Paloma Aguilar



Originally delivered at the second meeting of the Working Group on Authoritarian Legacies in Latin America and Southern Europe in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in August 1998.  The event was co-sponsored by Columbia University in the City of New York and Universidad Torcuato Di Tella .



Dr.Aguilar is in the Department of Political Science at UNED, Madrid, Spain, and a Member of the Juan March Institute in Madrid. The author would like to thank the following people, for having helped in different ways: Nancy Bermeo, Andrés de Blas, Paola Cesarini, Consuelo Cruz, Jesús Cuéllar, Juan Pablo Fusi, Eric Hershberg, Paul Heywood, Katherine Hite, Elizabeth Jelin, Santos Juliá, Elizabeth Lira, Edward Malefakis, Javier Ugarte and Alexander Wilde. A modified version of this article will be published in a forthcoming issue of West European Politics journal.

In Europe and the United States, the legacies of the past have become a central to sociological, historical, and political research. After decades of concentrating on  structural, aspects of the links between historical evolution and political developments, many social scientists now stress the importance of the collective memory of societies; they focus on its form, composition, and context. This interest in the use and abuse of the past has been prompted, in part, by the general resurgence of nationalist movements, which have the tendency to legitimise current grievances with historical references. As the length of time between the event and the present increases, such a use of history becomes more debatable. .

The role played by the memory of the Civil War (1936-1939) in shaping the transition to democracy in Spain (1975-1978) differs in each region. Thus, in addition to underlining the importance of memory in explaining the change in regime in Spain, and its institutional design,[i] this paper offers a first approximation of the particular role played by the collective memory of the war in the transition in the Basque country. I shall refer not only to the Civil War itself, but also to the Franco regime, the evolution of accounts of the war, and the different uses made of them by leading political forces. Only in this way can the role played by the war in the years following Franco’s death be properly understood. This approach also allows us to trace the specific legacies of the authoritarian regime in various areas of the country and to assess the differing impact that the Francoist period had on the capacity of distinct regional elites to act.

In Spain, the traumatic memory of the Civil War helped ensure that both political elites and Spanish society as a whole did everything possible to avoid repeating past errors that had undermined Spain’s only prior democratic experience, the Second Republic (1931-1936). Political adversaries tried not to transform the past into a destabilizing tool, which many feared could render impossible any peaceful dialogue among the heirs to the ideological foes that had fought in the Civil War. The lessons of the past help to explain the policy of national reconciliation that developed, based on the implicit recognition of collective culpability for crimes committed during the war and the unanimous desire to avert a similar drama. Consensus, rather than confrontation, was thereby confirmed as the most legitimate form of negotiation between different political and social players.[ii]

In the Basque country, the traumatic character of the memory of struggle explains many of the attitudes adopted by the different protagonists in the transition. However, it is clear that this region represents the most atypical example within the Spanish context since, during this period of political change, maximalist and violent stances were not so clearly in the minority as they were in the rest of the country. Indeed, levels of political and social mobilization were far higher, especially when these began to decline in other areas.[iii] Moreover, the transition’s two referenda - on the Political Reform Law (1976)[iv] and on the Constitution (1978)[v] - produced the highest levels of abstention in the Basque country, demonstrating both the specificity of this case and the need for a detailed study of the role played by collective memory in the region.

If Basques, especially nationalists, did not feel obligated by the ‘consensual’ spirit, based on the recognition of collective guilt for the war, that characterized Spanish transition, what does this bode for the Basque case? Might it be that the Basques did not have the same political priorities as the rest of Spaniards? If so, how did the memory of the Civil War result in a different attitude during the transition? Did they not perceive that they were equally guilty for the unrest of the Second Republic and for the brutality of the war? I will try to answer all these questions by understanding how the nationalist interpretation of the Civil War altered its meaning and allowed for the emergence of different lessons to be applied in the transition.

This paper also seeks to analyze why such attitudes emerged by demonstrating the existence of a unique memory of the war, fashioned by Basque nationalist elites, which was sufficiently distinct from the rest of Spain as to have a different political impact. This is not to claim that collective memory is the variable which best explains the delay in the transition to democracy in the Basque Country, but rather to underline the importance of attempts by political elites (in this case nationalists) to manipulate the past, and the consequent repercussions of such attempts on the values and beliefs of a society trying to recover from a deeply complex memory.

Although political elites have often tried to use the past for their own purposes, I defend the idea that they have not been able to do so in most instances. The context in which the transition to democracy took place and, more specifically, the formal and informal legacies inherited from the past, help to explain the restrictions with which the elites had to deal in this period. Also, I will try to show that the Basque nationalist elites had the capacity to impose their demands in the aforementioned way due to the nature of the Francoist dictatorship. The regime's obsession with the preservation of national unity (one of the declared aims of the Francoist side in the Civil War was to annihilate the so-called “separatist” desires of Basques and Catalans) compelled it act with an extensive amount of violence in those regions possessing greater linguistic and cultural peculiarities. All of this contributed to the complete deterioration of the stateness issue facing the Spanish Second Republic (1931-1936). It is not a coincidence that the Basque terrorist organization ETA was founded during the Francoist period. [vi]   The so-called ‘Basque problem,’ in the violent and radical sense as we know it today, would have been very unlikely if it had not been for the existence of  the Francoist regime. The fact that ETA’s actions had the highest visibility of all the political groups opposed to the dictatorship, and very specifically, the fact that ETA killed Almirante Carrero Blanco (Franco’s designated successor), helps to explain the initial popularity of the terrorist organization and the more or less explicit support it received from different leftist groups.

With Franco's death came little popular demand for the prosecution of those responsible for the human rights violations committed under the dictatorship. In fact, most of the opposition parties which had discussed the possibility of purging both the civil and military organizations of the dictatorship, eventually decided to omit this demand from their political programs for two principal reasons. First, the existing social climate, characterized by uncertainty and unpredictability, was not conducive to such a delicate political measure in a period. Second, the civil and military elites of the Francoist regime still possessed enough political resources to oppose such initiatives. In fact, the possibility of a coup d’etat was not unlikely, especially because the military and police forces were the main victims of the terrorist attacks.

This situation was perceived quite differently in the Basque country, where the more radicalized sectors of the nationalist organizations openly demanded the purge of the Francoist elites and the immediate replacement of the existing military and police forces. The highly visible presence of the Armed Forces in the Basque country during the last decade of the dictatorship contributed to the diffusion of the image, created by the radical nationalists, that an "occupation foreign army" was "invading" their territory.[vii] Therefore, when it became evident that no purges were going to take place, both the radical nationalists and the extreme left began to refer to the transition as "post-Francoism," through which they were at once emphasizing the continuities with the previous dictatorship and calling into question the integrity of the political change.[viii] The implications that all of this had on the legitimacy of the new regime will be dealt with in this paper.


The Memory of the Civil War in Spain

When the Civil War ended, the Franco regime based the consolidation of its rule on the victory of the war. During the regime's early years, political authorities refused to accept there had even been a civil war, claiming instead that battle had been waged against the "foreign invader" and international communism. However, when a regime’s foundational myth is a fratricidal conflict, its legitimacy is unlikely to be sufficiently solid if not reinforced by other elements. In practice, the notorious initial illegitimacy of the Francoist regime was such that, in those early years, it had to maintain its political authority through a strategy of repression and exhaustive political control. The regime’s progressive withdrawal from that initial stance coincided with a period of economic liberalization that allowed the country to benefit from the wave of prosperity that swept through the Western world during the 1960s. It was during this period that the regime’s rhetoric stopped focusing directly on the war, placing greater emphasis instead on the economic achievements and social transformation that took place during this decade.

In the second stage of the regime, economic growth and prosperity, coupled with growing international recognition for Francoism, lent it a significant degree of legitimacy. This enabled the heroic version of the war that the regime had disseminated until then to be gradually replaced by a tragic vision in which the war was no longer presented as something necessary, but instead as an unavoidable accident. In the final stage of the regime, many considered this past a shameful episode and some even suggested that the best way to overcome it was simply to forget, since they were convinced that any open debate on the subject would re-open old wounds and threaten co-existence in Spain.

