Writing in the Journal of Contemporary History, in 1991, the historian Stanley Payne noted that “Spanish nationalism is weaker than ever and has for all practical purposes disappeared.” Payne attributed this to the nationalist excesses of Generalissimo Francisco Franco. In 1936, Franco’s army launched a crusade to save Spain from “foreign threats” such as anarchism and communism, and drove the country into a bloody civil war in which up to one million people died and 500,000 were forced into exile. Following the end of hostilities in 1939, Franco consolidated an authoritarian regime that remained in place until his death in 1975.
Franco’s regime exalted a conception of Spanish nationalism that was built upon a narrative of the achievements of imperial Spain, most notably the “purification” of Spanish civilization with the expulsion of the Jews and the final defeat of the Moors in 1492, the conquest of the New World, and the spread of Christianity. It also asserted the superiority of Castilian culture, including Castilian Spanish, and made it the norm throughout the country. As a consequence of this association of Spanish nationalism with Francoism, to this day national symbols like the flag remain highly polarizing in Spain. Politicians even avoid the term El Estado Español—the Spanish State—a favorite of Franco’s regime.
An unintended outcome of the disappearance of Spanish nationalism is that it spared Spain the resurgence of right-wing populism that in recent years has made its way through countries as varied as Hungary, France, and the United States. Among Western nations, Spain is a rare exception of one without a viable political movement that espouses a nationalist agenda based on nativist, anti-immigrant themes. There is no equivalent campaign in Spain of Marine Le Pen’s to make France “more French” or Donald Trump’s to put “America First.” Nor, at present, is there a far-right party represented in the Spanish Parliament, a virtual anomaly for a European country.
But there is a decidedly dark side to the disappearance of Spanish nationalism. A surge of “subnationalism” in some of Spain’s most culturally distinct regions, such as Catalonia, the Basque Country, and Galicia, has filled the vacuum it left behind. The success of democracy in the post-Franco period has allowed Spanish regions to assert long-repressed identities. In the years since his death, and despite the considerable level of self-governance that can be found among Spain’s regions, the tension between them and Madrid has been growing steadily. In the case of Catalonia it seems to have reached a breaking point.
On October 1, Catalonia, a region of 7.5 million people located in the northeast corner of the Iberian peninsula, held a referendum on whether to declare itself an independent…
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