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Spain: The Men of Euskadi

4 minute read

Even before the victim of Canada’s first political kidnaping was set free in Montreal last week, the new brand of terror had spread to Europe. In San Sebastian, a prospering seaport in northern Spain’s Basque country, a gang of youthful urban guerrillas was waiting when Eugen Beihl, a West German businessman who doubles as Bonn’s consul in the city, returned home from work. Beihl, 59, never made it into his house. Two days later, his Mercedes was found abandoned on a cart track leading into the Pyrenees and the French border.

Subsequent events followed a now familiar script. In Bilbao, another Basque city, the West German consul received a postcard from Beihl identifying the kidnapers as members of the E.T.A.—for Euskadi at Askatu-sana (“Basque Land and Liberty”). A minuscule but tautly organized terrorist group, E.T.A. has been skirmishing with General Francisco Franco’s regime for years. Beihl’s future, it was made clear, would depend on the fate of 16 E.T.A. guerrillas who went on trial last week in Burgos for the 1968 murder of a San Sebastián police chief and other terrorist activities.

Stunned, the regime dispatched extra police to the Basque provinces, where tensions were already at the flash point. In protest, 150,000 workers walked off their jobs. Schools shut down, stores closed, and young Basques battled with police in dozens of towns. In Madrid, Franco interrupted his 78th birthday celebration to call an emergency session of his Cabinet and declare a state of emergency in Guipuzcoa, the “most Basque” of Spain’s four Basque provinces.

Born Free. Well before the kidnaping, the Burgos trial had been shaping up as an important test of public support of the regime that has run Spain for the past 31 years. For Franco, the trial was to be the climax of an uncompromising two-year campaign to crush the nettlesome E.T.A. The outfit, which has only 200 active adherents, has been a persistent irritant, punctuating its fuzzy demands for a Marxist Basque state with demonstrations, bombings and bank holdups. It was the 1968 San Sebastian murder that convinced the Caudillo it was time to crack down.

Death sentences have been demanded for the six defendants who are charged with direct involvement in the 1968 case. The others face prison terms ranging from six to 80 years. Protests against the trial have poured into Madrid from Spain’s bishops, from the Vatican, even from the commander of the Burgos military region. Some of Franco’s own ministers are known to feel that the case, which is being tried in a military court and prosecuted on exceedingly slim evidence, can only lend credence to E.T.A. charges of “oppression against a people who were born to be free.”

Little Love Lost. The Basques, as one of them puts it, are “100% with the prisoners in Burgos.” And among Spain’s 2,000,000 fiercely independent Basques (another 150,000 are across the border in France), unity is rare. Living in Spain’s most prosperous region and enjoying a deserved reputation as the country’s sharpest businessmen, the majority of Basques have never paid much heed to the E.T.A., with its blind hatred of espafiolismo (anything Spanish) and imperialismo (virtually anything American), and its rather fanciful talk of a separate Basque state.

Europe’s oldest indigenous tribe, with a trilling language whose roots have not yet been discovered, the Basques fought off the Romans, the Visigoths and the Moors. They lost little love on Spain’s Castilian kings. Though a threadbare Basque government-in-exile hangs on in Paris, most Basque nationalists are moderates who have long since abandoned their 19th century dreams of secession and now hope instead for a degree of autonomy. Under Franco, who has not forgotten how the Basques fought him during the 1936-39 civil war, that hope is vain.

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