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Chapter 1:
Nationalism, industrialisation, modernity and cycle sport to 1936

The Establishment of Basque Nationalism 1895-1932

In order to link the development of cycle sport with early Basque nationalism, it is necessary to briefly account for the historical development of the nationalist movement founded by Sabino Arana-Goiri in 1895. Catalan and Basque nationalisms were historically based on periods of uniqueness in culture and language, although after the hegemonic rise of Castile in the late Fifteenth Century, regional autonomy was eroded via political federation and centralisation to Castile.1 The beginning of the Nineteenth Century exposed Spain to liberalism through the Napoleonic Wars and the revived European Romantic movement. Nationalism was partly inspired by this exposure, as historical and cultural myths were reawakened across Europe.2 By the 1890’s, Spain’s belated industrialisation, mostly concentrated in the Basque Country and Catalunya, facilitated the base for popular nationalism and cultural linguistic revivalism, encouraged by regional economic and ethnic concerns.3

Genuine Basque nationalism initially developed during the 1890’s in the Vizcaya province and spread to the other provinces.4 This process was gradual, as during these industrialising years the Basque Country remained largely rural with industry and modernity only affecting the large cities. Furthermore, the region’s deep Roman Catholic religious nature and historical attachment to Carlism seemed paradoxical to the modern philosophy of nationalism. However, the mythical history and unique linguistic tongue of the region, combined with religiosity and notions of purity of race, became the basis for a strident nationalism, reinforced by claims to ancient rights embodied in the fueros.5 These ancient laws and privileges (varying province to province, but including exemption from military service and duty taxes) were recognised by Castile from the Eleventh Century, but were abolished after the Second Carlist War 1873-74.6

The definition of modern Basque nationalism was established in 1895 through the work of Arana. He created a working nationalism, reviving the myths, history, language and claims of racial superiority based upon the fueros notion of a separate nation from Spain. Arana’s ideas drew little initial interest, but the industrialising process brought an influx of immigrants and with them alien ideals such as socialism, trade unionism and anti-clericalism, all of which were considered by Arana a threat to Basque culture and ethnicity. Arana’s claims that the fueros represented a Basque past of moral superiority and of a mythical democracy were exaggerated, as they served the purposes of Castile equally well. Furthermore, there was never a unified Basque Country.7 The basis for Basque nationalism (other than race, which was later discredited by most) was language (Euskera or Euskara). Arana effectively revived Euskera. Previously it had declined dramatically, lacking literary history and was not easily adapted to modern language structures.8 A fact which, conversely further reinforced Basque distinctiveness and today’s debates amongst linguistic experts as to its origins.

Nationalism was more obvious in the form of xenophobia directed at the immigrant workers, especially in 1890’s Vizcaya. In 1890 Arana produced his first work Vizcaya por su Independecia. By 1895 the Partido Nacionalista Vasco (PNV) was established as a political movement. The early PNV was predominated by social, cultural and folklore aspects and appealed to traditionalists threatened by liberalism, socialism and Castile’s ‘immorality’.9 Arana believed that the region had enjoyed a pre-industrial Arcadia and immigration had destroyed this. Beyond this Arana and the early PNV lacked a coherent political programme.10

PNV electoral success occurred in 1896. Five PNV were elected in Bilbao’s municipal elections and in 1898, Arana was elected to the Provincial Council of Vizcaya. The PNV suffered from its Carlist middle class background and from a lack of viable candidates, but crucially it lacked industrial support until 1898. Then the Euskalerico business group led by Ramón de la Sota, a shipping industrialist, merged with the PNV boosting its financial support. This event was the first seed, which would later create the social, political and economic basis upon which Basque cycle sport would find commercial sponsorship and ultimately a nationalist embodiment in the form of equipo Euskadi.

The industrial business sector had grown rapidly to this point and resented the cacique structure dominated by the Chavarri landowners. The PNV was seen as an ideal party machine to challenge this monopoly. Business conservatives were also becoming concerned at PSOE (Partido Socialista Obrera Español) successes in Bilbao in 1899. The El Correo Vasco daily was launched that year and in the municipal elections eight PNV candidates were returned in Bilbao. Across Vizcaya more councillors were elected for the first time, prompting government repression of the right to publication and assembly.11

In 1902, Arana was jailed for his views on Cuban nationalism. Released in 1903, he moderated his autonomy goal, hoping this would allow the PNV to function, but in 1903 Arana died (38 years old). His successor Angel de Zabala remained radical but was forced to share power with de la Sota, until a split proved inevitable on the election of a new national committee in 1906, headed by Luis Arana, president of the PNV; continuing the orthodox doctrine. Any hopes of Cortes success for the business sector were blocked and 1907 saw the effective split of the PNV. The PNV Assembly at Elgoibar (1908) marked a win for the moderate autonomy programme, aiming for Foral restoration and not separatism. The criteria for Basque identity also moderated, no longer requiring two Basque parental names. De la Sota became president in 1909 and supported the protectionist policies of the conservative Prime Minister, Maura.12 Efforts were made to combat socialist influence in the shipyards, hence a Catholic trade union was established on PNV lines (1911), supported by the nationalist employers; SOV (Solidaridad de Obreros Vascos).13

The First World War brought enormous profits to the Basque Country. The industrial base was ideal and the ending of competition until 1918 benefited the supply and internal markets. Liberal attempts to impose a war profits tax marked a unified response between Basque and Catalan nationalists. De la Sota resisted the taxation of the Minister of Economy, Santiago Alba and proved the effective nature of conservative alliance. Consequently, the PNV polled well in both the provincial and national elections of 1917. PNV policy seemed justified in 1918 with the election of 7 deputies to the Cortes.14 The First World War period also increased the internal divides between the Aranistas of Luis and the Sotistas. De la Sota supported the Allies with whom his enterprise had business dealings, whilst Luis favoured the Germans. Religious unity prevented serious fracture, but by 1921 Luis formed an extremist breakaway movement. This group became the orthodox Aranistas.15

The anti-regionalist policies of Primo de Rivera (1923-1930) effectively pushed nationalist activity underground. Illegality conversely encouraged unity with the result that by the fall of the dictatorship in 1930, the movement reunited at the Vergara Conference (November 1930), behind an orthodox ideology influenced by the failure of the bourgeois alliance to deliver autonomy from its central government colleagues. Solidity was still not clear, however, as a new breakaway group formed, the ANV (Acción Nacionalista Vasca). Their programme was non-confessional, with an urban middle class complexion attempting to adapt nationalism to urban society, without the old Aranista racism. The ANV’s main objective was to establish an Euskadi as a centralised state, not just a federation of provinces with Foral rights.16

The 1931 collapse of the monarchy did not witness PNV participation in the San Sabastian Pact of the Republicans and Catalan nationalists, but the potential for autonomy was recognised. The new younger leadership were more united. The PNV formed an electoral slate with the Carlists and the conservative Roman Catholics with success in the April 1931 municipal elections. In June a meeting at Estalla drafted an autonomy statute whilst parliamentary elections returned 14 PNV/Carlist alliance candidates to the Cortes. The Republican Left initially feared the reactionary complexion of the PNV with its religious affiliations, yet much of the decision upon how to approach this was decided by the Carlist and Roman Catholic rejection of secularist elements in the Republican Constitution of 1931.

Navarra had long enjoyed a privileged position within the Spanish State and was different to the other provinces. Separated geographically by mountains and with a less industrialised, more rural, pro-Carlist and Roman Catholic population, Navarra thus remained outside of the Euskadi grouping in 1932.17 This historical event has subsequently fuelled the nationalist sporting debate between the modern Madrid based press and Basque nationalists, as to whether the legendary Miguel Indurain is a Basque, a Spaniard or indeed a Navarran.

Industrialisation, Modernity and Cycling

The emergence of Vizcayan industrialisation began in the 1860’s, but by 1900, the Basque industrial centres, extensively port towns and cities, benefited from Western European demands for non-phosphoric ores, which were used in the Bessemer process. The industries that developed extensively by the turn of the century, were predominantly based around the supply of iron-ore and steel production, in addition to other metallurgical industries (especially in Bilbao) and associated industries such as shipping.18 The Basque Country and Catalunya developed as Spain’s only true examples of modernity in an industrialising Europe, most of the rest of Spain being predominantly agricultural. Basque concentration on heavy industries set it apart from Catalunya which was comparatively more merchant trade based at the turn of the century.19

The very nature of Basque industrialisation was entirely compatible with the emergence of cycle sport. Steel related industries provided the raw materials, whilst cycling itself was seen as symbolic of modernity in an era pre-dating the car. Politically, national claims to modernity were significant in turn of the century Europe, particularly in terms of sport. Interestingly, Russia and Spain have been popularly perceived to be examples of economic backwardness in industrial terms, compared to Britain, Belgium, France and Germany, but both Russia and Spain as nation states promoted national cycling teams as symbols of national superiority. Czarist Russia was keen to build national cycle teams capable of winning Olympic medals at the games of 1908 and 1912, having already won a major European cycling title in 1898.20

It would be misleading to suggest that cycling was the only sport with a nationalist agenda, but only cycling was perceived as exclusively symbolic of national modernity. In France, cycling was the only sport capable of national unification after the ruptures of the Dreyfus Affair (1894-1906), so providing the impetus for the establishment of the Tour de France in 1903.21 Consequently, Spain and more specifically the Basque Country became the centre of modern sport in Iberia. The extent of cycle sport in the Basque Country was revealed by the establishment of numerous local races and regional races in the early Twentieth Century, amongst them the Tour of the Basque Country founded in 1924, pre-dating the establishment of the Vuelta a España in 1935.22

Table 1: Establishment of National Cycle Federations

(Source: Spanish Cycle Federation ‘Federe Ciclismo’ and Tribal Identities p167)

USA Britain Germany Russia  Italy Spain
1878 1880  1884 1884 1894 1902

      The above table demonstrates well the link between industrialisation and the establishment of national cycling federations. In all cases industrialisation had begun to some extent at least in the major cities or in specific regions, as in the Spanish, Russian and Italian examples and in general the dates of establishment reflect the national order of industrial development. However, the establishment of the Spanish federation does not entirely reflect the penetration of the sport in the Basque Country. By 1920, the number of cycle clubs in the region was disproportionate to that in Spain as a whole. This reflected the industrial and infrastructure development of the Basque Country with respect to communications and furthermore, the external links with other European nations brought about by trade. Before the outbreak of Civil War in 1936, three regional cycling federations were already established in the Basque Country.23

Cycle Sport, Capitalism, Early Nationalism to Franco

Lenin once remarked that, "a nation cannot be strong, unless it is strong in sports".24 However, the ideals and motivations of Arana and later the nationalist Basque business leaders, such as de la Sota, were far from revolutionary. War profits accrued from Spain’s neutrality during World War One, lasted until a deep post war economic and social crisis took hold in 1920, undermining the support for the bourgeois wing of the PNV.25 Between 1918 and December 1920, the PNV electoral successes were reversed with only one candidate re-elected to the Cortes. PNV attempts to present an autonomy statute for Alava, Vizcaya and Guipúzcoa were disrupted in the Cortes between January and April 1919. On 14 April 1919 the Cortes was dissolved. Problematically for the movement, economic crisis forced the prioritisation of business before nationalism.26

The creation and co-ordination of mountaineering, women’s’ groups and other cultural societies was largely the work of the orthodox section led by Luis Arana. General Primo de Rivera’s 1923 military coup and its subsequent suppression of regionalist claims ensured that the role of cultural and especially sporting sections of the PNV, would become a core element of clandestine nationalist survival. Cycling clubs, although not popularly cited as PNV organisations, inevitably played their role as a continued base for nationalist discourse and organisation, without being repressed by the regime. The non-suppression of Basque cycle tours and races is best demonstrated by the establishment of the Tour of the Basque Country, just one year into Primo’s dictatorship (1924). Conversely, Franco later recognised the nationalist potential of a race demarcating ‘Euskadi’, preventing its re-establishment at the end of the Spanish Civil War until 1969.27

