Image coutest of Òmnium Cultural
Exhibition organised for Sant Jordi 1974
When General Francisco Franco declared the end of the Spanish Civil War on April 1st, 1939, he also abolished the autonomous government of Catalunya. The assets of the Generalitat were seized and Provincial Councils established to the effect of depriving Catalans of their national institutions and democratic rights. Among his most oppressive policies, Franco prohibited the use of the Catalan language in any public context and established systematic measures to otherwise destroy Catalan history, culture and identity.
El Generalísimo was determined to punish the region for its stalwart Republican opposition during the war. Between 1939 and 1953, the dictator’s fraudulent war councils convicted and executed 3,585 people who fought with Catalunya’s Republican front, including Lluís Companys, the last President of the Generalitat during the Civil War. Tens of thousands more were imprisoned or interned in work camps.
Franco’s repressions weakened and smothered Catalunya, especially in the vitriolic years that immediately followed the war. By all appearances, culturally and economically, the region lay barren. However, when Franco died in 1975, Catalans were well-prepared to reassert their cultural and political heritage thanks to the determination of certain figures and organisations to ensure the survival of their language, culture and way of life.
One reason why Catalans were able to rise above Franco’s obstacles was historical experience. As Jordina Boix of Òmnium Cultural, a Catalan language and culture centre in Barcelona, explained: “If you think about Catalan suppression, you have to look back 300 years, to the War of Succession.” In the aftermath of this war, a two-century quashing of Catalan autonomy, language and culture began, against which Catalans railed, resisting the oppression as best they could.
Following Franco’s victory in 1939, many intellectuals and artists fled Catalunya, choosing exile over the risk of arrest or execution. Rather than turn their back on their homeland, though, Catalans in Europe and America sustained their culture abroad, maintaining tradition, as well as cultivating creative and intellectual discourse in the context of their new environs. Noteworthy were the editorial journals and magazines which published in Catalan, including Edicions Proa, a literary business established in 1928 in Badalona and transplanted to Perpignan after the war. Texts produced by Proa and others, though prohibited, arrived through underground systems to the hands of intellectuals in Catalunya.
Among the most famous Catalan ambassadors of culture, Joan Miró and Salvador Dalí produced prolifically, offering glimpses into the Catalan creative ethos otherwise hidden by the blanket Franco threw over the country. Though Dalí eventually supported Franco, Miró maintained his pro-Catalan perspective and identity throughout his career. Among the painter’s most powerful works are the antifranquista ‘Burnt Canvases’, a dark and violent series that bears little resemblance to the painter’s typical use of bright colours and abstraction.
At a political level, during Franco’s 36-year rule, the Catalan Generalitat continued from afar. Established in France, the government was led first by Josep Irla and, from 1954, Josep Tarradellas as presidents in exile. After the dictator’s death, Tarradellas returned home to govern Catalunya from 1977 to 1980.
Of course, the campaign to keep Catalan culture alive was carried out with as much resolve here as abroad, even if local efforts often needed to use more secretive or cunning methods. Although Franco made it illegal for Catalans to publically assemble or associate for the cause of culture or language, assemble they did. For example, Òmnium Cultural, established in 1961, dodged the law for a few years by naming themselves Omnium Cultural, using the very similar Latin spelling. The group was well established by the time the army raided and shut down the operation in 1963. It continued its projects clandestinely until 1967, when Franco began to relax his restrictions and the centre reopened publicly.
As well as such organisations, individual citizens also defied Franco. Writers and artists gathered at private homes and businesses to discuss politics and enjoy their heritage in secret. Within local mythology, Josep Vicenç (J.V.) Foix, a journalist and Avant-Garde poet, exemplifies the lengths to which this resistance movement went to preserve their culture. Owner of the two Foix bakeries in Sarrià, the poet used his pastisseries to host poetry readings and philosophical debates. Current owner and Foix’s cousin, Jordi Madern, proudly displays a painting Miró created for his cousin and passionately shares anecdotes about the poet. Among the most illustrative accounts is the story of how, when Guardia Civil agents came to arrest him for his nationalist beliefs shortly after the war, Foix disguised himself in pastry flour and evaded detention. The proprietor, he fibbed, had fled to France that very morning.
Support for the Catalan cause also came from more surprising quarters. While the Catholic church typically supported Franco, even in Catalunya, the antifranquista movement experienced some of its greatest successes in alliance with the church. Whereas Catalan cultural or linguistic associations were illegal, religious gatherings did not face such restrictions. Christian groups—like the Cristians Catalans, a group of young Catalans founded in 1954 and led by future Generalitat president Jordi Pujol—organised political meetings, printed subversive texts and coordinated protests in support of the Catalan cause. Montserrat’s Benedictine monks, led by Abbot Aureli Maria Escarré, illegally produced a Catalan translation of the Bible and initiated sermons in Catalan. A few churches in Barcelona followed suit, which in one notorious case had significant knock-on effects.
On June 21st, 1959, Luis Martínez de Galinsoga, director of La Vanguardia newspaper, attended mass at the church of Sant Ildefons in Barcelona. Shocked by a Catalan portion of the Benediction during the service, Galinsoga exclaimed “Todos los Catalanes son una mierda!” (“All Catalans are shit!”). Widespread protests, partially coordinated by the Cristians Catalans, followed and the paper lost 20,000 subscribers by early 1960, with its print run falling to 30,000 copies. After Galinsoga denied saying the insult, protests intensified. In February 1960, Manual Aznar took Galinsoga’s place at the paper.
In May 1960, shortly after ‘el caso Galinsoga’ and with Franco’s permission, Barcelona celebrated the 100th anniversary of Joan Maragall, an important Modernista poet. A concert in the Palau de la Música was scheduled to include, among other works by the poet, a choral recitation of Cant de la Senyera (Song of the Catalan Flag), a patriotic hymn. Though already printed in the programme, Franco prohibited the song. During the concert, musicians were instructed to ignore the inclusion. At the relevant point in the programme, however, the audience banded together and sang, and protestors distributed copies of an anti-government pamphlet, titled Us presentem el General Franco (We present General Franco to you). Franco witnessed the defiance, which became known as ‘Els fets del Palau’ (‘The events at the Palau’). His army detained 20 people, including Pujol and the pamphlet’s printer Francesc Pizón. The future president served seven years; Pizón served three.
These two events strengthened anti-Franco sentiment and marked the beginning of the end for the regime’s stronghold on Catalunya. By the late Sixties, Franco’s power had begun to diminish. Restrictions eased and politicians began to organise for the eventuality of the dictator’s death. When el Generalísimo did finally die on November 20th, 1975, Catalunya celebrated and then got down to reestablishing its democracy.
The rebuilding was gradual, but resolute. Groups like Òmnium Cultural offered classes in Catalan. Proa returned to its homeland to print. President Pujol re-acclimatised his people to their language. Today, Catalan pride flourishes as Foix presaged in his 1939 poem El Meu País és un Roc. Click on related links to read the poem.