Tuesday, February 05, 2008


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The Spanish Military Uprising of 1936

Under the Spanish Second Republic, the Catalans achieved home rule in 1932, but a Basque autonomy statute for Araba, Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa (Nabarra excluded) was delayed until 1936.

The military uprising of 18 July 1936 "underlined the multifarious social base and, at points, contradictory nature of the ideology upon which the (Basque Nationalist) party rested," writes Marianne Heiberg. According to Heiberg, some months previously secret meetings were allegedly held between certain Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) leaders and the right requesting arms "to form Basque militias which would function as soon as a communist revolution, which we assume approaching, explodes." A few days before the uprising two PNV deputies, Irujo and Lasarte, declared that the PNV would support the Republic in case of a military intervention. On the night before the military rebellion, the PNV executive retracted these assurances of automatic PNV loyalty.

On the day of the uprising, Heiberg writes, the first section of the PNV to react was the PNV executive in Nabarra, which declared its opposition to the government of the Republic "responsible for religious persecutions. " Volunteers, 42,000 in number and called the Requetes, financed by the Carlists, were recruited mainly from the peasantry and organized into militias in defence of "God and his Church, King and Fueros!

The worst period in the orgy of Franco's violence in Nabarra, had countless Nabarrase sentenced to exile, prison, or the grave. Nabarra was a fundamental bulwark for the insurrect Spanish army led by General Franco. The number of Nabarrase executed - more than 3,000 - by the fascists and their sympathisers in rearguard was higher than in any Spanish province with a war front. Forced recruitment, massive executions, rape, killings reported as suicides, prison, exile, and
the Catholic church as oppressive agent, are denounced by the cultural organization Altaffaylla Kultur Taldea in an important research published by the group in 1986 about Nabarra during the military uprising in 1936. The results of this research contradict the fascist propaganda which claims Nabarra was in favor of Franco.

Regional Autonomy for Baskongadak (Araba, Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa)

With the re-establisment of the Spanish Republic in 1931 and with it, the restoration of political liberties, Basque nationalists saw an opportunity to achieve autonomy. Eusko Ikaskuntza (Society of Basque Studies) drafted a project for an autonomy statute aimed at the unification of the three Basque provinces in Spain (Araba, Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa aka Baskongadak) and Nabarra into an almost independent state.

On June 15, 1931, a Baskongadak- Nabarra alliance of mayors from the four Basque territories in Spain met in the town of Lizarra in Nabarra and approved a project for autonomy, the Statute of Estella. The Basque project was rejected by the Republican government whose constitution recognised only one "integral state." For reasons still debated today, the Baskongadak- Nabarra alliance broke off. In 1932, the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) accepted an autonomy statute for the Baskongadak drafted by a Madrid commission.

According to Hurst Hannum, the short period during which the autonomous region of Baskongadak actually functioned before being abolished by the victorious Franquist forces in 1938 makes it difficult to judge the viability of the Second Republic's arrangements for autonomy. Hannum observes:

"Nevertheless, the broad scope of many of the region's proposed autonomous statutes indicates that there was a fairly extensive grant of actual as well as theoretical powers of self-government to the autonomous regions. The powers of approval and amendment of autonomy statutes reserved to the Spanish parliament (Cortes) is significant, but it should be noted that a majority in the 1931 parliament represented non-Castillian Spain, thus providing a fairly effective political check on discriminatory legislation at the national level and a sympathetic majority for regional autonomy".

The autonomy statute for Araba, Bizkaia, and Gipuzkoa was approved in referendum on November 5, 1933, by 84% of the Basque electorate. However, the Republican government failed to act in the plebiscite and Basque aspirations were not met until 1936. On October 1936, at the outbreak of the Spanish civil war, Madrid finally granted Baskongadak its autonomy. Jose Antonio Aguirre, a young lawyer from Bizkaia, was named president of the rump Basque government, which alongside nationalists, included Spanish republicans, socialists and communists.

Since August 1936, the north-west of Spain had been cut-off from the rest of Republican Spain. The Basque government quickly took on many functions of an independent state. It issued its own currency, passports, set up its own judiciary, established diplomatic links with several foreign countries, and organized its own army. The Basque army refused to accept central Republican authority.

