Internment and Forced Labor of Spanish Refugees in France

Installment 4 of: ‘The Making of the Modern Internment Regime’

Spanish workers of the 6th Company of Foreign Workers supervised by the military ( Travailleurs Espagnols de la 6e CTE, n.d.)

The ‘Retirada’ was the mass movement in 1939 of hundreds of thousands of Spanish Republicans from Spain into Southern France. Spaniards crossed the Pyrenees Mountain range, which is the natural border between France and Spain.

Foot path through the Pyrenees which thousands of Spanish refugees used to cross from Spain into France in 1939

This exodus was a result of Francisco Franco’s attempted military coup in 1936. The coup resulted in a three-year long civil war between the Nationalists (individuals and militias that supported a military dictatorship) and the Republicans (individuals that supported the democratically elected Spanish Republic). Germany and Italy supported Franco and the Nationalists, while the USSR supported the Republicans. The conflict ended in April 1939 when Franco finally conquered the whole of Spain and instituted a military dictatorship.

The Molotov-Ribbentrop (non-aggression) Pact signed by Germany and Russia in August 1939 stipulated that both countries withdraw from sites of conflict between them, including Spain. This pact allowed Franco to remain in power in Spain under dictatorial rule (The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact [August 1939]). Spanish Republicans escaped to France to “start anew with their families” in a country that they understood to an asylum state (Bocanegra 2007). They did not realize that many hardships awaited them in France.

Historians have sought to understand the methods and motivations of the French Third Republic in its treatment of Spanish refugees. Many have argued that France’s response to the Retirada was largely a pragmatic one (McKniff 2004). France “was ill-equipped to cope with the massive influx of Spanish refugees” (Stein 1979). However, it is also true that the French government anticipated the arrival of the refugees, and that it chose not to prepare for the wave of Spaniards. This, for fear of welcoming what they considered to be radicals and miscreants into France. France forced the Republicans into internment camps. Most women and children remained in internment camps while male refugees, ages fourteen and older, were required to choose one of three paths: to “work, fight, or return to [their] home country” (Bocanegra 2007).

The refugees’ standing changed again when Germany attacked France in the Fall of 1939 and defeated it by June 1940. The German victory collapsed the democratically-elected government of France, and paved the way for an authoritarian and collaborationist one that came to be called the ‘Vichy Regime.’ Under the Marechal Petain, Vichy France unambiguously treated the Spanish refugees as a threat to the body politic; they forced them into labor battalions and at times sent them to Nazi concentration camps as a way to control the Spaniards and others. Although harsh treatment of the Republicans had begun under the Third Republic, under Vichy’s rule France dealt with the Spanish refugees in ways that undermined their humanity. During the war years, this same type of treatment was extended to refugees of other nationalities.

Letter certifying CTE worker Juan Castro’s completion of one year of work as well as his “dedication and initiative” to his tasks (Fernand, 1941)

1937 (29 September). Mandatory repatriation of Spanish refugees is decreed by France.

1939 (28 January). France opens its borders to an influx of thousands of Spanish Republican refugees.

1939 (April). The French government decrees that stateless foreigners between the ages of 20 and 48 must complete at least two years of military service or work in CTEs (compagnies de travailleurs etrangers, or companies of foreign workers) on behalf of the French war effort.

Memorial for refugees of the Retirada, located in Rivesaltes, France

1939 (August). Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin sign a non-aggression pact.

1940 (14 June). The French military and democratic government collapses; Germany starts its occupation of France.

1940 (25 June). France and Germany sign the Franco-German Armistice.

1942 (November). The group Union Nacional Española forms; its purpose was to lead movements of Spanish resistance in Vichy France.

1944 (3 June). The concentration camp at Le Vernet is closed.

Repatriation of Spanish Refugees — “Return to your home country”

During the Spanish Civil War and in the following years, France attempted to remove the Spanish foreigners who had sought asylum within its borders. The zenith of the Retirada was in late January 1939, when hundreds of thousands of Spanish Republicans emigrated into France. Fearing the political and economic consequences of their arrival, France sought to repatriate them. (Bocanegra 2007).