Upon Franco’s death, Spanish society had managed to reach, if not an uncontested account of what had happened during the Civil War, at least a fundamental agreement as to the lessons to be derived from this traumatic experience. On the one hand, during the transition it was accepted that the two warring sides were equally responsible for the barbaric acts which had been unleashed. In this way, no one party bore more guilt than the other, since both sides had committed unjustifiable atrocities. On the other hand, the exorcism of past brutalities was possible thanks to an interpretation of the struggle as a kind of "collective madness." Finally, the principal lesson derived from the transition was "never again." All forces - political, social, economic – had to ensure that Spain would never again witness a similar drama. These lessons allow us to understand the full complexity which underlay both the generalized consensus which governed the transition up until the adoption of the Constitution in December 1978 and the policy of national reconciliation which was attempted from the outset.

For an event that had occurred forty years earlier, the dramatic memory of the war had a vivid presence during the transition. Despite the fact that over seventy percent of the Spanish population had not experienced the Civil War directly, the memory of the event was transmitted from generation to generation, kept alive and resonant as part of a bitter collective memory. The endurance of the trauma derived from the war and the survival of certain Francoist legacies in Spanish political culture, can be traced in opinion polls of the period.[ix] It was when society perceived, consciously or unconsciously, and in a more or less justified manner, certain similarities between the situation in the 1970s and that of the 1930s, that the memory of the struggle re-emerged.

By the mid-1970s Spanish society had gone nearly forty years without any democratic institutions. Thus, at the time when parties, unions, elections and parliamentary life were all gradually starting to reappear, many Spaniards had no direct experience of them. These institutions were not, however, new to Spanish history. A minority of Spaniards had known them during the Second Republic, which were destroyed during the Civil War. Throughout its existence the Franco regime reviled the Republican experience. The regime’s arguments were not shared by a considerable portion of the Spanish people, but in the 1970s there were many whose view of the Republican period none the less remained critical, albeit for other reasons.

The Republic’s weaknesses and excesses were widely criticized, along with a reluctance to accommodate minorities, the imposition of a non-consensual constitution, its military and religious policy, and other issues. For many, the failure of the Second Republic was due in part to its own mistakes and, furthermore, to an institutional design that exacerbated these errors, in an international context that effectively offered little help to a weak and incipient democracy.[x] The exclusionary attitude of the political majorities promoted, in many occasions, the anti-constitutional manoeuvres of the minorities, regardless of their being, from the beginning, very hostile to the republican regime. In addition, sectors from certain nationalist parties, such as some within the Partido Nacionalista Vasco (PNV - Basque Nationalist Party) had begun to call into question something even more delicate than the political regime, that is, the legitimacy of national borders and the subsequent denial of their belonging to the Spanish demos. To summarize, during the republican period very few political actors had the will to put aside their own ideological interests in order to contribute to the stabilization of the new born democracy. In this sense, the consensus and negotiations among the main political adversaries that during the seventies became the rule, were the exception in the thirties.

The great contrast between these two democratic experiences helps to explain why, according to a number of surveys, today's democracy receives higher marks than the republican one. However, what is quite remarkable is Francoism being held in higher regard than the Second Republic.

The association of the collapse of the Republic with the tragic experience of the Civil War left an indelible memory that helps to explain the period's poor rating. During the transition, when institutions that dated back to the Republican period were revived, Spaniards, in general, recalled both this failed experience and its ill-fated end.

Memory created an impetus for Spanish society to avoid any of the errors attributed to the Second Republic's institutional design. The past demarcated what was and was not possible during the political transition. Given the uncertainties and caution which surrounded this period, any clue as to what might happen if certain institutions were established was seized upon since history, logically, is a fundamental source of stability and legitimacy for democratic regimes. Every effort was also made to ensure that political adversaries did not turn the past into a political weapon which many feared would render impossible any peaceful dialogue between wartime opponents. It was a question of forgetting the rancor of the past, of letting bygones be bygones, of retaining the lessons of history without stirring them up so that, above all, a future of peaceful and democratic coexistence could be constructed.




Table 1

        Question: "In general terms, when do you consider that Spain has been better off in political terms in the last 60 years?"










The Primo de Rivera dictatorship








The Republican years








The Francoist period








Today’s democracy








Doesn’t know








No answer








Study number from CIS (Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas)










For many, however, this recourse to silence amounted to a form of resignation, giving way to frustration. On the other hand, the principal objective - the peaceful consolidation of democracy in Spain, something which had not previously been possible - was achieved. This allowed the transition to become the basic foundational myth of democracy and its memory to become a political resource of great importance. The events which cast the largest shadow over the process were directly related to the course of the transition in the Basque Country: the notable increase in ETA’s terrorist activities and the high level of abstention, in two of the three Basque provinces, in the constitutional referendum. The 1978 Constitution, a milestone in the transition from the dictatorship and proclaimed as the Constitution of Spanish Reconciliation, was approved throughout the country, yet the campaign by Basque nationalists in favor of abstention enjoyed unexpected success in their own territory. Over and above the reasons given by the nationalists at the time to justify abstention, we need to ask why they, unlike other Spaniards, felt no obligation to support the policy of consensus and reconciliation. What role was played in the adoption of such a stance by the memory of civil war?


The Civil War in the Basque Country: A War Among Basques

Throughout the Second Republic, the attitude of the PNV had not exactly been characterized by ideological coherence.[xi] While its leaders formed an electoral coalition with the reactionary Carlists in 1931, in both 1933 and 1936 they decided to work alone. By 1936, however, the party had moved much closer to the republican and leftist parties with whom the PNV collaborated during the war. This volte-face resulted in a number of desertions from its ranks and something of an electoral slump.[xii] When the military uprising against the Republic came on 18 July 1936, the PNV - hegemonic in much of the Basque Country - found itself obligated, unhappily, to side with one or other of the warring factions. Initial doubts were dissipated when the Francoist forces that had triumphed in Navarre[xiii] and Álava began to victimize individual members of the PNV. Moreover, it seemed far more likely that they could achieve their Statute of Autonomy – then awaiting approval in the Cortes - from the Republicans.

The first thing that needs to be emphasized in regard to the Basque Country as a whole, given the apparent oversight which tends to characterize the nationalist account, is the division produced in the very heart of the Basque community by the military uprising. Although Vizcaya and much of Guipúzcoa eventually supported the Republic (although with some reservations on the part of the PNV), in Álava and Navarre many sided with the rebels; in fact the Alavese, and particularly the Navarrese Carlist militia, formed Franco’s biggest contingent of volunteers. More significantly, in those provinces where the coup d’état triumphed, the PNV’s headquarters were not immediately closed down, unlike all other parties that sided with the Republicans. Until shortly before the approval of the Basque Statute and the establishment of the first Basque government in October 1936, the Francoist forces believed that the PNV would eventually side with them.[xiv]

The overtly confessional nature of the PNV gave it a distinctive status on a side where agnosticism and, in many cases, a violent and intransigent anti-clericalism dominated. This meant that many Basque nationalists feared their own allies (especially the anarchists, communists and radical socialists) as much as they did the Francoists. Certainly, the militant wing of the PNV tried to maintain more cordial relations with the enemy during the war, due to either the enemy also being Basque or the existence of certain ideological, religious and cultural affinities. This is logical, given that fighting on one of the two sides was a more forced, accidental affair rather than the result of a clear and enthusiastic decision, as was the case with other parties.

The development of the Civil War in the Basque Country was marked by some specific features which have been extensively researched: the nationalists’ reluctance to fight until they had secured their Statute of Autonomy, the lack of understanding between the Republican and Basque nationalist military hierarchies, the mutual mistrust between nationalists and leftists, the many desertions to the enemy camp, the rapid surrender of Basque battalions in Guipúzcoa and, finally, the nationalists’ refusal to destroy their heavy industry when the fall of Bilbao was imminent, so that this arsenal would not fall intact into Francoist hands.

The most significant issue was likely the reluctance of the gudaris (Basque soldiers) to fight outside the Basque Country once they had finally been mobilized by the nationalists. Many witnesses have affirmed that they believed the war was over when their territory fell into Francoist hands; hence the thorny matter of the Pact of Santoña. The negotiations that some within the PNV began with the Italian fascists linked to Franco are well known. An offer of surrender was made to the Italians in exchange for the nationalists being allowed to evacuate their battalions and part of the civilian population. Effectively, the surrender did take place but not the evacuation or the respect for the civilian and military populations since, although the Italian army was prepared to implement the treaty, the Francoist authorities were more than ready to break it. The entry of the victorious troops led to numerous arrests and executions, much as in any other area taken from the Republicans, although the Basque Church - which repeatedly intervened in favor of the Basque nationalists on account of their conservatism and exemplary Catholicism - helped to moderate the reprisals.

