At the end of the 1960s, the action-repression-action spiral theorised by the proindependence movement started to kick in. The so-called Burgos trial (1969), a showcase trial to judge and execute 16 ETA members (arrested after an attack that had killed superintendent Melitón Manzanas),17 became a turning point in the struggle against the Francoist regime and marked the beginning of the end of the dictatorship. It provoked large demonstrations and protest, both at home and abroad,18and Franco was forced to commute the death penalties under international pressure. During the trial, the defendants denounced the national, ethnic and linguistic oppression suffered by the Basque people.19

This event led to a redefinition of the conflict between the sectors that called for changes and the ultra-conservative forces. Even though the Spanish government was willing to accept some changes, it was not prepared to discuss the national question, particularly in the Basque Country, but also in Catalonia and Galicia. The Spanish right-wing movements became more radical, and Franco and the state mobilised numerous pro-regime bases and organised demonstrations against
the ‘red-separatist’ enemy. The only party permitted, the Fascist party, highlighted the Basque question as the most important problem facing the government in its report titled “Defensa de la Unidad Nacional” (Defence of the National Unity).20However, the only solutions suggested were strictly repressive.

Prime Minister Admiral Carrero Blanco, one of Franco’s closest collaborators, was in charge of conducting repressive policies and counter-insurgency by the regime, and thus seen as a key target by ETA. He was also the head of the intelligence service (SECED),21 and responsible for implementing the frequent states of emergency, the lack of guarantees to trial, systematic use of torture, shoot-to-kill policies and death squads deployed against the patriotic movement. On 20th December 1973, ETA killed him in a military action in Madrid. The attack caused a big crisis in the plans of the regime, and accelerated its end. Without a charismatic leader, the conflicts among the progressive and conservative (the so-called ‘bunker’) wings increased.

The regime answered the attack with brutal severity. Over the following months, the Basque Country was in a constant state of emergency, and thousands of people were arrested. For instance, in 1975, 4,625 people were arrested in massive police raids,22 and 628 prisoners were serving a total of 3,500-year sentences in Spanish prisons (Casanova, 2007). ETA increased its armed activity, and protests and strikes expanded. The government in turn promoted the activity of paramilitary and extreme right organisations, which started attacking Basque political refugees in the south of France. On 27th September 1975, in an ultimate attempt to express a message of strength to the opposition and to the Francoist sectors which questioned its continuity, the Spanish government executed ETA activists Txiki and Otaegi and other Spanish left-wing activists, despite numerous protests and diplomatic interventions. After the executions, protest activities intensified in the Basque Country, where a general strike was organised. Abroad, some European countries boycotted Spanish products and companies, and several Spanish diplomatic delegations were attacked. The European Common Market ended its commercial negotiations with Spain, and Mexico proposed a motion to expel Spain from the UN.

ETA’s split

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17 Melitón Manzanas was a police inspector famous for his brutality with prisoners. During WWII he had had relations with the Nazi regime, and his sadism was well known. Recently he was recognised as a victim of terrorism by the Spanish government.
18 There were worldwide demonstrations; some ambassadors were recalled from Spain, the Pope among others called for the commutation of the death sentences.
19 They showed their support for revolutionary nationalism and internationalism and proclaimed the role of Basque workers in the liberation of the country. The trial ended with the convicted shouting “Long live the free Basque Country!” and singing the anthem of the Basque soldiers while they were forcefully taken out of the room.
20 According to this report, the situation was serious in Gipuzkoa and Biscay and less serious in Araba, and it was extending to Navarre. The main factors which caused the situation were: a) numerous priests, b) the Basque citizens who emigrated from the farms to the cities, c) the sensation of cultural and economic oppression, among others. The report had an interesting comment on Spanish emigrants: “many of them are not originally separatists, but can be the travelling companions of separatism” (Letamendia, 1994).
21 SECED also designed the transition period, with several covert operations to recruit opposition members and change the regime in an orderly fashion.
22 On 8 May 1975, the bullring of Bilbao had to be adapted as a provisional accommodation centre for the 400 people arrested that night.