ETA Disarms to Return Basque Nationalism to Civil War Resilience

The militant Basque separatists ETA have finally called time on their four-decade campaign of violence to secure an independent homeland in the north of Spain. At least 829 people have lost their lives since the bloodshed began in 1961, ranging from innocent children to the Spanish Prime Minister.

Police seize a declared ETA weapons cache in southern France

This violent strain of Basque nationalism emerged from the ashes of the brutal Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), with the victorious Franco regime denying the Basque people the little autonomy they previously possessed.

Nationalism and dreams of independence were not a new idea for the northerners inhabiting the French-Spanish border and the Basque Army fought ferociously to deny the advance of Franco’s Nationalists in 1937.

19th Battalion of the Basque Army, 1937

Particularly intriguing is the notable effort made by the Basque people during the Civil War to prevent the indiscriminate acts of violent retribution that plagued both sides and came to characterise the conflict.

‘The moderate Socialists and the Basque nationalists were in the forefront of efforts to put a stop to rearguard outrages…strenuous efforts to put a stop to arbitrary arrests and executions were made by Jesus Galindez of the Basque delegation in Madrid and by Manuel Irujo Olla, the piously Catholic Basque’. (Preston, pp. 291-292)

Additionally, the Basque country was the only region within the Republican sphere that did not see widespread looting and destruction of Church property, the clerical establishment having become inextricably linked with Franco’s forces.

Does this failed attempt at an honourable, bloodless resistance during the Spanish Civil War partly explain ETA’s violent course after its foundation in 1959? Undoubtedly many Basque people never associated themselves with what became a terrorist organisation, regardless of whether they shared some of the group’s ambitions.

The bombing of Guernica – a Basque town of no strategic importance – by Nazi & Italian aircraft in league with Franco, stunned the world

Perhaps it is telling that ETA evolved out of a student movement unhappy at the moderate stance of the Basque Nationalist Party. Young men who had not witnessed the ravages of war first hand were maybe unappreciative of what taking up arms really meant.

For millions of others in Spain, the legacy of civil war and the Franco dictatorship has ingrained pacifism. This has denied ETA the widespread support of the people it claims to represent and ultimately meant its bloody struggle – like that of the IRA – would end in defeat at the hands of a militarily strong and resilient democratic government.

Support for Basque nationalism remains strong but it will continue without the backdrop of ETA violence


Preston, P. The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth-Century Spain (2012)


Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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