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The Basques And Their Claim To Nationhood Essay, Research Paper

THE BASQUES: An analysis to their claim of nationhood

Historical Background

The Basque “nation” –for lack of a better word– is composed of seven different “provinces” –for the lack of a better word– four are located within the borders of Spain and three within those of France in the triangle formed by the Atlantic Ocean and the Garonne and Ebro rivers, as shown in the map below.

Euskera-Herria, is the Basque name given to these seven provinces. The Basques are the descendants of the native inhabitants of the area who are referred to as the proto-Basques and for the most part did not mix with other ethnic groups. Basque speak a language called Euskera, which has been proven to be older any other Indo-European language. It is considered by linguistic experts, as perhaps, the oldest living languages in Europe and it is unrelated to any of the families of Indo-European languages

The Basques are an ancient people whose history is deeply intertwined with the people of Spain and France. Toward the end of the tumultuous period that followed the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, the Kingdom of Navarre (Nafarroa in Basque), centered in Pamplona, came into being. Originally this kingdom covered all of modern Navarre, plus the three Vascongadas, or Basque countries (Gipuzkoa, Bizkaia, Araba), and the modern French Basque countries, and into neighboring areas in modern Spain. When the moors invaded Spain, Navarre was never conquered, thus it retained many Basque characteristics Navarre was probably not a “Kingdom of the Basques”, but it was a kingdom whose dominant ethnic group were the Basques . Through the high and late middle ages Navarre gradually lost bits of its territory through various dynastic marriages and inheritances, as well as through a move from the estates of the three Vascongadas to place themselves in allegiance to the crown of Castille. By 1500 the Basques lived in three kingdoms: Navarre, Spain, and France. By the mid-1500’s Navarre was divided and absorbed into Spain and France along the current border (more or less).

In Spain, the Basques, especially those of the Vascongadas, retained special “fueros”, privileges of self-governance and local assemblies for that purpose. The Basques were not individually subjects of the crown, but rather as a group subject to the crown (as long as they resided in the Vascongadas). In the 1800’s a series of civil wars were fought in Spain (the “Carlist Wars”) between factions who either sought to retain the medieval legal structure of Spain, or to reform it using the principles of the French Revolution. Rural Basques sided with the more conservative faction in order to preserve the fueros. When they lost, many of them fled Spain. The loss of the fueros became more critical under Franco, his regime sought to take the integration of the different linguistic minorities in Spain one step further. He pushed for total Castillianization. Therefore, Catalan, Galician, and Basque were to be eradicated. After Franco’s in1975, King Juan Carlos II and the Spanish Parliament established a system of autonomous regions that restored the fueros in spirit, if not in every detail. The Basques are, nowadays, seeing to obtain concessions that would allow them greater autonomy in political matters. However, there is a also a more radical faction of the Basque national movement that is seeking complete independence. This faction is usually related to the ETA who is also actively involved in terrorist activity against members of the Spanish government.

Unifying Elements of the Basque Nation

When considering the historical background of the Basque people, in relation to that of other ethnic groups in Spain and France, it is possible to observe that the objective elements that inspire the deeply felt nationalism within the Basque community are primarily ethnic by nature. Geertz, in his piece, The Question of Definition, outlines six different criteria upon which one can define ethnicity. Out of these points the one that apply to the Basque, as an ethnic group are the following:

? Assumed Blood Ties. – One of the way in which the Basque are unique is in their blood serology. They are primarily type O blood with an occasional B type A is extremely rare and AB is non-existent. One of the curious things is that the majority of Basque are RH negative, unlike most of the rest of the world’s population

? Language. – Euskera is their and it has been the vehicle that fostered and maintained their culture. It is unique in the world and may very well be the oldest living European language. Linguistically, it is not related to any Indo-European Language; it has 13 vowels. 6 diphthong vowels and 38 consonants. It is considered a difficult language to master consisting of primarily nouns and suffixes

? Region. – The Basques have inhabited this region prior to Roman conquest of the Iberic Peninsula. The earliest account of the Basques, as a people are found in the works of Greek and Roman geographers who described four tribes who spoke various dialects of Basque.

? Custom. – Although many of their costumes are common to the other ethnic groups in the area, they have kept different traditions that are based on myth and legend typical to the Basque which continue to be transmitted orally as it was done many centuries ago.

