Albert Gea / REUTERS 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.

Why Spanish Nationalism Is on the Rise

And What It Means for the Country's Politics

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 in the post-Franco era has been dormant rather than dead.

Since last October, when the restive region of Catalonia declared itself an independent republic, Spain has experienced a resurgence of nationalism, with significant ramifications for the nation’s politics. Rising nationalism has prolonged the crisis in Catalonia by creating a political environment that makes it difficult for the central administration in Madrid to reach a compromise with the region. Inherent in Spanish nationalism is a rejection of a distinct sense of Catalan identity. Playing the nationalist card has also been a very effective strategy for beleaguered Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. In addition to encouraging the hard line that Rajoy has embraced toward Catalonia, rising nationalism has allowed him to consolidate his conservative base while putting the left-wing opposition to his government on the defensive by forcing them to take sides between Spanish unity and Catalan separatism.

A POLARIZING POLITICAL SYMBOL

The most potent sign of the resurgence of Spanish nationalism is the Spanish flag, colloquially known as “La Rojigualda,” a symbol dating back to 1785 that the Franco regime appropriated as its own. Its survival into the democratic period reflects the imbalance in power between the Right and the Left that had been in place at the time of the democratic transition. Marked by a design of two horizontal red stripes separated by a yellow band, the flag was adopted by Franco after the end of the Civil War in 1939, to replace the flag of the Second Republic. By then, the current flag was already notorious since it was the symbol of the Spanish monarchy and, by extension, of Spanish absolutism. In the democratic period, many Spaniards, especially those with a liberal bent, have kept the Spanish flag at arm’s length, believing it to be a relic of the Francoist past. Consequently, in recent decades, sightings of the Spanish flag in non-official settings have been quite rare. This has all changed dramatically in the last few months, as the Spanish flag has enjoyed unprecedented popularity. On October 1 of last year, the day of the unofficial referendum on Catalan independence, ordinary Spaniards reveled in a revival of the Spanish flag. Many of them embraced it as a fashion accessory, wearing the flag on their backs as a cape while chanting “Arriba España!”—a phrase evocative of the Francoist era. Arriba, which is Spanish for “up,” was the name of the newspaper of the fascist Falange, the only party legally allowed under Franco. Audiences in soccer stadiums across Spain displayed the Spanish flag as a sign of national unity; apartment buildings throughout the country were festooned with the flag. All this nationalist exuberance far surpassed what would normally be seen on October 12, Spain’s national holiday, which commemorates when Christopher Columbus first set foot in the Americas.

Yet it is in the Catalan capital of Barcelona where the return of the Spanish flag has made its biggest splash. The massive anti-independence march held in the city on October 8, 2017, which the Barcelona newspaper La Vanguardia depicted as the coming out of “the silent majority” of Catalans that opposes independence, turned Barcelona into a sea of Spanish flags. The paper noted that it would have been reasonable to presume that a film was being made that day since such a display of Spanish nationalism on any other occasion would seem implausible. As they wound their way through some of Barcelona’s main avenues and squares, the participants chanted “Long Live Spain, Long Live Catalonia,” and “I am Spanish, I am Catalan,” and hugged national police and civil guard officers.

NATIONALISM'S UNWELCOME RETURN

For anyone familiar with Spanish history, the resurgence of Spanish nationalism is unwelcome news. Franco’s 1936 assault on the Second Republic, which ushered in the Spanish Civil War, is generally characterized as a “nationalist crusade.” Since its inception, the Franco regime was an extravaganza of Spanish nationalism, from its exaltation of the achievements of Imperial Spain—especially the defeat of the Moors, the expulsion of Jews from Spain, and the conquest of the New World—to its embrace of National Catholicism as the regime’s core ideology and its adoption of an ethnic-based conception of Spanish identity rooted in Castilian nationalism. The darkest aspect of this crusade was an effort to purify Spain of “anti-Spanish” elements. Among the estimated one million victims of the Civil War were some 200,000 political executions, part of a policy of limpieza (cleansing) intended to eradicate “enemies of Spain,” key among them anarchists, communists, freemasons, homosexuals, and liberals.

For anyone familiar with Spanish history, the resurgence of Spanish nationalism is unwelcome news.

