Catalan nationalism is characterised by being eminently victimistic. Reducing and twisting everything to the maximum, until it reaches a Manichean conception of reality, it draws a scenario in which the “people of Catalonia” are characterised as a paragon of virtues and the incarnation of a superior civilisation, against which Spain rises, a pure compendium of defects, but with the capacity to prevent the natural expression of the Catalan people. A capacity that it exercises with severity, keeping the said “people” in a situation of subjugation and oppression.
“El Once de Septiembre de 1714”, painting by Antoni Estruch in 1909.
As nationalism is a complete system, which ensures that the fiction on which it rests is credible, it has first created a cognitive framework (its own language and a certain interpretation of the world) that leads anyone who assumes it, and with it the language it invents, to consider the ideological content of that same framework as good and real. He has then taken it upon himself to construct a historical narrative that fits millimetrically to his interpretation of the present, which is thus reinforced.
Although the entire history of Catalonia is subjected to revision in order to adapt it to the vision that nationalism is interested in, and to truffle it with manipulations and half-truths in order to construct an imaginary identity, its efforts are focused above all on those episodes that serve to sustain the discourse of victimisation and to justify, also from history, its current aspirations. It needs, therefore, to construct a correlate in the past for the alleged situation of tyranny it suffers at the hands of Spain.
In this way, Catalan nationalism has been forging its core historical myth around a date, 11 September 1714, which condenses the greatest grievances and affronts that Spain would have inflicted on “Catalonia”. But what happened on that day to make it Catalonia’s bank holiday?
The Spanish king’s failing health had turned the question of succession into an international issue in the years prior to his death, giving rise to two treaties on the distribution of the territories of the Spanish monarchy among the various European powers. The death of Carlos II on 1 November 1700 without descendants and the will in which he left Philip of Anjou, grandson of King Louis XIV of France and the Spanish Maria Theresa of Austria, as his successor in all his kingdoms and dominions, provided the pretext for the War of the Spanish Succession, although by accepting the will of the last of the Habsburgs, Louis XIV renounced the rights of the Crown of France over the Spanish Monarchy and its territories.
However, this war, which pitted Felipe V against the Austrian Archduke Carlos, each of them supported by various European powers, would eventually turn into a civil war when, in 1705, part of the population of Valencia and Catalonia revolted against their legitimate king and proclaimed the Archduke as such.
Final assault of the Bourbon troops on Barcelona on 11 September 1714. Jacques Rigaud
From 1711 onwards, the situation for the Austracist Catalans began to become more complicated. When Archduke Carlos withdrew to Vienna to assume the imperial throne, the Austracist movement was disbanded and Holland and England – his allies – withdrew from the war. From this point onwards, their only objective in continuing the war was to guarantee direct access to Atlantic trade. The expectations of the Catalans also evolved until they reached their final aspiration in 1714: to retain their political privileges.
After the end of hostilities in 1713, the Treaty of Utrecht was signed between the British and Spanish monarchies. The case was settled by granting the Catalans amnesty and the same economic privileges as the Castilians, i.e. access to the Atlantic market. However, this proposal, which would have avoided the conflict and the siege, was rejected in Barcelona. Contrary to the opinion of personalities such as Rafael Casanova, a deeply divided Junta de Brazos (Parliament without the king), in which a significant part was inhibited, decided to opt for resistance.
Thus began the siege of Barcelona, the final act of which took place on 11 September 1714. That day marked the end of eight months of siege, during which more than 30,000 bombs were dropped from both sides. They caused more than 20,000 casualties, between Austracists and Bourbons (although more among the besiegers than among the besieged).
Once the assault ended with the entry of the Bourbon troops into Barcelona, the repression began, which initially included the destruction of the Ribera district and the construction of a military citadel; and later, in 1716, the application of the Nueva Planta decrees, which had already been implemented in other territories of the Crown of Aragon. This measure put an end to the Catalan Cortes, the Diputaciones de Cortes and the Juntas de Brazos, introduced the government of the captains general, carried out a revision of municipal autonomy, transferring the Castilian system of corregimientos and the royal appointment of all posts. The cadastre was also adapted as tax reform, and higher education was concentrated in a single university, in the “faithful city” of Cervera.
