Thwarted aspirations: Catalonia from Versailles to Brussels: Marcal Sanmarti suggests that Catalonia faces the same barriers to secession that it did at the end of the First World War.

AuthorSanmarti, Marcal

On 14 December the London Daily Telegraph headlined 'Crisis in Spain. Catalonia secedes'. The interesting thing is that the article talks about the Catalan political crisis, though not from this past year 2018; it is rather from a hundred years ago, in 1918. That takes us to the times of the end of the Great War and the Treaty of Versailles. It is not a coincidence.

Catalan secessionism has a centuries-long history behind it. In fact, Catalan roots lie behind a group of counties seceding from the Frankish Empire in the 10th century. But let us focus here on a topic which New Zealanders are much more familiar with: the Great War and the Western Front.

How can we relate Catalonia with the Great War when Spain was officially a neutral country? After Spain's defeat in the Spanish-American War in 1898 and its loss of Cuba, Guam, the Philippines and Puerto Rico to a new world power, it was left behind in the international arena. The old Spanish Empire sold the rest of its possessions in the Pacific to the German Empire a year later, leaving it with just a few tiny possessions on the West African coast. Spain was isolated in the international scene.

The situation inside Spain was just as bad at the beginning of the 20th century. The economy was outdated and completely unable to support any war effort. The restoration political system based on the alternation in power between liberals and conservatives was in deep crisis; between 1913 and 1919 the presidency changed nine times. Complaints about the absence of democratisation became widespread in Spanish society.

Deep division

Spanish society at the same time was deeply divided on several fronts, including the Great War. Whereas the clergy, aristocracy, army, bourgeois and landowners were leaning towards the Central Powers, regionalists, republicans, socialists, middle classes and intellectuals favoured the Allies. Joining the conflict could mean igniting a civil conflict inside Spain. Even the Spanish King, Alfonso XIII, had dynastic ties to both sides. His wife was a granddaughter of Queen Victoria and his mother was a member of the Austrian royal family.

The Spanish Army at the time was weak and unable to fight a modern war. It relied on conscription from the lower ranks of society; rich people could buy their way out of the service. As a result, the regular soldiers were seen as expendable and were under-equipped and often under-trained. On the other side, the officer class was quite heavy, having one officer for every ten soldiers.

Spain was not ready to join the conflict, but also had no reason to do so. Taking part in the First World War would have ruined the country, ignited a civil war and made clear Spain's lack of resources and forces. The situation was well known inside and outside Spain. That is the reason why neither side of the conflict actively pursued Spanish involvement. In fact, war contenders from both sides were afraid of an unstable Spain. Neutrality was then the only option and turned out to be a quite beneficial one.

Interrupted flow

With the outbreak of war, suddenly all the traditional flows of trade, financial exchanges and migrations were interrupted. The belligerents expelled more than 42,000 Spaniards in a few days. But then the world economy turned upside down. World powers started to import almost everything from neutral countries like Spain, instead of exporting to them.

It did not matter that Spain's economy was weak, outdated, inefficient, unable to export, barely competitive and protected with high customs tariffs. And since imports from the rest of Europe were suspended, competition disappeared and Spaniards found a new market in their own country. Agricultural production almost tripled, coal mining almost doubled and the Central Bank of Spain increased its gold reserves from 720 million pesetas in 1914...

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