dimarts, 17 de juny de 2014

Great War Centenary Widening Gap Between Catalonia, Spain

The 100 anniversary of the First World War has already prompted a degree of controversy in a number of countries, often concerning how to commemorate the conflict. In the United Kingdom, some robust exchanges have taken place, involving also whether it was right to join the war. However, while some countries may be discussing how to remember the tragic events of 1914-1918, in Catalonia and Spain the rift goes much deeper and is contributing to a widening gap between the two. While a book on the 12,000 Catalan volunteers who joined the Allies to fight and often die in French trenches was a hit and quickly sold out, prompting a second edition, Spanish authorities remain silent on the subject. No plans have been announced by Madrid to honour their sacrifice, while the Spanish-language media keep an awkward silence on the subject. This stands in stark contrast with the growing interest felt in Catalonia, where many people still know very little about them (even today they do not feature in standard school textbooks) but are eager to learn more.

In 1914 Spain decided to stay neutral, and broadly speaking elites in Spain proper were rather pro-German. In Catalonia on the other hand, public and elite opinion tended to favor the Allies. There were exceptions on both sides of course, but this was the overall picture. This resulted from a combination of factors, chief among them being the identification in the minds of many between Catalan and Anglo-French values (Catalonia's parliament is the oldest in Europe and Catalan constitutional traditions closely resemble Great Britain's), and the view that an Allied victory may facilitate a change in the political status of Catalonia (conquered by Spain in 1714). American entry into the war, and President Wilson's 14 points, reinforced the latter, in particular because one of the points concerned self-determination.

In the ensuing 100 years, many things happened, including tragic episodes like the 1936-1939 Civil War and the long Franco-era night, followed by a transition to democracy which for more than a few Spaniards went too far (by allowing Catalonia to recover a limited degree of self-government, after prime minister in exile Josep Tarradellas came back in 1977) while for a growing number of Catalans amount to too little. Things which did not happen, however, include a real effort to arrive at a consensus concerning the historical past. This includes the Great War. With the death of General Franco, the regime made many concessions, but they did not include a reexamination of the past and its official version. One of the many consequences of this failure to reach a consensus is that Catalans often felt that the way they saw and told their children about historical events was different, and sometimes diametrically opposed, to what their counterparts in Spain proper did.

Differences over the Great War are thus no exception, but rather part of this trend. Furthermore, they are of course not the reason, nor the main factor, in a growing distancing between Catalan and Spanish public opinion. However, they are a stark reminder that it is very difficult for people to coexist in a single state when radically-opposed views of history clash, leading to mutual fatigue. While many Catalans may find it offensive that Spanish authorities and historians ignore WWI volunteers, many Spaniards rather find it odd that they should be the subject of books and documentaries, or even openly dispute their existence. Something similar happened when a monument to Winston Churchill was inaugurated in Barcelona in 2012, with no Spanish Government representatives present.

Thus, unless a sincere effort is made by both sides to reach a common understanding of the First World War, it is likely that as commemorations in countries like the UK and France proceed, and more and more works appear on Catalan volunteers (hopefully also in English), the gap will just widen. This is just a reminder of how wars do not conclude when guns fall silent, but rather conclude only when all participants (and not just major actors) are able to reach a common understanding of what happened and why. The Great War is not over yet.

Alex Calvo

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