The San Pedro de Cardeña concentration camp

Between 1936 and 1947 almost half a million people were detained in 188 Francoist concentration camps, the last of which, at Miranda de Ebro, finally closed in 1947 (Javier Rodrigo, Cautivos, 2005, p. 308). One of the most important camps occupied parts of the ancient monastery at San Pedro de Cardeña, about 10 km south east of Burgos. San Pedro is best known as a camp for captured members of the International Brigades and other foreign prisoners in 1938-9. Before this, however, it played an important role in the development of the Francoist detention system during the rebel offensive of 1937 against the Republican-held northern coastal provinces of Vizcaya, Santander and Asturias. San Pedro also deserves to be remembered for the investigations of Antonio Vallejo Nágera to find the “red gene”; the findings of these studies on foreign prisoners were used to justify the Francoist system of repression during and after the war. 

San Pedro and the War in the North

In December 1936, after the failure of their offensive on Madrid, the rebel authorities established concentration camps in several locations in northern Spain. These early camps were usually situated in castles, fortresses or monasteries. One of these was San Pedro: the monastery, which had been closed since 1922, was assessed as being suitable for 1,200 prisoners who would be confined in large rooms rather than in cells. 

In early 1937 the camp began to fill up with men transferred from other camps in northern Spain. Prior to arrival in San Pedro these men had passed through the Francoist screening system which categorised prisoners on the basis of their loyalties: Aa afectos (supportive of the rebels); Ad dudosos (of doubtful loyalty); B reaprovechables (redeemable); criminales (criminals). Men sent to San Pedro were classified as either Ad or B. 

The rebel campaign against Vizcaya which began on 31 March 1937 led to the capture of thousands of people, both civilians and members of the Republican forces, many of whom, after screening, were sent to San Pedro. The summary nature of the screening is clear: following the fall of Bilbao on 19 June a camp was established at Deusto where, in the last ten days of July, the classification committee processed 536 prisoners. Meanwhile at Murgia (near Vitoria), an average of 100 people were screened per ten hour day throughout July, a rate of one case every six minutes (Rodrigo, p. 54). 

The occupation of Santander by Franco’s forces in August 1937 led to the capture of some 50,000 people, while the end of Republican resistance in Asturias, two months later, produced another 33,000 prisoners. In September and October 1937 5,699 of these men were transferred to San Pedro, which operated as a transit camp: prisoners spent about six weeks there until they were sent elsewhere in labour battalions (Batallones de Trabajadores) of 600 men.  During 1937, according to Javier Rodrigo’s exhaustive study of the camp system, some 10,000 men left San Pedro in labour battalions; 3,000 of them were despatched to work in the giant iron ore mine at Gallarta near Bilbao (Rodrigo, pp. 73-4).

Prisoners building a road near San Pedro de Cardeña

Living conditions at San Pedro were very similar to those in most of the camps – in Rodrigo’s words  “lice, cold, hunger, humiliation, culture-shock and punishment”  – as well as illness, the major cause of death, caused by the overcrowding and poor conditions.  Prisoners suffered from what Rodrigo calls Sanpedronitis, a “generalised ill-health: the loss of teeth, bleeding gums, as a result of the poor food and the lack of vitamins” (Rodrigo, pp. 161-2).  Although the camp was, he argues, poorly guarded, there were few escape attempts because the prisoners were too physically weak. The exceptions were six German brigaders who escaped in an attempt to avoid the attention of the Gestapo and/or transfer to Germany: they were recaptured, returned to San Pedro and punished brutally. Although San Pedro, unlike most camps, benefited from a health centre, the only medicine available was aspirin. Research carried out in the 1980s by Carl Geiser, an International Brigader imprisoned at San Pedro, uncovered the deaths of 66 Spanish and 10 foreign prisoners at the camp. (Geiser, Prisoners of the Good Fight, 1986, pp. 115-6.)

Geiser described his own first afternoon in San Pedro: 

Several thousand Basque and Asturian prisoners in civilian clothes were herded into the area between us and the lawn…A tall, lean priest appeared on the raised lawn, a Franciscan, wearing a long brown robe with a white sash. In a twenty-minute homily he explained why fascism was preferable to democracy and communism. Then a short, elderly grey-haired major – the comandante of the camp – and several officers led the singing of the fascist anthem Cara al Sol (‘Face to the Sun’). The ceremony concluded with an officer crying out ‘España!’ to which the Spanish prisoners responded ‘Una!’ a second ‘España!’ and the response ‘Grande!’ a third ‘España!’ and a resounding ‘Libre!’ Then three weaker shouts of ‘Franco!’ synchronised with the raised and lowered arms.

