Basques Are Granted Home Rule but Continue to Fight for Independence Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Spain’s long-repressed Basque population was granted limited autonomy, but militant Basques continued to fight for full independence.

Summary of Event

Basque nationalism won its first major victory during the Spanish Civil War, which pitted the elected Popular Front government against right-wing military units led by Francisco Franco and backed by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Although at first hesitant to back the elected leftist government, the vast majority of Basque Nationalists were won to the side of the Popular Front by a series of concessions. The most important of these was the Basque autonomy statute formally voted into law by the Spanish Republic’s parliament on October 1, 1936. Basque Country;home rule Spain;Basque home rule [kw]Basques Are Granted Home Rule but Continue to Fight for Independence (1980) [kw]Home Rule but Continue to Fight for Independence, Basques Are Granted (1980) [kw]Independence, Basques Are Granted Home Rule but Continue to Fight for (1980) Basque Country;home rule Spain;Basque home rule [g]Europe;1980: Basques Are Granted Home Rule but Continue to Fight for Independence[03930] [g]Spain;1980: Basques Are Granted Home Rule but Continue to Fight for Independence[03930] [c]Indigenous peoples’ rights;1980: Basques Are Granted Home Rule but Continue to Fight for Independence[03930] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;1980: Basques Are Granted Home Rule but Continue to Fight for Independence[03930] [c]Independence movements;1980: Basques Are Granted Home Rule but Continue to Fight for Independence[03930] Juan Carlos I Carrero Blanco, Luis Franco, Francisco Suárez, Adolfo

The autonomist Basque regime fought on the side of the Republic to the end of the civil war. The Basques were widely admired for the way they conducted themselves with dignity and discipline throughout the fighting. With the victory of the fascist-backed forces of Francisco Franco, Basque home rule ended, and all signs of nationalism were brutally repressed. Basque nationalism became little more than a symbol to the oppressed Basque people as the Franco regime suppressed any sign of cultural or political autonomy.

Until the early 1950’s, many hoped for the speedy demise of the Franco regime and the restoration of both democracy and Basque autonomy. As the dictatorship in Spain continued well after the defeat of the other fascist powers, increasing numbers of Basques turned from passive hope to active resistance. The main opposition group was the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV). The PNV articulated a commitment to parliamentary democracy in a more or less middle-class Christian Democratic manner. In addition to such traditional organizations of Basque nationalism as the PNV, the early 1950’s saw the birth of a new radical socialist-revolutionary organization that placed its faith in revolutionary violence.

This group christened itself Euskadi Ta Askatasuna Euskadi Ta Askatasuna ETA (Basque homeland and freedom), although it became more commonly known by its initials, ETA. Although never able to count on the broad layer of support of more moderate and traditional groups, ETA made itself heard by direct, often violent, action. Perhaps the most graphic example of ETA success was the December 20, 1973, assassination of Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco, Franco’s chosen political successor. Worldwide attention was gained for the Basque cause by one of the most technically expert assassinations in modern history. In addition, the Basque action was of far more than symbolic value, as it concretely weakened the Spanish dictatorship and Franco’s attempt to prolong it.

In the year before the death of General Franco, Spain saw more unrest and violence than at any time since the end of the civil war in 1939. The Basque areas were known for their militancy. Much of the violence in these regions stemmed from ETA’s policy of armed struggle, which included numerous attacks on the Guardia Civil and the police. Moreover, there was a strong tide of labor action, illustrated by a general strike in early December, 1974, that saw 200,000 Basque workers walk off their jobs.

By March, 1975, the government was losing more control each day of the situation in the Basque territories. In April, Franco responded by imposing martial law and suspending constitutional guarantees. This situation was to last only three months, although during that time thousands of Basques were jailed, tortured, and held incommunicado. Martial law was lifted on July 25 only to be reimposed on August 26.





The Basque people reacted to this second round of government repression with another general strike. Demonstrations calling for the lifting of martial law and freedom for Basque political prisoners spread throughout Europe and included rallies in Athens, Rome, Paris, Copenhagen, Brussels, Lisbon, and Frankfurt. Despite this international outpouring of support for the Basques, Franco refused to budge. The impasse was broken only when, on November 20, 1975, Francisco Franco died after a long, painful illness.

With the death of Spain’s dictator, the country began a transition to parliamentary democracy under the sponsorship of King Juan Carlos I. In 1977, Spain saw its first relatively free election for a national parliament in almost forty years. King Juan Carlos put forth a new constitution in 1978 and guided the restructuring of the Francoist state into a parliamentary government. The new constitution allowed for the creation of autonomous regional governments.

