The Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) was the bloodiest conflict western Europe had experienced since the end of World War I in 1918.
It was the breeding ground for mass atrocities. About 200,000 people died as the result of systematic killings, mob violence, torture, or other brutalities.
The fighting displaced millions of Spaniards. Some 500,000 refugees fled in 1939 to France, where many of them would be interned in camps. 15,000 Spanish Republicans ended up in Nazi concentration camps after 1940.
The Spanish Civil War began on July 17, 1936, when generals Emilio Mola and Francisco Franco launched an uprising aimed at overthrowing the country’s democratically elected republic.The Nationalist rebels’ initial efforts to instigate military revolts throughout Spain only partially succeeded. In rural areas with a strong right-wing political presence, Franco’s confederates generally won out.
They quickly seized political power and instituted martial law. In other areas, particularly cities with strong leftist political traditions, the revolts met with stiff opposition and were often quelled. Some Spanish officers remained loyal to the Republic and refused to join the uprising.
Faced with potential defeat, Franco called upon Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy for aid. Thanks to their military assistance, he was able to airlift troops from Spanish Morocco across to the mainland to continue his assault on Madrid. Throughout the three years of the conflict, Hitler and Mussolini provided the Spanish Nationalist Army with crucial military support.
When the Civil War ended in 1939, with Franco’s victory, some 500,000 Spanish Republicans escaped to France, where many were placed in internment camps in the south, such as Gurs, St. Cyprien, and Les Milles.
Following the German defeat of France in spring 1940, Nazi authorities conscripted Spanish Republicans for forced labor and deported more than 30,000 to Germany, where about half of them ended up in concentration camps.because of their anti-Fascist or Communist political affiliation. They were called the Red Spaniards (Rotspanier) because Red was the color of the Communists.
The Mauthausen concentration camp was the main place where Spanish political prisoners were incarcerated by the Nazis.
By 1941, three years after the main camp opened, 60% of the prisoners were Spanish Republicans.
Up until August 1940, the German and Austrian common-law criminals were the Kapos at Mauthausen; they were assigned to supervise the other prisoners and would typically beat them for the slightest infraction of the rules while the SS guards looked the other way. The Spanish Republicans began to arrive in the camp on August 6th and 9th, 1940; gradually they took over the key positions in the camp from the German Kapos.
The anti-Fascist Spaniards were well organized; they were the only cohesive group in the camp, held together by their political beliefs. Later, when the Communist Czechs and French resistance fighters arrived, they joined forces with the Red Spaniards to dominate the camp. The German criminals had no solidarity and did not act as a group, so they did not remain in control
The majority of the Spanish prisoners at Mauthausen worked in the quarries, but some had administrative jobs. Among the later group were Antonio Garcia Alonso and Francesco Boix Campo,. Boix was sent to Mauthausen on January 27, 1941. Because of his facility with German, Boix initially worked as a translator in the camp,but later also became a photographer.
Garcia arrived in Mauthausen on April 7, 1941. Because he was a trained photographer, Garcia was assigned to work in the camp’s photo lab, Erkennungsdienst.
The SS photographer Kornacz was the only one who took photographs, but he employed inmates to handle the developing, printing and filing of the photo archive. Kornacz was assigned to take mug shots of arriving prisoners and to photograph official visits to the camp as well as the bodies of prisoners who died.
(Francesco Boix is on the far left with a camera hanging on his chest)
He instructed his assistants to print five copies of each photograph: one for the camp archive and one each to be sent to Berlin, Oranienburg, Vienna and Linz.
Before Garcia’s arrival in the lab, a Polish prisoner named Grabowski, began developing a sixth print of key photographs, which he hid behind a wooden beam in the ceiling. After Garcia became responsible for developing film and enlarging photographs, he and Grabowski began compiling a secret photo archive.
In 1944 Grabowski committed suicide, and in February 1945 Garcia fell seriously ill and was taken to the camp infirmary where he remained for over a month. Upon his return, he discovered that the secret archive was missing. He questioned Boix, who was the only other person having any knowledge of the archive. Boix admitted that he had taken the photographs, but he said that they were now in the hands of the camp’s Spanish Communist underground. Garcia, though sympathetic to Communism, was accused by some of Trotskyism and was not part of the underground’s inner circle. Garcia was furious, but there was little he could do. He continued to work with Boix saving key photographs, even after Camp Commandant Franz Ziereis ordered the destruction of all negatives during the last week of the war.
The Spanish Communist underground temporarily hid Garcia’s photos in several locales within the administrative complex of the camp while looking for a safer hiding place outside of the camp. They decided to give the photos to the boys of the Poschacher Kommando. This labor brigade, made up of young Spanish teenagers, worked in quarries outside the camp itself. During the last months of the war, the brigade had almost no direct supervision by the SS. Over time, the boys had become friendly with Anna Pointner, an Austrian socialist who lived near their work site. She frequently tossed extra food to the boys and eventually confided her political views to them. Feeling they could trust her, the boys asked whether she would be willing to hide some small parcels for them.
Two boys, named Jacinto Cortes and Jesus Grau, whose job it was to bring food to the Kommando in hampers, gradually transferred the entire archive hidden in these lunch hampers. Anna Pointner then hid the photos in a crevice in her garden wall.
After the war, Boix photographed the liberation with a confiscated German camera. He retrieved the camp photographs, which he later published. Boix testified at the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg regarding photographic evidence from Mauthausen.
Some 7,000 of the Spanish Republicans became prisoners in Mauthausen; more than half of them died in the camp.
A graphic novel adaptation telling the story of Francisco Boix titled “Le Photographe de Mauthausen” was published by Belgian publisher Le Lombard, written by Salva Rubio and pencilled by Pedro J. Colombo, in 2016.
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