Andoni Ortuzar Arruabarrena was born in Sanfuentes, Biscay, on July 13, 1962. At the age of 14, he was already active in the Basque Nationalist Party’s Youth Division, and became an official member two years later at the Abanto y Zierbena Batzoki, in the heart of the Biscayan Mining District. He got his degree in Information Sciences at the University of the Basque Country, and worked as a journalist at Radio Popular Bilbao and the newspaper ‘Deia’. In 1987, he joined the Basque Government, where he reached the post of Secretary General for Activity Abroad. He was also the Director General of Basque Radio-Televisión, EiTB, before being elected the President of the Bizkai Buru Batzar in 2008, which he performed while also serving as a Member of Parliament in the House in Vitoria. In January 2013, he was elected President of the Euzkadi Buru Batzar, which he still carries out after having been re-elected in 2016 and 2020.
This latest entry in a series we’re publishing about the bicentennial of the independence of the New World republics will be double. In it (them), we’re looking to recall and remember a person who is essential in the modern history of our nation and who had a special relationship with most of the republics of the New World: José Antonio de Aguirre y Lecube.
José Antonio Aguirre, the first Lehendakari, was, for the world, the symbol of the defenders of Democracy and of the Cause of the Basque People against totalitarianism. In that role, he had many important meetings with leaders and Basques throughout the Americas. Here, we’ll discuss two of them, which occurred at two key moments in the history of our country during its struggle against fascist totalitarianism.
The first was during the fight against the Francoist rebels. At that time, the Basque community in the Americas was a support of enormous value, especially when helping to mitigate the suffering the civilian population both in the Basque Country and in exile. Thanks to the Basques abroad, even the Basque Government in exile had a headquarters.
Moreover, this support from the Basque Community in the Americas was key in allowing the Lehendakari to escape from the clutches of Franco and the Gestapo. That’s what is discussed in this first entry.
Several New World republics would join in on that aid by providing the Lehendakari coverage on his journey through Nazi-occupied Europe, giving him a false identity, refuge, and logistical support.
It was an extraordinary journey that took him from Belgium to Sweden, which was his point of departure towards exile in the Americas. This flight took him to the very heart of the Third Reich: Berlin. There, he spent several months while waiting for a safe route, as safe as could be expected at that time, to take him to the New World.
The second encounter with the Basque community, and with the New World republics, in those years of global war was during his first tour of the Americas in 1942, when it seemed victory favored the Axis powers.
This trip was a mixture of meeting the Basque community; of creating contacts between the Basque Government in Exile and the governments of the New World republics; of meeting the media in all of the Americas to spread the word of the Basques in their struggle against fascism; and of creating as much social and institutional support as possible with the Allies’ fight.
This New World tour, its goals, and its achievements will be covered in the next article in this series. We’ll do so on August 30,when we’ll commemorate Lehendakari Aguirre’s arrival in Peru. It was a short stay, just 12 hours, but even so, it gave him the opportunity to meet the President of the Republic, Manuel Prado Ugarteche; another to later meet with the members of Congress; to speak on Peruvian National Radio; to attend a mass reception; and to take part in a dinner with “only” 150 guests. Just twelve hours later, he was on a plane bound for Santiago, Chile.
But as we said, that’s for the next article. For now, we’ll focus on his adventures during his stay in hiding in the Third Reich, and on the support he received from the diplomats of several New World countries.
We’ve asked Andoni Ortuzar, the President of the Basque Nationalist Party, to write about it. We did so because he is a person who belongs to the same political organization as José Antonio Aguirre, who knows the Lehendakari’s story well, and who has had very close contact with the Basque community in the Americas, and the world, during his time as the Secretary General of Activity Abroad in the Basque Government.
The readings of a Basque fugitive in Berlin on his way to the Americas
Andoni Ortuzar Arruabarrena
President of the Euzkadi Buru Batzar de EAJ-PNV
Requested by the Limako Arantzazu Euzko Etxea and the Euskadi Munduan Association to contribute an article sharing my own vision of the independence processes of Latin America and the historical lines of the creation of a new homeland, I recalled the reflections Lehendakari Agirre noted down in his diary, especially during his stay in Berlin. I do so because I understand that Aguirre’s thoughts are related to what I have so kindly been asked to do from Peru on the bicentennial of their declaration of independence and because Lehendakari Agirre was at his time, is still, and will be a leading figure in Basque democratic nationalism.
As you know, José Antonio Agirre had to take refuge at the heart of the Nazi Reich in order to find an escape route from occupied Europe and thus flee fascist persecution and reach lands of freedom which, in 1941, had been reduced pretty much only to the New World. During this escape from the Europe that had been subjugated to fascist regimes, Agirre had the invaluable and irreplaceable aid of Ibero-American diplomats who protected him from his escape from Antwerp on January 7, 1941 to at least his arrival in Sweden on May 23 of the same year. I say “at least” because our first president would later have to again make use of friendly diplomatic cover.
