Catalan history in 15 episodes
1. The arrival of western culture: Greeks and Romans
The Greeks arrived in the territory that today is Catalonia in the 6th century BC. They founded two cities, Rhode (Roses) and Emporion (Empúries), and spread the basis of western culture: that is, their values and their social and political ideas for organizing society. Afterwards, from the 5th to the 3rd century BC, it was the Romans who took over and organized the territory, created infrastructures and established cities such as Tarraco (Tarragone) and Barcino (Barcelona). The importance of the Roman legacy is obvious in many ways. For instance, the Catalan language has its origins in the Latin spoken by Romans, just as Italian, Spanish, French and Portuguese also do.
2. The founding of Catalonia
Considered the founder of Catalonia, nobleman Count Guifré el Pilós (Wilfred the Hairy) is a historic figure. He managed to establish a territory between the Pyrenees and the sea, with its capital in Barcelona, at the end of the 9th century. This was the basis of what would be the future sovereign state of Catalonia. In the late 10th century, the Catalan counties stopped transferring taxes to the Frankish kings and, thus, became fully independent.
3. Parliamentary tradition
During the 11th century, a primitive form of parliamentary set-up already existed in Catalonia: the Assamblea de Pau i Treva (Peace and Truce Assembly). Formed by peasants and clerics, it aimed to limit the powers of feudal lords. Some years later, in 1283, one of the oldest parliaments in the world was created, Les Corts
Catalanes, a deal-making system which prohibited the King from promulgating constitutions or levying general taxes without the authorization of the three estates: the military, the church and nobility. Its mission was, amongst others, to control the King’s tax-related decisions. In order to collect the taxes approved by Les Corts, in 1359 a new institution was created, the Diputació del General, an embryo of the present Generalitat.
4. Crown of Aragon: a flourishing maritme power
In 1162, Ramon Berenguer IV, Count of Barcelona, married Princess Peronella of Aragon, which led to the creation of the Crown of Aragon. During this period, an assembly known as the General Courts of Catalonia limited the King’s power. Between the 12th and the 15th centuries, the Crown of Aragon expanded its territory through Majorca, Valencia, Sicily, Sardinia, Naples and even Athens. It became a powerful military and commercial empire, which was administrated from Barcelona as a confederation in which each state had its own regulations. The Consulate of the Sea, a pioneering body for the administration of maritime and commercial law, was created. This institution’s documents became the code that ruled transactions in the Mediterranean for many years.
5. Dynastic union between Castile and Aragon
Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon married in 1469 and united their two realms in a single confederation. The Hispanic monarchs had to swear to respect the rules, constitutions and institutions of Castile and those of the several territories forming the Crown of Aragon.
6. First Catalan Republic, the War of the Reapers, and the Pyrenees Treaty
In 1640 Spanish King Philip IV forced Catalan peasants to host his army which was fighting against the French King Louis XIII. The peasants were angry about the treatment they were receiving and rebelled against Philip in the War of the Reapers (Guerra dels Segadors). Some of the most important noblemen ended up in prison. The Generalitat, led by clergyman Pau Claris, established the Catalan Republic, protected by France. It was to be short-lived, though – lasting only a few months. At the same time, Portugal benefited from the uprising and broke away from what we now call Spain. In 1659, the Treaty of the Pyrenees between France and Spain resulted in Philip IV giving part of the Catalan territories – Roussillon, Conflent and part of Cerdagne – to Louis XIV (this is the current French Département des Pyrénées Orientales ).
7. 1714: the end of the Catalan State
The international conflict known as the War of the Spanish Succession ended with the victory of Philip V of the French House of Bourbon, who had been opposed by all of the Crown of Aragon territories, especially the Principality of Catalonia. Empires such as Great Britain and the Netherlands defended the Catalans, who were in favour of the Archduke of Austria Charles III’s claim to the Spanish throne. The Allies withdrew their forces in 1713 (under the Treaty of Utrecht), but Catalonia continued to fight on alone. After 14 months of continuous bombardment, Barcelona finally capitulated to the Franco-Spanish army. The subsequent repression was fierce. Philip V abolished the Catalan State and the rest of the Crown of Aragon and ruled them under the Castilian absolutist law. This represents the birth of Spain as a unitary State.
8. Napoleon and Catalonia
During the Napoleonic Wars, Spanish and French armies fought against each other over several years. At one stage in 1810 Napoleon allowed Catalonia to become an independent Republic under his guardianship. It was a period of sudden about-turns and in 1812 Napoleon incorporated Catalonia as part of his Empire until it became part of the Spanish Kingdom again in 1814 when the French were defeated.
