Johannes Meerwald / Spanish prisoners in the Dachau concentration camp complex (1940-1945)
Deportation, imprisonment, consequences
There is hardly been any research made on the fate of the Spanish prisoners in the German concentration. In his master's thesis, entitled, “Spanish prisoners in the Dachau concentration camp complex (1940-1945),written at the Philipp University of Marburg, Johannes Meerwald dedicates himself to the topic and examines it.
He is looking for answers at questions about their origins and the social structure of the prisoners group, as well as the motives behind the National Socialists' policy to deport Spaniards, both women and men, to Dachau. He also sheds light on the prisoners' individual and collective experiences during deportation, concentration camp imprisonment and forced labor. On one hand he is focussing on survival strategies on the other on the walks of life of the Spaniards after their liberation.
The SS deported Spanish men and women to the Dachau concentration camp complex in two phases. About a quarter of the group came, via the Mauthausen / Gusen camp, from France between 1940 and 1942. Most of them were Spanish men who fought against the Germans on the side of the French army in 1940.
The National Socialists viewed the anti-fascist Spaniards as "unreliable elements" and, as the history of the Spaniards in Mauthausen / Gusen shows, were comited to ultimately exterminate them.
In 1943 and 1944 it was mainly anti-fascist Spanish exiles who fought against the German occupiers or the Vichy collaborators in the Maquis or Resistance movements that were taken from french prisons and camps to the Dachau concentration camp.
Extremely cruel conditions characterized the transports during this period. This is clearly demonstrated by the so-called ghost train, which had been on the road for almost two months before it reached Dachau on August 28, 1944.
In August 1944 there were also nine women in the prisoner group whom, a few days later, the SS deported to the Ravensbrück concentration camp.
Those who were brought in the Dachau concentration camp and its satellite camps, had to wear the red triangle for “political prisoners”. From 1943 onward, numerous Spanish prisoners had to do forced labor for the German armaments industry. Of particular importance was the Allach sub-camp in the north-west of Munich, where the SS forced around 100 Spaniards to work at the Bayerische Motorenwerke (BMW). There, but also in the Dachau main camp, they found support from prisoners who had previously fought in the Spanish Civil War on the side of the Republic.
The interbrigadists mostly occupied advantageous positions and were thus able to save numerous Spaniards from being assigned to Kommandos in which they would have had little chance of survival, or to save them from being transferred to a camp with even worse living conditions. Nevertheless, at least 159 Spanish prisoners died in the Dachau concentration camp and its satellite camps of hunger, disease and acts of violence by the SS.
Since the Franco dictatorship continued after 1945, the Spaniards could not return to their homeland after the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp. With the help of the French army, most of the group made their way to France. But there, being only tolerated as refugees, they had serious difficulties in finding their place into a life in exile.
For this reason, former Dachau prisoners founded groups of interest that campaigned for compensation claims and against the Francoist dictatorship. Because of their precarious situation in the post-war exile, some of them finally felt compelled to return to Spain where they expected repression from the Francoist regime. Others, however, moved to South and Central America.
Johannes Meerwald, who did basic research with his master's thesis, relies on memorabilia from Spanish survivors and their fellow prisoners as well as on perpetrator sources, including transfer lists of the SS and the documents of the Dachau camp administration contained in the prisoner files. A publication of his study is planned.
Laudatio | Barbara Distel
Dear friends of the Comité International de Dachau,
dear members of the jury of the Stanislav Zamecnik Study Prize,
Dear Mr Meerwald, laureate of the second competition,
Ladies and gentlemen, dear friends,
On behalf of the jury of this competition, I would like to welcome you very warmly to the - due to the Corona pandemic delayed and still only possible in this way - awarding of the second study prize. It now bears the name of the Czech Dachau prisoner and historian Stanislav Zamecnik, the chronicler of the Dachau concentration camp, and is offered by the international association of surviving prisoners of the Dachau concentration camp, the Comité International de Dachau. The prize winner is Johannes Meerwald, whose master's thesis in the M.A. History of International Politics programme at Philipps University Marburg on "Spaniards in Dachau Concentration Camp (1940-1945). Deportation, Camp Detention, Consequences." is being honoured.
Before I begin with my laudation for the prize winner, I would like to remember the historian Jürgen Zarusky, who gave the laudation for the first prize winner three years ago and who has since passed away. Jürgen Zarusky was a research assistant at the Munich Institute for Contemporary History and lived in Dachau. He decisively enriched knowledge about the history of the Dachau concentration camp and its victims through his research and always championed the interests of the formerly persecuted.
The last statistical record of the number and national composition of the prisoners of Dachau concentration camp dates from 26 April 1945 - that was three days before the liberation of Dachau main camp on 29 April 1945 by units of the US Army. On that day, a total of 67,665 prisoners from a total of 38 nations were registered for Dachau and its satellite camps. 14995 Polish prisoners formed the largest national group, but 269 people with Spanish nationality were also recorded.
