Mailbombs and Car Bombs: the Basque Conundrum

Coby Lubliner

The highly publicized actions of e-sabotage against popular Web sites of the .com persuasion that took place in February of 2000 have reminded me of one that took place in July of 1997, and was not nearly so well publicized. It consisted of massive volumes of e-mail (“mailbombing”) directed against the nonprofit Institute for Global Communications (IGC), and specifically against a site called Euskal Herria Journal that was hosted by it; eventually IGC was forced to suspend the site, though it has continued to appear on other host sites.

“Euskal Herria” is the name by which Basque nationalists call the greater Basque Country, whose independence from Spain and France they seek. What provoked the mailbombing was outrage over the brutal killing – by the ultranationalist terrorist organization ETA – of a non-nationalist municipal councilor named Miguel Ángel Blanco in the Basque town of Ermua, along with a sense that the Web site, while not managed by ETA, was sympathetic to it. In the wake of the killing and the massive protests that it provoked, within the Basque Country and without, ETA declared a “truce,” which it maintained for a year and a half, until, on January 21, 2000, a car bomb (ETA’s favorite weapon) in Madrid killed an army officer, also named Blanco (blanco, incidentally, means ‘target’ in Spanish).

Basque nationalists are a definite minority in Euskal Herria. Even in the Basque Country in the narrower sense, that is, the Basque Autonomous Community (formerly the Basque Provinces) of Spain – which covers only about a third of the territory claimed by the nationalists) – they constitute at most half the population; in the Spanish Province of Navarre (the historic heartland of Basquedom) and in the French Basque region they are far fewer than that. That the Basque Autonomous Government has been headed, since its inception in 1979, by the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) – the moderate wing of nationalism – is due largely to the division of the non-nationalists between socialists, radical leftists, and conservatives.

The PNV’s moderation is expressed, above all, by its opposition to violence. During most of the 1980s and 1990s it kept its distance from ETA by not explicitly advocating independence, only a vague “self-determination,” as well as by vigorously claiming all the advantages of the special tax status that the Spanish Constitution gives the Basque Country and Navarre, a status that has led the region from post-industrial depression to a renewed prosperity symbolized by the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum.

But the recent ETA truce led the PNV’s leaders to believe that the association between full separatism and violence was no longer valid, and they committed themselves to joining forces for independence with ETA’s political arm, Herri Batasuna(which now uses the name Euskal Herritarrok as a political party), and with a smaller moderate party, a PNV offshoot named Eusko Alkartasuna. Now, with the truce broken, only the next elections will tell what political price the PNV will have to pay for its gamble.

The Basque self-styled “national liberation movement” represented by ETA, which sprang up in the 1960s, was consciously modeled on the one of Northern Ireland, with the IRA as the armed branch and Sinn Féin as the political one. What the two have in common is not only organization but an ethnically based ideology, something that sets them apart from other nationalist movements in the West.

Civic and ethnic nationalism

Over the past century it has generally been recognized by political thinkers, especially German and British ones, that there is a drastic difference between East (eastern Europe and most of Asia) and West (western Europe and the territories settled by its emigrants) in what is meant by a nation. The Austrian churchman, political scientist and statesman Ignaz Seipel went so far as to assert that “Europe is divided by a line which separates two entirely different conceptions of the idea of the ’Nation.’ On one side of the line are the peoples for whom the state is everything, and who also understand national sentiment as a great enthusiasm for the state to which they, of their own free will, belong. On the other side of that line of demarcation, the sentiment of civilization, of a common tongue and a common origin, preponderates.”

Various terms have been used for the two concepts: “state nation” and “cultural nation” (F. Meinecke), “political” and “personal” nation (C. A. Macartney), “territorial or civic” and “ethnic” nation (A. D. Smith). Smith takes pains to label the former as “of course, a peculiarly Western conception of the nation.” His avoidance of a reference to a state (which is characteristic of German thinkers on the subject, from F. J. Neumann to Jürgen Habermas) shows an awareness of Western communities that define themselves as nations on the basis of a territory which does not necessarily constitute a sovereign state (whether or not they may aspire to one): Scotland, Québec, Catalonia, Corsica, the Faeroes... And the nationalist movements of these communities are generally quite explicit in rejecting an ethnic basis for their aspirations. A spokesman for the Scottish National Party, for example, has said flatly: “Ours is a civic nationalism, based on historic borders rather than ethnic blood rights.” The Parti Québécois proclaims Quebec to be “a pluralistic society,” and guarantees that under sovereignty the language rights of les Québécoises et Québécois de langue anglaise will be fully protected. And in Corsica, the Regional Assembly has defined “the Corsican people” (le peuple corse) as “a living historical and cultural community comprising all those who are Corsicans by origin and Corsicans by adoption.”

It is probably no coincidence that these nationalist movements have been, unlike their ethnic counterparts in the East, largely nonviolent, with the possible exception of Corsica. For it’s quite a different matter to regard your neighbor, even if he speaks a different language or practices a different religion, as a member of your nation, and to see him as one of “the others” (think Chechnya, Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Indonesia...).

The exception of Corsica is, in fact, more apparent than real. The violence of the Corsican National Liberation Front (FLNC) has been, in the words of the Corsican historian R. Caratini, “mainly strategic,” its purpose being more to attract attention to the island’s plight than to terrorize. “Homicidal violence is extremely rare,” he writes, “and its political character is debatable and debated.” Indeed, what violence there is (as another Corsican, G. X. Culioli, has written) cannot be separated from the lawlessness that has been endemic on the island for centuries, with bloody conflicts between north and south and among various mafia-type organizations.

