Basque Separatist Organization Is Formed

The formation of the Basque separatist group Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, or ETA, crystallized Basque opposition to French and Spanish rule. The ETA, considered a terrorist organization by the European Union as well as the United States, has over the ensuing decades used robbery, kidnapping, bombs, murder, and other tactics to advance its cause for independence from Spain and France.

Summary of Event

The identity of the Basque nation is based on a language, a people, and a territory. The language has no relation to other Indo-European languages of Europe, suggesting that the Basque people are of an earlier population. Their territory comprises four provinces in northern Spain: Álava, Vizcaya, Guipúzcoa, and Navarra; and three in southwest France: Labourd, Navarre, and Soule. Historically, the Basques were a political entity when the Kingdom of Navarre existed, between the tenth and the sixteenth centuries. The Spanish king Ferdinand II took over most of Navarre, south of the Pyrenees, in 1515, with the region occupied by the Basques in Spain being formally incorporated into the Kingdom of Spain in 1833. The northern part of Navarre was absorbed into the Kingdom of France at the end of the sixteenth century. For the Basques, like many small societies overtaken by the nation-building of larger neighbors, the formation of the modern states of Europe left them divided and powerless. ETA
Euskad i Ta Askatasuna
Terrorist organizations
[kw]Basque Separatist Organization Is Formed (July 31, 1959)
[kw]Separatist Organization Is Formed, Basque (July 31, 1959)
Euskadi Ta Askatasuna
Terrorist organizations
[g]Europe;July 31, 1959: Basque Separatist Organization Is Formed[06150]
[g]Spain;July 31, 1959: Basque Separatist Organization Is Formed[06150]
[g]France;July 31, 1959: Basque Separatist Organization Is Formed[06150]
[c]Independence movements;July 31, 1959: Basque Separatist Organization Is Formed[06150]
[c]Terrorism;July 31, 1959: Basque Separatist Organization Is Formed[06150]
[c]Organizations and institutions;July 31, 1959: Basque Separatist Organization Is Formed[06150]
Arana, Sabino
Madariaga, Julen
Benito del Valle, José Maria
Franco, Francisco

It is not surprising therefore that the Basques resented the political division that did not respect their identity. That resentment grew as the nineteenth century progressed. Sabino Arana, a fervent nationalist, spent much of his short life studying law, philosophy, and linguistics. His active political fight to encourage Basque autonomy led him to create the Basque Nationalist Party (Partido Nacionalista Vasco Partido Nacionalista Vasco , or PNV), some time between 1893 and 1895. From its founding, PNV worked peacefully to obtain greater autonomy for the Basques. The members of this party were essentially Roman Catholic, moderate nationalists, and of “proven” Basque ancestry. The party divided in 1921 into the Aberri (homeland) faction, advocating complete independence, and the more moderate Comunión Nacionalista Vasca. The two factions reunited briefly, then separated again during the second Spanish Republic. During the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) the Spanish Basque region profited from the disruptions of the times, gaining autonomy from 1936 to 1939, but the ultimate victory of General Francisco Franco resulted in its return to direct Spanish rule.

The idea of creating an organization more aggressive than PNV was an idea embraced at the University of Deusto in Bilbao in 1953. A Basque student-discussion group calling itself EKIN envisioned violent actions against the Spanish government to force it to accept Basque autonomy. Five of these students—José Maria Benito del Valle, Julen Madariaga, José Manuel Aguirre Bilbao Bilbao, José Manuel Aguirre , Sabino Uribe Cuadra Cuadra, Sabino Uribe , and Alvarez Enparantza Enparantza, Alvarez —soon took a prominent role in the organization. Their original intention, which was to encourage the Basque region to become independent, met with widespread local support from the Roman Catholic Church, many people of the working classes, and various youth organizations.

Contrary to the politically focused PNV, the students created the Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, or ETA, which moved beyond discussion and adopted a mandate in the efficacy of violent action. However, youth and inexperience led to poorly planned operations; student leader Enparantza was soon arrested. When PNV failed to endorse and support the ETA’s violent program, the ETA felt it had little option but to secede from what it considered to be an impotent and hopelessly “political” organization.

The ETA was formally organized on July 31, 1959. Headed by Julen Madariaga and José Maria Benito del Valle, the group began as a clandestine, revolutionary, and terrorist organization that promised quick and potent action. Pointing to the wave of revolutionary violence in Africa that was dismantling the last colonial regimes, the ETA grew rapidly, effectively coopting much of the PNV’s less romantic youth movement.

