The Spanish Civil War: Refugees

Spanish Civil War refugees
Figure 1.--This 1939 press photo was headed, "Food and safety within the French border". The photograph was taken at Le Perthus, France. The caption read, "A Spanish refugee mother feeds her child from a bowl of food given them bt French authoritiesvshtly after their arrival in Le Perthus, French border town. They are two of the estimated 150,000 refugees who fled before the advance of General Franco's victorious insurgent troops. Two, youngbgirl refugees in the backgrond smile hapily at their new-found safty." Source: International News Photo.

As a result of NAZI oppression, large numbers of refugees were seeking asylum in Europe, Most but not all were Jewish. Thus France, the Netherlands, and Belgium has serious refugee problems. The Spanish Civil War resulted in another wave of refugees. As the Republican defenses collapsed at the end of the Civil war, combatants and civilians which had supported the Republic along with their families began to stream across the French frontier to seek safety from Franco's revenge. Many took their families with them. An estimate 0.5 million Spaniards sought refuge in France. Many treked through the high mountain passes of the Pyrenees (February 1939). Many assumed that the French would treat them as valiant, but defeated fighters for liberty. France was a democratic republic. And the Spanish refugees asumed the French would see them as fighters with shared beliefs. The French were, however, concerned with the turn of the Republic to the Communists. The French hearded about 0.1 million of the refugees down onto the beach at Argeles. This is a summer resort, but during te winter was freezing cold. Therecwas little shelter and limited supplies. Soon with dead bodies and destroyed vehicles and guns, it looked like Dunkirk. The French set up barbed wire encloures. Needed food and even water was not provided in adequate quantities. The French were not puposefuly cruel. They did not, however, want the refugees to enter the country , but also were not going to force them back to Spain. Authorities were overwealmed by the numbers of refugees. An estimated 10,000 refugees died before the French had the camps set up and properly supplied (summer 1939). By this time Europe was moving toward war. The men were given the opportunity of joining the French Army. Thousands of Spanish recruits were deployed along both the Belgian and Italian frontiers. After the fall of France, the Germans treated the Spanish prisoners differently than French POWs. The Germans saw the Spanish as Bolshevicks and sent thousands to the Mauthausen concentration camp. One Spanish orisoner recalls, "When we were all inside the gate, the camp commandant got up and gave a speech. You have come in through the front gate, the only way you are going to leave is through that gate' - and he pointed to the crematorium chimney at the far end of the camp." Some Spanish refugees in the camps along the Spanish border escaped from the camps and became some of France's first Resistance fighters. Later in the war, Spanish refugees helped lead Allied airmen avoid Vichy and German patrols and through Pyrenees pases into neutral Spain. After the War as Franco remained in power, it was not safe to return to Spain. Thus many of the refugees remained in France. Many adapting to French life and became French citizens. Aspecial group of Spanish refugees were Basque children. The Basques in northwestern Spain had resisted Franco and Basque towns were subjected to aerial bombardment. A naval embarfo precented food and other supplied from reaching Bilbao and other cities. Over 25,000 children were evacuated from the Bilbao region. Most went taken in by the French, but smaller numbers went to Belgium, Britain, Mexico, the Soviet Union, and Switzerland. The British took in 4,000 Basque children.

Spanish Civil War (1936-39)

Following a period of escalating political instability in the early 20th century, the Spanish monarchy fell. It was replaced by a Republic which began instituting social reforms. Threatened conservative elements supported a military revolt led by Francisco Franco. This plunged Spain into a bloody civil war. NAZI Germany and Fascist Italy beginning in 1936 were also active in Spain helping Franco establish a Fascist-like regime. The Spanish Civil War is often seen as the unveiling of the new German Luftwaffe after Hitler had unilaterally abrogated the Versailles Peace Treaty prohibiting Germany from building an air force. Spanish Generals Francisco Franco and Quiepo de Llano revolted against the reform-minded Republican Government elected in Madrid (July 1936). Franco appealed for help. Hitler immeduately ordered Luftwaffe transport plans to transport Franco's loyalist troops in Morroco to participate in the fighting. He saw a left-wing government in Madrid as harful to the Reich, aiding the French policy of encirclement. Both Italy and Germany were soon sending arms and men to the loyalists and provided important air elements. The defenseless Basque village of Guernica was the first European city to be destroyed by the Luftwaffe. The democracies and League of Nations respnded with an arms embargo. Only the Soviets aided the Republic. The Spanish Civil War is most commonly seen as the first major battle against fascism in Europe. Less know and more controversial is the social revolution launched by the Republic.

