Bilbao, Basque Country, Spain—Synopsis

Many of my observations from field research focus on the Bilbao area, but the city is intricately linked with political dynamics encompassing the whole of Spain’s “Basque Country.” Basque Country (“Pais Vasco”) is composed of Biscay, Gipuz-koa, and Alava provinces that make up Spain’s “Basque Autonomous Community.” It is one of the most economically advanced regions in the country, has the greatest amount of financial and regional autonomy vis-à-vis the Spanish state, and for the last 25 years has experienced a profound physical revitalization of Bilbao, its largest and most important city. The Spanish Constitution of 1978 granted Basque Country the status of “nationality” within Spain. It is also a region where militant violence in pursuit of Basque independence was part of the political dynamics from 1968 to 2010. The conflict has been between radical Basque nationalists (and its Euskadi ta Askatasuna |ETA] militant paramilitary) and the Spanish state viewed with contempt as an unwanted occupying force.

Since 1968, the ETA killed over 800 persons in pursuit of its political goals of independence; almost 500 of these individuals have been police or military personnel while more than 300 of those killed have been civilians (Ministerio del Interior

2010) . The group targeted mostly national and regional officials and government buildings in Spain, and its killings have had a deep psychological and symbolic impact in the country. The ETA began by carrying out attacks against Spanish state officials and personnel in the Basque region itself, and most of its activities took place there. Its attacks have occurred, however, throughout Spain, particularly in Madrid and in popular tourist destinations. In 1973, the ETA pulled off its most important assassination when it killed Franco’s apparent successor in Madrid. The Spanish state under Franco met the ETA violence with state violence, and terror suspects were at times tortured. An ETA ceasefire has held since 2011, but the legacies of 40 years of violence remain. Caught in the political middle of this violent conflict have been moderate nationalists of the PNV, who support greater Basque independence but reject militant violence, and the Socialist Party (PSOE), whose organizational networks and allegiances span all of Spain.

Compared to Barcelona and Catalonia, the Basque nationalist conflict has been more radicalized, and the political transition to a workable democracy has been significantly more prolonged. In many respects, Basque Country has experienced two transitions—the formal and largely successful one from Franco authoritarianism to a functional model of regional autonomy and a second one from a regional democracy hamstrung by radical nationalism to one where nationalist grievances are expressed politically rather than through violence.

Basque Country has about 2.15 million inhabitants; more than 45 percent live in the Greater Bilbao area. The largest cities are Bilbao (350,000), Vitoria-Gasteiz (245,000), and San Sebastian (186,000) [Instituto Nacional de Estadística

2011] . More than one-quarter of the population was born outside the region, historically coming from other parts of Spain.

Further Reading

Heiberg, Marianne. 2007. The Making of the Basque Nation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Kurlansky, Mark. 1999. The Basque History of the World. New York: Penguin Books. Mees, Ludger. 2003. Nationalism, Violence, and Democracy: The Basque Clash of Identities.

Houndmills, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Whitfield, Teresa. 2014. Endgame for ETA: Elusive Peace in the Basque Country. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bay of Biscay

San Sebastián

Northern Basque Country

Southern Basque Country

— International border



Editor: Regina Lenz I Cartography: Volker Schniepp © Department of Geography, Heidelberg University

0 100 200 km












'.'acs :




Chartered Community

of Navarre


50 km




Basque Country

Euskal Herria/Euskadi

50 Polarized: Us/Them





Basque Country, Spain

Basque Autonomous Community on Map1'

Source: Hess A. (2018) Gastronomic Societies in the Basque Country. In: Gliickler J., Suddaby R., Lenz R. (eds.) Knowledge and Institutions. Knowledge and Space, vol 13. Springer, Cham.

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