This is a blog about propaganda, so it’s only natural that we look at how propaganda distorts current events, and the separatist crisis in Catalonia remains pretty current; as always, I will try to steer clear from politics as commonly perceived (this party rocks, that party sucks) and focus on how political intent shapes perceptions and ideas about this specific situation.
In my experience, these 10 misconceptions are particularly prevalent among non-Spaniards, which makes sense since most don’t really know that much about Spain. But many are also common among Spaniards.
1-The Catalan language was crushed during the Francoist dictatorship: after the Fascist victory in the 1936-1939 Spanish Civil War, Catalonia lost the devolved powers it had won during the previous II Republic (1931-1936). But, contrary to perhaps the most common misconception of all, the Catalan language was not banned or marginalized until Gen. Franco died in 1975. While Spanish became the sole official language for government business, Catalans were allowed to publish books in Catalan (and win multiple prizes for Catalan-language books), sing and record music in Catalan and even–after a first few years of official suspicion toward ‘peripheral’ languages–study Catalan in school. “La ferida luminosa,” a Catalan-language play written by Josep Maria de Sagarra, won the national prize for theater in 1955; the government used Catalan in propaganda posters for 25th anniversary of the end of the Civil War in 1964; El Quadern Gris, perhaps the pre-eminent work of Catalan literature in the XX century, was published in Spain in 1966; Joan Manuel Serrat sang in Catalan in Spanish national TV in 1968. For those who read Spanish, there are multiple evidences of Catalan cultural production during Francoism here and official inscriptions for public works in Catalan for example here. Bonus point: not only Catalan was relevant in popular music under Franco; multiple songs in the Galician language made the hit lists: I don’t recall any song in a regional language making the hit lists in Spain for decades since.
2-Catalonia has a long history as a separate kingdom before Spain was created: Catalonia was always perceived as a part of Hispania (in Latin) or Iberia (in Greek) in antiquity and, like Portugal, became part of the Spanish Visigothic kingdom until 711. Unlike Portugal, it never became a separate state from others in Spain: in the middle ages, it went from French protectorate to an assamblage of counties to a (very important) part of the Crown of Aragon. From the late XV century, both Castille and Aragon were ruled by Spanish kings, while Portugal remained independent save for a brief period in the XVII century.
3-Catalonia has a markedly different culture from that of (other parts of) Spain: Not really; I could give multiple examples, including cuisine, the habit of the siesta, an obsession with soccer, and the middle-class fascination with second homes and holidays in August, but I will stick to one: even as nationalist politicians managed to get bullfighting banned there about a decade ago, they did nothing against the (similarly cruel) bull runs which are popular throughout the region. if anything says “Spain” more than “running of the bulls,” I haven’t found it.
4-Catalonia has traditionally been more closely linked to the rest of Europe: After a brief period of prominence in the late middle ages, Barcelona became for centuries a backwater of little economic relevance, with only limited trade given its distance from the booming Atlantic routes. It was only in the 19th century that the city started to become the cultural and economic center it is now. Elites in Madrid and Seville, often well-traveled in the Americas or the rest of the Spanish empire, sometimes with relatives in other European countries (especially those related to Royals) were more cosmopolitan than the insular bourgeois of Barcelona, never mind the rural population of the rest of Catalonia.
5-Catalonia has long been mistreated by the central government in Madrid: Catalonia’s quick economic expansion in the late 19th century and early 20th century owed much to preferential government policies looking to favor the regions closer to France, the conduit towards central and northern Europe. Catalonia’s products were favored by tariffs that caused much grief to other parts of the Spanish economy (for example, agricultural producers). On specific points, it’s true that Catalans were ill-served by specific decisions on infrastructure spending but on the whole it’s hard to make the case for a systemic mistreatment (there’s a caveat to this, referring to fiscal transfers, see point 10).
6-Catalonia was a bastion of anti-Francoist sentiment: Catalonia wasn’t welcoming to Franco’s coup against the republic, with most Catalans siding with the republican authorities in Madrid to protect their self-government. Early in the war, the Catalan government–dominated by local nationalists–prioritized operations expanding its own territory in other Catalan-speaking areas in Spain, instead of joining an all-important offensive along the French border as requested by the Spanish government. Later, after the city of Madrid, almost encircled for over two years, conducted a long, against-the-odds resistance against Franco’s army, Barcelona fell to the rebels almost without opposition in the last offensive of the war. During Francoism, protests against the dictator were muted. If one had to look for the most anti-Franco region in Spain, that would have to be the Basque Country.
7-Big Ticket Catalans have always supported separatism: the musician Pau Casals was a separatist. The painter Dalí? Exactly the opposite. Gaudí, the architect? Nope. The most prominent Catalan-language writers of the 20th century, such as Eugenio D’Ors, Sagarra, Pla and Merce Rodoreda? No. Perhaps those who wrote in Spanish like Eduardo Mendoza and Juan Marsé? No.
8-Catalonia has a long history of separatism: this is half-true, since many if not most Catalans tried to break away from Spain in the XVII century and then again in the early XVIII century. But Catalan separatism was dormant for much of the period until a peak in the 1930s and the current crisis. So the misconception would be that there’s a long, uninterrupted history of resistance to “Spanish rule.”
9-Spain’s government sent Catalonia’s separatist leaders to prison in early November: there’s a separation of powers in Spain, so it was a specific judge in representation of the judiciary, not the government, that sent these politicians to prison, right or wrong.
10-Everything is fine in Catalonia and separatists are just a noisy minority with no complaints of merit: I’m not sure anyone espouses this view, but just in case: this is also a misconception. Catalan separatists make many valuable points, mostly about complex financing arrangements that boil down to a lot of taxpayer money being spent in poorer regions, often for a net loss to both the Catalans and the recipient. As in Italy, in Spain a system has been developed that keeps southern regions as permanent recipients of funds, so that governments have plenty of patronage cash for sinecures and bridges to nowhere, disincentivizing real investment, while northern taxpayers grumble about lazy southerners who won’t wake up early to work. You can travel for hundreds of miles in southern Spain without stopping to pay; in Catalonia, tolls are everywhere. Many Catalans are correctly upset about this abuse and waste, and many believe that Catalonia has specific customs and ways of doing things that must be preserved, all of which is perfectly defensible and not a misconception.