The Revival of Catalan Culture under Franco

May 3, 2021 Off By barcelonas

Chapter 22: The Revival of Catalan Culture under Franco

Catalan culture under Franco didn’t so much undergo a revival as a survival. It never ceased to exist but had been so suppressed that it disappeared from view. It was almost as if a field of wild flowers had been concreted over. Given the strong tradition of associationism at all levels of society, it was just a question of time before the Catalan language and culture would break through to the surface and flourish once again.

Despite the extraordinary levels of repression, there were always small pockets of Catalan resistance to the Franco regime. As in other times during their history, the mountain enclaves of the Pyrenees served as safe hideouts. It was from here that small republican militia groups known as maquis organised guerrilla attacks against the conquering Nationalist forces.

The maquis were by no means a uniquely Catalan phenomenon but the Pyrenees offered convenient escape routes into France from where attacks could be organised. At the start of World War II, many Republicans found themselves in French refugee camps and joined the resistance against the Nazi invaders. As the Allies gradually drove Hitler back, many Spanish Republicans made their way south again and continued the fight against fascism. The period between 1944 and 1948 was when the maquis were most active.

Their most celebrated action was the invasion of the Aran Valley in the Catalan Pyrenees in what was known as Operation Reconquest Spain. On October 19th 1944 around 6,000 maqui troops crossed the border intent on capturing the section of Spanish territory between the Cinca and Segre Rivers and the French border.

The campaign was initially successful and many valleys and small towns were secured during the first week. The zone was declared conquered by the Republican government in exile, in the hope of provoking a popular uprising against Franco throughout Spain. They also anticipated that the declaration would encourage the Allies to liberate Spain the same way as they were liberating the rest of Europe.

Allied help never came and after failing to take Vielha, the main objective, the maquis were driven back by a Francoist force made up of Guardia Civil, armed police, battalions of the Spanish Army, and 40,000 Moroccan troops. The maqui troops splintered into smaller groups. Although their guerrilla warfare continued, they were never able to organise themselves on such a scale again and by the early 1960s, the maquis had effectively ceased to exist.

The failure of the Allies to take direct action against the Franco regime after the end of World War II affected the morale of all the anti-Francoist opposition forces. Franco was refused entry to the United Nations in 1946. Although there was a slight relaxation of linguistic repression, the persecutions, detentions, tortures and murders continued. In fact, by allowing the publication of a few innocuous cultural texts in Catalan, the regime managed to distract the intelligentsia. Judging from the number of illegal publications, clandestine activity decreased dramatically in the late 1940s.

Religious Resistance

The Catholic church was to offer the next catalyst for the Catalan opposition. This was surprising as the Franco regime was the great defender of the faith and had initially been seen as a saviour by clergy who had suffered anarcho-syndicalist violence during the Civil War. However, language is also sacred and the Church’s special status for the regime made it difficult to control. The Benedictine abbey of Montserrat had always been a centre and symbol of Catalan culture. Soon people were travelling there from far and wide to hear mass in Catalan.

The confrontation came about, though, as a result of a ceremony in honour of the iconic black Virgin of Montserrat in 1947. Three years earlier the abbey had launched a campaign to raise money for a throne for the Virgin. The fundraising had been a great success and it was decided to organise a popular feast at the monastery. Unknown to the regime, not just monks but also secular groups, including left-wing nationalists, attended the parish meetings where the event was organised.

Attendance to the event was beyond all expectations. Around 100,000 people converged on Montserrat from every corner of Catalonia by every means of transport available. For some the pilgrimage lasted two or three days. In this first mass event of Catalanist affirmation, Catalan words were spoken publicly for the first time. A huge Catalan senyera flag was flown from the peak of the mountain, which the Civil Guard were unable to remove for some hours.

Aware that the event was likely to be used by the Catalanist opposition, the Civil Governor also realised that it would have been a political mistake to refuse permission to speak Catalan at Montserrat. This unique event proved the persisting strength of Catalanist feelings amongst the faithful and the rest of Catalan society, for that matter. It also demonstrated the Church’s ideal position to act a sanctuary for Catalan culture.

