Although born in the German city of Essen, Ludger Mees is one of the greatest experts on the political history of the Basque Country during the 20th century. After the dissolution of ETA he received a commission from the prestigious British publisher Routledge: he had to condense his knowledge and his research on the Basque political reality into a work aimed at a foreign public. The result was The Basque Contention, a work published in English that has now been updated and revised under the title The Basque Contention: Identity, Politics and Violence (1643-2021), by the publisher Tecnos.
The Professor of Contemporary History at the University of the Basque Country (UPV/EHU) traces a journey of four centuries based on conceptual proposals of North American historical sociology, avoiding simplisms and fleeing from any militant desire.
How many times have you had to explain the Basque political reality outside the Basque Country?
Quite often, because unfortunately the Basque case was well known due to the issue of terrorist violence. In other parts of Europe, such as Germany, there were always bad news from the Basque Country, especially due to the ETA attacks. So, it is true that they asked me and it is also true that there are not many publications that explain the Basque contentious, as I call it in the book, from a non-militant, academic point of view and with the greatest possible objectivity. As a result of this, and once ETA decided to dissolve, with a new political climate, they asked me from the Routledge publishing house, one of the most important in the Anglo-Saxon world, if I could cover that gap. I presented a project, I had to overcome different filters, and I got down to work.
What kind of people were interested in that previous edition that you have now translated, revised and updated?
I would say that, in addition to people linked to the university sphere, the readers were people with a certain cultural level and that, in many cases, they had visited the Basque Country during their vacations. Readers with a desire to understand the Basque political reality. I tried to make it an enjoyable book, with an almost journalistic style. The work worked very well and it was decided to release a second edition apart from the first in hardcover, which had a high price.
The book is based on several premises, one of which is that there is a problem that has to do with the territorial fit of the Basque Country in Spain and, in parallel, a debate within Basque society itself.
There is a prejudice or misunderstanding of what happens here when talking about the problem, the contentious or the Basque conflict. Everything is often reduced to the question of violence, of terrorism, and it is, in my opinion, a simplistic and wrong view of a conflict that is much more complex. As I see it, it has three dimensions. In the first place, there is a debate about the political-administrative relationship between the French and Spanish states and the Basque Country: whether it is autonomy, federalism, sovereignty... There is a second equally important dimension, which is the debate itself within society about what we want, since modern Basque society is very heterogeneous in terms of politics, ideology, identity, culture... This requires a debate and the formation of consensus within Basque society, prior to an eventual negotiation with the Condition. The third dimension is the issue of violence, but I insist that it is not a derivation of the political conflict, even though it is related, but rather it is the consequence of a decision adopted by some individuals and groups that considered it legitimate to kill and extort for political reasons.
Another simplism that he combats in his work is that which strictly links the political problem, that territorial debate, with the irruption of the first Basque nationalism at the hands of Sabino Arana.
This is a very important question: one cannot understand what is happening with Basque nationalism, its rise, without attending to a whole previous phase of forging identities. Sabino Arana's proposals, in which there is a lot of invention, would not have had a social impact had there not been that long "prehistory" of the Basque dispute that I explain in the book.
You go back that period to 1643, why that date?
I have chosen it because it is the year in which Axular, a Navarrese writer from the 16th and 17th centuries, publishes Gero. In this work, for the first time, an author in the Basque language describes what the Basque homeland is. He uses the term Euskal Herria, of which there are already previous references by other authors, although in this case he clearly delimits it and mentions all the territories that make it up, he speaks of language as an element of union, etc. Starting from that milestone, I take a historical journey through some sources that seem valuable to me: the descriptions of foreign travelers who visit the Basque Country.
Among them he mentions the founding father of the United States John Adams or Wilhelm von Humboldt.
Humboldt put the Basque Country on the world map and was a great student of Basque, and John Adams visited this land before becoming president of the United States. Both left very interesting testimonials, and we have quite a few more. The most noteworthy thing is that the majority of travelers agree in highlighting a particularist cultural identity, based on the issue of language, but also on the issue of charters, which many stand out. That identity, however, is not yet incompatible with other identities.
At the end of the 19th century, however, a break occurs.
For different reasons that I explain in the book, with the appearance of Basque political nationalism there is a rupture that breaks with that long tradition of previous Basque identity particularism and gives it a political interpretation. People begin to talk about statehood, independence, etc. That is where the real contentious begins, when that becomes a political program; however, beforehand there is a long tradition of cultural particularism or even cultural pride, which is another term I use. Therefore, it is important to underline that Sabino Arana's proposals would not have been successful without all that is already there and that allows him to fill in his inventions.
Within this previous phase, he also speaks of the fuerista movement or the influence of versolarismo when it came to spreading "a Basque Renaissance cultural movement in the second half of the 19th century" among agrarian layers and beyond the elites.
