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Anti-colonial imagination and internationalism in Basque radical nationalism (1892-1939)

Maria Reyes Baztán - published 11 February 2021

Ethnonationalist movements often draw inspiration from ideas and events unfolding in different parts of the world. Anti-colonial movements have provided a particularly constructive model for Western nationalists, who saw in these struggles a resemblance to their own history of oppression. These shared feelings acted as a source of connection which transcended national boundaries. These are the ideas that motivated my PhD thesis, provisionally titled 'anti-colonial imagination and internationalism in Basque radical nationalism (1892-1939)'. Conceived as a global intellectual history project, my thesis explores the appropriation, adaptation and uses of anti-colonial ideas in early Basque radical nationalism through the analysis of Basque newsletters and newspapers. It also explores Basque radicals’ changing conceptions of colonialism, which correlate to global shifts occurring during this period. In this blog post, I summarise the findings of my three years of research.

Although scholars have tended to overlook the importance of anti-colonial ideas to the development of Basque nationalism, the movement was coloured by anti-colonial sentiment since its origins in the late nineteenth century. At a time when Spain was desperately fighting for control of its colonies and was considered as a second-class nation by other imperial powers, the founder of Basque nationalism – Sabino Arana (1865-1903) – appropriated and adapted anti-colonial theories to mobilise the Basque population.

Arana claimed that the Basque Country (or Euskadi) became a Spanish colony in the mid-nineteenth century. For Arana, Spain’s colonisation of the Basques had economic, social, political and racial implications. Arana was very aware of nineteenth-century pseudo-scientific racist discourses which ‘proved’ the existence of a Basque race distinct from the Spanish and which positioned the southern European races at the bottom of the Caucasian category. Inspired by these debates, Arana claimed that the Spaniards were racially inferior to the Basques. He also argued that the Spanish were savage, barbaric and uncivilised and therefore unfit to rule over Euskadi or to colonise other lands.

Arana’s anti-colonialism was mostly directed against Spain alone. Although initially he had sometimes advocated for the end of global colonialism, in his later years he explicitly praised the colonial practices of countries such as Britain and the US. This is evident in the telegrams he wrote to British PM Lord Salisbury and US President Roosevelt in 1902 praising the ‘gentle’ colonialism of the former and congratulating the latter for ‘freeing’ Cuba from Spanish rule. This was Arana’s way of differentiating Spanish colonial practices – invalidated by the ‘inferior’ and uncivilised nature of the Spanish race – from the supposedly superior and more civilised colonialism of the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ races.

This selective vision of colonialism resulted in theories of ‘good colonialism’, which Arana’s successors – both those who wanted to achieve autonomy (moderates) and those who wanted independence (radicals) – developed after his death in 1903. This idea of good imperialism was especially prevalent during the Great War. To defend British military intervention, Basque nationalists argued that Britain was stopping the ‘Austrian imperialist obsession’ and that England’s ‘colonial policy was much more human and liberal’ than other powers.[1] Britain was perceived to ‘work [...] in harmony with the aspirations of those it governed’.[2]

Not everyone agreed with this logic. With the Easter Rising of 1916 in Ireland and the emergence of anti-colonial nationalism after the Great War, a radical section within the movement began to challenge theories of good colonialism. After the Easter Rising, a Basque newsletter stated, ‘(we) condemn every nation that dominate another nation, especially when they are tough and their yoke is not gentle. And today, and not before, we need to include Britain (…) among these’.[3]

Issue of Aberri, published in 1922. As at every Easter, this issue commemorated the Irish Rising and praised the 'martyrs' of the movement.

From the late 1910s onwards, Basque radicals condemned every form of colonialism. During the 1920s and the 1930s two radical newsletters developed a rich anti-colonial language modifying and drawing from Arana’s theories. These two newsletters, called Aberri and Jagi-Jagi, situated the Basques in an alleged global struggle against colonialism alongside other nations such as Morocco, India and Ireland, from which they appropriated most of their anti-colonial language.

In my thesis I argue that this new form of anti-colonialism served three main purposes. Firstly, like Arana, during the 1920s and 1930s Basque radicals used anti-imperialism to justify Basque independence claims. In a period in which anti-colonial nationalism was spreading globally, Basque nationalists believed that colonialism had to end, and colonies needed to be emancipated from their metropolis. Like any other colony, Basque nationalists believed, Euskadi also had to achieve independence.

Secondly, anti-colonialism was an effective tool to generate anti-Spanish hatred amongst the Basque community. By presenting the Spanish as an evil colonising nation, nationalists made the possibility of any kind of cooperation with the Spanish government to achieve self-determination seem unlikely. With this in mind, Basque radicals began to consider strategies of civil-disobedience and violence to achieve independence. Basque nationalists imported these ideas to Euskadi from India and Ireland (see image below).

Basque Prisoners on Hunger Strike, 1931. In 1931, inspired by the hunger strike led by Irish nationalist Terence MacSwiney, some Basque nationalists went on hunger strike. This became a recurrent tactic used by Basque nationalists.

Thirdly, anti-colonialism was essential for the internationalisation of the Basque cause. Basque nationalists declared themselves on many occasions ‘enemies of (…) selfish imperialism which subjects other nations to its despotic power’.[4] Basque nationalists condemned global imperialism and launched campaigns against colonial rule in occupied countries such as Morocco and Abyssinia, establishing sympathies that transcended borders.

On many occasions, internationalist desires had material consequences. The most illustrative example is the creation of the so-called League of the Oppressed Nations in 1924, which was to unite Euskadi, Catalonia, Egypt, the Philippines, India, Ireland and Morocco. Basque nationalists created the organisation for ‘the mutual help for the achievement of our objective: freedom’ and ‘the internationalisation of our (Basque) problems’.[5] My thesis delves into Basque anti-colonial organisations such as this, which have tended to be overlooked in the historiography.

My thesis finishes in 1939, but Basque radical anti-colonialism does not end there. The long-lasting violence campaign that the armed pro-independence group ETA carried out from the 1960s was justified on many occasions through the appropriation of anti-colonial language. Although the proliferation of Third-World anti-colonial movements during the 1950s and 1960s was crucial for the development of this language, it is most directly indebted to the anti-colonial theories developed by Basque radicals from the nineteenth century until the late 1930s. In this way, my thesis can be seen as a re-examination of the intellectual origins of one of the organisations that has most shaped recent Spanish history.

Maria Reyes Baztán is a final-year PhD-student at the University of Warwick. She holds an MA in Global & Comparative History from Warwick (2017) and a BA in History from Universitat de València (2016). Her PhD thesis is entitled 'anti-colonial imagination and internationalism in Basque radical nationalism (1892-1939)'.

[1] Euzkadi, 30 July 1914, Num. 542, p. 4 and Euzkadi, 10 August 1914, Num. 553, p. 1.

[2] Euskalduna, 10 March 1906, Num. 433, p. 5.

[3]K, ‘POR IRLANDA. PARA EL DIARIO EUZKADI’, Bizkaitarra, 13 May 1916, Num. 15, pp. 2-4.

[4] Jagi-Jagi, 4 April 1936, Num. 95, p. 2.

[5] Translated from the original draft of the League of the Oppressed Nations.