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German women in the war against fascism in Spain 1936-1939 – never forget!

With thanks to Nancy Phillips of the US-based Friends and Families of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, here is the paper on German women in the Spanish Civil War that was given by INGRID SCHIBOROWSKI at the Paris colloquium on women and the Spanish Civil War on 24-26 October. 

 

Nancy writes: ‘Ingrid, along with her sister Anita Kochnowski, are the authors of the encyclopaedic “Frauen und der spanische Krieg 1936-1939”, sadly available only in German, but an invaluable research tool. The story of the German women is very different from that of the American women, who were able to return home from Spain. The German women, most of whom were already exiles when they went to Spain, could not return to Germany after the Spanish Republic was defeated and many met terrible ends at the hands of the French and German fascists.’

 

 

INTRODUCTION

 

The complete history of the women who helped defend the Spanish Republic between 1936 and 1939 has not yet been written. Fortunately, the number of publications about these women has increased in recent years. 

 

Even before the founding of the International Brigades in October 1936, foreign women fought against the Francoists in the militias. Some had lived as exiles in Spain, others had come to the Peoples’ Olympiad, which was to take place in Barcelona in July 1936. Some followed their men, who had volunteered to fight.

 

During the Spanish Civil War, women from numerous countries supported the Republic as milicianas, nurses, doctors, drivers and even in the most diverse military and civilian occupations such as in business and agriculture. 

 

Data on some of these women was probably never collected. After all, it was war, and some women became victims of the fighting. Often, only their names remain. But all these women played a role in the defense of Republican Spain. 

 

After the fascist coup on 17 July 1936, against the democratically elected Popular Front government of the Spanish Republic, the German and Italian fascists, who had actively intervened in on the fascist side from the beginning, continued to support the fascist side.  The so-called Non-Intervention Agreement proclaimed by the Western democracies was no less helpful to the fascist generals; its real aim was against the legitimate government.

 

The defence of the Spanish Republic against fascism became the concern of the progressive forces of the Spanish people and of millions of people all over the world. Thousands of volunteers, men and women, from over 50 countries went to Spain to actively defend the Republic. Regardless of their political and religious ties, they saw themselves first and foremost as anti-fascists.

 

After Franco’s victory, many of the women who had come to Spain to support the Republic fled to France and were interned by the French under inhumane conditions. Those who were able to return to their homelands often found themselves subjected to legal persecution, discrimination and harassment. 

 

Many of the women who fled Spain for France joined the French Resistance after France fell, fought, suffered and died in the common struggle against the fascists. After the war, we find that many of the women who survived became important figures in the peace movement and other progressive causes. 

 

The memory of these women, their struggles and their solidarity with anti-fascists from many countries must not be forgotten.

 

 

THE HISTORY

 

On 30 January 30 1933, the most reactionary forces in Germany transferred power to the fascists. The fascist mob, which had already carried out murder and terror, was now given state authority, and immediately turned to the persecution of dissenters and national minorities, especially Jewish citizens. In order to escape murder and torture in SA cellars, and to avoid being sent to concentration camps, many were forced to flee abroad. Spain became one of these exile countries. Thus, the first German anti-fascists were already in Spain at the time of the fascist generals’ coup. 

 

According to our research, 165 German women joined the Spanish people in the fight against the Franco fascists. Forty-six of these women were already in Spain at the time of the fascist coup because they had gone into exile there. 

 

Another 48 German women came to Spain from the countries into which they had gone into exile: Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Argentina, the Soviet Union, the Netherlands, Switzerland, France, England, Yugoslavia and Palestine.

 

Three women came directly from Germany to Spain. 

 

As to the remaining 71 German women, we do not know from which countries they came to Spain.

 

In Germany, women had seen what fascism meant and they knew that Germany was arming itself for a new war. It was their hope that fascism could be defeated in Spain. We now know that this did not happen because the western democracies did not come to the aid of the Spanish Republic, but, in fact, aided the Francoists, albeit indirectly. In fact, events in Spain became a training ground for the Second World War.