European Refugee Problem

As a result of the growth of totalitarianism, large numbers of refugees were seeking asylum in Europe, Most but not all were Jewish. There were also political refugees, mostly from the NAZIS. It was fairly easy in the 1930s to flee NAZI Germany. Germany had long borders. And the NAZIs encouraged Jews to leave the country, after stripping them of their property. It was very difficult to escape from the Soviet Union. Thus France, the Netherlands, and Belgium had serious refugee problems. The Spanish Civil War resulted in another wave of refugees. And with the eminent fall of the Republic, almost all headed for the French border.

Basque Refugeee Children (1937)

A special group of Spanish refugees were Basque children. The Basques in northwestern Spain had resisted Franco and Basque towns were subjected to aerial bombardment. A naval embargo precented food and other supplies from reaching Bilbao and other cities. Food supplies declined and the situationnin the city deteriorated. After the bombing of Guernica (April 1917), the autonomous Basque Government, loyal to the Republic, issued an appeal to save Basque children. Seven countries responded: Belgium, Britain, Denmark, Mexico, the Soviet Union, and Switzerland. Mrs. Roosevelt backed an American effort, but opposition from the Catholic Church prevented American action which required Congressional action. About 20,000 children aged 2-14 years were evacuated from the Bilbao region. (Some accounts indicate 25,000 children.) Most (about 15,000) went taken in by the French which also had a Basque population and bordered the Spanish Basque country. After a quarantine, about 6,000 of these children were sent to Belgium (3,100), the Sovet Union (2,500), and Switzerland. The British took in almost 4,000 Basque children. The Basque children sent to England embarked from Santurce, Bilbao, on the Habana (May 21, 1937). The docked at Southampton. Many stayed at Cambria House and Moor Hill House. The English thought that they could soon be retirned to Spain. That proved impossible. Some were eventially sent to the colonies. The children in these countries (except Belgium, Mexico, and the Soviet Union) were cared for by private charities (Catholic groups, political parties, and trade unions). The children in fact became political pawns. In Frace and Belgium they symbolized the failure of apeasemet and posed concerns about apeasement. For the Soviets they were made a symbol of solidarity with te Republic. The treatment and experiennces of the children varied. One historian reports that the children were especially cared for in Belgium. [Legarreta, "Hospitality".]

Franco Victory (February-March 1939)

The Spanish Civil War finally ended with a total Ntionalist victory (early 1939). The Republican fighters began streaming into France realizing that Franco and the Nationazlists had won the War, Catalonia was occupied by the Nationalists (February 10). The last city in Republican hands was Madrid. Peace proposals from the Junta de Defensa (unnder Casado and Besteiro) were futile as it was clear the Nationalists had won. Franco's victorious army entered Madrid (March 28). Franco declared the Civil War officially over (April 1). President Roosevelt moved to lift the arms embargo (April 1). He then recognized the Franco Government (April 3, 1939). Roosevelt also removed the anti-Franco Claude Bowers, an old friend, as Ambassador.

Flood of Refugees (1939)

The number of Spanish refugees were at first limited. They gradually increased as Franco's forces inflicted a serirs of defeats on the Republic. The result was several waves of refugees crossing the Pyranees. The flow spiked after each Franco victiry. The number of refugees totaled aboyt 40-45,000 people in the first 3 years of the conflict. The French Government was having difficulty copeing with the influx and ordered the border closed (June 1938). The collapse of the Republic resulted in a title wave of refugees. As the Republican defenses collapsed at the end of the Civil war, combatants and civilians which had supported the Republic along with their families began to stream across the French frontier to seek safety from Franco's revenge. Many took their families with them. The last major Republican stronghold of Catalonia fell (January 1939). This resulted in a huge flow of of refugees toward the Medeterranean coast and southern border towns. The retreating Republican Army was covered by a rearguard--the 26th Division (Durruti Column) from the Army of the Ebro. The French were concerned that they were being invaded by Communists and Anarchists. With Franco forces approacjing the border twons, the French Government decided to reopen the border. Hundreds of thousands and Spanish Republican soldiers and civilians flowed into France. Many treked through the high mountain passes of the Pyrenees (February 1939). The inflow doubled the population of the Pyrenees-Orientales Department. Additional troops were rushed south to control the refugees. An estimate 0.5 million Spaniards sought refuge in France.

