Fighting Basques: Basques in the Last Christmas of the War: The Battle of the Bulge

This article originally appeared in Spanish at El Diario on January 16, 2020.

Alfred S. Etcheverry had graduated from the University of California, where his father was a professor of engineering (Etcheverry Hall on the campus of UC Berkeley is named for him), and then went to Broadway, beginning a promising career as a stage actor. He participated in blockbuster plays such as My Sister Eileen, My Fair Lady, Delicate Story, and Key Largo. In the latter, he shared the bill with actors such as José Ferrer and Paul Muny. He died in combat in the Ardennes (http://www.ons-jongen-a-meedercher.lu/archives/personnes/detail/etcheverry-alfred-starr)

“Echoes of two wars, 1936-1945” aims to disseminate the stories of those Basques and Navarrese who participated in two of the warfare events that defined the future of much of the 20th century. With this blog, the intention of the Sancho de Beurko Association is to rescue from anonymity the thousands of people who constitute the backbone of the historical memory of the Basque and Navarre communities, on both sides of the Pyrenees, and their diasporas of emigrants and descendants, with a primary emphasis on the United States, during the period from 1936 to 1945.

THE AUTHORS
Guillermo Tabernilla
is a researcher and founder of the Sancho de Beurko Association, a non-profit organization that studies the history of the Basques and Navarrese from both sides of the Pyrenees in the Spanish Civil War and in World War II. He is currently their secretary and community manager. He is also editor of the digital magazine Saibigain. Between 2008 and 2016 he directed the catalog of the “Iron Belt” for the Heritage Directorate of the Basque Government and is, together with Pedro J. Oiarzabal, principal investigator of the Fighting Basques Project, a memory project on the Basques and Navarrese in the Second World War in collaboration with the federation of Basque Organizations of North America.

Pedro J. Oiarzabal is a Doctor in Political Science-Basque Studies, granted by the University of Nevada, Reno (USA). For two decades, his work has focused on research and consulting on public policies (citizenship abroad and return), diasporas and new technologies, and social and historical memory (oral history, migration and exile), with special emphasis on the Basque case. He is the author of more than twenty publications. He has authored the blog “Basque Identity 2.0” by EITB and “Diaspora Bizia” by EuskalKultura.eus. On Twitter @Oiarzabal.

Josu M. Aguirregabiria is a researcher and founder of the Sancho de Beurko Association and is currently its president. A specialist in the Civil War in Álava, he is the author of several publications related to this topic, among which “La batalla de Villarreal de Álava” (2015) y “Seis días de guerra en el frente de Álava. Comienza la ofensiva de Mola” (2018) stand out.

On December 14, 1944, two days before a large-scale German offensive began in the Ardennes and just four days after his 33rd birthday, the Basque-Californian soldier Alfred Starr Etcheverry wrote what would be his last letter to his wife Marion Hazard and his two kids:

In a few days, or possibly even a few hours, I shall be going into action. It is never far from my thoughts, that I may not see you again […] If I should die, it will be now one’s responsibility but my own, that is was so willed. This is my way, my army […] However confused is our picture of the world today, however blurred the lines of the conflict, yet I am certain that I fight on the side of men of good will everywhere in the world. No, more than that. For men of ill will were not born so, and may be, by time, and by God’s good grace, be redeemed. It is for men everywhere -whoever they are, wherever they may be, that I am fighting.

Etcheverry, born on December 18, 1912, in Alameda, California, was mortally wounded on January 13, 1945 in Goesdorf (Luxembourg). He was a renowned Broadway actor in New York when he was called up in 1944. He served in the 80th Infantry Division with which he fought on the Moselle and Seille rivers and later in the Battle of the Bulge, where he met his death. His story allows us to humanize a battle that no one expected at a time, at the end of the war, when the arrival of Christmas gave light to the hope of returning home soon.

However, unlike the ceasefire on the Western Front of the Great War on Christmas Eve and Christmas in 1914, the battle that took place in the dense forest of the Ardennes – located between Belgium, France and Luxembourg – during the harsh winter of December 1944 and January 1945 gave the Allies no truce. What came to be known as the Battle of the Bulge (or what the Germans pompously called ‘Operation Wacht am Rhein’) from December 16, 1944 to January 25, 1945, would be the last great German counteroffensive. It was a desperate attempt to break the unstoppable march of the allied forces towards Germany (the first German city, Aachen, had been captured in October), to strategically separate British and Canadian troops, located in the north, from American troops in the south, with the ultimate goal of capturing Antwerp, the key logistics port for the Allies, breaking supply lines and pocketing four Allied armies. The surprise would be complete.

If initially, the German offensive, led by the Waffen-Schutzstaffel (SS), had 19 divisions and about 400,000 men while the Allies only had 8 divisions and about 230,000 soldiers, the situation was reversed towards the end of the conflict. By then, the Allies led some 30 divisions with nearly 700,000 troops and unmatched armament superiority: 2,400 tanks, 3,200 artillery pieces, and 6,000 aircraft. Despite the fact that the diminished and weakened German army had 24 divisions made up of some 380,000 soldiers, its ability to replace weapons was extremely challenged. The Germans with 200 tanks, 3,200 artillery pieces and some 2,400 aircraft were overwhelmed by the Allied thrust. The orographic difficulty, the inclement weather (freezing temperatures and heavy snowfalls), the murders of soldiers captured by the SS, the retaliation against these murders by American soldiers, the infiltration of German troops in American uniforms, and the skirmishes behind enemy lines are stories that make up the epic memory of the Battle of the Bulge, which became the largest and bloodiest single battle fought by the United States (USA) in World War II (WWII); it resulted in 1 in 10 American combat casualties during the war.

Monument to the memory of Alfred Etcheverry in Gosedorf. Source: American War Memorials Overseas (https://www.uswarmemorials.org/html/monument_details.php?SiteID=783&MemID=1083).
Situation of the Battle of the Bulge, Christmas Eve 1944. Source: The National WWII Museum(https://www.ww2classroom.org/node/185).

At the time of publication of this article (originally January, 2020), a score of soldiers of Basque origin had been identified among the US forces that fought in the Battle of the Bulge – a figure that is expected to increase as the “Fighting Basques” research project progresses. For example, in the 90th Infantry Division we find the Navarrese Frank Aristu Garde (born in Iruñea, 1915) and Ernest Uhalde Borda (Auritz / Burguete, 1921) as well as André Sallaberry Baratçabal (Bildoze-Onizepea, 1917) of Zuberoa. Both Aristu and Sallaberry served in the 345th Field Artillery Battalion, while Uhalde fought with the 357th Infantry Regiment, receiving two Bronze Stars.

