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 …

__________

*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.

Fieldnotes: Fascism, women, and the Spanish Civil War

WARNING: If you’re upset by violence, you might want to skip this post, because this one is ugly.

In order to simplify the opposing forces in the Spanish Civil War for my American readers:

The elected Republican government was roughly the equivalent to today’s Democratic Party. Franco’s fascists referred to the Republicans as “leftists,” or as “reds” even though most Republicans did not consider themselves to be communists.

The rebels (Franco and his military junta) were backed by the Church, industrialists, the rich, and fascists, which can be likened to today’s evangelicals, the one percent, and Trump’s fascist party, the GOP. They consisted of members of the hard-right and fascists.

Before anyone accuses me of misrepresenting the GOP’s fascist mentality, their current philosophy was initially made clear in a speech by one of Franco’s more flamboyant generals, Juan Yagüe y Blanco (more commonly known as the Butcher of Badajoz):

“… We have decided to redeem you and we will redeem you whether you want to be redeemed or not. Do we need you for anything? No, there will never again be any elections, so why would we need your vote? The first thing to do is to redeem the enemy. We are going to impose our civilization on them and if they don’t accept it willingly, we will impose it by force …”

That attitude, expressed by Yagüe in October of 1937, exemplified the rhetoric behind Franco’s war of annihilation, which was especially brutal on women. Republicans, who weren’t able to flee Franco’s advancing forces, were shot or taken into custody, not as prisoners of war but as common criminals. If the men couldn’t be found, their mothers, wives, and daughters were imprisoned in their stead. In Huesca, seventy-four women were executed for the crime of being the wives of men who had either fled or been shot.

Falangists (fascists) raped Republican women at will. They were also known to brand their victims’ breasts with the Falangist symbol of yoke and arrows. In one case, Falangists raped two women and when they were done, they placed hand grenades between the women’s legs and pulled the pins.

Spanish.jpg

Executions were commonplace and had no regard to either gender or age. In Madrid on 5 August 1939, “fifty-six prisoners were executed including a fourteen-year-old boy and thirteen women, seven of whom were under the age of twenty-one. They came to be known as the Trece Rosas, thirteen roses whose fate symbolized the cruelty of the Franco regime. They were members of the United Socialist Youth, the JSU. Their capture in the spring of 1939 had been facilitated because the Casado Junta had seized JSU membership lists then left them for the Francoists. The excuse for the executions was a non-existent plot to murder Franco.”

The repression in Jaca was exceptionally brutal and was quite often led, not by the military, but by the priests. One in particular, Father de Fustiñana, who was the Chaplain to the local Requetés and liked to walk the streets carrying a gun, was especially feared. Called a ‘bird of ill omen,’ the prisoners knew that when he entered the prison, death followed. On 6 August 1936, Fustiñana, an army captain, and two Falangists “seized two women from the Jaca prison, took them out into the countryside and shot them.” The women were Pilar Vizcarra, who was twenty-eight-years old and pregnant, and Desideria Giménez, a member of the Socialist Youth. Giménez was sixteen.

Fustiñana enjoyed these executions. “He offered confession and the last rites to those about to be shot. Then, his shoes caked with blood, he would visit the families of the few that accepted.” Fustiñana maintained lists of those executed and whether or not the condemned decided to make confession at the end. Over four hundred people from Jaca and its surrounding villages were murdered during this purge.

Those arrested were often members of the Republican middle class, especially doctors and schoolteachers. Women weren’t allowed to take children older than three into prison with them. Since family members were also either imprisoned, executed, or in exile, the women had no one to care for their children. In other cases, babies were taken away (often by force) from their mothers immediately after birth in prison.

The Republican children were placed orphanages, often while the parents still lived.

The justification for removing children from their parents was precipitated by Major Antonio Vallejo Nágera, who was appointed by Franco to oversee the Psychiatric Services of the rebel army. Vallejo spent his time searching for the “‘red gene’ and the links between Marxism and mental deficiency on Republican prisoners.” He justified “the sequestration of Republican children in a book entitled The Eugenics of Spanishness and the Regeneration of the Race.” Vallejo’s theory was that race “was constituted by a series of cultural values” such as hierarchical, military, and patriotic.

