People wave flags of Catalonia and Spain as they celebrate a holiday known as "Dia de la Hispanidad" or Spain's National Day in Barcelona, Spain, Oct. 12, 2017.
People wave flags of Catalonia and Spain as they celebrate a holiday known as "Dia de la Hispanidad" or Spain's National Day in Barcelona, Spain, Oct. 12, 2017.

BARCELONA, SPAIN - History is a battlefield in the contentious independence standoff between Spain and Catalan secessionists, pressed into service by each, shaped as a weapon and hurled with abandon.

Both sides in the confrontation that threatens the territorial integrity of Spain have raised the political temperature by citing some of the darkest chapters in Spanish and Catalan history to provoke or to bolster support.

Underscoring the struggle for hearts and minds are disputes about who did what to whom, stretching back to 1714, an emblematic year for Catalans, when after a long siege the Catalan capital of Barcelona, which was loyal to the Habsburg dynasty, fell to the troops of the Bourbon monarch, Felipe V.

The victorious king shuttered Catalonia’s parliament, closed the city’s universities and banned Catalan as the official language.

Since then, the Catalans have struggled with three centuries of exclusion and repression by Madrid, enjoying short periods of autonomy and recognition, and long periods of being forced into a cultural homogeneity dictated by the dominant Castilian nationalism of Spain.

When Spain’s current monarch, Felipe VI, broadcast earlier this month in an unprecedented televised address, his condemnation of Catalan separatists for their “lack of loyalty to the Spanish government,” casting their October 1 independence vote as illegal and undemocratic, Catalan secessionists reacted by referencing the 18th century repression of his namesake.

People wave Catalan separatist flags during a demo
People wave Catalan separatist flags during a demonstration organised by Catalan pro-independence movements ANC (Catalan National Assembly) and Omnium Cutural, following the imprisonment of their two leaders Jordi Sanchez and Jordi Cuixart, in Barcelona.

Catalan commentators, even those holding pro-unity sentiments, complained the king was not the best person to deliver a scathing attack on the independence aspirations of Catalan secessionists, arguing he was merely feeding into the separatist narrative of Madrid’s long-standing disdain for the sub-nationalisms of the Catalans, Basques and Galicians, and the Castilian oppression of Catalonia stretching back to 1714.

The most frequent references to the past that both sides have used to frame the independence standoff roiling Spain, however, is to the Spanish Civil War and the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco.

Regional autonomy was a key driver of the Spanish Civil War — Franco and the nationalist army opposed the leftwing Republican government’s extension of autonomy to Catalonia and the Basques.

To hear some Catalan separatists speak, Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is the second coming of General Franco, a hyperbolic comparison considering that in the purges following the civil war the Franco regime executed an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 Catalans.

That’s a far cry from the violent clashes at voting stations on October 1 when 800 were injured as police, on the orders of Madrid, sought to close voting stations in Barcelona.

“The suppression Catalans lived with during the Franco dictatorship has remained in people’s hearts, and has been transmitted to my generation,” argued Catalan filmmaker Irene Baque.

Some critics of the separatists counter that more Catalans likely were killed during the civil war by the Communist-dominated Republican government as it sought to purge anarchists, Trotskyites and other political undesirables from its ranks — an action that fractured the left as it sought to fend off Franco’s fascist uprising.

And they note that during the 1939-1975 Franco dictatorship there were plenty in the ranks of Catalonia’s middle and landed classes who saw conservative values and law and order as higher priorities than Catalan nationalism. They were supportive of the regime and thrived under it.  

Some hardline Spanish nationalists have gleefully stoked the fires of past controversy.

Earlier this month, Pablo Casado, a lawmaker with Rajoy’s ruling People's Party, warned Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont that history might repeat itself. Casado said his fate could be similar to that of one of his predecessors, Lluis Companys, who ended up being shot in 1940 by General Franco.

Demonstrators wave Spanish flags during a demonstr
Demonstrators wave Spanish flags during a demonstration in favor of a unified Spain on the day of a banned independence referendum in Catalonia, in Madrid, Spain, Oct. 1, 2017.

And there was deliberate provocation by Spanish nationalists in Madrid last month when some cheered national police units as they headed to Catalonia to try to prevent the October 1 independence vote by shouting “Viva Franco.”   

“This is a very long lasting political conflict,” said Josep Costa, a political scientist. “The issue of the status of Catalonia within Spain is a problem that comes out every time there is a democratic opening of Spanish society."

Both sides can be accused of airbrushing the complex history of Spain. Most Spaniards remain unaware the first book printed in Spain was in Catalan. Pro-unity Catalan historians complain that they get snubbed by Catalonia’s cultural institutions, which are dominated the pro-secessionists.

Spanish and Catalan historians have been guilty of mutual ignorance for years, with Spanish historians disregarding Catalan contributions and glorifying the story of the Castilians, and their Catalan rivals doing the reverse and demonizing Spain, according to Swiss journalist Raphael Minder.

“National identity is rooted in history, which is why so much importance is attached to celebrating one event rather than another,” he wrote in his new book on Catalan rebel politics, The Struggle for Catalonia.

He added, “When there is serious disagreement over the past, it becomes even harder to agree over the present, let alone the future.”