The Basque Country lies on the Atlantic coast of Spain on the west side of the Pyrenees. It is a lush, green land, full of mountains and rivers, traditional homesteads and dramatic coastlines, dark forests and rich valleys which conceal areas of highly modernised commercial and industrial activity.

The Basque Country lies on the Atlantic coast of Spain on the west side of the Pyrenees. It is a lush, green land, full of mountains and rivers, traditional homesteads and dramatic coastlines, dark forests and rich valleys which conceal areas of highly modernised commercial and industrial activity. The Spanish Basque Country or Pais Vasco, consists of just three of the traditional Basque provinces. This is the self governing region of the Basque Country and is called Euskadi in the Basque language. The three provinces which make up Euskadi are: Viscaya (Bizkaia) with its capital Bilbao (Bilbo), Guipuzcoa (Gipuzkoa) with its capital San Sebastian (Donostia), and Alava (Araba) with its capital Vitoria (Gasteiz), which is also the capital of the region.

The region of Navarra (Nafarroa), with its capital Pamplona (Iruñea) also shares a common Basque culture and history and the area further extends into the French region of Aquitaine. The French Basque Country is traditionally divided into three regions (not officially recognised by the French authorities), Labourd (Lapurdi), Basse Navarre (Nafarroa Beherea), and Souletin (Zuberoa). The three traditional provinces of the French Basque Country are collectively called Iparralde in Basque. Basque nationalists consider all seven of these traditional provinces to form Euskal Herria (The Basque Land).

The Basque Identity

The Basque Country has its own distinctive language called Euskara which is remarkable because it is related to no other known language. It has an exotic grammar of great antiquity and is believed to be at least 3000 years old. Other curious facts about the Basques are that there are more with blood group "A" and fewer with blood group "B" than in the rest of Spain. They tend to be bigger and stronger, 2 or 3 cm above the average height for Spain and France. The typical Basque is more muscular but with delicate hands and feet, a high straight forehead, and straight nose with a bulge over the temples. There have been skeletons found in the area with similar characteristics dating back to the Stone Age, again indicating the ancient roots of the Basque population.

The Basque Country was one of the last areas of Spain to convert to Christianity, and one of last areas of Europe to be civilised. During the Middle Ages the Basques were freer than their counterparts in the rest of Europe who were under the rule of serfdom, while the Basques were able to bear arms and hunt and fish freely. With the emergence of the Spanish nation between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, the Basques always maintained a separate identity with local administration. Their motto regarding the rest of Spain was "we obey but do not comply". The Basque assembly traditionally met under the Tree of Guernica, the remains of which can still be seen today in the Viscayan town of that name. For centuries they remained independent, with separate rights and privileges, an independence which was maintained by means of treaties and cooperation with Spanish powers. Their traditional laws made them exempt from customs duties and military service and their political freedom gave rise to a middle class which encouraged early industrialisation, with iron and timber being transported by the network of streams and rivers. This process also brought an influx of workers from other parts of Spain which over many centuries has provided the biggest threat to the traditional Basque way of life.

The Basque country has produced some of the finest administrators, explorers, navigators and religious leaders in Spanish history. Basques are also famous for their cuisine, for their sports which include caber-tossing, wood-cutting, stone lifting, tug of war, hill walking and rock climbing, and for their propensity for drinking and gambling.

Basque Nationalism

The father of Basque nationalism, Sabino de Arana Goiri, was born in 1865. He was a language expert and invented Basque names as well as the name for the Pais Vasco itself - Euskadi. His strange mixture of religious and political ideas looked backwards to a pre-industrial innocence. Above all he hated the Spanish and was against mixed marriages. In his Basque cultural association he forbade Spanish music and discussions on Spanish politics and he classified people into three categories according to how many Basque grandparents they had, with only those with four Basque grandparents being allowed positions of responsibility or status. He launched the PNV (the Basque National Party) in 1894 and was imprisoned the following year by the Spanish government.

