At the end of the huge demonstration that filled Barcelona’s Avinguda Diagonal on September 11 —Catalonia’s National Holiday— three foreign representatives climbed on stage to address the crowd. Two of them were well known to the Catalan public, as they have been fully devoted to the legal defence of the prisoners and exiles for several months now: lawyers Aamer Anwar and Ben Emmerson. The third man was Thomas G. Schulze, a German psychiatrist who spoke on behalf of Foreign Friends of Catalonia. He began his speech Kennedy-style by stating: “I am a Catalan!” With this interview we aim to learn who he is.
—Professor Schulze, many Catalans will have likely “discovered” you following your speech at the end of the National Day rally. But you’ve had a long relationship with Catalonia, haven’t you?
—I studied Medicine in Barcelona on an Erasmus scholarship twenty-four years ago. I took two courses: Paediatrics and Dermatology at the Sant Joan de Déu teaching hospital. I spent a full year in Catalonia and made the most of it to travel across the nation; I went on day trips and made friends. My closest friend is a medical doctor from Berga and when you have a friend from Berga, the Patum and the Pedraforca make it almost impossibly not to develop some affinity towards Catalonia (1). That’s why I don’t feel like a tourist when I’m in Catalonia: I feel right at home. It’s like a love affair that’s been going on uninterruptedly for many years.
—Does that explain why you speak such good Catalan?
—My medicine classes were taught in Catalan, although some lecturers wanted to switch to Spanish for the sake of the visiting students, which I objected to. I attended the free Catalan language lessons offered by the government of Catalonia and was a fast learner. I like the language and I’ve been able to keep it mainly thanks to my Berga friend. Since I got involved in the independence process, I’ve been practising it much more. I enjoy speaking it and I learn something new every day.
—What was your impression of your recent stay in Catalonia?
—I had four very busy, very touching days. And very moving. Perhaps it was too much, even. It was incredible. I stayed with my friend and, as always, it was fantastic. The Catalan Republic is very real in Berga, at the foot of the Pyrenees. And I also had a busy political schedule and met many people, such as Tamara Vila in Viladecans, whom I had met on Twitter. She made a huge impression on me. We need more people like Tamara. I joined a conference hosted by Foreign Friends of Catalonia with several foreign academics. It was very interesting and it drew a large crowd, including family members of nearly all the political prisoners. Talking to them was very moving.
—What about the National Day itself?
—It was one of the most important days in my life, if you exclude family-related events. Twenty-four years ago I vowed to join your struggle for independence once you started the process. And that is what I am doing, in a peaceful manner. I see things that I love: a people on the move, only armed with the conviction that independence can be achieved through peaceful, civic, democratic means. That is very impressive. I love the people, I love Catalans. You are a very unique people. Catalonia is open, diverse and welcoming and that could be felt on National Day. Unlike what Ciudadanos claim, there is no hatred here and taking part in the event [on September 11] was an indescribable experience. You could sense the joy and hope. Like the song, these days spent in Catalonia will stay with me for years, all my life.
—It’s become apparent that massive, peaceful, permanent mobilisation is not enough to achieve independence. The October 1 referendum and the independence declaration that was not enacted didn’t do the job, either. What else is needed?
—That is the million dollar question. Nobody in this process holds the magic answer to it. First of all, it must be said that the slogan “not a step back” is correct. What the world saw on October 1 last year was so huge that it will stay imprinted on the memory of many for generations to come. So what is needed now? We must persevere. We said that this National Holiday was the Day of the Republic and I believe it is true, the republic is here. You can also argue that Catalonia still remains a part of Spain and Spain’s army and Guardia Civil haven’t left. But where does the republic begin? In your head, in your mind! And this republic is in the minds of over two million people. Now it must be enacted. As president Quim Torra has stated, there are verdicts that we cannot accept. We cannot accept the existence of political prisoners. At some point we must (or you must) stage another October 1. Not the referendum, but the massive disobedience. That is what we must strive to do.
—Do you believe that nonviolent disobedience is the way forward?
—The Spanish State said that there wouldn’t be a referendum but people went out to vote anyway, even though they had been told it was against the law. You disobeyed. Now, disobedience only works provided it is massive. It’s not enough for Tamara and a few others to cut off motorways and raise toll barriers. People must take to the streets again. Why not block the roads around the prisons when they attempt to drive the prisoners back to Madrid? The Catalan government must get involved and sacrifices must be made. You need to read Nelson Mandela’s book. Peaceful but massive disobedience is needed because Madrid can’t possibly throw two million people in jail. It must be done when the trial kicks off. Political leaders must govern, but they should also accompany the people in this process. A general strike is a form of protest and it could be the first step. If I lived here and I wasn’t just an adoptive Catalan, I’d be the first in line. But at some point the government must say what is to be done.
—Perhaps not everyone in the government would go along with that …
—I am aware that there are differences within the Catalan government. But the political parties can come to an agreement about a shared strategy. I was surprised when the same people who staged this massive disobedience stayed at home on October 27 [when independence was declared]. Why didn’t the Catalan police protect the Generalitat and the cabinet ministers? Why didn’t 300 Mossos d’Esquadra set up a perimeter to protect the Palau in a peaceful manner? Because their political leaders stopped them. And when you declare independence you must promote laws that everyone must abide by, which didn’t happen. I expected it to, but it didn’t.
