A higher love

Rosemary Bailey revisits the Spanish Civil War and the refugee crisis it created. Colin Randall welcomes a well-researched addition to a crowded literature.

Love in a cold climate: Bailey has produced an absorbing account that effectively encompasses her narrative's twin tragedies.
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Love and War in the Pyrenees Rosemary Bailey Weidenfeld & Nicolson Dh130
Before the fall of Paris, there was the fall of Catalonia, last stronghold of Spanish Republicans as Franco swept to victory in the Civil War. Across the French border, the foothills of the eastern Pyrenees and beaches of the Mediterranean presented a dramatic backdrop to both conflicts. It was here that displaced or hounded people ended up after fleeing from their oppressors, successively Spanish fascists to the south, Nazi invaders to the north.

Whether these desperate casualties of war trudged from Spain or Paris, their journeys typically involved terrible privation and peril, and the welcome on arrival was far from warm. Whereas the French had expected 20,000 Spanish refugees, the numbers reached half a million. On the beaches of Argèles-sur-mer and St Cyprien-sur-mer, now holiday playgrounds for legions of peaceable invaders, tens of thousands suffered in wretched conditions behind barbed wire. The Catalan cellist Pablo Casals, fortunate enough to have the means to lodge privately, reported scenes that "might have been from Dante's Inferno".

The French authorities thought nothing of calling these affronts to humanity concentration camps. And after the Second World War began in earnest, an additional use was found for them: as detention centres for victims of Vichy France's willingness to do the Nazis' dirty work. When people were dragged from their homes by the French on behalf of their German masters the sites became staging posts in a journey that, for most, ended in death in another kind of concentration camp far to the north and east.

Literature has served this period of modern history well. Orwell, Hemingway, Antony Beevor and numerous others have written memorably on the Spanish Civil War. The chaos and despair of the flight from Paris in June 1940 has been faithfully chronicled, most strikingly by Irène Nemirovsky, who experienced the events for herself. Her magnificent novel, Suite Française, remained hidden from public view for 60 years after her own death in Auschwitz.

In the face of this wealth of writing, there may be no strict need for Rosemary Bailey's Love and War in the Pyrenees. Yet Bailey, a Yorkshirewoman who has made her home in these mountains, has produced an absorbing account that effectively encompasses both human tragedies. By chance, Suite Française was the first book Bailey read in French. It made a profound impact, but her curiosity had already been fired by a pair of faded espadrilles seen in a museum near the frontier. They had belonged to one of the passeurs, guides who - with varying success and, come to that, dependability - drew on intimate knowledge of the hostile border lands to help refugees seeking to escape across the hills.

Bailey had also acquired the love letters that passed between between Pierre and Amélie, a country doctor and a city girl from Marseille, during their pre-war courtship and into their marriage, during which Pierre was sent to serve as a medical lieutenant close to the Maginot Line. The couple's home, Corbiac, was the same old monastery Bailey was to buy half a century later, and their daughter gave her the letters after reading of her attempts to restore the property.

Pierre, like so many in 1940, saw Marshal Philippe Pétain, the First World War hero heading the Vichy government, as the best hope of salvation. The French had been humiliated, there was little faith in - or liking for - the British (less still after 1,300 sailors died when Churchill ordered the destruction of the French fleet at the Algerian port of Mers-el-Kébir, to keep it out of Hitler's hands). And this was before the acceptance of German victory, as the price of keeping part of France notionally free, turned to craven collaboration.

As Henri Goujon, a doctor and resistant, explained to Bailey when rationalising the actions of Col Jean-Jacques Ruffiandis, another old French warrior who co-operated with the enemy: "You have to understand that Pétain was the legitimate government [...] someone like Ruffiandis was just doing his duty." The nub of French acquiescence is that no matter how evil the Nazis were, many people just wanted to live their lives, put food on the table, get through the war; moreover, Pétain's administration was recognised by the US and other countries.

Not until the penultimate page of Bailey's book do we reach the awkward question of how the British, so quick to deplore French surrender, would have reacted in comparable circumstances. "We don't know what we would have done had the Germans invaded Britain," she admits, adding that on the island of Guernsey, "the nearest we got to occupation", the population gave up its Jews as soon as the Germans arrived.

Indeed, it is difficult to argue convincingly that things would have been so different. Given a charismatic or revered leader of their own, many in the the police, administration and commerce might well have opted for self-preservation, too. Resistance, as in France, would have come mainly from the Left. The achievements and heroics of that resistance would have come to be exaggerated. Bailey's implicit recognition of this is belated, but important. Speaking from France, she went further: "I would really like to think I'd have been brave, resisted. But if my children had needed to be fed, have shoes and so on, I fear I would have done whatever was necessary."

For all her admiration of the resistants' courage, Bailey understands the dilemma people faced, and she tells a difficult tale with a minimum of judgement. Her slog around the countryside in search of new details of resistance triumphs and failures, and fresh insights into the treatment of Spanish and French refugees, paid handsome dividends. This was a dogged pursuit of first-hand testimony from primary sources nearing the end of their lives, often without having ever shared their experiences, even with loved ones.

There are quarrels, but these are chiefly with Bailey's publishers. One map aside, the book contains no illustrations, though Bailey repeatedly refers to photographs seen on her rounds. The narrative has untidy moments. But this honest, emotional story - "I wept as I wrote it," she says - deserves to be widely read, not least by the holidaymakers who flock each year to those Mediterranean beaches without the least idea of what took place there less than 70 years ago.
Colin Randall, executive editor of The National, is a former Paris correspondent of The Daily Telegraph. @Email:crandall@thenational.ae