Catalonia's fight for independence: Are there lessons from the Dutch revolt?

People hold pro-independence Catalan flags in a demonstration calling for independence in Barcelona.

Story highlights

  • Catalonia is fighting for independence in Spain, which has been hit by crisis
  • The situation can be compared to the Dutch revolt in the 1560s and 1570s
  • Spain has reacted to demands in the past with repression
  • History shows such tactics typically make things worse

A small, wealthy region feels at odds with Spanish rule. Taxes are too high; political representation is limited; the elite feels unheard and ill-treated; unrest and popular opposition spread. Hardliners in Madrid advocate repression and have the ear of a new ruler. Turmoil ensues and escalates until a major confrontation is inevitable.

The situation in Catalonia in 2012? No.

This is the Netherlands, in the 1560s and 1570s -- another prosperous region ruled by Spain, where citizens felt that their values and way of life were not respected by Madrid policies.

What started as a minor conflict escalated until it became the Eighty Years' War. By its end, Spain had permanently lost control of the United Provinces.

Hans-Joachim Voth

Read: Spain's next threat: Losing 20% of its economy

So what transformed minor differences between ruler and ruled into a life-and-death struggle?

It started with a potent mix of cultural differences and opposition to high taxation. The rebellion included men like William of Orange, a State Councillor appointed to help the King of Spain in ruling the Dutch Republic. His dynasty had no intention of rebellion at all in the beginning.

Until the crisis of 1566 -- 67, leading Dutch figures like William of Orange advocated moderate policies. Protestants, according to Orange, should have the right to practice their religion, without public assemblies or services; in other words, he only advocated freedom of conscience. He also opposed armed rebellion.

Small towns attract Spanish job seekers
Small towns attract Spanish job seekers


    Small towns attract Spanish job seekers


Small towns attract Spanish job seekers 03:29

Read: Spain's next crisis: Regional splits?

Strikers stand off with police in Madrid
Strikers stand off with police in Madrid


    Strikers stand off with police in Madrid


Strikers stand off with police in Madrid 01:52

Within a few short years, William of Orange came to lead the military rebellion against Spain, the only superpower of the 16th century -- a rebellion so large and tenacious that it stretched Spain's vast financial and military resources to breaking point and beyond.

Spain struggles against austerity
Spain struggles against austerity


    Spain struggles against austerity


Spain struggles against austerity 02:55

In the end, Madrid had to concede that it could not win; the United Provinces gained their independence, and became one of the most economically successful countries in Europe.

What happened?

Spain reacted to the demands for religious tolerance by its subjects the way that imperial powers run by religious zealots often do -- with heavy-handed repression.

Philip II dispatched a large army under the Count of Alba to the Netherlands. Alba unleashed a fearsome military campaign against the rebels; the Counts of Horn and Egmont, who had demanded religious freedom, were executed; where cities resisted the Spanish army, they were besieged and the entire population was put to the sword (as happened in Haarlem).

Spain's attempt at military "roll back" in the Low Countries backfired. It radicalized views amongst the Dutch elite. Guilty of no crimes or acts of treason, Orange fled to Germany, fearing the worst. His properties were confiscated and his son abducted to Spain.

Read: More than a game: Austerity gives El Clasico new twist

Faced with personal persecution from the Spanish side, Orange increasingly adopted radical policies. Eventually, he came to favor military revolt and an end of Spanish influence.

Spain's giant military machine also faltered. Unpaid troops mutinied in 1575, and committed a major massacre when they attacked the loyal city of Antwerp. Almost overnight, the three-quarters of the United Provinces that had been loyal to the King of Spain switched sides; it was the beginning of the end for Spanish rule in the Low Countries.

The Netherlands were not the only part of the Spanish Empire to break free from Spain after a revolt against high taxation and invasive rule from Madrid -- Portugal also regained its freedom in the 17th century under similar circumstances.

Today, it is the turn of Catalonia to oppose the Madrid government. Again, a population and its elite feel culturally alienated, overtaxed, and unheard. Positions are hardening quickly, on both sides.

Spanish fight to keep their homes
Spanish fight to keep their homes


    Spanish fight to keep their homes


Spanish fight to keep their homes 02:14

ECB: Eurozone's reluctant leader

Spaniards: Cut government spending first
Spaniards: Cut government spending first


    Spaniards: Cut government spending first


Spaniards: Cut government spending first 01:52

Conflict looks inevitable -- and may even turn bloody. The Spanish reaction to Catalan requests for greater independence today is arguably equally intolerant (but not yet as ferocious) as Philip II's attempt to subdue his Dutch subjects in the Low Countries.