—In your opinion, would negotiating a referendum with Spain work as it did for Scotland?
—Such a referendum would have been the best solution, but Madrid refused to accept it. At some point in the future, maybe in the wake of disobedience and a general strike, Madrid might agree to it, but I doubt it. The Spanish State’s mentality cannot accept that, the mantra of Spain’s unity is too strong. It is like in China and Turkey: they cannot accept that a part of their country wants to be independent. Plus I think it is too late, now. I’m not sure what would happen if Spain made an offer like that, but at present a negotiated referendum cannot be the goal of the Catalan people. We have moved beyond that.
—Is Spain dealing with Catalonia in a democratic way?
—Not at all. Everyone has seen that. A European country —I don’t mean Turkey or Albania, but a country in Europe— cannot beat up voters and fire rubber bullets at them. The people wanted to vote and democracy is about voting. A referendum can never be illegal. It is as if you were told that you cannot voice your views. A referendum is giving an opinion and that is the basis of any democracy. I was on a flight from Mexico to Frankfurt on the night of October 1, but I had internet access on the plane and I couldn’t believe what had happened. When I arrived in Germany, I was in shock, but also very proud because I felt part of the success. Catalans had achieved something huge, an act of disobedience unprecedented in Europe, one that you could perhaps compare to what the Baltic republics did back in the day. Madrid used brute force and even tried to block internet access [in Catalonia], but the Catalan people stood their ground, unarmed and without violence.
—So how come when that happened Europe remained mostly silent, in a continent where we have come to expect that certain values are taken for granted?
—The trouble is that Europe has many problems, especially to do with immigration. But Europe’s worst problem is its lack of cohesion. The Union has grown too fast and now we have all the eastern countries whose leadership is more autocratic, which jeopardises the very idea of Europe. These are the great dangers as seen by Merkel and Macron. So when Catalans turn up with their demands for independence, Berlin and Paris are not amused. They have greater problems to address. That is wrong because Catalonia is a perfect example of democracy, of democratic will and participation, precisely the values that European politicians keep bringing up. The European governments must accept that a territory like Catalonia must freely decide about its identity. By ignoring the matter, they are simply making it worse and eventually it will reach a point which the European leaders themselves do not wish to get to.
—Do Germans view Catalonia in a different light after Puigdemont was arrested and spent a few months there?
—Puigdemont’s forced stay in Germany has undoubtedly helped the process. When the president was apprehended I read all kinds of comments in German newspapers: some said it was not acceptable and he was no terrorist and that holding a referendum was no crime; but others argued that we must all live together and Spanish law must be respected and so he should be extradited. That was on the first day. But as people followed the news about the judicial process and got all the facts, public opinion shifted progressively. In general, Germany’s politicians publicly disagreed with the extradition and said that you cannot sentence a politician like Puigdemont to thirty years in prison. It’s obviously not a mass movement, but people who are politically informed did change their point of view and I believe that 70 to 80 per cent of them are now more in favour [of the Catalan cause]. The trouble is that a good deal of news outlets either don’t write about the question or tend to merely echo Madrid’s messages.
—Perhaps that is why the perception that Catalans are selfish and Europe needs unity rather than separation persists …
—Yes, that perception is still present and always with the same arguments: we must stick together in Europe and if a country breaks away, that goes against that ideal. The Catalans are a wealthy, selfish lot who want to leave. This is where you need to engage people and educate them. We need to explain that Catalans are not looking to be wealthier, but to defend their identity and be able to assert that they are Catalan. The Catalan government might say that Catalonia will agree to keep offering Spain financial aid for a number of years, following independence. I would do it. An action plan detailing what Catalonia will do once it is independent must be submitted and we must innovate, do stuff that other countries have not done. For the sake of our shared history and family ties. And we must also insist that we take no issue with the Spanish language and that it would be protected in an independent Catalonia, as it is also part of our history. We must have the courage to say that. To explain that Catalonia would be a different sort of country.
—Some have hinted that Angela Merkel and her government are discreetly taking action to deescalate the Catalan conflict. They also claim that she put pressure on the Spanish authorities to stop the police violence on October 1. Do you believe that is true?
—I don’t know. There was a point in time when the violent crackdown was halted. It might have been Angela Merkel’s doing, but I do not know that. Some day we will find out.
—Finally, if president Quim Torra phoned you one day and asked your advice, what would you say to him?
—I would tell him that we must take the first steps towards disobedience and a general strike, but all of us together, including the government, not just people like Tamara Vila. And that he must put together that courageous plan outlining how Catalonia will continue to show solidarity with the world at large and with Spain in particular.
(1) Berga is a small town about 100 km north of Barcelona which is well-known in Catalonia for being staunchly pro-independence. La Patum de Berga is a unique local festivity that draws many visitors every year. Pedraforca is an iconic peak not far from Berga.