Ernest Uhalde (on the left) with his brothers, US Army Sergeant Raymond (on the right) and US Marine Corps soldier Albert. Photo courtesy of the Uhalde family.
Aguerrebere was awarded 14 medals, including the Bronze Star, during WWII. Upon his return to the United States, he had the opportunity to participate in the New York Victory Parade. Photograph courtesy of the Aguerrebere family.

In the 2nd Armored Division we have identified Saturnino Peruchena Sánchez (San Francisco, California, 1917) and John Arrillaga Jayo (Mountain Home, Idaho, 1918). Saturnino was part of Battery “A” of the 195th Antiaircraft Artillery Battalion while Arrillaga served in the 78th Field Armored Artillery Battalion. In an interview about his time in the war, Arrillaga confessed: “It got to the point that it really didn’t matter if they killed you or not. You never get used to death or killing, but you accept it ”. He passed away in 1993 in Boise, Idaho, at the age of 74. Peruchena died in 1987 in San Leandro, California. In the mythical 82nd Airborne Division we find the Basque-Filipino Luis Mendieta Larrea (Manapla, 1915) as well as the Basque-Americans Francisco “Frank” Aguerrebere Ilizaliturri (Los Angeles, California, 1925) and Pete Etchepare Arriaga (Elko, Nevada, 1921) . Mendieta and Aguerrebere served in the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR) and, after participating in the invasion of Normandy on D-Day, they took part in the failed “Operation Market Garden” (September 17-25, 1944 ) in Holland. Finally, they were sent to the Ardennes with the aim of breaking the resistance in Bastogne. In the words of Mendieta – collected in the pioneering work of José Miguel Romaña World War II and The Basques – “It was a very difficult moment, because we had to face large concentrations of German tanks […] Another terrible enemy was the cold”. Aguerrebere echoed this sentiment as he vividly remembered “the bitter cold of the long month of the Battle of the Bulge […] with limited ammunition and with clothes that were not suitable for the cold” [1]. On January 5, 1944, 40 km from Bastogne, in Vaux Chavanne, Etchepare, of the 325th Glider Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Division and another veteran of D-Day and “Operation Market Garden,” met his death. His forward position was surprised by a German counterattack with a Tiger tank.

Frank Solaegui in a picture from the end of World War II. Born in Fallon, Nevada, he had participated in all the battles of the 101st Airborne Division since Normandy. He was in the siege of Bastogne and was promoted to lieutenant for war merits (coutesy of the Solaegui family).

Frank Solaegui Mugartegui, sergeant of the 506th PIR of the 101st Airborne Division and born in Fallon, Nevada in 1921 to Biscayan parents, found himself in the heart of Bastogne. (He was the brother of Daniel, merchant marine of the SS Melville E. Stone, sunk by U-516 in 1943). Their situation was not at all promising, to the point that the Germans even requested the surrender of the division, but the “battered bastards” of Bastonge resisted all overtures and their feats became tremendously popular, reaching our time through from the series Band of Brothers (2001) by producers Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks. In fact, Solaegui, who would become a lieutenant on war merits, was with Major Richard Winters when he took over command of the 2nd Battalion of the 506th.

In a period of just over a month, some 19,000 American and 200 British soldiers had died, while on the German side about 11,000 had died. Among the former, Private First Class Miguel “Mike” Etchart León, born October 21, 1924 in Bakersfield, California, served in Company “A” of the 705th Tank Destroyer Battalion. Mike, in his early twenties, died in Belgium from German machine gun fire during combat on Christmas Eve.

Photograph dated April 1, 1944 of the 705th Battalion at Fort Lewis, Washington, of which Mike Etchart was part. Source: https://www.tankdestroyer.net/

Despite the high number of Allied dead and wounded (about 45,000 Americans and about 1,000 British) and missing or captured (about 23,000 Americans and about 200 British), the Ardennes was a definitive strategic victory. Among those captured was the Biscayan Santiago “Santy” Mendieta Telleria. Born in 1914, he grew up with his twelve brothers and sisters on the family’s sheep ranch in Jordan Valley, Oregon. Santiago enlisted in 1942 and was assigned to the 2nd Armored Division as a gunner. His division was sent to the North African battlefield in November and from there to Sicily, Italy, in July 1943. Finally, Santiago and his comrades landed on June 9, 1944, in Normandy, fighting through France until reaching Belgium. The 2nd Armored Division helped contain heavy German attacks during the Ardennes counteroffensive. However, at one point Santiago was trapped behind enemy lines and was reported missing on December 21, 1944. At first, a Belgian family hid him on his farm and then in a nearby forest for seventeen days. Unfortunately, Santiago was eventually arrested by the Germans and sent to the Stalag IX-B prisoner of war camp in the vicinity of Bad Orb in Hesse, Germany, where he stayed for 95 days until he was liberated by the US military.

Photograph of Mendieta in military uniform. Upon his return to the US, Mendieta defined the Bab Orb prison camp as a “famine camp.” Source: ION Heritage Museum (Jordan Valley).

The German defeat, at the cost of consuming its last and most valuable human and material resources, only temporarily delayed the Allied advance towards Germany, and accelerated the inexorable victory of the Soviet army on the Eastern Front. After the Allied victory, the breaking of the “Siegfried Line” – the West German defensive wall that stretched from Holland to Switzerland – was a matter of time. On the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge we remember those soldiers who gave us their Christmas (the last of the war) so that we could be free, taking part in one of the last great battles in Europe.

[1] Oral History of Frank Aguerrebere. Interviewed by Vicki Torres for Voces Oral History Project (The University of Texas Libraries, Austin) on January 7, 2011.

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Basque Fact of the Week: Basques at the 2021 Olympics

The 2021 Olympics, hosted by Japan, are about half over. There have been a number of dramatic story lines already to go along with the amazing feats of athletic prowess. And, while the Basque Country doesn’t get to field its own team, there are of course a number of Basque athletes that are competing at the games. There are 21 from the Basque Autonomous Community alone, not counting any from Nafarroa or Iparralde. Here is a run down of a few that have already competed and others that are coming up. This list isn’t complete, so if you know of others, please tell me in the comments.

