José Antonio Aguirre (politician)

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This name uses Spanish naming customs: the first or paternal family name is Aguirre and the second or maternal family name is Lecube.
José Antonio Aguirre
Agirre Lekube lehendakaria (cropped).jpg
1st President of the Basque Country
In office
7 October 1936 – 22 March 1960
Preceded by Office established
Succeeded by Jesús María de Leizaola
Personal details
Born José Antonio Aguirre Lecube
(1904-03-06)6 March 1904
Bilbao, Spain
Died 22 March 1960(1960-03-22) (aged 56)
Paris, France
Nationality Spanish
Political party Basque Nationalist Party
Occupation Lawyer

José Antonio Aguirre y Lecube (6 March 1904 – 22 March 1960) was a major political figure of Basque nationalism and the first President of the Basque Autonomous Community, from 1936 to 1960.

He assumed the position of first lehendakari or president of Euzkadi (the Basque lands of Spain not including Navarre) during the Spanish Civil War. However, by the time the government was put together and made effective, most of the Basque region was occupied by the military rebels' troops, except for Biscay. Given the dire circumstances, he set about creating a Basque Army to fight on the side of the Republic.

After the Republic lost the war, he organized the flight of thousands of refugees in the Basque Country. He helped the Allies in the Second World War, hoping that the help would be reciprocated in the fight against Francisco Franco in Spain. He escaped from Spain to Belgium, later to Nazi Germany and spent a year there with a false passport. He went to Argentina to begin a journey in the American continent to re-organize the Basque government in the exile. He finally settled in Paris and spent his last years there, working for the Basque refugees.


José Antonio Aguirre Lecube, 1933

José Antonio Aguirre was born in Bilbao, in Biscay. He studied in the first ikastola of the Basque Country, a school where he was taught completely in the Basque language. He later studied Law at the University of Deusto.

In 1920, his father died and Aguirre moved to Algorta, a town close to Bilbao, with his family. At 16 he was forced 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 of the business and introduced several reforms that improved workers' conditions in the factory, such as free health care, paid holidays, donating a part of the business earning to the poor people, and pushing for social housing. He created a new way of managing the business, consistent with the ideas he believed in. Until 1937, “Chocolates Bilbaínos S.A.” was the second biggest business in its sector in Spain.

Aguirre was a football player and he played for Athletic Bilbao. During the Spanish Civil War, he was one of the main promoters of the Basque Country national football team. This regional team played in Europe and America to raise funds for the Basque refugee children whose parents had to escape into exile.

In 1926, he finished his Law studies and did military service. After this period, he began to work as an attorney at Esteban Bilbao's office, but soon created his own law firm to help people he was really interested in. He began working in political issues together with workers' conditions. Spain was ruled by the dictator Miguel Primo de Rivera.

He already had very clear political views and as a Basque nationalist, he joined the young political party Basque Nationalist Party, PNV. The party was then divided into two political streams, but he never liked this division. He thought that the Basque Country was above any differences. He worked to join the two parts, and he succeeded in 1930. Tough in his beliefs, he became more and more involved in politics, and he 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.

After the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera finished in 1930, a new political era began in Spain. At the same time, a new and important period began in Aguirre's political life.

Spanish Civil War[edit]

Document signed by Aguirre in 1937

Aguirre was loyal to the Second Spanish Republic, knowing that the future of Euzkadi was dependent on a Republican victory. In Euzkadi, he formed a government and an army comprising nationalists, republicans, Socialists, Communists, and others.

The first Basque government was made up of four members of the Partido Nacionalista Vasco (Jose Antonio Aguirre, President and Defense, Jesús María Leizaola, Justice and Culture; Eliodoro de la Torre, Finance, and Telesforo Monzón, Interior), three of the PSOE (Santiago Aznar, Industry, Juan Gracia Colás, Welfare, and Juan de los Toyos, Labor), one of Acción Nacionalista Vasca (Gonzalo Nárdiz, Agriculture), one of the Republican Left (Ramón María Aldasoro Galarza, Trade), one of Republican Union (Alfredo Espinosa, Health), and one of the Spanish Communist Party (Juan Astigarrabía, Public Works).[1]

Badly armed and barely trained, the Basque Army, the Euzko Gudarostea, managed to mobilize 100,000 soldiers. One of the most pressing deficiencies, that unbalanced the odds, was the absence of heavy artillery and aviation. Famous are the desperate calls of Aguirre to his allies Prieto and Azaña to send equipment to Euzkadi. Historians agree that this action was nonviable due to the difficulty in breaking the siege that Biscay was put under.

