Forty Years of ETA

By Sullivan, John | History Today, April 1999 | Go to article overview

Forty Years of ETA


Sullivan, John, History Today


John Sullivan charts the fortunes of the radical Basque nationalist movement in its' attempts to gain independence from Spain.

In spring 1959 a handful of young Basque nationalists founded ETA (Euskadi ta Azkatasuna -- `Freedom for the Basque country'), which sought to gain independence from Spain. By September 1998, when it called an unconditional truce, ETA had killed nearly 800 people. Thousands of its supporters had been jailed, killed or tortured and nearly 600 of its members remained in prison, but the party was no nearer to achieving its objective.

ETA's founders came from the youth section of the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), established by Sabino Arana in 1895 to safeguard Euskadi (the Basque country) from an `invasion' by allegedly racially inferior, immoral and godless immigrant workers from other regions of Spain. Until then much of the region had been a rural backwater where people spoke Euskera, a non-Latin language. Arana considered that if Euskadi was to be kept safe for God it must become independent from Spain. Before 1936 the PNV had allied with conservative `Spanish' parties, but by accepting autonomy from the Republican government it found itself on the losing side in the Civil War.

At the end of the Second World War, the PNV was confident that the victorious Allies would remove Franco, restore democracy and end the savage persecution of Basque language and culture. But by the mid-1950s the United States supported Franco's regime, leading part of the PNV's youth organisation, EGI, to break with its parent group, believing it had become a tool of the US. Alarmed by the renewed wave of immigration caused by economic expansion, both ETA and the PNV wanted an independent Euskadi that would include Navarre and the French Basque country. Less conservative and clerical, ETA's main difference with its parent group was not over doctrine but on the PNV's passivity. ETA members were unsure how the struggle should be pursued, but agreed that their elders had abandoned it. Some stressed the importance of Euskera, arguing that a Franco supporter who taught his child to speak it was more of a patriot than a nationalist who did not. Others advocated armed struggle. Members were impressed by Leon Uris's novel Exodus, for its romantic description of the fight to establish the state of Israel. Later they found models to emulate in the Algerian war for independence and the Cuban and Chinese revolutions.

In July 1961, ETA tried, unsuccessfully, to derail a train carrying Franco supporters to a celebration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of his military rising. Several abortive attempts at armed robberies followed: their failure made some members favour a move towards mass activity and a Marxist, rather than populist, ideology. Exiled in France, ETA's founders were ignored by a new leadership inside Spain, who had rejected individual acts of violence and alliances with Basque capitalists. From the mid-1960s the group suffered a bewildering number of splits, all of which arose from a fundamental dilemma. There were well-established `Spanish' forces in the Basque country with a long record of resistance to the dictatorship, but if ETA allied with them it would endanger its support among conservative nationalists.

By the 1960s half the Basque population was of either immigrant or mixed origin, so a movement confined to those with Basque surnames, or from speakers of Euskera, would always remain a minority. A rebellion confined to the Basque country would not have been able to overthrow Franco. However Alvarez Emparantza (Txillardegi), ETA's dominant thinker, was adamant that the party's struggle was against Spain, not Franco. Txillardegi and his supporters became alarmed at an apparent abandonment of nationalism and made contact with younger activists, particularly Jose Maria Etxebarrieta, who ousted the `Spanish' tendency at gunpoint during a conference over new year 1966/67 and renewed ETA's commitment to traditional nationalism and armed struggle. …

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