The French government was successful in sending about 268,000 Spaniards back to Spain between April and December 1939, while 182,000 remained in France. Over the coming years, France returned even more of the remaining refugees. The costs of transporting them were covered by the SERE (Service of Emigration/Evacuation of Republican Emigrants) and the JARE (Board of Aid to the Spanish Republicans), which were created and funded by members of the French Third Republic (Bocanegra 2007). Hundreds of “disinterested international committees” cooperated with this effort, by allowing the SERE and JARE to commit themselves to repatriating the Spanish refugees remaining in France (Bocanegra 2007). This, at a time when Francisco Franco is reported to have said that there were no ‘Spaniards outside of Spain.’

Coercing refugees to migrate to other states was another tactic France used to clear out the unwanted foreigners (Figure 1). France claimed that its hope was to help the refugees start a “new life in a faraway country,” but in reality they were forcing refugees to live in any country except their own(Bocanegra 2007).

Figure 1: Table data drawn from McKniff (2004)

An uncertain future awaited the Spaniards who returned to Spain, since Franco had already denounced them as traitors. Despite the risks, many refugees wished to return to their home country rather than face continuous internment in a nation that was hostile to them. In reality, when refugees returned to Spain, Franco’s government transferred many of them into concentration camps, including the German camp of Mauthausen (located in Austria). Those who were fortunate enough to escape this fate were followed by the government officers for the remainder of their lives in authoritarian Spain.

While the French Third Republic “highly encouraged” repatriation and emigration of Spanish refugees, they did not force them to do so (McKniff 2004). In contrast, the Vichy regime forcibly removed unwanted individuals from the country. If refugees refused repatriation or came back into France following their expulsion, they were sent to concentration camps or work camps in locations such as North Africa (McKniff 2004).

CTEs/GTEs — “Work”

In April 1939, the French government declared that stateless foreigners between the ages of twenty and forty-eight were required to complete two years of military service, or work to promote the French war efforts (McKniff 2004). Compagnies de travailleurs étrangers (CTEs), or companies of foreign workers, were a form of refugee control that met the requirements of the 1939 decree. CTEs were labor battalions that were formed by the Third Republic to provide the country with an extra labor force during wartime. At first, the government coerced CTE members into building internment camps that would hold other refugees and political prisoners. As time progressed, typical tasks in CTEs became jobs like building roads, infrastructure, and hydro-electric energy sources. Other tasks included producing gunpowder, aircraft, and submarines (McKniff 2004).

Identification card for Juan Castro, member of the 1st CTE at Rivesaltes (MMCR 98–2, n.d.)

About 55,000 exiled Spanish Republicans comprised 220 work battalions, each consisting of 250 to 400 men. Members of CTEs were paid the equivalent of fifty cents per day and had the status of an individual in the military. Although the pay and conditions were abysmal, joining a CTE was much more desirable than enlisting in the Foreign Legion or being repatriated. Refugees who joined the CTEs were less suspicious in the eyes of the French government and were known as “prestataires,” or providers, who were in service of the French war effort (McKniff 2004). Many CTE members also volunteered to fight on behalf of France when World War II broke out.

Following the Franco-German Armistice, the government demobilized all CTEs. The Ministry of the Interior decided to create Groupements de travailleurs étrangers (GTEs) instead. GTEs were the Vichy regime’s work battalions, which, similarly to CTEs, incorporated foreigners into the economy — but under duress. The first GTEs were created in September 1940 and each consisted of 2,000 to 5,000 men. By the end of 1940, there were approximately 220,000 men enrolled in total (“1939–1945: Spanish Resistance in France”). The GTEs were meant to incorporate foreign men (and women, to a lesser extent) into work companies to increase the country’s production capacity, while not competing with ‘real’ French businesses. The Vichy government exploited GTEs in many instances, and they were also impressed into the German war effort in the occupied zone. Specifically, GTEs were used to build wartime German defenses such as the Atlantic Wall and V1 and V2 launching sites.