War of the Spanish Succession.Blockade and siege of Barcelona (1713-1714). Johann van Ghelen
The victimism on which Catalan nationalism feeds is thus recreated in the suffering caused by the siege and, above all, in the negative consequences that the fateful day of 11 September 1714 had on Catalan traditions. The story is a rounded one: tyrannical Spain, which has never tolerated Catalonia’s assertion and development of her own personality, manages to subdue her and finally annihilate her precious freedom.
But it is only rounded off in the nationalist imagination, which has made a distorted reading of history, distilling the events so that only the fragrance of sanctity and martyrdom of the good Catalan people remains. Some parts of reality have been left by the wayside that should be brought to light if only to offer the nationalist mythology a mirror in which to look at itself.
Firstly, as has been pointed out, it should be stressed that the origin of the war in Catalonia was a rebellion against Felipe V, a sovereign legitimised in 1701 when he went to Barcelona to swear the Catalan fueros (the particular laws of the Principality) before the Cortes that he had convened and which in turn swore allegiance to him. In order to satisfy Catalan expectations and strengthen his ties with that land, he even married his first wife in Gerona, during the time he remained in Catalonia while the Cortes were still in session, between 1701 and 1702.
What happened in 1704 and 1705 to cause a section of the Catalans to betray their oath of loyalty to their king – a crime that Felipe V never forgave – was that “the Catalan commercial bourgeoisie believed that their interests were more in line with the economic policy of the allies” and decided, as a result, to change sides. This crime of disobedience and disloyalty to a legitimate king is what ultimately explains Felipe V’s policy and what, according to the legal system of the time, underlies the right of conquest and the consequent constitutional revision.
Plan of Barcelona besieged by land and sea by the Duke of Populi (Castile) and the Duke of Vervich (France), 1714.
Secondly, it is worth clarifying another question of unquestionable importance for understanding the myth we are analysing. In the nationalist imaginary, Manichean and simplistic by nature, the war was fought by Catalans against Spaniards. However, historical reality – always more complex and less helpful – tells us that the civil war was fought between Austracists and Bourbons, each side having both Catalans and Castilians. For not all of Castile was Bourbon, and not all of Catalonia – much less all of Aragon – was Austracist. Cities such as Cervera, Berga, Manlleu and Ripoll bear witness to this, as they stood out for their Bourbon militancy. The 6,000 Bourbons who left Barcelona in 1706 after the conquest of the city by Austracist troops are also eloquent testimony to the same fact.
There is more. This mythical unity of the Catalan nation is not true even if we want to reduce it to the Austracists. Of course, they were not secessionists, and their distrust of the Bourbon dynasty stemmed from the antipathy aroused by the French occupiers of Catalonia in the 17th century, between 1641 and 1651. Had this been consolidated, today the Catalan language would have been a folkloric relic. Moreover, the divisions were deep when the serious moment of the end of the war came. As we have seen, the supporters of the pact with the king did not triumph, and it was therefore the triumph of those who refused to accept the royal offer that led to the siege of Barcelona.
Lastly, attention must be paid to the nationalist nostalgia that looks back to pre-1714 Catalonia as a happy Arcadia. In the immediate times, it should be remembered that Archduke Carlos’ troops bombarded Barcelona twice before taking it in 1705; that the official language of the court in Barcelona from 1705 to 1711 under King Carlos was not Catalan but Spanish; and that the Generalitat was not suppressed by the Bourbons but by the Council of One Hundred, in the midst of the Austracist mandate.
Going into the long term and structural issues, contrary to what the nationalist discourse maintains, Catalonia had not been a state before 1714, but a principality within the Habsburg Monarchy. On the other hand, the pact-prone regime – which only in an exercise in uchronia could be described as democratic – was in frank decline, and paradoxically the “despot” Felipe V activated it by convening the Cortes in Barcelona, which happily culminated in 1701-1702, while the supposedly neo-foralist Carlos II never managed to do the same. In the 18th century, Catalonia achieved a degree of prosperity and wealth such as it had not known since the 14th century.
So much for what could be said, in a general review, about the foundations on which the myth is based and about the falsehoods and distortions it incorporates. But we cannot close this article without providing some clues about the construction process itself.