The twentieth century

In the early nineteen thirties the second republic of Spain which existed just prior to the Spanish civil war offered the region of Euskadi political autonomy, an offer which they accepted. They were to pay very dearly during the civil war for this decision.

In 1937 the town of Guernica, the traditional seat of Basque government was completely pulverised by German airforce squadron on loan to Franco. The centre of the town was bombarded on its weekly market day destroying most of the town and killing thousands of innocent people. This event can be seen as a pre-cursor of some of the ugliest aspects of the Second World War in terms of the mass slaughter of innocent civilians. In more recent years the German government has apologised to the town of Guernica for its implication in the tragedy, but the Spanish government has never made a similar apology.

Probably the most famous picture painted by Pablo Picasso is entitled Guernica and represents the horrors of this attack. Picasso himself was ambiguous about the symbolism of the picture and said it was up to the public to decide what it means. For many years the picture was housed in New York, and travelled around the world for many exhibitions, but never came to Spain during the years of Franco's dictatorship. Picasso's intention was to give the painting to the Spanish people, but only when democracy was restored. The picture was finally brought home to Spain on the centenary of Picasso's birth, the twenty fifth of October 1981 and is now to be seen in the Reina Sofia museum in Madrid.

Franco's regime

All the traditional rights and privileges of the Basques were abolished during Franco's regime, and any gesture of independence, including the speaking of Euskara was punished. Parents who spoke Basque would not teach the language to their children, for fear of punishment. In the late fifties some unofficial schools (known as ikastolas) to teach Basque language started to emerge, often held in private houses. They were not granted any funds by Franco's centralist government, and those who ran them were under suspicion by the regime, but they were tolerated because they made up for some of the regime's short-fall in education. With these schools children started to learn their mother tongue. Initially there were 7 different dialects but in 1968 the language was codified, so in fact the present language is a somewhat regularised version of the various dialects. The Basque language is really a success story of dying language. By 1990 more than a quarter of people in the Basque country spoke the language fluently.


ETA stands for Euskadi Ta Askatasuna which means Euskadi and Freedom. ETA emerged in 1960 during Franco's regime, starting as an intellectual movement amongst university students. In 1961 ETA tried to derail a train taking Franco's war veterans to a rally in San Sebastian. More than 100 people were arrested and tortured as a result, and many were sentenced to 20 years in jail. The leaders of the movement however managed to escape to France.

ETA's first major publicity coup came in 1973. Franco was already an old man and had passed on his active political role to his first prime minister Carrero Blanco. Carrero Blanco was blown up by an ETA car bomb in the middle of Madrid. The murder of Carrero Blanco shook the Spanish nation and was so deeply felt by frail and aging Franco that he wept openly at his funeral.

The history of ETA has been one of a series of internal squabbles and splits, from which on every occasion, the least intellectual and most violent sector of the organisation has emerged victorious. Although the origins of ETA were intellectual, professional and middle class, the membership has become increasingly drawn from the descendents of peasant farmers, on the one hand, and from immigrant industrial workers from other parts of Spain, on the other. There is a very strong conventional Catholic streak in the movement which has led to actions such as the murdering of drug pushers and the placing of bombs in bars which show sex films.

The heyday of ETA were the late 1970s and their bloodiest year was 1980 when 92 people were killed. In recent years police work against them has become more effective and dealt some huge blows including the arrest of their main leaders.

ETA in the years of democracy

In 1975 Franco died and in 1982 the socialists came to power to lead a new, democratic Spain. Around this time some of the ETA leaders were interviewed by French newspaper Le Monde and asked if they were likely to change their policy now that Francoism no longer existed. Their reply was absolutely clear: "Even if Spain were to convert into a model of democracy, it won't change things as far as we are concerned. We are not, nor have we been, nor shall we ever be Spaniards".

It should be noted that the extreme opinions of Basque nationalism seem not to be the sentiments of the ordinary Basque population. A century of economic growth has brought many non-Basques into the area. Today, less than half the population are Basque in the sense that both parents are Basque. The traditional way of life is disappearing. Integration and intermarriage between Basques and other Spaniards has been smooth and successful.