Maialen Chourraut in her qualifying run for the K1 canoe slalom, in which she eventually won silver. Photo from EITB.eus.
  • Pauline Ado is a surfer from Baiona. In 2016, she won Bronze at the World Surfing Games. She lost on Monday to Sally Fitzgibbons of Australia, ending her quest for a medal.
  • Julen Aguinagalde Akizu is part of the Spanish men’s handball team, which is still in medal contention. Also from Irun, Julen has been playing professionally since 2000. He was also part of the 2012 games in London.
  • Jonathan Atsu, of France, competed in the 200 meters freestyle, where he was eliminated in an early heat.
  • Clara Azurmendi Moreno, from Donostia, has played two matches of badminton, winning one and losing one, in group play. However, she won’t be moving on to the next round.
  • José María Basterra Ochoa is a professional field hockey player who is playing for the Spanish national team in Tokyo. The team has played five games, winning one, losing two, and two ties. They play Belgium on Sunday in the quarterfinals.
  • Maialen Chourraut Yurramendi, from Lasarte-Oria in Gipuzkoa, won the silver medal in the K1 canoe slalom event. In the Rio games, she won gold. She’s also won a number of World Cups in the K1, the first time in 2010. She is the first Basque to win three Olympic medals.
  • Carlota Ciganda Machiñena is a professional golfer. She was born in Pamplona. She was named Rookie of the Year in 2012 and was ranked 15th in the world at the end of 2020. On Wednesday, she will compete in the Women’s Individual Stroke Play.
  • Virginia Díaz Rivas, of Basque Team, and her Catalan partner Aina Cid Centelles competed in coxless pair, finishing sixth in the final. By finishing in the top 8, she earned an Olympic diploma.
  • Ander Elosegi Alkain is also a slalom canoeist, from Irun, also in Gipuzkoa, he has the distinction to be the first Basque to compete in four different Olympic Games. He’s won silver twice and bronze once at the World Cup. At Tokyo, he finished 8th in the finals, earning an Olympic diploma for a top-8 finish.
  • Teresa Errandonea Fernández de Barrena is a hurdler from Irun, in Gipuzkoa. She finished 6th in her heat on Saturday, July 31, which wasn’t enough to qualify for the next round. She holds the Basque record for the 100 meter hurdles with a time of 13.16 seconds.
  • The Nafarroan Sergio Fernández Roda, a hurdler from the town of Barañáin, first participated in the Olympics at the 2016 games in Rio. He has reached as high as 2nd place in the European Championships. He was was eliminated in the first round of the 400 meter hurdles in Tokyo.
  • Omar Fraile Matarranza, born in Santurtzi, Bizkaia, is a racing cyclist. He competed in the road race that was held on Saturday, July 24, but did not finish.
  • Eduardo Gurbindo Martínez, from Pamplona, is a professional handball player. He and his teammate Julen Aguinagalde, along with the rest of the Spanish national team, have won 3 of 4 games in Group A, with the next game to be played on Sunday against Argentina.
  • Ainhoa Hernández Serrador is part of the Spanish women’s handball team. From Barakaldo, near Bilbao, this is her first Olympics. The team plays against Russia on Monday.
  • Gorka Izagirre Insausti is a cyclist from Ormaiztegi, Gipuzkoa. He finished 23rd on the road race held on Saturday, July 24. His brother Ion competed in the same event, finishing 79th. Ion also competed in the time trial, but did not finish.
  • Odei Jainaga Larrea, from Eibar, Gipuzkoa, is competing in his first Olympic Games in the men’s javelin throw. The competition starts on Wednesday, August 4. He holds the Spanish record with a distance of 84.80 meters.
  • Xabier López-Arostegui Eskauriaza is a professional basketball player. Born in Getxo, Bizkaia, he currently plays for Valencia Basket. The Spanish team has won its first two games in Group C, with the next game on August 1.
  • Elena Loyo Menoyo, from Vitoria, is a marathon runner. She will compete in the women’s marathon on August 7.
  • Asier Martínez Echarte, born in Zizur Mayor in Nafarroa, specializes in the 110 meter hurdles. By finishing second in the Spanish national championship, he qualified for Tokyo. He competes on August 3 — Tuesday.
  • Mikel Merino Zazón is a professional soccer player from Pamplona. He plays for Real Sociedad. He is part of the Spanish national team playing in Tokyo.
  • Jon Moncayola Tollar, from the Nafarroan town of Garinoian, is professional soccer player who plays for Osasuna. He is part of the Spanish national team in Tokyo.
  • Garbiñe Muguruza Blanco is a tennis player from Venezuela but who competes for Spain — her father is from Azkoitia, Gipuzkoa. She’s reached number 1 in the world rankings and defeated Serena Williams in the 2014 French Open. She lost on Wednesday in the women’s singles quarterfinals to Kazakhstan’s Elena Rybakina.
  • Alberto Munárriz Egaña is from Pamplona and is part of the Spanish national water polo team. He also competed in the 2016 games in Rio. So far, Spain is undefeated in Group B play. They wrap up group play on Monday against Croatia.
  • Mikel Oyarzabal Ugarte is a forward for Real Sociedad, playing in Tokyo as part of the Spanish national team. He was born in Eibar, Gipuzkoa. The Spanish team has made it to the semifinal match, which will be against Japan on Tuesday.
  • Nerea Pena Abaurrea is a professional handball player from Pamplona. She is part of the Spanish national team that is playing in group B, which wraps up on Monday against Russia. She also participated in the 2016 games in Rio.
  • Íñigo Peña Arriola, a spring canoeist, is from Zumaia, Gipuzkoa, competing in the men’s K-4 1000 meters. This is his second Olympics, having also participated in the Rio Games. The canoe sprint starts on Wednesday, August 4.
  • Kevin Peponnet, born in Donibane Lohizune, Lapurdi, is competing in sailing.
  • Jon Rahm Rodríguez, a golfer from Barrika, Bizkaia, is perhaps the most famous athlete on this list, having recently won the US Open and current number 1 ranked golfer in the world, was scheduled to compete in Tokyo, but is stuck at home due to a positive COVID test.
  • Ane Santesteban González, from Errenteria, Gipuzkoa, finished 28th in the women’s road race. This was her second Olympics.
  • Unai Simón Mendibil, a goalkeeper for Athletic Bilbao, originally hails from Vitoria. He is part of the Spanish national team.
  • Martín Zubimendi Ibáñez, whose day job is to play for Real Sociedad, was born in Donostia. As part of the Spanish national team, he will play in the semifinals against Japan on Tuesday.

Primary sources: Basque Team 2021, EITB.eus; BasqueTeam.eus; ¿Cuándo y a qué hora compiten los deportistas vascos en los Juegos Olímpicos de Tokio? EITB.eus

The Adventures of Maite and Kepa: Part 63

The Adventures of Maite and Kepa is a weekly serial. While it is a work of fiction, it has elements from both my own experiences and stories I’ve heard from various people. The characters, while in some cases inspired by real people, aren’t directly modeled on anyone in particular. I expect there will be inconsistencies and factual errors. I don’t know where it is going, and I’ll probably forget where it’s been. Why am I doing this? To give me an excuse and a deadline for some creative writing and because I thought people might enjoy it. Gozatu!

