Book Review: Homage to the Spanish Exiles and The Routes to Exile

August 23, 2018


Scott Soo, The routes to exile: France and the Spanish Civil War refugees, 1939-2009, Manchester University Press, 2013.

Nancy Macdonald, Homage to the Spanish Exiles, Insight Books, 1987.

Few traces remain today of the Republican exodus of 1939, when tens of thousands of refugees crossed the border between Catalonia and France, fleeing what would soon be Franco’s Spain. In and around the tiny town of Agullana, a dozen markers commemorate the final sites of the Spanish Republican government. A bit further north, as route 501 turns into France’s D-13, a remote field houses the “Temple of Peace,” a monument to Catalan president Lluís Companys, who was turned over by the occupying German authorities to Franco’s national police and promptly executed. More impressive is the exile museum in the border town of Jonquera. Founded ten years ago, the fabulous exhibit at the Museu Memorial de l’Exili extends well beyond the Spanish experience. A few kilometers to the north, a short walk from the beach, lies the grave of poet Antonio Machado at the La Collioure cemetery. North of that still was the internment camp Argelès-sur-mer, which housed more than a hundred thousand men and women under appalling circumstances. In our current era of displacement and dispossession, the Spanish diaspora serves as touchstone. Although the refugee camps and the accompanying aid movements have not gone unnoticed by scholars, they remain little studied.

Scott Soo’s The Routes to Exile: France and the Spanish Civil War Refugees, 1939-2009 (2013), features the stories of families separated by French authorities and the exceptional cruelty of the internment camps. France had opened its borders to refugees in the period after World War I, but by the 1930s the French feared upsetting Mussolini and Franco and took their cue from Britain. Over the course of Spain’s Civil War tens of thousands streamed in, but many only short-term. The collapse of the republic in 1939 brought a wave of permanent asylum seekers who came up against a new reality constructed by Edouard Daladier’s government, marked by anti-communism and appeasement.

By May 1938, Soo explains, the Daladier government had ordered the fortification of internment camps for undesirable refugees. By January 26, 1939, when France closed its borders, the country had already spent 88 million francs on refugees and relief. After warnings of an imminent crisis from the collapse of the Spanish Republic, French authorities instead chose inaction. Women, children, and the elderly were permitted to enter starting on the 28th, but military age men were forbidden entry, assuring the break up families, in some cases permanently. With the collapse of the Republic, itself a compounded tragedy resulting from the apathy of France and the U.K., France relented and began permitting the refugees into internment camps. On February 5, the Republican government went into exile. Within two weeks, nearly a half million refugees sought asylum.

In our current era of displacement and dispossession, the Spanish diaspora serves as touchstone.

This diaspora represented a broad cross-section of Spanish society in terms of class and profession. It included anarchists, which the French authorities and press considered a menacing presence. (Anarchism had never made inroads in France as it had in Spain.) The media stirred up anti-anarchist sentiments with provocative articles red-baiting the Minister of the Interior Albert Sarraut.

France in 1939 was not the France, the revolutionary, Republican France, the refugees had expected. In a document entitled “The Truth about the incidents at the camp at Agde when work companies were being made up,” which can be found at Columbia University in New York, a witness from Camp No. 3 explains: “When the refugees understood what the conditions were: inhuman conditions and no guarantees, miserable remuneration and disloyalty to the French workers through advantage being taken of the work of the refugees, many opposed it and refused to sign.” When the French tried to muster the work company by force, a hunger strike ensued.

The sick and wounded, Soo finds, endured inhumane conditions. One aid worker wrote: “women, children, and the wounded were lying in the utmost filth in straw.” According to Soo, these conditions were “partly an outcome of the government’s erroneous construction of the issue as a choice between welfare and security. And by privileging the latter, the government proved itself utterly unequal to the task of receiving the Spanish republicans humanely.” The psychological impact for the Spaniards was made all the worse by the use of barbed wire to cordon off the camp.

The better angels among the French were not without willing allies. An international aid movement emerged in the early days of the war, and it was not long before refugee assistance followed. Assistance and awareness-building came out of countless international activities as the anti-fascist raison d’être of the Popular Front came to be defined by Spain’s struggle. But as with everything related to civil-war Spain, politics permeated every organization. And with each doctrinal dispute, each appearance of favoritism, emerged a corresponding new organization. In a typical example, the republican Defense Minister Indalecio Prieto absconded with the funds President Juan Negrín had sent to Mexico for safe-keeping and then used them to aid his own partisans. This pettiness, Soo shows, held real-life implications for internees. Tellingly, though, Soo finds that internees tended to find camp camaraderie by geographic affinity rather than partisanship. In other words, while those who could afford it continued to fight the war’s political battles, the refugees had moved on to wage a different struggle. This is more than evident in Soo’s chapter on life in the camps and the mixed feelings the exiles had toward their French benefactors/jailers.

Many of the refugee organizations began their work during hostilities and began to shift more toward refugee aid and less toward wartime relief aid as the need shifted. The larger history of these organizations remains to be written.

Amid the turmoil, Nancy Macdonald and her husband Dwight—editor of the Partisan Review and Politics—attempted to maintain contacts with the displaced, especially those anti-Stalinists they found to be neglected by other organizations and who were by virtue of their politics forbidden from entering the United States. After first working with several other organizations, in 1953, fourteen years after the end of the war in Spain, Nancy founded Spanish Refugee Aid (SRA), whose story she tells in her 1987 book Homage to the Spanish Exiles.

By the time Macdonald created the SRA, the plight of the Spanish refugees was far from over, although international refugee aid had made major strides. French authorities shut down the refugee organization SERE in October 1939 for its assistance to communist Spanish republicans. During the war, international organizations had worked with the Paris-based International Coordinating Committee. The major refugee organizations included the International Rescue Committee (IRC) founded in 1933. Separately, the Emergency Rescue Committee, from where Varian Fry ran his operations, and the International Relief Association, would both later merge, finally to be subsumed by the IRC. World War II fostered a centralization lacking earlier. The IRC later received most of its funding from the International Refugee Organization set up by the United Nations in December 1946 (and disbanded in 1951). The Ford Foundation offered additional funds to the IRC afterward, though when those dried up, Nancy Macdonald was determined to set up her own organization.

While the Republican exiles were able to finally achieve some recognition in France, as Soo explains in his final chapter, Macdonald shows that the Spanish situation was far different. The SRA existed until 2006, assisting over 5,500 refugees. The need never ended because even with the return of democracy, as Macdonald explains, Francoists sabotaged efforts to offer pensions to returning Republicans. By 1983, even the then-ruling Socialists refused to “reopen or expose publicly the wounds of the Civil War.” Pensions that were rewarded after immense scrutiny of the claims tended to be far less than veterans of Franco’s army.

Even with Soo’s fine work and Macdonald’s interesting mix of oral history and narrative, there remains much yet to be explored. Integrating the Spanish refugee and aid experiences into the larger history of refugees and aid more generally remains a challenge for researchers. Both the SRA and the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee are part of that history, though we cannot at present say how they fit in. The academic feat requires moving beyond the political and partisan toward a broader perspective. The papers of the SRA, like those of the JAFRC, now reside at NYU awaiting enterprising scholars.

Eric Smith is the author of American Relief Aid and the Spanish Civil War. He has taught at Loyola University and Columbia College Chicago and currently teaches at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy.