As Catalonia Goes to The Polls, Could Its History Predict Its Future?

With Catalonia approaching a momentous regional election on September 27, many in Spain agonize over the possibility of a break-up. Will the government of Artur Mas, a Catalan nationalist pushing for political independence, separate from Madrid? Are the polls correct that those pedaling a "yes" vote will win control of the Catalan Parliament? Or will the examples of Scotland and Quebec hold true, with referendums failing by close margins?

Years ago, as a young historian studying nationalism, I attended a lecture by Catalonia's then president Jordi Pujol. Now widely discredited for his secret bank accounts and tax evasion, Pujol at the time was recognized for his oratory and influence. What really struck me was not his erudition, but his romantic reconstruction of history; I was confident that it tended toward rhetorical excess rather than demonstrable fact.

The heroic people who Pujol lauded for having fought for Catalan independence 300 years earlier turned out to be defenders of one monarchy over another, and much of what now passes for nationalist sentiment dates to 20th century activism rather than age-old tradition. The loss of their autonomy occurred at the defeat of the Habsburg contender for the Spanish throne, who had allied with Protestant England, Prussia, Aragon, and Valencia. During and after the war, the Bourbon King Philip V punished the rebellious kingdoms of Aragon and Valencia with a series of reforms establishing uniform legal codes in lieu of their regional privileges, a very rough equivalent to federalism trumping states' rights in the United States. Contemporary Barcelona commemorates the 1714 siege of the city with a monument to Catalan liberties, ostensibly taken away at the hands of a centralizing Spanish state. The prominence of the period is such that Catalans celebrate their National Day on September 11, the anniversary of the end of the war.

After the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939, the dictator Francisco Franco took away the right to teach the Catalan language in schools and renamed monuments and entire towns, stripping away the vestiges of Catalan history. With the demise of Franco's authoritarian regime in 1975, there have been many popular manifestations of Catalan identity, from a million-person march on National Day in 1977 to a mass refusal to honor Spain's national anthem at Camp Nou, Barcelona's famous soccer stadium. (Can you imagine secessionists in Texas jeering while the Star-Spangled Banner played at a Cowboys game?) But with the economic crisis and controversial court rulings has come increasingly serious public debate over the integrity of the Spanish state.

In the aftermath of a constitutional court rescinding Catalonia's 2005 Statute of Autonomy—a decision which brought over a million protestors onto the streets of Barcelona on July 10, 2010—issues of identity and culture in Spain have been at the center of Catalan regional politics. The Statute definitively declared Catalonia as "a nation." But what is a nation? Are its boundaries territorial, cultural, or linguistic? The original pre-Civil War 1932 Catalan Statute had defined Catalonia as an autonomous region rather than a national entity. Autonomy within Spain had even been the position staked out by figures like Pujol, the President of Catalonia from 1980 until 2003. But since Artur Mas took over the presidency, and crises have taken down governments across southern Europe, opinions have hardened.

Some look to economics as a casus belli, arguing that Catalonia is forced to remit far more to Madrid than they receive in return. On the other hand, Catalonia also has a very high regional debt. It's important to remember that the provinces of Catalonia, Navarre, and the Basque Country, all located in northern Spain on the border with France, have been granted tremendous autonomy since Spain's transition to democracy and the promulgation of the 1978 constitution. A fully realized independent state, however, would have to expend billions in creating state institutions, border controls, armed forces, diplomatic embassies—the list goes on and on. And Catalonia might not be welcomed immediately into the European Union. Notwithstanding these fiscal realities, demands for greater Catalan autonomy now have been overshadowed by calls for outright independence. A straw poll held last year garnered 80 percent of the vote in favor of an independent state, although only 33 percent of Catalans bothered to show up.

Thinking back on my first personal experience with Catalan politics, I now realize that it's not about facts or the exact details of historical narratives. When politicians like Mas lay flowers at one of the monuments to the 1714 "secessionists," as he did a few weeks ago, they do so with a wink and a nod to history. But the power in such commemorations is in the evocation of an emotional appeal to a seemingly timeless nation and people. That's the real trick of romantic nationalists, who can gloss over economics and history to call for the creation of a state that they themselves may one day lead.

Scott Eastman, associate professor of transnational history at Creighton University, is the author, most recently, of the book "Preaching Spanish Nationalism across the Hispanic Atlantic, 1759-1823."