Catalans in particular suffered during Franco’s nationalist crusade. At the end of the Civil War, the regime revoked the autonomy charter that the Republican government had granted to Catalonia. To underscore its complete opposition to Catalan autonomy, a Francoist militia executed Lluis Companys, the former head of the Catalan regional government, after he was apprehended by the Gestapo in France and turned over to the Franco regime in 1940. As can be seen in the annual ceremony held at Companys’s grave, his execution added a noted element of martyrdom to Catalan nationalism. The Franco regime also banned the public use of the Catalan language and suppressed materials published in Catalan. Even speaking anything but Castilian was frowned upon under the old regime: “Hable Cristiano” (speak Christian) was a typical retort of a Spaniard upon hearing someone speak Catalan.

Understandably, the recent reappearance of Spanish nationalism has unnerved many Catalans by recalling events that few thought would ever happen again. Writing in The Guardian, the Catalan journalist and filmmaker Irene Baqué noted that “the suppression Catalans lived with during the Franco dictatorship has remained in people’s hearts, and has been transmitted to my generation,” including memories of images such as “Spanish tanks entering Barcelona.” And it has not helped that Rajoy’s heavy-handed response to the provocations of Catalonia’s separatist movement has revived the specter of Spain’s Francoist past. The prime minister’s use of armed national police and civil guards to stop people from voting in the independence referendum, which resulted in some 800 people being injured, pointedly recalled Franco’s trampling on basic political freedoms. It also lent legitimacy to an independence movement that is not backed by a clear majority of the Catalan people and that has an unambiguous whiff of first-world self-indulgence. Before the referendum, Catalonia had one of the highest levels of autonomy among Spain’s 17 regions and is one of the richest areas within the European Union.

The Catalans are not alone in being rattled by rising Spanish nationalism. The liberal El País, Spain’s paper of record, although dismissive of the comparisons that have been made between the present situation in Catalonia and the Francoist era, has warned about creeping nationalism. Members of the political class, especially on the left, have expressed stronger sentiments. Manuela Carmena, the Socialist mayor of Madrid, has noted that “I am more worried about Spanish nationalism than I am about Catalan nationalism, because the former is Fascist and dominant.” While referencing Spanish nationalism, Pablo Iglesias, the leader of Podemos, a far-left party, remarked in December that “the beast of Fascism has come out of the closet.”

AN IMPERFECT VESSEL

Sensitive to the charge that the revival of Spanish nationalism is reminiscent of the Franco era, Rajoy has argued that people are mistaking nationalism for good old-fashioned patriotism, or pride in one’s own country. In an interview with El País, Rajoy noted that it is fine for the Spanish people to show their patriotism without being accused of being nostalgic about the Francoist past. Asked about the unprecedented visibility of the Spanish flag in recent months, Rajoy noted that it was time to lift the stigma attached to the symbol, adding that “people have the right to say, I’m Spanish, I’m proud of it and proud of my Constitution.” Asked if the flip side of Catalan nationalism could be the rise of Spanish nationalism, Rajoy added that “defending your country should never be thought of as dangerous.”

Rajoy raises a valid point. Patriotism has been sorely missing from Spain in the post-Franco era, as the country has moved aggressively to distance itself from its Francoist past and hail the arrival of multicultural Spain. At least to outsiders, Spanish multiculturalism has given the impression that Spain is not a nation but rather a patchwork of disparate regional identities. Such impressions mirror the failure of liberal governments in the post-Franco era to articulate a new vision of Spanish patriotism that capitalizes on the country’s democratic success. This failure plays into the hands of conservatives, who argue that the left hates the idea of Spain and that it cannot find anything in Spanish history that is worthy of admiration.

Moreover, concerns that Spanish nationalism is returning to center stage in national politics are indeed overblown. Despite the recent resurgence in nationalist sentiment, Spain remains one of the few European countries lacking any representation of far-right parties in its national Parliament. Consequently, there is very little in the way of Euro-skepticism or anti-immigrant activism in Spanish politics.

Still, it is hard to think of a more imperfect vessel than Rajoy for making the case for Spanish patriotism, given his connections to the old regime and its nationalist policies. Indeed, his defense of Spanish patriotism is downright disingenuous. His party, the Popular Party (PP), has been overtly hostile to regional autonomy since its creation in 1977 by former Francoist officials. Originally known as the Popular Alliance, the PP opposed the text of the 1978 Constitution because of a provision allowing for regional autonomy. During the “memory wars” of the 1990s, the PP fought the Socialist administration of Felipe González in its attempt to revise many of Franco’s myths about the Civil War found in school textbooks, especially the portrayal of the Civil War as act of “salvation” from the radicalism of the Second Republic. In 2007, Rajoy led the opposition to the Law of Historical Memory, a law that condemned the Franco regime as “illegitimate,” offered reparations to those victimized by the Civil War and the Franco dictatorship, and removed from public view memorials to Franco and members of his regime.

