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1939 - Spanish Refugees

Spanish Refugees - with defeat inevitable, hundreds of thousands of Republicans began making their way across the Pyrenees into France, where many were placed in internment camps

On January 26, 1939, Franco seized control of the Catalan capital of Barcelona, forcing thousands of Republican sympathisers to flee north. Although France’s official position during the Spanish Civil War was one of non-intervention, the country had turned a blind eye to weapons funneled across its border to Republican forces. It now decided to open its doors:France’s government granted entry to Spanish civilians on January 28 and extended this courtesy to Republican soldiers fleeing Franco’s army on February 5.

In a matter of weeks, around 475,000 refugees had crossed the French-Spanish border. The exodus came to be known later as La Retirada (The Retreat). 

Since the start of the Spanish Civil War in July 1936, Franco’s forces (known as Nationalists) brutally repressed Republican sympathisers whenever they seized new territory. They executed unionists, teachers, intellectuals, artists, even workers. When Catalonia fell, there were a lot of people already there who had fled from other regions. They were scared that the repression would be even worse this time around. They chose to leave for France. It was the only escape route possible.

Most left on foot, but sometimes by cart or in a truck. The long column of refugees was the target of intense bombardments by Nationalist and Italian planes. They were running for their lives across the mountains in the heart of winter, in the cold and snow. 

The French government had long been aware that a wave of refugees would follow if Franco’s forces won the war, and approved harsher rules for asylum seekers who upon entry to the country would detained at internment camps.  But no one was prepared for such a massive influx.  


Many families who arrived at the border were separated. Women, children, the elderly and the wounded were relocated to regions across France. Soldiers and able-bodied men were escorted to areas such as the beaches in the southeastern towns of Argelès-sur-Mer and Saint-Cyprien, where nothing had been prepared. All that had been set up was a perimeter of barbed wire. At first, there were around 100,000 men on the beaches in Argelès-sur-Mer, and slightly fewer in Saint-Cyprien.


The camps were soon overwhelmed, and others were built in neighbouring regions. It was totally improvised; the refugees didn’t have shelter at first. They buried themselves in the sand for protection. They built their own makeshift barracks. There was no drinking water and the mortality rate was extremely high during those initial weeks.

The camps emptied out in the spring of 1939. After fighting for nearly three years in Spain, this detention was unbearable for many of the men. But they had limited options. They could return to Spain, where former soldiers were often imprisoned or put to forced labour; immigrate elsewhere, such as Latin America; or enlist in the French military.


At the border, French authorities encouraged Spanish Republicans to join the Foreign Legion. Several thousand signed up, but the vast majority were able to escape the camps by finding work. They were hired by farmers or recruited by companies because many were highly skilled workers. By April 1940, there were around 100,000 Spaniards working in the war economy.


Further Reading


Exilados - A Short History of the Republican Exile 

Magnum PhotosThe Spanish Civil War: The Catalonia Offensive

The Guardian - Franco Refugees Still Haunted by the Past

1939 - Invasion of Poland

Germany invades Poland - Nazi troops sweep into Poland and quickly eliminate the Polish Army. The invasion proves one aggression too many for Britain and France, who declare war on Germany.

On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland. To justify the action, Nazi propagandists falsely claimed that Poland had been planning, with its allies Great Britain and France, to encircle and dismember Germany and that Poles were persecuting ethnic Germans. Ultimately, the SS, in collusion with the German military, staged a phony Polish attack on a German radio station. Hitler then used this action to launch a retaliatory campaign against Poland.  

The Polish army was defeated within weeks of the invasion. From East Prussia and Germany in the north and Silesia and Slovakia in the south, German units, with more than 2,000 tanks and over 1,000 planes, broke through Polish defenses along the border and advanced on Warsaw in a massive encirclement attack. After heavy shelling and bombing, Warsaw surrendered to the Germans on September 27, 1939.


Britain and France, standing by their guarantee of Poland's border, had declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939. Germany had signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact with the Soviet Union in August, which stated that Poland was to be partitioned between the two powers, and enabled Germany to attack Poland without the fear of Soviet intervention. The Soviet Union invaded eastern Poland on September 17, 1939. The demarcation line for the partition of German- and Soviet-occupied Poland was along the Bug River.

In October 1939, Germany directly annexed those former Polish territories along German's eastern border: West Prussia, Poznan, Upper Silesia, and the former Free City of Danzig. The remainder of German-occupied Poland (including the cities of Warsaw, Krakow, Radom, and Lublin) was organized as the so-called Generalgouvernement (General Government) under a civilian governor general, the Nazi Party lawyer Hans Frank.


Nazi Germany occupied the remainder of Poland when it invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941. Poland remained under German occupation until January 1945.


Further Reading

Wikipedia - Germans Invade Poland

Spiegel Germany's Occupation of Poland: 'When We Finish, Nobody Is Left Alive'

Time - World War II Erupts: Color Photos from the Invasion of Poland

The Atlantic - The Invasion of Poland and the Winter War

Rare Historical Photos - Facing Death: Six Polish Civilians Moments Before Death by Firing Squad

Eyewitness to History - The Nazi Occupation of Poland

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