In the first decade of its existence, the ETA was effectively countered by Franco’s police; more than 130 ETA members were arrested and incarcerated. The harried executive committee was forced to seek refuge in France, relocating in Bordeaux. The ETA continued to expand its influence and membership, ultimately organizing the Basque region into six zones, five in Spain and one in France. At the first general assembly of representatives (held in France in 1962) from those six regions, the ETA agreed to begin the military training of a force of liberados, armed professionals who would be effective opponents to the police forces of Spain and France.

Thanks to the training that many of the members received in Algeria, the ETA during the 1960’s successfully initiated a program of widespread and frequent violence. They planted bombs in shopping centers, automobiles, stores owned by political opponents, and on railroad tracks. Banks were attacked to provide the funds necessary to purchase ammunition and weapons, and local businesses were affected, with payment extracted under the very real threat of violent retaliation.


By 1970, the ETA was divided internally between members who sought independence and members who advocated Marxist social reform. Because of their emerging socialist philosophy, the ETA received assistance from the Soviet Union, Cuba, Libya, and the Palestine Liberation Organization. In a spiraling cycle of violence, the ETA killed Spanish police and militiamen and assassinated political figures such as Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco Carrero Blanco, Luis . In response, the Spanish government created several organizations to counter the terrorists’ activities. Because of their segmented organization, the ETA was difficult to control; members of individual cells did not know the membership or leadership of others, thus limiting the intelligence value of any individual government success.

Unfortunately, the frustrations that come with confronting such a difficult enemy led at least one antiterrorist group, Grupos Antiterroristas de Liberación Grupos Antiterroristas de Liberación (formed in 1983), to resort to kidnapping, torturing, terrorizing, and murdering not only members of ETA but also their families and sympathizers. Although many ETA members crossed the border to find asylum in France, the situation there was less than ideal. The French branch of the ETA employed the same tactics and evoked the same kind of response from the French authorities, resulting in a nightmare scenario in which outraged claims of abuse and human rights violations were routinely made by all sides of the conflict, and often with good reason.

Brief cease-fires often were negotiated, but they always broke down. After the ETA kidnapped and murdered a member of the township council in Ermua (Biscaye) on July 10, 1997, just a week before his wedding, public sentiment turned precipitously against the ETA. About 500,000 of the 650,000 inhabitants of the town of Bilbao demonstrated against the ETA. With the growing opposition, negotiations led to a new permanent cease-fire announced by the ETA on March 24, 2006. It remains to be seen if the peace will be secured, and if greater autonomy will eventually be afforded to the Basque people.

The history of the Basque separatist movement provides a clear example of the structural problems that come from the impasse created by the conflict between tribalism and the modern nation-state. Never successfully integrated into either the emergent Spanish or French nations because of both location and strong cultural identity, the Basques have maintained a separate identity that has led both the Basques and the states in which they reside to view them as distinct from the community at large. Integration has proven impossible because of conflicting definitions of community: the tribal/ethnic one that defines groups by their cultural or kin-based relationships, and that of the nation-state, which defines groups by geographic location.

Similar problems, and similar violent reactions, have occurred repeatedly as growing nation-states sought to impose a national identity to replace tribal ones. In Nigeria, Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia, Iraq, and elsewhere, the refusal to give up tribal affiliation in favor of a national identity has led to much bloodshed. ETA
Euska di Ta Askatasuna
Terrorist organizations

Further Reading

  • Chaplin, A. “Conflict Between Center and Periphery: The Case of the Basque Struggle Against Spain.” In Terror, the New Theater of War: Mao’s Legacy—Selected Cases of Terrorism in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 2003. Examines the give-and-take battle between Basque nationalists and the Spanish. Places the struggle in the arena of “irregular” warfare—or terrorism—which has come to define modern conflicts.
  • Crenshaw, Martha, ed. Terrorism in Context. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995. An analysis of terrorism in modern times. Includes the chapter “Political Violence in a Democratic State: Basque Terrorism in Spain.”
  • Jacob, James E. Hills of Conflict: Basque Nationalism in France. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1994. A comprehensive, five hundred page study of Basque nationalism in the Basque region of France.
  • Kurlansky, Mark. The Basque History of the World: The Story of a Nation. New York: Penguin Books, 2001. Focuses on the political and economic history of the Basque region in southern France and in Spain.
  • West, Geoffrey. Basque Region. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 1998. Examines the history, geography, and political conflicts of the Basque region. Focuses on the case for Basque independence.

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