More recently, Rajoy has unleashed an unprecedented attack on Spain’s system of regional autonomies, Catalonia in particular. It was Rajoy who took the Catalans to court in 2010 to overturn the New Statute of Autonomy, which was first enacted in 2006 to expand Catalan autonomy, especially on fiscal matters, after it had received approval by the Catalan voters, the Socialist administration of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, and the Spanish Parliament. Rajoy won this legal battle when Spain’s Constitutional Tribunal struck down most of the stipulations of the New Statute, thus setting the stage for the current conflict. While in office, Rajoy has also embraced a kind of cultural nationalism that is quite reminiscent of Francoism. In October 2012, his education minister, José Ignacio Wert, told Parliament that he intended to “Spanish-ize” Catalan students, whom he felt were being brainwashed by Catalan authorities. The comment sent shockwaves through Catalonia.

PLAYING THE NATIONALIST CARD

More importantly, Rajoy has not hesitated to exploit the resurgent wave of Spanish nationalism triggered by the crisis in Catalonia to shore up power in Madrid. Since the 2015 national elections, Rajoy and his party have been on shaky political ground in Madrid, having lost the parliamentary majority that the party had enjoyed since 2011. The PP presently governs with support from Cuidadanos, a center-right party that, oddly enough, hails from Catalonia but opposes Catalan independence. To strengthen his grip on power, Rajoy has pointedly tapped on nationalist themes. Defending Spanish unity and national symbols such as the flag has allowed Rajoy to capitalize on the anxieties that ordinary Spaniards have about losing Catalonia by promoting himself as the protector of the fatherland. Indeed, Rajoy has all but argued that only he can keep Spain from breaking apart. This is in no small measure how he won re-election in 2015.

During the 2015 election campaign, Rajoy asserted that the PP “was the only party defending the unity of Spain.” Among his electoral promises was the creation of a National Museum of Spanish History intended to “defend the unity of Spain.”  The location chosen for making this announcement left little doubt about the nationalist undertones of that proposal: the site of the Battle of Covadonga, in the northeastern region of Asturias. That mythical battle is recognized as the first triumph by Christian military forces after the Muslim conquest of the Iberia Peninsula in 711–718. As befits this accomplishment, historians usually consider Covadonga as the site of the beginning of the Reconquista, or the “reconquest” of the Iberian Peninsula by Christian rulers.

Rajoy is also employing Spanish nationalism to put his main electoral rivals, especially the Spanish Socialist Party, in a bind. When Rajoy stands up for Spain, he is forcing the opposition to choose between Spanish unity and Catalan separatism. For the PP, this is an easy call, given that it can ignore Catalonia and still win national elections; but this is not the case for the Socialist Party, which historically has had a very strong base of support in Catalonia, especially in the working-class precincts of Barcelona. A case in point is when Rajoy invoked Article 155 last October, a never-before-used constitutional provision that allowed Madrid to take over the Catalan regional government after Catalan officials declared independence. When the Socialists hesitated to support the invocation of the provision (doing so only after extracting a promise from Rajoy to undertake a constitutional reform intended to restructure the relationship of Madrid with the regions), Rajoy implied that the opposition was weak on national unity.

It remains unclear how far Rajoy is prepared to go with his nationalist aspirations. To its credit, the PP has historically been leery of projecting itself as a right-wing nationalist party, hoping to avoid the much-dreaded Francoist label. Moreover, it is hard to envision Rajoy embracing a fully nationalist platform, including economic protectionism, EU bashing, and nativist policies, while rallying Spain against the evils of Catalan nationalism. All of that said, the constitutional crisis triggered by the Catalan separatist movement has upended most conventions about Spanish politics. Until recently, it seemed inconceivable that Madrid would shut down a regional government, as Rajoy did in Catalonia last October, and arrest its popularly elected office holders.

But it is the Spanish public, not the PP, that provides the sturdiest guardrails against Rajoy’s nationalist impulses. It is interesting that the organizers of the pro-unity demonstrations that have erupted all over Spain have taken pains not to bash Catalonia, but rather to plead with Catalans to stay within Spain. More importantly, ultra–right-wing groups have been purposely kept at bay. Indeed, demonstrators have not allowed these groups to march alongside them. It is thus hard to read the demonstrators’ intention as an endorsement of a nationalist agenda, much less as an expression of Francoist nostalgia.

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