Kepa was partnered with a grouchy Basque that was only maybe five years his senior, but looked like he had lived in the mountains for decades. His face was leathery from the constant sun and he had a permanent tan that had been burned into his skin. Kepa laughed to himself at the contrast when his partner took off his shirt to wash it, as his upper arms and belly were as white as the snow.

Kepa’s job was to tend the camp while his partner, Santi, followed the sheep as they roamed the countryside. At first, Kepa struggled with his role as everything was so new to him. He was supposed to get up early to make coffee, but the coffee was too weak and Santi nearly spit it out as he cursed Kepa’s name. Santi vaguely described how Kepa was supposed to make bread in the Dutch oven, but the first time, he burnt the bread and the second time it was raw in the middle. At least Kepa was able to make a good stew, having watched his Ama in the baserri so many times. 

“Hau ona da,” said Santi in between mouthfuls of the lamb stew. 

It was the first kind words the older man had said since Kepa had joined him.

Over time, Kepa got better at making bread and coffee, and soon Santi began relaxing around his younger partner. Most of the time, however, Kepa was alone tending the camp as Santi herded the flock. He kept his eye out for any sign of the zatia, but he had to admit to himself that there was no chance it was nestled amongst the sagebrush.

One evening, after a particularly good dinner, Kepa and Santi were sitting around the campfire, sipping on a cup of coffee, when Santi asked “Where are you from?”

Kepa was momentarily startled by the question, as Santi had never asked him about his home before.

“I grew up in a baserri near Aulesti,” said Kepa. “Eta zu? And you?”

“Mundaka. A baserri up in the trees, away from the ocean.”

“I’ve been to Mundaka. It’s beautiful there. The surfing is awesome.”

Santi looked at his young ward skeptically. “Surfing?”

“Sorry,” Kepa blurted out all flustered. “I mean, the beaches are beautiful.”

“They are. Almost as beautiful as the girls,” said Santi wistfully.

“I assume there’s one waiting back at home for you?”

Santi shook his head. “No. There was, but she died. Tuberculosis.”

“Sentitzen dut. I’m so sorry.”

Santi shrugged. “There isn’t anything to do about it. I sometimes wish I could have been there with her. But, I was here, with these damn sheep.”

“Why don’t you go back now? There are other girls.”

“Not for me. For me, it’s just these sheep. I might as well stay here and forget everything about home. About her. Anyways, your cooking is getting really good. They’re going to want you in the restaurant soon.”

Santi got up to find his bedroll. “Gabon.”

“Gabon,” replied Kepa.

Kepa, unable to sleep, watched the fire as it died down, the hot coals twinkling in the dark.

If you get this post via email, the return-to address goes no where, so please write blas@buber.net if you want to get in touch with me.

Basque Fact of the Week: Saint Ignatius, Founder of the Jesuits

Note that, if you get this post via email, the return-to address goes no where, so please write blas@buber.net if you want to get in touch with me.

Basques were relatively late-comers to Christianity, holding on to their pre-Christian ways longer than many of their neighbors. However, when they did embrace the new religion, they often did so with great fervor. This devotion led more than one Basque to become leaders of the faith. Saint Ignatius is the most widely recognized of these Basques. His feast day is celebrated by Basques all over the world. As the founder of the Society of Jesus – the Jesuits – his impact on the lives of people all over the world cannot be understated.

St. Ignatius of Loyola. Image from Georgetown University.
  • The man who would become Saint Ignatius, Iñigo López de Oñaz y Loyola, was born on October 23, 1491 in Azpeitia, Gipuzkoa, in the Castle of Loyola (now part of the Sanctuary of Loyola) to parents of noble descent. Iñigo was the youngest of thirteen children. As he grew up, he became a soldier, first as a page to a relative. As a young man, he desired fame and glory, and had a reputation for womanizing and vanity, and used his privileged status to escape punishment for various crimes.
  • On May 20, 1521, at the Battle of Pamplona, a cannonball, bouncing off a wall, shattered his leg. He was taken back to his father’s castle where he recovered. His leg ended up shorter than before, effectively ending his military career.
  • It was during his recovery that he underwent his spiritual conversion. Without access to the chivalric adventures of his childhood heroes such as El Cid, he read religious texts given to him by his sister-in-law. When he recovered, he gave up his fine clothes and weapons and lived a life of poverty, begging for room and food, and set off for the Holy Land. On the way, he spent months praying in a cave, shunning all fleshly pleasures, and began formulating what became his Spiritual Exercises.
  • When he returned, he attended first the University of Alcalá and then the University of Paris. It was during this time that he met a number of other devout men, particularly Peter Faber and Francis Xavier (more on him in a future Fact), who together founded the Society of Jesus, or the Jesuits, in 1539. Ignatius was the first Superior General, or head, of the Jesuits. in 1553, the Jesuits adopted the Jesuit Constitutions, written by Ignatius with the help of his secretary, which proscribed the motto perinde ac cadaver – “as if a dead body” – meaning that they should be as disciplined as a corpse.
  • Ignatius died on July 31, 1556, a day celebrated as his feast day. He was canonized March 12, 1622. He is the patron saint of Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa and the Basque Country, and co-patron of Araba. He is also the patron of soldiers and various cities around the world.

Primary sources: Ignatius of Loyola, Wikipedia; Larrañaga Elorza, Koldo; Larrañaga Elorza, Koldo. Loyola, Ignacio de. Enciclopedia Auñamendi, 2021. Available at: http://aunamendi.eusko-ikaskuntza.eus/es/loyola-ignacio-de/ar-96790/

The Adventures of Maite and Kepa: Part 62

Kepa fidgeted in his saddle as the foreman led him into the hills. He had never ridden a horse in his life, and his “character” in this time bubble had never either. 

The foreman looked back and saw Kepa’s obvious discomfort. He chuckled. “Never been on a horse before, eh?”

The Adventures of Maite and Kepa is a weekly serial. While it is a work of fiction, it has elements from both my own experiences and stories I’ve heard from various people. The characters, while in some cases inspired by real people, aren’t directly modeled on anyone in particular. I expect there will be inconsistencies and factual errors. I don’t know where it is going, and I’ll probably forget where it’s been. Why am I doing this? To give me an excuse and a deadline for some creative writing and because I thought people might enjoy it. Gozatu!

Kepa just shook his head, wondering what he had gotten himself into. 

“We still got a few hours before we get to the camp,” said the foreman. “Let’s stop and take a rest. I could use something to eat.”

The foreman, who had introduced himself as Dominique, reined in his horse and dismounted. Kepa tried to do the same, but he nearly fell out of the saddle onto the ground. He dusted himself off as he stood, glaring at the horse.

