Jaungoikuaren aurean apalik
Humbly before God,
Lehendakari Aguirre’s Swearing-In Ceremony in Guernica (Oct. 7, 1936)
There are moments that are a milestone in the history of nations, times when it seems that its whole future depends on one roll of the dice. For the Basque nation, one of these key moments took place at 6:20 in the evening of October 7, 1936, 85 years ago today.
And in that moment, under the Tree of Guernica, the first president of the Basques, José Antonio de Aguirre y Lekube, swore the oath as the provisional president of the Basque Government.
Meanwhile, in the Intxortas, Basque youths were facing off in a cruel battle. Young men from our nation were fighting on both sides, some to defend democracy, others to finish it off, though they may not have even known.
Aguirre himself wrote in his memoirs:
“At the same moment I was swearing my oath, our young men, poorly equipped and even more poorly armed, were fighting against Franco’s armies, in mountains that were only twenty kilometers from Guernica. One could almost hear the explosions from where we were.”
The sacrifice of those young Basque men who were fighting for the Basque Country managed to hold off Franco’s troops, allowing that Basque Government to govern for a year, before it went into exile to keep the flame for Basque freedom and legality alive.
Their sacrifice made it so that this oath, the eighteen Basque words that make it up and which are at the top of this article, and in the Lehendakari’s own voice in the recording also at the top, marked the start of an age that guaranteed the survival of the Cause of the Basque People. That oath marked the beginning of a victory.
And that is the case, strange as it may seem. It would be easy to focus only on how just a year later, the Lehendakari, his government, and tens of thousands of Basques would have to go into exile. And that same year, and many afterwards, many thousands of Basques were murdered by the Francoist insurgents.
But it was not a defeat. It was a lost battle, a battle that could not be won given the differences between the sides regarding forces and support.
It was a victory because it was the start, that first moment, even in the midst of war, when that concentration government that brought together all the parties that were resisting the rebels, launched enormous social programs and cared for the most defenseless.
In the statement that laid the foundation of that government born in the worst circumstances, the principles of the Church’s Social Doctrine left an indelible mark, and that generation of Basque nationalists, with the Lehendakari leading the way, vigourously put into practice:
“Upon the minimal bases of social legislation of the State, the Government shall develop a policy of marked social advancement, responding to the principle that every citizen has the obligation to contribute with his work, his capital, and his intellectual activity to the general well-being of the country; in turn, he has the right to participate in the social goods according to civil progress
Consequently, the Basque Government shall promote the worker’s access to capital, profits, and the co-administration of companies, and may even seize and socialize those elements of production deemed necessary to rapidly organize victory. It shall, at all times, avoid unnecessary harm in the interests of the products, and shall decidedly protect small industry and business.
It shall look into and carry out a public works plan that will absorb the unemployed of the working class, and shall encourage sources of work and wealth.
Public power shall regulate production and consumption and shall set the prices on merchandise that it itself designates, within the country.
Provincial corporations of the country have been looking into social liberation policies.”
That government, in the midst of war, set up the Basque University; created social care networks, set up hospitals; founded shelters, first for the displaced by the war, and then for exiles; created the Basque Police; recovered public order; and tried, at all times, that justice and the rule of law would reign in the territory under his control.
For some, that was one of his mistakes, thinking of the citizens and the people too much, and not focusing exclusively on wining the war.
Nothing could be further from the truth. What he did broke the simplistic and empty rhetoric of the rebels and their allies, who tried to paint the struggle as a battle between “good and evil” to the world. With the help of chronicles from journalists who “told what they saw,” such as George L. Steer and Noel Monks, the would learned the “truth” of those rebels. And the Lehendakari became a worldwide role model for democrats who rejected all forms of totalitarianism.
Just six months later, a bombing by rebel planes, which were actually the German and Italian air forces in support of the rebels, razed the holy city of the Basques to ashes, turning it into a martyr city. As a symbol, or foretaste, of that future victory, born of what seemed a defeat, the Guernica Meeting House and its everlasting tree, under which Aguirre had become the first Lehendakari, survived the attack.
Those eighteen Basque words really did mark the beginning of a victory, one which was hard, bloody, and selfless. This victory was attained by following the path of suffering, which led so many to death, prison, or exile. But in the end it was a victory.
