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Will Spain be held together by force? Madrid's brutal response to Catalan separatists is typical of a country forged by violence

Police clash with separatist protesters in Barcelona (Photo by PAU BARRENA/AFP via Getty Images)

Police clash with separatist protesters in Barcelona (Photo by PAU BARRENA/AFP via Getty Images)

October 16, 2019   5 mins

Spain’s peaceful transition from brutal Right-wing dictatorship to thriving democracy was one of the success stories of the late 20th century. Following Franco’s death in 1975, a referendum backing change in 1978, and the rapid collapse of a reactionary coup in 1981, the country happily progressed to become a member of Nato and the EEC and, for a time, turned into one of the most vibrant and exciting of European countries. The Seville Expo and the Barcelona Olympic Games of 1992 were the crowning glories of the new Spain, a country which had finally lain the traumas and problems of its difficult and bloody past to rest.

It was a good story with a positive message, and survived largely unchallenged for many years. But things are changing dramatically in Spain — or rather, are reverting back to type — and the narrative of the Transición, as it’s called, is losing momentum. The past, with all its horrors and threats of bloodshed to come, is back. Because it never really went away.

A full list of the deep problems currently facing the country would take up far too much space, but it includes the devalued reputation of the monarchy, hard hit by a string of scandals; an economy still struggling to pick itself up after the 2008 crash; an increasing gap between rich and poor; a shift towards weak, short-lived governments; a polarisation of the political spectrum including the rapid rise of a far-Right party; and a seemingly endemic culture of large-scale corruption among the political class.

All of this has greatly tarnished Spain’s image and self-belief over the past decade. But nowhere are the cracks more apparent than in the Catalan crisis, now flaring up once again following the sentencing this week of nine separatist leaders in the wake of the illegal referendum on regional independence in October 2017.

Reaction around the world to those scenes two years ago was one of shock and disbelief. Spanish riot police went in hard, using brute force in an attempt to shut the referendum down. Images of baton-wielding officers beating would-be voters were seen by millions, and outside Spain there was a collective intake of breath. How could something like this be taking place in a liberal Western democracy? Surely we don’t do things like this anymore?

But the problem was to fall into the trap of thinking that Spain actually had changed, to believe the yarn spun by the story of the Transición that she was now somehow different. A long view of the country’s history reveals that old problems and divisions never really go away in Spain; they simply fall into abeyance every now again, only to re-emerge, in a slightly different guise, yet essentially the same. And the Catalan situation is a very good example.

It is often overlooked that after Switzerland, Spain is the most mountainous country in Europe, and mountainous countries are notoriously difficult to unite and govern (Switzerland only succeeds by being a decentralised federation of cantons). Spanish geography itself, therefore, both gives a clear sense of national identity on the one hand through the distinct landmass that is the Iberian Peninsula (pace Portugal), but also pulls against this by dividing the peoples within between the numerous sierras which cross the landscape like castle walls.

Because of this there are five official languages in a country of only 40 million people, and there are no words to the national anthem because no one can agree what they should be. “Spanishness” is something which is deeply felt by most of the country’s inhabitants, but is impossible to define. The upshot of this is that several attempts have been made to delineate it through what it is or was not.

This search for identity through a negative can be seen clearly in Spain’s patron saint, Santiago — St James the Great. From the Middle Ages onwards this senior Disciple of Christ is commonly portrayed not in Biblical guise but as a horse-riding man of violence: as Matamoros, the “Moor-Slayer”. And by mythically slaughtering Muslim Spaniards on the battlefields of the so-called Reconquista, Santiago gave the many disparate kingdoms of Christian Spain something around which they could potentially cohere: not being Muslim. “Spanishness” was effectively constructed around “not being Moorish”.

But while the iconography of Matamoros focuses specifically on his eradication of Spanish Muslims, the role he symbolises can refer to the crushing of any group or community which potentially threatens an essentially Catholic, unified vision of the country. So everyone from Jews to Protestants, liberals, Enlightenment thinkers, socialists, anarchists and many others have been pushed out or annihilated over the centuries in the spirit which he embodies.

During the Civil War of the 1930s, Franco followed this tendency wholeheartedly by describing his Republican opponents simply as “the anti-Spain”. Over half a million of his compatriots died during the conflict, while another half a million fled into exile when it ended.

And today, as in the past, no one is more guaranteed to raise the hackles of the country’s militant patron saint than a regional group attempting to become independent. Spain — always a work in progress at best, and which has broken up and been put back together several times over many centuries — is viewed by supporters of national unity as la España eterna, “Eternal Spain”, as though created by the Almighty Himself. And to threaten this is not only viewed as something akin to heresy, but also heightens passions to a degree which is not commonly understood by observers abroad.

This particular divide — between centralism and a pull to the regions — has been at the heart of all of Spain’s multiple civil wars, from what we erroneously call “the Spanish Civil War” (as though there had only ever been one) of the 1930s, through the innumerable conflicts of the 19th century, the Segadors Catalan rebellion of the mid-16th century and beyond. In truth every century in Spanish history, for well over a thousand years, has seen at least one major civil conflict (in 1873 alone there were two different ones taking place simultaneously on the Spanish mainland, while a third raged in the colony of Cuba).

And while the causes change, there is always, at one level, this fundamental question: should the country unite, or break apart? For the truth is that “Spain” has only ever been created and held together by the use of force. Other methods have been tried — most recently with the narrative of the Transición — but these only enjoy short-term success at best.

The news from Spain is currently filled with references to the past. The government is preparing to dig Franco up from his mountain mausoleum north of Madrid; conservative politicians talk of possible “church-burnings” to come in the future, in a reference to events from the 1930s; the far-Right Vox party launch a recent election campaign in Covadonga, site of the mythical first battle of the “Reconquista” in 722; even the defeat of Habsburg-supporting Barcelona in the 18th-century War of Spanish Succession is a cornerstone of today’s arguments about Catalan independence.

Not a day goes by without history somehow making the headlines. The past is on the march, which means that Spain today has a stark choice: between national unity and democracy. Her own history dictates that she cannot have both. True democracy, by its very nature, is not authoritarian enough to hold the country together. The frequently hardline response from Madrid to the Catalan situation shows that when it comes to the crunch, national unity usually prevails. Anything else is a vote-loser, and with yet another general election scheduled for November the country feels weakened and in danger of returning to the well-trodden routes of old.

Can the 21st century buck the trend, or will the coming years see another civil conflict flare up? It’s in the hands of the Spanish themselves to try, once and for all, to break the habits of their history.

Jason Webster’s Violencia: A New History of Spain — Past, Present and the Future of the West is published by Constable

Jason Webster is the internationally acclaimed author of a dozen books of fiction and non-fiction on Spanish themes. His latest book, Violencia: A New History of Spain – Past, Present and the Future of the West is published by Constable.

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