“Don’t worry,” said Dominique as he grabbed the reins of Kepa’s horse and lashed them to a tree next to his own and the third horse that was carrying supplies for the camps. “It gets easier with practice. Hell, after a while you almost feel like riding is more natural than walking.”

Kepa rubbed his butt cheeks, grimacing as he did so. “I can’t imagine that day will ever come.”

Dominique sat down with his back against a tree, beckoning Kepa to join him. Dominique was a bit older than Kepa, maybe in his forties. His skin was dark and leathered; he’d clearly spent many days out in the sun. He wore a cowboy hat to keep the sun from beating on his head. And he was clearly still very fit from all of his time working outside. 

Dominique handed his charge a canteen. Kepa gratefully accepted it and took a few large swallows of cool water before handing it back. Dominique took his own drink before stashing the canteen and pulling out a small bundle that he unwrapped. He gave a piece of jerky to Kepa before biting into his own.

“So, what brought you out here, anyways?” asked Dominque.

Kepa shrugged. “Truth be told? Money. Things are hard back home. I just want to make some money to help my family.” As the words came out, Kepa was shocked to hear how naturally this story came out of him. It was as if he had really been some other person, with a completely different history than his own. But, at the same time, he was himself, with his own memories and story. He didn’t think too hard about how the two identities shared space in his head.

“You got any family here?”

Kepa shook his head. “No. I had an uncle that had come out here. Well, not here, Oregon. But he came back and got married. He always told me how much money he made working out here. Though I could do the same.” 

Dominique nodded. “There’s good money here, if you work hard and don’t waste it in town. I’ve seen too many throw all of their money away at cards or worse. They never have enough to go back.”

“How about you?” asked Kepa. “What brought you out here?”

“I can’t lie, I was attracted by the money too. But,” he said wistfully, “there was a girl too. Her uncle had sent for her, promising opportunities. She didn’t feel she could say no, so she came out here, and I followed. Things didn’t work out for us. Anyways, she went back to our town and I just couldn’t, so I decided to stay.” He shrugged. “I’ve done pretty well for myself. I can’t complain.”

“Hegaztia airerako, gizona lanerako,” said Kepa. “Just like birds are meant to fly, men are meant to work.”

Dominique smiled. “With that attitude, I think you’ll do just fine out here.”

If you get this post via email, the return-to address goes no where, so please write blas@buber.net if you want to get in touch with me.

The Adventures of Maite and Kepa: Part 61

The Adventures of Maite and Kepa is a weekly serial. While it is a work of fiction, it has elements from both my own experiences and stories I’ve heard from various people. The characters, while in some cases inspired by real people, aren’t directly modeled on anyone in particular. I expect there will be inconsistencies and factual errors. I don’t know where it is going, and I’ll probably forget where it’s been. Why am I doing this? To give me an excuse and a deadline for some creative writing and because I thought people might enjoy it. Gozatu!

Maite knocked on the door at the end of the hall. After prepping food for lunch, it was her job to tidy up the rooms of the boarders and change their linens. She also saw it as an opportunity to take a look, to search for the zatia. 

When there was no answer, she opened the door. The room was sparse, holding just a bed, a small dresser, and a desk. She stripped the bed, throwing the used linens into a basket. As she lifted up the thin mattress to put the clean sheets on, she noticed a small suitcase underneath. Peeking down the hall and seeing no one, she quietly pulled it out and opened it up, hoping to find the zatia. Instead, all she found were clothes, an old Bible, and a photo. The photo showed a family arrayed out in front of an old baserri. There must have been at least twelve people in the picture, the two old grandparents in front, the parents standing right behind them, and a seemingly random assortment of children, the youngest only a baby sitting in amuma’s lap. The faces of the older men reminded her of Juan Jose.

She heard steps in the hallway and quickly closed the suitcase and tucked it back under the bed. She was fluffing the pillow when the old herder came in.

“Ah, you must be the new girl,” he said. “I saw you last night with that new boy, what’s his name?”

“Kepa?” replied Maite.

“Bai, horixe. Kepa. How is he?”

Maite shrugged. “He went off to the hills this morning, so I think he is ok.”

Juan Jose raised an eyebrow but didn’t say anything.

“Anyways,” Maite said as she gathered up her basket. “I’m done here. Sorry to be in your way.”

“Oh, don’t worry. I was just going to take a quick nap before lunch. These old bones can’t go as long as they used to. And I need to be ready for the card games,” he added with a wink.

As Maite left the room, she turned. “Can I ask you a question?”

Juan Jose, who had sat down on the corner of his bed, looked up. “Noski. Sure.”

“Why didn’t you ever go back? Why stay here in this godforsaken place?”

Juan Jose sighed as his head dropped. “I always meant to go back. I thought I’d just work for a few years, make some money, and go back home a big shot. All of my family was back there. But, this place has a way of changing you. And things changed back home too. I went back to visit once or twice, but it was different. My parents died, my oldest brothers died. And the girl I had my heart set on had moved on, had found someone who hadn’t left her behind.” 

As he looked up again, Maite saw that his eyes had teared up. “And, I guess I just got used to this place. In the end, it isn’t so bad. I have friends here, a good home. For a while, I even had a girl here. Life is what you make of it and my life here hasn’t been so bad.”

“Wouldn’t it have been even better back home? Back in the Basque Country?”

“Ez. I don’t think so. My uncle died in the war. Most of my brothers and sisters started working in other baserris before they were fourteen. There or here, life was just work. And at least here there was a chance of something better. Some of us get our own flocks, make some real money. Or they open a boarding house, like this one. Back home, there was no chance for that. Maybe someday, but right now…” He shook his head. “As hard as it is here, it is harder there.”

Maite simply nodded as she turned down the hall and to the next room. As she left Juan Jose’s room, she heard the old man sigh again. 

“Baina, bai. Sometimes I wish I’d gone back,” he said in almost a whisper.

If you get this post via email, the return-to address goes no where, so please write blas@buber.net if you want to get in touch with me.

Basque Fact of the Week: The San Telmo Museum

Maybe, slowly, life is starting to return to some semblance of normal and people are going to start traveling again, visiting family and friends they haven’t seen for over a year or more. If you find yourself in the Basque Country with some time to spare, check out the San Telmo Museum. Nestled in the heart of Donostia at the foot of Mount Urgull, it hosts an amazing collection of art and objects detailing the life and history of the Basques.

