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The International Brigades and the Refugee Camps of the south of France



by John Andres Garcia


It is estimated that some 40,000 volunteers from over 50 countries served in Spain in the International Brigades.

The biggest group consisted of 10,000 French volunteers of which 3,000 died. There were some 5,000 Germans and Austrians of which 2,000 died. Italy contributed 3,350, the USA 2,800 of which 900 died, there were some 2,000 from England, 1,000 Canadians, 1,200 Yugoslavs, 1,000 Hungarians, 1,000 Scandinavians. The 5,000 others represented 53 nations.

Another 20,000 volunteers were involved in medical and other support services. (Hugh Thomas p527)

On the 15th of November 1938 hundreds of thousands of Spaniards lined along Barcelona’s main avenue La Diagonal to bid farewell to these heroes of the Spanish Revolution. La Passionaria, Dolores Ibarruri, one of the most eloquent leaders of the Spanish Communist Party addressed the women in the crowd with these words:

Mothers! Women! When the years have passed and the wounds of the war have become scars; when the dark memory of the sad and bloody days has been transformed into a present of freedom, love and well being; when the sentiments of hate have disappeared and when all Spaniards feel the pride of a free nation, then speak to your children. Speak to them about the International Brigades...

To the Brigadistas she said:

Comrades of the International Brigades ... you can leave with pride. You are history. You are legend. You are the heroic example of the solidarity and universality of democracy...” (Hugh Thomas p468)

For 1000s of these young heroes this would be the last time they would be honoured with the respect they deserved.

With the defeat of the Spanish Republic close to half a million refugees fled into France in February 1939. Among these were thousands of International Brigadistas who could not return to their country of origin because it too had fallen under the yoke of Fascism. They now became the victims of victorious fascism at first in the concentration camps of the South of France and later in the extermination camps of Nazi Germany.

The French Concentration Camps

France was not prepared for such an exodus and the first arrivals were hurriedly packed on the beaches of the Roussillon- at Argelès-sur-mer, Barcarès and St Cyprien. All that the French authorities provided was the barbed wire. During the first months of 1939 the dead were counted in the thousands. They perished from hunger, the bitter winter cold and the diseases that spread uncontrolled because of the lack of medical supplies and facilities.

The first camps were expanses of sand of 1 hectare (200m x 50m) separated by barbed wire.

One witness recalls that at Argelès-sur-mer the only possibility of constructing a shelter was to dig a hole in the sand and cover it with a blanquet if one was available or with branches.

They were guarded inside by 7 squads of GRMs, a special mobile police force, outside were two companies of Senegalese troups with fixed bayonets and machine gun batteries, and further out, patrolling the outskirts on horseback in case of escape were the Spahis, a North African cavalry. The impact of these North African troops was particularly frightening to Spaniards who had faced the Moroccan shock troops used by Franco.

In time the lot of the refugees improved but only as a result of their own efforts. The French authorities left all the organisation of the camps in their hands. With the minimum of materials they had to construct the barracks, set up latrines and organize the distribution of the meager food that they received. Evidence of the role played by members of the International Brigades abounds in all accounts of survivors of the period.

Antonio Soriano in his Exodus- Oral History of the Republican exile in France describes the role of the Brigades at the camp at Gurs in these words:

It is important to note what the Internationals represented for the rest of the internees because of their discipline and the surprising organisation that they succeeded in establishing in their lives. Nothing was left to chance; neither manual work nor sport, nor music nor intellectual activities... (they)... were the real organisers of the camp. It was they who contributed with the greatest efficacy to maintaining a profound sense of solidarity amongst all internees.

The account of Manolo Valiente in the same publication describes the depression he felt on arriving at Argelès-sur-mer in October 1940. A flood had recently taken place and the water in the huts was knee-high. You could neither sit nor sleep. He was eventually revived by the example set by the International Brigadistas:

“They were responsible for organizing supplies for the whole camp” he recounts. “ They began the day every morning at eight o’clock sharp by hammering a piece of steel two or three times. The work day ended at 5 pm , with a rest for lunch. In their different workshops, organized under different nationalities they manufactured all sorts of articles in both wood and metal.

