Tag: Jose Antonio Agirre

October 7, 1936: First Basque Government Formed

The first Basque Government was created on October 7, 1936, shortly after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. The government was led by Jose Antonio Agirre and was based in Bilbao’s emblematic Hotel Carlton.

Agirre and other government members address crowd from balcony of Hotel Carlton

Given that holding elections was impossible on account of the outbreak of the civil war in July 1936, a transitional decree was approved whereby the councilmen of municipalities in territory not occupied by the military rebels would elect the first lehendakari or Basque president. They duly elected Jose Antonio Agirre unanimously at a meeting in the historic assembly hall in Gernika. Agirre subsequently formed the first Basque government from among his own Basque Nationalist Party as well as the other parties that formed part of the Popular Front, the democratically elected coalition governing the Second Spanish Republic that Franco’s military uprising was seeking to overthrow.

The importance of Agirre and the first Basque government were explored at a major international conference whose results were published in The International Legacy of the Lehendakari Jose A. Agirre’s Government, edited by Xabier Irujo and Mari Jose Olaziregi.


July 29, 1940: British government agrees to back Basque independence in event of Spanish support for Hitler

The tumultuous period between the end of the Spanish Civil War in April 1939 and the outbreak of World War II in September that same year marked a critical time in Basque history. Basques exiles who had fled into France and beyond during and after the Spanish Civil War suddenly found themselves once more prey to the advance of Fascism.

Following the fall of Poland in 1939,  Hitler’s forces swept north and westward in the spring of 1940, taking Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and, finally, France, with Paris falling to the Germans on June 14. In the less than a year most of Western Europe had fallen to the Nazis. Only the United Kingdom held out.

The charismatic leader of the Basque government-in-exile, Jose Antonio Agirre, had gotten caught up in these events and had been forced underground–ultimately in of all places, Berlin–into an incognito existence as he sought an escape from the Fascist clutches (on this, if you haven’t already done so, check out his riveting memoir Escape via Berlin: Eluding Franco in Hitler’s Europe). In his absence, the Basque government-in-exile was replaced by a Basque National Council, headed by Manuel Irujo and based in London.


Manuel Irujo, Jose Antonio Agirre, and Jose Ignacio Lizaso, London, 1945.

It is during that time, in the interesting period before Agirre’s reappearance in October 1941, that the Basque National Council carried out a series of negotiations, most notably with both the British government and the representatives of Free France (effectively the exiled democratic French government) led by Charles de Gaulle. Most famously, perhaps, these negotiations resulted in the creation of the Gernika Battalion, made up of Basque exiles, which fought with distinction with the French army in defeating the Germans in 1945 (the story of which we covered in a previous post here).

Less well known, certainly, was a fascinating agreement brokered by the Basque National Council in London. Xabier Irujo picks up the story in his Expelled from the Motherland (p. 17):

In less than a month the Basque National Council and the British government had made their first agreement on military collaboration. Robert J. G. Boothby, representing the British government, and Jose Ignacio Lizaso, representing the Basque National Council, signed the first agreement on July 29, 1940, which spelled out that the British government was committed to defending the independence of the Basque Country if the Spanish government went to war on the side of the Axis powers.

Ultimately, and despite plenty of willing on the part of Franco, Spain did not enter the war on the side of Hitler and this agreement was never implemented; yet another example of one of those twists of fate around which history revolves.

If you’re interested in this topic, as well as the abovementioned works, see also War, Exile, Justice, and Everyday Life 1936-1946, edited by Sandra Ott, available free to download here; and, for more general background, Modern Basque History, by Cameron Watson, available free to download here.


March 22, 1960: Death of Jose Antonio Agirre

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.


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.


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).

William A. Douglass Center for Basque Studies hosts start of major International Congress on Jose Antonio Agirre

Agirre Congress

On the occasion of the seventy-fifth anniversary of Lehendakari (Basque president)Jose Antonio Agirre’s passing through Berlin on his odyssey to flee fascism in Europe,  the Center is proud to announce its participation in a major new congress on his legacy that starts here this weekend.  This is the first step in a three-part congress, “The International Legacy of Lehendakari Jose Antonio Agirre’s Government,” running through March and June, to be held successively at UNR, Humboldt University in Berlin, and Columbia University in New York.

