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buber.net > Basque > Features > GuestColumns > Coins of Euskal Herria

Coins of Euskal Herria

by Erik V. McCrea

About Erik V. McCrea

I am a schoolteacher in Las Vegas, Nevada. I was born in Sao Paulo, Brazil (but crazy about Rio de Janeiro!!). I have been collecting coins from every country in the world since a very young age. Over the past few years I have devoted myself to "unusual" coins; coins from unrecognized states, fantasy nations, non-territorial states, nonexistent lands, fictitious creations, and just about any individual, group, or organization that has decided to mint their own "viable" coinage. I have also minted my own coins, from Nichtsburg & Zilchstadt and from L'ile d'Heliopolis. Due to the tremendous lack of information on the internet about "unusual" coin-issuing entities, I also have also endeavored to maintain a web-site that gives detailed information about dozens of them.

EUSKAL HERRIA (BASQUE COUNTRY): This designation refers to an area of the Iberian Peninsula which is historically, ethnically, and culturally Basque. This includes the four Spanish provinces of Vizcaya, Guipúzcoa, Álava, and Navarra, as well as the three former French provinces of Labourd/Lapurdi, Basse-Navarre/Nafarroa Beherea, and Soule/Zuberoa (now officially incorporated into the French department of Pyrénées-Atlantique).

Upon closer inspection, the reality of Euskal Herria is more complicated, though. There is no clear-cut homogeneity to the region. A good part of the population living in the seven “historic territories” does not want to be included in a so-called Basque Country. That is the case of most of the Basques living in France and, above all, the people of Navarre. But Basque nationalists are convinced, on linguistic and anthropological grounds, that Nafarroa is the heartland of their unmistakably unique nation. The Vascons of Navarre are viewed as the ancestors of the Basque people (who are the only remaining pre-Aryan race in Europe), as the mountainous north of Nafarroa is still partly Basque-speaking. And the semi-autonomous Kingdom of Navarre is the only entity to have exercised political authority over the entire landscape to which the Basques now lay claim. The great majority of Navarrese, however, consider their domain to be quite distinct from the Baskongadak (Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa, and Araba), which between 1200 and 1332 had left Nafarroa and were incorporated into the Crown of Castile, although without giving up their traditional institutions. Navarre, in turn, was invaded and occupied by Castile in 1512.

Whatever its boundaries, the País Vasco has experienced many momentous ups and downs. Throughout the Middle Ages, the Basque provinces, north and south, were largely self-governing and they had a vigorous tradition of local democracy. Over time, Basque autonomy was gradually stymied by the powers-that-be, but the Basques have continuously fought to preserve their own forms of government. In the north zone (Iparralde), Basque rights were abruptly swept away by the French Revolution. In the south zone (Hegoalde), self-determination lasted longer, but in the 19th century it came under attack from centralist governments in Madrid, culminating in a series of major civil insurrections known as the Carlist Wars (1833-39, 1846-49, 1872-1876). When these rebellions erupted, they took place in Cataluña, Navarra, and the País Vasco. The Basques, siding with the more conservative faction of King Carlos V and/or his descendants, battled against the superior forces of Spain with unsuccessful results.

As a consequence of the Carlist defeats, the age-old provincial fueros were abolished. The fueros of the feudal era were a collection of special rights — a set of local laws — which regulated their political system and protected their independence. These compilations, which included privileges and exemptions specific to an identified class, were habitual practices which influenced their customs of law and governance. This ancestral scheme had allowed the Basque Country to retain a separate constitutional identity and a separate legal/financial administration under a regional aristocratic oligarchy. The foral rights of each province were not identical, however, and the Spanish Crown had never treated the País Vasco as a single political unit.

The Basques, by the way, call their language Euskara (Euskera and Eskuara being dialect variants). It is the linchpin of Basque national identity. The word Euskaldun (literally, “one who has Basque”) means “Basque-speaker”; the plural is Euskaldunak, and this is what the Basques commonly call themselves. Linguistically, Basque (including its ancestral form, the ancient pre-Indo-European Aquitanian tongue) has no relatives and absolutely cannot be shown to be related to any other language anywhere in the world.

Though there has clearly been a Basque culture and language for many centuries, some historians suggest that the concept of the ‘Basque nation’ was a creation of the 1890s. Seen in this light, the “invention” of Basque nationalism and cultural-linguistic revival was a prerequisite in the expanding struggle for the retrieval of lost sovereignty. The essence of Basque nationalism was to safeguard their time-honored conventions and to defend their ethnicity against contamination by the Spanish. The movement appealed most strongly to those displaced or still embedded in a traditional economy, such as agriculturalists and artisans; it attracted members of the pre-industrial Vizcayan society, all threatened by liberalism, who were being marginalized by processes of modernization and who were faced with the corruption of their values and the collapse of their cherished socio-cultural order. Industrialization and urbanization encouraged immigration to the Basque Country, causing the villagers and peasants to become bitterly resentful towards capitalism, which would only dilute the regional homogeneousness they'd envisioned. From the late 1800s, the Spanish Basques, fearing for their language and their culture, began pressing for reforms and for greater self-rule. These were strictly peaceful campaigns, which in their lack of clear-cut leadership were oftentimes beset by internal differences of opinion regarding which ideological path (autonomy versus independence) would be the best one to take.

The Basque Nationalist Party, founded in 1895 by Sabino de Arana y Goiri, remains the largest and most dominant political party in the País Vasco. In Basque it is called Eusko Alderdi Jeltzalea (EAJ), and in Castilian it is called the Partido Nacionalista Vasco (PNV); in Spain it is commonly referred to as EAJ-PNV. Arana, though his movement initially drew little support and was known as Vizcayanism, is considered by many to be the father of Basque nationalism. He also coined the neologism Euzkadi (“Basque State”); the term, which refers to the 3 provinces of the Baskongadak, is still used today.

By the early 20th century, “regional micronationalism” had begun to develop in Catalonia and the Basque provinces. From 1923-30, during the military dictatorship of Miguel Primo de Rivera, the Basque community endured severe repression and their chronically weakened nationalist movement was outlawed and forced underground; it then flourished briefly when the ban was lifted after the proclamation of the Second Republic in April 1931. When autonomy was granted to Cataluña, the Basque nationalists, inspired by Arana and led by PNV chief José Antonio de Aguirre, began a large-scale, well-planned campaign for Basque autonomy. Three out of four the Basque provinces' assemblies of local councilors voted in favor of forming an autonomous Basque region within the Spanish state, while the delegates from Navarre voted narrowly against the proposal.

But a military coup in 1936 led to the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War (July '36-April '39). The Nationalist generals who were involved in the insurgency appointed General Francisco Franco, one of the leaders of the uprising, as Commander-in-Chief and Head of State. Meanwhile, the Republican Government in Madrid had already approved the Statute which finally granted the Baskongadak its official autonomy. However, it was only applied to Guipuzcoa and Vizcaya because by then a rift among Basques had developed. In October 1936, Aguirre was sworn in as first Lehendakari (president) of the short-lived Government of Euskadi. His first actions were to pronounce the Ikurriña (the Basque flag that was designed in 1894 by Sabino Arana and his brother Luis) as official and to create the Basque army and University. But in 1937, the Nationalist Army mounted a great offensive against Bizkaia. They entered and seized Bilbao, the Basque capital, which finally collapsed at the hands of Franco's troops by September. Although Aguirre was forced to flee the country shortly thereafter, he established a government-in-exile and maintained the position of Lehendadari until his death in 1960.

During this timeframe, Basque alienation and radicalization grew. The Basques suffered terribly in their fight against Franco's brutally oppressive personal dictatorship. Since they had sided with the Republican government during the Civil War, the Basques found themselves particularly singled out for persecution and revenge by the Fascist regime. Franco suppressed or restricted virtually all expressions of Basque culture and forbade all outward signs of their identity. This included exhibiting the nationalist flag, and partaking of any nationalist celebrations. The very speaking of Basque in public and teaching it in classrooms were prohibited; even baptizing children with non-Spanish names was illegal. Basque separationists who had not managed to hide or flee into exile were imprisoned, tormented, condemned to forced labor, and even shot.

Thus, the protracted dictatorship had the counterproductive effect of re-awakening intensely independentist feelings and of sparking a more ardent nationalist identity in the Basque provinces. Permitted no legal voice, the Basques gradually began to congregate clandestinely to discuss possible options. Their sovereignty movement, contemplating more active resistance, began to evolve in the 1950s. Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (Basque Fatherland and Liberty), a well-known, radical group which even today still seeks to create an independent state, was founded by a band of student activists who were dissatisfied with the moderate opposition of the traditional Basque party. Originally called EKIN (from the Basque for “get busy”) since its inception in 1953, this nationalist group re-named/reconstituted itself as ETA in 1959. Their split from the PNV apparently took place because its restless young founders felt that the older organization, characterized by a non-confrontational style, was not acting energetically enough to advance the Basque cause.

