When a young George Orwell travelled to Catalonia over 80 years ago, he was faced with much a different landscape — both political and cultural — than that which exists today. Yet I think that Orwell’s insight can, in many ways, help us to understand the struggle facing Catalonia in our own time.
Many still remember the Spanish Civil War as it was viewed then: a “last great cause.” Arguably more than any other conflict in recent history, the war was, at its basis, purely ideological. It was this undeniably rare quality that moved impassioned foreigners like Orwell to vacate their own homes and lend their strength to those that would defy Franco’s bid to take over Spain.
In this “last great cause”, Catalonia was the sole remaining bastion of freedom and progressivism in Spain. Beyond being the only territory remaining to be overrun by the fascist forces, it was a symbol of theSpanish people’s unwillingness to be suppressed, their refusal to be coerced into submission; it was the last of something pure and soon to be unattainable.
It is this idea, this sentiment, to which Orwell pays homage in his notable autobiographical work. It is this sentiment, also, that has come to underpin the modern Catalan identity.
Since Franco’s death in 1975, Catalonia has worked tirelessly to rebuild itself — its language, its culture — and to preserve, above all else, the shared memory of the atrocities suffered under Franquismo. In this, it has been successful, and the idea of a Catalonia separate from the rest of Spain, fighting for freedom against outside aggressors has remained at the forefront of its political and cultural consciousness.
While regrettably based in reality, this image has, of late, purposefully been accentuated and distorted beyond reason in the creation of a modern Catalan mythos, one that blends the horrifyingly real memories of oppression and terror at the hands of Franco with the idea of a Catalan people persecuted in a quasi-Biblical manner by a vindictive, semi-fascist federal government.
The contemporary notion of Catalan ‘otherness’ is fed on both sides, however. In Madrid, where I have had the good fortune to live for the past eleven years, Catalonia is often portrayed as ungrateful and unwilling to do its Spanish duty. It complains about taxes, discards the Castilian language in favor of its own, condemns Spanish customs, and gives itself airs of cultural superiority, and so on ad infinitum, it often seems to me. Catalonia is thus treated with resentment and frustration (not only by the general populace, but by the educated classes), and seen as a petulant obstructor of ‘Spanish unity.’
The federal government’s reaction to the recent developments in Catalonia have done nothing but feed these perspectives, stirring memories of a time that many no doubt prefer to forget. For the Catalan, it seems impossible to remain in a country that would prevent them from expressing their opinions and desires, that would censor their news publications and arrest their elected officials, that would beat them rather than negotiate. For Madrilenians, it seems impossible to allow freedom to a province that would ignore Spain’s constitution and unilaterally decide to secede, that would encourage civil unrest, that would vilify the rest of the country and insist upon its division.
And yet i think that rather than attack the perception of Catalan ‘otherness’ on either side, attention should be drawn to the belief in the need for unity. Ultimately, it is this belief that feeds the conflict. Here, both camps turn to different sides of the same coin: one to unity, the other to disunity. Madrid denounces the Catalan disruption of Spanish unity; in turn, the Catalan use this disunity to justify their need for independence. As long as this is the case, neither can prevail. To me, the answer lies not in decrying difference and disunity, but in celebrating it. As soon as the modern state came into existence, homogeneity was rendered obsolete — simply too many people, too many different customs, too many beliefs were aggregated.
Efforts have been made, time and again, to overcome this, and if there is anything that we learn from the twentieth century it is that these efforts have been detrimental at best, and at worst, horrifyingly destructive — to see this, you need look no further than the nationalism responsible for both world wars.
Instead of eliminating and overcoming our differences, we should embrace them; we should preserve culture and honour it; we should admire the beauty of individuality and understand that this shared understanding, this shared respect, this shared admiration, are what unites us.