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.
By late October 1938 the elected republican government of Spain was in dire straits. The government had just 17,000 rifles to defend Catalonia, the last bastion of the Republic. When Barcelona fell on January 23rd, 1939, hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians, fearing Franco’s wrath, fled as quickly as their exhausted limbs could move them to the French border.
As they made the perilous trek over the Pyrenees, the Spaniards might have hoped that after three years of war they had survived the worst. They were disappointed. If war was hell, exile in France was hell in a colder climate.
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