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The emergence of the Spanish Republic was a blessing for Catalonia: the 1932 referendum voted overwhelmingly for home rule and a devolved government was created under the medieval name of Generalitat, with autonomy in everything except defence, foreign affairs and border control. As the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, Catalonia became virtually independent, its politics dominated by anarchists, Communists and the POUM, the anti-Stalinist far-left party that many of the foreign volunteers joined, immortalised by George Orwell in Homage to Catalonia. Their social and economic experiments may have been exhilarating, but bloodshed was committed on all sides: half a million died in the civil war. “The short, tragic history of the Catalonian republic”, as the late Hugh Thomas called it, ended after just seven years, when General Franco’s nationalist forces conquered Barcelona in January 1939 — the beginning of the end of the civil war. Some 400,000 refugees were driven into France; many thousands were shot or sent to concentration camps. Franco not only abolished all vestiges of Catalonian autonomy, but also the official status of the Catalan language (referred to thereafter as a “dialect”). The Sardana, the national dance, was banned; even children could not be christened with Catalan names.

This suffocation of Catalonia’s identity endured until the death of Franco in 1975. The newly restored monarchy sought to draw a line under the dictatorship: Juan Carlos proclaimed himself “King of all Spaniards” and a new version of Catalonian autonomy was reinstituted in 1979, along with similar statutes for Galicians and Basques. However, the old tensions between Madrid and Barcelona could not be abolished at the stroke of a pen; the memories of the civil war, buried for 40 years, could be suppressed no longer. Spain’s ability to regenerate itself as a modern nation state has been hindered by the quest for a European identity. The Spanish political elites convinced themselves that joining the EU would guarantee democracy and prevent a return to dictatorship, but the priority should have been to rebuild a sense of nationhood rather than handing over sovereignty to Brussels and Berlin. After the crash of 2008, disillusionment with Europe left only a weak nation state to pick up the pieces. Barcelona has continued to thrive, but Catalonian grievances have also multiplied. As austerity took its toll, Catalans increasingly resented bankrolling poorer regions of Spain. Disputes over autonomy culminated in the election of a pro-independence Catalonian government two years ago, with the centre-right government in Madrid resolutely opposed to a referendum.

The referendum was held nevertheless, in the face of police brutality on a scale that shocked the world. Now Spain is in the grip of a seemingly inevitable train of events, leading to revolution and the spectre of a new civil war. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has threatened to revoke Catalonia’s autonomy, if necessary by force. This would involve the arrest of its president, Carles Puigdemont, and his government. King Felipe has squandered any chance of acting as an umpire by siding with Rajoy. The latter in turn is under pressure from his predecessor José María Aznar, a much more formidable leader, to take more decisive action to protect Spain’s national integrity. Puigdemont in turn is carried away by his own rhetoric, and Catalans who do not support independence feel intimidated. Europe, meanwhile, has washed its hands of the mess for which it has been largely responsible. The illusion of “pooled sovereignty” is now confronted with reality: will a weak government in Madrid dare to protect the post-Franco constitution by using the methods of Franco?

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