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Supporters of Catalan independence outside the Catalan parliament in Barcelona during a speech by Premier Carles Puigdemont on whether he would declare independence from Spain, October 10, 2017

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 country. According to the organizers, 92 percent of those who voted chose independence, with roughly 42 percent of eligible voters participating in the referendum. But no one, other than the separatists, is taking the vote as an accurate reflection of the will of the Catalan people. For one thing, there is no independent verification of the vote. Madrid declared the referendum illegal, relying on a 2010 ruling by the Constitutional Tribunal, Spain’s highest court, that any unilateral move by Catalonia toward independence was in violation of the Spanish Constitution of 1978, which asserts the “indivisible” nature of the Spanish national territory.

Moreover, many irregularities plagued the referendum. Days before the vote, the Guardia Civil arrested Catalan officials in charge of it and seized some 10 million ballots, and a Barcelona court banned a Google app instructing people where to vote. On the day of the vote, Madrid deployed thousands of National Police and Guardia Civil officers to block voters from entering polling stations, after Catalan police defied orders from Madrid to keep them closed. According to Catalan health officials, altercations between the police and the public resulted in injuries to 844 people.

The Catalan government claims that Madrid’s intimidating tactics explain the low turnout. But a referendum in 2014 that Madrid allowed to proceed without any interference (the so-called trial balloon referendum) had a very similar level of support and turnout: 80 percent supported independence, with just under 40 percent of voters participating. It is commonly assumed that only those committed to independence are choosing to vote in these referendums.

In The Struggle for Catalonia: Rebel Politics in Spain, Raphael Minder, a Madrid-based correspondent for The New York Times, describes what has brought Spain and Catalonia to the brink of divorce. Despite Catalonia’s claim to a history and culture distinct from the rest of the country, it is deeply connected to Spain. It is difficult, if not impossible, to understand Catalan history as separate from Spanish history. The Catalans were active participants in the unification of the medieval kingdoms of Castile and Aragón (which included the Principat of Catalonia) to create the Kingdom of Spain. They continued to be prominently involved in the development of the Spanish state, including the drafting of the Constitution of 1812, the first Spanish constitution that broadly recognized civil and political liberties.


Catalonia was also one of the main theaters of the Spanish civil war, with some of the main losers in that conflict between democracy and fascism, such as the anarchist movement, the trade unions, and the Spanish Communist Party, intimately linked to Catalan politics. And despite Catalonia’s resistance to the Franco regime (resulting largely from his elimination of all autonomy for the region and harsh repression of Catalan culture, such as the language and flag and the Diada, the Catalan national holiday), parts of Catalan society actively supported his assault on democracy in 1936. Indeed, the remarkable longevity of the Franco regime cannot be understood without taking account of the backing it enjoyed from members of the Catalan business community, historically the most important in Spain, Catalan rural oligarchs, and the Catalan Catholic Church.

More surprising about the current conflict, however, is that the Catalans have historically been the more restrained nationalists in Spain, at least when compared to the violence-prone Basques. During the drive for Basque independence, which began in the twilight of the Franco years, the terrorist organization Basque Homeland and Liberty (ETA) unleashed a murderous campaign that, beginning in the late 1960s, claimed the lives of almost one thousand people. Now disbanded, ETA has not killed anyone on Spanish soil since 2009. By contrast, Catalan nationalists have historically relied on compromises with Madrid to advance their agenda, always careful, at least until recently, to cast it as an aspiration for local rule and not independence.

Catalonia’s traditional pragmatism in dealing with Madrid was perfected by Jordi Pujol, the founder of the Catalan nationalist party Convergence and Union (CiU), who ruled Catalonia from 1980 to 2003. For Pujol, Catalonia’s future was always tied to Spain and to being part of a large community of European regions. Indeed, Pujol was a leader of the movement of “Europe of the regions,” which encouraged European institutions to recognize the importance of regional governments within their respective nation-states and to publish their policy papers and proceedings in languages such as Catalan.

Although Catalan nationalism is premised on the view that Catalonia possesses a distinct culture, that culture is very inclusive. Anyone can become Catalan if they are willing to speak Catalan, partake in Catalan culture, and, most importantly, espouse the view that Catalonia has a legitimate claim to nationhood. Basque nationalism, by contrast, upholds the view that the Basque people are Europe’s oldest ethnic minority. Accordingly, membership in that community is limited to those with a blood connection to it. Not surprisingly, the rhetoric of Basque nationalism is heavy with fears of “contamination” by Spanish culture. The mere presence of outsiders in the Basque Country, not only Spaniards but also immigrants, is often regarded as a form of “cultural genocide.”

One of the virtues of Minder’s elegantly written book is that his roughly two hundred interviews with politicians, journalists, and scholars give it an evenhanded approach to the situation in Catalonia. Minder correctly ascribes the origins of the current conflict not to ancient claims about Catalan nationhood but rather to the provocations of a new generation of Catalan leaders who support independence and have little regard for the democratic institutions put in place after Franco; and to Madrid’s overheated response to those provocations and, more generally, to the Catalans’ desire for more control over their own affairs. Collectively, the behavior of the political class in Madrid amounts to an immense failure of leadership. It has allowed a dispute over Catalonia’s control over its fiscal affairs to grow into the most serious constitutional crisis that Spanish democracy has faced in the post-Franco era.

More specifically, Minder traces the roots of the current crisis to 2006, when the Catalan electorate approved the new Statute of Autonomy, a resolution that, among other things, referred to Catalonia as “a nation” and called for the region to have greater control over its finances. Even though it was approved by the Spanish parliament, the statute ran afoul of the Constitutional Tribunal, which, after deliberating for four years, ruled against the statute’s main components. Madrid’s position toward Catalonia hardened considerably after 2011, when the conservative Mariano Rajoy became prime minister. He replaced the social democratic administration of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, which was sympathetic to the plight of the Catalans, and wasted no time in signaling that his administration had no desire to accommodate their request for greater autonomy.

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Demonstrators at a march organized by the anti-separatist group Catalan Civil Society, Barcelona, October 8, 2017


These setbacks emboldened the Catalan nationalist movement to coalesce around the Junts pel Sí (Together for Yes) coalition in time for the 2015 Catalan regional elections, from which it emerged victorious. Upon assuming power, the new premier, Carles Puigdemont, who hails from Girona, Catalonia’s most fiercely independent province, escalated the crisis by announcing plans for the creation of the Republic of Catalonia. During his swearing in, Puigdemont broke with precedent (and with Spanish law) by refusing to pledge loyalty to the Spanish Constitution. And in a pointed rebuke to the Spanish monarchy, the portrait of King Felipe that hangs in the chamber where the ceremony took place was covered with a veil.

Madrid responded in kind. After the Catalan parliament authorized the referendum, the Rajoy administration threatened to prosecute the parliamentarians who voted for it. The administration claimed that they were acting illegally by using public funds to finance the referendum. Despite expressing regret over the violence that marred the referendum, the rest of the political establishment in Madrid has backed Rajoy, including the leading opposition party in parliament, the social democratic PSOE, and the monarchy. In a forceful speech to the nation, King Felipe accused the Catalan separatists of “inadmissable disloyalty.”

Minder’s analysis demonstrates that the crisis in Catalonia is part of a much wider story. It is no accident that it deepened as Spain endured its most serious economic crisis in decades, following the international financial crash of 2008. That crisis, during which the unemployment rate reached 27 percent—the highest in the EU and almost twice the average for an EU country—exacerbated the sense among Catalans of being economically exploited by the rest of Spain. The 2014 Scottish independence referendum, although unsuccessful, inspired the Catalans to demand from Madrid the right to self-determination. They also were inspired by Brexit, which has come to symbolize the backlash against government centralization across Western Europe. On the day of the referendum, El País, Spain’s leading newspaper, reported that Russian-funded media outlets were promoting a justification for secession. They celebrated Catalan nationalism while vilifying Madrid, as part of a campaign by Russia to destabilize Western democracies.

Minder’s book is valuable not only for what it explains but for what it describes: one of Europe’s most culturally complex, economically prosperous, and politically liberal regions. In particular, the book is an ode to Barcelona, Catalonia’s glittering capital and one of Europe’s most cosmopolitan cities. A chapter is devoted to its emergence as a global city since its widely praised Olympic Games in 1992, which turned it into “the engine of Spain’s tourism growth.” Before the games, Barcelona attracted fewer than a million visitors per year; in 2016, there were over eight million, making it one of the world’s top tourist destinations, with the modernista architecture of Antoni Gaudí especially popular. Whit Stillman’s Barcelona, a 1994 film about American expatriates living in Spain in the twilight of the cold war, launched a wave of films using Barcelona as their main backdrop, including Pedro Almodóvar’s melodrama All About My Mother (1999) and Woody Allen’s romantic comedy Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008).

Soccer is one of Barcelona’s main passions, and Minder pays proper attention to it. Its soccer team, universally known as “Barça,” is a source of tremendous pride and a projection of Catalan identity to the entire world. The team’s fierce faceoffs with Real Madrid, a match known as El Clásico, are among the world’s most-watched sporting events. As might be expected, it is richly laden with political undertones and is viewed, essentially, as a proxy war between an imperial power and a rebellious subject. To underscore the political nature of soccer in Catalonia, on the day of the referendum the Barcelona team played at home without an audience and with the stadium’s door closed, in a sign of protest over the mayhem in the streets.

Minder gives much attention as well to how Barcelona’s identity is being radically transformed by “big money and international brands.” To hear of another European city losing its soul to globalization is hardly news. But the case of Barcelona is perhaps unique, if only because the international isolation that Spain endured under the long Francoist dictatorship (the country only joined the European Economic Community, the precursor to the EU, in 1986) allowed the city to resist modernization and most of its less appealing outcomes, especially gentrification, longer than most other major European cities. Indeed, until recently it seemed that Barcelona had managed the rare feat of retaining its local flavor while opening itself to the world.

Barcelona’s transformation is felt most dramatically in its old city center, traditionally known as the Gothic Quarter, where hundreds of centuries-old businesses, such as bookstores, bakeries, and toy stores, many of them family-run, have disappeared in the last few years due to rising rents. Less apparent, especially to those unfamiliar with pre-Olympics Barcelona, is the alteration of entire residential neighborhoods. Few visitors familiar with Barcelona, at least through the mid-1990s, would today recognize El Barrio Chino, the Chinese Quarter, Barcelona’s traditional red-light district, which has all but disappeared as a consequence of gentrification. The district’s radical makeover is poignantly captured in Jose Luís Guerín’s 2001 documentary, En construcción (Under Construction), in which the filmmaker, who lived there for over a year, traces the building of a luxury apartment complex that both altered the district’s future and also unearthed its ancient past with the discovery of previously unknown burial grounds.

Ironically, the Catalan independence project faces its stiffest resistance in Barcelona and surrounding areas like Hospitalet de Llobregat. As Minder notes, “the independence movement has relied heavily on the size and importance of Barcelona to argue that Catalonia would be a sustainable state,” but the project “has not been able to conquer the hearts and minds of many of Barcelona’s citizens.” As would be expected of a city with global ambitions, Barcelona is a magnet for people from other parts of Spain as well as for immigrants. It is home to Spain’s largest Muslim community; it also has sizable communities of Latin Americans and other Europeans. Many of these “adopted” citizens are deeply suspicious of what an independent Catalonia might mean for them and for Barcelona.

Another obstacle to independence is Barcelona’s business community, which is unsure that Catalonia, which has 16 percent of Spain’s population and accounts for 20 percent of its GDP, can survive economically on its own, especially given the EU’s negative reaction to the referendum. EU officials made it clear that admission of an independent Catalonia would not be automatic; this would be up to the existing member states, including Spain. Such uncertainty is causing an exodus of businesses from Catalonia. According to El País, almost seven hundred businesses have left Catalonia since the independence movement began to gain steam in 2015. And since the referendum, Catalonia’s two largest banks, Sabadell and CaixaBank, have moved their headquarters to other regions. These departures, enabled by a law enacted after the referendum to allow for the fast relocation of businesses, have dealt a blow to the promise made by the separatists before the referendum that “the banks would not be leaving an independent Catalonia.” It could well be that pressure from the business community rather than more direct actions from Madrid will break the backbone of the Catalan separatist movement.

For all its virtues, Minder’s analysis is short on solutions to the crisis, other than to call for compromise, especially on the part of the central government in Madrid. At the time the book was finished, this would have been a reasonable conclusion. Recent events, however, suggest that it might not be enough. Madrid’s display of violent force on the day of the referendum, and the images that live on in social media of police officers beating up voters, dragging the elderly through the streets, and firing rubber bullets into the crowds, have given the separatists the moral high ground and in all likelihood expanded support for independence. Further use of force by Madrid will be like throwing gasoline on a fire.

In a dispatch for The New York Times of October 3, Minder wrote that “protesters blocked dozens of roads across Catalonia. Farmers used their tractors to cut off highways, and demonstrators shut down some of the main roads in Barcelona.” But there is a silver lining to these actions. They remind the nation of its violent past. Since the referendum, thousands of Spaniards from all walks of life have taken to the streets to demand national unity. From the movement’s slogan, Parlem/Hablemos (Catalan and Spanish for “let’s talk”), to the Spanish flag waving on the streets of Barcelona, the desire for peace could not be clearer. The demonstrators appear to have gotten their wish. On October 10, the separatists suspended a unilateral declaration of independence to allow for negotiations with Madrid.

—October 11, 2017