Agirre left Belgium camouflaged under a false identity, which he had received thanks to the Panamanian consul in Antwerp, Germán Gil Guardia Jaén; he became José Andrés Álvarez Lastra, supposedly a resident of the province of Chiriquí who’d gotten lost in fascist Europe and only wanted to return home, from then until his arrival in Uruguay.
But the objective of this article is not to tell the adventures of the Lehendakari and his family (let’s not forget that José Antonio traveled with his wife, Mari Zabala, who also traveled under a false identity, María Arrigorriaga, a war widow from Mérida, Venezuela, and their two oldest children, Aintzane and Joseba, as their third, Iñaki, would be born a few years later in New York), but rather to recall and annotate the thoughts of our first president on his readings, especially as regards the independence of the Latin American republics.
From what we can gather from reading his diaries, Agirre must have left Belgium with some books, specifically Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, some work by Rousseau, and another by Cicero. Of these classics, he said, “it’s been too long since I’ve been able to restart these works from antiquity which have always attracted me” and from them he learned lessons applicable to the times, such as when he read Cicero’s On the Laws and noted, “Old problems applicable today. The classical principle of natural law against utilitarianism. Reason and law against force”.
In these classics, false Panamanian Álvarez Lastra was able to find parallelisms with the war taking place in 1941. Upon reading Plutarch’s biography of Alexander the Great, the Lehendakari noted, “The itinerary followed seems quite up-to-date, even the picturesque description of the nafta liquid or liqueur that burned as it spread. Back then, they didn’t know how to apply it, now they spill blood to own it,” comparing the Macedonian’s campaigns with the Germans’ expansion aimed at conquering the Middle Eastern oil fields. These thoughts, expressed in one way or another, can be found throughout his diaries.
Agirre, an avid reader with a lot of free time, soon burned through the literature he’d brought with him from Belgium and, unable to read German, had no choice but to turn to the personal library of the Dominican ambassador to the Third Reich, Roberto Luis Despradel Pennell. From the books Álvarez Lastra borrowed from the shelves of the Dominican embassy, we can get an idea of the personal politics of the minister: a career diplomat who served dictator Trujillo because it was his obligation, a conservative liberal or liberal conservative, Catholic, admirer of Spain and its literature, supporter of Franco and against the Republic, which was “red” and unable to maintain “order.” This ideological viewpoint and the political situation in Spain made Despradel see in Agirre, just as Guardia Jaén, the third way for Spain: a Catholic, liberal, and “orderly” cause.
In the library of the Dominican embassy, the Lehendakari found philosophical, historical, and political essays of the aforementioned European political trends, as well as works related to the contemporary central European situation, such as Cesare Santoro’s Hitler Germany as Seen by a Foreigner and Pedro Gorgolini’s Beginnings of Italian Fascism, along with Latin American literature.
Among the Dominican ambassador’s collection, Álvarez Lastra found books Agirre had already read which were the works of Catholic thinkers who had written based on their religious beliefs, affiliating themselves with the Church’s social doctrine that the Lehendakari did not share as it was too far removed from Christian democracy. So, one of the books he read and commented on was L’Europe tragique, la révolution moderne, la fin d’un monde, by Swiss Catholic professor Gonzague de Reynold. Regarding this work, Agirre wrote, “His thesis is, for me, as a Catholic, flawless. The path that leads there is perhaps a bit different. I still believe in the people and greatly mistrust certain self-chosen elites.”
Another title along the same lines of thought Agirre noted was Las constituciones políticas by Economics and Public Finance Professor at the Universities of Valladolid and of Central Madrid, Vicente Gay y Forner, a former professor of Agirre’s. “My old professor will not remember that in an exam, I defended the theory of nationalities against his opinion.” “I still stand against the theme of violence—dictatorship—which is the book’s theme.” “Man is neither so good nor so bad. He is man.” “Neither encyclopedist optimism nor dictatorial pessimism. Just Christianity.” In Agirre’s opinion, Gay y Forner “believes in force as a solution,” to which the Lehendakari responded by saying, “war builds nothing permanent.” Regarding freedom and democracy, the Basque president also criticized the professor’s posture. “He criticizes democracy, but he says nothing of the regime of freedom. There he stops. When the time comes to replace criticism with solutions, he says even less. Same old, same old. I agree with the reform of the democratic system; but between freedom and tyranny, which one would these critical professors keep?”
Perhaps as an exception to the criticism of strongman regimes, dictatorships, and Agirre’s resolute support of democracy, we can find the Lehendakari’s favorable comments towards the Portuguese Estado Novo and its dictator, António de Oliveira Salazar, when he noted in António Ferro’s Oliveira Salazar, the Man and His Work, “an interesting figure, Salazar’s, which has always attracted me because of his honesty and hardy character.”
