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Basques marked the 50th anniversary of the Burgos military trials by the Franco dictatorship of 16 members of ETA, the armed Basque socialist independentist organisation. A few days ago a group went to the town of Burgos itself and posted slogans on the wall of the Spanish Ministry of Defence building there declaring that the Spanish State had not succeeded in its repression in 1970 and would not do so in future. In the Basque Country itself events were also held in commemoration.
The military trials of 16 members of ETA took place between 3rd and 9th December 1970 in the Spanish city of Burgos in Castille (north-central Spain). The trial concluded on the 28th with sentences of death on six and sentences up to 70 years on the remaining ten. Intended to be a mortal blow to ETA and to Basque resistance the trials instead inspired greater and more united resistance in the Basque Country and became an international publicity debacle for the Franco dictatorship.
Within the Basque Country, demonstrations and pickets took place and a general strike saw 100,000 workers there out on strike. ETA distributed pamphlets and leaflets among the people and in its repressive measures the Spanish police beat many workers and killed a number, as in Etxarri in Nafarroa (Navarra) province.
Internationally, protest demonstrations took place across Europe and other parts of the world, particularly outside Spanish Embassies, often leading to battles with the police of the host country. Pope Paul VI appealed for the death sentences to be commuted and Jean-Paul Sartre, a leading intellectual of the French Left and with an international literary reputation congratulated the defendants on having brought the situation of the Basque Country under Franco to international attention.
ETA hired prominent lawyers of Left and Human Rights reputation to defend the sixteen. The organisation also kidnapped the German honorary Consul as a hostage (and later released him unharmed). The defendants themselves used the trial politically, turning it into an exposure of the Franco regime and its repression. A number described the tortures to which they had been subjected, all of them declared their commitment to socialist freedom and some even stated that they were fighting for the rights of all working people.
The military judges, aware that the publicity of the trial was going against the Dictatorship, began to clamp down and restrict the defendants from saying anything that was not directly, as they saw it, pertinent to the charges, after which the defendants refused to speak at all. At one point during the trial the defendants all stood and sang the battle-song and national anthem of the Basque nation, Eusko Gudariak1. An even greater sensation occurred in a brief incident when the final defendant to speak, Mario Onaindia, attempted to attack the judges with an axe.2
A military-fascist uprising against the elected Popular Front government of Spain took place in 1936 and in the Spanish Antifascist War that followed, the Spanish Republic was defeated by the military with substantial assistance from Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, while the UK and France blockaded the Republican forces.
A military-fascist dictatorship with the strong assistance of the Spanish Catholic Church followed amongst huge repression, making Spain the state with the most mass graves in Europe and second only to Cambodia in the world.
The Popular Front Government had granted autonomy to the Basque Nation (and to Catalonia) for the first time in centuries of the Spanish State, although Nafarroa province had sided with the military-fascist forces. Any notion of autonomy was withdrawn under the Dictatorship and even use of the Basque and Catalan languages in public or in education was forbidden.
Some guerrilla resistance continued for a period in the mountains of the Basque Country, Catalonia and other parts of the Spanish state territory but the fighters were hunted down or fled the Spanish state. The Communist Party and some socialist organisations continued an underground existence and built illegal trade unions but the CP of Spain did not support independence for the Basque Country or for Catalonia, on the theory that this would “break up the Spanish working class” (however later they all mobilised against the Franco Dictatorship and in solidarity with the Burgos defendants).
Euskadi3 Ta Asakatasuna (Basque Land and Freedom) was formed in 1959 out of a coalition between a left-wing Basque youth group and the youth wing of the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) who were discontented with the lack of action of their elders. In June 1968 ETA carried out its first armed action against Spanish police when killing a police officer asking for their identification papers at a checkpoint and shortly afterwards one of the ETA pair was gunned down by police. Two months later the organisation carried out its first planned attack when they killed Melitón Manzanas, Commander the Political Police Brigade in Alava Province. Manzanas was a notorious fascist and torturer who had hunted down Jewish refugees to turn them over to the Nazis during WWII.
The Burgos trials was intended to smash ETA completely but as outlined above, had an entirely opposite effect. The death sentences were commuted in an attempt to reduce the damage the trials had caused the international reputation of the Spanish State.4
AFTER BURGOS AND TODAY
ETA continued its armed and non-military actions and other revolutionary armed communist resistance began to take shape elsewhere in the Spanish territory.
Despite the huge success of the Basque solidarity mobilisations to prevent the executions in 1970, five years later a similar wave failed to prevent the executions of another two ETA members and three FRAP (Revolutionary Anti-Fascist Patriotic Front) members: Ángel Otaegui Etxeberria; Juan “Txiki” Paredes Manot; José Humberto Baena; Ramón García Sanz; and José Luis Sánchez Bravo.
