Our new issue, “From Socialism to Populism and Back,” is out now. Get a discounted $20 print subscription today.

The End of ETA

For more than four decades, ETA waged an armed campaign for a Basque homeland. The group’s dissolution this spring marked the end of a history of terrorist violence and bloody state repression.

Relatives of Basque prisoners take part in a demonstration in Bilbao in January. Gari Garaialde / Getty Images

On May 4, a ceremony was held in the small French-Basque town of Cambo-les-Bains (Kanbo) to mark the final end of armed conflict in the region. It was held in response to the dissolution of ETA (Euskadi ta Askatasuna; “Homeland and Freedom”), the last left-wing armed-struggle organization in Western Europe. ETA had long proclaimed itself a “national liberation movement” whose ultimate aim was to create an “independent socialist Basque state” in the territory straddling northern Spain and southwestern France. This spring, its struggle finally came to an end.

ETA’s dissolution comes almost five decades after its militants carried out their first killing, on 2 August 1968, when they assassinated a notorious Francoite police chief. From that point until the ceasefire it declared in 2011, ETA’s armed activity claimed some 837 lives. During this campaign, which also included thousands of acts of kidnapping, arson and blackmail, ninety-four ETA members were killed by state security and seventy-three by para-police forces. There are 4,113 documented cases of police torture of ETA suspects: experts on the conflict unanimously agree that the real number is far higher.

ETA’s dissolution is doubtless of great importance to the Basque nationalist cause. But Basque nationalist demands also have a much older history, and perhaps a big future ahead of them. To understand ETA’s own journey, and its failure, also requires an understanding of this broader history.

The pre-history of Basque nationalism

There has never been a specific political unit called the Basque Country. Today, the Basque territories are divided between two separate comunidades of Spain (Navarra and the Basque Autonomous Community) as well as areas under French administration. Even when these territories were combined under the Kingdom of Navarra, over one thousand years ago, this realm also included other, non-Basque areas. Yet the Basque culture and community has always had shared points of reference. This notably includes its own language, Euskara, a pre-Indo-European language without relation to any other European tongue. The Basque Country, known in Euskara as Euskal Herria, also shares a common history built on its peculiar traditions, culture and identity.

Basque nationalism has deep roots in the autonomy enjoyed by the provinces of Araba, Gipuzkoa and Bizkaia in the Middle Ages. Even after these provinces came under the rule of Navarra and Castile, and eventually the unitary Spanish state, they maintained their own traditional laws and fiscal privileges, the so-called fueros (charters). Only in 1839, at the end of a bloody civil war, were these fueros finally subordinated to the national constitution, as liberal forces promoted the creation of common Spanish institutions. When Sabino Arana founded the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) in 1885, it harked back to this lost autonomy. Even today members of the PNV, a centre-right party representing the biggest force in the Basque Autonomous Community, are known as “jelkides,” followers of “Jaungoikoa eta Lege Zaharrak” (“God and the Ancient Laws”). This name also highlights the cultural thrust of the early Basque nationalist movement, and in particular its devout Catholicism.

Early Basque nationalism was also shaped by the industrialization that took place in the final quarter of the nineteenth century, notably in the Bizkaia province and later in neighboring Gipuzkoa. These changes drove inward migration and a radical change in the Basque Country’s cultural, linguistic and national identity, at the same time as the central state was trying to galvanize a common Spanish nationality. This also set the terms of the opposition between the PNV and the Socialist PSOE, founded in 1879. While this latter party arose in reaction against the exploitation and terrible living standards in the mines and the steel industry, the PNV emerged in reaction against the Basque people’s loss of cultural identity and national political institutions.

Far from these perspectives overlapping, they represented two sharply opposed visions of political change. This division was also reflected within the growing trade-union movement. Faced with the influence of the Socialist UGT union and to a lesser extent the anarchist CNT, in July 1911 the Basque nationalists created their own union, the ELA/STV, to organise indigenous Basque workers. Nonetheless, the dynamic created by the Second Republic founded in 1931 and the military rebellion by generals Franco and Mola in 1936 – the start of the Spanish Civil War – would profoundly alter the relations between these parties.

From the outset of the Civil War, Araba and Navarra were in the hands of the military insurgents behind Francisco Franco. But in the territory remaining outside of Francoite control, the first ever Basque Government was formed under PNV leadership. It also included representatives of all the parties loyal to the Republic and remained in place until Bizkaia fell to Francoite forces in 1937. After Franco’s ultimate victory in the Civil War, Gipuzkoa and Bizkaia were declared “traitor provinces” and all their local rights were suspended. The PNV was repressed as a criminal conspiracy, and most of its leaders, as well as the Basque Government, were forced into exile.

ETA under Francoism

The foundation of ETA in July 1959 expressed the reaction against the central Spanish state by radicalized nationalist youth breaking with the more moderate (albeit illegal) PNV. It emerged from a group that split from the PNV youth organization, and at first remained close to that party’s own Christian Democratic politics. What distinguished them was their insistence on the need for “direct action” against the Franco dictatorship. This was made clear at ETA’s first Assembly, held in late 1961, in which the new-born Basque nationalist organization declared itself the “Basque National Liberation Movement.” Already in July of that year ETA had attempted a sabotage operation, unscrewing rails on the route of a train that was carrying Francoite veterans. The operation was discovered in advance and led to a wave of repression that destroyed or otherwise paralyzed ETA’s scattered military forces.

If at first ETA did not declare itself socialist, this changed considerably over subsequent years. The revolutions in Algeria, Vietnam and Cuba over the 1950s – socialist-hued national liberation movements, centering on the armed struggle – deeply impressed ETA. At its Third Assembly (April-May 1964) it asserted that the Basque Country, like Algeria, Vietnam and Cuba, was a colony subject to a foreign state. This projection of ETA’s own aspirations onto distant examples also allowed it to adopt a vaguely-defined “socialist” perspective, and most importantly a strategy focused on armed struggle. Since these far-flung insurrectionary models were hardly practicable under the Franco regime, at first ETA’s “direct action” was limited to propaganda and graffiti, or a few occasional homemade bombs chucked at government buildings. In practice, the most important consequence of the Third Assembly line was that ETA adopted the perspective that national liberation would first require a common front of nationalist organizations to create an independent Basque homeland, only after which it would be possible to begin the transition to socialism.

The year 1962 saw a wave of strikes across Northern Spain, in reaction to which the dictatorship imposed a “state of exception” also covering the Basque provinces of Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa. While ETA had no role in these strikes or in the underground labor movement, it now decided to create its own Workers’ Front (FO). These events strengthened socialist and worker-oriented currents within the organization.

From 1966 a section of the ETA leadership began to criticize national-frontist and armed-struggle perspectives. ETA’s own FO thus began to busy itself with building the Workers’ Commissions (CCOO) of Gipuzkoa, in alliance with the similarly named underground unions that were now being created in workplaces across Spain. The ETA majority accused these worker-militants of “Spanishism” (for rejecting the need for Basque national unity) and “liquidationism” in their call to abandon the armed struggle. This ended with this current’s expulsion at the Fifth ETA Assembly in December 1966, giving rise to what ultimately became EMK (the Basque section of the Communist Movement of Spain, MCE, a clandestine organization to the Left of the “official” Moscow-aligned Communist Party).

After the first death of an ETA militant, in clashes with the police in June 1968, there were hundreds of actions to remember his memory and help build an armed-struggle resistance. After a series of demonstrations, on 2 August 1968 ETA executed a police chief known as one of the Franco regime’s most infamous torturers. Thousands of people who had withstood repression over the last weeks considered ETA’s action a victory for their own cause. This helped galvanize a strategy that had already taken form in early ETA assemblies, built on an escalating pattern of actions, state reprisals and counter-actions. Between June and August 1968 the Basque nationalist Left emerged as a broad socio-political movement with national independence as its raison d’être, socialism as its horizon, radical resistance to repression as its means of action, and ETA’s armed struggle as its political leadership.

Yet the brutal repression deployed by the Spanish state decapitated the organisation. This led to a renewed round of debate on the wisdom of national-frontism and the use of armed-struggle tactics. After the organisation’s Sixth Assembly, held on the underground in September 1970, ETA’s official line moved clearly away from the national front in favour of a workers’ front policy which stressed the importance of finding democratic solutions to national oppression. The unconditional fight for independence in alliance with other nationalist forces was replaced with an assertion of the right to self-determination, and social mobilization was raised above the armed struggle as the key focus of confrontation with the Spanish state.

In December 1970 a military tribunal handed down death sentences to six ETA leaders. The response in Euskal Herria was a series of general strikes and barricades in hundreds of locations. There were enormous protests around the rest of Spain and internationally, and Franco ultimately commuted the sentences. While ETA had little direct role in these mobilizations, it emerged enormously strengthened by the regime’s concessions. This also reinforced elements within ETA most aligned to the national-frontist, armed-struggle positions of the Fifth Assembly. This part of ETA was now known as “ETA Fifth,” the center of gravity for the nationalist Left. The other part, focused on building the workers’ front, became “ETA Sixth,” and ultimately transformed into the LIK (the Basque section of the Liga Comunista Revolucionaria).

On December 20, 1973, ETA conducted one of its most spectacular attacks, killing Franco’s prime minister Luis Carrero Blanco. ETA militants mined the street where his car was to pass through, and the explosives detonated with such force that the blast sent the vehicle 66 feet in the air, flying over a five-story building. With Franco now over eighty years old, Carrero Blanco had been seen as the figure who would be able to guarantee the stability of the dictatorship after the dictator’s own death; assassinating him thus brought enormous prestige to ETA, even as it faced a fresh wave of bloody police repression. Despite this, the greater part of the workers’ front now broke with ETA’s armed organization, whose activity clashed with their own patient efforts at building strength on the shopfloor. For all their spectacular impact, ETA’s military actions sparked a wider repression that paralyzed trade-union activity.

The next three years, including the period surrounding Franco’s death in November 1975, saw general strikes spread across Spain. These actions were particularly strong in Euskal Herria, where they had a markedly political character. Strikers raised demands such as an amnesty for political prisoners, self-determination for the Basque Country and the dissolution of the Spanish police forces. The leading role in the strikes was played by the left wing within the local CCOO unions, which here went beyond the more moderate perspective upheld by the Communist Party (PCE) key to CCOO organisation in the rest of Spain. It was not ETA itself but earlier splits like the EMK and LKI that drove this left wing within the unions. Only a couple of years later, in 1977–78, would the left-nationalist LAB union take more structured form.

The political orientation of these general strikes combined some of the key elements of revolutionary Basque nationalism (the call to free political prisoners and the demand for self-determination) and the positions of those communist forces that had broken to the Left of ETA between 1968 and 1970. But this also had an effect on ETA itself. In the early period of Spain’s transition to parliamentary democracy following Franco’s death, 1977 saw mass mobilizations which – notwithstanding police repression resulting in six deaths and the imprisonment of dozens of activists – ultimately secured an amnesty for all ETA prisoners. The abertzale (Basque-patriotic) Left was a powerful force within the “Pro-Amnesty Commissions” set up in this period.

Having been marginal to the strikes of 1974 to 1976, ETA nonetheless faced sharp internal clashes. This ultimately ended in a split between what was called the “political-military ETA” (ETA pm) and the “military ETA” (ETA M). Unlike in previous cases, this time the split did not owe to ideological or strategic differences, so much as more strictly organizational questions posed by the end of the Franco regime. For security as well as political reasons, the group which became ETA M lay greater emphasis on an organizational separation between military and political activity, whereas ETA pm sought to maintain a single structure. But despite ETA pm’s ongoing armed activity, which lasted until the eve of the far Right’s attempted military coup in Madrid on 23 February 1981, its differences with ETA M continued to grow. After negotiations with the Madrid government and the dissolution of its armed organization, the political movement promoted by ETA pm ultimately joined the main party of the Spanish centre-left, the Socialist PSOE. ETA M was left as the only lasting ETA organization.

ETA, the nationalist Left and social movements during the Transition

Under the dictatorship, workers’ and popular movements had marched hand-in-hand across the whole of Spanish-ruled Euskal Herria. There were common union and political organizations in both the Basque Autonomous Community and Navarra, from the CCOO to PSOE and the PNV, as well as the EMK, LKI and of course ETA. After the elections of June 1977 an Assembly of Basque Parliamentarians was formed across these territories with the goal of writing a common Statute of Basque Autonomy. Indeed, if the referendum to ratify the Spanish Constitution in December 1978 had a uniquely low turnout in the Basque Autonomous Community (with 55% abstention, as against 33% nationally) this partly owed to the fact that this document confirmed the internal division of the Basque Country and denied the principle of self-determination.