Instead of political negotiations and enlightened discussions, there has been a wave of threats and a campaign of disinformation: Spain will throw an independent Catalonia out of the EU; it will saddle it with sky-high debts; it will stop buying Catalan products, or send in the tanks.

There is a shocking contrast between the way that London has dealt with Scottish demands for independence -- by allowing a referendum to go forward -- and the Spanish reaction.

If there is one lesson from history, it is simple -- repression, intimidation and intolerance typically make things worse. Massive attempts at repression can easily backfire. Spain lost control of both the Dutch provinces and of Portugal after local revolts.

The same pattern is also visible elsewhere: Irish independence became inevitable after the British government overreacted to minor skirmishes in 1916, sending in warships to bombard downtown Dublin during the "Easter Rising."

The Eighty Years' War against the Dutch Republic provided a basis for Spain's "Black Legend," a powerful form of anti-Catholic propaganda that mixed facts and exaggerations to depict Spain as a cruel, intolerant, and illegitimate power.

Any overreaction to the coming referendum on Catalan independence today has the potential to similarly blacken its image for decades to come, and to give the lie to the image of peace and prosperity that earned the European Union the Nobel Peace Prize this year.

      Europe's financial crisis

    • German Chancellor Angela Merkel talks with Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble during a session at the Bundestag (lower house of parliament) on June 25, 2013 in Berlin.

      Schaeuble: 'Don't see' bailouts

      German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble says the eurozone's problems are not solved, but "we are in a much better shape than we used to be some years ago."
    • IBIZA, SPAIN - AUGUST 21:  A man dives into the sea in Cala Salada beach on August 21, 2013 in Ibiza, Spain. The small island of Ibiza lies within the Balearics islands, off the coast of Spain. For many years Ibiza has had a reputation as a party destination. Each year thousands of young people gather to enjoy not only the hot weather and the beaches but also the array of clubs with international DJ's playing to vast audiences. Ibiza has also gained a reputation for drugs and concerns are now growing that the taking and trafficking of drugs is spiralling out of control.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)

      Spain keeps partying

      Summer could not have come soon enough for Lloret de Mar, a tourist resort north of Barcelona. Despite the country's troubles, it's partying.
    • The Euro logo is seen in front of the European Central bank ECB prior to the press conference following the meeting of the Governing Council in Frankfurt/Main, Germany, on April 4, 2013.

      OECD: Slow recovery for Europe

      The global recovery has two speeds: That of the stimulus-fed U.S. and that of the austerity-starved eurozone, according to a new report.
    • The flags of the countries which make up the European Union, outside the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France.

      Europe's new threat: Slow decay

      The "rich man's club" of Europe faces economic decay as it struggles to absorb Europe's "poor people", according to economic experts.
    • Packed beaches and Brit pubs? Not necessarily. Here's what drew travelers to one of Spain's most beautiful regions in the first place

      Spain aims for big tourist summer

      Spain's economic crisis is in its sixth straight year yet tourism, worth 11% of GDP, is holding its own, one of the few bright spots on a bleak horizon.
    • Photographer TTeixeira captured these images from a May Day protest in Porto, Portugal, Wednesday by demonstrators angered by economic austerity measures. "People protested with great order, but showed discontent against the government who they blame for this economic crisis," she said. "They want the government to resign and the Troika [European Commission, International Monetary Fund and European Central Bank] out of this country."

      May Day protesters flood Europe

      As European financial markets close for the spring celebration of May Day, protesters across Europe and beyond have taken to the streets to demonstrate.
    • Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic delivers a speech in Mostar, on April 9, 2013. Prime Ministers from Bosnia's neighboring countries arrived in Bosnia with their delegations to attend the opening ceremony of "Mostar 2013 Trade Fair".

      Croatia PM: We need Italy to recover

      As Croatia prepares to enter the 27-nation European Union, the country's Prime Minister says Italy must return to being the "powerhouse of Europe."
    • Anti-eviction activists and members of the Platform for Mortgage Victims (PAH) take part in a protest against the government's eviction laws in front of the Popular Party (PP) headquarters in Mallorca on April 23, 2013.

      Spain's unemployment hits record

      Spain's unemployment rate rose to a record high of 27.2% in the first quarter of 2013, the Spanish National Institute of Statistics said Thursday.
    • People protest against the Spanish laws on house evictions outside the Spanish parliament on February 12, 2013 in Madrid, Spain.

      Welcome to Madrid: City of protests

      Spain has seen hundreds of protests since the "Indignados" movement erupted in 2011, marches and sit-ins are now common sights in the capital.