The fruits of their work were divided as follows: 50% for the camp hospital, 25% for the women and children and the rest to improve conditions elsewhere. Their leader was an old Romanian lawyer, a man of great kindness.”

In Les Camps du Silence a documentary film by Bernard Mangiante a German survivor expresses most succinctly the attitude of these Internationalists:

Life on these sands, he explains, began with a short address by Ludwig Rem, a German writer of international repute and commander of the 11th brigade, The Thaelmann Brigade:

“Comrades, he said, we shall build latrines as a matter of priority, otherwise each one will shit anywhere he pleases and we’ll all cark it in the scum.”

They took responsibility for upholding morale by organizing chess competitions, sporting events and conferences.

On July 14, 1939, France’s national day, they were the driving force in organizing multinational celebrations in various camps. At Argelès-sur-mer there were speeches of solidarity with the French. A resolution was passed to send volunteers to fight with the French against the Germans. The Austrians put on a show of gymnastics, Spaniards put on Spanish dances including some mass sardanas, the traditional Catalan jig; and a soccer game was organised between the Internationalists and the Spaniards. (The latter won).

The attitude of the French authorities in the six months before the fall of France and the signing of the Armistice on June 30th, left much to be desired. A debate was carried out in the press that was a repetition of the debate three years earlier on non-intervention. The left considered the camps an insult to the heroism of the Spanish Republicans and called for their abolition. Progressive French organisations tried to expose the conditions and argued for using the nearby better serviced military camps. Delegations of left-wing politicians toured and reported on the conditions. Campaigns were organised for raising funds for the camps.

An editorial statement on February 18 in the Communist Party paper L’Humanité best expressed the feelings of progressive organisations : “The abolition of Argelès-sur-mer and St Cyprien,” it stated “ is to save Spanish lives and the honour of France.” (Plages d’exil p.152)

Right wing publications launched a campaign to frighten public opinion with articles emphasising the drain on finances, the health threat with dangers of typhus epidemics, and of course the timeless threat of Anarcho-marxist terrorists. They even warned that the vegetation around these beaches has been destroyed as a result of the presence of the camps (When it comes to refugees it seems that time changes nothing).

The more extreme right wing press really went to town. The February 9 issue of Gringoire contained an article by an Henri Beraud that described the refugees as:

“A torrent of ugliness ... the carnivourous beasts of the Internationale ... the dregs of society and prisons.” (Plages d’exil p.150)

The French authorities, keen to rid themselves of the problem, encouraged the refugees to return to Spain. By February 20 France had recognized the Franco regime and agents of Franco were allowed to distribute pro-Fascist propaganda to seduce Spaniards into returning. Eventually they found it practical to set up work gangs, the CTEs (Foreign Workers Companies) which paid slave wages that were not even sufficient to maintain a family. These companies were later taken up by the Germans and sent to work in Germany.

One of the biggest insults suffered by the Brigades was a suggestion by the French government of Daladier (a socialist) that they join the French Foreign Legion. They refused not only because the Foreign Legion was traditionally the refuge of criminals and other undesirables but it was also a force used to prop up French colonialism overseas.

The International Brigades were gradually separated from the others. By April 20, 6808 of them were transferred from from St Cyprien and Argelès-sur-mer to Gurs . 800 of these were amputees with no artificial limbs. The majority of these amputees died in the infamous “Death train” that transported them from Toulouse to Dachau shortly before the liberation.

World War II

With the beginning of hostilities and the eventual fall of France a new population of so-called undesirables were herded into these camps. These were the 1000s of Germans, Austrians, Poles, Czechs etc who had come to France over the previous 10 years to escape the persecution of the Nazi regimes - Jewish in their majority and all anti-fascist fighters.

Theirs is another story. Most were interned at Gurs (7500) and Vernet (Ariège) one of the worst camps containing some 53 nationalities. After June 1940 the Vichy authorities delivered many of them to the gestapo who sent them to German prison camps.