There are other more subjective factors that also unify the Basques in their quest for autonomy from the governments of Spain and France. Perhaps the strongest factor that prompts the Basque people to seek independence, or at least autonomy, lies in the psychological make up of the people. In other words, the feeling of cohesiveness when coupled with all the objective factors have as a result the drive, desire, and vision of a nation in which Basques are not just an ethnic minority, but rather a nation that feels free to make all decision that regard their polity.

Applicable Definition

Before establishing whether the Basque are, by definition, a nation or not; other ideas must also be considered. It has already been established that the Basques are, above all, an ethnic group that is looking to validate its identity as such in respect to that of the identity of a Spaniard, or a Frenchman. Geertz defines ethnicity as the “commitment to primordial loyalties which give people distinct identity”. Therefore, given Geertz definition of ethnicity we can observe that they are indeed a cohesive ethnic group seeking to maintain their culture, or Euskaldun as it is called in Basque. In their case, language has been, aside from the primary element of their culture, the vehicle that has kept and fostered their unity . The preservation and revival of the Basque’s primordial ties within countries that have long emphasized the concept of national oneness has given the Basque community the motivation and the strength necessary to revive old values in order to fight to be recognized as an independent state. There are some political scientists that would not consider ethnicity, as the only factor needed to define nationhood. According to Max Webber, “…the sentiment of ethnic solidarity does not by itself make a nation”. Nevertheless, according to Weber as well, “a nation is a group of people that share a common past and hold a common vision of the future”. Consequently, Weber’s definition of a nation is the most suitable choice in this case.

Competing Identities

In Spain, as well as in France, there is the sense of oneness that makes a nation, a nation, the common state of mind of a people engaging in a daily plebiscite, if you will. However, within these two countries a number of ethnic groups have lived and co-existed under the same flag, constitution and values. Nevertheless, one national identity has prevailed over the others and it has come to typify, the essence of being French, or Spanish for that matter. The values on which a country, any country is based upon, serve as an equalizing factor that embraces all the ethnic groups living within its borders. Connor noted about that “the French Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizens proclaim that the source of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation; not a group…Though the drafter of the declaration may not have been aware, the nation to which they referred contained Alsatians, Basques, Bretons Catalans, Corsicans, Flemings, and Occitanians, as well as Frenchmen” Hence, the French nation is composed by different ethnic groups united under a common set of values. All these different groups have a particular identity that set one apart from the other, but in the end the French identity has prevailed over all the others. Thus they are, above all, Frenchmen and subsequently, they may be Bretons, Flemings, etc. The case is no different in Spain, where the main, the dominant ethnic group is the Castilian, but within the Spanish nation also live Galicians, Catalans, Andalucians, and Basques. All of these ethnics groups display characteristics particular only to the group but, as in the French case, there is one, the Castilians, who have risen over time above all others to impose their particular identity as the national identity. In both cases we have a case of lateral movement of an ethnic group to extent their influence over others. Smith explains that “the lateral ethnic state is provided by Spain…(and) it was the Castilian Kingdom that formed the fulcrum of resistance to Muslin power…(and) it utilized religious community as an instrument of homogenization”.

Relations between the Basque Nation and the Spanish and French States

The relations between the people of France and Spain towards the Basques have not always been under amiable terms. While the linguistic difference between the Basques and the people of France and Spain became a fundamental element that held a tightly woven community, throughout the centuries it also became the barrier that separated them from their neighbors. This distance created fear, intolerance and misunderstanding; in 1609, the witch hunting French official Pierre de Lancre was convinced that all 30,000 Basque-speaking inhabitants of Lapurdi were witches, priests included. He tried to execute all inhabitants and tortured and burned around 600 women and some men. He was stopped only after their male relatives returned from a fishing expedition of the coast of Newfoundland and started a revolt after which bishop Echauz intervened. Episodes of this sort helped to reinforce the idea of “otherness” on both sides of the fence. The French have been, at least in appearance, less conflictive towards the Basque. Therefore, the conflict between them has never reached the intensity that it has on the southern side of the Pyrenees. Also the fact that the core of the Basque nation lies within Spanish territory has also influenced greatly in the dealing s that the French government has had towards the Basque.

