The “historical homeland” of the Basques
About three million people live in the area that the Basques see as their historic homeland.
Around 2.8 million live on the Spanish side, partly in the three provinces included in the autonomous Basque region (Viscaya, Guipúzcoa and Álava), and partly in the neighboring region of Navarre. There is no recognized Basque region in France. The French Basques live in the provinces of Labourd, Basse-Navarre and La Soule in the southwestern parts of the country.
Of the people living in these seven provinces, far from all have a clear origin in the Basque people. It is difficult to give a figure, but there is usually talk of up to two million (many Basques have also moved to other countries).
The origin of the people is unknown. Linguists have not been able to convincingly show that any other language is related to Basque. Some archaeologists believe that it was the early ancestors of the Basques who made the oldest cave paintings in Altamira, among others, and many Basques therefore consider themselves the indigenous people of Europe.
Part of the Kingdom of Navarre
The Basques have never had a state of their own, but during certain periods, mainly during part of the 11th century, the Kingdom of Navarre covered most of the present Basque provinces. In 1659, however, both Navarre and the Basque provinces were divided into different parts when the border between France and Spain was drawn.
With the French Revolution of 1789, the strongly centralized state that still exists today was introduced and the three Basque provinces of France, which had largely run their own businesses, disappeared. The three provinces of Spain, on the other hand, experienced a much longer period of self-government, first during Navarre and from the 13th century under Castile. But after two Spanish Civil Wars in the 19th century, the autonomy of the Basques was abolished in 1876, after the last so-called Carlist War.
It was the beginning of modern Basque nationalism with aspirations for its own homeland, the Basque Country in Basque. Nationalism also flourished in the late 19th century through extensive industrialization in the Basque provinces, which led to many non-Basques moving there. Industrialization meant an economic upswing for the area which increased prosperity in comparison with many other parts of Spain which remained poor agricultural areas.
Civil war and Franco’s dictatorship
During the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939, the Basques were divided, but many joined the Republican side, which had power in Madrid when General Francisco Franco’s forces began their armed uprising. During a period of civil war, these Basques were allowed to form an autonomous republic in the provinces of Viscaya and Guipúzcoa. Basques who remained in the province of Álava and the region of Navarre fought on Franco’s side.
One notable event during the Civil War is the bombing of Guernica, which was immortalized in a famous painting by Pablo Picasso. Guernica is a small town in the province of Viscaya that in April 1937 was subjected to one of the first major terrorist bombings of a civilian target in history. Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy supported Franco, and it was Italian and German bombers who carried out the attack in Franco’s name.
After Franco’s victory in the Civil War in 1939, power was centralized to Madrid and regional autonomy, which had been increased under the Republican government, especially in Catalonia and the Basque Country, ceased. The Franco regime severely oppressed the Basques. Many were imprisoned, tortured and killed. The Basque language was banned and all Basque place names were replaced by Spanish.
However, the bombing of Guernica and the oppression of the dictatorship did not break the Basque people – on the contrary, patriotic feelings and the desire for a state of their own were strengthened.