Of course Vallejo noted that the values of “the left” were inimical to the fascist idea of Spanishness, and therefore had to be eradicated. “Obsessed with what he called ‘the transcendent task of cleansing of our race’, his model was the Inquisition, which had protected Spain from poisonous doctrines in the past.” To his way of thinking, the “health of the race required that children be separated from their ‘red’ mothers.”

His work eventually led to the 1941 law that “legalized the changing of the names of Republican orphans.”

After the war, roughly twelve thousand children were placed in state or religious orphanages. These orphanages brainwashed the children by telling them that their parents were criminals. One woman recounts how her husband was shot before her and her small daughter. She was arrested and the child was given to a Catholic orphanage. “The mother wrote regularly until one day her daughter replied saying, ‘Don’t write to me any more about papa. I know he was a criminal. I am taking the veil.’”

Likewise, other children were brainwashed into denouncing their fathers as assassins. They were “forced to sing the songs of the murderers of their father; to wear the uniform of those who have executed him, and to curse the dead and to blaspheme his memory.”

When women were allowed to take their small children with them into prison, it usually resulted in a death sentence for the child. In Ventas, Paz Azatí recounted that each day “on the floor of the Ventas infirmary you would see the corpses of fifteen to twenty children dead from meningitis.” The notorious prison in Saturrarán prison in the Basque Country murdered more than one hundred women and fifty children with disease alone.

Rather than outcry, the Francoists applauded his atrocities at every turn. Propagandists “presented the executions, the overflowing prisons and camps, the slave-labour battalions and the fate of the exiles as the scrupulous yet compassionate justice of a benevolent Caudillo. In 1964, they launched a highly choreographed, nationwide celebration of the ‘Twenty-Five Years of Peace’ since the end of the war. Every town in Spain was bedecked with posters rejoicing in the purging of the atheistic hordes of the left.”

In an interview with ABC, Franco “made it clear that the celebrations were not for peace but for victory … The unspoken message of the elaborate celebrations was that the return on Franco’s investment in terror could not have been more successful.”

For the sake of ourselves and our children, we should take care the past does not become the present.

________
All quotes taken from The Spanish Holocaust: inquisition and extermination in twentieth-century Spain by Paul Preston.

A Round-up of Los Nefilim, Grimdarkness, and the Spanish Civil War

For those that missed the ten thousand tweets, Facebook posts, and other mayhem ...

This was launch week for Without Light or Guide, Part 2 of Los Nefilim. I've been talking a lot about the novella, and the series. I posted one round-up on Monday, which you can find here.

Since then, Without Light or Guide has had a lovely review from Joel at the Total Inability to Connect.

Blog posts:

Is it Grimdark, or is it Horror? was my attempt to suss through some of the issues I've had with the definition of grimdark. I have enjoyed reading the comments to this post, both on the Tor.com website and on a separate thread on Reddit. I tried to stay out of the conversation for fear of influencing it. I wanted to read what other grimdark readers had to say about the topic, and they all made some excellent points.

What are Los Nefilim? was my attempt to answer some questions about the back-story of Los Nefilim.

A Primer for the Spanish Civil War is the companion piece to What are Los Nefilim? The primer is a very, very, VERY short history of the events that led up to the Spanish Civil War. I will also be working on a primer of the angelic hierarchies--a blog post for which I will soon be seeking a home.

I have some guest posts coming from Beth Cato and Michael R. Fletcher, so stay tuned for those!

And for now, I will be going silent until I finish the last two scenes of The Second Death, Part 3 of Los Nefilim. The first draft is always the hardest for me, and once I have finished, I will be back around with some thoughts on Beyond Redemption by Michael R. Fletcher, and a review of True Detective, Season 1.

Bibliography for Los Nefilim

A few of you have expressed an interest in seeing some of the books I've used for research. Most of the titles listed here are historical in nature, much to the disappointment of my demonology fans, I'm sure. Still, those of you who enjoy exploring alternative belief systems might find some interesting information under the Religion heading. You will also see some overlap between this bibliography and the one I used for Miserere.

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Wars ... civil or otherwise

I want a factual representation of  the time period--I won't shy away from that, or the brutalities committed by both sides--but my Los Nefilim are meant to be entertainment. The lens is focused on them and their personal stakes as they maneuver through these major conflicts. I want to examine how people (or in our case, Los Nefilim) preserve their humanity in the face of inhumanity, because they are half-mortal, and they value that aspect of their character as much as the supernatural.

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