The repression exacted during the conflict and early post-war years has been one of the most controversial issues in the recent historiography of the period. However, beyond disputes over the number of deaths attributable to each side and the organization of reprisals by both rearguards, the Francoist repression in republican areas is widely accepted as having been most severe in those provinces where nationalist consciousness was strongest. Certainly in Vizcaya and Guipúzcoa jurisdictional privileges were lost (such as the conciertos económicos, a special taxation system). However, as a reward for their stance during the war, both Navarre and Álava were allowed to retain these privileges.

Throughout the Franco regime the cultural repression exercised over the whole nation was particularly severe in those regions where a language other than Spanish was spoken, as people were prevented from communicating in their own tongue (a situation much more marked in Catalonia than in the Basque Country since, in the former, the proportion of people who used the vernacular was much greater). Nevertheless, evidence exists to suggest that, despite the claim of victimization sustained by Basque nationalism throughout the transition, reprisals in the three Basque provinces at the end of the war were no greater than elsewhere in Spain. Nor was the Basque Country the area that suffered the most shortages during the post-war period.

In fact, many authors have asserted that "the repression during and immediately after the war was, in the Basque Country, much ‘softer’ than in other parts of Spain... Moreover, with regard to those most directly involved, practically all those subject to reprisals as a result of the war had returned by 1945."[xv] The myth that repression was greater in the Basque Country, carefully nurtured in Basque nationalist discourse, has been called into question by Andrés de Blas, based on works by Salas Larrazábal and Ibarrábal.[xvi] This last author has claimed that, after 1943, there were no nationalist prisoners in Franco’s gaols.[xvii]


A Peculiar Transition to Democracy

The battalion that handed over Bilbao’s factories intact to Franco’s forces in 1937, thereby contravening the Republican hierarchy’s demand that they be destroyed, was under the command of the PNV. At the beginning of the transition, "the PNV vindicated this act through one of its well-known leaders, Xavier Arzallus, at the first authorized public rally held by the party."[xviii] The PNV’s nationalist reading of the past, according to which all Basques lost the war, justified placing the interests of their own region before those of their political allies. This order of priorities, which was widely criticized, was proudly defended by the PNV in an attempt to distance itself from the "Spanish" parties before a new electorate with more radical nationalist demands. In this way, events which at the time were seen as a betrayal of the Republican cause (such as the Pact of Santoña or the handing over of the Bilbao factories) came to be seen as a virtue for those whose principal aspiration was to defend "all things Basque." The two main architects of the Santoña surrender became the most emblematic figures of Basque nationalism during the transition: Jesús María de Leizaola, the president of the Basque government in exile, and Juan Ajuriaguerra, the historic leader of the underground party. Curiously, not only was their honor never called into question during the transition, but in the mid-1970s Ajuriaguerra was considered the person with the greatest moral authority in the Basque Country.

It is certainly the case that no other political force had its past scrutinized, the result of a tacit agreement to avert stirring up the past, in order to avoid them being used as political weapons. If the PNV and the Socialists, who had had very difficult relations during the 1930s, had engaged in mutual recrimination over their activities during the war, it would have been difficult to achieve the climate of reconciliation and consensus which characterised most of the negotiations during the transition. This permitted the PNV, like the rest of the opposition, to ameliorate its former image and to claim, in defense of its pro-abstention campaign over the constitutional referendum, "[o]ur deputies did not endorse the Republican Constitution, and yet there is the historic evidence of the loyalty of the Basque Government, of the loyalty of a party that, although it did not vote for the Republican Constitution, none the less defended its autonomy, as well as the regime and the Constitution that made it possible, both during the war and for so many years afterwards."[xix] According to circumstances, the PNV stressed either its unconditional loyalty to the Republic or else its major reservations over having had to take part in a war which was alien to them, referring for example to the Pact of Santoña, and the resulting moral justification of prioritizing Basque interests over any others, such as defense of the Republic.

Another important aspect of Basque nationalist moral authority during the transition derived from the democratic opposition’s recognition of the barbarity towards the Basque Country exhibited by the Franco Regime at the end of the 1960s. Also of significance was the "halo of heroism" accorded to the ETA for having been the most visible source of resistance to the regime and the group whose actions had done most to undermine the chances of the dictatorship continuing after Franco’s death.[xx] What is remarkable is the blindness of the opposition in its failure to perceive that the ETA’s struggle, from the outset, had a different objective.

The ETA, itself, saw the fight against the dictatorship as accidental: its real goal was freedom for the Basque homeland and the expulsion of "the invader." Despite its differences with radical nationalism, the PNV derived considerable benefits from ETA’s armed resistance, both through its unquestioned contribution to the resurgence of Basque consciousness,[xxi] and also through the possibility of indirectly using the threat of terrorism in its negotiations with the central government. Thus, while the party in power during the transition, the Unión de Centro Democrático (UCD - Union of the Democratic Center), justified the delays and limitations in certain political measures of great significance for the Basques (for instance, the legalization of the Basque flag, the granting of amnesty,[xxii] and the Constitution of the Basque General Council) on the basis of pressure from the intransigent sector of the army, the PNV also sheltered behind terrorist acts in its attempts to convince the government to act more speedily.

The two most pressing problems of the transition were terrorist blackmail and the threat of military intervention. At the time, the Armed Forces represented a direct legacy of the Franco regime and, although a generational shift had brought about a marked change in mentality amongst many of its members, it is clear that the most entrenched sections were able to exert considerable pressure on the process of democratization. The fear of a coup d’état led those pressing for democracy to moderate some of their demands, since it was hardly appropriate to force the hand of those already suspicious of the whole process of democratization (especially in regard to territorial decentralization) who, furthermore, were already the favored target of terrorist attacks.

It is odd that the threat of a coup was seen as far less dramatic in the Basque Country itself, where the most serious threats to public order had taken place, where the level of social and political mobilisation was highest, and where the most radical political forces - on both nationalist and ideological axes - had been driven underground.[xxiii] Fear of a coup d’état (like the one that eventually ended the Second Republic), so clear to many national Spanish parties, hardly figured in the discourse of most Basque nationalist parties, nor has it been a feature of studies of the transition in the region. Some PNV leaders were not so clearly moved by the feeling of collective responsibility which obliged other political forces to temper their demands, even to the extent of seeking to demobilize their followers. For example, one leader stated that if the risk of military intervention existed, it had nothing to do with his demands, but was because of an "atmosphere contrary to democratic legality" rather than "flag wars" or "terrorist violence."21 In this way, the PNV sought to absolve itself in advance of any responsibility for what might happen in order to avoid, at least explicitly, having to moderate its stance.

However, one key leader of Euskadiko Ezquerra (EE - Basque Left) recognized that the actions of ETA played into the hands of military plotters, since they deliberately sought to foster a climate of conflict.22  He underlined that "the war is over" and that it was now a matter of searching for a "solution and a means of conciliation so that, with peace achieved, the consequences of war should disappear."23 Another key leader of the EE criticized those who that said "Euskadi is at war," and claimed that this argument was used not only by ETA sympathizers and militants, but also by Arzullus when he was unable to achieve his objectives, thereby encouraging ETA violence as well as confirming his own claims.24

The fear of a coup d’état felt throughout Spain was intimately linked to the traumatic memory of the Civil War, given that the 1936 conflict had begun in such a manner. However, since there was a different memory of the war’s significance and causes in the Basque Country, there was also a different view as to the danger of military plotting. Conversely, Basque nationalism seemed on occasion to use the widespread fear of a recurrence of fratricidal conflict, possibly unleashed by a military coup, to achieve its objectives, claiming that only by acceding to its demands could radical elements be contained.

Since then, many of Basque nationalism’s growing demands have been based on the urgent need to secure peace in the Basque Country and on the impossibility of doing so without certain conditions being met. A PNV leader from Pamplona claimed in June 1978 that, although ETA’s violence could not be justified, the State had tried to wipe out Basque culture, and "until the Spanish State takes clear and effective measures to alleviate discrimination against Basque culture, it will be very difficult for us to explain to ETA why they ought to lay down their arms...ETA will not renounce violence until our demands are met."25 Similarly, one of the PNV’s foremost leaders, a deputy for Guipúzcoa, recognized in an interview in June 1983 that ETA’s actions had advanced the cause of Basque autonomy, especially under the UCD government, since this government "was very concerned about containing violence and therefore supported approval of the Statue of Autonomy." In a well-worn argument, he also insisted that to get rid of ETA more autonomy would have to be given to the Basque Country.26 Another PNV politician saw the vote for Herri Batasuna (HB - United People), the political wing of ETA, as the result of Basque "frustrations," as well as a clear warning to his own party’s "moderate" tendencies and to the "anti-Basque" stance in Madrid.27 Whatever the case, it is clear that the PNV knew how best to exploit the UCD’s obsession, and that of a large part of the Spanish population, with keeping the "peace."

