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Refugees and the Spanish Civil War

Franco’s 1939 victory in the Spanish Civil War saw half a million refugees head north to France. They would be followed by many more in a decade of disaster, writes Larry Hannant.

Spanish refugees interned at Argelès-sur-Mer, February 8th, 1939

Today’s wave of desperate asylum seekers fleeing the Middle East and North Africa is sometimes seen as a return to the late 1940s, when millions were set adrift by the unprecedented violence of the Second World War. Yet the opening chapter in this age of refugees came not in 1945 but in 1939, with the exodus of Spaniards fleeing the newly installed regime of Francisco Franco.

La Retirada, the retreat of Spaniards at the conclusion of the three-year-long Spanish Civil War, purged the country of half a million republican sympathisers. But, if their flight was unlamented in Spain, they were no more welcome in France. The icy reception by the government of France would be swiftly followed by the callous treatment of other anti-fascists: Germans, Austrians, Poles, Hungarians and Jews, among others.

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