The nationalist potential of the Tour of the Basque Country, was in the first place well realised by its organisers, the Excelsior newspaper. Previously, the Tour de France known in France as ‘La Grande Boucle’ (the big loop), had been established by Henri Desgranges in 1903, as an indirect result of the Dreyfus Affair (1894-1906), which divided significant sections of the population into Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards. When the cycling newspaper Le Velo published a pro-Dreyfus article, its main financial backer, the bicycle builder Baron de Dion, pulled out and started a rival paper, L’Auto Velo. Its editor, Desgranges organised the Tour de France to generate support for the paper, whilst hoping that a race looping all of the French ‘departments’, would unify the French through a sporting event into one national identity.28 Similarly, the establishment of the Giro d’Italia in 1908 by the newspaper La Gazzetta dello Sport, was in part motivated by the very national sporting challenge represented by the French Tour.29 Thus, the owners of Excelsior claimed that the Tour of the Basque Country would rival both the Giro and the Tour, projecting a nationalist challenge to the French and Italians, but equally demonstrating cycling’s popularity in the region.

Ironically, Excelsior was bankrupted by a printing strike in 1930, after which only one more edition of the race occurred prior to the outbreak of Civil War on 18 July 1936. The hopes of the Vuelta a España, established in 1935 during the Second Republic’s last full year, to unite Spain’s regions and dissolve political polarisation, as had been the intent of the French Tour, was thus dashed. Conversely, the outbreak of Civil War itself confirmed Spanish international status as a cycling nation when British Labour organisations co-operated in an international cycle ride from Glasgow to Barcelona during 1936, to raise awareness against the insurgent Fascist threat and funds for the Republican war effort. The same year, the British Labour newspaper The Clarion, authorised its cycle club to pledge funds to the Spanish Medical Aid Committee, the National Youth Food-ship Committee and the International Brigade, which a number of its members subsequently joined.30 However, the Republic’s defeat ultimately stalled any regional nationalism and seriously curtailed the overt partisan nature of regional sports clubs, as Franco attempted to impose Spanish nationalism and thwart regional expression and culture. In the spring of 1941, Franco, the sports fanatic, revived the Vuelta, undoubtedly precisely because of its Spanish nationalist potential.31




1. J. Harrison, "The Regenerationist Movement in Spain After the Disaster of 1898", European Studies Review, vol 9, Number 1, January 1979. p2

2. B. Anderson, Imagined Communities, London, Verso, 1983.

3. S.G. Payne, "Catalan and Basque Nationalism", Journal of Contemporary History, Vol 6, No 1, 1971. p16

4. Heiberg, Making of the Basque Nation. p11

5. S.G. Payne, Basque Nationalism, University of Nevada Press, USA, 1975. p5

6. Ibid. p5

7. J. Sullivan, ETA and Basque Nationalism: The Fight for Euskadi 1890-1986, Routledge, London and New York, 1988. p3

8. Heiberg, The Making of the Basque Nation. p50

9. Ibid. p7

10. R. Carr, Modern Spain, Opus, OUP, Hong-Kong, 1980. p68

11. Sullivan, ETA and Basque Nationalism. pp7-8

12. Heiberg, The Making of the Basque Nation. p66

13. Ibid. p71

14. Carr, Modern Spain. p69

15. Sullivan, ETA and Basque Nationalism. p11

16. Payne, Basque Nationalism. p131

17. Sullivan, ETA and Basque Nationalism. p12

18. J. Harrison, "Big Business and the Rise of Basque Nationalism", European Studies Review, no 7, 1977. p372

19. Payne, "Catalan and Basque Nationalism".p23

20. Mangan, Tribal Identities. p173

21. Ibid. p42

22.Euskadi Cycle Team Foundation information booklet, 1996.p2

23. Ibid. p61

24. S.G. Jones, The European Workers’ Sports Movement", European History Quarterly, vol 18, 1988.p6

25. "Big Business and the Rise of Basque Nationalism".p379

26. Ibid. p386

27. Cycle Sport, UK, May 1995.p72

28. Mangan, Tribal Identities.p46

29. J. Evans, The Guiness Book of Cycling Facts and Feats, Guiness Publishing & IPC Magazines, 1996. London. p49

30. S. Jones, "European Workers’ Sports Movement". p21

31. Federe Ciclismo,Vuelta information leaflet. 1994



Proceed to Chapter Two


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