Behine the scenes of two wars
Trains to life, trains to death. Memorial in honor of the million jewish kids who got deported and murdered during the holocaust (Friedrichstrasse)
When one thinks about concentration camps, the first thing to come to mind usually is: Jews! Damn Nazis! However, without intending to minimize the damage or the atrocious final this collective has suffered, this article will be dedicated to the many different groups that lived through this moment, from Jews and Gypsies to political prisoners and homosexuals. Especially, to the Spaniards who lived through this.
Indeed. And you may ask, what the hell have Spanish people lost in this war? Weren’t they in their own Civil war, bounded by their own problems with fascism? Most people are surprised when I strain the Spaniards into the victim’s list of the Nazi Concentration camps. However, more than 9,000 Spaniards had confronted this inferno. It may not hold a candle compared to the 6,000,000 Jews who perished in the concentration camps but their voices also deserve to be heard and their stories have earned a right to be told.
The Spanish Civil War was a military confrontation that took place between 1936 and 1939, ending with the victory of Francisco Franco. This war was a clash between brothers and sisters. People who had known each other since they were in diapers were feuding due to ideological differences or because they lived in different war zones, whether that be living in different neighborhoods in the same city or living in different autonomous regions.
As in earlier and later times, whenever Spain took a step forward , it also took two steps backwards. The Republican government managed to alienate the Church from power and take over education control, which so far had been ruled completely by Christians around the country. In addition to this, they made education more accessible to the people. Furthermore, they managed to also alienate the army from government power and create fairer working conditions for laborers confronting owners of latifundia, among other things. But it was in this moment that the fascist movement, originally led by Emilio Mola, was born and then overthrew the government of the Second Republic in 1939 after the Civil War.
The collaboration of the Spanish fascist movement with the ones in Italy and Germany is not unknown to the world. With the existence of the Guernica, this collaboration has become a symbol widely acknowledged. No, Guernica is not only one of Picasso’s famous paintings. In fact, the painting also depicts the story of a Basque town, that of Guernica, which was used as a testing ground for German and Italian bombs in 1937. During the Spanish Civil War, Guernica was a town of just 5,000 people with Republican troops on the way to Bilbao and refugees fleeing Franco’s troops. This set the premise for World War II.
As aforementioned, Guernica had refugees fleeing the advances of fascist troops. This begs the question: What exactly were they doing there? A large part of the Spaniards fleeing this senseless war were seeking shelter in the neighboring country of France, where a leftist president had just been elected. There were also many Spaniards who had already settled there and found work. Sadly, the conditions in France were no better than those in Guernica. Spanish exiles received inhumane treatment, crammed in centers provided by the French for the over half a million of them. The French government referred to these centres as “concentration camps”. The reception of Republicans was no better than the one refugees are receiving this days. It seems as if history has continued to repeat itself.
Spanish Republicans were seen as criminals by the southern Europe Communist branch, and even in the presence of Hitler, they were seen as a great evil. This led to the Republicans being received with contempt and fear. But, there were also exceptions to the rule, where French people which collected food and first necessity products for the Spaniards. However, from the beginning to the end, the arrival of these trucks to their destination was prevented either by directly toppling trucks or prohibiting the Spaniards from receiving them.
In February 1939, Catalonia fell. This subsequently increased the flow of Spanish refugees into France. The Republican government then offered its gold reserves to France to provide for Spanish refugees. Yet, this was obstructed by the French authorities, and instead, the gold was delivered to Franco, a Spanish fascist leader at the moment and then future dictator.
At that time, the new dictator Franco invited the refugees to return to Spain with the promise that he would respect their lives if they had not committed crimes of blood. Many believed his words and returned. However, most of them ended up shot or thrown into jail. As the situation worsened, only two bleak options remained for the Republicans – either return to a regime that would see them killed, or move back to a country with a government that despised them and treated them worse than criminals.
When in France, a number of Spaniards joined the French Foreign Legion, a military service branch of the French Army. Republican fighters believed that by defeating Hitler and, to an extent, European fascism, the Allies would also be inspired to fight fascism in Spain. Ten thousand men fought with the Foreign Legion, along with Belgians, Poles and Jews who had fled from the Nazis. These were among the few that still had some freedom of choice. Once World War II started, France created the Spanish Workers Companies (CTE), a division that participated in various French projects such as the fortification of the Maginot Line, which would also be present in all battlefronts. In his book, The Last Spaniards of Mauthausen, Carlos Hernandez stated that nearly 30,000 of Spaniards were enrolled in the CTE. In fact, 19,000 ‘volunteers’ were directly recruited without consent. Moreover, the French collaborationist government did not allow the Spanish to obtain the food collected for them by the French society. Despite being part of the army, they were treated more like prisoners than like soldiers. Unfortunately, many of those who fought in French army were imprisoned in the Nazi concentration camps when France was invaded.