The Basques and the Irish

What about the Irish and the Basque movements, then? It so happens that both of these movements began as civic ones, and it was only after their conversion into ethnic ones that the violence began.

In Ireland, and specifically Ulster, I am referring to the “Catholics,” a designation I have put in quotes because, obviously, the number of sacraments one believes in has never been the crux of the conflict there. “Catholic” and “Protestant” are labels for two ethnic groups, the former being indigenous Irish and the latter the descendants of settlers from Great Britain. To a question about their national identity, almost to a man and woman these groups will reply “Irish” and “British,” respectively. (Northern Ireland is, in fact, alongside South Africa the only place where a “British” ethnicity exists, for in Britain itself the people divide into English, Scots and Welsh.) This dichotomy is, however, of relatively recent origin. Organized Irish nationalism began when a group of Belfast Protestants (yes!) founded, under the leadership of Wolfe Tone, the United Irish Society in 1791 “on the principles of civil, political and religious liberty”; and from Tone to Charles Stewart Parnell, nearly all the major leaders of Irish nationalism – Napper Tandy, Isaac Butt, Henry Grattan, Edward Fitzgerald – were Protestants, with the notable exception of Daniel O’Connell. But the liberal, secularist principles enunciated by Tone did not sit well with the Irish Catholic Church, which took advantage of Parnell’s adulterous affair to foment anti-Protestant feeling. The reaction of the Protestants, especially in the north, was to fall back on their British allegiance, and so the ultimately bloody ethnic conflict was born.

In the Spanish Basque region too, what had been a civic movement, led by the thoroughly Hispanicized urban bourgeoisie and called fuerismo, in defense of the fueros (the royal charters by which the Basque Provinces and Navarre enjoyed a degree of autonomy unlike any other province, and which were threatened by the increasing centralization in Madrid), was transformed into an ethnic one by a scion of that bourgeoisie named Sabino Arana.

Arana was a devout Catholic who was unhappy with the way the fueros had evolved into purely economic entitlements (conciertos económicos) – which, as I mentioned above, are maintained in the present Spanish Constitution – that led to a rapid industrialization of the region and the consequent immigration of large numbers of maketos (non-Basques). It was in reaction to the overly materialistic (in his view) fuerismo that in 1897 he founded the PNV, and its chief goal was the independence of the “Basque race” in its homeland. The mythology surrounding the racial notion of Basque identity is largely Arana’s creation.

The primordial symbol of this identity is, of course, the Basque language – which is not related to any other – but since a great many Basques, especially urban ones like Arana himself, had lost the actual use of their language, a different identifying badge had to be found. It was to be the family name, a “true” Basque being one among whose forebears at least four Basque surnames could be found. (When Arana fell in love with an illiterate peasant girl name Nikole Achica-Allende, what concerned him was not their obvious social difference but the clearly Spanish “Allende” part of her family name, which he found to his joy, after thoroughly combing her parish records, to be merely a recent addition intended to distinguish her family – impeccably Basque – from another Achica family.) Other supposedly singular aspects of the race have been adduced by the ideologues of Basque nationalism, for example blood type (by the PNV’s current leader, Xabier Arzalluz) or brain size.

Basque and Spanish politics

In purely political terms, the PNV is of the Christian Democratic persuasion, while ETA and its affiliates call themselves socialist. The PNV has, moreover, oscillated throughout the 20th century (since Arana’s death in 1903) between the goals of independence and of economically advantageous autonomy within Spain, including support of whichever party rules in Madrid in exchange for concessions (a deal that has been eagerly embraced by both socialists and conservatives). To ETA, however, the latter orientation is treasonous, and whenever it has prevailed, the PNV has not been spared from ETA’s violence. Indeed, many cynical observers attribute to self-protection the PNV’s latest swing toward independence.

And there is no shortage of cynical observers of Basque nationalism, especially among Basque intellectuals, from the great philosopher Miguel de Unamuno (a contemporary of Arana’s) to present-day figures such as Antonio Elorza, Patxo Unzueta, Jon Juaristi and Fernando Savater. Unamuno took pains to point out that the concept of la Raza, which he championed (and which entered the vocabulary of American Hispanics through Unamuno’s Mexican admirer José Vasconcelos), meant the worldwide community of those who used Spanish as their language of culture, be they Sephardic Jews or South American Indians, but had absolutely no “racial” basis. Moreover, many of these non-nationalists are so revolted by the racism inherent in Basque nationalism that they have come to regard every form of nationalism as evil (Savater, a philosophy professor in Madrid, is the most vehement in this line of thinking). This view was reinforced by a rather vague declaration issued jointly by Basque nationalists with those of Galicia and Catalonia (whose orientations are far more civic than ethnic) during the ETA truce. Nor did it help that, during the same period, the Basque Autonomous Parliament voted to lend its hall to the Kurdish Parliament in exile, though this offer was eventually overruled by the central government of Spain (Turkey’s NATO partner). Sympathy for the Kurds, say Savater and Company, does not have to extend to support for their nationalism.

The pages of the major Spanish dailies – the Madrid-based El País and El Mundo, and Barcelona’s La Vanguardia – have been the stage of lively debates between these Basque anti-nationalists, for the most part on the left politically, and equally left-leaning Catalans who defend their nationalism as civic and inclusive. In one form or another, the debate is likely to continue for some time to come.

February 12, 2000

© 2000 by Jacob Lubliner

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