Remembering the Spanish Civil War on its 80-year anniversary
Europe’s current refugee crisis has been at the center of global attention and political negotiations for over a year now—with fears stoked in the United States about whether to join the EU bloc in taking in Syrian refugees, and the swell cited as one major reason Great Britain voted to leave the European Union late last month. But this is not the first time swaths of displaced, war-weary people have caused nations to fumble.
It has been eighty years since conditions leading up to World War II set the stage for a calamity of dislocation. It has been eighty years since General Francisco Franco and his foot soldiers launched a military uprising against the newly elected Spanish Republican government of Santiago Casares Quiroga. It was a revolt that would spark a three-year civil war and decades of fascist rule, backed by Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini—but not before displacing hundreds of thousands of Spaniards.
On July 17, 1936, Franco and his Nacionales-aligned Army of Africa—comprised of fighters from Spanish Morocco—rose against the Second Spanish Republic and swarmed the south of Spain, taking Seville with relative ease. By July 18, Franco had assumed command of the legion and begun dealing with opposition fiercely.
Civilians, in response, organized militias and mobilized to defend the Republic against the Nationalist threat. Anarchist workers emerged in Barcelona; factories were collectivized and money abolished in parts of Catalonia. For a time, there was hope that the revolt could be the impetus for a socialist revolution, as the Republican government in Madrid scrambled to build a popular front. The war that was later immortalized by George Orwell and Ernest Hemingway in literary works influenced by their experiences on the frontlines, the destruction of which was embodied by Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, would go on until 1939.
In that time, countless Spaniards were displaced by bombing raids and gunfights. Entire cities were leveled and opposition fighters executed or exiled. When Franco’s forces started their push through Catalonia, a persistent stream of refugees poured over the border into France. It is estimated that 450,000 refugees crossed that border by winter of 1939, just before Franco and his troops advanced on Madrid and took the city, previously the site of Republican infighting, in just two days. Thousands were executed, thousands more fled, and Europe came to face a compounded refugee crisis.
In 1937, the aerial bombardment of Spain’s northwestern Basques brought about a deal to save approximately 200,000 Basque children, aged 2-14, from war and starvation, by relocating them among six of seven countries that responded to the autonomous Basque government’s appeal: Belgium, Britain, Denmark, Mexico, Switzerland, the Soviet Union and the United States. All but the U.S. went on to accept children, despite the efforts of Eleanor Roosevelt, which were blocked by opposition from the Catholic Church and Congressional inaction.
By the time the great surge of Spanish refugees arrived to French borders in 1939, growing totalitarianism on the European continent had created the conditions for refugees fleeing Nazi Germany and, with more difficulty, the Soviet Union. The Spanish refugees hoped to be welcomed by the French and viewed as honorable, if failed, fighters in the name of liberty, but the democratic republic of France feared a turn toward communism—considering communist and anarchist factions in the civil war—and the refugees were instead met with suspicion and hostility. The French decided to allow the refugees to enter, but not freely.
The Spaniards—by this point often referred to as “criminals” and “radicals”—were herded into concentration camps on the beaches of Argeles-sur-Mer, St, Cyprien, and Barcares, where temperatures in the winter were freezing and where food and medical supplies scarce. The French tried everything to get the Spanish refugees to return to their country and by the end of the year about half did, in time for World War II to become visible on the horizon.
In Spain, Franco continued to hold power until his death in 1975.
Today, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates that 1,015,078 refugees arrived by sea to Europe from Africa and the Middle East in 2015. There have been 218,382 documented arrivals by sea so far in 2016, with another 2,868 refugees dead or missing just in the first six months of the year—and these numbers account only for those journeying across oceans.
Meanwhile, the continued struggle around how to manage the influx, including documenting, processing and relocating refugees, has thrown the continent into social and political upheaval, feeding into right-wing, nationalist political factions and threatening the European Union.
Here, we look back on the photographic works of Robert Capa, David Seymour and Gerda Taro, who documented the Spanish Civil War and the plight of its refugees 80 years ago—highlighting iconic images, like Capa’s Falling Soldier, which has since been reexamined and marked by controversy.