That same year Herri Batasuna (HB) was formed as an electoral coalition to represent the nationalist Left. In the first vote in which it participated, the 1979 general election, it secured 15.2 percent support in the Basque Autonomous Community; in the European elections of June 1987, it was the first placed party, its 19.79 percent defeating both the more conservative Basque nationalists of the PNV and the largest party nationally, the Socialist PSOE. Despite past differences, including over the role of the armed struggle, HB also received electoral support from past ETA splits such as the EMK and LKI, as well as their respective Spanish-wide organizations, who called for an HB vote across Spain (in the 1987 European elections the whole country was a single constituency).

Even in this period of Transition from Francoism, ETA’s armed activity intensified. Between 1978 and 1988 ETA pm and ETA M claimed a combined total of 513 victims, compared to 75 in the previous decade. This was also a time of significant mobilisations in the factories (and indeed among education workers) as well as around questions like opposition to nuclear power stations and Spain joining NATO. Faced with severe police repression, the nationalist Left was an important part of all such movements and gained major popular recognition for its role. This was also the period in which the LAB trade union federation stepped up its activity, rapidly gaining shopfloor influence. The context of continuing violence and repression in the Basque Country highlighted the limits of the “democratic” transition from Francoism. The state continued a paramilitary Dirty War against the nationalist Left, combined with direct police repression. If in late 1977, the end of the dictatorship allowed for the release of ETA’s political prisoners, by 1987 some 504 of its members languished in jail.

The regression of the nationalist Left

HB’s electoral popularity did not mean the end of the armed campaign. Nine days after its success in the European elections, on June 19, 1987 an ETA bomb attack in a popular shopping centre in Barcelona killed twenty-one people and wounded forty-five. If during the election campaign HB’s calls for an amnesty for political prisoners and an end to torture had galvanized solidarity among sections of the Left across Spain, such goodwill plummeted in the wake of the massacre. The central Spanish government, the government of the Basque Autonomous Community and all other political parties signed common “anti-terrorism” charters. Also growing was the social mobilization against ETA within the Basque Country itself.

ETA’s reaction was a retreat into an increasingly militarized activity. It dragged the whole nationalist Left into a mire in which defending ETA itself became the center of political activity, in a vicious circle of violence, repression and reprisal that became known as the “socialization of pain.” In these years, ETA intensified its attacks on democratic political parties. If between 1978 and 1995 only ten (1.6 percent) of the 623 people it killed held political office, this was true of some 26 of its next 93 (27.96 percent) victims. This was also the context in which there emerged the kale borroka, the over 4,500 street actions carried out by commandoes of young militants who burned buses, bank offices and political party headquarters. They mounted sharp clashes with the police, hurling Molotov cocktails from improvised barricades.

This militarist degeneration hit rock-bottom in summer 1997 with the kidnapping of a councillor from the conservative Partido Popular. The ETA militants gave a two-day deadline for the state to release its own prisoners, in exchange for the hostage. The kidnapping sparked massive protest marches, shaking Basque society. Yet as the deadline passed ETA shot the hostage dead. The mass outpouring of reaction, including attacks on the HB’s own property and members, marked a notable shift in public opinion, also driven by the state, the main political parties and most of the media, under the slogans “Democracy=Constitution” and “Nationalism=Terrorism.”

The Basque nationalist organisations, including the HB, unions and social organisations, were overwhelmed by this reaction. On 12 September 1998 they signed the so-called “Lizarra Pact” to call for a peace process in Euskal Herria. Four days later ETA declared an indefinite truce and called on political forces to set terms for a peaceful resolution of the conflict. The nationalist Left immediately recovered its electoral and political influence. ETA however officially reversed this decision at the end of the following year, claiming that the Basque government and the PNV had failed to live up to their promises of talks. In 2000 it killed another 23 people, in a wave of attacks that continued into subsequent years. On 17 March 2003 HB (now rebadged as Batasuna) was dissolved by the Supreme Court, as arrests of ETA members intensified; by the end of the following year some 719 of its members were behind bars. Laws were changed to ensure that ETA prisoners would serve out their terms in full, and the Basque-nationalist Left’s various attempts to stand in elections were firmly blocked.

Ending the armed struggle

On November 14 2004 Batasuna called for a negotiated solution to the Basque conflict. This call represented the view of those on the nationalist Left who recognized that the armed struggle had no prospect of defeating the Spanish State, and instead represented an obstacle to building a pluralist movement for self-determination and a democratic Left able to achieve social change.