ETA has a political wing called Herri Batasuna, (meaning People's Unity) which can be compared to the Irish Sinn Fein movement. The popularity of this party peaked in 1985, but in 1987 dropped to only 17 per cent of the vote - a lower rate than the Scottish Nationalist Party. Herri Batasuna has recently been made illegal in Spain.

ETA's record

ETA tends to be regarded in some sections of the international media as a relatively unimportant separatist organisation. This is far from the truth. Here are a few statistics:

In the last 30 years they have killed 339 innocent civilians, including 19 children, and 478 members of the police and armed forces - a total of 817 people, leaving many more severely mutilated. They have been responsible for 77 kidnappings, the longest of which was of a prison employee who was held for over a year in 1996/97. He was eventually rescued by the Guardia Civil, having been held in sub-human conditions and had the appearance of a Nazi concentration camp victim.

In 1974 they bombed a café in central Madrid massacring 12 civilians. Their bloodiest attack occurred in El Corte Inglés in Barcelona in 1987, in which 21 people died and 45 were injured. Many of their attacks have been in the form of car bombs placed near police and army barracks, but often killing innocent passers-by.

The Spirit of Ermua

In July 1997 Miguel Angel Blanco, a local councillor belonging to the PP conservative party in the small town of Ermua in Vizcaya was kidnapped by ETA. They then issued a statement saying that if the Spanish government did not release all ETA prisoner within the next 48 hours, that Miguel Angel would be assassinated. The time scale and the demands were impossible for any democratic government to fulfill, and within two days the body of Miguel Angel was found in a nearby valley with two bullet wounds in his head. The publicity and revulsion that this action created in the country led to a movement which was called "The Spirit of Ermua", a popular force which confronted and publicly demonstrated against the actions of ETA. Since this time there have been many public demonstrations of rejection of terrorism and solidarity with its victims held all over Spain under the slogan of another popular movement "Basta Ya" (Enough is Enough)

Recent events

In more recent years many ETA attacks have been aimed at individual political leaders and public figures, in the Basque country and throughout Spain. This has created a climate of insecurity and fear in the Basque country in which politicians have been obliged to use body guards, to check their vehicles for car bombs and to constantly change their daily routes and timetables.

The previous president of the Spanish government, José Maria Aznar, was himself a victim of an ETA car bomb, from which he walked away unscathed.

They have also targetted holiday areas, in order to harm the Spanish tourist economy. Some of you might remember the bomb in Santa Pola just under two years ago which was planted outside the Guardia Civil station and killed the 8 year old daughter of a policeman and also killed a well known man from Torrevieja called Cecilio Gallego, who happened to be passing by.

On Christmas Eve 2003 an ETA bomb was defused on Spanish railway lines, and in the following months there were many reports that ETA intended their next major target to be the train system. These reports of course took on a major significance in the wake of the train bombings in Madrid, although they were subsequently proved to be the work of Al Qaeda. In recent years there have been huge police successes in tracking down ETA members. Most, if not all their leaders are now in jail, many of their arms and explosives caches have been discovered as well as their documents and plans. The PP party which was in power until March this year has taken the brunt of many ETA attacks and has worked hard to combat the organisation. They recently managed to make Herri Batasuna illegal in Spain and have also managed to get the group blacklisted by the US. ETA itself can now be said to be severely reduced and debilitated but pockets of ETA activists continue to form and police action in this regard is regularly reported.

It is to be hoped that the power and influence of ETA is coming to an end and that the beautiful country of Euskadi will at last be free from association with that murderous group of terrorists.

This article is published courtesy of The Coastal Press

Bibliography: A principal source for this article was: The New Spaniards by John Hooper. Penguin Books 1995

We only accept payments via PayPal but you do not need a PayPal account to do this. You can pay with a debit/credit card via Paypal.  Paying online with a credit/debit card via PayPal. This link opens in a new browser window.  


Latest from the blog

Go to top