Being myself the great granddaughter of a republican soldier and the granddaughter of a 12-years old children refugee in France, I have as long as I remember been interested by this history of our family. I wanted to know whether or not other people from my generation, descendants of Spanish refugees, were curious about the past of their family. What has been told? What has been transmitted? A transmission all the more difficult since that subject of the Retirada is not much famous in France. The Spanish civil war is usually not studied at school, with exceptions. The memory of the third generation is often created by discussion with their grandparents, who have lived the war when they were very young and have lived the retirada (exile), or were born after the war. This generation don't know everything of what has happened to their family. The memory is more about fragments, souvenirs.

My grandfather died a few months before I was born. Though I have never known him, I consider his life and what he went through to be part of my identity. At twelve, he crossed the Pyrenees mountains from Spain to France to flee Francisco Franco’s regime with his Republican parents. His personal story was part of the great History, the history of the Spanish Civil War that tore Spain apart from 1936 to 1939, making more than one million victims[1]. On July 17, 1936, a military coup started against the leftist republican government. A large part of the military, soon supported by the fascist regimes of Mussolini in Italy and Hitler in Germany, faced the resistance of the Republican army, constituted of communists, anarchists, socialists − in short, the Spanish left − and seconded by the International Brigades, who are volunteers coming from all over the world to defend liberty. On the Republican side, the communists, more organized and backed by Moscow, soon took the lead, killing without hesitation their non-communist allies. The Civil War, which was marked by extreme violence, including exactions committed by both sides, lasted three years and was achieved by the victory of the nationalist army, led by General Franco. He instituted a very repressive and conservative dictatorship and remained in power until his death in 1975. The Republicans and their families fled to France, mainly by foot. This exile of nearly half a million people was called the “Retirada”. In France, they were kept in unsanitary refugee camps, in the South, before settling and making their lives as best as they could[2].

 


Picture: La Retirada: Réfugiés et exilés de la guerre d’Espagne à la frontière de Puigcerda et des Pyrénées-Orientales en 1936.

This story of the “Retirada” has never been a secret in my family, but had I not asked, no one would really have talked about it. But I was curious, so I investigated and found fragments of the location my family comes from. I am part of this third generation of memory, that is to say, if one follows the definition of Annette Wieviorka in her works on the memory of the Shoah[3], the grandchildren of those who were kids when they left Spain or who were born in France right after the war. Those people are the first generation to whom a memory was transmitted. The third generation today is becoming adults, ranging between 18 and 30 years of age. On the basis of my own experience, I wondered how this memory was transmitted more than eighty years after the end of the war. For the purpose of this essay, I interviewed Aubin, 20, Chiara, 19, and Anaïs, 18, all of them being descendants of Republicans who left their country to seek asylum in France. I define the notion of memory as the traces of the past kept in mind as a reference for the present by social groups who are linked with an event. This memory is often associated with the duty of remembrance, a notion whose importance has grown since the second half of the twentieth century, linked with the Holocaust and decolonization. In the case of the Retirada, the memory has been occulted by the French state and transmitted unequally among families who sometimes tried to practice forced oblivion to assimilate themselves and their families into the French society[4].

In the following paragraphs, I intend to explore how the third generation of descendants of the Spanish republican refugees in France consider the Spanish Civil War, the experience lived by their grandparents and great grandparents, and the duty of remembrance and transmission.

I will first show that this curiosity about family history falls within an interest in social sciences. Then, I will be exposing the difficulties encountered in the family while investigating the past, before focusing on the regain of interest in the family’s history among the third generation.

 

First of all, I must stress that there is a bias in my interviews concerning the interest in social and political sciences. Indeed, when I was looking for people to interview, those who accepted to talk to me were conscious of their family’s stories, and so they were able to know that their profile corresponded to my criteria. Therefore, I have not been able to interview people not really aware of this past, but I can suppose they exist. There is a flaw in the representativity of my interviewees since they all study humanities: Anaïs and Aubin at Sciences Po Paris and Chiara in literature studies.

That being said, I can deduct from my interviews that the descendants of exiles include their curiosity for the family’s history in a broader interest in social and political sciences. Aubin said that “growing up, as I was interested in history classes at school, I focused on my family’s history[5]”; Anaïs told me, “I am interested in history so I questioned my grandfather on his life[6]”. Chiara also shared that “in high school, I was in a European class, with a major in Spanish, so we were taught a lot about the Civil War[7]”.