On May 17, 2005 the lower house of the Spanish parliament authorized the government to negotiate with ETA, which itself declared that it would suspend all attacks on representatives of political parties (soon followed by a more general ceasefire). By the end of October that year, the representatives of Batasuna, the Socialist PSOE and the moderate-nationalist PNV concluded a draft deal that asserted the need for a “common institutional representation” spanning both the Basque Autonomous Community and Navarra and rejected political violence. This was the strongest ever basis for a political resolution to the Basque conflict. But ETA pressure on Batasuna soon broke the deal, and talks ended on 30 December after the ETA attack at Madrid Airport.

This attack sparked immediate and vast-scale repression against ETA and the entire Basque-nationalist Left. These episodes amply demonstrated that there was no prospect of armed struggle forcing the Spanish state to negotiate: indeed, in this sense, the state had clearly defeated ETA. But even beyond that, the “social” cover for ETA’s violence had now disappeared, including – or rather, most importantly – within Euskal Herria itself. All this helped push the nationalist Left into a political corner, raising questions over ETA’s continued existence.

The decisive reaction to ETA’s militarist strategy, which increasingly suffocated the whole nationalist Left, eventually came from within Batasuna. In February 2010 it published a document in which it acknowledged that the Basque national conflict could only be resolved by political, democratic means. In September of that year twenty-eight parties, unions and social organizations signed the “Gernika (Guernica) Accord” insisting on the recognition of all victims of violence, a change to the state’s prison policy, and a roadmap to peace in the region. Even ETA’s own prisoners in French and Spanish jails would soon sign up to this call.

Organizations separate from the armed struggle continued to make headway. In June 2012 a new Basque nationalist-Left party EH Bildu secured legal status, and in 2014 it secured 25 percent of the votes in the elections to the Basque Parliament. Local elections the following year confirmed its place as the second-placed party, behind the PNV. At the same time, LAB became the second biggest trade union in the Basque Autonomous Community and also made considerable advances in Navarra. Today it has some 45,000 members. So, too, has the nationalist Left increased its influence among feminist, environmentalist and international solidarity movements well-rooted in Euskal Herria.

The armed struggle, however, had reached the end of the road. Both ETA and the civilian nationalist Left were now bent on abandoning violence, even in the absence of negotiations with the Spanish government. In 2011 ETA publicly announced an indefinite ceasefire, followed by the decommissioning of its arms stocks in 2017 and, this spring, the dissolution of its remaining structures.

Toward a solution

In a sense, ETA’s history is not really over: some 400 of its members still languish in Spanish (and some French) prisons. If the conflict is indeed to reach a democratic conclusion, two steps are necessary. The first is a peace process, which means truth, justice and reparations for victims on all sides of the conflict and resolving the status of those who are still in jail. The second is to recognise the right to self-determination of the whole population of the Basque Autonomous Community and Navarra, so they can decide both the relations among themselves and the relations they want to have with the other regions within the Spanish State.

In the Basque parliament there is already broad agreement to ask the Spanish government for a change in penitentiary policy, for example bringing the 50 prisoners held more than a thousand kilometers from their families back closer to the Basque Country. It seems that the new Spanish government, led by the Socialist PSOE, is prepared to negotiate on this front. This should be a first step of a wider process, like that we have already seen in the case of Colombia and other violent conflicts, allowing the reintegration into society of people involved in armed attacks.

While this peace process is the utmost priority, and stands above any other conditions, a real solution to the Basque national conflict also requires that the citizens of the Basque Autonomous Community and Navarra be given the right to decide on their own political future. In the Basque parliament the PNV and EH Bildu support a proposal (rejected by the Socialists and conservative Partido Popular) for a new Statute of Autonomy that recognizes the right to self-determination and calls for bilateral relations with the Spanish state, in a new confederal relationship. The Basque section of Podemos does not agree with some key points of the proposal but has backed the new social rights and civil liberties asserted in the new Statute.

It remains to be seen what will happen. Back in December 2004 the Basque parliament asserted its own right to self-determination, including the possibility of secession, similar to Quebec’s relationship with Canada. But when the president of the Basque government brought this proposal to the Spanish parliament, it was simply dismissed without any discussion. In recent years the Spanish state has similarly taken repressive measures against the Catalan population and its democratic institutions, denying that any democratic process might ever lead to a Catalan Republic. Again, the Spanish state seems to have taken an intransigent line. But in the Basque Country as in Catalunya, nothing can be taken for certain.