During 2010 and 2011, I carried out a research project for the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial (KZ-Gedenkstätte Dachau). The results of this investigation were collected in an article under the title „Die spanischen Deportierten im Konzentrationslager Dachau“ – the Spanish Deportees at Dachau Concentration Camp. Here I would like to present and reflect briefly on different aspects that I consider of special relevance for the debate on the Historical Memory. The original article can be found in the archive of the Dachau Memorial.
By Way of Introduction
It should be noted that the research project for the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial arose in a fortuitous manner and was not part of a larger research project. But I think that the memory of the Spanish deportees deserves more attention than it has received internationally by researchers and disseminators. When dealing with the subject of Spanish deportees in Nazi camps, the bibliography usually focuses on the Mauthausen Camp. This is perfectly logical if one takes into account that the number of Spaniards who passed through the camp in Austria is clearly higher than that of any other Nazi camp.
However – or precisely because of that – it is interesting to analyze the experiences of the deportees in other camps where Spaniards represented a minority group. An example is the Dachau Camp, near a small town outside of Munich in Germany. Put into operation as early as 1933, the Dachau „Musterlager“ would be what its title in German says: the camp that the Nazis took as a role model to transform the chaotic network of small retention premises that they created in the beginning, into a system of repression, slavery and extermination.
To go into the subject, I recommend reading two memoirs of deportees:
- Joan Escuer Gomis: Memorias de un republicano español deportado al campo de Dachau, Barcelona, 2007. (ISBN: 978-84-612-1236-1)
- Prisciliano García Gaitero: Mi vida en los campos de la muerte nazis, León, 2005. (ISBN: 84-8012-508-X)
In the humanities there will always be discussions of semantics. The meaning of a term can turn a whole theory around or change the meaning of an entire interpretation. Being aware of this and wanting to avoid entering into debates that were not central to my research, I decided from the beginning to dispense with the use of the word „Holocaust“. This is what I explain in the introduction to my article. However, I could not avoid entering into a semantic debate about the word that was most repeated in my text: deportation.
Before finishing the article, a series of duly qualified people read it, allowing me to improve it with their notes and comments. I corrected a fairly long series of points that I had not made clear enough and corrected a couple of content errors. However, I absolutely refused to accept one of the criticisms according to which it would be wrong to consider the subjects of my study as deportees. Those who maintained this claim, argued that the term deportation – referring to Nazi crimes – is always used to refer to the inhuman and forced transport of Jews among other groups to the extermination camps in Eastern Europe, outside the so-called „Third Reich“. According to this critique, calling these Spaniards „deportees“ could lead to confusion about the origin and destiny of this group.
This criticism surprised me a lot, considering that the meaning of the term applies perfectly to these Spaniards. The consideration as deportees comes from French historiography and my first contact with it was one of the main sources to analyze the subject: „Le LIVRE-MÉMORIAL des déportés de France arrêtés par mesure de répression et dans certains cas par mesure de persécution 1940 – 1945“. Despite having been published in 4 volumes in 2004, it is more than a book. It is a huge research project to generate a database that gives names and surnames to all the victims of the French deportation. And almost all of the Spaniards who suffered in the Nazi concentration camps came from the French deportation. In the case of the Dachau Camp, they arrived in the „second wave“. The problem is that many German historians seem unaware of the size and importance of this deportation from the West.
It would remain to clarify the reason why these people are considered as deported. The RAE defines the verb „deport“ in its first meaning as: „Desterrar a alguien a un lugar, por lo regular extranjero, y confinarlo allí por razones políticas o como castigo.“ This applies perfectly to these Spaniards. If you consult the Duden, which would be the German equivalent to the dictionary of the RAE, one realizes that the definition of the term „Deportation“ is nearly the same as the Spanish one: „Verbrecher, unbequeme politische Gegner, ganze Volksgruppen verschleppen, verbannen, zwangsweise in ein Gebiet o.Ä. transportieren, wo sie nicht gefährlich werden können.“ Also the deportation of the Spaniards from France was carried out with means and conditions very similar to the deportation of Jews to Eastern Europe. In both cases it was a first step towards extermination. Finally, naming the group of Spaniards as deported does not imply any offense to the memory of other groups. In my opinion, the other option, having used another term to refer to the Spaniards, would have generated more confusion.
How did Spaniards end up at German Nazi Camps?