ETA counted some actions notable for the harmful effect on them but also some spectacular successes in its armed campaign. Included in the latter were the assassination in Madrid in 1973 of Admiral Carrillo Blanco, Franco’s appointed successor and the abandonment of the nuclear reactor project in Lemoiz5 in Bizkaia in 1983. Blanco’s assassination and the death of the Dictator Franco in 1975 hastened the Transition of the Spanish State to an alleged democracy and a monarchical and unitary state constitution in 1978.
The Basque resistance constructed a network which beyond the armed group consisted of trade unions, youth organisation, social centres, daily bilingual newspaper and political parties. The Spanish State waged war against that movement with repressive laws, arrests, torture, jailings, closure of organisations and media, along with armed action against ETA. In addition, it organised and funded a terror and assassination campaign over a period of 26 years6.
In the late 1990s the Basque Left-Independentist movement began a process of unilateral disarmament and change in political direction which led first to an indefinite ETA truce in 2010, then to decommissioning of arms and finally to the dissolution of ETA in 2018. However around 250 Basque political prisoners remain in jail, a tiny group of which have declared their dissidence from the leadership’s path and are supported outside the jails by a growing movement which has a very different line to that of the “official” leadership.
The Spanish State insists that the only possible relaxation of prison conditions, end of dispersal7 or granting of parole for the prisoners is “if they recant their beliefs and apologise to the victims.”
Political repression continues at some level within the Basque Country. There is no indication that there is any intention in Spanish ruling circles to grant independence to the southern Basque Country – quite the contrary (as seen also in Catalonia).
THE 50th ANNIVERSARY
A group of activists from the official Abertzale Left carried out a publicity commando raid in Burgos recently (see video below) and attached a banner poster to the Spanish Ministry of Defence building which read: “NEITHER WERE YOU ABLE to repress the struggle of the people NOR WILL YOU BE ABLE” and LONG LIVE THE REPUBLIC!
A number of public meeting and on-line events were also held this month, including the commemoration in Etxarri of two Basques who were killed by Spanish police during the Burgos Trials protests.
In Eibar city in Gipuzkoa province around 100 people assembled despite Covid19 restrictions in the open air to mark the anniversary and included one of the Burgos trial defendants who, along with another woman, read out a manifesto which has been signed by many in the Basque independentist movement.
“The Franco regime wanted to prosecute, punish and subdue again a people that in the darkness of the dictatorship had dared to rise from the ashes of war,” they read, introducing the manifesto.
Recalling the moment when the defendants rose in court and with upraised clenched fists sang the Eusko Gudariak, the manifesto commented: “With their courage, that handful of young militants taught us to stand up even when it seems impossible, and their example lives on today in us and in the future in the actions and dreams of the new generations.”8
The manifesto also states that the Burgos Trials were “a milestone” for the survival of Euskal Herria. However today, 50 years later, the substantive process has not concluded, since “they continue to take Basque youth to court, thinking that by disciplining them they will quench the desire for freedom of this people, and the states that surround us have not abandoned their strategy against the independence movement.”
The anniversaries of milestones in the struggle, of successes and failures, of martyrs, continue to be marked. And the journey is far from finished.
1“Soldiers of the Basque Country”, very similar in title and theme to the Irish national anthem, Amhrán na bhFiann/ The Soldiers’ Song.
2How Onaindia managed to get his hands on an axe in court is one question but the significance of the axe cannot be underestimated – it was a traditional tool of foresters but also of ancient Basques in war and formed one part of ETA’s emblem, the other being the snake, representing wisdom.
3Formerly used to describe the whole Basque nation, “Euskadi” nowadays mainly describes the Basque Autonomous Region of the provinces of Bizkaia, Alaba and Gipuzkoa. “Euskal Herria” (The Country of Basque Language”) is more commonly used today to describe the whole seven provinces of the Basque nation, four currently within the Spanish and three within the French states.
4It also increased the pressure on the Spanish ruling class from the USA and European states to become more moderate politically and less vulnerable to revolution.
5This was in addition to frequent large protest mobilisations.
6Much more than the notorious GAL – see for example https://rebelbreeze.com/2020/12/23/november-month-of-murders-of-basque-activists/
7The vast majority of the prisoners are in jails dispersed throughout the Spanish and French states, between hundreds and even a thousand kilometres from their homes, placing a huge burden on their families and friends in visiting them.
8Comment: One wonders whether they felt any sense of irony in reading that out, considering that only in September last year 47 Basque prisoner solidarity activists pleaded guilty in a plea deal that ended their trial in 25 minutes with suspended sentences for all except for a few months’ jail for a couple of them. The deal came as a total shock to the estimated 50,000 people who had, only two days earlier, marched in solidarity with the accused, defending their right to do solidarity work without being persecuted or prosecuted.