Fieldnotes: Spanish refugees in French concentration camps

Writing historical fantasy is all about the details, so I’m always a little amused when someone tells me they didn’t know about a particular fact, because frankly, until I started writing the Los Nefilim series, I didn’t know about it, either. I’ve said it before, and I’ll reiterate here: the Spanish Civil War and the role of exiled Spaniards during World War II wasn’t taught in American schools back in the seventies and eighties. At most, the Spanish Civil War was given a bare mention as an incident that happened between World War I and World War II, and the fate of the hundreds of thousands of Spanish exiles was never broached.

Likewise, the only mention of concentration camps in any form came in reference to the Nazis during the nineteen thirties and forties. Rarely, a teacher mentioned the American concentration camps, where we interred Japanese-Americans during World War II, but the instructors were very careful not to use the term concentration camps, although that is exactly what they were.*

Before I begin the discussion, it’s important to know the difference between a concentration camp and a prison. For the purpose of this post, I’m using Anne Applebaum’s definition of concentration camps as:

“… camps constructed to incarcerate people not for what they had done, but for who they were. Unlike criminal prison camps, or prisoner-of-war camps, concentration camps were built for a particular type of noncriminal civilian prisoner, the member of an ‘enemy’ group, or at any rate of a category of people who, for reasons of their race or their presumed politics, were judged to be dangerous or extraneous to society” (Applebaum, p. xxxiv).

These camps initially came into existence through colonialism.

The Spanish were the first to utilize the term, reconcentración, in colonial Cuba in 1895, where the colonists faced a series of local insurgencies. By removing Cuban peasants from their land in order to “reconcentrate” them in camps, they found a way to deprive local insurgents of food, shelter, and support.

Sometime around 1900, the term moved into the English lexicon, and the British used a similar project to contain the Boer insurgency during the Boer Wars. From there, the term kontslager appears in Russian, probably through Trotsky, who was familiar with the Boer Wars.

In 1904, the Germans colonized South-West Africa and followed the British example, except for one important twist: the Germans added forced labor as an integral part of their camps. Members of the Herero tribe who were interred in the German camps were forced to work for the colonists. In 1905, the term Konzentrationslager (often abbreviated as either K.Z or K.L.) first appears in the German language.

While Applebaum doesn’t go into French colonialism, it’s not hard to see how the French colonists would be aware of the Spanish, British, and German measures to restrict local populaces. Regardless, the French were certainly familiar with the concept and utilized it when overwhelmed with Spanish refugees at the end of the Spanish Civil War.

France had long been a haven for refugees fleeing political persecution from many European countries; however, by the end of the nineteen thirties, France was undergoing a poor economic outlook coupled with political divisions of its own, along with the increasing threat of war with Germany. France’s Prime Minister, Édouard Daladier, was a French Radical-Socialist politician, who sought to turn France from being a refuge toward being a place of transit for those fleeing persecution.

Albert Sarraut, the French Minister of the Interior, was responsible for dealing with the arrival of Spanish refugees in 1939. Sarraut distinguished between prison camps and concentration camps when he said, “Let us repeat that: the camp of Argelés-sur-Mer will not be a penitentiary centre but a concentration camp. It is not the same thing” (Soo, pp. 6-7).

The immediate aftermath of the Spanish Civil War left over half a million Spaniards crossing the Pyrenees during a brutal winter. As they fled, Nationalist, German, and Italian planes strafed civilians with the same intensity as the military targets. One French lorry driver suspected that the children he carried were targeted deliberately:

“My lorry was crowded with children. The plane swooped so low that they must have seen it. But that did not stop them. Seventeen of the children were killed” (Soo, p. 46).

Traumatized by the war and the long journey over the Pyrenees, the Spanish found themselves treated like prisoners. They arrived in France, not to find a welcome, but instead barricades, where they were forced to leave what few possessions they might have managed to carry into their exile.

French officials confiscated personal possessions and dumped them into a ditch filled with chloride and lime. The Spanish were only allowed to carry in only what was strictly necessary. With the loss of personal possessions came the loss of identity for many people, a loss that was might have been chipped away, but never totally disappeared.

The first camp was established at Argelès-sur-Mer on 1 February, where the refugees found nothing but barbed wire. Families were separated, with men in one section and women and children in another, until Argelès overflowed and more camps were established at St. Cyprien (7 February), Barcarès (9 February) to relieve the overcrowding (Kendall, 2018).

Taking a page from the German colonists, the French put the Spanish to work in constructing the camp. Remember, this was February and the Spanish had no shelter from the cold winds and the sand. It would be months before any type of shelter would actually be constructed.

Spanish refugee in the sand at Argelès-sur-Mer (copyright Robert Capa 1939)

Spanish refugee in the sand at Argelès-sur-Mer (copyright Robert Capa 1939)

A report from the UK’s International Commission for the Assistance of Child Refugees in Spain describes the initial camp conditions:

“Aregles [sic] camp is on a sandy expanse by the sea. There is no shelter of any sort from wind, sand or rain. A bitterly cold wind from the mountains has produced a raging sandstorm for the past few days. There is a great deal of ‘dysentery’ probably from lack of good water and absence of sanitary arrangements. The refugees scoop hollows in the sand for protection against the wind, but if they go more than a few inches down it is wet. A number of women living in the camp and nearly 80 children nearly all of whom suffering conjunctivitis from the sand [sic]” (Soo, p. 60).

The French government, for their part, hoped that the horrendous conditions would prompt the Spanish Republicans to return to Spain, and the Spanish knew it. The Manchester Guardian published an extract from an internee’s letter that read:

“Am now in a concentration camp where we are treated just like infected dogs and by the Senegalese blacks … Obviously, they were ordered to be rough with us, so as to make us tired and oblige us, more or less, to go with Franco, which is what the authorities want … The food ration consists of: 8 a.m. a tin of hot dirty water, meaning to be coffee [sic]; 3 p.m. half a pound of bad bread and a tin of small and very bad sardines to be shared between three people. And that’s all … We’ll die like flies soon. It would have been better to have been killed by bombs” (Soo, p. 61).

At Argelès, French officials stated that families would only be reunited if they agreed to return to Spain. Men were given the option of joining the Foreign Legion or returning to Spain, which very few actually accepted. In the Gurs camp, only 473 Spaniards signed a repatriation agreement (Soo, p. 81).

Others did risk returning to Spain over the summer. Approximately 250,000 refugees returned, but this number might have been higher, since many could have returned clandestinely in order to avoid possible imprisonment and repression under Franco.

Those who remained in the camps, and especially any Republican soldiers who stayed in France, were instrumental in fighting for France against Germany: first in the army and then in the Resistance. But that is another story …

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*Nor have we learned from the past. Immigrants seeking asylum, which is perfectly legal, are currently being housed in concentration camps in the United States.

Applebaum, Anne. Gulag: a history. New York: Anchor Books, 2004.

Kendall, Meaghan. “Internment of the Spanish Exiles in France.” August 11, 2018.

Soo, Scott. The routes to exile: France and the Spanish Civil War refugees, 1939-2009. Manchester, MI: Manchester University Press, 2013.