In June 1937, the nationalists broke through the Iron Belt of Bilbao and entered the Basque capital thanks to the defection of the engineer Alejandro Goicoechea, who had designed the fortifications. Aguirre transferred his Government to Trucíos before maintaining course to Santander later to march to Catalonia, where he arranged to continue fighting with his men for the Republic.

In the meantime, the nationalist leader Juan de Ajuriaguerra agreed to a surrender in Santoña (province of Cantabria) to the Italians. Thus the Santoña Agreement was executed behind the back of Aguirre, who was in favor of continuing the conflict.

But events superseded the efforts of the first lehendakari in history, who fled to France after the war, being pursued for years by pro-Franco agents, leading to an incredible exile that took him to Paris, Berlin, and New York. In June 1940, the Breton Yann Fouéré gave him documents that allowed him to escape France, which was invaded by the Nazis, allies of Franco.

In Exile during World War II[edit]

Aguirre went first to France, where he organized the camps and services with him heading it personally. He was in Belgium when Hitler occupied that country and from there started a long travel to Berlin under a false identity.

Under the protection of a Panamanian ambassador (Germán Guardia, who provided Aguirre with a Panamanian passport), he reached Sweden and, dodging SS German intelligence, he arrived in Brazil on the ship Vasaholm to the port of Rio de Janeiro on 27 August 1941, the Brazilian customs authorities registered that Panamanian Dr. José Álvarez Lastra and Venezuelan María de Arrigorriaga, the last accompanied by their children, José and Gloria, entered the country.

They didn't suspect that they were José Antonio Aguirre, his wife María Zabala, and their sons Aintzane and Joseba, escaping the long arms of the Nazis. But in spite of the intense efforts made by Manuel de Ynchausti in the United States, thanks to the objections of the British consul Ralph Stevenson to the situation of entering with one name and leaving with another, it seemed far from being solved. While after a month his true identity was in danger of being discovered.

He wrote then to Ramón María de Aldasoro, former Trade and Business secretary of the Basque government, who led the Euzkadi Delegation in Buenos Aires. This representation, established by Isaac López Mendizabal, Santiago Cunchillos, and Pablo Artzanko, had arrived in America in November 1938. But the efforts made by Aldasoro did not succeed because Argentine authorities sympathized with the European "New Order."

In light of this, Aguirre went to Uruguay and there asked a small group of Basque patriots for what Argentina had denied him. The Uruguayan president general Alfredo Baldomir not only was willing to do it but also to receive him with the honours in accordance with his elevated status. Six men mobilized the political personalities there, not only to get to safety but also to awaken the consciences of the diaspora, dormant because of Francoist propaganda.

Once the arrangements were complete, the public announcement of the arrival of the president would be made on 8 October, when the Montevidean newspapers informed widely ofhis arrival and his whereabouts. A small delegation composed of congressional representatives Julio Iturbide and Juan Domingo Uriarte went to the Brazilian state of Río Grande do Sul accompanied by its Uruguayan consul, to accompany him in the last stage of his journey.

In Exile after World War II[edit]

His identity was reinstated, and he was given a visa to travel to New York, where he was established under the protection of resident Basques leading the movements in Mexico and New York. There the exiled president took up a post as a lecturer at Columbia University. When the United States decided to back Franco in 1952, he went to France anew where the Basque Government in exile was established. Also there, he encountered that the pro-Nazi French government of Vichy had sequestrated the Basque Government building, and De Gaulle as maintaining it on behalf of the Franco government; the building is now the Instituto Cervantes premises.

The president of the government in exile was always a PNV member and even the Spanish sole representative in the United Nations was the Basque appointee, Jesús de Galíndez, until his murder in an obscure episode at the time of Spain's entry to the United Nations. He also decided to place the large Basque exiles' network at the service of the Allied side and collaborated with the US Secretary of State and the CIA throughout the Cold War in its fight against Communism in Latin America.

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. He was buried on 28 March after a funeral mass at the Saint Jean parish church.


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



External links[edit]

Political offices
New creation President of the Basque Country
Succeeded by
Jesús María de Leizaola