Another possible reason that the democratic opposition did not question the PNV’s political credibility was its desire to persuade the moderate nationalists to enter negotiations with non-nationalist parliamentary groups rather than create a "Basque national front," the highpoint of radical ambition. The major trauma of the war for Basque nationalists had been its fratricidal element amongst Basques, which explains why they were so concerned about fragmentation and polarization.28 In this way, as a result of its determination to avoid a new rupture in the heart of the Basque community, the PNV oscillated between support for the government (supporting, on many occasions, the politics of consensus) and collusion with the radicals (refusing, for example, to approve the Constitution or to condemn terrorist activities outright). To the radicals, whose electorate they were also trying to attract, the PNV had to demonstrate that its priority was the defense of Basque interests and not striking agreements with other parties. In Parliament, meanwhile, the PNV tried to compromise and support any consensual measures that did not affect its own interests, which encompassed awareness of the fact that, if Spanish democracy were not consolidated, it would be very difficult for the Basque Country to achieve its goal of self-rule. Thus, the principal lesson the PNV derived from the struggle, although rarely acknowledged explicitly, was that a civil war between Basques must never happen again.

Both the first ETA militants and the most radical sector of the moderate nationalists had a deep respect for some historic leaders of the PNV, but they felt their strategy based on compromise and pacts had borne little fruit. What now had to be achieved at all costs was the reconstruction of the Basque identity, even at the price of destroying consensus with other parties. Thus, in the constitutional debates, the PNV sought to defend, more than Spanish constitutional legality, an earlier, jurisdictional legality, so as not to hinder the possibility of claiming the right to self-determination, and also to avoid breaking definitively with the radical nationalists. The PNV did all it could to reconcile these elements, even at the cost of slightly "slipping outside" the political game.  Keeping in line with nationalist logic, the main objective was to safeguard the national community.


The Spanish Civil War according to Basque nationalism

ETA’s first terrorist act took place on July 18, 1961. The target was a train carrying veterans of the Franco regime.  The event was followed by a massive police persecution that forced many ETA militants to flee to France. The symbolic significance of both the target and the date chosen for the attack - the 25th anniversary of the coup d’état that led to the civil war – demonstrates the endurance of the memory of the civil war and the desire to attack the legitimating myth of the victors.29

Debate on the recourse to violence did not become an issue within ETA’s leading echelons until 1962, and it was not until the Third Assembly, held two years later, that the organization, heavily influenced by Federico Krutwick’s Vasconia, opted definitively for "revolutionary warfare." The fact that radical Basque nationalism did not acknowledge the civil dimension of the war is fundamental to understanding the adoption of this strategy and the very different lessons they derived from the experience of the war.30 According to them, the 1936 conflict was a war waged against a foreign, Spanish enemy. Although obviously serious, it was far less important that the Basque Country was subject from that point to a dictatorship than that it was "occupied" by a foreign power. The struggle against Francoism was therefore purely accidental, since the central battle of that war - which for ETA had still not ended - was the one which would subsequently be waged against the Spanish State.

Mikel Azurmendi argues that tens of thousands of voters in the Basque Country "believe they are at war today." According to him, "ETA was born in order to give new meaning to the Spanish Civil War; what it demands is the pursuit of what was left unresolved in that conflict, and which the PNV, in exile, did not want to follow up, preferring instead to wait for a peaceful resolution to be brought about by the US and European democracies. ETA was born to fight, and to continue the war."31

Quite interestingly, it was not only radical nationalism that appeared to question the "civil" nature of the war waged between 1936 and 1939.32 Throughout the transition, the PNV was also reluctant to join the implicit pact of silence over the wartime past that other parliamentary groups had put into practice. In fact, according to the radical nationalist, Francisco Letamendía, the PNV,


in contrast to Spanish parliamentary forces - for whom ‘national reconciliation’ meant, as Carrillo had confirmed, ‘not digging up the past’ - began after June 1977 to commemorate the anniversaries of numerous Civil War incidents in Euskadi. In the same way that, during the 1970s, the State saw this as a war between brothers, in Euskadi, where a government of National Concentration presided over by José Antonio Aguirre had brought about Basque unity, the Civil War continues to be seen as a fight of national resistance against a foreign occupier. Hence the cult of the ‘gudari’; hence also the symbolic force of comparing ‘yesterday’s’ gudari with ‘today’s’ gudari.33


Political documents by moderate Basque nationalists during the transition avoid reference to the 1936-9 conflict as a "civil war." The first post-war PNV assembly, held in Pamplona in 1977, supported the same myth as the radical nationalists, claiming the existence of a constant "struggle" from Sabino Arana to the present, without ever referring to the "civil war" as such. Delegates spoke of a "struggle against the successive foreign dictatorships this country has suffered; struggle in the trenches, arms in hand, against those who forced us into a war we did not want; struggle in prisons and in exile; an underground struggle by all possible means."34 As its natural electorate was nationalist, such occasions were used by the PNV to pay homage to the gudari who perished during the war, especially since it was believed that the gudari gave their lives "for Euskadi" and not for the defense of the Republic which, ultimately, was a "Spanish" regime they had not helped bring about, and whose constitution they had not approved. Furthermore, by paying homage to those who fought "throughout Euskadi" defending what they thought best for their land, they appeared also to be addressing those Basques who, as Carlists, had lined up on Franco’s side.

The existence of a new generation of Basque youth, more radically nationalist than the youth of the Republican period, ensured that the PNV’s attempts to win the new generation over-emphasised the Basque dimension of the 1936 war, stressing that their top-most priority was always the defense of Basque interests rather than defense of the Republic. During the Pamplona assembly, one speaker referred to the "torrents of blood spilt...for the Basque cause," and, again without using the expression "civil war," to "this tremendous drama, of so much blood, so much pain, so much overwhelming sentiment."36

Because the memory of what happened between 1936 and 1939 was passed down by Basque nationalism was not that of a civil war (not least because this side-stepped the Pact of Santoña betrayal), the lessons derived from it were different from those learned in the rest of Spain, where the fact that a civil war took place was not questioned.37 By telling Basque society that it was a war "between Spaniards" in which Basques were obliged to fight against their own volition, and then only to safeguard, as far as was humanly possible, the interests of their homeland, both the PNV and then ETA demonstrated the following lesson: through having in the past made a pact with Spanish forces, we suffered a bloody war which did not concern us and an oppressive dictatorship that "occupied" our land for forty years. Therefore, we must think long and hard if we are once again to make a pact with Spanish forces since our central concern is, and must be, the Basque community.


A Different Political Culture

A summary analysis of the main opinion polls carried out during the transition indicates some striking contrasts between Basque political culture and that of Spain as a whole. According to the 1975 FOESSA Report, while 51% of people in Spain as a whole were authoritarian and 49% liberal (according to the researchers’ own indices) the figures for the Basque Country were 31 and 69% respectively.38 Although nationally 80% agreed with the comment, "In Spain, the most important thing is to maintain order and peace," in the Basque Country the figure was only 67%.39

A later FOESSA Report found, first, that whilst 40% of Spaniards in general considered the maintenance of order preferable to the maintenance of liberty, only 26% of Basque and Navarrese people agreed (the lowest percentage in any of Spain’s regions); furthermore, only 17% of Spaniards prioritized liberty over order compared with some 25% of Basques and Navarrese (again, the highest figure of any Spanish region). Secondly, whilst 29% of Spaniards as a whole defined themselves as Francoist and 36% anti-Francoist, the equivalent figures for the Basque and Navarrese population were 10% and 56% respectively (the first being the lowest regional figure, the second the highest). Finally, whilst 60% of Spaniards defined themselves as monarchists and only 20% republicans, the figures in Navarre and the Basque Country were 35% and 33% respectively, again the lowest and highest regional figures.40

In 1979, a questionnaire was designed which combined a general survey of Spain with specific surveys of historic regions such as the Basque Country.41 Further analysis of the results demonstrates some statistically significant differences between the Spanish and Basque cases. When interviewees were asked whether they favored a monarchy or a Republic, 33% of Basques and 62% of Spaniards chose the former, while 67% of Basques and 37% of Spaniards opted for the latter. When asked whether they identified with Francoism or anti-Francoism, although 25% of Spaniards chose the former only 7% of Basques did so, compared with 93% of Basques who chose the latter option and 73% of Spaniards. The ideological distance between the two groups is also noteworthy: on a scale of 1 to 10 (where 1 represents the extreme left and 10 the extreme right), Spaniards as a whole located themselves at 5.9, and Basques at 4.4.42

Evaluations of the political situation at the time also differed significantly, since only 33% of Basques agreed with the phrase, "There are still many problems to resolve, but, on the whole we cannot complain," compared with 56% of Spaniards. Similarly, the phrase, "The situation is growing steadily more serious, it cannot continue this way," found agreement amongst 67% of Basques but only 44% of Spaniards.