Doing so, they intellectualize and rationalize the individual story, and overcome the emotional memory to get a more historical approach. Although their interest in this historical subject is linked to questions about their past and identity, although they record their relatives to hear a personal storytelling, they try to insert this narrative into the course of history. Indeed, when I asked Aubin “So you dig deeper into this subject with a historical point of view?”, he answered, “Yes, that is also for me an intellectual stimulation, and since I am intimately concerned, I got even more interested.[8]”. Anaïs explained that “in high school, I recorded my grandfather to keep track, to remind us where our family came from. In the beginning, I was just curious to know where I came from, curious about my identity. Then, that was also a way to learn about the Republican side.[9]

Also, schoolwork can be an occasion for those young descendants to dig deeper into the family story. And vice-versa, the family story is an inspiration for choosing a subject to work on at school. Indeed, in his second year at Sciences Po, Aubin chose to make a presentation on the Franco regime because he knew his family had fled it. Through his work, he managed to learn more about the aspects of history his family was part of. Anaïs told me that in her first year at Sciences Po, she had a class on family narratives through comics. She chose it with the Spanish Civil War and the Retirada in mind, and that was a way to pursue her research into her family with “a real pretext[10]”, as she puts it. Indeed, on this occasion, she could, for the first time, interview her grandaunt who was 7 when she fled with her parents to France, whereas Anaïs grandfather was born just after the exile. Anaïs also said: “I decided to focus more on the Spanish language and to go for an internship in Spain in part because I am interested in learning more about the country I came from.[11]

Though there seems to be a strong link between the interest in social and political sciences and the curiosity about the family’s past, I was not able to establish a strong link between the political ideas of the exiles and their descendants. To the question “Has there been a transmission of political commitment in your family?” (a question I asked because the Republicans were highly politicized refugees), they all answered in the negative. Their parents and grandparents are not engaged in politics, and Aubin is the only one interviewee to be politically active. However, he is engaged alongside French President Emmanuel Macron, considered center-right, whereas the Republicans were left-wing activists. It is worth noting that Anaïs and Aubin told me that knowing they came from an immigrant family had shaped their political views on immigration, in the sense of the defense of the right to asylum.

 

Although those exiles’ descendants were willing to know more about their family’s past, they encountered some difficulties while investigating the war and the Retirada.

First, this memory has not been transmitted to the parents or even sometimes to the grandparents of the interviewees, so they were not able to hear about it. As Anaïs expressed, “No one was interested in this story in my family … I don’t think that this is a taboo, it is more a lack of interest[12]”. Aubin also told me “I didn’t discover the story because my family told me about it but because my brother and I did our research. […] I feel there is a kind of taboo in my family. I don’t know if taboo is the appropriate word, but my grandfather never told us about it […] I think that he doesn’t know much himself[13]”. Chiara, for her part, said, “No one told me about this, I deducted it by myself[14]”.

Historian and archivist Aline Angoustures explains this lack of transition by the refusal of the adult exiles to talk about the war to their children. It could also be that children refused to hear about the War. According to her research and interviews, one explanation can be “the existing contradiction between the revival of Civil War and the objective, the obligation, of integration in France”[15]. One can understand this through Aubin’s testimony about his grandfather, who was born in France just after the Retirada: “His father told him “France welcomes you, you are French, you were born in France, your country is France”. It has been almost violent assimilation[16]”.

Aline Angoustures also writes that the children of the exiles, that is to say, the grandparents of this third generation, decided to actively forget the family’s troubled past in order to avoid transmitting traumas to their children and to manage to live a life not impacted by this tough history, to emancipate from the refugee group. By “active oblivion”, she means that they try their utmost not to get impacted by their past, but still the trauma, the ideas transmitted by their parents, shape their lives. Pascale Moiron also stresses that for these children, family memory becomes a burden, so they try to avoid it[17]. About his grandfather, Aubin said, “There was a sort of deliberate oblivion. Everything was done so that he would forget[18]”. In the case of Anaïs, it is more nuanced. Regarding her grandfather born in France after the exile, she said, “he asked me why I was talking about that, he said he didn’t want to remember, because it hurt him, because he wasn’t interested in that[19]”. But about the sister of her grandfather, who was seven during the Retirada, she said: “She told me it was really important to remember, not to forget, because it was part of us.[20]”. That difference may be explained by the fact that the sister is older and has got memories of the exile, so it is more her personal history, just like her parents, than for her brother.

