Originally published in What’s up with Catalonia?: The causes which impel them to the separation Reprinted with permission.
“We chose September 11, 1714 because it is the most important event in our history, the date on which the largest number of our people died in the name of freedom for our Country.”1
Lluís Marsans, secretary of Catalanist Union, in an invitation to the 1901 demonstration
On September 11, 2001, the United States of America suffered the worst foreign attack in its history. That day, while Catalonia commemorated its National Day (la Diada), everyone watched aghast as the images of the falling Twin Towers were projected around the world. We couldn’t believe that it wasn’t a movie. It was so shocking that it took us a while to understand what had happened. In New York, and throughout the United States, it must have been even harder to absorb such a tragedy.
On September 11, 1714, on the other hand, the Catalans immediately understood that the fall of Barcelona meant the end of their country. On that day Barcelona fell to the hands of the Bourbon armies after a siege that had lasted thirteen months. Catalonia suffered the worst defeat of its history. The subsequent chronicles tell of the ferocious oppression by the victorious forces, from which the Catalans would take years to recover. They had faced the powerful Spanish and French empires. And they had lost.
The loss of Catalan liberties
Until 1714, the Crown of Aragon (Catalonia, the Kingdoms of Valencia, Mallorca, and Aragon), together with the Crown of Castile formed a confederacy borne of the marriage in 1469 between Ferdinand and Isabella, the Catholic Monarchs. Catalonia and the other lands of the Crown of Aragon maintained their own Constitutions and their own political systems based on the idea of a pact between the monarch and the representatives of the people. In virtue of this pact, the king had to swear loyalty to the Constitutions in order to be recognized. When Charles II of Spain died in 1700 without an heir, the European monarchies declared war on each other to determine a successor. While Castile sided with Philip V, grandson of Louis XVI of France, Catalonia and the other territories of the Crown of Aragon threw their support behind Charles, Archduke of Austria (later Charles VI, Holy Roman Emperor).
The loss of the war by Charles of Austria’s allies led to the Treaty of Utrecht of 1713, in virtue of which the Bourbon Phillip V was proclaimed King of Spain. But the Catalans, who had initially received support from England and who believed they might still count on such aid, decided to continue the resistance against a monarchy that had no intention of respecting its Constitutions and liberties. Barcelona lasted thirteen months under a relentless, infernal siege. To try to imagine it, remember that more than 30,000 bombs fell on a city of less than 35,000 inhabitants.
After Phillip V won the war, he instituted an extremely harsh repression against the Catalans: the city was occupied by the military, new taxes were imposed, institutions were abolished, the language was persecuted, and the most bustling commercial center of the city was razed so that a fortified citadel could be erected in its place. The military officials were imprisoned, tortured, and killed. One of the most horrific cases was that of General Josep Moragas, who was tortured and then hung. His head was placed in a cage and dangled a few feet from the ground for twelve years. Four thousand people were detained, executed, deported, or given long sentences. All over Catalonia, castles and forts were demolished2. Thirty thousand people, mostly nobles and members of the ruling classes, exiled themselves in Vienna, under the protection of the Emperor Charles. The repression had a chilling effect on the economy, the culture, and the language of the Catalans such that the chroniclers of the era spoke of “the end of the Catalan nation”. The aim of the Bourbons was precisely that: to erase the Catalan identity.
The commemoration of the Diada
But they were unsuccessful. The Catalans never forgot 1714 and, at the end of the 19th century, when romantic nationalist movements were breaking out all over Europe, in Catalonia too there was a renaissance of culture and initiatives in favor of increased political autonomy. It was then that acts in memory of the martyrs of the fall of Barcelona were celebrated by the community. In 1888, the statue of Rafael Casanova, the first councilor of the City of Barcelona during the siege of 1714, was inaugurated, and it was then that the ritual began of leaving flowers at its pedestal to honor the “martyrs of 1714”, in addition to remembrance masses, poetic readings, and the singing of the Catalan national anthem.3
The repression by the Spanish authorities against these acts of homage organized by the community only served to give them an increasing significance as an act of resistance and of struggle for freedom. It is in this way that September 11 has become a day of commemoration and remembrance of those who fought for Catalonia’s freedom. The Diada is a very important date in the Catalan calendar, which in addition marks the beginning of the school year and the end of summer vacation.