Particularly significant for this study of the memory of the Civil War was the response to the question, "As far as you are aware, whether or not you lived through those years, which side did you or your family support in the 1936-9 war: Republican or Nationalist?" Amongst Basques the answers were 22% Nationalist and 42% Republican, whereas the equivalent figures for Spaniards in general were 36% Francoist and only 25% Republican. Paradoxically, just over 30% of both groups stated they had fought for neither side, and just over 5% said they had fought for both.43

In 1991 CIRES conducted another opinion poll on political culture, using a general survey for Spain as a whole and three specific ones for the Basque Country, Catalonia and Galicia.44 The differences in the memory the two groups had of the war had been slightly attenuated with the passing of time: in 1991, 27% of Basques and 34% of Spaniards acknowledged that a family member had fought on Franco’s side, whereas 40% of Basques and 31% of Spaniards said a family member had fought for the Republic. Some 22% of Basques stated that all members of their family of fighting age had defended the Republic, while in Catalonia the equivalent figure was 20% and the national average was just 12%. Nevertheless, if we focus on the family members, friends and acquaintances of the interviewees who lost their lives for whatever reason during the war, the figure for the Basque Country is 8% lower than the national average. However, in the Basque Country, the figure for those who were "held in prison" is 6% above the national average.45

Clearly, all these questions are based on the memory held by members of society at the beginning of the 1990s, either through lived experience or else inherited, of an event that had taken place in the 1930s. As memory evolves, so events which take place after these remembered events can modify their recollection. It is curious to see how the traumatic experience of the Franco regime in the Basque Country during the 1960s was able to distort memories of experiences during the war and in the post-war period. Thus, it is possible that the recollection in the survey of the number of prisoners held in the Basque Country during the war was distorted by a much more recent memory concerning the number of Basque activists imprisoned throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Although it is difficult to determine exactly how many Basques were among the high number of post-war prisoners, some provisional conclusions can be derived from official figures of court cases, broken down by province.46 By cross-tabulating these figures with the number of inhabitants in each province, we can obtain a national average of "trials initiated" in 1939: a figure of 0.149%. Both Guipúzcoa (0.025%) and Álava (0.143%) fall below this figure, Navarre matches it exactly (0.149%), while only Vizcaya, at 0.194%, is clearly above the national average. Furthermore, the combined average of these four provinces, at 0.127%, is again below the national average.

Worth highlighting in these opinion polls is the notably more negative perception of the Franco regime in the Basque Country, even when compared to Catalonia.47 It is highly probable that the scale of this perception is influenced by events which took place during the final decades of the Francoist regime, especially following the Burgos Trials.48 In fact, throughout the 1940s and 1950s, the Basque Country was, at least in some ways, much better off than average in terms of Spanish society as a whole. In 1942, for example, mortality rates by province averaged 14.60; for Álava, Guipúzcoa, Navarre and Vizcaya, the figures were 13.54, 13.76, 13.19, and 12.84 respectively.49 Figures for infant mortality in these four provinces are even more striking, being below the national average up to the age of four. Mortality rates are usually highly significant since they reflect, albeit indirectly, nutritional, sanitary, hygienic and, therefore, economic conditions. It is obvious that the trauma of the memory of a post-war period cannot be measured solely in the light of these figures, but it is also true that the less precarious the situation in regard to food, hygiene and sanitation the more bearable it will seem.

What we are dealing with here is absolutely not a case of measuring "who suffered most" during the war, the post-war period or the dictatorship (even if an adequate method of measuring and comparing different types of ‘suffering’ existed). What we are seeking to demonstrate is that, contrary to what Basque nationalism has maintained, first in clandestinity and then in democracy, the overall situation in the Basque Country (at least during the war years and immediately after) was not clearly worse off than in the rest of Spain but, in terms of certain indicators, substantially better. Certainly, these figures relating to ‘material’ conditions should be tempered by others related to ‘cultural’ repression which, although widespread, most affected those areas with deep-rooted linguistic and cultural differences. However, the situation in certain areas of Andalusia, Extremadura and La Mancha (to give just three examples) must also have been critical, since their mortality rates and, on occasions, their indices of political repression were much higher than the national average during the years analyzed.

What really seems to have occurred is that, based on a period of repression that was indeed notably more intense in the Basque Country than in the rest of Spain from the end of the 1960s, nationalist rhetoric has engaged in a reconstruction of history "in reverse" which maintains that the Franco regime always operated with a particular severity toward the Basque Country. As Juan Linz states, the memory of the repression exacted by the dictatorship "is without doubt one of the determinants of present attitudes, even when circumstances have changed. A wide section of Euskadi’s populace was not prepared to forget this past and look to the future."50 According to the CIRES poll cited above, the percentage of Basques in agreement with the phrase, "What happened in the Civil War was so terrible that it is better to forget about it than talk about it," is lower than in the rest of Spain. The Basques are also the people least in agreement with the following phrase: "The horrors and negative consequences of the Civil War were suffered only by those that lived through it, or in its immediate aftermath."51

According to this same logic, it is usually maintained within nationalist circles, underpinned by the vast symbolic power of the bombing of Guernica,52 that it was also the Basques who suffered most throughout the war, a conflict which still continues for those who today call themselves gudari (ETA activists). In fact some radical nationalists believe that the post-war period lasted right up to the end of the dictatorship, even up to the present day. Such a belief allowed the radical nationalist, Francisco Letamendía, in a speech delivered to the Cortes in 1978, to portray himself as a spokesman for a part of Basque society "that had not been able to forget the horrors of the post-war period because it has seen them reproduced in a succession of deaths, arrests, exiles and some cases, just a few months, or even weeks, ago."53


Transitions to Democracy in Plurinational States

This crucial issue has been treated, in the last few years, by some of the most well-known experts in transitions to and consolidations of democracies, such as Juan J. Linz and Alfred Stepan.  In addition to the political and economic dimensions of most of the transitional periods (the latter being especially relevant in the former Communist countries), when dealing with plurinational States we also have to take into account a third element related to the territorial organization of the State. One of the pioneers in emphasizing the importance of this issue was Dankwart Rustow, who pointed out that the only necessary, though not sufficient, "background condition" for a transition to take place was that the national borders of a given country should not be questioned by a majority of the population.54 In his article, he criticized the determinist view of political change and democratic survival and rejected theses based on the existence of "necessary conditions" for a democracy to emerge. No level of economic, social or cultural development was required to initiate a transition from dictatorship to democracy, given that most of the society agreed in the territorial definition of the country. As he wrote: "the vast majority of citizens in a democracy-to-be must have no doubt or mental reservations as to which political community they belong to.” And also, "Democracy is a system of rule by temporary majorities. In order that rulers and policies may freely change, the boundaries must endure, the composition of the citizenry be countinuous.”55

This factor has not being very much dealt with in most of the "transitional" literature, perhaps because it did not become a salient issue until the political transformations in former Communist regimes took place. However, this was also an issue in the Spanish transition to democracy, where a major transformation of the territorial organization of the country had to be designed. The difference between the Spanish case and some of the ex-communist countries is that, although it is true that stateness was also an issue in the Spain of the seventies, most of the Spanish society did not consider their belonging to the Spanish State as a problematic issue. Again, this was a special conflictive issue mainly in some sectors of the Basque country,56 but not in most of Spain, in contrast to what happened in the former Yugoslavia.57 What was a very controversial issue was the final shape that the administrative and territorial organization of the State should adopt.

