This session chaired by Bertrand Taithe, focused on the transnational logics operating in various resistance movements from the Spanish Civil War to the Second World War. While memories often celebrate the national dimension of the fight against the Nazi occupation during World War Two, these three fascinating papers showed important continuities and links between the different spaces and times where resistance took place. Following humanitarian actors’ journeys through wars demonstrates that anti-axis resistance, as spontaneous as it was, also mobilized a set of practices and knowledge coming from other conflicts.
Géraud Létang (Service Historique de la Défense, Paris) opened this session with his paper “Absent-minded rescuers: Free French sailors in Castellorizzo (sept-oct. 1943)”. He first traced the history of Castellorizzo, a small Greek island on the Turkish coast under Italian occupation until May 1943, where the Free French Naval Forces briefly landed after Italy’s capitulation. Géraud focused on the Free French’ stay on the island before it was taken by the German Army at the Fall of 1943. At the time, these soldiers were acting as humanitarian more than fighters: they improvised the evacuation to Haïfa of Jewish and local populations threatened by the enemy’ approach. Géraud has shown that their action reinvested humanitarian networks established before the war. This episode is well documented in military archives as well as in a fantastic album of pictures taken by the Free French soldiers themselves, which reminds us that soldiers were also “accidental tourists” (Anderson, 2019)
Ljubica Spaskovska (University of Exeter) presented the following paper “From the battlefields of Spain to the Balkans: the Yugoslav Partisan medical service and its legacies”. This paper is part of her current work about Yugoslav antifascist and anti-imperialist commitment through the Spanish Civil War, World War Two and the post-1945 wars of decolonization. Ljubica demonstrated that the experience of the Spanish Civil War was reinvested in World War Two partisan groups in Yugoslavia: guerrilla warfare fed on skills acquired by veterans from Spain. Despite the inevitable improvisation of medical care in such circumstances, specific medical skills were learnt and taking forward – for example ensuring a high secrecy in the localisation of clandestine hospitals, or improvising solutions such as the re-use of bandages to remedy the lack of material. Numerous medical care techniques were thus developed which were of interest to foreign doctors who joined the partisans as well as to the Allied parachuted forces, contributing to build a knowledge and practices of unconventional warfare. Ljubica showed that the care for the wounded formed a key part of partisan warfare and of their medical service, which this generation of Spanish and WW2 veterans then carried forward into the post-1945 era through their support for liberation struggles in the Global South – for instance through the funding of rehabilitation programs for wounded fighters from the Algerian War of Independence.
Jon Arrizabalaga (Spanish National Research Council, Barcelona) concluded this thought-provoking session with his paper “USC ‘s activities with the refugee populations and the French Resistance”. The Unitarian Service Committee (USC) was founded in Boston in 1940 to assist European refugees fleeing Nazi persecutions. At the time, the invasion and occupation of France threw thousands of people on the roads to the unoccupied zone, where they converged toward Spanish refugees who had fled Franco’s regime. This concentration of refugees created an important humanitarian demand. The USC, which already had an office in Lisbon, opened its second European relief office in Marseille in 1941. It set up a medical clinic for refugees, which provided thousands of consultations between July 1941 and October 1942; most of the staff were refugees themselves, and they often were Jews. When German forces invaded South of France in November 1942, American and Jewish staff had to flee and part of their activity was transferred to Geneva. USC also helped Resistance fighters, either from Geneva or from France itself: some volunteers stayed for that purpose, breaking the rule of neutrality. After the liberation, the USC resumed its activities in France, reopening Marseille’s dispensary as well as a new hospital in Toulouse known as the “Varsovie Hospital” – moving its activity toward the extermination camps survivors and the Spanish refugees. The complexity of USC’s networks, which involved multiple connections between its staff and various political organisations, made them suspicious in both camps during the Cold War.
In short, these three papers shed light on the multiple networks that made medical help to civilians and fighters possible during the Second World War, either officially or unofficially. They reconstituted continuities between peacetime and wartime, as well as between different conflicts, demonstrating how humanitarian organisations mobilised transnational logics to mitigate the effects of war.