José Antonio Aguirre (politician)

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José Antonio Aguirre
Agirre Lekube lehendakaria (cropped).jpg
1st President of the Basque Country
In office
7 October 1936 – 22 March 1960
Preceded byOffice established
Succeeded byJesús María de Leizaola
Personal details
José Antonio Aguirre Lecube

(1904-03-06)6 March 1904
Bilbao, Spain
Died22 March 1960(1960-03-22) (aged 56)
Paris, France
Political partyBasque Nationalist Party

José Antonio Aguirre y Lecube (6 March 1904 – 22 March 1960) was a Basque politician and activist in the Basque Nationalist Party. He was the first president of the Provisional Government of the Basque Country and the executive defense advisor during the Spanish Civil War. Under his mandate, the Provisional Government formed the Basque Army and fought for the Second Spanish Republic.

Early life[edit]

José Antonio Aguirre Lecube, 1933

José Antonio Aguirre was born in Bilbao, Biscay, Spain. He studied in the Basque Country's first Ikastola, a school in which all lessons were given in Basque. He later studied law at the University of Deusto.

After his father's death in 1920, Aguirre moved with his family to Algorta, near Bilbao. At 16 years of age, he had to become a father figure to his 10 younger brothers and sisters.

After finishing his law studies, he began working in the family business, Chocolates Aguirre. He later took responsibility for the business and introduced many reforms, including free health care and paid holidays, which significantly improved conditions for the workers in the factory. He also donated part of the business's revenue to the poor and advocated for social housing. Until 1937, Chocolates Bilbaínos S.A. was the second-largest business in its sector in Spain.

Aguirre was a football player for Athletic Bilbao;[1] he won the Copa del Rey with the club in 1923.[2] During the Spanish Civil War, he was one of the main promoters of the Basque Country national football team, which played in Europe and the Americas to raise funds for Basque refugee children whose parents had been forced into exile.

In 1926, after completing his military service, he began work as an attorney at Esteban Bilbao's office. Soon after, he founded his own firm, which focused on political issues and the working conditions of the lower class.

At the time, Spain was ruled by the dictator Miguel Primo de Rivera. Aguirre, a Basque nationalist, joined the Basque Nationalist Party. The party was later divided into two political streams. Aguirre opposed the division, believing that the Basque Country was above any differences. He worked to unify the two factions and succeeded in 1930.

Aguirre increased his involvement in politics and published articles in the newspapers Euzko Gaztedia and Euzkadi. As an example of his integrationist views and new ideals, in 1932, he proposed that the party should accept people who were not born in the Basque Country.

Early political career[edit]

Document signed by Aguirre in 1937

After the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera ended in 1930, a new political era began in Spain. In 1931 and 1932, Aguirre intervened decisively in failed attempts at Basque devolution, which called for self-government, including in Navarre.

On 5 November 1933, two weeks before a general election, a referendum was held in Álava, Gipuzkoa and Biscay on new wording for the Statute of Devolution, which abandoned the inclusion of Navarre. The wording was approved by an overwhelming majority (459,000 votes in favour, 14,000 against),[3] but in Álava, the votes in favour did not reach 50%.[4]

As a result of the dissolution of the legislature for the general election, the hesitation of radical government,[5] and Carlist opposition to the incorporation of Álava in the statutory process,[6] devolution was prevented until 1 October 1936, when the Spanish Civil War started.

Spanish Civil War[edit]

On 7 October, the councillors from Biscay, along with some from Gipuzkoa and Álava, participated in passing a ballot. A major uprising had occurred in Álava and Navarre, and most of Gipuzkoa was in the hands of the rebels, who, with the political machinations of the councillors, set the stage for major political change. Aguirre was elected lehendakari, or president. After a religious ceremony at the Basilica of Begoña in which he swore allegiance to Catholicism, his country and his party, he visited Guernica and took his oath of office in the Basque language:

Jainkoaren aurrean apalik,
Eusko Lur gainean zutunik,
asaben gomutaz,
Gernikako Zuhaizpean,
herri ordezkarion aintzinean
nere agindua ondo betetxea zin dagit.[7]

English translation:

"Humble in front of God,
Standing in our Basque lands,
Remembering our heritage,
under Gernika's venerable tree,
as president of my country,
I swear to serve my term faithfully."