As I mentioned, this memory is also responsible for trauma, that is why it is difficult for those I interviewed to talk about the past with their grandparents. Indeed, as Anaïs told me about her grandfather, talking about his parents was very difficult for him and it made him sad and uncomfortable.

 

The young students I interviewed are the first in their families to encounter those difficulties because they are the first who have investigated the family’s past. I observed a renewal of interest in the family’s history among the third generation. As I said, this memory has not been transmitted to the first generation, and even less transmitted to the second one. About her father and her family, Anaïs said, “I feel that no one in my family was interested in this story. That was not a refusal but a lack of interest. My father didn’t know anything, he didn’t even know his grandfather was a member of the Republican army. He just knew we came from Catalonia because we still have family in Barcelona. […] I feel he didn’t understand why I was interested, and particularly why I was forcing, why I always called my grandparents. He is not interested[21]”. She also explained that she was the first one in her family to be interested. With regards to Aubin, he told me that “I was interested in the subject, but that is not the subject that came to me[22]”. He explained that his mother didn’t know anything, had never investigated it, but unlike Anaïs’ father, it is for her a kind of regret: “My mother thinks it is a pity because she would have liked knowing more, having this family legacy[23]”.

This regain of interest can be explained by the fact that this history is becoming more distant for the third generation, who is able to be more reflective about it. As Aubin states, “Even though the events are far from us, I think we come out of the period of taboo[24]”.

They describe this will to know the family’s past as a necessity for their identity and personal construction. Anaïs told me in several instances of the interview, “this is a part of my identity”, “that was important to know my origins”, “this is my family and it is a part of my identity”, “I am interested in learning about the country I came from[25]”. Chiara also spoke about identity. Aubin told me he wanted to transmit this family story to his children if someday he becomes a father: “I think that if someday I have children, even though it is really far from them, I would explain this story to them because it is the guarantee to have more open-minded children[26]”. According to the three of them, there is a causal relation between the past of their family and their identity, and the past of their family and their values. Although this relation can seem self-evident in our society, it is in fact questionable. Why would one think that what happened to their relative decades earlier constitutes a part of him? Is there any proof that one learns from the past? This causality has grown stronger since the second half of the twentieth century. It can be linked to what historian François Hartog calls “présentisme” [presentism][27]. He observed over the last fifty years an obsession with the past, caused in part by the fear of an uncertain future, which makes people try to find solutions and lessons in the past. Nowadays, we search for the past benchmarks for our individual construction.

This “presentism” results also in a memory obsession, that is to say, the need to remember and commemorate excessively. Indeed, based the interviews I conducted, I deduct that the duty of remembrance is more important for this third generation than for the previous ones. I have already quoted Aubin about his will to transmit this memory to his children. Anaïs seems to be very aware of the importance of memory for her generation: “No one in my family really understood [why I wanted to investigate], except my cousins, who found it interesting. They tried to build a family tree. The young generation was more interested than the oldest generations. There is a generational effect. The duty of remembrance is more “fashionable” now than before[28]”. Although this memory is related to a much further past, the duty of remembrance seems to be more important for the third generation than for her parents and grandparents.

 

The third generation of descendants of the Spanish republican refugees in France are therefore far more interested in knowing about the war and the exile than their parents and grandparents. There seems to be a regain of interest in the family’s history whereas this memory had not been really transmitted in the family, in order to manage integration in France and overcome the trauma. Nowadays this memory is questioned and vivid since the event is far enough, making this family story no longer a trauma at all for the young generation. They approach the subject not only in an emotional way, though they are interested because it is their family, but especially through an intellectual and historic perspective. For them, the duty of remembrance is important, but not a guilt strain. It is a way to construct their identity and values.

 

[1] Canal, Jordi, et al. « Chapitre 15. La guerre civile (1936-1939) », Jordi Canal éd., Histoire de l’Espagne contemporaine. De 1808 à nos jours. Armand Colin, 2021, pp. 241-259.

[2] MacMaster, Neil (auth.) – Spanish Fighters_ An Oral History Of Civil War And Exile (1990, Palgrave Macmillan UK)

[3] Wieviorka, Annette. L’ère du témoin. Paris : Fayard, coll. Pluriel. 2013 [1998].

[4] Angoustures, Aline. « Difficultés et paradoxes du devoir de mémoire : Les enfants de réfugiés espagnols en France ». Matériaux pour l’histoire de notre temps, vol. 70, nᵒ 1, 2003, p. 12‑19.