There is nothing left of the political movements that brought together the Basque insurgents. This is the exact oppostie the nationalist thoughts and feelings of the Lehendakari and of those thousands of young Basques who were fighting on the side of the Basque Country and of freedom in the Intxortas, 20 km from Guernica, on October 7, 1937. Their principles, feelings, and convictions thrive, just like the tree the Lehendarki swore his oath under, strong and well rooted in our society, our Basque society.
On this anniversary, we asked Arantzazu Amezaga Iribarren to write about the Lehendakari for us. She was born in exile to a family that had to abandon its homeland, the Basque Country, to defend it from the insurgents, and she well knows the Lehendakari’s personality and the history of his long exile representing a people that did not give up, even with the night seemed darkest.
The Long Journey of José Antonio Agirre y Lekubre. The First Lehendakari.
Arantzazu Ametzaga Iribarren
Librarian and author.
Arantzazu is the daughter of prolific author and Euskaltzaindia member Bingen Ametzaga and Mercedes Iribarren, member and president of the Euskal Erria Charity Commission of Montevideo. Ametzaga was born in exile in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She was raised in the eusko etxeak of Argentina, Uruguay, and Venezuela. There she met Pello Irujo Elizalde, with whom she had four children: Xabier, Pello, Mikel, and Enekoitz.
Ametzaga has filled man library organization and management roles, among which her participation in the Alliance for Progress, a part of the program created by President John F. Kennedy for South America, stands out, as does the creation and organization of the Basque Parliament Library, which was her first time as director. Under her direction, six biographical catalogs were published, which brought together hundreds of biographical files that today make up a rich source of information for the many editions of the best works on Basque culture.
As an author, she has published almost thirty historical novels covering several episodes in the history of the Basque Country. As a biographical researcher, she has worked to improve the image of some of the key people of Basque exile, including a large number of Basque women in the second half of the 20th century, such as those who took part in the Comet Network and other Basque resistance networks. Her more than 35 articles and studies published in international symposia, and more than 800 opinion articles, published mainly in Venezuelan media from the Noticias Group, where she has had an article published monthy for over ten years. (complete bio)
I met Lehendakari Agirre in Montevideo, as a child; in Caracas, as a teenager, in those continual visits our leaders at the Basque government in Paris made to those Eusko Etxeak, in that exile that lasted forty years. They tried to spread optimism to the expats and raise funds to maintain a Government which, despite its insecurity, sent aid to the many prisoners and their families in the Basque homeland. For such a task of raising awareness and organizing, Agirre was the perfect man, dedicated heart and soul to the Basque Cause. It was easy to see in his robust gestures, his passionate and frank way of looking, his sonorous and empathetic voice.
Both in Montevideo and in Caracas, he was received by the authorities with the honors of state, at that time, with Uruguay’s democracy established, and Venezuela’s, splendid. The Basques organized meetings with him as the chair, which culminated in a sincere and direct speech from him which, like an arrow, pierced the hearts of those who bore the cross of exile; that is, starting over with precarious working conditions, separated from their families, with their properties seized and only occasionally returned, after long legal processes.
What was most sought was to place a curing hand on the Basque errimiña, that longing to absorb the northern wind which cools our country, that piece of land between the Atlantic and the Pyrenees, beautiful and unique in every person’s heart, even if they were strolling through the beautiful lands of Argentina, Colombia, the United States, Mexico, Peru, Venezuela, or Uruguay. Agirre’s phrase to calm the bleeding wound was “May our next gabon be in the Basque Country.”
He always had time to speak with my father, Bingen Ametzaga. The first time I heard them from my refuge at the Euskalerria Library in Montevideo, where I went to as if to paradise after observing the Basque ball players in the court, on the top floor, and reading books printed by the Ekin Publishing House in Buenos Aires, stacked high and acting as a protective trench. The two men talked at length, without knowing I was there, about Algorta, where Agirre had grown up, despite having been born in Bilbao.
They recalled the euphoria of the Batzoki, the talks, the songs, the dances, and, once the Second Spanish Republic had been founded in 1931, the days when they began the unstoppable work of a First Basque Republic that they proclaimed, with Agirre as mayor and Ametzaga as councilman, at the City Hall of Getxo; the jour de grâce when Agirre, along with Fortunato Agirre, the mayor of Lizarra, met in that mythical town in Navarre, with Manuel Irujo, to create a Statute of Autonomy for the four Basque territories, thinking they could touch the sky with their hands…though that blew up in their faces a year later, with the rigged separation of Navarre. The years they fought in the Parliament in Madrid to win a Statute, mutilated but possible, up to the terrible mark of the military coup that was followed by a civil war.