Contrary to what Catalanist historiography has maintained, the celebration of 11 September – la Diada, as it is commonly known – has not arisen from popular inspiration and outside political power, but has been constructed voluntarily and consciously by those who, from the political and social oligarchies of Catalan nationalism, have dedicated themselves, since the end of the 19th century, to defining the Catalan “nation” and, consequently, to nationalising Catalan society.
The starting point should be 1886, when several young radical Catalanists organised a funeral for those who had died “in defence of the Catalan liberties destroyed by Felipe V with the capture of Barcelona on 11 September 1714”, in Santa Maria del Mar, a Barcelona basilica located near the place where a good number of the city’s defenders had been buried in 1714 (the Fosal de las Moreras). This first celebration was identified by Josep Narcís Roca Ferreras as “our May 2nd”, given that on 11 September 1714, like the Second of May 1808, an act of resistance against the foreign invader took place.
Celebration of the Diada in Barcelona on 11 September 1914.
From then on, and intermittently, the ball began to roll and to take on a new form, including evenings and floral offerings, from 1894 onwards in front of the monument to Rafael Casanova, the conseller en cap, a hero in spite of himself, wounded in the siege of Barcelona. The new century would take up the baton and give it its definitive format. The key year was 1901 when the floral offering – accompanied by soirees and a funeral mass – ended with a police charge and some thirty people arrested. It was the demonstration in protest at the arrests that popularised all the previous events and gave rise to a ritual that has been maintained to the present day with some variations. From 1905-1906, the celebration began to spread throughout Catalonia and in 1913, the Barcelona stage was split into two, incorporating the Fosal de les Moreres into the celebration.
Banned during the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera, the Diada achieved great fame during the Second Republic. In 1932, the president of the Generalitat Francesc Macià, in a reinterpretation of the event, stated that he had come to the wreath-laying at the monument to Casanova not to commemorate the loss of the freedoms of the Catalan people, “but to proclaim loudly, before Catalonia and the world, that those freedoms had been recovered”.
Banned in Franco’s time, it was held again for the first time in 1976, in the town where Rafael Casanova is buried, and authorised the following year in Barcelona, under the slogan “Freedom, Amnesty and Statute of Autonomy”, in a clear exercise of projecting a historical reverie and manipulation on the present and the future. This will be the tone of all the editions up to the present, in the new era opened up by democracy, which has allowed 11 September to be officially elevated to the category of “Catalonia’s bank holiday”. Without demanding that it renounce the exclusionary and racist character on which the myth has been built.
Monument to Rafael Casanova. Ronda de Sant Pere, Barcelona
Once democracy was established and autonomy was achieved, the fervour surrounding the Diada was considerably reduced in intensity. September 11 became essentially an institutional festival, with the customary liturgies and floral offerings, around which some groups of people gathered, but always of little significance. Not even the demonstrations organised outside the official celebration by groups of pro-independence and left-wing radicals managed to attract more than 10,000 people.
Everything changed, however, in 2012, when, following the suppression two years earlier of the unconstitutional articles of the Statute of Autonomy approved in 2006, the Catalan National Assembly called a mass demonstration on 11 September to demand Catalan independence. That demonstration marked the start of the secessionist process that has had such a negative impact on national life over the last decade. Artur Mas, then president of the Generalitat, Artur Mas, used it to put pressure on the central government by demanding a kind of Catalan-style fiscal agreement. As the manoeuvre was unsuccessful, he joined the pro-independence movement once and for all. He called early elections and, after failing to obtain the absolute majority he had hoped for, and following a second massive “diada”, he put the right to decide on the table, pledging to hold a referendum on independence at the end of 2014.
From then on, the successive Diadas were an expression of the nationalist delirium into which a part of Catalonia was plunged, dragging the whole of Catalan society into confrontation and social fracture. A delirium reminiscent of that experienced by the city of Barcelona during the months of the siege of 1714, now provoked by a new religion, independence. The demonstrations of 11 September thus marked out the pro-Catalan process, serving both as pressure on the secessionist parties to move forward with their illegal roadmap and as supposed popular support for their manoeuvres and strategies to break up Spain, which is the ultimate goal of Catalan nationalism.