[5] Interview with Aubin Aimes, April 27th, 2022.

[6] Interview with Anaïs Ros, May 15th, 2022.

[7] Interview with Chiara Pinson, May 18th, 2022.

[8] Interview with Aubin Aimes, see supra.

[9] Interview with Anaïs Ros, see supra.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Interview with Aubin Aimes, see supra.

[14] Interview with Chiara Pinson, see supra.

[15] Angoustures, Aline. « Difficultés et paradoxes du devoir de mémoire : Les enfants de réfugiés espagnols en France ». op cit.

[16] Interview with Aubin Aimes, see supra.

[17] Moiron, Pascale. « Mémoires de l’exil des républicains espagnols sédentarisés dans la Loire ». Revue Asylon(s), nᵒ 12. Juillet 2014.

[18] Interview with Aubin Aimes, see supra.

[19] Interview with Anaïs Ros, see supra.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Interview with Aubin Aimes, see supra.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Interview with Anaïs Ros, see supra.

[26] Interview with Aubin Aimes, see supra.

[27] Hartog, François. Régimes d’historicité. Présentisme et expériences du temps. Éditions du Seuil, 2003.

[28] Interview with Anaïs Ros, see supra.

 

 

  • Primary sources

Interview of Aubin Aimes, conducted by Valentine Sender on May 4th, 2022.

Interview of Anaïs Ros, conducted by Valentine Sender on May 15th, 2022.

Interview of Chiara Pinson, conducted by Valentine Sender on May 18th, 2022.

 

  • Secondary sources
  • About the Spanish Civil War and the exile

Canal, Jordi, et al. « Chapitre 15. La guerre civile (1936-1939) », Jordi Canal éd., Histoire de l’Espagne contemporaine. De 1808 à nos jours. Armand Colin, 2021, pp. 241-259.

Fraser, Ronald – Blood of Spain_ An Oral History of the Spanish Civil War (1979, Pantheon).

MacMaster, Neil (auth.) – Spanish Fighters_ An Oral History Of Civil War And Exile (1990, Palgrave Macmillan UK).

 

  • About memory and présentisme

Hartog, François. Régimes d’historicité. Présentisme et expériences du temps. Éditions du Seuil, 2003.

Wieviorka, Annette. L’ère du témoin. Paris : Fayard, coll. Pluriel. 2013 [1998]. 192 p.

 

  • About the memory of the Spanish Civil War and the Retirada in France

Angoustures, Aline. « Difficultés et paradoxes du devoir de mémoire : Les enfants de réfugiés espagnols en France ». Matériaux pour l’histoire de notre temps, vol. 70, nᵒ 1, 2003, p. 12‑19. www.persee.fr, https://doi.org/10.3406/mat.2003.402447.

Dreyfus-Armand, Geneviève. « L’exil républicain espagnol : de l’histoire aux mémoires, d’une génération à l’autre ». Exils et migrations ibériques aux XXe et XXIe siècles, vol. 910, nᵒ 1, 2018, p. 472‑96. www.cairn.info, https://www.cairn.info/revue-exils-et-migrations-iberiques-2018-1-page-472.htm.

Léger, Eva. L’exil républicain espagnol en Limousin : cartographie des mémoires, des imaginaires et des appartenances. Paris 10, 28 novembre 2014. http://www.theses.fr/2014PA100134.

Moiron, Pascale. L’Histoire d’un oubli : les républicains espagnols réfugiés en France à travers l’exemple de la Loire (1936-1945). Paris, EHESS, 1 janvier 2014. theses.fr, http://www.theses.fr/2014EHES0040.

Moiron, Pascale. « Mémoires de l’exil des républicains espagnols sédentarisés dans la Loire ». Revue Asylon(s), nᵒ 12. www.reseau-terra.eu, http://www.reseau-terra.eu/article1318.html.

Salmon Monviola, Olivia. « « La République des fils », mémoire en héritage. Pratiques mémorielles des descendants des Républicains espagnols ». Amnis. Revue d’études des sociétés et cultures contemporaines Europe/Amérique, nᵒ 18, octobre 2019. journals.openedition.org, https://doi.org/10.4000/amnis.4732.

Credits
For the picture: 1936, own work (familial archives), Tylwyth Eldar (scan silver photograph) https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:1936_Puigcerda_Guerre_d%27Espagne_%282%29.jpg
Valentine Sender
Sciences Po student, Paris

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