Jose Luis Alvarez Emparantza
(a.k.a., Txillardegi),
Euskal Herria en el Horizonte
(Basque Homeland on the Horizon)

(Txalaparta, 1997)

History, as everyone knows, is written by the winners. It is also, as Jose Luis Alvarez Emparantza (a.k.a., Txillardegi) points out, written by those who are literate.

Working people's history, like much social history, is hard to reconstruct. It's harder still when the workers speak one language and the elites another. That has been the fate of many of Europe's minority or stateless peoples and, in particular, of the Basque, whose language (Euskera) has long been one of fishermen and peasants.

For those interested in Basque history, this is three books in one. The first section deals with Basque toponomy (place names) of large sections of France and Spain not traditionally considered part of Basque country. Txillardegi uses toponomy to show how the Basque language has retreated, unknown to historians, given the scarcity of written records. (Basque was scarcely written before 1500, and most educated Basques did not write in the language until the 1960s. Welsh, by contrast, is in a similarly precarious situation, but has been a literary and political language since the fall of the Roman Empire and thus has a traceable history.)

The second section deals with the Carlist wars of the 1830s and 1870s. Txillardegi considers a revision of history, arguing that the Carlist wars were primarily Basque wars of independence, rather than "Spanish civil wars" as they are known. The majority of Carlist soldiers, he says, spoke Basque, and Don Carlos had to address his armies through a translator. (Zumalakarregi, the prominent general in the first Carlist War, was, of course, a Basque.) This would also make the Spanish Civil War's Basque front (1936-37) a third Basque war of independence, despite the inconvenience that, officially, the Carlists fought on Franco's side.

The third segment discusses what one might call the fourth Basque war of independence (though Txillardegi doesn't), the emergence of Basque consciousness and, ultimately, the group(s) known as ETA (Basque State and Freedom). Although Txillardegi was one of the founders of ETA in 1959, he was exiled to France and Belgium soon afterwards. At one point, facing expulsion from French Basque country, he writes back cheekily in Basque that he is not leaving (and why should he): "I am in my country, and you are not in yours." He ultimately left ETA in 1967 (the first deadly actions involving the group occurred in 1968).

Were Basques to allow their language to die, Txillardegi says, they would no longer be Basque. In keeping with that philosophy, he learned Basque as an adult and became one of its literary pioneers. For Txillardegi, ETA's direction in the mid-1960s began to sacrifice the language to the class struggle, which he feels is inextricably linked with the rights to self-determination. He also castigates ETA leaders for carrying on almost all their business in Spanish.

With the changes in ETA's direction and Txillardegi's resignation, he leaves the chronicle of that struggle and discusses his hopes for a future Basque homeland, with Euskera as the daily language, and looks to the model of small northern European nations like Norway, Finland or Estonia. These peoples, too, were nearly written out of history by their larger neighbors.

Had Spain been a democracy in the 1950s and '60s, and had Basque lands not been divided administratively, Txillardegi might have had a career parallel to that of Welsh leader, writer, activist and parliamentarian Gwynfor Evans. But instead of leading democratic resistance, Txillardegi was forced to spend 16 productive years in exile. Like Evans, he is an avid reader, committed thinker and resolute activist. With the return of democracy to Spain, Txillardegi was finally elected to political office as a representative of Herri Batasuna (Popular Unity).

Furthermore, if western allies (such as NATO) had provided more support for the Basques as a people, as they did for the stateless peoples of central Europe, the Basque struggle might have evolved quite differently.

This book raises many questions worth considering, namely this one: if all peoples have a right to self-determination, as per UN resolution, then just what constitutes a people? What is a nation, and what should its boundaries be? There may be no answers, but Txillardegi at least makes a compelling case for re-thinking both history and our political boundaries.

- Rambles
written by David Cox
published 11 December 2004