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Joan B. Culla


The Nationalisms that are to blame

The dialectical offensive against the Catalan sovereignty process is a bit like dealing with a pig: you can take advantage of every part of it. One day you find yourself with the fierce exaggeration of who knows which bar-stool-demagogue who's convinced that Catalonia is led by a band of petty thieves who want independence just so they can stay out of the clutches of the Guardia Civil. And the next day you find a know-it-all article from a Professor of Sociology (like Enrique Gil Calvo in El País on December 31, to name one example) that explains the sudden regression of the Catalans toward "ethnic, playing-the-victim, anti-Spanish nationalism" thanks to their 'solid family model, based on paternal authority and the unequal distribution that favors the first-born in detriment to brotherly egalitarianism'. Huh. It turns out that Artur Mas' excellent secessionist adventure is all the fault of the Catalan hereditary system. Who knew?

In this exercise of leaving no stone unturned, the upcoming commemoration of the hundredth anniversry of the Great War has offered another line of reasoning: that violent conflagration, and Europe's subsequent suicide, were provoked, wait for it, by nationalism. By a generic, unclaimed nationalism, but one that always rimes with irrationality, the use of force, and confrontation with the other. And whoever hopes to establish parallelisms with the Catalan situation of today will have little trouble.

So, ok, it's true that the war that was begun in 1914 was provoked, to great degree, by nationalisms. But, which ones and what kind? Gavrilo Princip and his accomplices—who assassinated the Archduke Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo, on that 28th of June—were fanatic followers of Greater Serbia. That is, they were the direct predecessors—in their ideas, objectives, and methods—of Slobodan Milosevic, Radovan Karadzic, Ratko Mladic and company, the pack of criminals who, eight decades later, bloodied the western Balkans in the name of the same aggressive, dominating pan-Serbian nationalism. No Slovenian, Croatian, Macedonian, nor Kosovarian nationalist had anything to do with unleashing that crisis.

That a theoretically regional conflict, likely to lead to a small Balkanic war between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Kingdom of Serbia should be transformed over five weeks into a continental convulsion, and drag all of the European powers to the slaughterhouse, that, too, was the fault of nationalisms. But not of the small nationalisms demanding freedoms—the majority of whom were peaceful and unarmed—and who resisted the assimilation tactics of the great empires.

It wasn't the Finnish or Latvian nationalists, nor was it the Lithuanians or the Ukranians, not even the Polish, who between June 29th and August 2, 1914 pressured and pushed the Russian Czar to mobilize his army on Serbia's side. And it wasn't the national minorities on the periphery of the German Reich who, in the name of some kind of irredentism, provoked Berlin into declaring war on Russia and France. And when London finally decided to abandon the 'splendid isolation' and join the conflict, it wasn't at the behest of the Irish nationalists (quite agitated enough at that moment), but rather in response to the German violation of Belgium's neutrality.

It's true that during the five years that followed, many of these nationalisms tried to take advantage of the war and the disintegration of empires in order to win the independence of their respective nations. But what smoothed the road toward the killing fields was the other nationalisms, the state nationalisms, the hegemonist nationalisms, the nationalism of the world powers. The Russian nationalism, impatient to errase their humiliating defeat to the Japanese in 1905 and convinced that a military triumph would legitimize their regime. The German nationalism, obsessed with equaling or surpassing the British power to achieve—as Chancellor Bülow called it, "our place in the sun". The French nationalism, that had spent the last half century stewing on ideas of 'revanche' and wishing for the recovery of the Alsace-Lorraine.

If, that tragic summer, there was someone in Europe capable of uniting and mobilizing the working classes of the continent against the war, it was Jean Jaurès, the great Jaurès. But, as is well known, the socialist leader was assassinated in Paris on the evening of Friday, July 31, 1914, while he was having dinner with a group of friends. His assassin, named Raoul Villain was not a Breton separatist, not a Corsican terrorist; he was a French nationalist, a fervent and fanatic patriot who believed Jaurès' pacifism and internationalism made him a traitor. It was not an isolated or excentric opinion; when in 1919 Villain was judged, he was found not guilty. Curiously, he was executed by Catalan anarquists in Ibiza in September 1936.

Let's commemorate the Great War. But please, keep the manipulations to a minimum.

Joan B. Culla

This article was originally published in Catalan in Diari Ara. It is translated and republished here with permission.