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The original Europeans

Some years ago, deep in the Sahara Desert, I asked a traveller where he came from. He said Catalonia. I made some comment about Spain, whereupon he said, ‘I don’t think you heard me. I said that I am Catalan, from Barcelona. I am not Spanish.’ And then he stormed off.

A few years later, I met Fernando in Madrid. When I asked him where he was from, he said, ‘I was born in the Basque Country but I am not an ETA terrorist. I am Spanish and I am proud to be Spanish’.

More than any other country in Europe, Spain is a nation defined by regional sensibilities, by the battle for coexistence between a state and its constituent elements. This was most starkly illustrated in a 1997 survey by the Vizcaya Chamber of Commerce (Vizcaya is the region of the Spanish Basque Country surrounding Bilbao). Some 80 per cent of the native Basque children who were questioned stated that their primary identity was Basque. A further 12 per cent said that they felt European, while just eight per cent considered themselves Spanish. Among children whose parents had migrated to the Basque Country, 48 per cent said that they were Basque, 28 per cent saw themselves as European and 24 per cent said that they were Spanish.

Indeed, the Basque Country is the area of Spain where regional identity is strongest. It is also here that the survival, or otherwise, of Spain will be determined.

The Basques are quite possibly the oldest people in Europe. Their history has no legend of origins, no migration myth to explain how they came to live in the north of the Iberian Peninsula. The Basque language, Euskera—described by the 19th-century dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy as ‘so confusing and obscure that it can hardly be understood’—pre-dates the Indo-European invasion of Europe in around 900 BC. It is an orphan language so distinct that no linguistic relative has been found. It is for this reason that Basques consider themselves to be the original Europeans.

The Basques were here when the Romans occupied Iberia and the Roman province of Vasconia gave the Basques the name by which they are known. The Basques, who have historically called themselves Euskaldun (speakers of Euskera) who inhabit Euskal Herria (the land of the Euskera-speakers), fought against the Vikings, against the Muslim armies which occupied Iberia for 800 years and against the Christian kingdoms which sought to integrate Basque territories into their realm.

This history of battling against national entities or larger empires has fed an enduring image of the Basques as a hostile, warrior race. In the 12th-century history, Codex by Aimeric de Picard, the author speaks of ‘Basques and Navarrese, who practice such cruelties to Christians, laying waste like infidels, sparing neither elderly, orphans, widows or children’. In Don Quijote, it is a Basque or Vizcayan to whom Cervantes gives the words, ‘Me kill you, or me no Vizcayan’.

At the same time, Basques, unlike other European peoples of history, have never harboured territorial ambitions beyond their own land. Their fight has always been for the right to live in Basque territory as a distinct nation free from outside interference in their cultural traditions.

Basque territory is divided between Spain and France. Although there are three provinces in French Basque Country—Labourd (Lapurdi in Euskera), Basse-Navarre (Benafaroa) and Soule (Zuberoa)—French Basques account for just nine  per cent of the overall Basque population. Some 75 per cent of Basques reside in three Spanish Basque provinces—Guipúzcoa (Gipuzkoa), Vizcaya (Bizkaia) and Alava (Araba). The final province, Navarra (Nafaroa), is a disputed territory, with the northern districts ethnically Basque and the southern districts inhabited predominantly by Spaniards. Although Navarra is considered by die-hard Basque nationalists to be an integral part of Basque territory, it does not fall within the Autonomous Community of Euskadi, the administrative entity of the Basque provinces in Spain.

The diversity of the Basque people across the provinces is reflected in its cities. San Sebastián in Guipúzcoa is elegant and sophisticated, at once the most European and most Basque of Basque cities, and historically the capital of militant Basque nationalism. Bilbao, transformed into a European centre of culture since the opening of the Guggenheim Museum in 1997, is the economic engine room of the Basque Country. It is also the home base of the traditionally moderate party of power, the Partido Nacionalista Vasco (PNV or Basque Nationalist Party). Vitoria, the official capital of Spanish Basque Country is provincial and strategically located as a buffer against the Spanish Castilian heartlands below the River Ebro. The walls of this brooding old town are adorned with pro-ETA graffiti.

Vitoria, Bilbao and San Sebastián may be the centres of modern power, but it is only in Guernica (Gernika), midway between Bilbao and San Sebastián in the province of Vizcaya, that Basque identity can be understood.

Guernica boasts a strange, hybrid architecture which itself tells a story. Subtle 19th-century arches support 1940s buildings laid out upon a medieval street plan. It was here, on Monday 26 April 1937, at 4:40pm, that German planes dropped splinter and incendiary bombs upon a town filled with traders from the surrounding villages and with the refugees of Spain’s Civil War. Urged on by Spain’s future dictator, Francisco Franco, the German planes unleashed the first civilian massacre of the modern military age, killing 1,645 people in around three hours.

From his headquarters in Salamanca, Franco initially denied the involvement of his forces or their allies, claiming that poor weather had prevented their planes from flying. In support of his case that the Basques themselves had dynamited their own town, Franco released a flight log which later proved to be from the wrong day.