In the meantime, 76 years have passed and there are only a few survivors who can tell us about their persecution fate. However, the testimonies collected since 1945, which form the foundation for passing on history and preserving memory, are only fragments of the overall events. Our current knowledge about the fate of the more than 200,000 prisoners, whether individuals or members of a national community or a special group of persecutees, who were deported to Dachau concentration camp between 1933 and 1945 is extremely uneven. There are individual life stories as well as group fates that are well researched as well as those about which we still know nothing or next to nothing. Among them were the approximately 700 Spanish Dachau prisoners.
Now Johannes Meerwald has presented a study on their history that traces their specific fate in detail. In doing so, he has entered new historiographical territory. Until then, almost exclusively the Spanish prisoners of the Mauthausen concentration camp and its subcamp Gusen had found a place in the memory and interest of contemporary historical research. Mauthausen was home to around 7,000 Spaniards, the largest group of prisoners of this nationality in a German concentration camp.
Johannes Meerwald describes in chronological order the origins and routes by which Spanish nationals came to Dachau. Their backgrounds differed from those of prisoners of other nations, as a large number of the Spaniards had already experienced persecution, combat experience and deprivation in the years before they were brought to Dachau concentration camp - whether in the Spanish Civil War, in French internment camps or in the French resistance against the German occupiers. Therefore, the reality of the German concentration camp did not catch them completely unprepared.
The largest part of the study is devoted to the story of their imprisonment in the Dachau concentration camp and its satellite camps. Again, what differed from the behaviour of prisoners of other nations was their close and solidary cohesion among themselves. This led to the Spanish prisoners being met with admiration, even respect, by the rest of the prisoners' society, despite their relatively small share of the total number of prisoners. In addition, they received help and support from the former fighters of the International Brigades of different nationalities already in the camp, who were assigned to the category of "Red Spain fighters". In particular, the Austrian Spain fighters, most of whom had also been deported to Dachau Concentration Camp from French internment camps and who, with 458 prisoners, formed the largest group in this detention category, helped the Spaniards with language difficulties or assignment to relatively protected work detachments.
However, a large proportion of the Spanish prisoners were sent on to one of the satellite camps built in 1943/1944 for the expansion of the armaments industry. There they mostly could not stay together as a group and the survival conditions were mostly worse than in the main camp. In the last months before liberation, when the death rate in Dachau rose dramatically due to overcrowding and a typhus epidemic, the Spaniards were just as affected as all other prisoners.
Another previously unknown chapter in the history of the Spanish prisoners of Dachau concentration camp is their fate after liberation. They had hoped that with the end of the Second World War in Europe, the dictatorship of Francisco Franco would also come to an end. However, due to Franco's continued rule, they could not return to their home country. The American military authorities responsible for repatriating the surviving prisoners to their home countries resisted allowing them to leave for France, from where they had mostly been deported. Thanks to the support of the French survivors of Dachau concentration camp, a large number of Spaniards nevertheless managed to leave for France. Edmond Michelet, the spokesman for the French in the liberated Dachau, played an important role in this. In France, a life of exile awaited the Spaniards once again. They had to struggle with a lack of recognition, economic hardship and internal conflicts. It would take another thirty years before the dictatorship in Spain collapsed with Franco's death in 1975 and the surviving concentration camp victims were able to return home.
But even then it took another few decades before research and reappraisal of the history of the dictatorship and the war began in Spain and a public debate began on the fate of the victims, which had begun in the 1930s and continued until the dictator's death.
An exception were the surviving Spanish prisoners of the Mauthausen concentration camp, who were always actively involved in Austrian remembrance politics. For them and also for Spaniards who had been imprisoned in other concentration camps, the Mauthausen memorial remains the central place of remembrance to this day. The young Spanish photographer Francisco Boix was also imprisoned in the Mauthausen concentration camp. He is credited with a large collection of photographs that he took in secret in the camp. With the help of Austrian Spain fighters, he had managed to smuggle these photos out of the camp. They could be seized immediately after the liberation and subsequently used as evidence documents. Boix also documented the days of liberation photographically and he appeared as a witness at the Mauthausen trial in Dachau. He died in 1951, only thirty years old, as a result of his imprisonment in French exile and it took a long time for his importance as a pictorial chronicler of Mauthausen to be researched and appreciated.
For the work in the Dachau Memorial, it was above all the former Spain fighters among the Austrian survivors who reported on the Spaniards. I would like to mention Ferdinand Berger, Ferdinand Hackl, Hans Landauer and Herrmann Langbein by name, all of whom worked to preserve the memory of the Spanish victims of the Spanish and German dictatorships after their liberation.
Johannes Meerwald is responsible for the inclusion of the hitherto unknown Spanish-language sources into his study. In his concluding remarks, he identifies desiderata for the continuation of research on this topic. It would be desirable that his Master's thesis could become the basis for this.
Today I congratulate Johannes Meerwald on his important contribution to researching and preserving the legacy of the prisoners of the Dachau concentration camp, which is recognised by the award of the Stanislav Zamecnik Prize.