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.
Manuel Irujo, Jose Antonio Agirre, and Jose Ignacio Lizaso, London, 1945.
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.