Portbou: Spanish Civil War and National Socialism


Spanish Civil War

On the 17th July, 1936 General Francisco Franco and the right-wing military attempt to overthrow the elected, left-wing Republic by force. Unions such as the anarcho-syndicalist CNT call for a counter offensive and proclaim social revolution. Large swathes of the populace man the barricades to defend the Republic and freedom. While states such as France have a policy of non-intervention, Nazi Germany and Italy support Franco: the German Condor Legion destroys Guernica and also bombs Catalan towns like Figueras. Joan Gubert i Macias, the chronicler of Portbou describes the extent of the destruction in Portbou:

Close Portbou was one of the most heavily bombed cities in Catalonia. Being a border town with huge railway yards, it was an important military target. The connection to France was to be destroyed and escape there made more difficult. People in Portbou were depressed, and survived as best they could in the circumstances, deprived of their economic basis with the train network and customs effectively paralysed.
Thousands of volunteers hurry to Spain-on the eve of World War II- to fight against European fascism. But after three years’ civil war Franco declares victory on the first of April 1939: opponents of the regime are massacred; any resistance such as that of the urban guerrillas in Barcelona or the Maquis in the mountains is quashed. Not until the death of the dictator, Franco, in 1975, does the difficult transition to democracy begin, the murders during the dictatorship go unpunished (1+2➘). The trauma of civil war and repression still affects life today (3+4➘).

Retirada: Flight from Spanish Fascism

Barcelona falls on the 26th January, 1939- one of the last cities in the hands of the Republic. Hundreds of thousands flee before Franco’s impending victory and take the bitter route into exile in France.
In the border region of Catalonia there is no road, no path that is not teeming with people writes the author, Álvaro de Orriols, from Barcelona. The whole population is leaving! (5➘)
Within a few days almost half a million people flee to France- after spending days at the closed border crossing, wounded,traumatised, inadequadetely clothed. The most important border crossing points are firstly La Jonquera/Le Perthus, where today the Museo Memorial del Exilio (MUME) stands, and secondly Portbou (6+7➘). Jordi Font, Direktor des MUME:

Close 100,000 people fled near Portbou. Manuel Moros‘ photos show the desperation on the faces of the women, old people, children and wounded soldiers. Men and women who had defended the Republic and Catalonian culture were forced to flee the repression of Francoism.
Life in the internment camps along the French coast is hard: the fugitives, already weakened by the war, have to battle against hunger and sickness just to survive; sleeping on bare sands, surrounded by a barbed wire fence, and at first with no shelter from wind or rain (8➘).

Ten-year-old Lluïsa Miralles fled across the border at Portbou

In World War II exiled Spaniards are deported to concentration camps (9➘), handed over to Franco, or in some cases fight against Nazi Germany. Many never return and die in exile.

The Gestapo and German Border Troops

In 1942 Nazi Germany occupied the south of France as well, and increased surveillance of the Pyrenean border. On the cliffs between Cerbere and Portbou stands the Caseta des Alemanys. From here the German troops had a clear view of the border.

Close The purpose of this bunker-like cottage was the round-the-clock surveillance of the border and coast. The German troops there had machine guns, and nearby there was a small cannon trained on the border.
Francoist Spain supports Hitler, even sends troops to fight (División Azul), although it is officially neutral. Its attitude towards fugitives from the Nazis varies: at first tolerance with only perfunctory checks, then increased internment and extradition to Germany, after that the speedy release of prisoners.
Spain has been laid waste, the prisons crammed with opponents of Franco. The detention of emigrants passing through on their way to America is not the declared aim of Francoism. The combined pressure of the Allies, such as Great Britain and America and the war situation also has an effect. Nevertheless, the Nazis have a strong influence on Franco. The secret police (Gestapo) is present in Spain, there are close relations between them and the Spanish police, the Miranda de Ebro internment camp is run for some time by Paul Winzer, a member of the SS. The Gestapo has a secret office in Portbou:

Close The Gestapo office masquerading as business premises was on the Rambla. It operated in concert with local officials to keep a close watch on the border. Everybody knew about it, but nobody said anything because a climate of fear and despair prevailed in Portbou.
Similarly the Salazar dictatorship in Portugal: they checked and supervised refugees, but hardly ever hindered their transit. After Germany’s defeat many Nazis escaped to Spain (10➘).

Sources and External Links

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  1. Georg Pichler: Gegenwart der Vergangenheit. Die Kontroverse um Bürgerkrieg und Diktatur in Spanien. Zürich 2013
  2. Walther L. Bernecker, Sören Brinkmann: Kampf der Erinnerungen. Der Spanische Bürgerkrieg in Politik und Gesellschaft 1936-2008. Nettersheim 2008
  3. Nowadays many organisations fight against the victims of Franco being consigned to oblivion and to preserve their memory; here two of them: Asociación para la Recuperación de la Memoria Histórica , Federación Estatal de Foros por la Memoria
  4. The Government of Catalonia’s institution, Memorial Democratic, has as its main aim the preservation of historical memories.
  5. Alvaro De Orriols, Les Feux du Perthus, journal de l'exode espagnol, Toulouse, Éditions Privat, 2011.
  6. The Museum of Exile (Museo Memorial del Exilio) (MUME) in La Jonquera: Educational Programme of the MUME:
  7. Grégory Tuban: Février / Febrer 1939 : La retirada dans l'objectuf de l'exili dins la mirada de Manuel Moros, Perpignan 2009
  8. The Exhibition Mémorial du camp d'Argelès-sur-Mer in Argelès:
  9. Neus Catalá: In Ravensbrück ging meine Jugend zu Ende. 14 spanische Frauen über ihre Tätigkeit in der Résistance und ihre Deportation in deutsche Konzentrationslager. Berlin 1994
  10. Carlos Collado Seidel: España refugio nazi, Madrid 2005