Catalonia. History 1900-1923.

Catalonia/ Catalunya. History 1900-1923.
Spain’s politically and socially turbulent 19th century ended with a disastrous military defeat in 1898 at the hands of the United States.  In the process, Spain lost the last remnants of its once huge overseas empire –Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Philippines– at a time when its imperial rivals, Britain and France were consolidating or expanding theirs.

Known simply as the Disaster, the defeat triggered an outpouring of soul-searching debates attempting to account for Spain’s political collapse. Special attention was paid to Castile, the geographical and symbolic heart of Spain and the motor that had driven the imperial adventure since the 16th century.

Castile had, as the philosopher Ortega y Gasset, said “made Spain,” but he also added, “Castile ‘unmade’ Spain.” Regeneration” became the catch-word to solve Spain’s problem, but what that meant depended on the political or social stripe of those advocating change.

Catalunya, like the rest of Spain, felt the impact of the Disaster. However, Catalunya’s view of the Disaster was much more pragmatic than Castile’s.  It had less to do with a perceived failure of willpower –for which Castile was widely criticised– and a lot to do with economics.

The Madrid government had failed to protect vital Catalan investments and Catalunya’s best export market when it lost Cuba. For example, Catalan cotton exports plummeted from 12.000 in 1897 to 4.000 by 1904. Incapable of competing with British rivals on the overseas market, Catalan mills were left with only one sizable outlet: the rest of Spain.

However, since this market was limited owing to its poverty, Catalan industry fell into an economic depression.This economic downturn was instrumental in persuading the cautious manufacturers and industrialists to adopt a more nationalistic or regional attitude vis-a-vis Madrid. What better reason, they argued, for a Catalan voice in Madrid itself to defend the region’s interests.

** Catalanisme is a broad, overlapping umbrella
incorporating culture and politics. Culture here
includes what was unique to Catalunya –its language,
history, traditions, art, architecture, literature,
folklore etc. Catalans refer to it proudly as the
Renaixença. Politics refers to Catalunya’s regional
aspirations in which proponents could be left or
right leaning. To these we can add the conservative
Catholic church, as involved in politics as it was in
saving souls. All opposed Madrid’s centralising liberalism.

In this they coincided with proponents of Catalanisme** for whom “regeneration” meant finding a way of accommodating Catalunya within Spain, and allowing it sufficient powers to protect its own interests.

We should keep in mind that Catalan politics during the Restoration (1875-1923) was truly labyrinthine. There were Catalan federalists who felt comfortable with the monarchy, regionalists (or nationalists) and republicans. All three could be conservative or liberal in outlook, and the republicans could be centrists or federalists. And complicating the picture was the appearance of working class movements, socialism and anarchism, each with a party and union affiliate.

Weaving our way through the labyrinth of Catalan politics in the early years of the 20th century, we’ll focus on two parties: 1) the Lliga Regionalista, 1901, 2) Solidaritat Catala, 1906.

In addition, we’ll look at a statute permitting an administrative union of the four provinces that made up Catalunya: the Mancomunitat Catala, 1914.

The Lliga Regionalista.
In 1892, a convention held at the town of Manresa produced a document (known as The Bases de Manresa) that argued that Catalunya was a nation which should have its own parliament, laws, language etc. It did not call for separation but for some form of autonomy.

To articulate their demands in Madrid, Catalans needed a party to represent their views in the Cortes (Parliament). This led in 1901 to the creation of the Lliga Regionalista, headed by Enric Prat de la Riba, a young Catholic, conservative lawyer. In the general elections of the same year, the Lliga sent four members to Madrid.

With the cautious and pragmatic Prat de la Riba in charge, the Lliga was not about to antagonise Madrid unnecessarily. It aimed to work within the existing system, even organising tours throughout Spain to win sympathy for its regionalist platform.

It wanted to negotiate autonomy with Madrid, but with business-like caution. It could also count on Prat’s own daily newspaper La Veu de Catalunya (The Voice of Catalonia) as a popular mouthpiece for its ideas in Catalunya.

For many people, the Lliga was really the mouthpiece of the business community. That became even more so in 1904 when Prat’s disciple, Françesc Cambó, a self-made millionaire became its voice in Madrid. However, unhappy with the Lliga’s perceived accommodation with Madrid and a further swing to the right under Cambó’s leadership, some disaffected members split to form a splinter republican party. And here things get really complicated!

Republicanism had never died in Catalunya following the collapse of the first Republic in 1874 and the return of the monarchy. Its political ideology tended towards a more democratic system and to social reform and even to the idea of a federated state (possibly to include Portugal, too! Iberianism was the term bandied around).

