Back to Index

The Basque Problem

     We pointed out how a national crisis can crystallize around an unknown individual. Few Americans has heard of "the Cook" who has become a focal point of Mexican politics, and only a handful could explain what is involved.
     Little-known places can play a similar role. Few Americans have heard of Guernica, yet it is a focal point in the debate about the Basque provinces of Spain, which continue to reel under the terrorist acts of ETA. These acts are committed by uneducated, violent youths, but it is really a clash between Basque nationalists and "Spaniards," either Basque or immigrant Spaniards. The Nationalists recently denounced the Spaniards who have migrated into the Basque provinces in search of work. This led to Madrid's denunciation of the Nationalists as racists and "fascists."
     Guernica is a small town, historically the symbol of Basque nationalism. It was bombed during the Civil War, the subject of a disagreement between two WAIS Fellows which has being going on for years. Brian Crozier now admits that the German Condor Legion bombed it with the approval of Franco, a charge which the German government itself has confirmed, but maintains that the original destruction was the work of retreating Republicans. David Pike has given a detailed account of his interpretation of the happening in "Guernica Revisited" (International Journal of Iberian Studies, 1999, pp.133-141). Crozier seems now to have come around to Pike's viewpoint. The importance of this argument is that the responsibility of Franco, therefore of the Madrid government, depends on the facts of the case.
     A secondary argument concerns the history of Picasso's famous painting "Guernica," which would affect Picasso's reputation as a painter. My own view is clear. I detest Picasso as a person , one who promoted the mentality which was leading to the disintegration of republican Spain, thus facilitating the way for the Franco uprising. His grotesque painting owes its fame to politically correct praise of anyone who aped Parisian --isms, and it came just as the time when liberals were yearning for an artistic expression of their hostility to Franco. The same mentality transformed García Lorca, whom I detest equally, into the corresponding literary symbol. However, this is really a side issue.
     What requires more study is the history of the history of the hostility between Basques and Spaniards. It goes back to Roman times. In the age of Charlemagne, the attack on Roland's forces was apparently not the work of the treacherous Ganelon but of Basque mountaineers. The ridiculous picture of a Basque by Cervantes showed that language played an important role in the antipathy. The boundaries of the Basque language retreated steadily during the nineteenth century, and the Basque nationalists are making a desperate attempt to save it, a cause which I do not support.
     While the hostility has deep historical roots, it really exploded in the Carlist wars during the nineteenth century. When Fernando VII died in 1833, he was succeeded by his daughter Isabel II, but his brother Carlos argued that the Salic law prohibited female succession. This is ironical, since Carlos was a traditionalist, and the Salic law had been introduced by the French Bourbons in 1713. Since the Madrid government of Isabel II was Liberal, the Church largely supported the Carlists. Thus Basque nationalism was conservative, not radical. The Carlist wars continued until 1876. During the Spanish Civil War, the Basque Carlist militia, known as the Requeté, supported Franco, while industrial Bilbao was the focal point of republicanism.
     ETA continues the violence of the Carlists, but it seems to be largely brainless. There are ideologues of Basque nationalism, but I know of no serious ETA ideologue. Do you? In general, there should be more studies of the historical roots of the violence which afflicts places like Corsica. There, incidentally, the focal point of the argument is a straw- roofed beach restaurant, a paillotte. It is larger than Cleopatra's nose, which, according to Pascal, was decisive in the history of the world.

Ronald Hilton - 4/29/00