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)


War Over Gibraltar? Spanish Threats and Britain’s Post-Brexit Weakness

Between June 1779 and February 1783 British forces in Gibraltar survived an almost unrelenting Franco-Spanish siege, fighting one of the most remarkable defensive actions in early modern history. Given this heroic feat it is perhaps unsurprising that, more than 200 years later, the British government is not willing to give up its Iberian exclave without a fight.

The Great Siege of Gibraltar

Whether it is wise to threaten the claimant Spaniards with war should they attempt to use Gibraltar as a bargaining chip in negotiations over a post-Brexit EU trade deal is somewhat debatable. What is certain, though, is that London is acutely aware of the symbolic importance of their Mediterranean outpost, even if its strategic significance at the gateway to Europe is becoming increasingly irrelevant.

Captured from the Kingdom of Castile during the War of the Spanish Succession in 1704, Gibraltar was formerly ceded to Britain by the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. Attempts by the Spaniards to recapture the territory in 1727 and then during the siege of 1779-1783 failed, leaving Gibraltar as an important base for the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean.

Spain has never relinquished its claim to Gibraltar, a somewhat hypocritical stance mindful to overlook Madrid’s remaining colonial possessions on the North African coastline at Ceuta and Melilla. Periodic diplomatic spats have led to border closures and delays, often carefully orchestrated by Spanish crossing guards.

Border delays following a diplomatic row in 2013

Just as Ceuta and Melilla have a centuries-long affinity with their Spanish motherland, Gibraltar remains unapologetically British. Despite their overwhelming preference to remain within the EU, Gibraltarians have no desire to become part of Spain.

There are of course parallels here with the Falkand Islands, over which Britain went to war against Argentina in 1982. That Spain would attempt a brazen assault on Gibraltar comparable to that launched by the Argentinians against the Falklands is unthinkable, their democratic rulers far more encumbered in their actions than the brutal junta in Buenos Aires ever was.

A classic British telephone box at the Gibraltar walls

What George Augustus Eliott, commander of the Gibraltar garrison during the siege of 1779-1783, would think of the petty squabbles of today one can only guess at. Probably he would be gratified by continuing British sovereignty over the outpost his men fought so hard to maintain, no doubt more than eager to throw himself back into the fiery cauldron of battle.

Fortunately, despite the crass comments of some naive politicians, such a scenario is more than unlikely. However, the Spanish decision to publicise this potential stumbling block for Britain’s future economic relations with Europe points to the dissatisfaction on the continent surrounding the Brexit verdict.

Britain has often been seen as an outsider in Europe, an aloof power whose imperialistic history has not endeared it to many of the nations that remain tightly ensconced in the grip of Brussels.

Undoubtedly further tribulations await Theresa May and her Conservative government. Britain’s European neighbours are likely to resurrect these historical enmities in a vindictive attempt to punish one whose dismantling of the long fought for European federalist project is most unwelcome.

Elliot and his officers in discussion during the Great Siege of Gibraltar, 1782

As the British and the Spanish have long recognised, the power of a rock cannot be measured by conventional indicators. History, nationalism and symbolism combine to make the most toxic of concoctions.

Seven Dead in Spanish Bull Runs: time running out for the spectacle of Iberia?

Seven people have been gored to death in Spain over the past month during popular bull-running festivals. The news comes just a few days after renowned matador Francisco Rivera Ordonez was left with severe injuries after being savagely attacked during a corrida in Huesca.

Spectacles involving the taunting and killing of bulls were common in Ancient Crete, Rome and Thessaly over a millennium ago and have remained popular – not to mention legal – in Spain, Portugal and several Latin American countries. That said, bullfighting and bull-running do not receive the nationwide approval they once did in Spain, with both the Canary Islands and Catalonia having outlawed the corrida.

Bullfighting in Spanish provinces in the 19th century
Bullfighting in Spanish provinces in the 19th century


Bullfighting in Spain today
Bullfighting in Spain today

Arguments over animal cruelty compete with narratives trumpeting the cultural significance of bull-baiting in all its forms although, in truth,  the spectacle is unlikely to disappear in its practicing countries anytime soon. Indeed, the running of the bulls in Pamplona remains an important date in the Spanish calendar. Originating in the 13th century – when it coincided with a series of bullfighting ‘fiestas’ – the Pamplona run attracts tourists from around the world and has been broadcast on Spanish national television for three decades. Injuries to participants is a yearly occurrence, although only 15 deaths have been recorded since 1910.

This latest spate of deaths in other bull-runs across the country is likely to provide momentum to activists seeking to end the practice, although it will take a very brave government to ban the sport, which remains an important economic (as well as cultural) contributor to Spain.

The running of the bulls in Pamplona
The running of the bulls in Pamplona

Bullfighting too is unlikely to die out quickly despite a decrease in participation and popularity. An age-old tradition, it follows three carefully-managed stages:

  1. A banderillero (assistant) performs some preliminary manoeuvres to allow the matador to assess the bull’s behaviour.
  2. The matador commences his capework, drawing the bull as close to him as possible whilst avoiding being gored.
  3. Picadors enter on horseback and jab the bull in the neck to weaken its muscles, allowing the matador to swoop in and slay the beast with his sword, usually to a rapturous reception from the baying crowd.

For people in many countries where bullfighting is not a national pastime this ‘process’ seems rather barbaric. However, the sport has become so ingrained in Spanish and, to a slightly lesser extent, Latin American culture that any criticism of it is almost deemed a racist assault. It is for this reason in particular – nationalism – that bullfighting and bull-running are likely to persist in their current forms for many years to come.

Whether this a triumph for national solidarity or a gross abuse of animal rights – not to mention the unnecessary risk placed on civilians – will probably depend on your country of origin.

Sevilla circa 1850. The primeval spectacle of man vs beast continues to stir passions in the Spanish heartland
Sevilla circa 1850. The primeval spectacle of man vs beast continues to stir passions in the Spanish heartland

Where the blood sports of the West have generally been abandoned, confined to a handful of illegal closed door ceremonies, the ‘fine art’ of the corrida remains defiant, its proponents heroes of the common man, vaunted as modern colossuses.