Geiser, Prisoners of the Good Fight, p. 104.

In early April 1938, when the first internacionales arrived, the camp held about 2,000 Spanish prisoners. By 10 June the total number of men in the camp had risen to 3,673 – three times the initial estimate of its capacity. The After this, however, San Pedro and many of the other northern camps became less important as centres for holding Spanish prisoners: the Republican defeats in Aragon in March-April 1938 and the insurgent offensive in Catalonia in December 1938 led to the opening of new camps in recently occupied territory.  

San Pedro and International prisoners

The decision to concentrate captured foreigners including members of the International Brigades at San Pedro was influenced by several factors. Under pressure from its Italian and German allies, the Franco regime decided to exchange these prisoners for Italian and German soldiers and airmen in Republican prisons. Small numbers of foreign prisoners had previously been exchanged, although International Brigaders had frequently been shot when captured (Geiser lists the details of 172 brigaders from the United States shot after capture between April 1937 and September 1938).  The decision to send captured foreigners  to San Pedro came days after the capture of large numbers of brigaders in Aragon, including Geiser, the political commissar of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, whose book, Prisoners of the Good Fight is the best account of the experience of the internacionales in San Pedro. 

By early May 1938 there were 625 internacionales in San Pedro. The largest groups were from Britain and Ireland (149), the United States (74), France (48), Germany and Austria (44), Poland (32); the remainder came from 33 other countries. Not all were International Brigaders: Geiser’s later research uncovered an official list of the 653 foreigners in San Pedro on 10 September 1938: 130 were men who had fought in Republican army units. Neither were they all military personnel: they included 41 civilians suspected of supporting the Republic, among them two French lorry-drivers who had visited Spain to buy oranges. (Geiser, Appendix 2). 

For the rebel authorities the foreign prisoners in San Pedro were excellent propaganda material, providing evidence of foreign fighters in the Republican army and therefore support for their attempts to justify their own dependence on German and Italian military assistance. Claiming that Spain had been invaded by an army of Communists also helped in their attempts to justify the military coup of July 1936, which, it was falsely claimed, had prevented a planned Communist takeover of Spain. Several propaganda films were issued, including “Prisioneros de Guerra” (1938).

The film presents a picture of prison life which contrasts starkly with the brutal and dehumanising conditions described in the memoirs of those detained, whether in San Pedro or elsewhere in Franco’s Spain . Many of the prisoners portrayed are clearly not internacionales, despite the introductory commentary, which claims that the brigaders had been attracted to Spain by “Soviet gold” (oro Sovietico”) and were “human debris” (despojos humanos) who were being rehabilitated by the generosity of Franco’s Spain.  

Foreign and Spanish prisoners were kept separately from each other, although the conditions they endured were very similar: poor food, lack of adequate clothing which was particularly acute in the cold Burgos winter, poor sanitary facilities, no beds (many slept on a concrete floor) and the constant attention of vermin. Since the internacionales were not allowed– – or required–  – to work and were only allowed out of the camp intermittently, their days were usually spent inside the overcrowded and insanitary halls where they slept. Apart from occasional trips to the river to wash they rarely enjoyed fresh air or exercise. The length of their detention in San Pedro – much longer than the six weeks endured by Spanish prisoners – made these conditions particularly unhealthy. Some of the internacionales arrived with serious wounds, but, although their numbers included three doctors, there were no medicines or surgical instruments to treat them. One foreigner died from dysentery, another from pleurisy and a third from lung-cancer. 

Food being served to International prisoners at the concentration camp in San Pedro de Cardeña

The internacionales were required to attend mass – and beaten if they failed to kneel at the appropriate moment. They were also forced to give the straight-armed fascist salute and to join in the Falangist chant: this was one of many contraventions of the 1929 Geneva Convention on the treatment of prisoners of war. Those who refused were beaten although, according to Geiser, “the sergeants ignored sloppy salutes as long as the fist was not closed” (Geiser, p. 129). Sporadic attempts were made to spread propaganda among them by means of leaflets in several languages. They were subject to arbitrary beatings, whether for minor infractions of the rules or simply to satisfy the moods of the guards. Geiser notes that guards reacted brutally to news of the Republican offensive across the Ebro in July 1938. 