The dictatorship imposed heavy sanctions on the organisers. Nothing similar could be organised for many years and opposition to the regime’s official nacionalcatolicismo was muted. However, churches and monasteries were turned into safe havens for Catalanist militancy. They became the only environment where Catalanists felt protected from police irruptions and censorship.

An unlikely alliance between Catholic conservatives and the radical left was being forged. The common denominators were both social issues and the defence of the language. The strength of Catalanist opposition to Franco lay precisely in its broad appeal to all sectors of Catalan society.

The Tram Strike

The next act of civil disobedience came on March 1st 1951, when an increase in prices left Barcelona tram fares comparatively much higher than those in Madrid. The opposition organised a boycott on public transport. In what was seen as ‘the last battle of the generation that lost the Civil War’, the whole population of Barcelona observed the transport strike. Trams and buses ran completely empty for more than two weeks.

The effectiveness of the boycott was clear on the Saturday after it began. FC Barcelona were playing Racing Santander at Les Corts stadium in, what was then, the outskirts of the city. It began raining heavily and the police looked on amazed as the fans walk past the empty trams and made the 40-minute journey into the city centre on foot. The epithet of ‘More Than A Club’ had not yet been coined but Barça had long been a centre of resistance. Supporting the club was also a means of integration for the masses of Spanish-speaking immigrants who were arriving in the city from the 1950s onwards.

The 1951 tram strike was a turning point in how the Catalans opposed the regime because not taking the tram couldn’t be punished as a crime. The protest was peaceful nature and involved diverse and new sections of Catalan society. The weakness of Governor Eduardo Baeza and the refusal of the Captain General to take action saying “I can’t shoot at citizens who simply don’t use a means of transport” made repression of the strike extremely difficult.

The Guardia Civil finally opened fire on March 12th and the boycott came to an end. However, this provoked the substitution of Governor Baeza and the Mayor of Barcelona, Josep Maria Albert. Furthermore, the regime cancelled the fare increase so the 1951 Tram Strike is considered one of the Catalan oppositions early successes.


Do not imagine that the regime was relaxing its stranglehold on Catalan society. Data from a year later shows that the level of brutality remained constant. Two months before the International Eucharistic Congress held in Barcelona in 1952, five summary executions were carried out at Camp de la Bota.

In 1959 Franco reshuffled his cabinet at the expense of both Falangists and Carlists, allowing the Catholic technocrats of Opus Dei to enter key ministries. The technocrats’ Stabilisation Plan proposed the introduction of a market economy where prices would control the allocation of resources and so permit Spain’s integration into the Western Market Economy.

The Stabilisation Plan would cure the economy of its inherited weaknesses and rapid growth would take care of the rest. This implied that Spain had to open up to the world allowing a glimmer of hope for democratic reforms. For this reason, many Spanish historians divide Francoism into two periods: the Dictadura from 1939 to 1959 and the Dictablanda from 1959 to the dictator’s death in 1975.

The distinction relies on a word play on dura and blanda, which mean hard and soft respectively. The Dictadura was the Hard Dictatorship and the Dictablanda was the Soft Dictatorship. However, the police state softened little in the rest of Spain. In Catalonia the repression of political and linguistic freedom remained as hard as ever.

The Events of the Palau

On May 19th 1960 a concert celebrating the centenary of the birth of Catalan poet Joan Maragall was given by the Orfeó Català in the Palau de la Música Catalana in the presence of various Francoist ministers. As author of the damning Oda a Espanya, it is surprising that the regime had allowed the concert at all. When Civil Governor Felipe Acedo Colunga heard that Maragall’s Cant de la Senyera had been included in the programme, the Catalanist anthem was immediately prohibited by the censors.

However, members of the indignant audience began to sing the song. The police reacted violently and arrests were made. The incident was remarkable for the arrest a few days later of a young Jordi Pujol, who hadn’t even been present at the concert. Pujol, who was to become President of the Generalitat in 1980, was a Catholic conservative whose main Catalanist interests were cultural and linguistic. Like many Catalan conservatives before him, Pujol also wanted the freedom to do business more efficiently. In a chronic overreaction, the regime brought Pujol before a court martial accused of being one of the organisers of the event. He was sentenced to seven years in prison.

