When I was a sophomore in college, I studied abroad in Toulouse, France. Part of the program involved an “excursion” to the Pyrénées Orientales, where I heard of the Retirada for the first time. A local professor gave a lecture at a Catalan cultural center, and while many of my classmates dozed, I was intrigued. Afterward, we visited the Maternité Suisse d’Elne and then the beach at Argelès-sur-Mer. While the professor began to talk about the concentration camp that had stood on that very spot, a few of my compatriots couldn’t resist the lure of the beach, and took off running toward the sea.
The following day, we hiked a “Retirada trail” from Cerbère in France to Portbou, Spain. On our way back, we were stopped and hassled by French border control, since we had only photocopies of our passports, and apparently those in black-and-white were suspicious. Evidently peeved that we didn’t seem to be taking the situation seriously, the agents threatened to take us to jail: “You look nice, but if we let everyone who looks nice into France, it would be overrun with criminals!”
It wasn’t until much later that I realized the irony of having difficulty getting into France on the Retirada trail from Spain. The point was really hammered home when I found a photo of thousands of refugees lining up at the very customs building where my friends and I encountered the prickly border control agents, exactly 70 years apart.
Three years later, I am a doctoral student in the Department of History at Michigan State University. This blog is a class assignment, the final project for a class on the History and Theory of Genocide. Now, I am well aware that the Retirada does not constitute genocide. I would not make that argument. However, the final project is entitled Imaging Genocide, and calls for students to examine visual sources, such as photos, paintings, film, graphic novels, and so on. The images of the Retirada are eerily familiar to anyone familiar with historical instances of genocide: gaunt men behind barbed wire. Refugee caravans stretching for miles. Women with haunted eyes clutching bandaged children.
Again: the Retirada itself was not a genocide. The UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, adopted in 1948, defines genocide in part as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group” (1). While scholars to this day debate the interpretation of this definition, and offer their own alternatives, by no legal standard does the term apply to what happened along the French-Spanish border in 1939. Perhaps the Spanish Republicans were spared persecution at Franco’s hand by fleeing, but the French government that allowed them to enter the country did not then engage in attempts to systematically destroy the refugees. However, in a country that called itself the Fatherland of Human Rights, such widespread human rights violations should not be ignored. And yet, outside of the southern areas where most of the refugees eventually settled, the French public is largely unaware of this period of history. It has been silenced.