For Catalans, the national symbols are a very important aspect of civic and political life in Catalonia. They are so much so that the first law approved by the Parliament of Catalonia—once this institution was recovered after the Franco dictatorship—was the approval of the National Day, the national hymn, and the national flag of Catalonia.4
On September 11, the center of Barcelona fills with crowds. Families with young children, young people, old people, political and union leaders, guests of foreign organizations, and more. The city spills out onto the streets. Numerous activities take place in the same spaces of the old part of the city that were the protagonists in the siege of 1714. On the one hand there are the institutional events, and on the other, the events organized by a growing number of community organizations: booths that sell independentist flags, pins, books, and all sorts of other products, activities for kids and families, concerts, guided tours to historic places, and more. The balconies of the buildings, the streets, and even the buses are decorated with flags in quite a festive atmosphere.
The most relevant act is that which consists of bringing a crown of flowers to Rafael Casanova’s statue. Since the Second Republic, and after the Franco era, the tradition dictates that the principal institutions of the country—the most important businesses (like the FC Barcelona Soccer club) and all of the associations who so choose—should bring their arrangement of flowers, normally decorated according to the coat of arms and symbols of each group. Each entity and institution that brings flowers to Casanova’s statute also sings Catalonia’s anthem—“The Reapers” [Els segadors]—to the statue.
Since 1913, there is also a ceremony for the fallen during the siege of Barcelona who were buried in the Fossar de les Moreres [the Mulberry Tree Pit], next to the dramatic, gothic, imposing Church of Santa Maria del Mar. Since 2001, in addition, there is a red wall in which are inscribed a few of the most famous poetic verses written by Frederic Soler about the fall of Barcelona in 1714: In the Mulberry Tree pit, no traitor is buried. Even though our flags were lost, it is still an urn of honor. This is where the most radical patriotic associations still meet, because it is considered the space of the true heroes: the anonymous.
Since 2004, the Parliament of Catalonia holds its own ceremony which reflects celebrations that take place in free countries. The army does not take part, but there is a representation from the Mossos d’Esquadra (the local Catalan police force), in gala dress. Catalonia’s national anthem is sung, and important cultural personalities take part. In 2009, the Israeli singer Noa was among them, attracting a large audience.
September 11 is also celebrated in all of the towns and smaller cities of Catalonia. In each one there is a monument or a place that commemorates the War of Succession and that serves as a focal point for paying homage to the dead from that war. In recent years, there have also been many people who participate in torch marches. The torches are used to symbolically burn the Decree of Nova Planta of 1716 that Phillip V approved in which Catalonia’s liberties and Constitutions were abolished.
Since the seventies, the afternoon and evening of September 11 are given over to a march in favor of the independence of Catalonia. During the Spanish political Transition, these demands were clearly in the minority. Even though the Catalans wanted independence, many believed that it simply wasn’t possible and that in the new Spanish democracy, Catalonia’s situation would be acceptable enough. But as independentist feeling has grown, so has the number of participants in the march. During the seventies and eighties, the police would intervene at the end of the march, beating and detaining people. The next day’s press would use the images of the clashes with the Spanish police to criminalize the commemoration.
Barcelona’s September 11 marches
Catalans know, however, that September 11 is not just any date, and that marching on that date has a special significance. For that reason, it’s not surprising that several especially important marches have taken place in Catalonia on that date. The first was in 1901, in response to the arrest of 23 young people by the Spanish police. That year therefore marks “the Day’s popular awakening”, according to the incisive words of Vicenç A. Ballester, who added, “24 hours of prison for a few, gave much to think about to many”.
In 1976, shortly after the death of Franco, the organizations and political parties that formed the Assembly of Catalonia decided to organize a commemoration on September 11. But the civil governor of Barcelona, Sánchez Terán, decided it was too dangerous to let Catalan sentiment be so freely expressed. So he forced the celebration of September 11 that year to be celebrated outside of Barcelona. The organizers brought their commemoration to a nearby city, Sant Boi de Llobregat, where Rafael Casanova had been interred. Thousands of people went, making it the first massive organized act in Catalonia after Franco’s death. The desire for freedom could not be stopped.