The dissidence movement in Spain grew throughout the 1960s and early 1970s mainly because of the advent of television and the arrival of mass tourism. The opening up of Spanish society showed that people in other countries were able to enjoy a very different set of freedoms. Police brutality, censorship and repression continued but were increasingly counterproductive for the regime’s reputation. They clearly showed that stability could only be maintained by force.

Economic performance was the only subject on which the regime could tolerate criticism. The Stabilisation Plan became the target of left-wing attacks because the technocrats’ faith in private enterprise reinforced the hold of a narrow financial oligarchy. For example,  the big seven private banks were the only source of finance for industrial growth. This meant the regime kept economic power in the hands of a privileged and loyal few.

In July 1962, members of the opposition met in Munich at the IV Congress of the International European Movement. The idea of joining the European Economic Community was mooted along with economic reforms and a relaxation of oppressive measures. The event was seen as an act of treason and the regime reintroduced curfews and a state of martial law as well as clampdowns on student organisations and trades unions. Incidentally, the only legal trades union in Spain during the dictatorship was the government-controlled Sindicato Vertical, which not surprisingly did little for workers’ rights.

Nova Cançó

The Sixties were swinging in the rest of Europe and it was impossible to keep young Spaniards completely isolated from dangerous foreign trends. In 1961 Miquel Porter i Moix, Remei Margarit and Josep Maria Espinàs formed the popular music group Els Setze Jutges, literally the Sixteen Judges. The name came from a Catalan tonguetwister that was used as a password during the War of the Spanish Succession. No lisping Castilian could possibly pronounce “Setze jutges d’un jutjat mengen fetge d’un penjat”.

Until that point the only artists that recorded in Catalan were the Germanes Serrano and Josep Guardiola. Both artists sang versions of popular songs in Catalan but left the title in Castilian on the record sleeve to escape the censor. In December 1961, Els Setze Jutges played in El Centre d’Influència Catòlica Femenina and the following April at Penya Barcelonista de Premià de Mar, when the term Nova Cançó or New Song was applied to them for the first time.

Over the next few years, the group built up to 16 members and many of them, such as Francesc Pi de la Serra, Joan Manuel Serrat, Maria del Mar Bonet and Lluís Llach were big stars of Catalan popular music in their own right by the late 1960s. In 1968, Joan Manel Serrat was chosen to represent Spain in the Eurovision Song Contest and famously refused to perform unless he could sing in Catalan. Not surprisingly he was substituted tout suite.

Foreign popular culture began to influence the student movement and imprisonment was destigmatised. Losing your freedom in defence of liberty became a source of pride rather than shame. As a Police Commander said at the time, “if they get hurt, they show their battle wounds to their friends, if they get arrested, they become martyrs and their lecturers pass them even though they know nothing.”

More Religious Dissidence

There were also new stimuli for the radicalisation of the clergy. After the election of Pope John XXIII in 1958, the Second Vatican Council was unexpectedly convened from 1962 to 1965. Vatican II effectively redefined the Catholic church. The Pope himself condemned cultural and political repression against national minorities. This stirred up enthusiasm among the open-minded clergy and gave lay society some powerful arguments. National Catholicism was the cornerstone of Francoist philosophy so the regime was caught in a trap.

In 1963 the Abbot of Montserrat, Aureli Escarré, gave an interview to Le Monde. In the toughest condemnation of Francoism ever uttered from the interior, he accused the regime of contradicting fundamental Christian principles whilst hiding behind a facade of defending Christianity. Escarré’s declarations caused an international uproar and gave unprecedented publicity to the Catalan cause.

As unseen religious awareness permeated naturally secular Catalonia in the early 1960s, Church and civil society became reunited in a singular alliance. Catholic-inspired political activities sprang up all over the country. Secular families sent their children to Catholic-run schools. Activities such as the Scouts and Girl Guides, preached a strong Catalanist message and were generally organised from Church-run facilities.  Publicacions Abadia de Montserrat published books and magazines that no private publishing house would dare to print.

Left-Wing Opposition

The still illegal Communist Party, the Partit Socialista Unificat de Catalunya or PSUC, organised a broad political front. It brought together a wide range of emerging struggles often under the auspices of the incredibly important Associacions de Veïns or neighbourhood associations. I’ve had the privilege of talking to many old communists who spoke of the key role of the Associacions de Veïns not only in improving living conditions in the rundown working-class neighbourhoods but also as a galvanising force behind the anti-Franco opposition. Sadly, these heroes have since passed away.

