The tumultuous period between the end of the Spanish Civil War in April 1939 and the outbreak of World War II in September that same year marked a critical time in Basque history. Basques exiles who had fled into France and beyond during and after the Spanish Civil War suddenly found themselves once more prey to the advance of Fascism.
Following the fall of Poland in 1939, Hitler’s forces swept north and westward in the spring of 1940, taking Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and, finally, France, with Paris falling to the Germans on June 14. In the less than a year most of Western Europe had fallen to the Nazis. Only the United Kingdom held out.
The charismatic leader of the Basque government-in-exile, Jose Antonio Agirre, had gotten caught up in these events and had been forced underground–ultimately in of all places, Berlin–into an incognito existence as he sought an escape from the Fascist clutches (on this, if you haven’t already done so, check out his riveting memoir Escape via Berlin: Eluding Franco in Hitler’s Europe). In his absence, the Basque government-in-exile was replaced by a Basque National Council, headed by Manuel Irujo and based in London.
It is during that time, in the interesting period before Agirre’s reappearance in October 1941, that the Basque National Council carried out a series of negotiations, most notably with both the British government and the representatives of Free France (effectively the exiled democratic French government) led by Charles de Gaulle. Most famously, perhaps, these negotiations resulted in the creation of the Gernika Battalion, made up of Basque exiles, which fought with distinction with the French army in defeating the Germans in 1945 (the story of which we covered in a previous post here).
Less well known, certainly, was a fascinating agreement brokered by the Basque National Council in London. Xabier Irujo picks up the story in his Expelled from the Motherland (p. 17):
In less than a month the Basque National Council and the British government had made their first agreement on military collaboration. Robert J. G. Boothby, representing the British government, and Jose Ignacio Lizaso, representing the Basque National Council, signed the first agreement on July 29, 1940, which spelled out that the British government was committed to defending the independence of the Basque Country if the Spanish government went to war on the side of the Axis powers.
Ultimately, and despite plenty of willing on the part of Franco, Spain did not enter the war on the side of Hitler and this agreement was never implemented; yet another example of one of those twists of fate around which history revolves.
If you’re interested in this topic, as well as the abovementioned works, see also War, Exile, Justice, and Everyday Life 1936-1946, edited by Sandra Ott, available free to download here; and, for more general background, Modern Basque History, by Cameron Watson, available free to download here.
Euskalkultura.com recently reported on a moving recent commemoration of the seventieth anniversary of the Battle of Pointe de Grave, at the mouth of the Gironde Estuary in Western France, and the Basque participation in this battle.
In 1945, during the closing stages of World War II, Basque exiles from the Franco dictatorship making up the Gernika Battalion were instrumental in the Allied victory at the Battle of Point-de-Grave, one of the last outposts of Nazi resistance.
For their part in the battle, the Basques were awarded the Croix de Guerre, the highest French military honor, and were accorded an official reception in Baiona (Bayonne) for their efforts. Charles de Gaulle himself commented: “France will never forget the sacrifice of the Basques for the liberation of their territory.”
The battle and the wider context in which it took place–the dictatorship in Spain that led to many Basques fleeing Hegoalde (the Southern Basque Country) and the Nazi occupation of Iparralde (the Northern Basque Country)–are discussed in the CBS publication Modern Basque History: Eighteenth Century to the Present, by Cameron Watson.
On the effects of the Spanish Civil War and World War II on Basques from both sides of the Pyrenees, see War, Exile, Justice, and Everyday Life, 1936-1946, edited by Sandra Ott. This work explores the multiple dimensions of the effects of war such as displacement, occupation, and resistance, and demonstrates the extent to which the Basque Country was at the center of European events during this key time in European history.