By Francesc Xavier Hernàndez Cardona. Historian. Professor at Universidad de Barcelona
The Peace Assembly and the Toluges Truce, called by Catalan bishop Oliva in 1033, initiated a special political dialogue process in the Catalonian counties that would made possible different political views. The Counts of Barcelona agreed to govern in a Cortes system with laws or ‘constitutions’ approved by consensus and with representatives of the nobility, the cities and the Church. As the time passed by, the number of constitutions restricting the power of counts and kings in Aragon was increasing, and led to an early constitutional political system that said that the king should respect and comply with the Cortes’ laws. Thanks to the increasing constitutions, the Catalonian Government was able to avoid the power voracity of the monarchs between the 16th and 17th centuries. During that period, the Catalonian strong identity feeling was based on the rights and duties according to the law, like it would later happen in the liberal revolutions; in other words, its basis was political rather than cultural: a Catalan was someone enjoying the freedoms provided by the constitutions. But when in 1700 the Habsburg King Charles II died without issue, the new King Philip V made things more difficult, leading to the first great European war.
The War of the Spanish Succession was a terrible confrontation between two concepts about the future of Europe and the world. Louis XVI of France and his grandson, Philip the Duke of Anjou (who would later be Philip V of Spain and I of Aragon), had their minds very clear: they wanted a global totalitarian dictatorship with which they could erase any constitutional desire. From 1700 on, Louis XIV, who had France, the Spanish kingdoms and the respective colonies in his hands, cherished the universal monarchy. But there was an opposition against this desire of the constitutional powers for democracy and industry: England, Holland and the benevolent monarchy of Austria, which was respectful with the freedoms of its people. This progress suggested that the Archduke Charles, Charles III, could take charge of the Spanish kingdoms and states. Charles counted with lots of supporters in Castile and Aragon and with the enthusiastic support of Catalonia, the small country that had the leadership regarding experience and constitutional development for democracy and industry. The survival of the Catalan constitutional state depended on the success of the allied forces. Catalans, Aragoneses, Valencians, Majorcans and many Castilians fought determinedly against the absolutist atrocity.
The war was very tough, the allies were close to win in several occasions, but Louis and Philip remained. In 1710 the political situation changed drastically. Charles had to take charge of Austria and the Empire. England and Holland feared that if Charles controlled Austria and Spain, the empire of Philip II would happen again. France, England and Holland decided to sign a peace treaty in Utrecht in 1713. Charles didn’t resign his Hispanic rights but couldn’t stand militarily in Flanders or Spain. Without the support of the British fleet, his Austrian forces should withdraw or surrender. As for Philip V, he wanted to deal with the Catalonian insolent rebels by annihilating their constitutional government. England and Holland tried to defend the Catalonian freedoms, but they finally gave up. An abandoned Catalonia fell into Philip’s hands, who by June 1713 had his troops marching towards Catalonia to subdue it. The Catalonian state, which had a great experience managing crisis, reacted very quickly. The Junta de Brazos, which was the Cortes institution without the presence of the king, was called by the end of June 1713. It decided to keep their obedience to Charles III and fight the war to the constitutional government’s defence. The arranged pertinent committees, the Generalitat of Catalonia and the governmental institution Consejo de Ciento of Barcelona took up the political and military direction of Catalonia, convinced that war could be military won and that, basically, the important thing was to resist until the coming of the new political changes in Europe that could worsen the international conflict. In just a few days the Catalonian authorities gathered an efficient army headed by General Antonio de Villarroel.
The forces of Philip V brutally attacked the principality, besieged the city of Barcelona and sowed repression and terror all over Catalonia, but the Catalan people resisted with an uncommon efficiency. During the spring of 1714, after one year of combats, the Spanish troops were exhausted and about to crumble; Philip V couldn’t impose himself in Catalonia. But this situation put at risk the Peace of Utrecht and Louis XIV decided to intervene to safe his grandson Philip. The bulk of the French army, which counted with 40,000 soldiers approximately and all the artillery train and was headed by the Duke of Berwick, crossed the border and besieged Barcelona. The duke had orders from Philip consisting in destroying the city, and with that goal in mind he started the attack on 11th September 1714. Nevertheless, given the extraordinary resistance of Catalans and in order to stop the bloodbath of his own troops, the duke decided to accept a capitulation respecting the lives and properties of the people from Barcelona. The city was safe, but the moment the French army withdrawn, the Spanish troops came to start a savage repression. The Catalonian state was abolished, the constitutions were repealed and the people were disarmed and repressed. Many leaders were put in jail and many people had to go into exile in Austria. The country was militarily occupied and a militarist dictatorial regime was imposed. The fiscal loot of the country was planed according to the Cadastro and a number of representative measures was articulated from the Nueva Planta decrees. The field marshal became the maximum civil and military authority in Catalonia and, from that moment on, the municipal authorities were directly called by the king. This totalitarian atrocity never meant a progress in modernity. Absolutism was a dead route in the history of humanity, as it was proved some years later when the guillotine touched Louis XVI of France.