In 1977, right in the middle of the political Transition and with the community experiencing a deep awakening, Barcelona had one of the biggest marches in its history. About 1 million people paraded down the great avenues of the city. The demonstration was headed by the slogan “Liberty, Amnesty and Statute of Autonomy”. In other words, democracy, amnesty for the political prisoners, and a regime of self-government for Catalonia within the framework of the Spanish State.
Thirty-five years later, in 2012, there was a march that was even larger than that of 1977. This time, there were 1.5 million people. The demonstration was called for 5 p.m. in the evening. But all day, on the roads and railways, you could see that there was a human tide that was coming into Barcelona. A happy feeling came over everyone: children, young people and old, entire families filling the streets without being able to take a single step forward because those streets were so full. There were Catalan speakers and Spanish speakers, immigrants from all over the world, Catalans of all stripes. The demonstration was a peaceful manifestation that gave hope to a Catalonia which no longer feels comfortable within Spain.
1714–2014: Will Catalonia triumph again?
It’s important to keep in mind that the commemoration of September 11, 1714 has almost always been repressed by the Spanish authorities, especially by the dictatorships of Primo de Rivera (1923–1930) and Francisco Franco (1939–1975). During the Franco era, Rafael Casanova’s statue was taken down and ordered to be destroyed, like many other monuments and symbols of the Catalan nation. But an employee of the Barcelona city government saved it by hiding it in a warehouse and covering it behind a sheetrock wall. Each September 11, the Francoist authorities prohibited people from even going near the place where the statue had been. But the Catalan resistors kept paying homage clandestinely, despite the difficulties and dangers.
Despite the repression, the commemorations did not disappear, and on the contrary, as years have passed, they have become more and more important. Even in democratic times, however, it has been a celebration looked on with scorn by Spanish nationalist parties with representation in Catalonia. And it has also been looked down upon by the Spanish authorities, who have tried to take away its symbolic value and to link it to the acts of a few radicals. However, the National Day of Catalonia is not a crazy act of a few radicals, but rather a heartfelt commemoration by a people who knows that it has the right to freedom.
The current political context, in which the majority are in favor of the independence of Catalonia, coincides with the preparations for the commemoration of the 300th anniversary of the end of the siege of 1714. Indeed, the revival of the National Day has gone hand in hand with the growth in independentist feeling among the people. The memory of 1714 is increasingly relevant as a symbolic presence. Since 2005, there have been various community groups and some city governments that have supported acts that commemorate various moments during the War of Succession. But because 2014 is so close the Generalitat (Catalan Government) and the Barcelona city government have begun to prepare for such an important commemoration and to treat the 300th anniversary with the proper solemnity. We will see if the proposal put forth by President Lluís Companys—executed by firing squad under Franco in 1940—comes to bear. He proclaimed, “We will suffer again, we will fight, and we will win.”
Albareda, Joaquim Salvadó i García Espuche, Albert (2005). 11 de setembre de 1714. Generalitat de Catalunya.
Ballester, David. (2002) El triomf de la memòria: la manifestació de l’Onze de Setembre de 1977. Barcelona: Editorial Base.
Benet, J. I Espinàs, J.M. (1977). El llibre de la Diada. 11 Setembre 1977. Barcelona
Crexell, Joan (1985). El monument a Rafael Casanova. Barcelona
Fanés, Fèlix (1977) “L’onze de setembre sota el franquisme”. L’Avenç, no. 5. Barcelona.
Riera, Sebastià (1994). La commemoració de l’Onze de Setembre. Barcelona: Ajuntament de Barcelona
Sobrequés, Jaume (1976). L’Onze de Setembre i Catalunya. Barcelona: Undarius.
Ph.D. in Sociology from the Autonomous University of Barcelona. Rovira-Martínez researches identity, national symbols, immigration, and language in Catalonia. She has directed numerous projects, among them the documentary, Forjadors de la Diada [The Origin of Catalonia’s National Day] in collaboration with Enric Saurí. She has received the Jaume Camp Prize for Sociolinguistics in 2012 for her work on the linguistic integration of Spanish-speaking immigrants. In English, she has published Rethinking migration policies (IEMED-UNFPA, 2006) and the article “Multilingualism, an emerging value” (Noves SL Fall/Winter 2007)
Originally published in What’s up with Catalonia?: The causes which impel them to the separation Reprinted with permission.