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.

Fieldnotes: pink lists and the pink triangle

A few short notes on why I chose to use male protagonists and antagonists in my Los Nefilim series, and maybe a few historical facts that not many people know. There are women in the novel, as well, and I adore writing them, because they’re all so vicious (Carme, Sofia, and the Corvo twins to name a few).

The thing is, though, the books originally started with Guillermo as the protagonist. As I became more involved with different people online, I realized that my novel with Guillermo, Diago, and Miquel followed every terrible trope out there. In my case, multiple rejections became a second chance.

I considered flipping the genders and making them all women. Then I spent some time studying the various time periods. As I did, I found that laws against homosexuality were generally written against men, going back to the Visigothic Code, which specifically addressed sodomy and no other form of same-sex love. The code itself states that anyone accused of sodomy “not only suffer emasculation, but also the penalty prescribed by ecclesiastical decree for such offences.” [1] Ecclesiastical decrees during the 13th century dictated the death penalty for sodomy. [2]

Women, on the other hand, were (and quite often still are) seen under the false assumptions that they are either: a) naturally affectionate or b) not in control of their own desires. There is the added perspective that, seen through the male gaze, f/f copulation can be arousing to males, and therefore less likely to be seen as a punishable offence.

Regardless of the reasoning, as time moved on, the persecution against gay men remained in place. It wasn’t until the early 20th century that both psychologists and physicians began to study sex and gender associations more openly. One of the most renowned was Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, a German physician who founded the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee, which pioneered “the first advocacy for homosexual and transgender rights.” [3]

Hirschfeld believed that "homosexuality was part of the plan of nature and creation" like other forms of love and affection. In 1919, he co-wrote and acted in the film Anders als die Andern ("Different From the Others"). Conrad Veidt, a prominent German actor who makes a cameo in Where Oblivion Lives, played one of the first homosexual characters ever written for cinema in this film. Because of this, he is Rudi Grier’s hero.

Hirschfeld, for his part, uses his role to play himself and makes an attempt to educate his audience. A portion of the film is devoted to Hirschfeld testifying in court that “the persecution of homosexuals belongs to the same sad chapter of history in which the persecutions of witches and heretics is inscribed."

Unfortunately, Hirschfeld became a Nazi target in the early 1930s. He escaped arrest only because he was on a book tour when the library at Hirschfeld's Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (Institute of Sexology) was raided on 10 May 1933. The Nazis burned thousands of books.

In Spain, France, and Germany (where the majority of the Los Nefilim series takes place), police kept lists of known homosexuals. Pierre Seel, a young Frenchman, frequented Steinbach Square in Alsace, which was a place where men went to meet for sexual encounters. Unfortunately for him, he one day lost a treasured watch to a thief. He went to a police station to report the theft and found himself on the receiving end of a lecture from the detective. Seel didn’t know for certain, but based on later action by the Gestapo, he realized the detective must have placed his name on a list of known homosexuals. [4]

In Germany, these were known as "Pink Lists." When the Nazis seized power, they rounded up these men and told them to report to Gestapo headquarters. Seventeen year old Pierre Seel was likewise summoned by the Gestapo to be interred in a concentration camp.

After the murder of Ernst Röhm, the laws against homosexuality (women were still exempt) became stricter. The obsessively homophobic Heinrich Himmler had the Gestapo step up their raids. In 1937, he told SS leaders that “it was regrettable that gay men could not be killed, but at least they could be detained.” [5]

According to Richard Plant, in his book, The Pink Triangle, between the years 1933-1944 between 50,000 to 63,000 men, 4,000 of whom were juveniles, were convicted of homosexuality under Germany’s infamous Paragraph 175. [6] Forced to wear a pink triangle, these men were detained in the concentration camps and suffered harsh treatment from both the guards and the inmates.

While German law required consent for castration, several gay men were castrated against their will. In order to “cure” the men of their homosexuality, men wearing the pink triangle were forced into particularly hard labor. They were often isolated in separate barracks, where they were forced to sleep with the lights on and their hands above the blankets at all times.

At the end of World War II, gay men were prohibited from seeking reparations for their time in the concentration camps, because homosexuality was still against the law. The laws in most countries didn't change until the mid- to late-60s. Even then many men were too ashamed to come forward. Where the Nazis failed to kill them, society turned them into pariahs. Some, such as Pierre Seel, married and forced themselves into heterosexual marriages. (Seel's ended in divorce.)

In spite of numerous books and studies of the holocaust, I was able to find only three or four books devoted entirely to the men who wore the pink triangle (these are just the ones that I’ve read):

  • Herger, Heinz [trans. by David Fernbach]. The men with the pink triangle: the true, life-and-death story of homosexuals in the Nazi death camps. Los Angeles: Alyson Books, 1980.

  • Plant, Richard. The pink triangle: the Nazi war against homosexuals. New York: Henry Holt, 1988.

  • Seel, Pierre. I, Pierre Seel, deported homosexual. New York: Basic Books, 1995.

So what does all of this have to do with Los Nefilim?

Well, it all sort of goes back to my decision to do things differently with the original story. You see, Guillermo started as the protagonist for the Los Nefilim world, but the more I wrote, the more I realized this was Diago’s story. If I changed his gender, then I cheated him of his story, one that has been little more than a footnote in most history books.

Writing Los Nefilim from a woman's point of view would have drastically changed the characters' perception of the rapidly changing world. By keeping the male point of view in these books, I can balance Miquel’s hope for a more tolerant world with Diago’s pragmatism. Later, in Where Oblivion Lives, Diago's actions with a young German man take on more poignancy because both must remain hidden from the other for different reasons.

More than anything, I want to show you what Hirschfeld wanted to show his audience with Anders als die Andern ("Different From the Others"). That is why my cast is predominantly male.

If you're looking for kick-ass women, I can direct you to a ton of good books, but I'm keeping my boys, because they have a story to tell, too. It begins in 1931 in Barcelona, in a novella called In Midnight’s Silence …
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[1] FLAVIUS EGICA, KING. Book III, Title V, Section VI. Concerning Sodomy, and the Manner in which the Law should be Enforced.

[2] Michael Goodrich Ph.D. (1976) Sodomy in Medieval Secular Law, Journal of Homosexuality, 1:3, 295-302.

[3] Goltz, Dustin. "Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Movements", In Lind, Amy; Brzuzy, Stephanie (eds.). Battleground: Women, Gender, and Sexuality: Volume 2. Greenwood Publishing Group: Westport, CT, 2008.

[4] Seel, Pierre. I, Pierre Seel, deported homosexual. New York: Basic Books, 1995.

[5] Wachsmann, Nikolaus. KL: a history of the Nazi concentration camps. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016.

[6] Plant also notes that six lesbians were arrested, which is considered a "bewildering statistic, since sex between women was not against the law."