Euskal Herria, the land of the Basque People, the oldest nation in Europe, has brought its language, culture and traditions almost intact into the XXI century despite constant pressure from the French and Spanish states. This is due to one of the most interesting and important socio-political movements of the continent.

Some Facts

  • Basque Country (Euskal Herria in Basque)
  • Languages
    • Basque (900.000)
    • Spanish (2.700.000)
    • French (300.000)
  • 3.000.000 inhabitants
  • 8,088 sq miles

A Short History

Euskal Herria, the land of the Basque language has been inhabited for thousands of years by different tribes including the Vascones, who are mentioned in texts from ancient Greece and Rome.  Especially the Romans had a great influence in the Basque Country, traces of their passage through these lands are still visible today and cities like Iruñea/Pamplona (the historical capital of the Basques) were founded by them.  The fall of the Roman Empire led to the creation of Visigoth settlements but these never came close to conquer the Basques. The Kingdom of Pamplona, later renamed to Kingdom of Navarre, was created in the ninth century and its first king was Iñigo Arista. It would be an independent territory until the sixteenth century.  Following the orders of King Ferdinand, the Catholic, the Duke of Alba conquered the Kingdom of Navarre between 1512 to 1524. After major battles and pockets of resistance to this invasion the kingdom of Navarre would eventually be reduced to the northern territories.  The southern provinces could maintain the “fueros” (a written set of rights) for some time but they were finally abolished in 1876.  The origin of the modern independence movement dates back to the 19th century. In response to Spain’s abolition of the Fueros in 1876, the Basque Nationalist and Conservative Party EAJ-PNV (Eusko Alderdi Jeltzalea – Partido Nacionalista Vasco, Basque Nationalist Party) emerged in 1895. Euskaltzindia, a Basque language academy, was founded in 1918. In 1930, the ANV was founded, a patriotic left-wing party with ideas contrary to the bourgeois and Catholic ideology of the PNV.

The Spanish-Basque Conflict

The Spanish Civil War and the subsequent Franco dictatorship had terrible consequences for the Basque Country: bombardments, deaths, exiles, prisoners, loos of all national and social rights, repression ….  It was in this context of dictatorship and brutal repression that a new generation of young people created ETA in 1959. ETA combined the demand for independence and socialist ideas with the social question and the struggle for workers’ rights. ETA has committed itself to fight for the Basque Country’s right to self-determination, including by armed struggle. The last years of the Franco dictatorship were marked by social unrest in the Basque Country. People took to the streets demanding national and social rights. There followed a brutal dictatorship response, deaths in Euskal Herria and the prisons filled with Basque political prisoners. Franco died in 1975 and after a transitional period Spain became a parliamentary monarchy. In 1978, the Spanish constitution was approved. The majority of the Basque society rejected it because the constitution stated the unbreakable unity of Spain and appointed the army as guarantor.

A year later a new referendum about the autonomy for the provinces of Araba, Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa was held. The Basque left-wing independence movement opposed this new status because the province of Navarre was not part of it and the Basque people’s right to self-determination was not recognized. The referendum was finally accepted with 53% of the vote. The new status led to the creation of the Basque Autonomous Community with a regional government and limited powers. Today, the majority of the Basques believe that this model is no longer viable and that a new framework is needed. Navarre became a separate foral community. At that time, ETA saw no real fresh start and continued the armed struggle.

Civil disobedience

In the same year Herri Batasuna (People’s Unit, later Batasuna) was founded as a left-wing coalition for independence. It played an important role in Basque politics. Politics was shaped by the Spanish-Basque conflict. In the 1980s, the Spanish state waged a dirty war in the Basque Country and used paramilitary death squads. The Basque human rights organization Euskal Memoria has documented thousands of cases of torture after 1978. The Basque Country answered with civil resistance. The struggle of the population stopped the nuclear power plant project in Lemoiz. Hundreds of young people joined the insumision movement (movement of disobedience) and refused to serve in the Spanish army. The Basque Country experienced a socio-cultural explosion, Basque rock was born, self-managed projects such as community radio stations or gaztetxes (self-managed youth centers) were created across the country.

Unilateral conflict resolution

There have been three attempts to resolve the Spanish-Basque-French conflict through negotiations between the conflicting parties: 1989, 1999-2000 and 2006-2007. All three processes failed. In 2008, the left-wing independence movement began an internal debate to overcome the armed conflict. It decided not to rely primarily on negotiations with the Spanish government, but to take unilateral steps with the support of Basque civil society. On October 17, 2011, ETA declared the end of its armed struggle, and in spring 2018 the organization dissolved. The Spanish government still refuses to deal with the conflict and solve the remaining problems.

Political balance of power

In the regional elections of the Basque Autonomous Community in 2016, the conservative PNV came first with 37.36% of the votes, followed by the left pro-independence coalition EH Bildu (create the Basque Country) with 21.13%. The Basque regional parties of three Spanish parties are far behind, the left Podemos (14.76%), the social democratic PSE 11.86%) and the right PP (10.11%). The leader of the PNV is Lehendakari (Prime Minister). In Navarre, a progressive alliance of five parties succeeded in beating the right-wing regional party Unión del Pueblo Navarro (UPN, Unity of the People of Navarre) for the first time since 1978.

Euskara, the language of the Basques, is very special. It is not an Indo-European language and its origins are not clear. It is considered an isolate language. It has different dialects and is spoken throughout the Basque territory although the percentages vary with the area.  Roughly a third of the population speaks the Basque language. Mythology is also an important part of Basque culture. The goddess Mari is its central character.  Basque mythology has survived to this day in the form of stories or legends. In some rural areas rituals from the ancient religion of the Basques are still performed.  Traditional sports (Herri Kirolak) have their origins in work activities in rural areas.  They are also essential for the understanding of Basque culture. The most famous sport is pelota. Stone heaving or aizkolaris is also very popular among Basques and is spectacular to the eyes of the visitor.  Another important part of Basque culture is the bertsolaritza, an art of improvisational singing in Euskara. It is part of every festival in the Basque Country.  In 2013 more than 13,000 people attended the finals of the National Bertso Championship in Barakaldo.