One of the positive things that has came to light about these groupements, however, is that they served as the foundation for organized resistance. The GTEs provided a formal platform in which clandestinely-armed refugees could meet and resist Vichy demands. This, in the hope of hastenting the liberation of Europe.

French Foreign Legion — “Fight”

If the Spanish Republicans taking refuge in France did not join a CTE, they were required to fight in the Foreign Legion or the Foreign Volunteer Regiments (RMVE) (Celaya 2011). Per the April 1939 decree, many foreign men had to serve in the French military for at least two years in order to repay their presumed ‘debt’ to France (McKniff 2004). Eventually, that requirement escalated to a five-year minimum, greatly exacerbating the hardships faced by the refugees (Bocanegra 2007).

Members of the 13th Demi-Brigade of Foreign Legion leaving the legion’s headquarters of SidiBel, Algeria in early May 1940 ( 28may-1940–13dbmle-bel-abbes 1940)

Generally speaking, the enrollment of Spaniards in the Foreign Legion and the RMVE was low; only about 15,000 of the 101,000 men enlisted in the legion were Spanish. This was because the option of entering into the labor batallions was considered a lesser evil (McKniff 2004). Training was very intense and took physical and psychological tolls on those who were enrolled. From 1939 to 1940, the Foreign Legion and the RMVE mainly fought in Norway against the Wehrmacht (the German military) (Celaya 2011). After France’s defeat, some of the soldiers who survived the battles in Norway broke off to enlist in the Free French Army(FFL). Others remained in the Foreign Legion, which relocated to North Africa and served under the rule of the Vichy regime. Thousands of Spanish refugees served in the Free French Army from 1940 to 1945 and fought in Italy, France, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt (Celaya 2011)

The Foreign Legion, however, was a potential route for foreigners to escape internment camps and work towards citizenship (McKniff 2004). After three years, soldiers in the FFL/RMVE were able to apply for citizenship in France, which was most refugees’ ultimate goal.

Transition to the Vichy Regime: Concentration Camps

On June 22nd, 1940 the Franco-German armistice was signed, effectively handing over the northern half of France to be ruled under German military occupation (“Vichy France”). The southern half was known as the “unoccupied zone” and was ruled by the Marechal Philippe Pétain, who dissolved the Third Republic and established the authoritarian “Vichy” regime. The status of Spanish refugees living in France changed dramatically with the introduction of the Vichy government. Between the summers of 1940 and 1944, Vichy detained approximately 120,000 individuals (McKniff 2004). In France, Le Vernet was one of the main camps in which Spanish refugees were held.

This water tower is one of the sole remaining structures from Camp Vernet

Le Vernet was a concentration camp used by the Vichy regime to control the population of Spanish refugees and other unwanted individuals. The camp started interning Spanish refugees in early 1939. Prior to this, it had been used to house Senegalese soldiers in the French army who were en route to deployments in the north (McKniff 2004). The camp housed between ten and twelve thousand Spanish refugees, in addition to other ‘undesirable’ French citizens.

Arthur Koestler, a survivor of the Le Vernet camp, wrote his memoir, Scum of the Earth, about the experience of being interned there. Koestler describes conditions marked by forced labor, hostile guards, shortages of food, and inadequate medical supplies and care — all of which led to numerous of deaths (Koestler 1941).

“There was a dense fog in my brain, impenetrable to any coherent thought, except the dull obsession of counting the minutes…” (Arthur Koestler)*

Koestler, however, was somewhat of an exception. His connections inside and outside of the camp allowed him to be released early; therefore, his treatment does not reflect that of a ‘normal’ prisoner at Le Vernet. Around three hundred Spanish Republicans died in the camp, and while that number is low in comparison to other concentration camp death tolls, it is high enough to represent a significant portion of a population who lost their lives to injustice. The concentration camp at Le Vernet was closed on June 3, 1944, as Germany occupied France lost ground to approaching Allied forces.

Block Quotes Sources:

*Arthur Koestler, as cited in (Koestler 1941: 62–63)


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Kelly Knickerbocker

Kelly Knickerbocker

Kelly Knickerbocker is a student at Colgate University where she plans to earn her degree in Molecular Biology.