Oath of Office, 17 September 1936

A government of conciliation was formed with Nationalists, Socialists, Communists, and other Republicans but not without tensions among them. The government was in power in Biscay for several months until the fall of Bilbao.

The first Basque government was made up of four members of the Basque Nationalist Party (Aguirre as president and head of defense, Jesús María Leizaola as head of justice and culture, Eliodoro de la Torre as head of finance, and Telesforo Monzón as head of interior); three of the PSOE (Santiago Aznar as head of industry, Juan Gracia Colás as head of welfare, and Juan de los Toyos as head of labor); one of Basque Nationalist Action (Gonzalo Nárdiz as head of agriculture); one of the Republican Left (Ramón María Aldasoro Galarza as head of trade); one of the Republican Union (Alfredo Espinosa as head of health); and one of the Spanish Communist Party (Juan Astigarrabía as head of public works).[8]

The Basque Army (Basque: Eusko Gudarostea), with 100,000 soldiers, was made up of battalions of different ideologies. It was well armed but poorly trained, and one of its most acute deficiencies was the absence of heavy artillery and an air force. Aguirre begged Indalecio Prieto and Manuel Azaña to send some aircraft. Historians agree that it was not a viable option because of the difficulties in breaking the Siege of Biscay.[citation needed] However, 40 to 50 airplanes were sent in different shipments, most flying over enemy territory. Others were sent across France and, after being disarmed, were retained or returned to Barcelona or Valencia in accordance with a "no intervention" policy. Another factor that contributed decisively to the Basque Army's defeat was its lack of a qualified general staff.[9]

In June 1937, the Nationalists broke through the Iron Ring of Bilbao and entered the city as a result of the treachery of Alejandro Goicoechea, the engineer who had designed the fortifications. Aguirre moved his government to Trucíos before he headed to Santander and finally to Catalonia, where he prepared to continue fighting with his men.[10] Kn May, Aguirre had entered into talks with the Italians, through intermediaries, about a possible surrender. The talks continued, with the leader of the Basque Nationalist Party, Juan de Ajuriaguerra, discussing terms, the Santoña Agreement, to allow a withdrawal from Bilbao if Nationalist troops did not attack the city. However, they attacked, and Aguirre refused to sign the surrender agreement and fought on.[11]


Monument to José Antonio Aguirre in Bilbao

Aguirre fled the country after the war and was pursued for years by agents of Francisco Franco. His exile took him to Paris, Berlin and New York City. In June 1940, the Breton Yann Fouéré gave him documents that allowed him to escape France, which had been invaded by the Wehrmacht.

Aguirre fled first to France, where he organised camps and services for Basque refugees and the government-in-exile. Caught behind enemy lines, he was in Belgium when Hitler occupied that country. He then fled to Berlin, where he lived underground until a false identity was arranged.[12]

Under the protection of a Panaman ambassador (Germán Guardia, who provided him with a Panamanian passport), Aguirre reached Sweden. Dodging SS German intelligence, he arrived in Rio de Janeiro on the ship Vasaholm on 27 August 1941. The Brazilian customs authorities registered a Panamanian, Dr. José Álvarez Lastra, and a Venezuelan, María de Arrigorriaga, accompanied by their children, José and Gloria. They were actually Aguirre; his wife, María Zabala; and their sons, Aintzane and Joseba. Despite intense efforts made by Manuel de Ynchausti in the United States, Aguirre's true identity was in danger of being discovered within a month.

He wrote then to Ramón María de Aldasoro, the former trade and business secretary of the Basque government, who led the Euzkadi delegation in Buenos Aires, Argentina. However, Aldasoro's efforts on Aguirre's behalf were unsuccessful because the Argentine authorities sympathized with the European "New Order".

Aguirre went to Uruguay and asked a small group of Basque patriots for what Argentina had denied him. The Uruguayan president, General Alfredo Baldomir, agreed, and he even received Aguirre with honours in accordance with his status. Once the arrangements were complete, the public announcement of his arrival was made on 8 October in the newspapers of Montevideo. Aguirre's identity was reinstated, and he was given a visa to travel to New York, where he was put under the protection of resident Basques, who were leading movements in Mexico and New York.