ETA, which was one of several groups that formed a part of the Movimiento de Liberación Nacional Vasco (MLNV), was the only militant faction to emerge in Spain during the Franco era. Throughout this period, they had accrued considerable popular support from even beyond the Basque populace. On their home turf, many countrymen joined ETA's secessionist stance, and the roots of this heightened sympathy arose from the authoritarian state's unending attempts to ruthlessly destroy the nationalistic aspirations of the Basque. At first, ETA's tactics were deliberately non-violent, but the sustained ferocity of the Spanish police and courts (domestic searches, arbitrary arrests, routine beatings, interrogations accompanied by torture, lengthy jail sentences, widespread abuse) eventually pushed ETA perilously into the realm of armed resistance (naturally, there are numerous other left-wing Basque nationalist groups, who valiantly disapprove of such methods). In this tumultuous and riotous climate, ETA's soldiers retaliated with intensified bloodshed and vowed to passionately fight for a fully independent homeland. Though their military actions were initially directed towards known torturers and murderers from amongst the Spanish authorities, the ensuing warfare gradually escalated into increasingly indiscriminate shootings and bombings. The Francoist system responded with ever greater combative cruelty of its own; all of its security forces (National Police, Civil Guard, secret police) assaulted and murdered Basques with total impunity.

In December of 1973, ETA's “freedom fighters” managed to assassinate the Spanish Prime Minister, Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco, who was most likely the intended successor of the aging Generalísimo. This event, which actually was received positively in many Basque circles, may have significantly hastened the end of Spanish fascism. The dictator's long rule finally came to an end in 1975. Franco's death elevated Don Juan Carlos de Borbón to the monarchy. Once in power as King Juan Carlos I, he facilitated the transition toward the current democratic state. Elections were once again held in post-Franco Spain, leading to the establishment in 1979 of the Euskal Autonomia Erkidegoa (Comunidad Autónoma del País Vasco, Basque Autonomous Community); this was the name adopted by the 3 provinces of the Baskongadak, which, prior to the Spanish constitution of 1978, were still known by the antiquated term Provincias Vascongadas.

The Basque districts were now able to wield considerably wide-ranging powers. They were given their own police force, their own parliament, and they were granted a broad degree of control over issues such as taxation and education. An innovative policy of region-specific bilingualism meant that the distinctive Basque language and culture could once again be promoted in Basque-run schools. Many exiles returned from abroad. This outcome satisfied most of the people in Euskal Herria, and many supporters of ETA quietly left the separatist organization to resume normal lives. However, for a minority in the ETA committed to armed struggle, this partial autonomy was not enough. The modest number of remaining hard-core members tenaciously believed that Basques should secure complete freedom from Spain, and to this non-negotiable end the urban guerillas have continued a chaotic program of destructiveness all over Spain. They fear that anything less than full liberation would spell the end of their cultural, linguistic, and national identity within a very short time (adding urgency to their demands has been the weakness of Euskera — which many of them feel is on the verge of annihilation — as a regional language).

Grupos Antiterroristas de Liberación (GAL), illegally directed and financed by officials in the Ministry of Interior, were active from 1984-86. These paramilitary groups and death squads were composed of undisciplined, off-duty members of the security forces (as were their predecessors, ATE and BVE); its mercenaries, many of whom would later be accused of war crimes and other heinous atrocities, carried out further killings and waged a “dirty war” against Basque activists and their property.

In recent years, though security forces and politicians have become the main targets of the fervent hardliners, countless innocent lives (prominent Basques and civilian bystanders) have been lost. ETA has also engaged in bank robberies, kidnappings, intimidation, graffiti, and extortion (collecting a “revolutionary tax” from businesses in Basqueland).

What distinguishes the Basque conflict is its intractability despite significant concessions granted by the 1978 Spanish constitution and in subsequent legislation. While Catalonia has worked within the framework of these delegated powers to strengthen its regional language, culture, and economy, violence continues to fester in the even more autonomous País Vasco. Another province that has made a smoother, less troublesome changeover is the Comunidad Foral de Navarra (Free Community of Navarre), which was formed in 1982.