The defeat of Catalonia in 1714 was terrible, although the constitutional inheritance surfaced in many occasions. During the 18th century, there were many armed and political movements of resistance, and during the Napoleonic Wars there were attempts to recover independence and the constitutions. The liberal city of Barcelona put up resistance to the Hundred Thousand Sons of Saint Louis who came to restore the absolutism of Ferdinand VII. During the 19th century, the constitutional memory was always constant, but then it was embodied in a context of social and economic change in a country that transmuted at the same pace of the Industrial Revolution. The new centralist government derived of the new consolidation of the Bourbons, with the absolutist Ferdinand VII and the neoliberal Isabella II, and had a great opposition in Catalonia.
On the one hand, the Carlists wanted to restore the medieval Catalonian constitutions, and their claims had a strong nationalist component. On the other hand, democrats and republicans, who had a great influence on the new proletariat, claimed for a progressive constitutional regime that could make possible, through federation, the freedom of Catalonia in the new ‘national’ Spanish market, created by the new liberal state under construction. So, during the moments of crisis, like the one of 1843 with the revolution of the Jamancia in Barcelona, the Republic was proclaimed, and it was in force for several months until the capitulation of the city when it was savagely bombarded by the Spanish army. In this context of development in Spain as a project of a nation state, there were many Catalonian politics (Víctor Balaguer and Joan Prim, for example) that tried to stimulate initiatives of modernization and a democratic model of federal conception, an alternative to the conservatism of higher classes, which were hided behind the Bourbon monarchy: landowners, the Church and the financial and speculator banks. Then the Glorious Revolution took place and after the murder of General Juan Prim and the failure of the Austrian restore with Amadeo of Savoy, the first Spanish Republic came. Catalonia played an important role in the planning of the new project of state. For the other hand, the Catalonian political leaders proclaimed the Catalan state and governed de facto with federal criteria. Catalonia was recovering again a constitutional context for its development, even the Catalonian identity movements moved for a while in the constitutional coordinates, trying to gain a political frame for development. However, the unification process of Italy and Germany, based on the romantic currents that identified ‘nation’ with language and culture, had an influence on Catalonia. Then, by the end of the 19th century, a new nationalism took place; it wasn’t based on political criteria, but on the cultural ones. During this new period, with the popular movement’s defeat (caused by the fall of the republic), the industrial bourgeoisie held the reins of the national claims for its own good, specially after the Cuban war. During the early 20th century, the Regionalist League became the party of the industrial parts and one of the Catalonian parties. The emerging politicians (like Cambó and Prat) tried to become powerful in Catalonia in order to influence and put pressure on the Spanish government, so it could become modern and practice a tariff politic for the good of the industrial interests. The Regionalist League got cultural achievements for Catalonia through the Commonwealth of Catalonia, that acted with state criteria. However, the industrial bourgeoisie, given the fighting spirit of the Catalonian proletariat, ended up asking for the support of the more reactionary political forces of Madrid and directly propelled the coup d’état of General Primo de Rivera in 1923.
This dynamic finished with Francesc Macià, founder of Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, a left-wing political party that joined republicanism, nationalism and social democracy and that provoked the democratic breaking-off of 1931. Macià propelled a progressive republican nationalism that, on the one hand, kept the cultural claims and, on the other hand, encouraged the traditional constitutional nationalism through fair and progress laws passed by the Parliament of Catalonia. This dynamic was spoiled by the barbaric fascist coup d’état of 1936. Catalonia put all its resources to the service of the Spanish Republic. The last great effort took place during the Battle of the Ebro, in which thousands of young Catalan soldiers from the last conscripts fought. After the defeat, the hatred of the criminal dictator Franco against Catalonia was shown with the murder of the President of the Generalitat, Lluís Companys, in 1941. During the dictatorship, the regime provoked the plundering of the country. The Catalonian bank was taken over by the big Basque-Spanish banks, the big business had to transfer their headquarters to Madrid and Catalonia didn’t touch anything regarding new infrastructures. Franco’s death was followed by a second process of restoring the Bourbon monarchy, in which the opposition forces cooperated. The new regime was based on a pact of silence and impunity about the atrocities that took place during the war and the dictatorship. Juan Carlos I, close supporter of Franco, became the Head of the State. The new regime was a formal but not real democracy, since the democratic culture never got extended. Even some distinguished fascist leaders kept playing an important role in the government. Actually, there was a supposedly decentralized structure on top of the fascist basis, that never was taken down. The Spain of autonomies was a fiction built on the inheritance of the provincial Spain of Isabella II. A disproportionate, corrupt and ineffective political class pooled efforts with speculator banks in order to propel a growth model based on speculation and estate agencies’ operations. European investments were squandered in untenable economic systems and administrations. During all this process, the Catalonian autonomy, which has also suffered from misgovernment and squandering, has been lacking of investments in infrastructures and has undergone terrible financial difficulties. Finally, the Catalan people took the streets on 11th of June of 2012 to impose their desires of freedom and against misgovernment, the transfascist monarchy and corruption. Three hundred years after the defeat in 1714, Catalans showed their will to recover and practise their freedoms and, specially, to democratically decide. Philip VI won’t be the king of the Catalan people, neither of the Spanish one. The republican path of Catalonia will also open the path to the third Spanish Republic.