In response, Basque representatives proposed an autonomy statute for approval by the national government. After extensive negotiations, a new relationship between the Basques and the central government was put forth in a statute approved by Basque voters at the polls in the autumn of 1979. In March, 1980, the first autonomous Basque government since the civil war was elected.

Although this new relationship went further than Spanish prime minister Adolfo Suárez had wished, it was far from being satisfactory to all Basques. Many militant Basques saw the new law as falling short of the 1936 statute that had been voided by Franco’s victory in the civil war. In addition, the new statute was full of ambiguous sections that left unclear what would happen if the Basques were to do something a future Spanish government decided was not in accordance with the Spanish constitution.

Matters became worse in June, 1981, when the Spanish parliament passed a new law that greatly restricted regional home rule. One of the law’s main points was that the Basque regional government had to gain approval for all legislation from Madrid. Basques came to refer to this statute as “the law of the three-corner hat” in reference to the hats worn by the Guardia Civil.

Passage of the law confirmed the fears of many Basques that Madrid was never serious about granting real autonomy. Even before the restrictive new law, Basque militants had continued to fight for independence. The visit of King Juan Carlos to Bilbao to address the Basque regional government illustrated the remaining hostility of many to the central government in Madrid.

On February 4, 1981, King Juan Carlos was driven past walls covered with graffiti such as “Spain Out of Basque Country” and “Free Basque Political Prisoners.” The king had made the trip, against the wishes of many of his advisers, as a symbolic peace overture to the Basques. Although the visit was a personal success for Juan Carlos, the trip was not without incident. When the king began to address a packed meeting, about thirty supporters of ETA rose with fists in the air and began to sing “The Basque Soldier,” a militant song of Basque nationalism.

Nor was this an incident without significance. The failure of the Spanish government to understand and sympathize with the Basques meant continued strife. Even after the grant of home rule, ETA continued to function as Europe’s most successful guerrilla organization. In addition to its underground apparatus, ETA developed an aboveground political party, a youth organization, and a daily newspaper. It has been estimated that two years after the granting of autonomy, ETA could depend on five hundred individuals to participate in acts of violence. Meanwhile, local elections suggested that ETA had between 100,000 and 155,000 sympathizers. Although the granting of limited home rule may have satisfied many Basque moderates, it was clear that many other Basques would continue to press for complete independence.


Although the local autonomy given to the Basque people by the Spanish government did not end all cries for independence, it took some of the fuel out of the fire of Basque nationalism. After Spain once again became a parliamentary democracy, many Basques no longer perceived a need to resort to illegal methods of political struggle to advance their case. Moderates among the Basques believed that they could expand and continue their people’s interests within the new postdictatorship structures.

Even within ETA, the most militant wing of the Nationalist movement, many former fighters quietly agreed to take up new lives in Latin America. Furthermore, ETA was plagued by seemingly countless splits and internal fights. Its insistence on armed struggle appeared outmoded after the end of dictatorship, but many ETA members either could not or would not give up armed struggle. Given the long, rich tradition of Basque culture and the Basques’ history of desiring independence, it was far from certain that the struggle between the Basques and the central government in Madrid was at an end.

However, it was clear that the human rights of the Basque people had improved dramatically after Franco’s death. No longer was their culture suppressed, and Basque representatives elected to the national parliament in Madrid were able to put forth the grievances and demands of their people. Home rule meant that the Basque people enjoyed more cultural autonomy and national freedom than they had known since the Spanish Civil War had ended in Franco’s victory. Basque Country;home rule Spain;Basque home rule

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Clark, Robert P. The Basque Insurgents: ETA, 1952-1980. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1984. Extremely well written and well researched, this book gives a compact and thought-provoking history of the most militant Basque independence organization. Includes three appendixes, endnotes, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. The Basques: The Franco Years and Beyond. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1979. An extremely useful overview of the Basque people and their nationalist movements since 1876, with particular emphasis on developments since 1936. Includes research notes, index, and glossary.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Collins, Roger. The Basques. New York: Basil Blackwell, 1986. Provides background on the rich cultural tradition of the region, but devotes no attention to Basque nationalism or modern events. Includes footnotes and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Graham, Robert. Spain: A Nation Comes of Age. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1984. Written by a man who was the Financial Times correspondent in Spain for more than five years, this work is an extremely readable introduction to the history of Spain from Franco onward, with a good deal of information on the Basques within the general context of Spanish development. Offers a select bibliography, endnotes, and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kurlansky, Mark. The Basque History of the World: The Story of a Nation. New York: Walker, 1999. A sympathetic study of the Basques that traces their history from the pre-Roman era.

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Categories: History