The defeat of France and the signing of the Armistice in June 1940 did not bode well for the Refugees. One of the Articles of the Armistice decreed that all refugees were to be returned to Spain. It was under this decree that Companys, the ex-President of the Generalitat of Catalunya was returned to Spain and executed by the Franco authorities. The Spanish Republicans were refused the status of prisoners of war and could not therefore benefit from the Geneva Convention and the Spanish government refused to consider them Spanish citizens.

One of the choices open to the Refugees once the War commenced in September 1939 was to join the French forces. Some 5000 joined the Regimientos de Marcha de Voluntarios Extranjeros - Foreign Volunteer Regiments. They were used to carry out menial tasks- digging trenches, building fortifications. But they eventually proved themselves in action. The 22nd regiment had a majority of International Brigadistas and gained fame for its tenacity.

At the commencement of WWII there were more than 200 000 Spanish exiles in France. Many joined the French army - 6000 killed, 14 000 captured by the Germans and 8000 deported.

It’s interesting to note that some 250 Spaniards were involved in the Dunkirk retreat. Their fate is unfortunately a sad indictment on the regard in which they were held by the western authorities during this period. On arrival in England their disembarkation was held back until everyone else had landed. They were then detained and intensively questioned by English police before being thrown into prison. A few days later they were all sent back to France as undesirables. (Soriano p.37)

The German Concentration camps

The support and solidarity actions of these Brigadistas continued even at the final destination points - the death camps of Germany.

On July 3 1944 a train consisting of 25 goods wagons left Toulouse carrying some 800 persons - in their majority amputees, the sick and the old. Among them were some of the professional Spanish soldiers, officers, who had stood loyal to the Spanish Republic. It reached its final destination Dachau on August 25, nearly two months later. When the doors were opened 50% were dead.

Joan Martorell a survivor of Dachau tells us something of the organisation and resistance that occurred in these camps. (Soriano pp130-31)

When he arrived in June 1944, the German and Austrian members of the International brigades had already been warned that there were Spaniards arriving in the convoy and immediately took charge of them and integrated them into the existing camp organisation.

When the Death train arrived therefore they were able to save the majority of the surviving victims.

Dachau was the last extermination camp to be liberated by the allied troops. The Germans transferred there what was left of the other camps so information was available about the evacuation process. So the Spaniards had some idea of how the process took place. Their military organisation had therefore decided that if the Germans began evacuation process the most physically fit prisoners were to take up positions that would allow them to disarm the guards.

The maneuvre was actually carried out by a group of German prisoners who disarmed their guards and took over the Town Hall of the village of Dachau. They resisted for 24 hrs. The approaching American troops heard about it and accelerated their pace but they arrived too late. Among the dead were two Austrian members of the International Brigades Anton Hackl and Enrich Humbann. One of the Germans that died there, Friedrich Dure had the Dachau No 308, which meant he had been a prisoner since 1933.

Half the prisoners at Buchenwald were evacuated and most died. The other half resisted as in Dachau led in part by the Spaniards and International Brigades. It is estimated that there were several thousand Spaniards at Buchenwald and some 10 000 at Mauthausen of which 7000 died.

Dachau was liberated on April 20 1945.

When the American troops arrived they marched under two flags that meant little or nothing to them. They had been sewn by a Catalan taylor who had been transferred there from Mauthausen. The hardest part had been finding the right colours.

One was the Spanish Republican flag and the other the Austrian flag of the International Brigades.


Antonio Soriano Exodos - Historia Oral del Exilio Republicano en Francia 1939-1945 Editorial Critica 1989

Jean-Claude Villegas - Plages d’exil - Les camps de refugiés espagnols en France - 1939 BDIC Centre Universitaire de Nanterre 1989

Les Camps du silence A film by Bernard Mangiante La Sept/Video 1991

Joël Mettay L’Archipel du Mépris - Histoire du camp de Rivesaltes de 1939 à nos jours Ed Trabucaire 2001

Hugh Thomas: La Guerra Civil Española Editions Ruédo Iberico 1962