On the other side of this story, some Republicans were able to perform heroic acts of war. “La nueve” or “The Ninth”, a Company of the 2nd Armored Division of Free France, was formed by 146 Spaniards from a total of 160 members, of which only 16 survived. This was the head division in the liberation of Paris, which were first one to step foot in Nazi-free Paris.
However, there were also those who did not fit into either of these two groups: those who were left in refugee camps in France, or sent to Nazi concentration camps in the different parts of Europe. Between these, there is the more known story of the Convoy of the 927. In this, 927 Spaniards sent to the camp in Mauthausen, Austria, out of which 409 died.
Félix Quesada, one of the survivors from Mauthausen, remembers: “When we got to Mauthausen, Frank Ziereis, the camp director, told us that we wouldn’t get out of the camp through the door but through the chimney of the crematorium”.
|9.328 Spaniards in concentration camps (that we have knowledge of)|
|Mortality rate of 59%|
In the concentration camp of Mauthausen and its subfields, the largest number of Spanish prisoners were repositioned. Out of a total of 7,532 prisoners who were locked up, 4,816 died, resulting in a mortality rate of 64%. Most of them perished in Gusen, a subcamp located 5 kilometers from Mauthausen. 5,266 Spaniards were imprisoned there, of which 3,959 were killed. Dachau and Buchenwald received 1,100 Spaniards, of which at least 500 died or were reported missing. 170 Spanish women also found their way to Ravensbrück, which was the women’s field, and at least 14 women were killed there. There were also Spaniards in other fields such as Bergen, Belsen, Auschwitz, Flossenbürg, Stutthof, Sachsenhausen, Aurigny and Neu Bremm.
The first Republicans reached Mauthausen on August 6 1940, and around 400 men were transfers from the war prison camp of Moosburg. Within a month, five convoys loaded with about 900 Spaniards arrived. It was not until December 1940 that this large group of Spaniards arrived at the camp, while another 3,000 arrived between December 13 and January 27.
Were they a defined collective?
After being captured by the Nazis, the Spaniards were held captive along with French and British soldiers in war prisoner camps, where the Geneva Convention, which stipulates protection for wounded or sick prisoners of war, was respected. This was when the Franco regime in Spain decided to intervene by negotiating with the leaders of the Reich and the collaborationist Petain government vis-a-vis the transfer of all the Spanish prisoners to concentration camps where they were to be annihilated.
This political decision was also noted in the Nazi system of organization. Their obsession with order and cataloging led them to create symbols to differentiate each group of prisoners. Here is some intel on how prisoners were categorised:
- Jews wore on their uniforms the Star of David.
- Common criminals wore an inverted green triangle.
- The political prisoners were marked with a red triangle.
- Homosexuals were marked with a pink triangle.
- Gypsies and asocials were marked with a black triangle.
- Jehovah’s Witnesses and conscientious objectors were marked with a purple triangle.
Prisoners who were not of German origin also bore the initial letter of their country that was labelled within the triangle mark. Logically speaking, it would be “reasonable” for the Spaniards to receive the red triangle mark that political prisoners bore. However, in Mauthausen, Spanish Republicans received a blue triangle that distinguished them as “unpatriotic”. They appeared with a written “S”, which defined them as Spanier (unpatriotic Spanish), only explicable by Franco’s desire to not even recognize them as compatriots.
What did they die of?
In the fields, Spaniards lost their lives in every conceivable way – by shootings, beatings, gassings, hangings, just to name a few. However, most were killed by a lethal mix of starvation, slave labor and deplorable sanitary conditions that brought about many different diseases.
How much time did they spend there?
Mauthausen and its subfields were released on May 5 1945. Therefore, most of the survivors spent more than four years in that concentration camp.
Perhaps, the Spanish people were not the ones who suffered the most due to the Nazi annihilation, but their stories still deserve to be heard as much as anyone else’s. Nowadays, many of the Spaniards who fought in the Civil War have yet to be reunited with their families, as the government continues to deny them the right to find out what had happened to them. Furthermore, we are still fighting to remove all Franquist symbols from the streets and create a clearer conscience of what happened in Spain during the XXth Century. This situation has also been alleviated through education, which has covered some of these events in the past, now skimming through these events .
The Spanish language has an expression for history which goes, “agua pasada no vale nada,” which means that “old water is worthless.” However, we youth deem this expression itself worthless, as history continues to repeat itself and is usually the key to finding and explaining the current situation. Let us not bury what has happened and learn from it instead. This is the key to ensuring a better future.