The homage France owes to Spanish Republican refugees

By Nicolas Lebourg

A move to include the 150th anniversary of the birth of the notorious French anti-Semitic and far-right author Charles Maurras in official ceremonies across France this year caused such an outcry that it was struck off the agenda, calling into question the criteria employed by the country’s learned national commemorations committee. Amid the farce over Maurras, historian and Mediapart contributor Nicolas Lebourg argues here that a truly worthy commemoration sorely missing from the official calendar is that of the plight, and unsung contribution to France, of the hundreds of thousands of Spanish Civil War refugees who, in the runup to World War II, crossed into the country seeking refuge from the Franco regime.

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The recent controversy over the inclusion in France’s official list of national commemorations of the 150th anniversary of the birth of the anti-Semitic far-right author Charles Maurras (the ensuing outrage forced mention of him off the list), served to revive the eternal debate about art and the necessity for commemorations as a means of allowing citizens to enjoy a shared cultural heritage.

In this month of February 2018, it should be hoped that France allows for a proper commemoration of the Retirada (Spanish for “retreat”), the name given to the mass exile of Spanish Republicans between 1937 and 1939. It is something that, at a time of hysteria over the influx of refugees, would make sense in facing up to one of those lesser-known but nevertheless structuring moments of our history.   

The Spanish Civil War was a bloodbath from which, just as today, individuals tried to escape by choosing to depart elsewhere. In 1937 and 1938, about 70,000 Spanish citizens found refuge in France. In January 1939, more than 40,000 people massed at the border with France, which Paris at first decided to keep closed. At the end of the month, the French government ordered a partial opening, allowing a daily intake of about 2,000 women, children, old folk and the sick.

Spanish refugees gathered at Le Perthus, on the French side of the border with Spain, in February 1939. © David Seymour. Musée national de l'histoire et des cultures de l'immigration Spanish refugees gathered at Le Perthus, on the French side of the border with Spain, in February 1939. © David Seymour. Musée national de l'histoire et des cultures de l'immigration

Amid the chaos, the prefecture (the local government administrative centre) in the town of Perpignan, about 35 kilometres from the border with the Catalan region of Spain, attempted to estimate the numbers of refugees entering the country. It found that between January 28th and February 6th 1939, a total of 96,613 women, 32,452 minors, and 3,490 old people whad been allowed across the border.

The Republican refugees, often armed, crossed every border point along the Pyrenees, and included families and the wounded. In all, they totalled 480,000 people. They were met in France by gendarmerie units and Senegalese troops (the West African country was then a French colony), and were escorted to camps in France’s south-west Mediterranean region; one was at Argelès-sur-Mer, where 87,000 were interned, another was at Saint-Cyprien, where another 80,000 were placed, both locations now seaside tourist resorts.

In nearby Perpignan, the refugees were screened at the Haras camp before being moved to other internment centres. The camp is now the site of a subsidised housing estate where there are no commemorative signs or other tributes to mark the events. The gardens of the estate were grown over the former space used by the refugees to pass time by playing pétanque (French boules).  

At the yime, on top of the problem perceived in the massive numbers of refugees arriving, were two other concerns. Firstly, a large number of them were from the Republican army, which had fought until their last stronghold fell to the onslaught of Franco’s forces. Although they had been disarmed at the border crossing, their presence worried the French government. Secondly, within the broad term of “Republicans” as used today, there was an important presence of communists and anarchists among their ranks. The French conservative press of the time stirred alarm over a supposed “Red peril” which threatened civil war in France after they had, it argued, terrorised Spain.    

But beyond the stoking of such fears, a section of French public opinion questioned whether the country could accommodate such a massive influx at a period when tensions with Germany were heightening. When, on August 26th 1939, the French government warned Berlin that France would go to war with Germany if its army invaded Poland, the municipal council of the village of Collioure, situated on the Mediterranean coast, voted unanimously in favour of a resolution demanding that the prefect of Perpignan should place all Spanish refugees present in the region in “concentration camps”, with the exception of adult males among them who the council said should be placed at the disposition of the French army. To fail to do so, the council argued, risked provoking the violent anger of the local population.