It is easy to see in his comments that the Lehendakari enjoyed reading España: Ensayo de Historia Contemporánea by Salvador de Madariaga and En torno al casticismo by Miguel de Unamuno, though he never ceased to criticize the laicist liberalism of the former, the religious doubts of the latter, and Spanish nationalism of them both.
One work that Agirre read in Berlin knowing in advance he would get nothing from it was the historical essay Historia militar de la guerra en España (1936-1939) by Basque nationalist turned Spanish nationalist and Franco hagiographer Manuel Aznar. For the Lehendakari, reading this book must have been nothing more than an entertainment, given that he wrote, “Quién te ha visto y quién te ve” (My, how you’ve changed). Regarding the work, the fugitive Basque president wrote in his diary, “When one writes without freedom, one says many things one does not think or believe. This adulation for Franco is too blindingly obvious. He seems to be the sun next to the shadows.” “I’m still reading and writing notes in the margins of Aznar’s book. It will be a souvenir for my friend the minister.”
But, in addition to all this reading, José Antonio Agirre didn’t miss the opportunity to read about Latin American history, especially about the nineteenth-century leaders who led the nations of Ibero-America to their freedom from the Spanish yoke, and never ceased to give his opinion on the most intriguing reading.
In addition to topics such as the exact location of the mortal remains of Christopher Columbus, whether they were in the Dominican Republic or Seville Cathedral (undoubtedly a rather anecdotal topic for the Lehendakari, but not for Dominican patriotism), Álvarez Lastra also read up on more serious topics. One of those was the historical novel about Enriquillo, the Dominican cacique who stood up to the Spanish conquistadors, saying Agirre of him, “Very interesting, especially thanks to the study finished at the beginning of the Spanish Colonial regime. They applied the same beginnings non-stop over time and with all different types of peoples. And it will all end like it did there.”
This comment would be repeated in other cases. When he read the works of Luis Estévez y Romero, Desde el Zanjón hasta Baire, datos para la historia política de Cuba, Agirre said of him: “This is the Cuban march between freedom and revolution. Like what happens with others. It’s all the same. So will the result,” using the terms ‘between freedom and revolution’ on purpose. These very same words would end up being part of the title of Agirre’s 1935 book Entre la libertad y la revolución, 1930-1935: La verdad de un lustro en el País Vasco, thereby drawing an exact comparison between the decolonization of Latin American countries and that of the Basque Country.
“This obligatory wait allows me to remember old readings and think about the facts, the things, and the men.” So, during the months Agirre had no choice but to stay in Berlin while trying to find a way out, the Lehendakari read not only the above-mentioned books but also about a Dominican soldier who fought for the liberation of Cuba, Máximo Gómez, as well as about General San Martín and José Martí. About these readings, he wrote, “How often do problems repeat, and how often must they be repeated yet.”
But, above all, Agirre read about Simón Bolívar. One of the books the fugitive Lehendakari cited about the New World libertador of Basque origin was Marius André’s Bolivar et la démocratie, saying, “I find it worthy, but greatly anti-democratic.” Agirre liked what he saw in Bolívar, but not the Maurrasian ideology of the book’s author.
In his diary’s notes, he also cites the study Diario de Bucaramanga. Estudio crítico y reproducción literalísima del manuscrito de L. Luis Perú de Lacroix by Nicolás E. Navarro. When citing it, Álvarez Lastra evokes earlier readings about the libertador: “I often recall the work of [Pedro] Leturia on this topic…regarding the religious ideas of the libertador, a great figure, once slandered, now recovered.”
Finally, Agirre mentions his readings of liberal Uruguayan author José Enrique Rodó’s Cinco ensayos. Montalvo, Ariel, Bolívar, Rubén Darío, Liberalismo y Jacobinismo. Reading the Uruguayan author, Catholic Agirre could not accept Rodó’s laicism, but that did not mean he didn’t appreciate the values of his work. “Grand style and solid ideas even though I cannot accept several of his proposals and themes. His work Ariel is notable. Rodó’s Spanish is marvelous. Despite our ideological differences, I believe I would have been a good friend of his. There is nothing coarse about him, he is of a high spiritual elegance. His work on Bolívar is very good. His controversy about ‘the crucifix in the hospitals’ titled Liberalismo y jacobinismo is as magnificent as can be asked of a human spirit that does not know of the enormous joy of faith.”
Given the comments Agirre/Álvarez makes in his diary, we can see a well-read person who loves literature and hungers to know about, and who admires, the works of the Latin American libertadores. These snippets of sincerity from the Lehendakari allow us to know how our president thought. He delved deeper into those thoughts during his stay in the Americas, 1941-1945, which he shared with us in works like De Gernika a Nueva York pasando por Berlín, based on the very diaries he kept while fleeing Europe, and Cinco conferencias, based on the tour José Antonio Agirre made through several Latin American republics in 1942 as part of the Basque contribution to the Allies in the Second World War.
Website about Aguirre’s stay in Berlin