This time, the Republic rushed to approve what it had spent years denying. On October 7, 1936, with Álava, Gipuzkoa, and Navarre in the hands of the military rebels, and with authority only over a narrow strip of Biscay, the first Basque Government was established. The leaders traveled to Guernica in secret, and Agirre drew up an oath, which I heard while trembling as he recited it in its entirety:
Jainkoaren aurrean apalik,
Eusko Lur gainean zutunik "
herri ordezkarion aintzinean
nere agindua ondo betetxea zin dagit.
Humbly before God
standing on the Basque Lands
in memory of my forebears
under the Tree of Guernica
before the representatives of my people
I swear to faithfully carry out my office.
Years later, in Caracas, they managed to break away for some privacy in the small library at the Basque Center, because both had written several books and they exchanged them, amazed that even in exile it was possible to find time to sit down in front of an Underwood typewriter and carbon paper to write lines, express thoughts, communicate with compatriots, and make our truth known in the world. I was with them, and I heard the Lehendakari speak of the Journey.
In 1940, with the German invasion of France underway and Dunkirk already taken, during that horrible spring when one of his sisters was killed, Agirre disappeared from the scene. The Basques, orphaned without their Lehendakari, who kept spreading his Gabon messages even in hiding, started their massive emigration to the New World. Hitler was an ally of Franco’s and there was a very clear and present danger of being sent to stand before firing squads or to concentration camps. Lluis Companys, the president of the Catalan Government, was captured by the Gestapo in October of 1940, handed over to Franco and the Spanish Civil Guard, and shot at Montjuic.
Agirre slipped through the dark fingers of the Nazi invasion. He traveled across France and Belgium, and entered into Berlin, growing a mustache and wearing glasses as a disguise, protected by Latin American consuls, especially the Panamanian one, who granted him citizenship papers. He managed to survive for months in Berlin, a unique odyssey which required skill, bravery, and boldness, and escaped that reign of terror, arriving in Brazil safe and sound, along with his wife and children, of Venezuelan nationality. The diary of his odyssey was hidden in the rag doll his daughter Agurtzane jealously guarded in her arms. She told me so.
He chose Montevideo to shave his mustache, and Dr. Álvarez did the honors, making him once again the Lehendakari of the Basques, and he then went on to publich one of his first books: De Gernika a New York pasando por Berlín (From Guernica to New York by Way of Berlin), Buenos Aires, Ekin Publishing House,1942, which was a bestseller.
Hearing this tale etched it in my memory, and even more reading the book, that beautiful document of survival. Many years later, I wrote a historical novel about that journey of journeys to exile. I titled it: Contraviaje. De New York a Gernika pasando por Berlín (Countervoyage: From New York to Guernica by Way of Berlin). Buenos Aires, Ekin 2015. It was like opening the tap on history: my female character, a librarian, reverses the journey made by the Lehendakari, in our times. She dreams of what that man must have feared and faced up to and overcome. It was my simple homage to one of the greatest men we have ever hand in our tiny Land of the Basques.
Contraviaje. De Nueva York a Gernika pasando por Berlín. Arantzazu Amezaga Iribarren. Julene, intrigued by the dynamic flowering of her memories, clear as fireworks, and restless because of the feelings churning in her heart, returned her pen and papers to the envelope and placed them in her bag. She put on her nightshirt and decided to go to sleepShe still had the trip to Brussels before reaching Bilbao… This passionate historical novel flowes between two historical times linke by the main character, Julene. In 2006, the protagonist received a consignment of documents from an ancient bookshop in New York that brought her back to the past, while living an intense romance that a psychic reading her tarot cards in a Berlin inn foretold good things for. The reader is dragged behind the scenes, guided by Lehendakari José Antonio Agirre, through Berlin in 1941 when he managed to escape from the Gestapo at the height of Hitler’s power thanks to his disguise and the documentation Latin American consuls had gotten for him, and was able to reach Brazil. Once in the New World, the Lehendakari wasw received by the Uruguayan National Assembly with all the honors of a head of state. In “Contraviaje”, historical meticulousness co-habit with powerful descriptions of people linked on a trip through situations and cities in Europe and the Americas in both 1941 and 2006.
Header photo: Lehendakari Aguirre swearing his oath (Sabino Arana Foundation)