However, the republican scene in Barcelona at the beginning of the 20th century was shaken and further complicated by the arrival of Castilian-born Alejandro Lerroux (1864-1949) an energetic left-wing journalist who was a republican centrist and virulently anti-Catalan and violently anti-church! It was a potent combination, but one that allowed Madrid to discreetly encourage his anti-Catalan sentiment at the same time that it tried to overlook his republicanism.

How could such a committed anti-Catalan have such an impact in Catalunya? The answer lies in Lerroux’s radical brand of republicanism with its appeal to the working classes. For them the call of Catalanism had never been strong, either because they were more concerned with survival than with the regional identity or because they were immigrants (mainly from the south) and largely ignorant of local political conditions.

Lerroux’s support was particularly strong in the Paralelo, the slum quarter of Barcelona, inhabited primarily by migrant workers.  Here he was known simply as the Emperor. In addition, Lerroux was a dazzling orator who could move his audiences to explosive anger with his inflammatory speeches. The following call to action has been much quoted: “Young barbarians of today, enter and sack the decadent civilization of this unhappy country; destroy its temples, finish off its gods. Tear the veils from its novices and raise them up to be mothers to civilize the species. Break into the records of property and make bonfires of its papers (so) that fire may purify the infamous social organization… Do not be stopped by altars nor by tombs… Fight, kill, die” (Brenan 30).

Predictably, Lerroux and his followers had little time for the conservative Lliga, and vice-versa. An illustration of their difference can be seen in the reaction to the trashing of the shared offices of the La Veu de Catalunya and the satirical magazine Cu-Cut, by a group of young military officers in November 1905.

Both La Veu and Cu-Cut were affiliated to the Lliga, and the attack was precipitated by a cartoon in Cu-Cut alluding to Lliga victory in some municipal elections and to military incompetence. The cartoon shows a big man asking an ornately-dressed officer what is being celebrated in the background. “A victory banquet,” replies the officer. “Victory?” asks the fat man, “then they must be civilians,” the implication being that the armed forces –having lost so many battles, including the Disaster of 1898— could never be in the position of celebrating a victory.

Lerroux endorsed the vandalism while members of the Lliga were incensed with the trashing;! But the attack and its aftermath take us to the next step along the complex world of Catalan politics.

Solidaritat Catalana 1906.
As a result of Cu-Cut’s “offensive” (to the military) cartoon, the central government in Madrid passed a law (The Law of Jursidictions) in 1906 allowing the military to try civilians under a military tribunal for any perceived threat to Spanish unity or insult to their honour.

In Catalunya, the granting of such measures to a powerful group that had always preached national unity was viewed as a threat to Catalanism and to civil liberties. It was enough to energise regionalists (including most Lliga members) and republicans (not the centralist “Lerrouxists”, of course) to form a coalition, the Solidaritat Catalana (1906), to confront the threat.

Solidaritat’s success can be gauged by the results of the next general elections (1907) when it won 41 of 44 seats. Lerroux and his followers, on the other hand, won none. But Lerroux was not politically dead, and the members of Solidaritat were too fractious to remain united.

Lerroux’s republicans took on the name of Radicals, and Lerroux continued to arouse the lower classes. Meanwhile Solidaritat –with the Lliga prominent— vainly sought concessions from Madrid.  In Barcelona tension increased during 1907 and 1908 as anarchists, socialists and Catalanists competed with Lerroux for the support of the working classes.

Bombs exploded and fires were lit, many it is alleged tolerated, even encouraged, by Madrid in order to destabilise Solidaritat and the Catalan cause. The combination of social and political pressures finally exploded in the “Tragic Week” of July 1909.

A peaceful strike to protest the conscription of army reservists to fight in northern Morocco (a Spanish protectorate), fuelled by anti-war and anarchist rhetoric, got out of control and turned into open worker revolt. The army moved in crushing the uprising. When it was over, eight members of the security forces and 150 civilians were killed, and 2,500 people arrested, five of whom were executed by firing squads.

The church suffered the brunt of property damage as the demonstrations degenerated into anticlerical violence. There were even macabre scenes of mummified corpses of priests and nuns paraded through the streets.  The consequences of the violence were felt throughout Catalunya when the Captain General of the region overruled the civil governor and imposed martial law.

Lerroux’s rhetoric helped pave the way for the revolt, and many of his young followers (known as the Jóvenes bárbaros: Young Barbarians) participated. But the Emperor of the Paralelo himself stood to the side during the riots; in fact he was in London during the tragic week.

Lliga members of Solidaritat, horrified by the outrages and by the social implications, supported the central government’s tough response! For them, rather enforced peace from Madrid than chaos! They argued that senseless worker attacks on church property (which the protests against military conscription had become) had nothing to do with Catalanism.

Lerroux’s failure to involve himself in the Barcelona riots dismayed his working-class followers, and many defected to the anarchist party, the Confederación del Trabajo or CNT, when it was formed in 1910. Lerroux’s star was again dimmed, but not extinguished (he would later resurface and even rise to prime minister of a centre-right coalition government in 1934!).