The journalist George Steer of the London Times was in Guernica at the time and his reports (carried also in the New York Times) horrified a world soon to become accustomed to the deaths of unarmed civilians. An outraged Pablo Picasso, who had been commissioned to paint a mural for the Spanish pavilion at the 1937 World Fair, produced a breathtaking and highly political masterpiece, capturing Guernica in all its deathly anguish.

Within three days, Franco’s troops occupied Guernica. Mark Kurlansky, author of The Basque History of the World, reports an incident when one of Franco’s troops became so exasperated by the questioning of journalists who were taken on a tour of Guernica that he snapped, ‘Of course it was bombed. We bombed it, and bombed it, and bombed it, and, bueno, why not.’

And yet, somehow, despite the devastation, the Gernikako Arbola (Tree of Guernica), the most important symbol of the Basques, survived.

The Tree of Guernica still stands alongside the 19th-century Basque assembly, the Casa de Juntas. An oak tree has stood on this spot since the 14th-century. According to legend, the first oak survived for 450 years until its death in 1811. An offshoot, planted in 1742, replaced it and was the focal point of Basque independence until 1892. The third, missed by German bombers, survived from 1858 until 2004, whereupon a new sapling was prepared to fill the void. Upon the death of the third Tree of Guernica, the president of the Basque assembly, Ana Madariaga, stated simply: ‘It’s finished its life cycle … I want to believe in the idea of the eternal tree, we ended one cycle, we start another’.

The dried-up trunk of the original tree now stands in a small pavilion in the grounds of the assembly. It was under this tree that the Basque assembly, the Juntas Generales, met for centuries to legislate and rule on foral (Basque customary) law. Local village assemblies from across Vizcaya used to send representatives to meet under the Tree of Guernica. The King of Castile, who was nominally sovereign over the Basque Country, would come to the sessions under the oak tree to swear that the Spanish authorities would respect the authorities of the fueros.

The fueros themselves had first been codified in 1155 and were remarkably enlightened for medieval law, guaranteeing ‘justice to the poor as to the rich’. These laws covered many aspects of criminal and commercial law, regulating everything from the requisite purity of cider to laws of inheritance and the recognition of human rights.

It was under the Tree of Guernica that the first regional Basque Government of José Antonio Aguirre stood, on 7 October 1936, to swear the oath of Basque office:

Humble before God
Standing on Basque soil
In remembrance of Basque ancestors
Under the Tree of Guernica
I swear faithfully to fulfil my commission

Less than seven months later, Guernica was in ruins and the entire Basque Country soon fell under the occupation of Franco’s fascist government. Tens of thousands of Basques were rounded up into concentration camps and the Basque language of Euskera was banned, its speakers ordered to ‘speak Christian’. All statutes of autonomy were abolished and the Spanish Basque Country, like the rest of Spain, would remain under fascist occupation until Franco’s death in 1975.

When Spain and the Spanish Basque Country emerged from dictatorship four decades later and took its first steps towards democracy, perhaps its most pressing issue was how to prevent the dismantling of Spain while satisfying regional demands for self-rule. The 1979 Statute of Guernica provided the Basque Country with greater autonomy than any other region of Europe as matters of housing, agriculture, town planning, sport, tourism, health and social services all came within the powers of the Basque regional government. The statute was proclaimed under the oak Tree of Guernica.

Since that time, Spain has coexisted uneasily with its regions, most notably the Basque Country. Since 1968, more than 800 people have been killed by the Basque terrorist group ETA. During the same period, many Basques, led by the PNV with its motto ‘God and the Old Laws’, have strained under security crackdowns which have invariably targeted, and often killed Basques. The clamour for independence has never been greater. 

In early October 2004, the arrest in south-western France of ETA’s leadership signalled the latest, potentially fatal blow to the terrorist organisation. At the same time, the Basque regional Parliament was debating a motion by the leader of the Basque Government, Juan José Ibarretxe, which calls for the Spanish Basque Country to become a community ‘freely associated’ with Spain. Among the powers sought by this new entity is independent diplomatic representation abroad.

The motion is to be voted on before the end of 2004. At last count, the Basque Government remains two votes short of the necessary majority. Polls in the Basque Country suggest a region evenly divided between those wanting independence from Spain and those wishing to remain within the Spanish state. If successful, the Basque Government has promised a referendum on the proposal, regardless of the fact that regional governments have no legal power to call referenda under the Spanish constitution and despite the certainty that the plan will be rejected by the national Spanish parliament.

These are extraordinary times in Spain, potentially the endgame of a centuries-long embrace of mutual misunderstanding. To Spaniards, at stake is the very idea of Spain, a country which prides itself on its diversity. To many Basques, the question is one of survival as a distinct people as expressed in their right to self-determination.

The Tree of Guernica has seen it all before. But this time could be different. In an era when Europe is centralising and moving closer together, it could be that one of its largest members is falling apart from within.  

Anthony Ham is a freelance writer living in Madrid.



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