World War II in the Basque Country

World War II in the Basque Country refers to the period extending from 1940 to 1944. It affected the French Basque Country, but also bordering areas across the Pyrenees on account of the instability following the end of the Spanish Civil War, and the friendship ties held by Germany, Vichy France, and the triumphant Spanish military dictatorship.

Fallout of the Spanish Civil War

Inmates in Gurs internment camp (1939)

In June 1937, the Northern Front of the Spanish Civil War collapsed for the Republicans. Approximately half a million Republicans and civilians fled for their lives in Spain, but possibly up to 150,000 of them were Basques, an extraordinary proportion in the overall account.[1] Some of them, including many gudaris, crossed the border to the Labourd. They were confined next to Bayonne, while the French government set about constructing internment camps at the feet of the northern Pyrenees aimed at sheltering the civilians and Republicans fleeing from the Basque front, as well as Catalonia, stranded in Roussillon. Next to Gurs (outer fringes of Soule, in Bearn), an internment camp was established in Mars-April 1939. It lasted up to 1945.

The population's reception to the Spanish refugees, perceived as "reds", was generally negative, since the Bearnese and the Basques stack to a traditionalist mindset, spearheaded in the Basque area by Ybarnegaray, prominent former sports personality and deputy from Lower Navarre.[2] Jean Ybarnegaray appealed to the instinctively cautious nature of his rural constituency, warning against a consciously Basque political culture, as the one promoted by Basque Nationalist Party.[3] Only Oloron (bordering on Soule), with a leftist council, showed an active support to the exiles from the Spanish Civil War.

Outbreak of World War II

Rommel in Hendaye (February 1944)
Atlantic Wall station at the mouth of the Adour river (1944)

In 1940 Nazi Germany invaded France. The French army soon succumbed to the Blitzkrieg strategy. The Armistice of 22 June 1940 established a German military administration in occupied France of the French Atlantic, including the French Basque Country up to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. A 20-km-wide zone interdite along the coast behind the Atlantic wall was restricted to non-resident civilians.[4]

The occupied zone ran on the German timezone.[5] The rest of the French Basque Country up to Bearn (Soule and eastern Lower Navarre) was part of Vichy France until 1942, when the "free zone" was occupied by Germany. In June 1940, thousands of Allied Polish troops in retreat from the Battle of France, as well as civilian refugees, were evacuated from Saint-Jean-de-Luz. During the initial Nazi occupation, across the border in Spain, Donostia became a tranquil retreat for German army officers.

During wartime, many in France supported the Nazi regime and its persecution of Jews, communists, and foreigners. Others resisted, but were deeply divided.[6] In the French Basque Country, the bulk of the Basques showed an allegiance to the Vichy regime. Petain showed a sympathy towards traditional and regional features, which provided fertile grounds to re-launch a Regionalist movement represented by the Eskualerristes and the journal Aitzina ('forward') magazine, some of whose members defended an overt separatist approach.[7] Jean Ybarnegaray became Minister in a cabinet of Marshall Petain up to 1940. However, no regionalist measures came to be implemented by the Vichy regime.

In the western Pyrenees, especially the Labourd and Lower Navarre, resistance took the form of help for the Jews and downed Allied pilots to cross the border south to the theoretically neutral Spain, with the Basque clergy (e.g. Father Pierre Laffite) and the mugalariak (local smugglers) standing out in that pursuit.[8] Resistance members and smugglers organized in the Comet line to help them cross the border. The Basque version of the French Maquis was centred in Soule, more intense in the highlands, and shaken by Nazi repression (raids, executions).[8]

End of the occupation

Petain's Vichy France fell starting November 1942, with the Germans taking over all its former territory. The Maquis in Soule helped liberate Mauleon (Maule in Basque) and Tardets (Atharratze).[8] The Nazi occupation of the Basque Country came to an end in 1944, after German troops definitely retreated following the Allied counteroffensive.[9] However, the Germans found time enough to stretch out their Atlantic Wall up to Hendaye, leaving its remains behind, still on-sight today. The active Basques evacuated on the final stage of the northern front in the Spanish Civil War joined the Allied forces and played a critical role in the Pointe de Grave battle with their Gernika Battalion (Gironde). DeGaulle commented, "France will never forget the sacrifice of the Basques for the liberation of their territory."[9]


  1. Watson, Cameron (2003). Modern Basque History: Eighteenth Century to the Present. University of Nevada, Center for Basque Studies. p. 308. ISBN 1-877802-16-6.
  2. "Euskaldunak Bigarren Mundu Gerran". Auñamendi Eusko Entziklopedia. EuskoMedia Fundazioa. Retrieved 25 October 2015.
  3. Watson, Cameron (2003). Modern Basque History: Eighteenth Century to the Present. University of Nevada, Center for Basque Studies. p. 230. ISBN 1-877802-16-6.
  4. Jackson, J. (2003), pp. 246-247
  5. Jackson, J. (2003), p. 247
  6. Watson, Cameron (2003). Modern Basque History: Eighteenth Century to the Present. University of Nevada, Center for Basque Studies. p. 232. ISBN 1-877802-16-6.
  7. Watson, Cameron (2003), p. 233
  8. 1 2 3 Watson, Cameron (2003), p. 234
  9. 1 2 Watson, Cameron (2003), p. 235


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