ETA was formed as a clandestine group in 1958 and defined its objectives as “Euskadi, a free Basque Country, through a Basque state like other states in the world, and Askatasuna (freedom), free people in the Basque Country” (Garmendia, 1980). Organised around six branches (publications, study groups, Basque language group, mass actions, propaganda, and military actions), the movement initially concentrated its activities on propaganda (calls on patriots to join the struggle) and sabotage (murals, displays of Basque flags, leaflets, small explosive devices). From the movement’s inception, it was decided that violence was the only possible response to the
Spanish occupation; there was no space for other methods of resistance.14 Repression against the movement was severe,15 and most of the leadership was forced into exile. Over the next few years, an ideological evolution took place inside the movement that clarified both its ideological position and the strategy to advance towards it.

ETA celebrated its first assembly in 1962, where it defined itself as the Basque Revolutionary Movement of National Liberation. Its objectives were national liberation, which meant an independent, united and Basque-speaking country, and social liberation, understood in a social democratic context. ETA condemned both communism and fascism as totalitarian regimes, supported a federalist Europe and considered itself a non-confessional party.

The movement’s strategic and ideological foundations were further clarified during the second and third assemblies. The leadership was greatly influenced by the writings of Frantz Fanon’s “Les Damnés de la Terre” and Basque writer Federico Krutwig’s “Vasconia”, as well as writings on the Algerian, Vietnamese and Cuban revolutions. At the end of 1963 the first theoretical underpinning came with the document “Insurrection in the Basque Country”, written by an ETA member. This book was a compendium of military theories and concrete revolutionary experiences to show the way to start revolutionary warfare.16 At the fourth assembly (1965), there was a progressive shift towards more leftist positions, with ETA recognising socialism as well as national liberation as fundamental pillars. On tactical terms, there was a better understanding of the reality and a new document established the basis for future intervention. The document “Theoretical Basis for Revolutionary Warfare” was the first attempt to adapt the theory of armed struggle to fit the real situation of the country. It opted against an open confrontation scenario in the form of general guerrilla war. Instead, guerrilla warfare was understood in a more progressive way, as a political and military process with the objective of self-determination and making visible to the population the occupant character of the current system. ETA understood that there were no options for a general insurrection: an organised minority would have to start the struggle. It was to be a very progressive struggle for which ETA defined three basic steps: publicising ETA’s existence, preparing the conditions for open actions that could create casualties, and implementing the spiral methodology of “action-repression-action”.

All this process of theoretical evolution went hand in hand with an escalation of mass activities and sabotage in the Basque country, as well as increased Spanish repression against Basque militants and citizens.

The Spanish transition

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14 “Violence is necessary. A contagious violence, destructive, which would help our struggle, the good struggle, the struggle that the Israelis, Congolese and Algerians have taught us” (Garmendia, 1980).
15 More than 200 people were arrested and tortured in 1961, following sabotage against a train transporting Spanish fascist volunteers to San Sebastian to celebrate the 1936 victory. Seven of those arrested were sentenced to prison sentences of 20 years by a martial military court.
16 The type of revolutionary warfare advocated was based on the Vietnamese, Chinese or Algerian models, and thus far away from the Basque reality. So, even though it was established as a theoretical document which had a strong impact on the militants, it did not have any practical consequences: taking into account the geographical and political reality of the country, ETA continued to operate on a propaganda and sabotage model.