Many gudaris (Basque soldiers) and milicianos (Republican soldiers) died fighting in Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa, but also many people from Araba and Nabarra who had escaped the terror of Camilo Alonso Vega and Emilio Mola. And many volunteer soldiers (international bridgades) from Belgium, Cuba, Germany, Italy, France, as well as young people and women died fighting against fascism.

The Fall of Bilbo

The Spanish nationalists guided by General Franco faced difficulties to penetrate the Basque province of Bizkaia. A great offensive against Bizkaia began with the bombardment of Durango on December 31, 1937 which caused 520 dead and 730 wounded. The German Condor Division supplied air support. Then on April 26, 1937, before attacking Bilbo, the town of Gernika was bombarded by the German Luftwaffe which was testing their burnt earth torches. This was the first bombardment of its kind in the world and caused 1,654 dead and 889 wounded. In June 1937, Bilbo finally fell to the hands of Franco's troops.

Basque resistence collapsed and its government went into exile abandoning the Basque resistance. Over 50,000 Basques died, 10,000 were taken prisoners (1,000 prisoners, including poet Lauaxeta and eleven priests were executed), 150,000 went into exile, and 20,000 children were sent abroad to save them from the cruelty of the civil war. At the time of the Germans invasion of France, most of the Basque nationalist leadership in exile moved to South America. During the Nazi occupation of France, 11,555 people in the Basque territories in France were sent to concentration camps in Argeles and Gurs. This is a high token if one takes into account that the entire population of the Basque territories was about 1.500,000 in 1936.

Betrayal of the Allies

During the Second World War, a group of Basque exiles placed themselves at the service of the Allies against Nazis. In London, Manuel de Irujo, a Nabarrase who was the Spanish minister of Justice under the Second Republic, became president of the Basque National Council in 1940. He signed an Anglo-Basque agreement for the creation of a Basque military unit. Other inter-state agreements were signed in London in 1941, between Charles De Gaulle (in the name of Free France) and the Basque National Council. The Gernika Battalion, led by Major Ordoki (of the left-wing Acción Nacionalista Vasca, ANV, Basque Nationalist Action), took part in the battle of the Atlantic. At the end of 1945, a year of euphoria, Basque resistance fighters regrouped along the Franco-Spanish border, awaiting orders to penetrate southwards with North American logistic support that never came.

After the Second World War ended, Franco was identified with Hitler and Mussolini and Spain was boycotted by the international community. But in November 1947 the United Nations assembly lifted sanctions on Spain, and the North American delegate declared his support to Franco. Meanwhile, the North American press pointed to the strategic importance of Spain in the Cold War. The isolation of the dictator was broken by the United States granting him a loan of 62.5 million dollars in exchange for U.S. military bases in Spain. In 1954 the Pope awarded Franco the Supreme Order of Christ.

The Spanish Civil War was followed by suppression of civil liberties and a fierce repression of the Basque language and culture.

Regrettably the PNV had refused to sabotage the heavy industry and infrastructure as demanded by the left and later ordered by the Republican government. In Bizkaia, observers commented, one received the impression that there was no war. Law and order was total. By protecting Basque heavy industry and infrastructure from left-wing sabotage, the PNV made it possible for the dictator Gen. Franco to succesfully overcome the international boycott imposed on 1946 and to embark on an ambitious policy of economic self-sufficiency. The mass destruction of industrial installations and infrastructure characteristic of the rest of Spain had not occurred in Baskongadak, a blessing for the dictator thanks to the PNV. In turn, this industrial base gave the economy of Bizkaia an overwhelming initial advantage which produced the second "boom" of Basque industrial expansion.

Bibliography: Luis Nuñez Astrain, La Razón Vasca (Txalaparta, 1995); Jose Luis Cereceda, Euskadi en guerre (Ekin, 1987); Iñaki Egaña, Las Victimas reclaman su existencia (Egin, July 18, 1996); Hurst Hannum, The Accomodation of Conflicting Rights, (Universtiy of Pennsylvania Press, 1990); Marianne Heiberg, The Making of the Basque Nation (Cambridge University Press, 1987); Francisco Letamendia, Historia del Nacionalismo Vasco y de ETA (R&B Ediciones); Joseba Zulaika, Basque Violence Metaphor and Sacrament (University of Nevada Press, 1988).

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