In the case of Spain, perhaps the biggest factor that has refueled the desire of the creation of a Basque nation is due to the many internal conflicts that have severed Spain since 1833. The first Carlist war broke out in 1833 and ended in 1839; the Carlists wars developed in the Spanish State but fundamentally in the four southern Basque provinces. In the Basque provinces, the first Carlist war took the form of a popular uprising in the defense of Basque liberties and traditions as opposed to Spanish centralism. The Carlist leadership was based in Navarre. Fearing the end of their regional autonomy, traditional Basques aligned with the Catholic Church and the followers of Don Carlos, a contender to the Spanish throne, in a war against the Liberal central government. For seven years, Carlists organized their own state, which spanned the Basque speaking areas of the southern territories and had the massive support of the peasants. The Carlist or Basque-Navarrese army comprised of volunteer peasants from the four Basque provinces. The Treaty of Bergara of 1839 offered to guarantee the Basque Fueros (the word Fuero, in the Basque provinces and Navarra are refers to a series of general laws that these territories laid down for themselves at a time when they enjoyed a large degree of autonomy, a sort of constitution –for lack of a better word–of the Basque provinces). When the second Carlist War broke out in 1872 it ended in 1879 with the defeat of the Carlists. As a consequence, the Fueros of Araba, Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa were abolished. However, the Spanish state upheld the Fueros of Navarre, which had been negotiated in 1841. The Basques lost their leadership and their culture and language became under attack in their own homeland. In 1893, a massive rally that gathered 80,000 Navarrese took place in Irunea, the capital of Navarre, in favor of restoring the Fueros. When Franco obtained power in 1936, he sought to homogenize the country thus, he pushed for the elimination of anything that was not Castilian. This policy affected all the different ethnic groups in Spain, but especially the Basques. Opposition to his regime came in the form of guerilla and it was mainly concentrated in the Vascogandas. In 1936, with the aid of the German Air Force, Franco leveled the Basque town of Guernica. The attack was devastating for the moral and the spirit of the Basque people. It was also the first time in history that a civilian population had been deliberately hit with such massive firepower. During Franco’s regime the ETA came into existence in response to the great injustices that the Basque people had suffered in the past.


Nowadays, the Basque Country is faced with more than one conflict. Apart from the existence of multiple social conflicts; there are two characteristic conflicts in today’s Spanish society: a political nationalistic conflict and a violent, nationalistic conflict. The political conflict is about the political configuration of the Basque Country, and its relationships with the Spanish State. There is much more people who share a nationalistic view about the political conflict than the ones who support ETA. Consequently, the political conflict and the violent conflict are not necessarily related to each other. The only ones interested in considering this relationship as necessary are ETA’s members and supporters. The only institutions legitimate to represent the Basque People or the Spanish People for political purposes are the Basque and Spanish Parliaments, backed by a large majority of the population. Any group or party is entitled to try to resolve the Basque political conflict inside or outside of these Parliaments, but never against them. To sum up, the true reason of the violent situation is the lack of assumption by ETA’s supporters of the democratic principles. This does not mean that they should accept things as they are; it only means that they must use democratic and peaceful means to defend their claims.

The belief in the necessity of freeing Basque politics from the trap of violence is essential to resolve the conflict. Most strategies for peace link violence and politics. In some cases, it is said that violence is legitimated by the political conditions. Some people maintain that political changes are not possible while violence persists, while other advocate totally the opposite. Such reasoning is perverse in both cases. Consequently, both problems should be addressed separately: the situation of violence regardless of political issues, and the political problem regardless of violence.

The question of Basque independence cannot be solved without dialogue, as the only really human way to face the solution of any conflict and as an essential concept of a peace culture. Nevertheless, for a real dialogue to take place, some issues need acknowledgment, such as the claim that the Basques are a nation, not a ethnic group simply in search of recognition of their identity. In the case of a dialog that concerns the reorganization of political boundaries, it is necessary to accept that the popular wish is the only source of political legitimacy. A dialogue as a strategic or tactical accessory to violence cannot and must not be legitimized as a true dialog. Furthermore, the plea of a people cannot be delegitmized by violent actions of a handful of hardliners, instead, they must embrace the spirit of what the Basque nation stands for and bring to the table with dignity and the consciousness that true, lasting solutions often require tolerance and compromise.










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