In New York, Aguirre took up a post as a lecturer at Columbia University. After the Pact of Madrid between the US and Spain, he went to France, where the Basque government-in-exile was established. There, he found that France's Vichy government had sequestrated the Basque government building and that President Charles de Gaulle was maintaining it on behalf of Francoist Spain. The building is now the Instituto Cervantes.

The president of the government-in-exile was always a Basque Nationalist Party member, and even the Spanish sole representative in the United Nations was a Basque appointee, Jesús de Galíndez, until his murder in an obscure episode at the time of Spain's entry to the United Nations. Aguirre decided to place the large Basque exiles' network at the service of the Allies, and collaborated with the US Secretary of State and the CIA to defeat their common enemies.

Aguirre died in Paris on 22 March 1960 from a heart attack, aged 56. His body was shipped from Paris to Saint-Jean-de-Luz in the French Basque Country, where it spent a night in the Monzón house and was buried on 28 March after a funeral Mass at the Saint-Jean parish church.


Aguirre's life was the subject of a Soule folk play, Aguirre presidenta ("President Aguirre"). He wrote a book about his experiences, Escape Via Berlin: Eluding Franco in Hitler's Europe (New York, 1942).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "JOSÉ ANTONIO AGUIRRE Y LECUBE" (PDF). Grafi denda. Retrieved 12 January 2017.
  2. ^ "José Antonio Agirre". Athletic Bilbao. Retrieved 29 January 2019.
  3. ^ "Las irregularidades cometidas en el referéndum, sobre todo en Vizcaya y Guipúzcoa, fueron reconocidas por los propios nacionalistas, que trataban así de alcanzar, con el apoyo del gobierno, el altísimo porcentaje de votos previsto en la Constitución para la aprobación de los Estatutos", El péndulo patriótico, Santiago de Pablo y Ludger Mees, Crítica, 2005, pág. 150.
  4. ^ Los votos favorables fueron el 46,4%, los votos contrarios representaron el 11% y la abstención fue del 41,41%, según el libro "Los problemas de la Autonomía vasca en el siglo XX: la actitud alavesa (1917–1979)" de Santiago de Pablo Contreras, pags. 119 y ss.
  5. ^ Para la aprobación del Estatuto se requería la aprobación de los dos tercios de la región, requisito cumplido holgadamente ya que dicha aprobación superó el 80%; no obstante un grupo de alcaldes alaveses defendió que los 2/3 se debían alcanzar en cada territorio histórico. Su reclamación al Congreso de los Diputados fue rechazada en enero de 1934, puesto que, entre otros motivos, muchos alcaldes actuaban a título personal sin que en su ayuntamiento se hubiera celebrado sesión municipal alguna en tal sentido. (Ver. "Los problemas de la Autonomía vasca en el siglo XX: la actitud alavesa (1917–1979)" de Santiago de Pablo Contreras)
  6. ^ Ver. "1934: Un año decisivo en el País Vasco. Nacionalismo, Socialismo y Revolución", José Luis de la Granja Sainz, Lavenç, 1994.
  7. ^ Escuchar documento sonoro original del juramento del cargo de Lehendakari por parte de José Antonio Agirre Lekube en el año 1936. (in Basque)
  8. ^ Arrieta Alberdi 2007, p. 210.
  9. ^ Payne, Stanley. "Catalan and Basque Nationalism" (PDF). Retrieved 31 March 2016.
  10. ^ "José Antonio Aguirre Lecube". Euskomedia. Retrieved 26 March 2016.
  11. ^ "Pacto de Santona(1937)". Retrieved 8 April 2016.
  12. ^ "::: Euskonews & Media ::: Kosmopolita ::: José Antonio de Aguirre y Lecube in New York". Retrieved 31 March 2016.


  • Arrieta Alberdi, Leyre (2007). "Años de esperanza ante la nueva Europa: la estrategia europeísta del PNV tras la Segunda Guerra Mundial". Ayer (in Spanish). Asociacion de Historia Contemporanea and Marcial Pons Ediciones de Historia (67, Las relaciones de España con Europa centro-oriental (1939–1975)). JSTOR 41325180.

External links[edit]

Political offices
New creation President of the Basque Country
Succeeded by