The cover of Grégory Tuban's book detailing the treatment of Spanish refugees in France between 1939 and 1944. The cover of Grégory Tuban's book detailing the treatment of Spanish refugees in France between 1939 and 1944.

There was a legal basis for using camps; a government decree of November 12th 1938 allowed for the grouping in internment camps of “undesired foreigners”, designated therefor for their membership of a group as opposed to their personal acts. Over recent years, much has been written about these structures which the state itself at the time described as “concentration camps”. Essential reading on the subject is a book published last month in France by Grégory Tuban, entitled Camps d’étrangers. Le contrôle des réfugiés venus d’Espagne, 1939-1944 [1] (Camps for foreigners: the control of refugees from Spain 1939-1944) which charts the continuity in the treatment of this refugee population by both the pre-war French state, that of the Third Republic, and the collaborationist Vichy regime of German-occupied France.

It details the terrible conditions in which the interned population lived, amid hunger and cold. It recounts how those officially labelled as “extremists” were sent to disciplinary camps in Collioure and Le Vernet in the Ariège département (county) in the Pyrenees. As of 1939, the leftwingers were targeted, and particularly those from the International Brigades of the Spanish Republican armies. In 1941, under the Vichy regime, the management of the camp in Le Vernet closely monitored the internees to uncover their political views. The system in place was one of an obsession with controlling the prisoners body and soul, enjoining them in an immobilisation in order that they did not disturb public order. Grégory Tuban presents some of the about 200,000 files that were created on internees in 1939, demonstrating what signified the policy of “surveillance and punishment” of the suspect immigrants. While it was officially claimed that there were no forcible repatriations to Spain, Tuban details how, in the autumn of 1939, thousands of Spanish Republicans were returned to the Franco regime. In one example, he cites the notes of a French police officer overseeing the return of refugees at the border crossing in Hendaye, in the Basque region of south-west France, who describes the disarray of the deported women who were shouting and crying “as is their custom”.

The flight of the Spanish refugees was not only to France, but also North Africa and from there, occasionally, to North America. Importantly, this trans-national movement subsequently contributed to national histories. In France, no threats against them were needed for them to continue the combat they had begun in Spain; about 6,000 of the Spanish refugees volunteered to join the ranks of the French army to fight against the Third Reich, while others were to join the Resistance movement in occupied France.

One of them was Ramón Vila Capdevila, head of the Libertad battalion made of about 300 Spaniards, mostly anarchists, who valiantly fought against the German army in occupied France. Following the end of World War II, he resumed his combat against the Franco regime, returning to Spain where he was eventually shot dead in 1963.

Tuban recounts how resistance networks were created by the Spanish groups of foreign workers engaged in forced labour tasks, and how the refugees represent, beyond a single historical event, a link between periods of French history. “The refugees of the Reitirada are the common thread of that France of the camps, from the end of the Third Republic through to the Liberation,” he writes. In other words, a democracy having abandoned its values to a dictatorship whose repressive apparatus was partly based on the amplification of instruments handed to it.   

It took 70 years before Paris City Hall finally commemorated the “Nueve”, the Free French Forces company made up of Spanish Republicans who played a key and early role in the liberation of the French capital from German occupation in August 1944. At a moment of national debate in France about what should and should not be commemorated, it would be a fine thing that we look at the Retirada straight in the eye. Without any a posteriori moralisation, but in homage to these men and women of the past and also to be wary of the present, of the hounding of those who are different, the spite against minorities, and of rationalised means of repression.


 1: Grégory Tuban’s book Camps d’étrangers. Le contrôle des réfugiés venus d’Espagne, 1939-1944 is currently available in French only, published in January by publishing house Nouveau Monde, priced 21 euros.



  • The French version of this article can be found here.


English version by Graham Tearse



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