For Solidaritat, the end was inevitable after the “Tragic Week.” It had already suffered a setback in 1908 with a disagreement between Cambó and the prime minister, Antonio Maura. After the “Tragic Week,” the republicans could not accept Lliga’s support of the central government’s military repression and broke away, leaving the Lliga as the main voice for regionalist aspirations. This now moves us to the next step, the Mancomunitat.

Mancomunitat (1914).
The Mancomunitat was not a political party but a statute permitting an administrative union of the four provinces that made up Catalunya. It was a regional government and its political powers were restricted to the region. It was allowed substantial leeway in social services, communications and education.

The Catalan language was still denied any official status, but it did work its way into public and administrative use. The Mancomunitat worked to preserve and promote the artistic and cultural heritage of the region, and to foster works written in Catalan. It also financed libraries and museums, and supported public works and agricultural and technical schools.

The Mancomunitat was the Lliga’s reward for persistence and loyalty for working within the system, but it fell short of autonomy. Even so, its modest content required two years of debate and a royal decree in December 1913 to overcome opposition, especially in the senate. For the Catalans, nevertheless, the creation of the Mancomunitat was the recognition of a distinct historic “personality” for the first time since the imposition of centralism at the beginning of the 18th century.

The Mancomunitat’s limited powers could only temporarily satisfy Catalan needs for a larger say in their affairs.  In Madrid, Cambó continued to press for more autonomy but found himself caught in a cross fire of accusations. Madrid claimed he was really working for separation. The more nationalistic Catalanists claimed that he and other Lliga members had deserted the cause when supporting the central government after the Tragic Week.

The criticism seemed justified when Cambó and a couple of other Lliguistas became members in a government of national unity following a general strike in August 1917. Cambó, however, claimed the move to be strategic, and not an abandonment of the cause. Charges and countercharges were hurled across the political scene, but tensions were aggravated also by events beyond Spain’s borders, e.g. the First World War (1914-18), the Russian revolution (1917) and Irish revolt and declaration of independence (1916, finally recognised in 1922).

Spain did not participate in World War I but did enjoy the benefits of providing food and materials for both sides. This, however, had detrimental side effects at home: shortage of goods and inflation affected especially the working classes and partially** explains the crisis caused by the general strike of August 1917.

**See also Restoration 1900-23:
The Military
 for further reasons

After the war, exports collapsed, factories closed, people were laid off and Barcelona once again became a hotbed of violence. News of revolution in Russia added fuel to workers’ dreams of a proletariat society.

But we should not confuse worker unrest in Barcelona with Catalan nationalist aspirations. They had never been totally the same, although Barcelona was the centre of both “movements.” With the worker movement now largely fuelled by anarchist rhetoric, the aim was to overturn state apparatus. Catalan nationalists, on the other hand, wanted to create at least an autonomous community within the Spanish state.

The First World War may not have involved Spain, but it resonated for many Catalanistas. One of the subtexts of that War was the right of small nations to self-determination in the face of predatory imperial powers. In addition, the Irish revolt of 1916 not to mention the growing voice of Basque separatism, had an emotional impact on more vocal Catalanists dissatisfied with the Lliga’s conservative, conciliatory approach.

It was now that Catalanism took a shift to the left and public opinion gathered behind the idea of separation. Several new groups were formed, with the most radical being the Estat Català (1921-22), a separatist party led by Françesc Macià, a former officer in the Spanish engineer corps who had resigned in 1905 over the Cu-Cut affair. 

Macià not only rejected Cambó’s pursuit of autonomy, he demanded a separate state, through violence if necessary. It wasn’t to be. In September 1923, the military stepped in to impose peace and order in the country. Coincidentally, its leader, General Miguel Primo de Rivera, was the Captain General of Catalunya, although ironically the cause of the coup was not Catalan separatism but a humiliating military defeat in Morocco.
[For Primo de Rivera’s treatment of Catalan
aspirations, see Primo de Rivera: Coup and Success.]

Balcells, Albert    Catalan Nationalism London 1996
Barton, Simon A History of Spain 2nd ed. Basingstoke, Hampshire 2009
Brenan, Gerald The Spanish Labyrinth Cambridge 1960
Eaude, Michael Catalonia: A Cultural History Oxford 2008
Fernandez-Armesto, Felipe Barcelona: A Thousand Years of the City’s Past Oxford, New York 1992
Herr, Richard An Historical Essay on Modern Spain Berkeley, Los Angeles 1974
Hughes, Robert    Barcelona New York 1992
Shubert, Adrian A Social History of Modern Spain London 1990
Cartoon image: “Cu-Cut(1905)” by Joan García Junceda i Supervia – Cu-CUt. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –