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.


About adriennetyrey

I am a graduate student in the Michigan State University Department of History. My area of study is Amazigh culture and language policy of the French Protectorate of Morocco. I earned my bachelor's degree in History and French from the University of Tulsa.
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