The congress has been jointly organized by the Center and the Etxepare Basque Institute, with the help and participation of  the Agirre Lehendakaria Center for Social and Political Studies and the Basque Government’s General Secretariat for Foreign Affairs, with the collaboration of the Mikel Laboa Chair at the University of the Basque Country.

The Center will host the first part of the congress, March 26-28, which will focus on the international contribution of Agirre, with talks by faculty members Xabier Irujo, Joseba Zulaika, and Sandra Ott, together with visiting guest speakers Ángel Viñas (Complutense University, Madrid) and Julián Casanova (University of Zaragoza). Details of the Reno gathering are as follows:

March 26, Sparks Heritage Museum, 2 pm: Xabier Irujo, “The Bombing of Gernika.”

March 28, Basque Conference Room, 305, third floor, Mathewson-IGT Knowledge Center, University of Nevada, Reno, 4 pm: Ángel Viñas, “The English Gold: British Payment of Multi-million Pound Bribes to Franco’s Top Generals.”

March 28, Basque Conference Room, Mathewson-IGT Knowledge Center, University of Nevada, Reno, 5 pm: Julián Casanova, “Francoist repression.”

March 29, Basque Conference Room, Mathewson-IGT Knowledge Center, University of Nevada, Reno, 4 pm: Joseba Zulaika, “From Gernika to Bilbao.”

March 29, Basque Conference Room, Mathewson-IGT Knowledge Center, University of Nevada, Reno, 5 pm: Sandra Ott, “Occupation of Iparralde (1940-1944).”

Then on June 1, Humboldt University in Berlin will host the second installment, addressing the exile of Agirre and other Basques as well as the formation of a united Europe, with talks by Paul Preston (London School of Economics), Carlos Collado Seidel (Phillips University Marburg), Joan Villarroya (University of Barcelona), the writer and journalist Nicholas Rankin, historian Hilari Raguer i Suñer, and Xabier Irujo.

Finally, on June 9 Columbia University will host the third and final part of the Congress, with talks by former lehendakari Juan José Ibarretxe, Ludger Mees, Mari Jose Olaziregi, Jose Ramon Bengoetxea, Izaro Arroita, and Amaia Agirre of the University of the Basque Country, as well as Leyre Arrieta of the University of Deusto.

Besides the academic gathering, the Basque Club or Euskal Etxea of Berlin will also organize a program of cultural events through May and June to commemorate Agirre’s legacy. Titled “Agirre in Berlín 1941-2016. Das Baskenland mitten in Europa” (Agirre in Berlin 1941-2016: The Basque Country in the heart of Europe), this program will pay specific attention to the effects of the civil war and Basque exile from different artistic perspectives, including publications, lectures, concerts, and other diverse events.

See the full program of the Agirre Congress here.

January 20, 1940: A Milestone in Basque emigration to Argentina

On January 20, 1940, Argentinian president Roberto Marcelino Ortiz and minister of agriculture José Padilla signed into law a decree authorizing expanded Basque immigration into that country and allowing the immigration of Basques from Spain and France “with the documentation that they possess.”


Basque emigrants to Argentina

Xabier Irujo writes about this decree in his Expelled from the Motherland: 

On August 30, 1939, the Basque government delegation in Buenos Aires established the Pro-Basque Immigration Committee. Through this committee, Basque refugees managed to persuade Argentina’s President Ortiz to sign immigration decrees on January 20 and July 18, 1940; Vice President Ramón S. Castillo signed another decree on August 12. According to the decrees, all Basque refugees—without distinction, including those without documents—could enter Argentina without undergoing quarantine, which was obligatory for all other immigrants, and after two weeks they would obtain full Argentine citizenship. There was only one condition: the committee had to verify that the refugees were Basques. (p. 106)

This decree was an important recognition and in the words of Basque president José Antonio Aguirre (as quoted in José  Manuel Azcona Pastor’s Possible Paradises: Basque Emigration to Latin America) the decree meant “the recognition of honor, as men and as a people, for the Basques” (p. 400).

NOTE: Unfortunately (for us!) graduate student Iker Saitua is nearing completion of his dissertation in history so will no longer have the time to share his great “Flashback Friday” posts with us, but we congratulate him on his progress and thank him for sharing so much historical knowledge with us and we will continue in his tradition every sharing a “this week in Basque history” every Friday.