Revisionist history: Catalan under the dictatorship

"I never physically beat anybody and you can see film footage showing me not beating anybody!"
Peter Cook, Why Bother? "Prisoner of War"

Proving a negative can be rather tricky. As we all know, an absence of evidence isn't evidence of absence and so as epistemology shows us, anyone who states that x categorically does (or did) not exist holds the burden of proof.

The legend of how the Catalan language was treated during Franco's dictatorship comes in two forms. The first and more widely subscribed to says that Catalan was effectively outlawed from public life, that people speaking Catalan in reception rooms and shops were often told that they should "Háblame en cristiano!", and that it was only with the death of Franco and restoration of democracy that Catalan could be heard once again in the streets of Catalan towns and villages. The second, more recent version – we may call it a revisionist version because it is most certainly at odds with the first, received version – says that Catalan wasn't repressed during the dictatorship at all. That books were published in Catalan, kids could speak Catalan in the school playground, official business was conducted in Catalan, that the Catalan language was valued and that the received wisdom of the first version was imposed after the restoration of democracy as part of Pujol's infernal nation-building operation.

Proponents of both versions of this history bear the burden of proof, and both versions have some tricky questions that they need to answer. The question for me, as an outsider, is which version has the most convincing evidence.

It is clearly not enough to say simply that Catalan was outlawed during Franco's dictatorship. This must be proven with facts. And there are facts that lend support to that claim. Throughout the dictatorship, but particularly in the early years, laws and regulations were established to reduce the presence of Catalan in public life almost to zero. It was no longer taught in schools. Civil servants were prevented from speaking Catalan at any time (whether in public buildings or not), under pain of instant dismissal. The Civil Governor of Barcelona asked the publishers of a Catalan language magazine "Do you really think we fought the war so that Catalan could return to public use?". Telegrams couldn't be sent in Catalan. A friend of mine was slapped in the face any time he and his friends spoke in Catalan in their Barcelona schoolyard. Kids had to be given Spanish language names (probably the source of the 'Arturo Mas' legend). People were fined for speaking Catalan on the telephone. Streets and squares were renamed in Spanish in every Catalan city, town and village.

But at the same time, other things happened. In the 1960s especially, Catalan culture started to grow in official acceptance. Children's magazines were published in Catalan from 1961. They were even legal from 1968 onwards. Prizes were given for Catalan language books. Radio stations started to broadcast cultural or folkloric programmes in Catalan. Some schools (mainly either for the Catalan alta burgesia, or in distant villages) started to teach some Catalan language classes.

When you look at the evidence, it seems fair to say that in the early years of the dictatorship, there was widespread official repression of practically all use of the Catalan language in public life but that after a couple of decades in power, the regime rowed back somewhat from its initial position. Expression in Catalan never seems to have been wholly free under the dictatorship – but then it wasn't really free in Spanish either. At the same time, there seems to have been a tacit message in the regime's softening position on the language: that you may speak this language by the grace of our goodwill, and only for the purposes of cultural and folkloric expressions.

Of course, Catalan's use never completely died out in the home which is why you'll find plenty of people in their 50s and 60s here who can speak Catalan perfectly but are unable to write in anything but Castilian Spanish. But its absence from schools, particularly in the industrialized areas of Catalonia which welcomed hundreds of thousands of workers from other parts of Spain in the 50s, 60s and 70s, helped to guarantee that Catalan became a minority language and certainly one in decline. Excluding the regional language from the education system and pretty much all mass media left Catalan as a language of shepherds, fishermen, villagers, poets and die-hard patriots. But ideally not factory workers, bank managers or government officials. I can't prove it but I get the feeling that the intention was not to waste any more time repressing Catalan but instead to leave it as a culturally interesting but politically non-threatening rump of a language. Not erased from history but on its way to being left there.

To me, claims that the Catalan language was completely outlawed during the dictatorship are problematic most of all because by failing to recognise that some Catalan was permitted, some of the time, and in limited contexts, they are easily challenged with a handful of books, poetry prizes and posters for the Orfeó Català. Exaggerating the crimes of the dictatorship is wrong, albeit understandable. The revisionist claim, on the other hand, strikes me as more pernicious because it seeks to deny that the language was repressed – an entirely insupportable claim. The facts that the revisionists cling to are facts. But they always remind me of that wonderful Peter Cook line at the top of this post, which was his character's response to being accused of violence against the men under his command. Yes, there is evidence that Catalan wasn't always repressed. That doesn't mean that in general, and certainly in most professional, educational, civil and legal contexts, Catalan wasn't effectively banned through much of the Franco dictatorship.

The revisionists have a place in this story, most of all to remind us that history can never really be black and white and anyone who tells you otherwise is lying. But their narrative is wrong because at heart it seeks to diminish the harm done by the dictatorship to the people of Catalonia and the rest of Spain. I don't doubt that now these revisionist myths are established, they will grow and mutate into fascinating new forms. How long before we hear that actually, if it wasn't for Franco, Catalan would have died out? I expect my mysterious friends at Dolça Catalunya are already drafting that one.

And what about Catalan under the 2nd Republic? Now that's another story….

4 thoughts on “Revisionist history: Catalan under the dictatorship

  1. (Correction)

    My father told me that prior to the Civil War Castilian was spoken as a matter of course in the urban areas at least. Those who spoke Catalan were either academics, or big businessmen and public figures who wanted to emphasise their supposed superiority. It was also this latter group who were most vociferously pro-independence – wishing to be big fish in a small pond rather than little fish in a big pond.

    However petty restrictions of the victor designed to rub the noses of the vanquished in it are guaranteed to provoke a response. I still have two books banned by the Fascists which my father bought as an act of defiance; Garcia Lorca’s Romancero Gitano and a textbook of Catalan grammar.

    After the death of Franco my father visited Barcelona and sought out old friends. One, a bar owner in the city, told him with relish of a series of minor triumphs he had enjoyed over the Guardia Civil. All these triumphs were identical, and depended on accurately gauging the character of the particular Guardias before starting. The Guardias would enter the bar and order drinks. The barman would play dumb and pretend not to understand Castilian, and would continue this until the Guardias asked for their drinks in Catalan.

    Let me be cheeky and direct you to a web page of mine – scroll down to the photo of the toddler in the park.

    The object of interest is the beret. My Catalan grandmother sent it to me from Fascist occupied Catalonia. She had stitched a diamond shaped piece of cloth into the lining – yellow with four red stripes. Hidden for fear that if it were opened and seen by the post office she might find herself in prison.

    Cliff Torrents Colman.

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Cliff.

      I suppose Barcelona is and always has been different in linguistic terms. I know my wife's family in Tarragona spoke Catalan normally. Her grandmother, who I met, had some difficulty speaking Spanish and spoke it with a very strong accent.

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  2. As someone learning Catalan your post motivates me to keep trying to grasp the difficulties of the language, thanks Tom!

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    1. Hey Laura, cool! I guess you've seen it, but just in case you haven't, I recommend parla.cat as a good resource. In the end, nothing beats immersing yourself in the language. It took me a few years to get to the point where I was comfortable talking with people in Catalan. Now I'm fairly proficient and many of my interactions with people at work, in shops, etc are in Catalan. Good luck!

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