A Brief History of Catalan Nationalism

The Roots of the Current Crisis

Catalan separatists march in Barcelona on the "Diada de Catalunya," September 2015. Albert Gea / Reuters

The mounting tensions between Catalan nationalism and the Spanish state are like an encounter between an unstoppable force and an immovable object. The impending crash has been temporarily averted by the decision of Catalan President Carles Puigdemont to suspend declaring independence following Catalonia’s October 1 referendum, in which a majority voted to break away from Spain (the Spanish government has declared the referendum illegal). Without any apparent irony, the separatist newspaper Ara anticipated the coming of independence as “a gradual leap” in the dark.

It is difficult to predict what will emerge from the current dispute. Given the political inflexibility of the Spanish government, and the preference of many businesses based in Catalonia to remain part of Spain, the Catalan government may not be able to realize its commitment to establish an independent nation-state. At the same time, however, Madrid’s heavy-handed response to the referendum has resulted in the Spanish state losing legitimacy among many, if not most, Catalans. The fracture within and between Catalan and Spanish societies has widened.

The crisis is the latest in a series of confrontations between Spain and Catalonia stretching back at least 300 years. It has a parallel in the intermittent and sometimes violent conflict between Spain and separatist nationalists from the Basque region, who were also barred by the Spanish state from holding an independence referendum in 2008. But why has Spain in particular seen the development of such strong regional nationalisms?


The narrative of Catalonia’s oppression at the hands of Madrid goes back centuries. The emblematic event in this account is Catalonia’s defeat at the hands of the Bourbon kings during the War of the Spanish Succession. Then part of the Crown of Aragon, Catalonia backed the Habsburg dynasty against the Bourbons, whose capture of Barcelona in 1714 led to the imposition of central control and the loss of Catalan autonomy. Yet the implicit claim that there is an oppressed Catalan identity continuing over centuries glosses over questions of social class

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