French Attitudes

Many Spaniards fleeing their country assumed that the French would treat them as valiant, but defeated fighters for liberty. France was a democratic republic. And the Spanish erefugees asumed the French would see them as fighters with shared beliefs. The French were, however, concerned with the turn of the Republic to the Communists. Many French were concerned about all he Communists and Anarchists entering the country. Banner newspaper headlines appeared like "Close our Borders to the Armed Bands of the FAI and POUM". The French rushed troops to the south to control the influx of refugees which included both the Republican Army and civilians. The French decided to let the refugees enter, but were not going to allow them to freely enter the country. The solution was concentratioin camps.

Concentration Camps

Once in France the refugees were safe from Franco's revenge, but the conditions were very difficukt. There was no provision for such huge numbers of people. The French did not allow them to just enter the country. Instead they set up concentration camps to hold the refugees. The camps were located on the beaches at Argeles-sur-mer, St. Cyprien, and Barcares. These were not camps with shelters and facilities. The French hearded about 0.1 million of the refugees down onto the beach at Argeles. This is a summer resort, but during te winter was freezing cold. There was little shelter and limited supplies. Soon with dead bodies and destroyed vehicles and guns, it looked like Dunkirk. The French just used stakes and barbed wire to pen in the desperate refugees. Those who tried to escape were arrested and returned by the French police. Food, supplies, as well as medical care were inadequate or non-existant. The French ran the camps with military discipline. There were roll calls and armed patrols. No left wing publications were permitted. The refugees organised themselves insode the camps, primarily on the basis of political affiliation. French identified some individuLS AS "criminals" or "radicals". We're not sure as to the basis for such determinations, but they were mostly Communits and Anarchists. They were confined at special prison camps such as the fortress of Collioure and the camp at Le Vernet with hard labor routines. Men were not killed there, but the regimes were very harsh.

Repatriation (1939)

The French government did its best to convince the refugeees to return to Spain. They used various methods including both voluntary persuasion and actual threats. By the end of the year, however, about half the refugees (about 250,000 people) returned. We do not yet have details as to how those who returned were treated.

French Policies

The French were not puposefuly cruel. They did not, however, want the refugees to enter the country , but also were not going to force them back to Spain. Authorities were overwealmed by the numbers of refugees. An estimated 10,000 refugees died before the French had the camps set up and properly supplied (summer 1939). By this time Europe was moving toward war. Construction projects significantly improved conditions in the camps. Conditions in the camps were still horrible, but were a vast improvement over what the refugees found when they first arrived. The French decided to open the concentration camps where the refugees were confined (April 1939). The Spanish refugees were given a way out of the camps. They were given two options, either labor or military. Refugees could sign up to work under contract with local farmers or other employers. They could also enlist in various military formatioins. This included "workers companies" (labour battalions), the Foreign Legion or the regular French Army. About 15,000 refugees enlissted in the Foreign Legion. Many had served in the 26th Division (Durruti Column). It was essentially a corersed enlistment as the alternative was forced repatriation which would have meant execution.

French Army Service

The Spanish men were given the opportunity of joining the French Army. Thousands of Spanish recruits were in the French Army when Workd War II broke out (September 1939). Many were deployed along both the Belgian and Italian frontiers. Spanish refugees were among the French units sent to Norway (April 1940). Theu fought at Narvik and Trondheim. They fought hard, but experienced heavy casualties. Of the 1,200 deployed only 300 made it out alive.

