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Catalonia’s Zero Hour: 1714

To understand the Germany of 1945, just emerging from Nazism, the Second World War, and the Holocaust, it is customary to use the term Stunde Null (Zero Hour), Germany’s Zero Hour. It was a Germany devastated and without a history, with a complex and tormented relationship with its own recent memory that conditioned its present and future. What followed the Zero Hour was the Elendswinter --that is, the winter of misery. For Germany, it was indeed, with the addition of the war games between the superpowers during the Cold War.

Catalonia, like Germany, has suffered not one, but two zero hours: the defeats of 1714 and of 1939, followed by two winters of misery. The imprint of the defeat and national collapse are doubly marked in Catalonia’s memory, but without the deep sense of guilt-- or denial of guilt-- of the Germans. In this article I will write about 1714 as the first Catalan zero hour.

The representation of 1714, for its long chronology, is the historic event that has created an image, a more fruitful representation, which 1936 crystallized in a dramatic way. It is the image of Catalonia as rebel. 1714 resulted in the suppression of Catalan institutions, repression against Catalan elites, exile in Europe, legal uniformity with the Nova Planta Decrees, and the persistent destruction of the Catalan cultural base. This is the known history. But 1714 also represents a long silence, the impossibility of remembering, of exercising memory. When the memory returned, it returned first in the guise of a rebel explosion, a new outburst meant to resolve the outstanding issues of 1714 and the new issues caused by 1714. The rebellious Catalonia exploded with the blowup of 1808. It continued throughout the 19th century with the Carlist wars in the Catalan mountains in 1833, 1846, and 1872. Meanwhile, the liberal, boisterous, republican, democratic, anarchist, and revolutionary (in that order) Barcelona exploded in 1836, 1868, 1909, and 1936. The lists are not exhaustive, and I have left out many other dates. As is also known, the response from power, the Spanish response to this rebel Catalonia, has always been military, rarely political. Contemporary Catalonia was not only created in the shelter of the revolt, but the dialectic with the central and extrinsic power has been one of subversion-repression.

Similarly, when 1714 returned as a representation of a long-suppressed memory, it was not possible to ignore the fact that it was an embarrassing defeat. The Romantic intellectuals of the Catalan Renaixença (1) took care of dignifying the defeat with the rhetoric of victors. The embarrassing defeat became the glorious defeat. Catalonia looked at itself in the mirror of 1714 and saw itself as a Phoenix reborn from the ashes: it was building a better nation ex nihilo.

Consistent with this line of thought, it is not surprising that the Catalan nationalism of the end of the 19th century adopted the majority of national symbols from the representation of 1714. This is where September 11th was born, a fateful event transformed into a symbol of the future final victory, a glorious national celebration of the spirit of a nation. Catalonia still celebrates that representation of September 11th today, as an essential foundation of the nation, in the same way that Americans celebrate Independence Day and Spain celebrates the beginning of the conquest and colonization of the Americas. A national Day defines a nation.

However, the climax of the transformation of the 1714 defeat from glorious tragedy to a promising future occurred during the tri-centennial of 2014. We unearthed the ruins of the world that disappeared that year of 1714, we recreated and remembered in great detail all the battles and key events of the Catalan fight to the death, we forged a compulsively civic and moral use of history in favor of the pro-independence movement. I am not saying that Catalan independence or the use of history are civic and moral acts in and of themselves: I believe that the use made of 1714 was intended to be an instrument of civility and morality. This is not a positive or negative judgment --it is an analytical observation.

How can we understand the Catalan passion of 2014 for the Baroque-era Barcelona if not through the long historical representation of 1714 as a traumatic zero hour for Catalonia?

We Catalans have projected on 1714 --the past-- our aspirations for the present and the future, in a collective, therapeutic act. Along the way --as in any historic representation-- we have forgotten Barcelona’s Catholic religious fanaticism of 1714, the civil war that the country suffered, the international context, and the prevailing militarism in Baroque-era Catalonia. For the 21st century, 1714 has been the recreation of the idea of freedom that the Catalans have, and the projection of national independence in a traumatic memory that is persistently and compulsively reproduced in each generation. The ashes of 1714 were an attempt to become, in short, a fertile ground for the elusive ideal that Catalans have been reproducing for at least 200 years by means of the rebel Catalonia and the transformation of the past defeat into a future victory.

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(1) N.T. Catalonia’s Renaixença was an early 19th-century romantic revivalist movement in Catalan language and culture.