Image from dezeen.com.
  • The museum sits in a building that dates back to the 16th century, when it was used as a convent by Dominican friars. It was built thanks to the patronage of one Alonso de Idiáquez, Secretary of State of Emperor Carlos I, and was dedicated to San Telmo, the patron saint of sailors. The convent was damaged in 1813 during the War of Independence and was later confiscated in 1836, when the friars were kicked out and the building became an artillery barracks. By the end of the 19th century, the building was in bad shape. In 1913, the tower and cloister were declared national monuments and, by 1932, the city turned the building into the municipal museum.
  • The museum itself was started a bit earlier, in 1900, thanks to the support of the Sociedad Económica Vascongada de Amigos del País. At the beginning, the museum had no funds to curate its collection, so it asked for donations from the people of the city to get going. It wasn’t long before it out-grew its space and the move to San Telmo was proposed.
  • From 2007-2011, the museum underwent a major renovation with a new extension designed by the architects Fuensanta Nieto and Enrique Sobejano. The extension features a porous façade that is both meant to mimic the erosion of older stone but also to provide a place for vegetation and light to penetrate the wall. There is also a staircase by which people can climb up to the roof level and up to Mount Urgull.
  • Today, the museum hosts a collection of more than 26,000 pieces. While focusing on ethnography and fine arts — particularly contemporary Basque painting — it also has collections on photography, archeology, and history. One of the highlights is a series of paintings by José María Sert, who was commissioned for the inauguration of the museum to recreate the life and history of Guipuzcoa in eleven scenes.
  • The museum has three temporary exhibits currently on display. Sheltered by Urgull highlights the prominent role that Mount Urgull has in the life of Donostia. Between the smoke and the haze features the photographs of Siegfried Koch Bengoechea, including his photos of the bombing of the Basque Country during the Spanish Civil War. Finally, The close look features the work of María Millán and her photographs of the people and places of The Dominican Republic, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Mongolia and Peru.

Primary sources: Barandiaran García, Ander. Museo de San Telmo. San Sebastián. Enciclopedia Auñamendi. Available at: https://aunamendi.eusko-ikaskuntza.eus/es/museo-de-san-telmo-san-sebastian/ar-83515/; San Telmo Museoa, Wikipedia.

If you get this post via email, the return-to address goes no where, so please write blas@buber.net if you want to get in touch with me.

The Adventures of Maite and Kepa: Part 60

Buber’s Basque Story is a weekly serial. While it is a work of fiction, it has elements from both my own experiences and stories I’ve heard from various people. The characters, while in some cases inspired by real people, aren’t directly modeled on anyone in particular. I expect there will be inconsistencies and factual errors. I don’t know where it is going, and I’ll probably forget where it’s been. Why am I doing this? To give me an excuse and a deadline for some creative writing and because I thought people might enjoy it. Gozatu!

The next morning, Maite watched as Kepa left with his foreman for the sheep camp that would be his home for the next several months. She chuckled to herself as she watched Kepa on the horse, trying to stay upright. He almost fell off when he turned to wave goodbye and blow her a kiss. She could see the swollen gash almost throbbing on his cheek. She waved to him before returning to the kitchen to prepare lunch for those who still remained in the boarding house.

“You’ve really taken a shine to that one,” she heard from behind her as she peeled potatoes. 

“Huh?” asked Maite as she turned. Behind her stood Elena, one of the other young women who had immigrated from the Basque Country at the behest of her uncle.

“That new herder, what’s his name?”

“Kepa…”

“Bai, Kepa. You really like him, don’t you?” Elena gave Maite a playful jab in the ribs with her elbow.

Maite blushed. “He’s… nice,” she said with a smile. Then her face darkened. “I just hope he doesn’t get into any more trouble up there.”

“He’ll be alright,” said Elena. “The herders look after each other. And most of these cowboys, they’re more talk than anything.”

“That Donny doesn’t seem to be just talk,” replied Maite.

“No, but he’s only tough when he has his friends around and he’s had a few drinks. He’s scared to death of his aita. If he brought trouble to the family…” Elena shook her head. “It’s only when he’s been drinking that he acts so foolishly.”

“I hope you are right,” said Maite. “I hate to think of Kepa up there alone with those cowboys.”

“Maybe you’ll have to go check on him then, to see how he’s doing.”

“I can do that?” asked Maite excitedly.

Elena nodded. “They do supply runs to the camps every week or so. Sometimes, we accompany them, help them pack up the supplies and deliver them to the herders. I’ve gone up there a few times.” She shook her head. “It sucks up there. All alone for months at a time, with only the dog and the other herder, and thousands of sheep. Sometimes, I think running into the cowboys might be a good thing, to keep the mind sharp.”

“I’ve heard that some of them go crazy?” asked Maite.

Elena nodded again. “They call it getting sheeped or sagebrushed. The brain needs human interaction. If all you hear is the bleating of the damn sheep for months on end… some of them can’t take it.”

“Have you seen…?” began Maite.

“Bai,” nodded Elena. “There was one, he just can’t talk to people any more. He has a small room in one of the other boarding houses. He keeps to himself, talking nonsense all day. I try to stay away from him when I see him wandering the streets. He gets agitated easily around people and it’s hard to calm him down. I’m afraid he’ll hurt himself or someone else one of these days.”

“I don’t understand,” replied Maite. “Are things so bad in our country that we need to come here and do this?”

“I don’t know how it was for you,” answered Elena, “but there just wasn’t enough for all of us back home. The baserri couldn’t support all of us. We were nine anai-arrebak — brothers and sisters. Two uncles lived with us, and amuma too. Ama and my older brothers worked hard to keep the baserri running, while aita worked in town for extra money, but it wasn’t enough for all of us. One brother left to study to be a priest. Another sister works as a housekeeper in Bilbao. But, even so, there wasn’t enough for the rest of us.” She shrugged as she grabbed a stack of plates. “Why not come out here, try to make some money and go back for a better life? A few years of hard work here is nothing.”

Elena pushed through the door to the dining hall as Maite returned to peeling her potatoes.

If you get this post via email, the return-to address goes no where, so please write blas@buber.net if you want to get in touch with me.

Fighting Basques: Félix and Julián Oleaga, Two Basque Brothers at the Front in Europe. From D-Day to Bastogne

This article originally appeared in Spanish at EuskalKultura.eus.

The brothers Félix (left) and Julián Oleaga, proud of their Basque origin, honored the memory of their “brothers in arms” throughout their lives (photo courtesy of the Oleaga family)

Having just turned 19, the young Basque-New Yorker Julián Oleaga Garayo, slight of build, found himself with hundreds of his compatriots literally up to his neck in water – laden with equipment that almost equaled his own weight – starring in one of the most momentous episodes of the Second World War (WWII). D-Day.

