History of Catalonia


Today Catalonia is a province of Spain. But what has Catalonia been? Catalonia has been the greatest nation in the world and I will tell you why. Catalonia had the first parliament, long before England,” explained the cellist and composer Pau Casals to members of the United Nations in New York on 24th October 1971. The internationally-renowned Catalan musician was there to conduct a performance of his composition “Hymn of the United Nations” the day he received the UN Peace Medal in recognition of his commitment to the struggle against fascism in the Spanish Civil War and World War II.

Casals’ speech refers to the early days of the history of the Catalan nation when the Peace and Truce Assemblies regulated the rights of farmers faced with feudal injustices. The first one was held in 1027. It was from these Assemblies that the Catalan Courts evolved in 1283. These courts are considered to be one of the first parliaments in Europe and embody this spirit for understanding and reaching agreements which has been a trait of the Catalan nation ever since the eleventh century.

Historians place Catalonia’s roots in the 9th century when Wilfred the Hairy broke links with the Carolingian Empire.

So, when can we actually say that Catalonia first came into being as a nation? Although it is, of course, nigh on impossible to give a precise birthdate for a nation, historians place Catalonia’s roots in the 9th century when Wilfred the Hairy – the Count, or Earl, of Barcelona and other domains to the north and south of the Pyrenees – broke links with the Carolingian Empire and the Frankish kings reigning those areas at that time. This was the origin of what we now call Catalonia, a land which has absorbed the cultural inheritance of the Iberians, Greeks, Romans, Christians and Muslims over centuries.

Catalonia – a great western Mediterranean power

Catalan CourtsDynastically united with the Kingdom of Aragon, in the 13th century Catalonia became one of the great military powers of the western Mediterranean. King James I reconquered Majorca and Valencia from the Moors, and his heirs went on to become sovereign leaders of Sardinia, Naples, and Sicily. The extensive maritime trade empire and political and cultural splendour Catalonia enjoyed in the Middle Ages came to an end with the marriage of King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Count of Barcelona to Queen Isabella I of Castile in 1469. The Catholic Monarchs – as they were named by Pope Alexander VI – were one of the most influential monarchies on the continent. It was no coincidence, then, that it was during their reign that Christopher Columbus set off on the journey which would lead him to America.

With Columbus’ arrival in the New World, the focal point for trade and commerce moved from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, and Catalonia felt the effects. From that moment on, the political and economic supremacy of Castile undermined relations with Catalonia. Although Catalonia’s institutions were still respected, the relationship with Castile was no longer an amicable one. The point of no return arrived with the War of the Spanish Succession at the start of the 18th century. In 1700 King Charles II of Spain died heirless. This led to an international conflict around the choice of his successor. Castile and France opted for Philip V, of the House of Bourbon and grandson of Louis XIV of France, while Catalonia, England, Austria, Holland, Portugal and the Duchy of Savoy supported the Archduke Charles VI of Austria. Catalonia was defeated in the resulting war which eventually ended in 1715. In revenge for their opposition to his claim, the new King, Philip V, abolished Catalonia’s public institutions – such as their government, the Generalitat -, forbade the speaking of Catalan in public, and imposed Castilian rule of law under the “Right of Military Conquest”.

In 1715 Philip V abolished Catalonia’s public institutions forbade the speaking of Catalan in public and imposed Castilian rule.

The rebirth of the Catalan nation

La nena obrera de Joan Planella (1885)Catalan politics and culture did not recover from this defeat until well into the 19th century when, coinciding with the industrial revolution, Catalonia became the main motor for the Spanish economy. Catalonia’s commercial dynamism – based mainly on the textile industry and liquor exports – coincided with the birth of “Catalanism”, a tendency which was expressed culturally in the romantic revivalist movement known as the Renaixença. This movement was an intellectual current of thought working to recover the identity symbols of Catalonia and, above all, to dignify the use of the Catalan language.