On the one hand, I mention the question of the fuerista movement, which was clearly political and claimed the fueros, but not the idea of a Basque nation opposed to the Spanish. In that period, there was more talk of a Basque nationality within the Spanish, something that is clearly seen if one analyzes, for example, Pedro Egaña, who in 1864 used that term but referring to a nationality within Spain. That exclusivism did not arrive until the birth of political nationalism at the hands of Sabino Arana. On the other hand, he analyzed a certain Basque cultural renaissance and the success of that fuerismo more at a cultural level than a political one. There is a particular phenomenon; It was promoted by an educated and intellectual elite, mostly urban, but it was able to penetrate broad agrarian layers of the population thanks to phenomena such as versolarism. When Basque political nationalism was born, that whole context already existed. In the book I mention that Arana was not an ingenious inventor, but a man who appeared at the right time and found the right words that fit the mindsets and concerns of his followers.
There is a rupture at the political level, but also, as the book points out, the beginning of a pendulum movement that has existed since the very birth of the PNV.
Indeed, as we have explained in other books, Basque nationalism triumphs through the movement of the pendulum, which exists from the very moment of its emergence. The historical leaders of the PNV have always had a very good nose for perceiving what stage Basque society is in and, based on that, moderating or radicalizing their speeches. That has worked very well and continues to work very well. The last movement of those that we have known, which is manual, is the change from Ibarretxe to Urkullu. And it has worked: the PNV has more power now than ever in its entire history, with a very moderate discourse, which is what Basque society demands. In fact, EH Bildu has also realized what society is now demanding. In the PNV from the first moment, with people like De la Sota, there is a more moderate discourse, but even in the head of Sabino Arana and in the so-called Spanish evolution there is that pendulum movement. Beyond that pendulum there would be another non-orthodox nationalism, more secular and liberal, in the hands of people like Landeta, and in which we could include ANV years later, although it was a minority phenomenon.
The other great rupture, the most tragic, occurs with the emergence of ETA after the Civil War and already under the dictatorship.
The founding of ETA was the most traumatic rupture of Basque nationalism in its entire history, especially from an ethical and moral point of view. The idea of extorting money or killing for political ideas arises with ETA, which becomes an anti-Francoist organization but an anti-Spanish one, and which draws not only from Basque nationalism, but from the entire revolutionary context of that time: May 68, the movement of decolonization… One need only look at the work Vasconia by Federico Krutwig, which was ETA's Bible, and all his effort to justify that the Basque Country was a colony, something very complicated to defend considering the economic and social development that already at that time era had. ETA, which emerged under Franco, would dramatically increase its level of activity in democracy and it is the great drama we have experienced.
On the opposite side, he places the approval of the Gernika Statute of 1979 as a positive milestone and perhaps not valued in its fair measure...
From a historical and objective point of view, the Gernika Statute is a great advance in what refers to Basque self-government, and it gives me the feeling that it is something that, as we already have, we do not properly value. I am sure that in the future historians will underline the importance of the Statute. One only has to look at the field of Education and the Basque language, which was in an agonizing situation after the Franco regime, to see the enormous development that has been experienced. It is an example, but others could be put. Obviously, after so many years, it needs to be updated, modified, and surely expanded.
Did the PNV make a mistake in the Ibarretxe years by detracting from it?
I would say that he not only devalued it, but despised it for a few years. When Joseba Egibar talks about the letter granted, we are faced with the idea that it had no value. It is true that the implementation of the Statute has suffered many blocks, both political and legal. All this has slowed down the development of Basque self-government, and I share many of those criticisms. However, I believe that it is a very valid instrument because it allows many sectors of Basque society to find a minimum consensus where each one sets aside their maximalist aspirations. It is a meeting place and allows for effective politics. I have always seen in a critical way that contempt for the Statute and the defense of a new construct that we all knew did not fit into the Spanish legal system, and more so in a few years when ETA was still killing. I know Ibarretxe well and I have a certain friendship with him, I appreciate him very much, but I have always viewed that attempt from a critical perspective. It has its explanation within the dynamics of the PNV, but I think it was a mistake.
By the way, taking into account that the reference from which his historical analysis starts is 'Gero', by Axular, and that delimitation of Euskal Herria. As a historian, how do you explain that this term, used by all ideologies at different historical moments, still generates controversy and is seen as a denomination of a party?
It is curious because in our Illustrated Dictionary of the Symbols of Basque Nationalism, written together with other fellow historians, there is a chapter where I ask exactly that question. It is very curious and even funny. I have very good quotes from Falangist writers who speak of Euskal Herria as the heart of Spain, some tremendous things... There were times when Herri Batasuna claimed the term Euskadi, since Francoism itself had appropriated or used the term Euskal Herria in a folklore sense. It is also curious to see how within the PNV, at the time of Ibarretxe, the term Euskadi began to be eliminated in the communications and the term Euskal Herria entered. It is a fascinating story. If we pay attention to the idea of the secularization of this debate, I think we can reach the following conclusion: Euskadi is a political term that reflects a political-administrative reality, while Euskal Herria has historically always been a cultural term. And what happens? It is true that the term Euskadi, unlike Euskal Herria, excludes Navarra and Iparralde, and refers to the autonomous community, although Arana claimed it for the whole territory, but that is what has happened in our history. There is also a term with a great historical background such as Vasconia, in which all the territories enter... In short, there is a sea of terminology, and from the outside it should not be easy to clarify.
