On March 22, 1960, the lehendakari or president of the Basque Country, Jose Antonio Agirre (also spelled Aguirre), died in exile in Paris at the age of fifty-six.

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Lehendakari Jose Antonio Agirre Lekube. Photo by Jesus Elosegi Irazusta, March 27, 1939, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Agirre had been–and remains to this day–arguably the most charismatic and certainly one of the key figures in twentieth-century Basque political history. Born in Bilbao in 1904, he studied law at the University of Deusto and later went to work for the family firm (a chocolate making company). At age twenty-seven he was elected mayor of Getxo, Bizkaia, for the Basque Nationalist Party and in October 1936–the Spanish Civil War already having broken out the previous July–he was chosen to become the first lehendakari. He then presided over a Basque government that had to deal with the trauma of war and its consequences, including the bombing of Durango and Gernika, the flight of thousands of people into exile, and ultimately defeat at the hands of Franco’s forces.

Fleeing himself following the fall of Bilbao in June 1937–in a remarkable journey worthy of a Hollywood movie (on which see his own gripping account in Escape via Berlin: Eluding Franco in Hitler’s Europe)–Agirre and his family traversed Europe and Latin America before settling in the United States in 1941, from where he initially led the Basque government-in-exile and helped create a pro-Allied Basque network during World War II in the hope of gaining US support for overthrowing the Franco regime. He later relocated to Paris, from where, in the 1950s during the new context of the Cold War in which the US began to support Franco’s Spain, he pursued a new pan-European federalist policy. Throughout his political career, he was characterized for his statesmanship and was eulogized by even the staunchest of opponents. Agirre died in Paris and was buried in the cemetery of Donibane Lohitzune, Lapurdi, on March 27, 1960.

In Expelled from the Motherland: The Government of Jose Antonio Agirre in Exile, 1937-1960, Xabier Irujo charts Agirre’s political career after the fall of Bilbao.  As Irujo notes (see chapter 13), prominent figures attended the funeral Mass in Paris on March 26, including representatives of the Basque, Catalan, and Spanish Republic’s governments-in-exile, major figures from French politics (including government ministers), and the ambassadors of Chile and Venezuela. Moreover, not only did thousands of people attend the burial in Donibane Lohitzune (despite severe border restrictions being imposed by the Spanish police), but memorial services were held for him throughout practically all the Basque communities of the Americas and Australia.

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Today, a statue of Agirre stands in the heart of Bilbao. Photo by Fernandopascullo, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Agirre is also a central figure in Joseba Zulaika’s That Old Bilbao Moon: The Passion and Resurrection of a City. In Zulaika’s words (p. 43):

“He is already in his casket, but you can go see him,” they told François Mauriac, the French Nobel Prize winner, in late March, 1960. Mauriac could utter only “broken words” in the presence of his friend Aguirre’s corpse. Later he wrote, “The casket has a crystal peephole at the face’s level. What a vision! . . . In this face, as if eaten away from inside, I cannot recognize the noble and frank face of Don José Antonio de Aguirre. . . . Who could have been the victim of a more unjust destiny than he?” Mauriac saw in Aguirre’s face the horror that had destroyed its nobility, that still haunts his legacy—the bitter truth of the century. He wrote, “With the liberation [of Europe from fascism], José Antonio de Aguirre drank the chalice to the last dregs, when he understood that Franco would be respected and the apparent victory of the democracies covered up, concealed, at the very heart of the West, another very hidden victory: the one of the professional armies and policemen.” Disguised as “free” and “democratic,” or as “socialist,” the cold warriors, led by Churchill, Truman, and Stalin, remained in charge, plotting the next Hiroshimas—only now with hydrogen bombs, thousands of times deadlier than the atomic ones. Mauriac observed in Aguirre the face of the century’s unfinished agenda.

Meanwhile, Agirre’s death also had important consequences, as noted by Igor Ahedo Gurrutxaga in The Transformation of National Identity in the Basque Country of France, 1789-2006 (p. 340n13):

The death of the Basque president in exile, Aguirre, in Iparralde in 1960, marked an important symbolic moment for the gestation of nationalism in Iparralde. Around five thousand people attended his funeral, and his death seemed to mark a critical juncture for many individuals in Iparralde in their own shift toward more avowedly Basque nationalist positions.

Today, the Agirre Lehendakaria Center for Social and Political Studies, a collaborative project involving the UPV-EHU (University of the Basque Country), Columbia University in New York (The Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict and Complexity – AC4), Seton Hall University, and George Mason University (School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution – SCAR), is named in his honor.

And finally, a quick reminder that the Center is hosting the first part of a major international conference on the life and times of Agirre, starting this weekend, as reported in a post from earlier on this week (click here for more information).