A secret committee, known as the House Committee, was established with representatives from all the major national groups: the identity of its members was unknown to most prisoners. Since the internacionales were usually confined indoors except at meal-times, they developed ways of occupying their time including playing chess with chess-pieces moulded from dry bread. Some English-speaking prisoners wrote a newspaper called the Jaily News, which was posted on the wall but removed when guards arrived. A programme of classes was arranged under the title of the San Pedro Institute of Higher Learning: language classes were very popular but other subjects included Spanish history, mathematics, sociology, economics, philosophy and drama. Geiser describes a group of illiterate Portuguese prisoners being taught to read and write. He adds “no other activity we engaged in was as important as these classes in resisting the dehumanising and degrading atmosphere of the concentration camp” (Geiser p. 128). As Christmas approached a concert was organised, featuring singing and comedy sketches: this was attended by the camp guards and the comandante was so impressed that a repeat performance was held on New Year’s Eve at his request. 

International prisoners playing chess at the concentration camp in San Pedro de Cardeña

The prisoners were interviewed by Gestapo officers who paid particular attention to Germans and Austrians. The House Committee advised prisoners to claim to be ordinary soldiers, to name only Republican army officers who were dead, to deny any Communist affiliation, to express anti-fascist convictions, and to make no derogatory statements about the Republic or the International Brigades. Although prisoners were eventually allowed to send occasional messages to their families, they were initially strictly instructed to write – in their own languages –  “notifying you that I am well” and nothing else. Eventually the lucky ones were able to receive packages from their families as well as from solidarity groups in their own countries. The unlucky ones included German and East European prisoners whose governments were hostile to the Republic. 

A steady stream of other foreigners visited San Pedro, including William P. Carney, the right-wing correspondent of the New York Times; Jacques Doriot, the French fascist leader; and Lady Austen Chamberlain, sister-in-law of the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain. 

During 1938 several groups of internacionales benefited from prisoner exchanges, usually being transferred to prisons near San Sebastian before crossing into France. Geiser, for example, was among a group who left San Pedro at the end of February 1939, but who were held in Zapatari prison in San Sebastián until 22 April before final release. Their fate, however, depended on the willingness of the Franco regime to agree exchanges and that of their own governments to accept their return. The end of the war complicated the situation further because there were no longer Republican-held prisoners with whom they could be exchanged. When the camp finally closed in November 1939, it still held 406 internacionales, among whom the largest groups were the Portuguese (88), Argentines (56), Germans and Austrians (55), Poles (41) and Cubans (39). These unfortunate men were enlisted in Batallón de Trabajadores No. 75, a labour battalion who worked on the rebuilding of Belchite, the Aragonese town destroyed in fighting in 1937.  

The Investigations of Antonio Vallejo Nágera

Due to the length of their stay in San Pedro the internacionales were one of two groups selected for the studies into the “Marxist problem” directed by the military psychiatrist Antonio Vallejo Nágera (the other study was of female prisoners in the Caserón de la Goleta prison. What life was like in Franco’s women’s prison in Malaga). A total of 297 internacionales were studied, including Geiser who describes part of this process:

“Behind the table sat a Gestapo agent with a ledger. As each prisoner was identified, an assistant using the calipers called out the length, breadth and depth of his skull, the distance between his eyes, the length of his nose, and described skin colour, body type, wound scars, and any disability”   

Geiser, Prisoners of the Good Fight, p. 146.

The study also involved a visit by two German sociologists who presented the prisoners with a two- hundred-item questionnaire: this attempted to judge the morality of each subject through questions about their family, sexual, political, religious and military backgrounds. Questions about the family focussed on drunkenness, criminality, social position, religious affiliation, level of education, pauperism, illegitimacy, emigration and mental illness. 

Vallejo argued that support for revolution in Spain was best explained on the basis of biology and psychology and that support for the Republic was based on criminal rather than political factors. As Rodrigo has pointed out, Vallejo’s work was of great importance, serving to establish a pseudo-scientific justification for the use of forced labour as a means of seeking the “national redemption” of prisoners. He points to the irony that research which aimed to identify the cause of the “illness” supposedly afflicting Spain (Marxism) was based on studies of non-Spanish subjects (Rodrigo, p. 145).

After closure San Pedro was occupied by the Cistercian order. Although there is a small museum dedicated to religious art, most of the Monastery, including the areas occupied by the camp, is closed to the public. A small information panel outside is the only reference to its use as a concentration camp.  

Note: The figure of 188 concentration camps is not the total of detention centres used by the Franco dictatorship. The real figure would be much higher if we included labour camps, prisons, etc. 

PHOTOS: Biblioteca Digital Hispánica. Biblioteca Nacional. CC-BY

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