“Echoes of two wars, 1936-1945” aims to disseminate the stories of those Basques and Navarrese who participated in two of the warfare events that defined the future of much of the 20th century. With this blog, the intention of the Sancho de Beurko Association is to rescue from anonymity the thousands of people who constitute the backbone of the historical memory of the Basque and Navarre communities, on both sides of the Pyrenees, and their diasporas of emigrants and descendants, with a primary emphasis on the United States, during the period from 1936 to 1945.

THE AUTHORS
Guillermo Tabernilla
is a researcher and founder of the Sancho de Beurko Association, a non-profit organization that studies the history of the Basques and Navarrese from both sides of the Pyrenees in the Spanish Civil War and in World War II. He is currently their secretary and community manager. He is also editor of the digital magazine Saibigain. Between 2008 and 2016 he directed the catalog of the “Iron Belt” for the Heritage Directorate of the Basque Government and is, together with Pedro J. Oiarzabal, principal investigator of the Fighting Basques Project, a memory project on the Basques and Navarrese in the Second World War in collaboration with the federation of Basque Organizations of North America.

Pedro J. Oiarzabal is a Doctor in Political Science-Basque Studies, granted by the University of Nevada, Reno (USA). For two decades, his work has focused on research and consulting on public policies (citizenship abroad and return), diasporas and new technologies, and social and historical memory (oral history, migration and exile), with special emphasis on the Basque case. He is the author of more than twenty publications. He has authored the blog “Basque Identity 2.0” by EITB and “Diaspora Bizia” by EuskalKultura.eus. On Twitter @Oiarzabal.

Josu M. Aguirregabiria is a researcher and founder of the Sancho de Beurko Association and is currently its president. A specialist in the Civil War in Álava, he is the author of several publications related to this topic, among which “La batalla de Villarreal de Álava” (2015) y “Seis días de guerra en el frente de Álava. Comienza la ofensiva de Mola” (2018) stand out.

The Basque New Yorker made his way through the waves, between the bodies of the fallen, the mines and the enemy artillery with the aim of assaulting the “Easy Red” sector of Omaha Beach.

It was his baptism of fire.

Julián and his companions from Company B of the 1st Battalion of the 18th Regiment of the mythical 1st Infantry Division, the “Big Red One,” were part of the second wave during the D-Day invasion of Normandy.

After reaching the beach, they climbed a steep slope and found German troops heavily entrenched in their bunkers. On the 70th anniversary of D-Day, Julián lamented to a New York Times reporter about the high cost in lives it took to drive the Germans back [1]. At 89 years old, he chose, as he confessed to the American television channel CBS, to block the day he saw many of his friends die.

“I want to forget things like that,” he snapped at the interviewer [2].

More than 750 soldiers from the 1st Infantry Division, including Julián, received the Bronze Star for their heroic achievement during the Normandy invasion.

In turn, the 18th Infantry Regiment received two Distinguished Commendations for action in combat from June 6 to 16, 1944. Starting with the capture of Omaha Beach, the 18th would be involved in combat for almost eleven straight months until the end of the war in May, 1945.

Almost a month and a half after Julián’s arrival on the European continent, his older brother Feliciano “Félix” Oleaga Garayo, born in Mundaka (Bizkaia) in 1921, landed on Omaha Beach with his companions from the 44th Armored Infantry Battalion of the 6th Armored Division, the “Super Sixth.”

During the two months that the Oleaga brothers overlapped in the European Theater of Operations, they encountered lethal German resistance in Normandy as well as in northern France and in the Rhineland during their military advance.

We do not know if they knew of the existence of one another during the three military campaigns in which they took part, although without any doubt the Oleaga occupy a prominent place among the hundreds of “Fighting Basques” of WWII.

Both Félix and Julián had very distinguished military careers, as they were continuously in combat against the Wehrmacht for months. Furthermore, Julián joins the almost fifty veterans of Basque origin who participated in D-Day in Normandy identified to date.

Map of the “Easy Red” sector of Omaha Beach on D-Day where Julián Oleaga disembarked (source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Omaha_beach_easy_red.jpg).

But since every story has a beginning, let’s start there.

The boys’ father was the merchant sailor Julián Oleaga Bajineta, born in Mundaka in 1894.

He arrived at the Port of New York for the first time in 1912, establishing his home and that of his future wife, Ciriaca Garayo Acha, and their children in the city of skyscrapers.

Ciriaca, born in the Araba town of Llodio in 1900, arrived in New York with Félix, just two years old, in 1924.

In 1925 she gave birth to Julián, on the Lower Eastside of Manhattan.

Two siblings of Julián Sr., Margarita and Gregorio, also emigrated to New York in 1918 and 1920, respectively.

It is estimated that between 8,000 and 10,000 Basques might have resided in New York around 1920 [3].

Ciriaca Garayo Acha poses with her children Julián and Félix Oleaga at a photographic studio in Bilbao after her last stay in New York (photo courtesy of the Oleaga family).

Diagnosed with tuberculosis, Ciriaca returned with her children to Mundaka.

Faced with the impossibility of the father taking care of the children as he was working at sea most of the time, their grandparents and aunts took on this responsibility, after the early death of their mother in 1933.

Félix and Julián grew up in the family’s farmhouse in the aforementioned Biscayan coastal town until they were claimed by their father in 1938.

Félix was 16 years old and Julián 13 when they returned to New York, going to live, at first, with their aunt Margarita. They began a new life in a city alien to them.

The brothers attended Mount St. Charles Academy, a Catholic high school in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, from which they graduated with honors.

Meanwhile, their father had gotten a job on a tugboat for the Standard Oil Company in New York Harbor itself.

One year after the United States declared war on Japan and Germany, Félix, 20 years old, enlisted in the Army in New York City.

A year later, in 1943, his little brother would follow in his footsteps.

The brothers Julián (standing) and Félix pose with their father, Julián Oleaga Bajineta, in their Army uniform (photo courtesy of the Oleaga family).

Returning our story back to Europe, in 1944 to be exact, Julián and his company crossed France and Belgium and entered Germany, until a projectile exploded above him.

The war was over for the D-Day veteran.

Julián was wounded outside the city of Aachen on September 18, 1944, at the beginning of the Battle of Hürtgen Forest, for which he received the Purple Heart.

According to his son, Julian Oleaga Volponi, “my father lost the calf of his left leg and had artillery shrapnel in his back for the rest of his life with the consequent degree of disability.”

Admitted to a field hospital, he was later evacuated to another hospital in Scotland and from there to the US in February 1945.

In November of that same year, Julián was honorably discharged with the rank of first class private, being awarded the Medal of Good Conduct, the Combat Infantry Badge, and the European-African-Middle East Campaign Ribbon.

He received three Bronze Stars.

