The emergence of Basque nationalism in the late 19th century, mainly in Biscay and Gipuzkoa, was based on a reinterpretation of history prominently put forward by Sabino Arana, who founded the Basque Nationalist Party (EAJ-PNV) in 1895 and was the father of Basque nationalism as a movement. This is not to suggest that his interpretation was unfounded in historical facts, but simply that – as with any growing nationalist movement, be it nation-state nationalism or a stateless nationalism – his ideas were presented with a certain slant. Basque nationalism built an epic of the Basque people on the basis of their military victories and defeats, historic institutions, popular revolts, etc. Everything was re-contextualised, with the purpose of showing a territorial unity in the past that must be continued into the future. Once this purpose had been stated, the annexation of Navarre by the Castilian crown, the social revolts of 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, the loss of Basque institutions after the French Revolution, the Carlist Wars, the loss of the fueros and the Spanish Civil War provided the material with which the Basque nationalist movement (like all nationalisms) made its interpretation of the conflict. Even though the nationalists themselves used several different interpretations of the historical facts, they were all pursuing the same aim: to stress historical arguments justifying the Basque people’s right to an independent state.4

Apart from historical arguments, Basque nationalism also had economic, social, political or territorial reasons to justify its need for an independent future without the Spanish and French states. Racial or anthropological factors have more recently been replaced by the language argument.5 Today, the Basque language is in decline, and this is largely due to the assimilation policy developed by the Spanish and French states. In this context, total political sovereignty is seen as being the only way to assure the future of the Basque language, as any language maintenance policy developed by the autonomous or regional Basque governments would be undermined, or rendered far less effective, by the nation-state’s efforts to promote the language which they have declared to be the official national one.6

Certainly, language and history are not the only arguments used by Basque nationalists. Together with these, there are other strong reasons for Basque nationalism, ranging from economic ones, such as preventing leakage of Basque wealth, to the feeling of being constantly oppressed in one’s legitimate political aspirations, and to national or romantic reasons, such as having their own national sports teams or the desire to see all the Basque territories politically united. All of these help to explain the continuation of the conflict, as do the respective discourses of the Spanish and French states, to which we will now turn.

The Spanish and French states facing the Basque conflict: the theory of privilege

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4 The predominant version in the earlier wave of nationalism asserts that the Kingdom of Navarre and the other Basque territories had their own laws and, through different paths (convenience pacts, monarchic unions), were included in the kingdoms of Spain or France. More recently, another nationalist trend highlights that the union of Basque territories with Spain was a matter of conquest. .In the first case, it is argued that Basque territories would have the full right to demand separation, if they wanted to, in order to go back to a situation they had previously been in, given that the union had been a matter of convenience and had taken place against a background of independence. In the second case, it is argued that the union with Spain has never been desired, but imposed by force, so it is justified that the defeated party should be able to recover their original institutions.
5 The race factor was put forward by Arana (1980) and Ibero (1979). The theory of Federico Krutwig (Sarrailh de Ihartza, 1979) bridged the gap towards the current prevalence of the language factor.
6 The comparatively late development of Basque nationalism in the continental Basque Country is the main reason why its discourse is much more based on and preoccupied with language and culture than in the peninsular Basque Country, as the Basque language there is in a particular state of decline.