Coinciding with the consolidation of Catalonia’s political elements, at the end of the 19th century a new generation of irreverent artists keen on revolutionizing society, such as Santiago Rusiñol and Ramon Casas, drove the artistic movement known as Catalan Modernisme (the Catalan equivalent of Art Nouveau). Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia, swiftly became a cultural hotspot renowned across Europe. Antoni Gaudí emerged as the architect in vogue amongst the Catalan middle classes. Several of his buildings, like La Pedrera, Casa Batlló, Parc Güell, and the Sagrada Familia church have become international icons of that artistic revolution. With all this activity going on, the start of the 20th century saw Catalonia recover part of the cultural, political and economic power it had lost after the War of the Spanish Succession.

With the establishment of the Spanish Republic in 1931, Catalonia’s right to self-government was recognized and Francesc Macià was proclaimed as the first President of the Generalitat since Philip V had abolished the Catalan political institutions 200 years previously. It was to be a short-lived situation, though. In the summer of 1936, General Francisco Franco led a coup d’état which sparked off the three-year-long Spanish Civil War. Franco eventually defeated the Republicans in 1939. This led to a fascist dictatorship which abolished the democratic public bodies. Franco forbade freedom of expression and political parties, imposed the Catholic religion and persecuted any expression of Catalan identity over the following thirty-six years.

Politicians, trade union members, workers, intellectuals... anyone publicly committed to the Republic (such as the artist Picasso, or the musician Pau Casals) had to go into exile. Lluís Companys, the Catalan President at the fall of the Republic, also fled to France. However, in 1940 the German Gestapo arrested him and handed him over to the Spanish authorities. A few months later he was sentenced and executed in Barcelona’s Montjuic castle. Around 150,000 Catalans were imprisoned under Franco’s regime and almost 4,000 executed for political reasons.

Despite these prohibitions and police repression, many clandestine groups attempted to weaken the dictatorship, but it wasn’t until Franco’s death in 1975 that democratic rule returned to Catalonia and Spain. Josep Tarradellas, President of the Generalitat in exile, returned to Catalonia in 1977 and the Catalan government was provisionally reinstated. In the 1978 referendum, Spain voted in favour of a new constitution which divided the state into seventeen autonomous regions with varying degrees of de-centralization of powers. A new Statute of Autonomy (a charter which sets out the self-government laws for each autonomous region) was passed to regulate the relationship between Catalonia and the Spanish State.

Barcelona'92 Olympic GamesThe consolidation of democracy in Catalonia coincided with two important moments in our recent history. Firstly, the entry of Spain, and Catalonia, into the European Economic Community in 1986, and, secondly, the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona which put Catalonia firmly on the international stage. Despite a certain progress made since then though, the constant toing and froing regarding the control of specific governmental powers – especially those relating to economics and the teaching of the Catalan language in schools – has continued to confront the Spanish and Catalan governments.

The failure to find a place for Catalonia within Spain has demonstrated the difficulties the state has in accepting its national, cultural and linguistic diversity – a situation which has only increased the support of the Catalan people for independence.

In 2005, after thirty-five years of democracy, Catalonia set about updating its Statute of Autonomy to consolidate its self-government and re-adjust the relationship between its national reality and the Spanish state. The new Statute was approved in both the Catalan and the Spanish Parliaments, as well as in the Spanish Senate. It was then passed by a proportion of three to one in the subsequent referendum. Once it had been signed by the Spanish King, it came into law in the summer of 2006. The People’s Party, in the opposition at that time, immediately contested it in the Constitutional Court. After a long process of deliberation the Court published its sentence in 2010, abolishing key articles of the text. This inevitably led to a conflict between democratic legitimacy and legality.

The failure of this attempt to find a place for Catalonia within Spanish legality has demonstrated the difficulties the Spanish state has in accepting and dealing intelligently with its national, cultural and linguistic diversity – a situation which has only increased the support of the Catalan people for independence. As we celebrate the 300th anniversary of the War of Succession, the debate regarding the creation of a new Catalan State in Europe is on the table more clearly than ever.

Last updated: 14 January 2015