Catalonia, on the Brink

Catalonia, on the Brink

Gerry Dorrian considers the roots of the current crisis

Political geography tends to fracture across historical fault lines. In 2015, the University of Oxford’s DNA map of Britain revealed the continuing existence of the millennium-old Landsker Line separating English and Welsh-speaking people in Pembrokeshire, as well as the sharp division between genetic groups in Devon and Cornwall running down the border between the two counties, again 1,000 years old.1

Writ large, the best-known example was the Iron Curtain, which sundered Germany roughly down the line dividing in medieval times western lands where peasants could own property (for a time) from lands where they could not,2 and continued down the Roman Empire’s easternmost stable border, inherited later by Charlemagne,3 which also divided the realms of Latin and Cyrillic text, and the division between western and Orthodox Christianity.4 From the late eighteenth century onwards, Yugoslavists envisaged their supranational Slavic state straddling this line:5 it didn’t end well.

20th century wars concentrated geographers’ minds on the Iron Curtain division at the expense of historical faults to the west that the Second World War awakened. When Italy surrendered in 1943, although the Allies were still in Sicily, free Italy’s border with Mussolini’s Italian Social Republic (Salo) was not much further north than the border once dividing the Papal States from the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies – territory previously part of the Byzantine Empire and Crown of Aragon never culturally or linguistically Italian – which was incorporated into Italy after a terrorist campaign led by Garibaldi in 1860-61.6 The wound had never healed.

On the other hand, the border between Pétain’s collaborationist Vichy Regime and Nazi-occupied France lay for the most part on the Loire, which had marked the linguistic boundary between lenga d’oc (Languedoc) on the Occitan south and the langue d’ouil, ancestor of modern French, on the covetous north.7 The fault line wartime France folded across was that boundary, long after the lands to the south were steadily acquired by France, sometimes through dynastic manoeuvres but most infamously by the Albigensian Crusade of 1209-29.

The refusal of these lines to fade into history is one of the reasons why we are seeing scenes of chaos from Spain, as the Guardia Civil, whose batons and rubber bullets failed to prevent Catalonians from voting in an independence referendum, now rely on the army to protect them from the consequences of their actions. It is true that the referendum had not been sanctioned by the central government,8 but the most cursory survey of history shows that freedom has a tendency to be proscribed until wrested from the central power by those striving to be free.

What would become the Principality of Catalonia began life as a polity when Louis the Pious drove Moorish occupiers from the area in 801 to establish it as a buffer state between the Holy Roman Empire of his father, Charlemagne, and the Ummayyad Caliphate of Córdoba.9 The region would henceforth embark on a different course from the other lands that would come to form Spain, being essentially Frankish and not ceded to the confederal Crown of Aragon until the 12th century.10 In 1481, as the Kingdom of Spain expanded to fit the Iberian peninsula, the Corts of Barcelona (one of Europe’s oldest Parliaments) enacted the Constitució de l’Observança or Constitution of Observance to preserve uniquely Catalan traditions.11

After Aragon was dissolved in 1711 by Philip V, Castilian linguistic and cultural hegemony was pressed upon Catalonia, predictably engendering a wave of increased cultural and political nationalism.12 The suppression of Catalan culture intensified amid colonialist manoeuvres in the 19th century whereby states such as Spain and Italy approached their present configurations by absorbing neighbouring polities to become empires, masquerading as unified nations.

In the next century Spain’s dictator, Miguel Primo de Rivera, who ironically staged a coup in 1923 from his power-base in Catalonia, with the backing of King Alfonso XIII, who saw in Primo a Spanish Mussolini13 prohibited the public speaking of Catalan, the display of Catalan national symbols, and abolished the Chair of Catalan at the University of Barcelona.14 When the Civil War Came, Catalonia was caught between three fascist dictators – Franco, Stalin and Hitler. It mounted a strong opposition to Franco (together with Galicia and the Basque territories) and became the object of a murderous campaign to annihilate Catalan culture.15 Britain and France walked away, due in part to the Republicans’ violent anti-clericalism. In Homage to Catalonia, Orwell recounts the refusal of working-class and ex-communist Republicans to accede to Stalin’s demands for the rebels to make Spain a Soviet republic,16 one that would control the entrance to the Mediterranean. Because of this, Stalin ensured that shipments of arms to the region’s freedom-fighters arrived late, if at all. Some of the arms meant for Republicans even came from Nazi Germany, in a proxy war intended by Stalin not to be of any benefit to Spanish people but to convince Hitler that he would be a suitable ally.17

After Franco’s death in 1975, the pacto del olvido (Pact of Forgetting) allowed the first post-Franco prime minister, Adolfo Suárez, to invite exiled Catalan leader Josep Taradellas back from France to head a regional regime that was at once self-governing and integrated into Spain, with increasing powers of self-determination.18 But it also allowed Francoists and their political descendents in Madrid to demand that monies going to the area be reduced and powers re-centralised, especially after the global financial crisis reached Spain in 2009,19 in turn incentivising Catalonian nationalists to perceive the region’s government as heir not to a post-dictatorship exercise in trying to keep the past in the past but to the court of an independent Catalonia that was always more European than Spanish.20

It’s instructive, then, that Brussels has remained at arms’ length, issuing only a terse statement that the Catalonian crisis is an internal matter for Spain.21 Its reluctance to condemn a brutal police crackdown on voters should concern democrats throughout Europe. But maybe the European Union is thinking not of Spain but of the no less than fourteen out of twenty-eight EU countries with breakaway movements. Of these, there are two movements related to territories split between Spain and France by the 1659 Treaty of the Pyrénées, Catalonia itself and the Basque territories,22 only recently quiescent. Of the two Wallonian secessionist movements in Belgium, Brussels itself finds itself in the territory of one – Rally Wallonia-France – that seeks reunification with France,23 which might find itself tempted to expansionism from an age of empire it has never quite escaped from, especially faced with Occitan nationalism refocusing attention on the sins of Vichy.24 In neighbouring Italy, the Liga del Nord seems determined to keep the bulk of 80,000 migrants arriving in Italy in the first half of 201725 in the south, the territory of the old Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.

