Why Spanish Nationalism Is on the Rise

And What It Means for the Country's Politics

Pro unity demonstrators wave Spanish and Catalan flags during a protest after the Catalan regional parliament declared independence from Spain in Barcelona, Spain, October 2017. Albert Gea / REUTERS

Until quite recently, Spain was believed to be blissfully immune to the West’s rising tide of nationalism. Often seen as patriotism’s insidious evil twin, nationalism stresses excessive devotion to the nation-state and its symbols, most notably the national flag, the sense of one’s own country as exceptional and even superior to any other, and the pursuit of the national interest to the exclusion and detriment of other nations. So far, resurgent nationalism across the West accounts for the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union, or Brexit in political parlance; the rise of virulent anti-immigrant movements in France, Hungary, and the Netherlands; and U.S. President Donald Trump’s election on an “America first” agenda.

There is no mystery as to what explains Spain’s apparent aversion to nationalism: the political excesses of Generalissimo Francisco Franco’s dictatorship. In Franco’s Spain, nationalism took center stage. It provided the justification for the killing of hundreds of thousands of people during the Spanish Civil War (1936–39) and for the imposition of a policy of cultural homogeneity across the entire Spanish territory following the end of the war, which sought to erase distinct regional identities in regions such as Catalonia and the Basque Country. Little wonder that the democratic regime constructed in Spain since Franco’s death in 1975 is the antithesis of Francoism.

Post-Franco governments from both the Right and the Left have rejected the notion of Spain as a centralized state held together by a common cultural identity in favor of an image of the country as a modern, European, and multicultural state. Indeed, Spanish politics in the post-Franco era had been so devoid of nationalism that seasoned observers declared Spanish nationalism all but dead. In 1991, writing in the Journal of Contemporary History, Stanley Payne, the most prominent American historian of Franco’s Spain, famously declared that “Spanish nationalism is weaker than ever and for all practical purposes has disappeared.” Yet recent events suggest that, if anything, Spanish nationalism

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