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SPAIN: The Basque view of History

Bienvenido Macario calls our attention to a new book by Karl Kurlansky, Basque History of the World, from which he has extracted the section on The Song of Roland, the most famous of the chansons de geste. It tells how Roland was betrayed by Ganelon to the Moors of northern Spain and killed. He was avenged by Charlemagne, who rushed to the Pyrenees, invaded Spain and took Zaragoza. It is now thought that Roland was really ambushed by the Basques in the mountains. In fact, Charlemagne probably destroyed and looted Pamplona after the furious Basques chased the French away and ambushed them in a passage through the Pyrenees.

The story goes back to the conquest of Spain by the Romans. The Basques were defeated by the Romans after 194 BC, and received a special status: autonomy with no military occupation. Pompey founded a city which was named after him: Pamplona. This shows that ETA has deep roots, since today the Spanish government has troops and the hated Guardia Civil in the Basque provinces. The pact with the Romans included also respect for their culture and language; hence ETA's stress on the mysterious Basque language.

Having settled in southern France, the Visigoths invaded Spain around 415 and tried to conquer the Basques. During the next two or three centuries they launched twenty campaigns against them. The Visigoth Empire in Spain came to an end in 711 with the Moorish invasion. About that time the Basques were Christianized, possibly by Christians fleeing from the Moors, and later became ultra-Catholic. Muslims from the south and Christians from France crossed their territory as the wars between them swung back and forth, Today there are about two million in Spain and 250,000 in France. The Basque nationalists want to unite all their territory and form an independent state, something which neither France nor Spain will tolerate. Spain¡s `prime minister José María Aznar says the Basques should be satisfied with their autonomy and will not agree to a plebiscite, a position which Basque nationalists, both peaceful and violent, find unreasonable. Aznar cannot risk going down in history as the man who lost the Basque provinces, and he is throwing his machine behind José Mayor Oreja, a highly respected Basque who has played an important role in his government and who may well win the upcoming Basque elections, dealing a fatal blow to ETA,

The best-known book about the Basques in English is Rodney Gallup, The Book of the Basques (1930, reprinted 1970). Kurlansky´s book (1999) has had several printings in English, and has been translated into Catalan, presumably because the Catalans feel a certain empathy for the Basques. There seems to be no Spanish translation. A translation into Basque is possible. The importance of the book is that it gives the Basque interpretation of world history. As WAISers know, different interpretations of history are an important element in conflicting worldviews, which are a cause of war, civil and international. It is amazing that Basque hatred of Spain goes back two millennia. Someone should write a book on the history of international hatreds.

Ronald Hilton - 3/17/01