In his book he makes a long-distance historical analysis. A decade after the end of ETA, how do you see Basque society from the point of view of coexistence?
There is no doubt that the level of coexistence since the disappearance of ETA has increased tremendously. I see it at the university, where I used to live with colleagues who taught classes with bodyguards and there was no way to discuss important things with a certain coldness. Euskadi is a country in Europe where you can live very well. Thanks to self-government, the Gernika Statute and the concert, we have reached a significant level of social welfare, with all the defects and limitations that we still have. I think that what we are experiencing is important, since it is difficult to find a moment in the history of the Basque Country with this level of coexistence and well-being. Perhaps at the time of fuerismo, since that sector sought consensus and understanding, but the 19th century was a century of wars and in which there was a lot of tension, not to mention the social situation...
And what remains to be done at the level of coexistence and memory?
Much remains to be done, especially since everything is very recent. I have always harshly criticized the parallels with what was experienced in Germany during Nazism and the Second World War, it has nothing to do with it, and to use those terms to talk about the Basque situation is to insult the millions of victims of Nazism who lived through another reality . At the memory level, however, a phenomenon occurred that as a German I know well and it is interesting to remember. After a long period of silence in which people were busy rebuilding the country, from the end of the 60s and 70s that exploded and there was a very strong debate: at a cultural, political, media, university level... Today it is one of the most democratic countries and more vaccinated against totalitarianism. A broad social debate will be needed here about why and how all that was possible, and for so long... But that debate will not take place in a couple of years. In the epilogue of the book I discuss it and I think there are many questions for everyone. The subject of the victims is there, and obviously the nationalist left, although it has taken steps, it has to take more steps. He has not yet come to the conclusion that killing in a democracy, even if it was not optimal - by the way, there is no such thing as a perfect democracy - was bad. They have not reached this point, which from the outside seems obvious, but I am sure they will take that step. I am also aware that for many people this means deeply questioning their own biographies, and that is not easy at all, even from a psychological point of view.
To talk about the end of ETA, I coined the expression induced suicide, which I think defines well what its end was like.
In that epilogue he also leaves homework looking at both Basque nationalism and Spanish nationalism. In the first case, he speaks of secularizing the idea of the nation, citing the German writer Kurt Tucholsky.
I defend the idea of secularizing Basque nationalism; that is, reduce its emotional and irrational ingredient, and understand it as a political program, albeit with an identity. If it is achieved, we will be on the right track. I am aware that all nationalisms, including those of states, to a certain extent need that more emotional ingredient. That cannot be denied, since it is probably an anthropological question and we need that identification. However, political leaders must be aware of the risks involved and must try to limit the emotional impact of such speeches. I speak of the secularization of nationalism knowing that it will not be 100% possible, but taking it as a political program and accepting that there are others, that they have other identities and that consensus must be sought.
In the case of Spanish nationalism, he questions the risk of falling into the trap of eternity, using a concept from Timothy Snyder. What is the danger you perceive?
I really liked the book by this North American historian who talks about the politics of eternity and who points out that non-secularized politics leads to speaking in total terms. Everything possible is promised without knowing how to get there. I see that in Spanish politics that politics of eternity is being reborn, especially because of Vox and because of the impact of that speech on the PP, which may govern in the future. If he lets himself be influenced by that and recovers that harsh Spanish nationalism, we are going to have a problem. In the book I mention that, in my opinion, a new radical and eternal Spanish nationalism is strongly emerging.
Do you see it convenient and plausible to agree on a new Statute that extends the 1979 agreement?
It is very difficult to calculate at the moment, but it would certainly be beneficial for everyone. I see within a possible agreement the PNV-PSE axis, which has worked since the times of the Civil War, with its ups and downs, and I think that Podemos could be incorporated. With the others I have more doubts. EH Bildu cannot just enter a moving train, it must set its own profile, since we also know that there are sectors that question the current line. They must make a wink, after being almost more pragmatic than the PNV in Madrid. On the other hand, I don't know if the PP would be up for the job. It would be interesting, especially since it is the second game in Spain and it could be the first. If there are no bridges with that party and it reaches the Government, surely with Vox, the outlook would not be favorable. The idea should be to reach as broad a consensus as possible, which requires everyone to give up their maximum program, but it will be difficult.
In any case, in a democracy it is normal for there to be problems, discrepancies and disputes. There is no magic formula that will solve everything. What can be done is, by mentioning Jesús Eguiguren, reach an agreement. I really like that expression. It is about finding an arrangement so that most people feel comfortable, and that happens, in my opinion, through a reform and updating of the Statute, more than any other way.