Redeeming Defeat: Catalonia’s Diada Nacional
It was largely by chance that Maggie and I happened to be in Reus on September 11 in 2018.
Had we been home, in the United States, we would have seen numerous somber reminders of the day’s significance. But as it was, we were on vacation—‘on holiday’, we would have said, had we been British—and we’d been avoiding the news. Instead, we were paying a short visit to a Catalonian city noted as the birthplace of the great Modernista architect Antoni Gaudí.
We knew that Gaudí hadn’t designed any of the buildings in Reus, but his admirers have set up a museum here, the Gaudí Centre, celebrating his work. And several other Modernista architects have left their mark on the city. It promised to be a good day trip from our base in nearby Tarragona.
However, as our taxi wound through a maze of streets toward the centre of town, we realized that something was happening. There were people about, too many for a typical weekday morning, and they were walking and talking with a festive air. Red and yellow Catalan banners were flying, and men in bull costumes trailed parades of children behind them.
As we soon learned, we had inadvertently chosen to visit Reus on Catalonia’s National Day, the Diada Nacional de Catalunya. And as we know now, the day commemorates not a victory, but a defeat—the fall of the Catalonian port of Barcelona in 1714 to troops fighting for Felipe V during the War of the Spanish Succession. It was also on that day that Rafael Casanova, the mayor of Barcelona and the commander in chief of Catalonia, was wounded in battle. He and his fellow Barcelonans had supported Habsburg ruler Charles VI, who had pledged to defend Catalonian autonomy. The defeat signalled the loss of the rights that Catalans had enjoyed, to one degree or another, for centuries.
The first written reference to Catalonia, which lies in northeastern Spain, was in the early twelfth-century Latin epic Liber maiolichinus de gestis pisanorum illustribus, an account of an attack on the Muslim-controlled island of Majorca in which Catalans played an important role. But Catalans can trace their political roots back farther, to the ninth century and the establishment of the Comtat de Barcelona, which gradually extended its control over the adjoining territories.
As the Principality of Catalonia, Barcelona eventually joined the confederation known as the Crown of Aragon, and when Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile married in 1469, the two kingdoms were united. Catalonia enjoyed a brief period of independence during the Franco-Spanish War of 1635-1659, but within a few decades came that decisive defeat. Over time, however, a sense of national identity grew, and in 1886, Catalans celebrated their first Diada Nacional. Two years later, with the opening of the Barcelona Universal Exposition, a statue of the heroic Rafael Casanova was erected on the very patch of ground where he had been wounded.
Catalonia’s fortunes rose and fell during the twentieth century, but the worst years were those of the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939, which brought with them misery and widespread political and cultural suppression. Reporting on the conflict in 1937, Ernest Hemingway described how the convoy he was in nearly came under fire near Reus. ‘Then, outside of [the city], on a straight smooth highway with olive orchards on each side, the chauffeur from the rumble seat shouted, “planes, planes!” and, rubber screeching, we stopped the car under the tree.’
The convoy itself wasn’t bombed, but as Hemingway and his companions watched, ‘came a sudden egg-dropping explosion of bombs, and ahead, Reus, silhouetted against hills a half-mile away, disappeared in a brick dust-coloured cloud of smoke. We made our way through the town, the main street blocked by broken houses and a smashed water main.’
The war left Reus one of Spain’s most heavily bombed cities.
Today, Catalonia is a comunitat autònoma, or autonomous community, within Spain, one of seventeen such divisions, and exercises limited self-government. But it’s clear that the atrocities that it suffered during the Civil War and the subsequent dictatorship of General Francisco Franco (who died in 1975) have fuelled renewed attention to the Diada and a fiercer desire for complete independence.
We saw evidence of those atrocities when we toured Reus’s most noteworthy building, the Casa Navàs. Built in the early years of the twentieth century by Catalan architect Lluís Domènech i Montaner, the structure fronts on the Plaza del Mercadal a few steps from the Gaudí Centre. Among its many attractions is a mosaic depicting the departure of King James I of Aragon, Count of Barcelona, as he set out on a later military expedition against Majorca. More revealing, however, is the condition of the Casa itself, which was badly damaged during the Nationalist bombing. Although some restoration has been done, the elegant tower that once graced its corner has yet to be replaced. Plans are in the works to do so, but for the time being, the disfigured structure stands as a mute reminder of the ravages of the civil war.
In Barcelona, which we had visited earlier in the month, the Diada traditionally begins with government officials laying flowers at the base of Casanova’s statue. It has also been an occasion for large and often unruly pro-independence demonstrations. The economic crisis that struck in 2008 strained the already frayed relationship between Catalonia and Spain’s central government, with Catalans arguing that they were being taxed to support the country’s poorer communities. Over the course of the 2010s, the size of the demonstrations swelled, routinely reaching more than a million participants. And in 2017, the Catalan Parliament declared independence—a step that led to the imprisonment of several of the community’s government ministers and the flight of others. But by 2021, during the COVID pandemic, the number of demonstrators had fallen dramatically. While Catalan nationalists put the number at 400,000, police estimated only 108,000.
At the end of our day in Reus, we returned to Tarragona with a renewed appreciation of Catalan history. As we’ve come to understand it, the Diada itself is an anniversary. Rather than being a celebration of defeat, it’s an assertion of national aspirations. And what happens on this year’s Diada Nacional may well indicate what course those aspirations are going to follow. AQ