In a plurinationalist country such as Spain, this was an additional difficulty to the general political process. As we have seen, the stateness problems were rather obvious among the Basque nationalists, given their reluctance to consider themselves as part of the Spanish demos, especially after experiencing a brutal dictatorship absolutely obsessed with the preservation of national unity through the oppression of sub-national diversity. If the definition of the demos is not adequately clear (a significant part of the Basque population consider themselves as being “only Basques” or “more Basques than Spanish”) this might generate serious problems of legitimacy and political stability.

The nationalist ideology of the PNV allows this party to order its political preferences in a very peculiar way. Apart from its attempts to monopolize the representation of the "national interest" of the Basque "community," the PNV ignored the consensus spirit that governed the Spanish transition by arguing that this spirit was contrary to its primary priorities. According to David Laitin, the loyalty dilemmas that tend to arise in plurinationalist states can be dealt with through the articulation of  "credible commitments" between the two main actors in conflict.[xxiv]

Laitin does not agree with the primordialism of certain authors, according to which cultural identities are fixed and, as a consequence, tend to be responsible for the lack of understanding among actors. On the contrary, Laitin sustains that, in most cases, this problem (that, under certain circumstances, can lead to armed conflict) is due to a defective institutional design as well as to the existence of inadequate strategies by both actors. In order to deal with these issues it is necessary that each side fulfills certain conditions. Both have to be able to display a “credible commitment” containing both a “threat” and a “promise.” On the one hand, the State has to be able to demonstrate that it is the one determining the final distribution of political resources in society. So it should not allow regionalist forces to think that he will accept all sort of demands if he does not want to have to face, at least in the short run, secessionist demands. On the other hand, the State has to be able to promise “that if regional leaders accept early concessions for devolution of power, the center will not take advantage of the ensuing political quiescence of the region to build up sufficient strength to recentralize the polity.” Regional leaders have to be able to transmit the threat “that if there is no devolution of power to the region, a civil war might follow.”[xxv] But also they have “to make a credible promise that if they receive autonomy, they will not use their new power to escalate demands (for complete sovereignty) or to maltreat minorities within their region.”[xxvi]

These are very suggestive theses for our case. It seems evident that neither the Republicans nor the Basque nationalists were able to make credible commitments to each other, especially “promises,” during the Republican period and the civil war. The deep mistrust that governed the relationship between them is evident through the testimonies of the period. Actually, the Republicans did not believe in the Basque nationalist loyalty, because they always thought the later had too many similarities to the Francoist forces (because of their political conservatism and their clericalism). In fact, as we have seen, the Basque nationalist authorities signed a secret agreement with the Italian fascists during the war in a bid to get special treatment after the conflict. On the other hand, Basque nationalists did not trust the Republicans either, as they could not agree with atheists, leftists, and people supporting collectivizations during the war.

This problematic relationship was somewhat improved after the war, as both the Basques Nationalists and the Republicans had to go into exile, and then it was clear that the common enemy to beat was Franco. However, as their mutual mistrust had such deep historical roots, it was not that easy to follow Laitin advice during the transition to democracy. I believe, along with Laitin, that cultural identities are not fixed, but it is also evident that memories of previous treasons and a history of deep misunderstanding may make the process of creating mutual trust and credible commitments more arduous. Especially in a transitional period in which there are no fixed rules and the very institutions for dealing with conflicts are being created under circumstances of high uncertainty.

The difficult equilibrium reached during the transition was partially broken in the Constitutional debates, where the Basque nationalists were partially marginalized in the Commission in charge of writing the first draft, as their interests were only represented by a nationalist Catalan. This small Commission was elected according to the Parliamentary seats of the main political forces, but politicians should have foreseen, given that the “Basque issue" was one of the most problematic during the transition, that it was necessary to include moderate Basque forces in the institutional design of the new regime. The fact that this was not taken into account certainly was, according to Laitin’s logic, a poor strategy. Basque nationalists, on the other hand, used their absence of the Commission to exaggerate their disagreements with the final text, when in fact, the real differences were mainly about one single article that was finally written in such an abstract terms that could have been interpreted in many different ways.

In the end, none of the Basque nationalist forces voted in favor of the Constitution, which nonetheless passed with the vast majority of the votes in Parliament. The PNV even recommended its constituency abstain in the Constitutional referendum of December 1978, taking advantage of the higher level of abstentions that were usually seen in the Basque Country. The result of the referendum was that the Constitution was clearly approved by the Spanish people, but the affirmative turnout did not reach 50% of the votes in either Guipúzcoa or Vizcaya. In spite of this, the affirmative vote of these two provinces was clearly higher than the negative one, but the fact that the abstention was even higher has been used ever since by the Basque nationalist forces to “show” the Basque disaffection towards a Constitution that does not recognize any previous source of legitimacy.

The refusal of Basque nationalist parties to vote for the 1978 Constitution (the so-called Constitution of the “consensus” and “national reconciliation”) can be interpreted in the following way: when genuine nationalist political forces perceive a conflict between the interests of the "State" and the ones of their own "community," they will pursue the latter. In the Basque case, the political learning component that underlies this argument is that nothing can be worse, under the nationalist logic, than to see their ‘nation’ divided again, as it happened in the civil war, and even under Francoism (although this is very rarely made explicit). Whenever we find the coexistence of two national loyalties it is very likely that they will compete and, sooner or later, enter into conflict. This explains why nationalist forces tend to order their political preferences in peculiar ways, as the first priority is to satisfy what they consider to be their “natural” constituency, regardless of whether this causes a worse relationship with the rest of the democratic forces with respect to integral aspects, such as the drafting of a Constitution.



It is possible that the memory of the Civil War had a more dramatic hue in the Basque case, but this is not, as the nationalists have so often suggested, because of a higher level of destruction, harsher post-war experiences, or more extensive political reprisals. Rather, if we leave aside the celebrated bombing of Guernica and a few other disastrous episodes, the destruction in the Basque Country was less than that suffered in other areas, while survival after the war was not as difficult as elsewhere. I have also alluded to the mediating role played by the Basque Church throughout the regime, which made very considerable efforts to avert executions and reduce the number of convictions.

Rather, the memory of the Civil War in the Basque Country has such dramatic meaning because of the doubly fratricidal nature of the struggle there, especially for the nationalists. The fact that Basque and Navarrese territory was divided between those who fought to the death for the Francoist forces, supporters of the Republic, and nationalist partisans, gives this conflict an even greater resonance, since it suggests the symbolic rupture of a supposedly natural collective identity, the "Basque Nation." Furthermore, even though both Vizcaya and Guipúzcoa lost their conciertos económicos, it is also the case that Álava and Navarre kept their jurisdictional privileges as a reward for their loyalty to Francoism.

A separate issue, although directly related to the previous, is the greater level of repression unleashed by the dictatorship in the Basque Country from the end of the 1960s. This became especially brutal following the emergence of ETA and its recourse to terrorism. From that point onwards, the Basque Country was subject to many states of exception and, at the time of Franco’s death, had the largest prison population in Spain. This atmosphere of tension and confrontation allowed ETA to perpetuate the myth that they were continuing the war that began in 1936 between, according to their version, Basques and Spaniards. For them, this struggle will not cease until Euskadi is independent from the Spanish state.

For their part, moderate nationalists claim they felt obliged to take part in a war that did not concern them, since their priorities had nothing to do with those of either of the warring sides. Despite feeling compelled to fight, they always tried to prevent atrocities and reprisals, and, above all, to preserve the integrity of the national community. This interpretation allowed them to justify the Pact of Santoña, particularly to a new electorate that was much more clearly nationalist than that of the 1930s, and for whose loyalty they had to compete with another nationalist force which, for the first time in history, threatened their hegemony. The PNV now has to be much more cautious in its relations with "Spanish" parties, as there are many who attribute all the ills that have afflicted the Basque Country since 1936 to the policy of co-operation.

Thus, the principal task of moderate nationalism during the transition, while not publicly declared, was to avert the fratricidal conflict of the Civil War. The issue at hand was to unite the Basques, even if this meant a worse relationship with the rest of Spain’s democratic forces. In contrast to these, the PNV claimed to feel no remorse over the 1936 war. Nor did the party share the maxim implicitly adopted by the greater part of Spanish society that "todos fuimos culpables" ("we were all guilty"). It is this lack of a sense of guilt that led them to not make the same concessions as others felt obliged to, as they felt they had nothing to purge. According to this logic, consensus is based on feelings of guilt which are not shared by moderate nationalism. Moreover, in line with this same logic, if the nationalists suffered the most under the Franco regime and were the ones who most heroically fought the dictatorship, then it is the rest of Spanish society which is indebted to them, and not the reverse. This is the party rhetoric, even though its political practice, as is well known, has been much more inclined towards pacts and negotiation than might be expected from the arguments they present. However, it is obvious that stateness problems are still important in Spanish politics and that these were worsened, and nationalist demands very much radicalized, by the very nature of the Francoist regimen, obsessed with the unity of the country and with the absolute centralization of  political decisions.