This question was one of the most common comments when I spoke about my research to Germans. Even people with good general knowledge about the history of Nazi crimes, which includes the majority of Central Europeans with secondary education, asked this question. On the other hand, almost all of the Spaniards with whom I spoke about the topic seemed to be clear that there was an important group of fellow citizens who were victims of the Nazi camp system. Without pretending to have done a sociological study of the subject, I think I appreciate one of the positive aspects of the media presence that the debate on the historical memory in Spain had during the last decade.
However, in a country like Germany, where the debate on historical memory has a long tradition and the crimes of the Nazi dictatorship are the cornerstone of the history subject in educational programs for almost two generations, deportations from the Western Europe and especially France remain a phenomenon unknown to the general public.
The Peculiarity of the Spaniards in Dachau
The original intention of my work was to investigate the peculiarities of the group of Spaniards in the Dachau Camp. If we do not go into each individual case, these were a small part of the foreigners with the red triangle of political prisoners (in the Mauthausen Camp they would carry the blue triangle, of stateless persons). They were members of the (or related to the) loser side of the Spanish Civil War, exiled during or at the end of the war in France. Here these people were concentrated in terrible conditions in camps. They were not part of those who would be mobilized for the French army before the German offensive. Among these, those who were taken prisoner after the French defeat, were part of the „first wave“ of deportations. They ended up mostly in the Mauthausen Camp. The living conditions of those who remained in France would worsen drastically with the Nazi victory, whether in occupied France or Vichy.
Prison and forced labor would go hand in hand with the clandestine struggle against the occupation and the Petain dictatorship. When Germany was already fighting a lost war and desperately needed slave labor for its arms industry, the French prisons were emptied in the „second wave“ of deportations to German camps. A part of the Spaniards now deported would arrive at the Dachau Camp. The question how Spaniards did end up at German Nazi camps is the main issue when analyzing any group of victims of the Nazi camps. Understanding the way in which systems with an organic conception of society manage the lives of individuals and the reasons they put forward for it, is the first step to understanding their vileness.
For those who want to know more about exile in France and Spanish participation in World War II, I recommend reading:
- Ángeles Egido León: Españoles en la Segunda Guerra Mundial, Madrid, 2005. (ISBN: 84-95886-14-6)
When studying crimes against humanity, there is no doubt that victim databases are an essential tool. The creation of a database allows on the one hand to make statistics that discover the dimensions of the crime or explain certain aspects of it. On the other hand, these databases work as monuments that take the individual victim out of their anonymity, offering the public the data of that person that the research has been able to compile.
The vast majority of the foundations and centers that work for the recovery and maintenance of the memory of the victims of the Nazi system have one or several databases of this type. They collect information about the victims of a group, compiled with a structure and according to a specific method. Two of the most spectacular examples of these databases are the „Holocaust Survivors and Victims Database“ of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and „The Central Database of Shoah Victims‘ Names“ of the Yad Vashem. Both databases focus on the victims of the systematic extermination of the Jews of Europe by the Nazis.
If we deal with the subject of deported Spaniards in general, there are three databases that are very helpful:
- The first one is the „Livre Mémorial“ of the Fondation pour la Mémoire de la Déportation, which I mentioned already. As I said, there is a printed edition of this work. The interesting thing about the edition, whose information is out of date with respect to what is accessible on the website, is that it includes fairly detailed descriptions of each of the deportation transports. They describe the origin of the deportees, the transport route with its incidences, and the destination camps of the deportees. This list includes all those deported from France, which means that there are many different nationalities.
- The most recent database is the „Censo de españoles deportados a los campos nazis“. It is a project of the Memorial Democràtic de Catalunya in collaboration with the Amical de Mauthausen, and with the Pompeu Fabra University of Barcelona.
- The third database is the „Libro Memorial – Españoles deportados a los Campos Nazis (1940-1945)“ by Sandra Checa and Benito Bermejo. From this work there is also a printed edition published by the Ministry of Culture of Spain in 2006. In this database the victims have been organized according to their geographical origin in Spain. This makes it a very good tool for the search of information about relatives who have been victims of Nazism, but it complicates the task a lot to the historian who wants to search based on other criteria – such as staying in the Dachau Camp, for example.
There is also a short documentary about the Memorial Book of Benito Bermejo and Sandra Checa, published by the Migration and Exile Studies Center (CEME – UNED) in 2006. It is worth investing the 20 minutes to listen to both historians explain the project and to Spanish survivors from different camps tell their experiences.
Picture: Angelika Schoder, 2018