Despite the end of the Spanish Civil War in 1939,8 in following years the Basque Country continued to face economic hardship, hunger, and brutal repression. Killings and executions continued,9 properties were confiscated and businesses closed down. A regime was established that was completely opposed to any development or expression of the Basque culture, language and identity. People were not allowed to speak their language on the street, and were fined if they did so. At school Basque speakers were treated brutally and considered illiterate. The repression also affected the Basque Church, which opposed Francoism and stood for the Basque institutions.10 There was a collective trauma and suffering, understood as a national suffering. Basques were stigmatised as Basques.

Within this context, World War II created a scenario of expectation for the EAJ-PNV and the Basque government11 in exile, which had supported the US and British secret services and were now hoping that the allies would help to end Franco’s fascist regime by entering the peninsula and supporting Basque forces. But these expectations were not fulfilled, and the feeling of being abandoned grew further when the political isolation of the Spanish fascist regime ended due to the geo-strategic context of the early 1950s (Watson, 2007). Although the international community had initially shunned Franco, the international atmosphere of the emerging Cold War led the US to view Spain as a strategic bulwark against communism, and to this end sought closer cooperation with Franco. The US National Security Council took the decision to normalize US-Spanish relations in 1948, and Spain was accepted into the World Health Organisation, UNESCO, ILO, and as full member of the UN in December 1955, effectively ending the boycott promoted by different countries against the fascist regime. The USA established their main Europe-based air defence installation in Spain as a counterpart to its financial aid. In 1951 the Basque government in exile was removed from its premises in Paris, which were taken over by the Spanish embassy.

At the Basque Country level, these policies brought an end to the strategy formulated and developed by the Basque government in exile. The internal and exiled leadership of the EAJPNV did not come up with any alternative to this situation, and failed to fulfil the expectations of the younger generations arriving on the political scene: the connection with the old nationalist party was broken, and there was a sense of a failed strategy.

This was the background against which a group of young people started organising themselves in a movement called Ekin (action), with the aim to gather information and knowledge about Basque history, language, culture, nationalism and to give an action-orientated response to the current situation and the danger of disappearing as a nation. Those young people felt themselves to be Basques, members of a country that for centuries had been fighting for its independence and that had become completely forbidden, and they considered it a duty to resist the killing of Basque identity. The movement was rooted in the influence of existentialism, the ethnic idea of the Basque Country, the great need to save a language that was dying, as well as an interest in the new anti-colonial struggles.12 They educated themselves about the beginning of Basque nationalism and its evolution, and found themselves very close to some sections of Basque nationalism which emerged during the 1930s such as the party Basque Nationalist Action (EAE-ANV), which was opposed to the EAJ-PNV’s confessionalism and supported a socialist economic programme challenging the traditionalist EAJ-PNV stance. They were also close to the group Jagi-Jagi, formed from the EAJ-PNV as a very pro-independence and anti-imperialist group close to the Irish model of nationalist resurgence. Ekin defined itself as a “non-confessional patriotic movement”.13 One of the main characteristics of the patriotic left was, and would be, its activism.

Even though Ekin at first collaborated with the EAJ-PNV and its youth league EGI, by the end of the 1950s it was clear that there was no option for this generation to become part of the EAJ-PNV. The old party wanted to control them and was not ready to let this group lead a transformation. Mutual attacks cemented this position. There were some profound ideological and operational disagreements. As a result, Ekin and some members of EGI joined forces to found ETA in December 1958.

Foundation and ideological evolution of ETA

8 Around 25,000 people died in the war, 6,000 of whom were executed. The Basque Country was used as a laboratory for air raids against civilians, and general bombings of towns, villages and cities. The bombing of Gernika (a symbolic village for Basque liberties) represents a powerful illustration of the atrocities fascism was ready to commit.
9 Around 45,000 people were imprisoned after the fascist coup d’état, many of them serving long jail sentences. Moreover, there were between 100,000 and 150,000 exiles and thousands of disappeared: in Spain it is estimated that up to 30,000 bodies might have been buried in unknown ditches (Egaña et al., 2000).
10 Part of the church was very close to the EAJ-PNV and was involved in the resurgence of Basque language and culture. Because of that, more than four hundred priests were sent to prison and around sixteen were executed in the war.
11 The Provisional Basque Government was formed on October 7th 1936, once the Basque autonomy was recognized y the Spanish Republic. It was to be a semi-independent government, with its own army, police and international relations. Once the civil war was lost, this government went into exile.
12 Particularly prominent were the Cypriot, Irish and Jewish rebellions against British occupation forces, the FLN liberation struggle against French colonialism, the Indochina war and the Cuban revolution.
13 On the formation of Ekin and ETA, see Apalategi (1979), Casanova (2007), Clark (1979), Egaña et al. (2005), Garmendia (1980), Giacopucci (1992), Letamendia (1994), Nuñez et al. (1993), and Watson (2007).