[i] Part of the new institutionalist literature (particularly in its sociological and historical versions) could be very helpful in this respect, as it emphasizes the importance of historical legacies in the design of new institutions. See S. Steinmo, K. Thelen and F. Longstreth. Structuring Politics. Historical Institutionalism in Comparative Analysis.  (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1992), and also Peter A. Hall and Rosemary Taylor, “Political Science and the Three New Institutionalisms,” Political Studies, vol. XLIV, 1996, pp.939-957.


[ii] See further, Paloma Aguilar. Memoria y Olvido de la Guerra Civil Española. (Madrid: Alianza Editorial 1996).

[iii]  In the first place, we should begin to call into question the “peaceful” nature of the Spanish transition, especially if we take into account that between 1975 and 1980 more than 460 people died in a violent way, whether in terrorist attacks from both extremes of the political spectrum, or in the frequent confrontations between police forces and demonstrators. Of the 63 deaths that have been recorded by Ramón Adell in the collective actions of this period, more than half of them took place in the Basque Country. See Ramon Adell, ‘Manifestations et Transition Démocratique en Espagne,’ Les Cahiers de la Sécurité Intérieure, nº27, 1997, pp.203-222. In the second place, the most popular demonstrations of the Spanish transition, those in which the main demand was the total amnesty for political prisoners (irrespective of the result of their actions) were especially abundant and violent also in the Basque Country, given that most of the political prisoners of that time belonged to ETA.


[iv] The highest rates of abstention occurred in Guipúzcoa (55%) and in Vizcaya (46%), compared with the national average of 22%. See Francisco J. Llera. Postfranquismo y Fuerzas Políticas en Euskadi. Sociología Electoral del País Vasco. (Bilbao: Universidad del País Vasco 1984), p.95 and John F. Coverdale, ‘Regional Nationalism and the Elections in the Basque Country,’ in Howard R. Penniman and Eusebio M. Mujal-León (eds). Spain at the Polls. 1977, 1979 and 1982. (Durham: Duke University press 1985), p.233.

[v] The percentage of votes against was greater in the Basque and Navarrese provinces (around 20%) than in the rest of Spain (almost 8%). See Coverdale, op.cit., pp. 241-3. For a synthesis of electoral participation in the Basque Country and the rest of Spain between 1977 and 1979, see Juan J. Linz. Conflicto en Euskadi. (Madrid: Espasa-Calpe 1986), p.179.

[vi] Euzkadi Ta Askatasuna ("Basque Country and Freedom"), the terrorist organization of radical nationalism founded in 1959. It has its origins in the EKIN group ("Action"), founded in 1952 by members of the youth organization of the PNV (Partido Nacional Vasco, or "Basque Nationalist Party"), the EGI (Eusko Gaztedi, or "Basque Youth"), and another Basque student group, EIA (Eusko Ikasle Alkartasuna, or "Union of Basque Students"). The split between the PNV and EKIN did not occur until 1958, a year before the foundation of ETA. Despite this, there were still significant transfers from EGI to ETA, even though ETA’s strategies were clearly different. With the rise of ETA, the PNV had to face up for the first time to a serious nationalist rival. This led them, especially in the first electoral campaigns of the transition, to incline on occasion towards radical nationalism in order to ensure that the youth vote was not attracted, en masse, to this new force which soon had its own political wing, HB (Herri Batasuna, or "United People").

[vii] According to Ander Gurruchaga, "of a total of eleven states of exception decreed by the regime between 1956 and 1975, ten affected either Guipúzcoa or Vizcaya, or both at the same time," in Ander Gurruchaga. El código nacionalista vasco durante el franquismo. (Barcelona: Anthropos 1985), p. 289. The same author also stresses the importance of the "stigma of defeat" that prevailed in the Basque Country throughout the Franco period.

[viii]   All these questions are related to a recent theoretical debate that is taking  place in Political Science. Many of the authors dealing with the process of transition and consolidation have already referred to the issue of prosecuting the political elites of authoritarian regimes, to the appropriateness of purging the civil and military organizations in order to facilitate political change, and to the possibility of compensating in economic terms or, at least, of symbolically rehabilitating the victims of the dictatorships. A few years ago, precisely because of what has been called the "third wave" of democratizations,  this debate has acquired an enormous relevance and has been called as "transitional or political justice." Some of the most important contributions in this respect are the three volumes edited by N.J.Kirtz. Transitional Justice. (Washington D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press, 1995) and the one edited by A. James McAdams. Transitional Justice and the Rule of Law in New Democracies. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press 1997). The most recent article on this topic is by Jon Elster. "Coming to Terms with the Past. A Framework for the Study of Justice in the Transition to Democracy," Archives Européennes de Sociologie, nº1, vol. XXXIX, 1988, pp.7-48.


[ix] On the endurance of certain authoritarian values, see Mariano Torcal. "Actitudes políticas y participación política en España: pautas de cambio y continuidad" (Madrid: Universidad Autónoma, doctoral thesis 1995).

[x] For such an account of the Second Republic, see Stanley Payne. Spain’s First Democracy. The Second Republic, 1931-1936. (Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990).

[xi] Founded by Sabino Arana in 1895, the PNV was, and remains, the most important Basque nationalist party.

[xii] On the attitude of the PNV in the 1930s, see Juan Pablo Fusi. El problema vasco en la II Republica. (Madrid: Turner 1979) and José Luis de la Gramja. Nacionalismo y II República en el País Vasco. (Madrid: CIS/Siglo XXI 1986).

[xiii] Navarre is not part of the Basque Country, but constitutes an independent Autonomous Community. Nor were these communities integrated into the same region in the 1930s. However, according to the Basque nationalists, Navarre forms part of the Euskalerria ("Basque Homeland") along with other regions in the south of France.

[xiv] On contacts between the rebels and the PNV, see Stanley Payne. El nacionalismo  vasco (Barcelona: DOPESA 1974) pp. 220-2, and Luis Mª and Juan Carlos Jiménez de Aberasturi. La guerra en Euskadi. (Plaza y Janés 1979) p. 179.


[xv] José Mª Garmendia and Manuel González Portilla, "Crecimiento económico y actitudes políticas de la burguesía vasca en la postguerra," in Isidro Sánchez et al. (eds). España franquista. Causa general y actitudes sociales ante la dictadura. (Albacete: Universidad de Castilla La Mancha 1993), p. 191.

[xvi] Eugenio Ibarrábal (ed.). Cincuenta años de nacionalismo vasco. (Bilbao: Ediciones Vascas 1978).

[xvii] Cited by Andrés de Blas, "La izquierda española y el nacionalismo. El caso de la transición," Leviatán 32, p. 84.

[xviii] Jiménez de Aberasturi, op.cit., p. 260.

[xix] PNV, El PNV ante la Constitución. Historia y alcance de unas negociaciones (Zarauz: Itxaropena 1978), p. 146.

[xx] As suggested by a PNV politician, a "moral identification" with ETA developed amongst all the democratic parties since it was the only "armed opposition" to Francoism (interview carried out by Hans-Jürgen Puhle, 20 September, 1983. Code B4/C64, p17-18). These interviews are cited anonymously at the behest of those involved. I have been allowed access to them, with the permission of Professor Richard Gunther (who carried out most of them) in the library of the Juan March Institute.

[xxi] Juan Pablo Fusi, El País Vasco. Pluralismo y nacionalidad. (Madrid: Alianza Editorial 1984) p. 225.

[xxii] On the amnesty demonstrations, their intimate connection with the memory of the Civil War, and the specificities they acquired in the Basque Country, see Paloma Aguilar, "Collective Memory of the Spanish Civil War: The Case of the Political Amnesty in the Spanish Transition to Democracy," Democratization 4/4 (Winter 1997) pp. 88-109.

[xxiii] It also seems that the Basques were less afraid than other Spaniards of the possible outbreak of a new Civil War. See the results of the CIRES poll (op.cit., p. 636) on fears that this might happen on Franco’s death, with the legalization of the Spanish Communist Party (PCE), after the coup d’état of 23 February 1981, or after the PSOE (Socialist Party) took power in 1982.