His brother Félix participated as a squad leader in the military campaigns of Normandy, Northern France, the Rhineland, and the Ardennes-Alsace, where his armored infantry battalion played an important role during the capture of the Belgian city of Bastogne in December, 1944, during very harsh weather conditions.

In fact, in January, 1945, Félix was admitted to the hospital for the beginning stages of frostbite of the toes of one of his feet.

On February 8, 1945, he was wounded by artillery in the leg, possibly during an incursion through the “Siegfried Line,” for which he received a Purple Heart.

His luck had also run out.

He was repatriated to the United States in August, 1945, being discharged with honors with the rank of sergeant in September. He was awarded the Medal of Good Conduct, the Combat Infantry Badge, and the Middle East-European-African Campaign Ribbon.

Félix Oleaga on his half-track with an unidentified colleague from his unit (photo courtesy of the Oleaga family).

After their return to the United States, the brothers resumed their civilian lives like millions of their compatriots.

In 1947, Félix married the daughter of Biscayan emigrants born in New York, his fellow veteran Rosa Torrontegui Olondo of the US Cadet Nurse Corps, to whom we will dedicate a well-deserved article in the near future.

“We were raised as proud Basque-Americans,” said Patricia Oleaga Torrontegui, the daughter of Félix and Rosa.

Félix worked as a translator and business consultant for the New York State Department of Commerce.

Julián worked until his retirement for the New York City Parks Department.

We be remiss if we didn’t tell of Julián’s heroic act in the winter of 1960. He rescued three children between the ages of 4 and 6 from an icy pond near his home on Long Island, into which they had accidentally fallen. One of them regrettably later passed away. Without him, none of the children would have survived. It was an act that speaks volumes of Julián’s humanity.

“My father loved going back to his hometown, Mundaka. He loved hanging out with his aunts, uncles, old friends and cousins […] He loved to socialize, have a drink with family and friends and talk about the ‘old days’,” his son, Julian Oleaga Volponi, told us. “Our father gave us many gifts, including the gift of love and family […] My father was so proud to be Basque. My mother [Marie Theresa Volponi] was Italian, but they always told us that we were Basque-Italian-Americans,” added Julian Jr.

Young Julián and Félix Oleaga, always inseparable, in Mundaka (photo courtesy of the Oleaga family).

Orphaned by a mother at an early age and separated from their father for years, Félix and Julián, even as teenagers, knew how to make their way into a new world, leaving behind the only life they had ever known.

As soon as they had the opportunity, they made Mundaka a second home to which they would often return to relive the memories, the culture, and the language of their childhood.

They both spoke Euskara and were deeply proud of being Basque, making it compatible with their love for the country that welcomed them and gave them new opportunities, and which they defended in the trenches of Europe during the last world war.

These are the stories of our “Fighting Basques.”

Félix passed away in 2014, at the age of 92, in Port Huron, Michigan, followed by Julián in 2018, at the age of 93, in Stony Brook, New York.

Goian bego.

[1] Kilgannon, Corey. (June 5, 2014). “Remembering D-Day with their Brothers in Arms.” The New York Times.

[2] CBS. (June 6, 2014). “Flower shower at Statue of Liberty Commemorates 70th Anniversary of D-Day.”

[3] Douglass, William, and Jon Bilbao. (1975). Amerikanuak: Basques in the New World. Reno: University of Nevada Press. P. 341.

Collaborate with ‘Echoes of two wars, 1936-1945.’

If you want to collaborate with “Echoes of two wars” send us an original article on any aspect of WWII or the Civil War and Basque or Navarre participation to the following email: sanchobeurko@gmail.com

Articles selected for publication will receive a signed copy of “Combatientes Vascos en la Segunda Guerra Mundial.”

Basque Fact of the Week: The Quality of the Basque Government is High

For about a decade now, the Quality of Government Institute, at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, has been evaluating the quality of government of the various regions in Europe. By measuring impartiality, corruption, and quality, they generate a so-called European Quality of Government Index (EQI), a number that describes the overall quality of government of that region. Consistently, the Basque Autonomous Community has ranked high in this measure: as the report emphasizes, “what region you live in matters just as much as what country you live in.”

The European Quality of Government Index (EQI) for regions in Europe, as described by the Quality of Government Institute. Blue corresponds to high EQI and red to low EQI.
  • Overall, the quality of government in Spain is evaluated as being very different from region to region, with one of the largest variations in all of Europe. The Basque Autonomous Community (BAC), the political entity comprising Bizkaia, Gipuzkoa, and Araba, has the highest EQI in Spain, with Navarra also very high. In fact, in the four surveys that the Quality of Government Institute has conducted so far, the Basque Country has ranked at the top in three, with an EQI that has increased since that first survey. Both regions rank much higher than the average in Spain. On the other hand, other regions of Spain have dropped, indicating an ever-widening gulf in the perceived quality of government across Spain.
  • In France, the provinces of Lapurdi, Zuberoa, and Nafarroa Beherea are lumped into the much larger political unit of Aquitaine. Aquitaine ranks in-between the BAC and Navarra in terms of EQI. While France also exhibits significant regional disparity in terms of EQI, overall it ranks much higher than Spain, and Aquitaine falls a bit higher than the national average.
  • Why do these numbers matter? As highlighted by the authors of the report, the quality of government of a region is “a key factor for understanding its social, economic and political progress.” In countries where there is a large variation in the quality of government, this inequality could lead to greater concentration of economic power in high-ranking regions, further driving inequality. At the same time, regions with a low EQI and thus higher dissatisfaction with government tend to vote for populist parties and politicians.
  • Levels of corruption also impact public health. Regions with high corruption tend to see more issues with the distribution of medical supplies and a concentration of resources in the hands of the wealthy, making access harder for the greater populace.
  • The quality of government also relates to how well citizens perceive their government responded to the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, in regions where the government is viewed as less corrupt, there tends to be less worry about the economic impacts of COVID.
  • Of course, a single number cannot capture all of the nuances of a real population. However, a measure such as the EQI provides some high-level perspective on the current status and temporal evolution of a place as complex as Europe. As the authors say, “The purpose of the EQI is to provide scholars and policy makers with a ‘big picture’ metric of sub-national governance… such that regions in one country can be compared with regions in any other member state.”

Primary source: Charron, Nicholas, Victor Lapuente & Monika Bauhr. 2021. Sub-national Quality of Government in EU Member States: Presenting the 2021 European Quality of Government Index and its relationship with Covid-19 indicators. University of Gothenburg: The QoG Working Paper Series 2021:4.

Note that, if you get this post via email, the return-to address goes no where, so please write blas@buber.net if you want to get in touch with me.

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