Introduction: What is the Retirada?

In just a few icy days in February of 1939, approximately 500,000 refugees hiked from Spain to France, fleeing the invading army as their own side lost the Civil War. France, swamped with people they neither wanted nor were prepared to accommodate, panicked. Refugee families were separated and soldiers had to turn over their weapons as all were packed into hastily assembled concentration camps throughout the south of France. Conditions were terrible, and disease and hopelessness ran rampant behind the barbed wire. This was the Retirada.

Only a year later, France fell to Hitler’s forces, and the southern regions where the Spanish refugees settled were organized under the collaborationist Vichy regime. Primarily leftists, the Spanish Republicans were now seen as political opponents of the regime, and persecution increased. The concentration camps that were built to house the Spanish were used to collect Jews, Roma, and other undesirables. Over 9,000 Spanish refugees were sent to extermination camps in Nazi Germany, while many who remained in France were conscripted into force labor. However, most remained staunchly opposed to fascism, and many Spanish refugees of the Retirada filled the ranks of the French Resistance. Still others joined the Free French Forces that would help liberate France in 1945.

Commemorative stone marking the location of the Argèles-sur-Mer concentration camp

Over 70 years later, the legacy of these refugees is largely forgotten outside of the southernmost parts of France, where their descendants remain and keep the memory of the Retirada alive. However, images of this period abound, reminding those who see them that despite the humiliation of defeat and difficulties of statelessness, the refugees of the Retirada refuse to be forgotten.

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What was the Spanish Civil War all about?

In 1931, Spain became a Republic with a democratically-elected left-wing government. King Alfonso XIII fled, and the new government began a program of modernizing the country. Composed of communists, socialists, anarchists, and Basque and Catalan separatist groups (lured by the promise of self-government), the new government drew up a new constitution granting freedom of speech and religion, voting rights for women, and removed the privileges of the aristocracy. A major part of their platform was anticlericalism, and the Republicans were seen as very hostile to the Catholic Church. Unfortunately, their reign coincided with the Great Depression, which left them unable to implement some reforms and contributed to national unrest.

Currency of the Spanish Republic.
My own photo, March 2009

Many conservative, religious, right-wing, fascist, and nationalist groups opposed the new Republic, and in 1936 many of these groups formed a coalition in support of a military uprising. Their coup d’état, led by General Francisco Franco, began in earnest on July 16th. However, Franco did not succeed in seizing power immediately, as most of the major cities of Spain remained loyal to the Republic. He therefore began a long campaign to conquer the Republican holdouts, and the Civil War commenced.

While the League of Nations remained neutral and most European countries signed a Non-Intervention Pact, many governments willfully broke the pact to provide aid to one side or the other. Hitler’s Nazi Germany, for example, provided a great deal of assistance to Franco’s Nationalist forces. The infamous Condor Legion of the Luftwaffe, for example, engaged in bombing campaigns, including the one that destroyed Guernica and was immortalized in Picasso’s masterpiece.

Guernica, by Pablo Picasso, 1937
From pablopicasso.org

Franco also received financial and military support from Mussolini’s Fascist Italy as well as neighboring Portugal. The Italian navy was particularly effective in blockading Spain’s Mediterranean coast, preventing aid from reaching Republican forces.

The Republicans, on the other hand, turned to Stalin’s Soviet Union for support. That alliance was often uneasy, but Stalin was willing to break the non-intervention pact in secret and sell arms to the Republicans when other states were not. Mexico was a more enthusiastic if less wealthy ally, and sent cash and rifles to aid the Republican cause. France’s leftist president Léon Blum was sympathetic to the Spanish Republican cause, and often hinted that he would consider intervention. However, under pressure from conservative factions in France, he agreed to uphold the Non-Intervention Pact, but did not actively stem the flow of cash and weapons passing between the Soviet Union and Spain via France. Additionally, the Republican side gained support from leftists of all stripes all around the world, many of whom traveled to Spain to participate in the International Brigades. Novelist Ernest Hemingway, who reported on the Spanish Civil War, wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls about a fictional American fighting in the International Brigades.

first edition, 1940

Unfortunately, as Franco’s forces advanced and gained territory, the Republicans were divided internally. The anarchist party, POUM, was often in conflict with the majority communists and socialists. Their differences were primarily ideological, but proved divisive. POUM was denounced and declared illegal, and many anarchists were imprisoned or executed by fellow Republicans.

At the beginning of 1939, Franco made frightening progress, and the Republican stronghold of Barcelona saw the threat approaching. His campaign of January-February 1939 resulted in the fall of Barcelona and the rest of Catalonia, the last great holdout of the Republic. On April 1st of that year, the Civil War ended in Franco’s victory, and the Republican government went into exile.

When Barcelona fell, hundreds of thousands fled. Franco was infamous for his brutality toward his enemies, so many Republicans sought refuge across the border in France. This was the Retirada, the subject of the rest of this blog.

General Francisco Franco
from spanishwars.net

While the refugees of the Retirada suffered greatly, it may have been the best possible option for them. Many Republicans who remained behind in Spain were imprisoned, executed, or forced to labor for Franco’s new Nationalist dictatorship. Numbers are uncertain, but historians estimate that several hundred thousand leftists died under Franco’s regime.

Francisco Franco died in November 1975, reinstating the monarchy that had ruled prior to the Republic, 45 years previously. Only then were any exiles of the Retirada who so chose able to return safely to Spain.

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Crossing the Border: A Photo Gallery

As a flood of refugees approached their southern border, French officials hesitated, indecisive. Finally they came to the conclusion that opening the border was unavoidable, and allowed the Republicans to cross beginning January 31st, 1939. Ten days later, on February 9th, Nationalist forces reached the border and closed it again. The French officially recognized Franco’s government on February 27th, over a month before the war ended and the Republic conceded defeat.

Click through the photo gallery below to read captions explaining the retreat of the Republicans.

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Camps in the Sand

Philosopher Giorgio Agamben controversially wrote that “today it is not the city, but rather the [concentration] camp that is the fundamental biopolitical paradigm of the West.”[1] He argues that state sovereignty is based on the ability to dehumanize, to “grant the unlocalizable a permanent and visible localization,” and thus “the result was the concentration camp.”[2] Today, the death camps of Nazi Germany are held up as the ultimate example of a state’s capacity for evil, for dehumanization and destruction. However, earlier appearances of the concentration camp, including the less destructive but hardly benign French camps of the Retirada, are conveniently forgotten. It is easy for other Western states to point to the Nazi case as evidence of their own innocence; nevertheless, from the United States’ internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II to British internment of Irish suspects in the 1970s to, of course, the French example explored here, other Western states’ hands are hardly clean. If a state’s sovereignty is based on its capacity for taking exception to those living within its borders, as Agamben claims, then what does this say of those confined behind the barbed wire? In the camp, “power has before it pure biological life without any mediation.”[3] This suggests that the victims of the state, the denizens of the concentration camp, are powerless before power. However, in the example of the Retirada, the photos produced of the camps show that, despite their vulnerability, uncertainty, and rejection by all states, the Spanish Republican refugees maintained their sense of dignity, pride, and resistance.

Behind barbed wire for the first time: these refugees, civilians and wounded soldiers, await transit to the camps. They grip the barbed wire tensely.
(MacMillan, 118)

In this photo, many of the children look excited and smile, perhaps relieved to be on a truck and no longer on foot! Only one adult woman is clearly visible, looking tense and clutching her handkerchief. The children raise their fists in Republican salute.

The sites of the camps of the Retirada were chosen very haphazardly. French authorities found themselves in a state of extreme urgency, with 500,000 refugees rapidly descending on them from the mountains. Thus, the refugees were herded onto beaches, which had the benefits of flat, open space and a partial natural border. All that remained to do before the refugees’ arrival was surround the rest with barbed wire and armed guards.[4] Then the refugees were led from their collection points along the border into the various camps. Many women and children were loaded onto trucks and sent deeper into the interior of France, into more permanent and substantial camps than those of their men.

Badly wounded soldiers were taken to hospitals, then dispatched to the camps once they were sufficiently healed. Viable men (those who had not already been redirected back to Spain) were marched onto the beaches, the first and most infamous at Argèles-sur-Mer.

Behind barbed wire for the first time: these refugees, civilians and wounded soldiers, await transit to the camps. They grip the barbed wire tensely.
(MacMillan, 118)

Keen on deflecting the refugee’s ire away from the French themselves, authorities frequently deployed colonial troops from North or West Africa to guard the camps, who came to be seen as terrifying and dangerous figures by the Spanish.[6]After days or weeks of arduous travel, the refugees must have hoped that last stretch of the journey into the camps would lead them to respite. They were sadly mistaken, however, as life in the camps, especially the first weeks, only perpetuated their suffering.


[1] Agamben, 181.

[2] Agamben, 20.

[3] Agamben, 41.

[4] Peschanski, 98.

[5] Marin, 103.

[6] Barba, 159.

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Photo Gallery: Life in the Camps

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World War II and the Spanish Refugees

            The successful German invasion of France in May of 1940 did nothing to help the Spanish Republican refugees. After Maréchal Philippe Pétain signed an armistice in June, many of the refugees were still interned in camps in what became known as the “free zone” (the North was the “occupied zone,” under Nazi control). Pétain’s new Vichy government was even less friendly to the Spanish refugees than its predecessor. Since the Republican refugees were seen as left-wing socialists, Communists, and anarchists, the new regime was very suspicious.

As it turned out, they had reason to be. Many Spanish refugees were very committed to the antifascist movement, and participated in the Resistance movement against Nazi occupation and Vichy collaboration. This was incredibly risky. Spanish Republicans who were considered dangerous political opponents of the regime were rounded up and shipped to camps where the conditions were worse than ever. About 12,000 Spanish refugees of the Retirada were deported to Nazi concentration camps, particularly Mauthausen, a brutal labor camp in Austria. Others were kept in France but forced into hard manual labor, building roads, working in factors, and so on.

Many veterans of the Spanish Civil War enlisted in the French army, including the Free French Forces (Forces françaises libres, or FFL). This army, led in exile by General Charles de Gaulle, joined with the Allied forces to combat the Axis powers. Spanish Republican guerilleros took part in the liberation of France.