21 Interview with a representative of the Basque government carried out by Richard Gunther, 20 September 1983. Code B4/C64, p. 18.

22 Interview with EE leader carried out by Gunther, June 1983. Code B4/C56, pp5-6. EE was the nationalist political force that most explicitly articulated in the Basque Parliament fears of a repetition of fratricidal conflict. See, Diario de Sesiones del Parlamento Vasco, 18/12/80 and 12/2/81.

23 Interview with EE leader, cited in former note, p. 6.

24 Interview by Gunther; 20 September, 1983. Code B4/C63, p. 11.

25 Interview by Gunther; 27 June, 1978. Code B1/53, pp. 263-4.

26 Interview by Gunther; June 1983. Code B4/C58, p. 4.

27 Interview by Gunther; 21 June, 1979. Code B1/A20, p. 221.

28 This fragmentation indeed exists and is reflected in the party system.  See José Ramón Montero and Mariano Torcal, "Autonomías y comunidades autónomas en España: preferencia, dimensiones y orientaciones políticas," in Alberto Figueroa and Eduardo Mancisidor (eds). Poder político y Comunidades Autónomas. (Vitoria: Parlamento Vasco 1991), p. 154. Other authors highlight the existence of a divided nationalist political élite, in contrast to the Catalan case; see David Laitin, "National Revivals and Violence," Estudios/Working Paper 49 (June 1993), p. 22.

29 Both the PNV and ETA dedicated no little effort "to the 'mutilation' of monuments commemorating Franco’s victory in the Civil War," John Sullivan. El nacionalismo vasco radical 1959-1986. (Madrid: Alianza Editorial 1988), p. 46. According to another author, after 1967 ETA planned "to eliminate, with explosives, all memories of the Revolt,' in Gurutz Jaúregui. Ideología y estrategia política de ETA, Análisis de su evolución entre 1959 y 1968. (Madrid: Siglo XXI 1985), p. 456.

30 The youth of EKIN, and later of ETA, blamed post-war repression in the Basque Country on the failure of the "pactist" strategy of the PNV, who should never have negotiated with the "Spanish" Republican authorities.

31Mikel Azurmendi, "Vascos que, para serlo, necesitan enemigo," Claves 70, p. 39.

32 For example, Telesforo Monzón (an historic PNV militant who left the party to form the first Mesa Nacional of the HB), established explicit parallels between the present dispute and that of the 1930s. "For me, says Monzón, the war has not yet finished. The gudaris of today are the continuation of the gudaris of yesteryear," in Francisco Letamendía. Historia del nacionalismo y del ETA, III volumes (San Sebastián: R&B Ediciones, 1994 II), pp. 204.

33 Letamendía, op.cit. 1994 II, p. 89.

34 PNV, Iruña 77 (Pamplona: La Asamblea 1977), p. 1.

36 PNV, op.cit., p. 5.

37 The reading of the Civil War as a "war against Spain," to which both nationalists and sometimes moderates subscribe, helped create the foundational myth of a future "Basque State." While the Basque government was in existence, at the height of the war, the nationalists forged the illusion that it was they who had constructed the State, to the extent that they even came to mint their own coins. The implications of this mythical construct are difficult to exaggerate, since it led to the idea that only when open warfare "against Spain" was launched would it be possible to build an "Independent Basque State."  One author has recently commented, "why did the memory of the Civil War have such an unparalleled impact on Basque nationalists? Was not the Civil War equally associated with national oppression in Catalonia? Unlike in Catalonia, the Civil war in the Basque Country was experienced as a nationalist war. The nationalists had their own army , the gudariak (Basque soldiers)...who created a myth of armed resistance." Daniele Conversi. The Basques, the Catalans and Spain. Alternative Routes to Nationalist Mobilisation. (Reno: University of Nevada Press 1997), p. 224.

38 Fundación FOESSA, Informe sociológico sobre la situación social de España. (Madrid: Euroamérica 1975), p. 1159.

39 Fundación FOESSA, op.cit.,1975, p. 1186.

40 Fundación FOESSA, Informe sociológico sobre el cambio político en España (1975-1981). (Madrid: Euroamérica 1981), p. 154.

41 This poll was designed by Richard Gunther, Giacomo Sani and Goldie Shabad, who dissected these facts in the elaboration of their book, El sistema de partidos políticos en España: Génesis y evolución. (Madrid: CIS/Siglo XXI 1986). Linz’s book, op.cit., also makes use of this data.

42 Ten years later the Basque electorate was still the most left-wing of all the Autonomous Communities, with a figure of 3.9 compared to a Spanish national average of 4.7. See Montero and Torcal, op.cit., p162.

43 These findings are based on the raw data in the 1979 poll.

44 Juan Díez Nicolás and Juan Díez Medrano generously allowed me to insert questions relating to the memory of the Civil War in their questionnaire.

45 CIRES. La realidad social en España 1990-1991. (Bilbao: Fundación BBV/Caja de Madrid 1992), p. 623.

46 "Causas incoadas en los Juzgados de Instrucción, por provincias, clasificadas por los títulos del Código Penal," Anuario Estadístico de España (ANE) (Madrid, 1943) p. 1073.

47 Some 33% of Basques had a "very negative" opinion of the Franco regime’s achievements, against only 18% of Catalans and 15% of Spaniards. See CIRES, op.cit., p. 639.

48 Many authors have stated that this event is crucial to understand the evolution of radical nationalism and the popularity it gained in the upper echelons of Basque society.

49 Figures represent the coefficient of provincial mortality per 1000 inhabitants, ANE, op.cit., p. 147.

50 Linz, op.cit. 1994 II, p. 663. After the 1979 referendum on the Statute of Autonomy, 69% of Basques thought it better to "forget the past and think of the future," compared to 30% who thought that "the past cannot be ignored." See Linz, op.cit., p. 664.

51 CIRES, op.cit., p. 634.

52 The bombing of Guernica was a military defeat, transformed into a propaganda victory, by being presented as an attempt by international fascism to annihilate the Basque Country. Basque leaders also accused the Republican government of not having offered them sufficient help. An important part of the victimization claim in nationalist discourse depends on the mythologizing of Guernica.

53 Letamendía, op.cit. 1994 II, p. 132.


54 See the classical though still very pertinent article by Dankwart Rustow, "Transitions to Democracy. Toward a Dynamic Model," Comparative Politics, nº2, pp. 337-363.


55   Rustow, op.cit., p. 350-1.


56    In 1995 a survey on "patriotism" was undertaken by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.  More than 28.000 people were interviewed in 23 countries, and Spain was, along with other nations, in the top of the list measuring "National Pride in Specific Achievements," with a score of  33.1 out of a possible 50 (Ireland got the highest score with 39.3). At the bottom of the list were the countries of the former Soviet bloc, such as Hungary, Slovakia, Poland, Russia and Latvia. See


57   The former Yugoslavian case is a very different one, but also very useful to illustrate our thesis. In this case we also find the memory of a cruel civil war that took place during the Second World War. However, just to mention one important difference, in Yugoslavia this memory was used by the elites as a political weapon, just the contrary to what happened in Spain.  For understanding these differences, we have to take into account that the Yugoslavian civil war that took place in the forties was fought through ethnic alignment, whereas the Spanish civil war of the thirties was fought through ideological ones. According to one of the main experts in civil war studies, Roy Licklider, the likeliness of a civil war to be repeated in the future increases if that was has been fought through ethnic alignments. See Roy Licklider. Stopping the Killing. How Civil Wars End. (New York: New York University Press 1993). Also, the survey studies that we find analyzed by Dicker show, even in the seventies,  the lack of willingness of an important part of the Yugoslavian society to share a common future. See his chapter in Archie Brown and Jack Gray, (eds). Political Culture and Political Change in Communist States (London: MacMillan Press 1977).


[xxiv] See David Laitin, "Transitions to Democracy and Territorial Integrity," in Adam Przeworski (ed). Sustainable Democracy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1995). I thank Ignacio Sánchez-Cuenca for having suggested me this reading. He himself has written an excellent article on a related topic: Ignacio Sánchez-Cuenca, “Institutional Commitments and Democracy,” European Journal of Sociology, vol.XXXIX, 1998, pp. 78-109.


[xxv] Laitin, op.cit., p. 25.


[xxvi] Laitin, op.cit. pp. 25-6.