Western Europe faces a chain of flashpoints igniting across historical faultlines- witness the fascist salutes by some demonstrators demanding Spanish unity.26 One can only hope that Brussels, having washed its hands heretofore of pro-EU Catalonians, will remain a non-combatant and resist the urge to leverage this crisis to the cause of ever closer union. And that cool heads will ultimately prevail.


  1. Who do you really think you are? University of Oxford website, available at, accessed 8/10/2017
  2. Rasmussen, Carsten Porskrog, Forms of Serfdom and Bondage in the Danish Monarchy, in Cavaciocchi, Simonetta (ed.), Serfdom and Slavery in the European Economy, 11th-18th Centuries, University of Firenze Press, 2013, p281
  3. Malia, Martin, History’s Locomotives: Revolutions and the Making of the Modern World (2006), Yale University Press, 2007, p18
  4. Kissinger, Henry, Diplomacy, Simon & Schuster, 1994, pp240-241
  5.  Pavlowitch, Stevan K, Serbia, Montenegro and Yugoslavia, in Djokić, Dejan (ed.), Yugoslavism: Histories of a Failed Idea, 1918-1992, Hurst & Co, 2003, pp57ff
  6. Riall, Lucy, Garibaldi: Invention of a Hero (2007), Yale University Press, 2008, pp247-248
  7. Boldt, Andreas D, Historical Mechanisms: An Experimental Approach to Applying Scientific Theories to the Study of History, Routledge, 2017
  8. MR, Why the referendum on Catalan independence is illegal, The Economist, September 26 2017. Available at, accessed 8/10/2017
  9. Syed, Muzaffar Husain, Concise History of Islam, Vij 2011, p130
  10. Buffery, Helena and Marcer, Elisenda, Historical Dictionary of the Catalans, Scarecrow, 2011, p106
  11. i Puig. Eva Serra, Les corts catalanes, una bona font d’informació històrica, Institut d’Estudis Catalans, 2003, p24
  12. Delon, Michel, Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment Volume I (trans. Gwen Wells), Routledge, 2013, p1252
  13. Payne, Stanley G, Fascism in Spain, 1923-1977, University of Wisconsin Press, 1999, p28
  14. Radcliff, Pamela Beth, Modern Spain: 1808 to the Present, Wiley Blackwell, 2017, p149
  15. Ampuero, Casilda Güell, The Failure of Catalanist Opposition to Franco (1939-1950), Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, 2006, p53
  16. Orwell, George, Homage to Catalonia (1938), Penguin, 2013, see eg Chapter 5
  17. Kern, Gary, A Death in Washington: Walter G Krivitsky and the Stalin Terror, Enigma 2004, p54-56
  18. Gibbons, John, Spanish Politics Today, Manchester University Press, 1999, p16
  19. Duran, Miguel, Mediterranean Paradiplomacies: The Dynamics of Diplomatic Reterritorialization, Brill, 2015, p174
  20. Noyes, Dorothy, Fire in the Plaça: Catalan Festival Politics After Franco, University of Philadelphia Press, 2003, p17
  21. European Commission, Statement on the events in Catalonia, October 2 2017. Available at, accessed 8/10/2017
  22. Sahlins, Peter, Boundaries: The Making of France and Spain (1989), University of California Press, 1991, p44
  23. Lansford, Tom (ed.), Political Handbook of the World 2014, SAGE, 2014, p136
  24. Chartier, Erwan and Larvor, Ronan, La France éclatée ?: Enquête sur les mouvements régionalistes, autonomistes et indépendantistes en France, Coop Breizh, 2004, p283
  25. Bremmer, Ian, Yes, Merkel won again. But the fires of European populism are still raging, Time, October 9 2017, p9. Available at, accessed 8/10/2017
  26. Da Silva, Chantal, Far-right protesters give fascist salutes in Madrid as thousands rally over Catalonia crisis, The Independent, October 9 2017. Available at, accessed 9/10/2017

 Historian and philosopher GERRY DORRIAN writes from Cambridge

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4 Responses to Catalonia, on the Brink

  1. Andrea says:

    It would behove you to state that the majority of Catalans do not want independence which has been thrown down our throats since the 1980’s.

    History, particularly falsified history, can be a pest when it attempts control of the present.

    Two links that would behove wide circulation:

  2. Andrea, none of the history I have presented is falsified, I invite you to check out the references, add your own research and come to your own conclusion.

  3. Stuart Millson says:

    The EU does not believe in its “member states”, individual nations or constitutions at all – large, small, provincial or breakaway. The EU aims to be a single state, defined by its own currency, flag, anthem (poor old Beethoven used again for political reasons) and President. In the future (unless “the old and famous nations of Europe” [Churchill] follow Britain’s Brexit example) Spain will disappear into a euro-nothingness, as surely as Catalonia, the Basque country or Cornwall…

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