ceases to be a confederate state, becoming what it still is today: a strictly Castilian project. So naturally, each time a new republic is proclaimed or a dictator dies, that is, with each democratic wave, Catalonia has been at the forefront of a collective yearning for freedom. Until today.

Today a majority of Catalans have begun to understand that it’s impossible to be Catalans inside of Spain. The Spanish political powers are simply too inflexible, too intolerant. Catalan identity continues to be seen as a pathogen, a tumor. Madrid doesn’t even try to hide it: “Our objective”, their recent minister of culture proclaimed, “consists of Spanish-izing Catalan children.”

Catalonia is going through a process of extraordinary social mobilization, inspired by Mandela and Ghandi. Its demands? That Catalan society be allowed to freely decide its future, something which Spanish laws prevent. There is no counteroffer: Spain has limited itself to sewing fear in Catalan society, to accusing its leaders of being “Nazis” – as crazy as that sounds, it’s true – and to brandishing the threat of exclusion from the European Union. But if the EU has done everything possible to retain the burden of a failed state like Greece, why should it kick out Catalonia, a prosperous, fiercely pro-European, net-contributor country which hosts so many European companies? What wrong has Catalonia committed? That of reclaiming democratic principles?

In 1714, England felt guilty for having abandoned the Catalans to an atrocious destiny, and a manifesto appeared in London called “The Deplorable History of the Catalans”. Even today, what Madrid fears most is that any greater power oblige it to negotiate with the Catalans. And that will only be achieved with an informed European public. Please, inform yourselves. What’s happening in Catalonia is magnificent. A civic revolution, a democratic renovation. And listen to all sides, not just the bullhorns from Madrid. And maybe then, finally, the history of the Catalans will cease to be deplorable. And that of Europe a little more admirable.

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