Hiding on the edge of the world
In recent weeks Sebastien has been doing some research on El Hierro, the smallest and westernmost of the Canary Islands. The rocky, dry island was for a long time considered by Europeans to sit at one of the edges of the world.
Sebastien sent me this e mail from El Hierro:
I am honoured that Mark Derby enjoyed the interview. I wonder if Derby knows about the peculiar situation of El Hierro during the Civil War.
Once Franco's Nationalists conquered a region, Republicans were in big trouble. They knew they would be shot if they were caught. On the mainland of Spain, or even on Gran Canaria, the largest island in the Canaries group, Republicans could seek shelter in caves and abandoned houses, in extremely remote valleys and amongst mountains.
El Hierro was the worst place for Republicans to hide, because it is so small. El Hierro also had a very limited population, where everybody knows each other (not only were there tensions on the island between Francoists and Republicans, but there was also a history of rancour between some families and clans).
Despite the difficulties created by their island's small size and divided population, many Herreños showed fantastic courage in supplying shelter to Republicans after Franco's forces conquered the island.
I wonder, however, how these Republicans fared in the long term. Did they carry on living in their hiding place, or did they escape to a foreign country? I imagine that leaving the country was a very difficult project even decades after the end of the Civil War, the national police had lists with the names of the Republicans and anyone who was intercepted went to jail.
My grandfather was only a child when he left Spain for France, but because he was the son of Republicans he had a very bad surprise when he decided to spend his holidays in the country of his birth at the very end of the 60's. He was kicked repeatedly and punched very hard in a police station just across border from France. So I don't want to imagine the fear a Republican soldier hiding on El Hierro could have, and the difficulties he had to find freedom.
We'll send you photos of El Hierro when we get back home.
Sebastien's e mail got me thinking about other small islands which have been subjected to fascist rule. One of Skyler's grandmothers fled with her family from Jersey, the largest of the Channel Islands, just before a German occupation force arrived there in late 1940. After the fall of France and the Dunkirk evacuation, Churchill had decided that a few small islands off the coast of Normandy were not worth defending from a rampant German army. The British flag was lowered, and Jersey's local government and police force were instructed to cooperate with the incoming Nazis.
The story of the Nazi occupation of Jersey and the other Channel Islands has fascinated historians, scriptwriters, and counterfactualists because it seems to jar with the notion that the British were incorrigible opponents of Hitlerism. Most of the inhabitants of the Channel Islands submitted to Nazi authority, even when the Nazis began to deport Jews and import slave labourers to help them build forts and gun emplacements. It is perhaps understandable that the small, communist-led resistance movement which did form on Jersey eschewed violent confrontation with the enemy. With its tiny size and flat, open landscape the island offered little cover for the sort of irregular force which might make hit and run attacks on the Germans, and the decision of the local establishment and much of the population to cooperate, however grudgingly, with Nazism increased the danger of betrayal and detection. The Jersey resistance did succeed in sheltering many enemies of fascism - Jews, escaped slave labourers, well-known communists - until the German abandonment of the islands late in the war.
By the time that the Nazis were being thrown out of France and the Channel Islands, many Spanish Republicans were growing hopeful that their country would be liberated from Franco's rule. Thousands of exiled Republicans who had served in the anti-fascist resistance in France crossed the Pyrennes, and attempted to start a guerrilla war against Franco. But their efforts fizzled out, partly because of the alliance Franco forged in the late 1940s with America, which had decided that his regime was an admirable bulwark against communism. It is sad to imagine Republicans waiting in the basements and copses of El Hierro for a liberation which would not come.
[Posted by Maps]