BEYOND DEATH AND EXILE The Spanish Republicans in France, 1939-1955 by Louis Stein

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Eighty years ago, around 500,000 Spanish republicans sought refuge in France after losing a bitterly fought civil war to Franco’s forces. Choosing exile over imprisonment or death, these Spaniards were herded ungraciously into primitive concentration camps by fearful and suspicious French authorities, and treated appallingly, at least in the short term. With the onset of World War II, they were dragooned for work in defence factories, agriculture, and fortifications. Thousands chose the alternative of joining the Foreign Legion or the regular French army. When the Nazis crushed the French and British armies in 1940, around 13,000 Spaniards were captured and sent by the Nazis to Mauthausen concentration camp, while the British only evacuated around a thousand from Dunkirk during their retreat.

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Hitler described, rightly, the Spanish exiles as “presumptive enemies”. Staunch in their republican principles, they joined the Resistance movement and the Maquis fighting the Germans and Vichy; they swelled the Free French forces and fought from Normandy to Berchtesgaden. Before the war ended, 60,000 Spanish republicans had fought once again against fascism, forever hoping that when the Nazis were defeated the Allies would turn south to oust Franco.

“The assistant chief of staff for intelligence of the de Gaulle forces in England informed the American Military Intelligence Division in London, on July 23, 1942, of a number of Resistance actions that had taken place in the occupied zone in the recent past, including hand grenades launched at parading German soldiers, the dynamiting of a crowded German military canteen in Brest, the disabling of an electrical transformer near Lorient, Morbihan, the destruction of twelve trucks at Armentières, the derailing of a train at Le Havre, the wrecking of thirty railroad cars at Tours, and the audacity of thousands of people in many cities appearing in the streets on Bastille Day wearing tricolor armbands. They circumvented the German ban on large assemblies of people by walking in groups of two or three.

“Spanish republicans were also active in Paris in 1942. On March 10, 1942, they burned a German military garage. Two Spaniards of the MOI destroyed a German factory in Issy-les-Moulineaux with an incendiary bomb, killing three Nazis. A German official was shot and killed by two Spaniards as he stood in the doorway of a hospital in Clamart. On May 15, 1942, two Spaniards set fire to a recruitment office for work in Germany. Also in May, a Spaniard who was carrying explosives was stopped by a German officer; he killed the officer and escaped. On the morning of September 30, 1942, three Spaniards tossed a bomb into a formation of police in a headquarters courtyard, killing eight and wounding others.

“Similar work was going on in the south. In the department of the Aude, for example, members of the reconstituted Fourteenth Corps of Guerrillas, which had been part of the rear guard on the march out of Spain, blew up a transformer at the mine in Monthoumet on October 26, 1942; destroyed a supply train destined for Germany, November 17, 1942; cut electricity lines near Carcassonne, December 4, 1942; and sabotaged the central electric station at Limoux, December 10, 1942. Also at year’s end, a supply train was dynamited in a tunnel at Perles-et-Castilet in l’Ariège, destroying the convoy and interrupting service for several days. A special Spanish sabotage group in the department of Charente managed to perforate tins of meat, fish, and preserves, and sacks of grain and cereals. Another unit sabotaged an airfield at Cognac, and a joint French-Spanish team damaged an arsenal at Angoulème. The Spaniards also proved that it was possible to cooperate with the Germans and still carry out acts of sabotage. At Brest, a Spanish Travailleur Etranger was asked to straighten used nails, in view of the shortage. He was punctilious in his performance of this task, tapping slowly, and inspecting the results frequently. But he was a perfectionist and each nail demanded an hour of his time. Meanwhile, for each nail he straightened he threw a number of new ones into the ocean.

One story that particularly tickled me was that of Captain Miguel Sanz Clemente. Captured by the Gestapo while transporting arms, he was ordered to be shot. While awaiting execution by firing squad he suddenly seized a machine-gun from a truck, killed his firing squad and escaped into the forest. For this exploit he was awarded the Medal of Resistance and the War Cross.

As Stein says: “To understand the Resistance movement from 1943 until the liberation in 1944, one must first of all recognize the close collaboration between the French and Spanish fighters. Although the Spaniards were organized in their own formations, they were part and parcel of the French Resistance movement during that time. Where such organization was not possible, Spaniards fought in the ranks of the French Maquis. The extent of Resistance operations can be better appreciated when one realizes that no Allied troops appeared south of a line drawn from Nantes to Orléans to Dijon, and west of a line from Dijon to Avignon. Yet many of the territories within these limits were liberated before Paris and almost entirely by Resistance forces. Although they were particularly active in the Massif Central, the Alps, and the south and southeast, Spanish forces fought in forty-one departments in almost every region of France. The liberation of forty-nine cities in France was accomplished totally or in part by Spanish Maquis. In some instances, they were instrumental in liberating entire departments. The order of battle of Spanish guerrilla units in August 1944 demonstrates the extent of their infusion into the battle for France. They were behind the barricades in Paris, blew up bridges and railroads, and attacked retreating German forces and inflicted thousands of casualties upon them. Spanish guerrillas were present in the sacrificial battles of the Plateau of Glières, Vercors, and Mont-Mouchet. They also distinguished themselves in the ill-fated breakout attempt from the prison of Eysses. Incorporated into the regular French forces at the end of 1944, many Spaniards also took a large part in the only mass battle fought by men of the Resistance, the reduction of the last German Atlantic strongholds of Lorient, Royan (Charente-Maritime), Le Verdon (Gironde), and Pointe de Grave (Gironde). Thousands of Spaniards also fought in the regular forces of the new French army, notably in the First and Second Armored Divisions and in the Foreign Legion. Spanish tank crews of General Leclerc’s Second French Armored Division were the first to penetrate Paris and reach the Hôtel de Ville. In addition, the escape networks continued to rescue Allied soldiers and civilians. General de Gaulle noted that twelve thousand Frenchmen escaped the country through the French and Spanish networks.

The bravery and sacrifice of the Spanish Republican exiles counted for nothing in the end. With the Cold War the Americans and their NATO allies needed Franco as an essential mainstay of Western geopolitical interests in Europe, and so the United Nations abandoned the Spanish republicans to their fate, leaving the grimly disappointed exiles to turn to guerrilla warfare inside Spain to keep the republican cause alive.

Spain’s republican odyssey as presented by Louis Stein is a heartwrenching but inspirational story of principle, hope — and an indomitable will to resist.