Fall of France (June 1940)

The Germans proceeded to conquer virtually all of Western Europe. After a few months of the "Phony War", France's turn came. The Germans struck on a wide front against the neutral Netherlands, Belgiym, and Luxemburg. The terror bombing of Rotterdam convinced the already hard-pressed Dutch Army to surrender. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) rushed north to aid the Dutch. The Germans then struck in the Belgian Ardenes which allowed them to avoid the formidable Maginot Line. The French and Belgians considered the Ardenes impassable to tanks. The Germans managed to easily penetrate the rough terraine, crossed two substantial rivers, and the XIX Panzer Corps rapidly reached the English Channel--cutting the BEF off from the French and rendering the Maginot Line uselss. The French entrenched behind the Maginot Line simply could not cope with the exposive highly mobil style of Blitzkrieg warfare. The Panzers surrounded the Belgian Army which King Leopold III surrendered. The BEF was within Hitler's grasp. Paris soon fell and the French signed a NAZI imposed armistace. The collapse of France after only a few weeks was a disaster of emense proportions. It was the French Army that had provided the bulk of the allied War Western Front in World War I. The German victory was not accomplished with massivelyu superior numbers or weaponry. In fact they had fewer men and tanks. What they had was a superior tactical doctrine. The Germans were amazed to find, for example, that French tanks were not even equipped with radios, and a more disciplined fighting force. NAZI propaganda began to describe Hitler as " Der grösste Feldherr Allerzeiten " (the greatest field commander of all time).

NAZI Concentration Camps

About 6,000 Spanish refugees serving in the French Army were killed in combat during the German invasion of France (May-June 1940). After the fall of France, the Germans treated the Spanish prisoners differently than French POWs. The Germans saw the Spanish as Bolshevicks and separated them from thre French POEWs. The Spanish prisoners were sent thousands to concentration camps rather than POW camps. Most were sent to the the Mauthausen concentration camp, a particularly severe camp. One Spanish orisoner recalls, "When we were all inside the gate, the camp commandant got up and gave a speech. You have come in through the front gate, the only way you are going to leave is through that gate' - and he pointed to the crematorium chimney at the far end of the camp." [Caistor] About 12,000 of the 14,000 Spanish taken prisoner were sent to Mauthausen. Only about 2,000 survived when the camp was liberated at the end of the War.

Spanish Refugees Camps during the German Occupation (1940-44)

We have only limited information on the Spanish refugees in France during the German occupation. While many refugees had returned to Spain, at the time of the German victory, there were still large numbers of Spanish refugees in the French concentration camps. Many of the camps were in the Vichy zone. After the fall of France there were intense negotiations between the Germans and Spanish. Hitler wanted Franco to join his anti-Bolshevick crusade in the East. The Germans were also considering an attack on Gibraltar which would have required passage through Spanish territory. I have not been able to find out if these German-Spanish discussions included the status of the Spanish refugees in France. The Vichy Government wanted to use the Spanish refugees still in the in camps. Vichy authorities set up the Travailleurs Etrangers (TE). This were forced labor units of 2,000-5,000 men. Vichy inducted more than 220,000 Spaniards into the TE. They were made to work for French and German companies in France. From the beginning, the right-wing Vichy authorities were concerned about the political orientation of the TE workers which of course foirced labor only hightened. These workers secretly organized. Vichy police did their best to identify and arrest Communists, Anarchists and other "anti-nationals". These TE workers became interested in working for the Resistance. The Allied Normany D-Day landings (June 1944) followed by the Allied landings in southern France (August 1944) finalled liberated the camps.

Resistance Fighters

Some Spanish refugees in the camps along the Spanish border escaped from the camps and became some of France's first Resistance fighters. The French at first largely complied with Vichy/German authorities. Gradually resistance increased, especually after the Germans began conscripting French workers and youth for war work in the Reich. Spanish refugees helped lead Allied airmen avoid Vichy and German patrols and through Pyrenees pases into neutral Spain.

Post-War Situation

After the War as Franco remained in power, it was not safe to return to Spain. Thus many of the refugees remained in France. Many adapting to French life and became French citizens.

Sources

Caistor, Nick. "Spanish Civil War fighters look back," BBC News (February, 28, 2003).

Kushner, Antony and Katharine Knox. Refugees in an Age of Genocide: Global, National, and Local Perspectives (Routledge). Chapter 4 dels with the Spanish Civil War refugees.

Legarreta, Dorothy. The Guernica Generation: Basque Refugee Children of the Spanish Civil War (REno: University of Nevada Press, 1985), 396p.

Legarreta, Dorothy. "Hospitality to the Basque refugee children in Belgium."






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Created: 9:16 AM 5/17/2008
Last updated: 11:01 PM 12/3/2011