ETA began in the middle of Franco's era when a young man named Jose Luis Alvarez and some friends who were also Basque nationalists met some members of the Basque Nationalist Party who were in hiding at the time. Alvarez and his friends were disappointed by the inaction of the Party. Alvarez said "we had the impression that they were waiting for Franco to die, or waiting for the Americans to invade. Characteristic of youth we did not take easily to the idea of waiting" (Kurlansky 234). So, in 1952, Alvarez and four of his friends organized their own underground movement. They decided to operate in small cells through out the Basque country so if a cell was uncovered, the whole organization would not be ruined.
The members first named their group ATA, an acronym standing for "Homeland and Liberty" in Guipuzcoan. They found out that ata means "duck" in Vizcayan, and so they changed their name in 1959 to ETA, an acronym standing for "Euskadi Ta Askatasuna," which means "Euskadi (or homeland) and Liberty. ETA's official founding date was July 31, Ignatius Loyola's Saint's Day. Ekin was an underground journal published by ETA members, which means "to persist" or "to act." ETA's first official stated goal was "an independent Basque nation recognized as an equal in the community of nations" (Kurlansky 235).
ETA's first step was to promote the banned Basque language. ETA members decided to redifine what it means to be a Basque. They threw out Arana's racist definition, making it the Basque language that would define a Basque; a Basque must be able to speak Euskera and must celebrate the Basque culture. They stated "Euskera is the quintessence of Euskadi: so long as Euskera is alive, Euskadi will live" (Kurlansky 235).
ETA had gained about 200 to 250 members by the end of 1959. Their first "acts of violence" were graffiti on walls and statues, where they would write the phrase "Gora Euskadi." From the beginning, ETA was careful not to make civilian casualties. Some of their first attacks included the bombing of a Guardia Civil headquarters elevator and the derailment of a train on July 18, 1961, that was carrying people going to celebrate the anniversary of the 1936 coup d'etat in San Sebastian. After the train derailment, over 100 Basques were arrested, including the five ETA leaders. However, they were all released. The five leaders then moved their headquarters to France, from where it is believed ETA has been directing ever since.
From its start, ETA members were drawn to Marxist ideology despite the Basque Nationalist Party's distaste in communism. Their reason for embracing communism had a great deal to do with Franco's anti-communist stance.
Major rifts were developing between ETA and the Basque Nationalist Party (abbreviated PNV). ETA's support of communism greatly opposed the Basque Nationalist Party's anti-communist stance. While most PNV members were conservative heirs of Vizcaya industry, ETA was recruiting the working class. Aguirre died in 1960 and Jesus Maria Leizaola became the new head of PNV. ETA was denounced as a "communist organization" by the Basque Nationalist Party under Leizaola's leadership.
Two ETA meetings, the second of which took place on Easter weak, 1967, were called Assembly V. Assembly V dramatically changed the position and leadership of ETA. In the assembly they published a document called "The Official Ideology of ETA" which stated that ETA was now "a Basque socialist national liberation movement" (Kurlansky 240). They fused Basque liberation with the working class struggle for "social liberation" to form a nationalist movement defined as "revolutionary nationalism." The new leaders of ETA were too young to have experienced the Basque government or the Second Republic. They did not run the group based on cultural importance, but on the need to get rid of Franco's repressive dictatorship over the Basque country. The new leader to emerge from the assembly was Txabi Etxebarrieta, who became ETA's most popular leader. Not only was Txabi the first ETA member to kill, he was also the first ETA member to be killed by the Guardia Civil, two events that occurred because of a random road check.
ETA's first planned assassination took place on August 2, 1968 when an ETA member shot and killed a hated San Sebastian police captain named Meliton Manzanas. By August 5, Franco had declared a siege on Basqueland that lasted for months. Thousands of Basques were arrested, tortured, and some sentenced to years in prison.
In December 1970 the Burgos trials took place where 16 alleged ETA members were charged with "military rebellion, banditism, and terrorism." Demonstrations broke out after 3 ETA members were sentenced to death, and many European countries petitioned the Spanish government not to carry out the sentences. The sentences were changed to life imprisonment.
On December 20, 1973, ETA members planted explosives in the car of Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco. He was hated by ETA almost as much as Franco and was nicknamed "The Ogre," and thus attack was called "Operation Ogre." Although someone else was named, it was suspected that Carrero Blanco was going to be Franco's successor. ETA considers this their most successful assassination because his death may have done a great deal to end Fascism in Spain.
When Franco ordered a Guardia Civil firing squad to kill 5 political prisoners on September 27, 1975, two of which were accused ETA members, many countries protested again and boycotted Spanish products. Some called the Spanish government "murderers." Franco wanted to get even with ETA because, at the time, only 33 Basques had been killed by Guardia Civil, whereas ETA had killed 38 people.
Franco died of natural causes on November 20, 1975.