Digital History Seminar: 20th Century Spain

Spanish Refugees in France


The international community was numb after the end of World War Two. Never before had such death and destruction been prevalent on this Earth. While the world was busing picking up the pieces while still trying to wrap it's head around how and why the Holocaust occurred, the international community nearly overlooked the biggest refugee crisis of the twentieth century It was convenient to forget about the one fascist dictator in Spain that escaped justice, and the consequences of his rise to power. During the Spanish Civil War over 500,000 Spaniards became refugees, with the majority fleeing to France. Some 20,000 were able to make it to America and others joined the French Resistance.[1]The first of the international community that had to handle the refugees was Spain's neighbor to the East, France. beginning in 1936 and peaking in 1939, hundreds of thousands Spanish refugees fled to France. The French government to hastily make room for the Spaniards and set up camps all along the French border. The conditions in the camps were awful and the French did not treat the refugees has guests, but as suspected communists and potential threats to France. As refugees began to pour in the French had to hastily set up more and more refugee camps while at the same time detaining Spainards they believed to be the most “dangerous” The main refugee camps in Spain was Argelès-sur- Mer, St. Cyprien, Barcarès, Toulouse, Le Vernet and Château Royal de Collioure.Unfortunately for most of the refugees, most were not able to escape the violence. After the Nazis conquered France, 30,000 former Republicans were sent back to Germany to either forced labor camps or to concentration camps, however most of the French interment camps were simply converted to concentration camps because the French had already done the Nazi's job by placing all of there enemies in one place.[2]

Camp Life

The French did not treat the Spanish refugees as displaced peoples, but as communist invaders. At this time anti-Communist sentiment was high in France, due the rise of a popular front government in France. Once French newspaper displayed the headline "Will the Army of the Riot Reorganize in France?" By all accounts the French wanted the Spaniards back in Spain. The French would routinely pass out propaganda to the refugees that attempted to convince them that going back to Spain would be a viable solution. Louis Stein who authored Beyond Death and Exile: The Spanish Republicans in France, 1939-1955 compared the treatment of the refugees to that of cattle by writing “The refugees were being given equal treatment with the livestock they had brought with them — that is to say, left to fend for themselves most of the time.”
The French were unprepared for mass influx of refugees and provisons in most camps constied of one loaf of bread that had to be split between five people.The French was like an abusive stepparent to the refugees, using violence and intimidation in an attempt to get them to flee back to Spain.According to Spanish historian David Wingeate Pike, the Spaniards were treated worse than prisoners of war, and that they were treated like criminals. The camps on the beach consisted of barbed wire and open beach with no shelter to be found from the wind and extreme temperature changes.  Antonio de la Fuente y Ferraz who was nine when he arrived at France with his family. For the next four years he had been to seven different interment camps. Antonio summed up the experience of most Spanish refugees by saying, "We were cold and hungry, and above all, we were scared" The camps were a humanitarian disaster, disease ran rapid and the Spaniards could not even suffer along with there family, as men, women, and children were separated at the border. The suffering for the Spaniards were only beginning because in June of 1940, the Germans began their occupation of France. During the German occupation many Spaniards chose to join the French resistance, and those that survived the German occupation still had a long road away.[3]


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