The clandestine Communist magazine Nous Horitzons, written entirely in Catalan, provided a platform for political debate in which leading nationalist intellectuals took part. The PSUC also exercised an important influence on Commissions Obreres or Workers’ Commissions. This illegal unofficial labour union worked in the shadow of the government-controlled Sindicato Vertical.

On September 11th 1967, the now Communist-led Commissions Obreres officially participated in La Diada for the first time, an important step for incorporating the Left and the broader labour unions into the Catalanist movement. This was the first Catalan National Day with a significant presence of Spanish-speaking immigrants. A third force had joined the Catalanist alliance initially made up of the Church and the nationalist intelligentsia. The main issues that brought these three groups together were the social question surrounding the integration of immigrants and the national question, centred particularly on language rights.

Around the same time more groups began organising in opposition to the dictatorship. In early 1966, with the official students’ union, the Sindicato Español Universitario, on its last legs, more than a thousand students staged a lock-in in the Economics Faculty of the Universitat de Barcelona. In March 1966, 500 student delegates, professors and intellectuals met to set up a new independent union the Sindicat Democràtic d’Estudiants de la Universitat de Barcelona, the SDEUB or Democratic Student Union of the University of Barcelona. The event became known as the Caputxinada after the Capuchin convent where it took place in the Barcelona suburb of Sarrià.

The SDEUB gained nearly unanimous support from students, 20% of whom were actively involved. The 1966-67 academic year was one of intense political and cultural activity and the high point was a massive concert by protest singer Raimon. The regime responded by expelling over 100 students and professors and suspended all student registrations to the University of Barcelona for a full academic year. Despite the repression, the echoes of European student revolts in May 1968 brought a previously unknown gauchism to the Catalan universities. Far left groups began to leave their mark on the students’ movement.

Assemblea de Catalunya

As the 1960s moved into the 1970s, the mobilisation for language rights continued with the Catalan school campaign Català a l’Escola. In November 1971 the creation of an unprecedentedly broad coalition of opposition forces under the name Assemblea de Catalunya became one of the key events of modern Catalan history.

The Assemblea de Catalunya was constituted on November 7th 1971 at the church of Sant Augustí in the Raval neighbourhood of Barcelona but its main objectives had been hammered out in the working-class neighbourhood of Sant Andreu during the previous summer. The communist-inspired initiative was to be a uniting force against Francoism in Catalonia and soon included the majority of political parties, trades unions and civil organisations. The Assemblea went under the banner “Llibertat, Amnistia i Estatut d’Autonomia” and argued in favour of democratic freedom and rights, citizen’s access to economic and political power and Catalonia’s right to self-determination.

Most of the popular resistance against Franco’s regime was organised by the Assemblea as the regime went through its death throes in the early 1970s. It also led the demonstrations, such as the Marxa de la Llibertat in 1976, the year after the dictator’s death and was a constant force in keeping the broad front of opposition initiatives together. With its purpose served, the Assemblea dissolved itself once the transition was fully underway in the late-1970s but the symbolic name and mission remained buried in the Catalan subconscious.

After the assassination of the Franco’s designated successor, Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco, by ETA on December 20th 1973, the regime reacted like a wounded animal. The executions of Catalanists Salvador Puig Antich and Georg Michael Welzel on March 2nd 1974 were the last to be performed by garrotte vil. Even as late as the early 1970s, Spain was still a police state that acted with the brutality and impunity the name implies.

On September 27th 1975, just 54 days before the dictator died, the last five executions took place. Two ETA members and three members of the anti-fascist FRAP group were executed by firing squad. The international uproar brought thousands of fascists out to support Franco in Madrid’s Plaza del Oriente on October 4th. Two incompatible views of Spain had survived nearly 40 years of dictatorship and violence.

After an agonising last 6 weeks, the dictator finally died on November 20th 1975. “Franco ha muerto” – “Franco is dead” whined President Carlos Arias Navarro and the nation wept. Champagne corks popped in Barcelona and the broad alliance of civil, social, religious, cultural and political groups in Catalonia braced itself for a transition to democracy.