9. The recovery of national consciousness: the Renaixença
During the 19th century, a cultural movement known as the Renaixença (Rebirth) promoted Catalan language, arts and architecture, with Antoni Gaudí as its most representative figure. Intellectuals, writers and artists took pride in Catalan culture and presented their works in Catalan. Parallel to the Catalan industrial revolution, the Renaixença was one of the boosting motors of Catalanism throughout the 19thcentury.
10. Recovering unity: the Mancomunitat
At the beginning of the 20th century, Catalonia regained its united administrative system and a certain degree of self-rule. Barcelona’s regional government leader, Enric Prat de la Riba, drove to reinstall a single institution to coordinate decisions among the four Catalan provinces and in 1914 the Mancomunitat was finally established. It was abolished eleven years later by the Spanish dictator Primo de Rivera in 1925.
11. Macià proclaims the Catalan Republic
In 1931, local elections were won by the left-wing republican party Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC). The leader of the party, Francesc Macià, proclaimed the short-lived Republic of Catalonia.
Three days later, he agreed with the newly-born Spanish Republic, the establishment of an autonomous government for Catalonia, under the name of Generalitat. Forced by these circumstances, King Alfonso XIII of Spain had fled into exile.
12. Franco’s military coup and the Spanish Civil War
On 17 July 1936, a military coup d’état was initiated in Spanish Morocco with the support of the army and other actors to attempt to overthrow the Republic. In Catalonia, as in Spain, the Republicans were still in power after winning the elections a few months earlier. The attempted coup evolved into a full-blown civil war lasting from 1936 to 1939 with thousands of refugees and deaths. The civil society suffered several severe bombings, including Barcelona, in which Mussolini’s Italian air-force and the German Luftwaffe participated. Catalonia was the stage for the biggest battle of the war: the Battle of the Ebro, in which 15,000 Republicans died. During the war, more than 50,000 Catalans died.
13. A long period of facist dictatorship
Following the Republican defeat in February 1939, 500,000 people (200,000 of them were Catalans) were forced into exile and many would never come back. Lluís Companys, President of the Catalan Government, was executed in 1940 by firing squad, a unique case among elected presidents in European history. General Francisco Franco imposed a fascist dictatorship that lasted nearly 40 years. He abolished political parties and all democratic rights, such as freedom of speech and freedom of association. In Catalonia, Franco’s regime was especially fierce and he abolished the Statute of Autonomy and the Generalitat. The Catalan language and symbols were forbidden in all public sectors, schools and books.
14. Transition towards democracy: the Generalitat reinstated
At the beginning of the 1970s, calls for democracy and self-rule among groups of workers and students were on the increase. However, Franco’s dictatorship showed it was not open to change. Activists were sentenced to death and executed – as happened in the case of Catalan anarchist Salvador Puig Antich in 1974. The dictatorship finally came to an end with Franco’s death in 1975. During the following transition period, Catalan civil society mobilised to make its voice heard – in 1977 the first demonstration after Franco’s death was huge, with more than one million people marching through the streets of Barcelona and asking for freedom, amnesty and a new Statute of Autonomy. Before the new Spanish Constitution was passed, Josep Tarradellas, the President of the Generalitat elected in exile, returned to Catalonia on 23 October 1977. He reinstalled the Generalitat and set up an interim government.
15. Time for a new deal
Ever since the restoration of democracy in Spain and the devolution of limited self-rule to Catalonia, the main Catalan political parties have always been supportive of any efforts to consolidate democracy and to socially and economically modernize the Spanish State. Their involvement in Spain’s governance was evident with their support for different minority governments in Madrid, especially, when faced with big challenges like the accession to the EU or to the Euro. In 2004, when Spain’s democracy was seen as fully consolidated and the country was featured as one of the EU’s best examples of social and economic success, 90% of the MPs of the Catalan Parliament proposed to reform its Statute of Autonomy so as to consolidate Catalonia’s self-rule and finally find a suitable place for Catalonia within the Spanish State. The lack of a proper answer from the largest Spanish political parties to this proposal is probably the main reason why nowadays many Catalans are asking for a new deal.
Did you know?
- The Generalitat is Catalonia’s self-government system, created during the Republican period and inspired by a self-rule body from the Middle Ages.
- During Franco’s fascist dictatorship, the Generalitat continued to function in exile – in France. After losing the war in 1939 President Lluís Companys fled to France, but when World War II started, the Nazi Gestapo arrested him and handed him over to Franco’s police. He was swiftly sentenced and executed. However, the role of President continued in exile. It was held by Josep Irla and, afterwards, Josep Tarradellas until 1977 when the institution was finally re-established in Catalonia upon Tarradellas’ return.