I purchased 2 different Euskal Herria coins from Mrs. Joan Piñol Bastidas. First, there is a 25 Nabarro piece. Its reverse shows the Arrano Beltza (“Black Eagle”), a modern Basque nationalist version of the ancient arms of the Kingdom of Nafarroa, which signify its unity; more specifically, the aquiline image is found on the seals of King Santxo VII “the Strong” of Navarre. It is used by the leftist Basque patriotic groups as a symbol of unified Euskalerria (another spelling for Euskal Herria). The second coin is a 100 (Ehun) Nabarro piece. Its reverse shows the Casa de Juntas/Assembly House (not only is this building the headquarters of the highest institutional body in Biscay, but it is also the meeting point for all the territories in the Basque Country) and the Árbol de Gernika (the revered oak tree).

Both pieces, dated 1990, feature the same obverse, which depicts the Euskal Herria coat-of-arms; it contains 6 shields, representing its 7 historical herrialdes (provinces) — Nafarroa Beherea (also known as Behenafarroa, Behenabarra, Benabarre) and Nafarroa still share the same emblem. Underneath it, there is a motto which says “ABERRI EGUNA”; this, the “Day of the Fatherland”, is the Basque national holiday which has been held since 1932 and which is always celebrated in conjunction with Easter.

From “Lejona”, the nickname of a collector whom I met via an online Spanish numismatic forum, I learned that there are two additional types: a 1 Nabarro (showcasing a map of the Basque-speaking territory) and a 25 Nabarro (displaying the Ikurriña). The 4-coin set was produced by Herri Batasuna (Popular Unity), which was founded in April 1978, by a coalition of leftist/nationalist groups and individuals who had voted against the Spanish constitution. Considered to be the most militant of all the Basque political parties, its constituent elements had originally been called together in 1977 by senior Basque nationalist Telesforo de Monzón. They backed the aims/goals of ETA so fully, that HB was alleged to be the political arm/wing of ETA. HB spokesperson Arnaldo Otegi was once quoted as saying “You could say we are the last indigenous people in Europe. We are very deeply attached to our land.”

From 1998-2001, Herri Batasuna assumed the name Euskal Herritarrok (Basque Citizens). In '01, HB then dissolved to join Batasuna, a partnership formed to unite all the leftist pro-independence groups in the entire Basque territory. Batasuna is also a principal part of the MLNV, and its officials deny that they are linked to ETA. Though it has been banned in Spain since 2003, the faction is not illegal in France.

According to the text which accompanied the coins, “Today more than ever the desire of our people to regain their sovereignty is patently clear, proof of this being the important occurrences and public demonstrations which to that effect are taking place in recent days.” Therefore, for the Aberri Eguna of 1990, “Herri Batasuna wanted to offer a sample of what had been the complete sovereignty of the Kingdom of Navarre,” so they decided to issue their own coins, just like the bygone monarchy had done. As it were, one of the final pieces made by Navarre was known as the “navarro de oro”. Therefore, the denomination chosen by HB “is the same as that of yesteryear, namely, ‘Nabarro’, but we made the design suitable to the present-day sentiment of the group of inhabitants of Euskal Herria.”

Herri Batasuna intended their tokens “to serve as a reminder of our history” and to act as a memento of that year's celebration. They also hoped the coins would spur all Basques to continue striving towards nationhood, and serve as incentive for everyone to keep contributing his or her own “small grain of sand”, each one so very necessary “in the construction of this new free and supreme Euskal Herria for which we fight.”

These coins, “Lejona” stated, were sold at rustic bars, known as Herriko Tabernas (people's taverns), that were affiliated with HB. The use of these modest establishments, commonly found in all the villages and small towns, came about from the need of the political parties to have places where they could assemble and conduct meetings. Their partisans began financing these social businesses (where their compatriots would often work for no pay), and there eventually arose a network of “txoko-tabernas” (corner-taverns) throughout the Basque territory, where the political parties could be directly connected to the people. The first ones belonged to PNV-EAJ, and were dubbed “Batzokis” by Arana. These were followed by the Herriko Tabernas and several other similar types collectively run by their respective parties, such as the “casas del pueblo” of the Partido Socialista de Euskadi-Euskadiko Ezkerra (PSE-EE), the “Elkar-tokis” of the Eusko Alcartasuna (EA), and the “Esker-tokis” of the Euskal Batasuna (EB).

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