 

According to our research, 54 German women came to Spain with their husbands. Of these, 21 women were already in Spain when the fascist coup took place. 

 

Golda Weid, a member of the Communist Party of Germany, emigrated with her partner Max Friedemann first to Denmark in 1934 and later to Spain. Golda was involved in the preparations for the People’s Olympiad in Barcelona, which was to take place in July 1936. In July 1936 she took part together with other anti-fascists in the fights in Barcelona as a member of the Thälmann group, of whom Max Friedemann was elected commander. 

On 13 August 1936 she married Max Friedemann in the Tardienta battle zone. In September she went to the front of Grañén in the Aragón. She worked as a liaison to the Spanish city administration, as an assistant nurse and as an interpreter for a British medical unit. On 9 February 1939, Golda and Max Friedemann fled Spain. They were arrested in France and interned in several camps. They managed to escape from the Gurs camp. 

 

Both Golda and Max fought in the French Resistance. They lived in Paris in 1945 and returned to Germany in 1946. From 1961 to 1965, Golda and her husband lived in China, where he was a trade counsellor for the GDR. She worked as an interpreter and volunteered at the embassy. She was politically active into her old age. Golda Friedemann died on 15 May 1997 in Berlin.

 

 

Twenty-seven German women went to Spain together with their husbands from a country into which they had gone into exile.

 

Among them were the married couple Auguste and August Groel, who had left Germany in 1924 because August had found work in Argentina; they went from Argentina to Spain in 1937. Auguste worked as a manager and nurse in the hospital ‘Gota de Leche’ in Albacete.

 

There are more than four German couples who came to Spain, but we do not know from which countries. 

 

Therese Maria Glaser came to Spain in 1936 with her husband, the International Brigader Dr Willy Glaser, and her daughter Erika. She worked as a nurse in the hospitals of the International Brigades. Her daughter Erika was thought to be the youngest nurse in the International Brigades, as she was helping her father at the age of 14. After the Spanish Civl War, Therese Maria was interned with her daughter in France. Both were able to flee the camp. Therese Maria contacted Herta and Noel Field and entrusted them with her daughter, whom they placed in Switzerland. Therese Maria was later able to leave for England with her husband.

 

Two married couples came directly from Germany. 

 

One is Magdalene Jans. She and her husband Peter owned a grocery store. The business went well and they could even afford a car. Both were members of the German Communist Party. While her husband Peter fled to the Netherlands when Hitler came to power, she stayed with the children Hans and Willy in Krefeld. She had to endure several house searches. Together with her two sons she followed her husband in September 1937; he had gone to Spain as a volunteer after the fascist coup in 1936. 

 

Magdalena lived and worked in Barcelona in a home for emigrants. Like her husband, both sons belonged to the International Brigades.

When the International Brigades left Spain in October 1938, she and the Austrian Guste Juttmann brought four severely wounded persons across the French border to a hospital near Marseille. Together with her chauffeur and car, she returned to Spain with the aim of helping even further. Later she had to leave Spain for good. 

 

In France, Magdalene and Peter joined the Resistance. Her son Willy was interned in the Argelès-sur-Mer camp; he was deported from there to Germany, sent to Dachau concentration camp, and was murdered there in October 1943. Her son Hans fled from the French internment camp in Gurs and joined the Resistance like his parents. 

 

Four women had married Spaniards before 1933 and were living in Spain at the time of the fascist coup.

 

One of them was Taege Hilde (Orobon), a fashion designer and member of FAUD. In 1927 she married Valeriano ‘Pedro’ Orobon Fernández, a leading theorist of the CNT, who was killed by an air bomb in 1937. The couple had lived in Madrid since 1931. Hilde Orobon worked in July 1936 in the censorship department of the Republican Ministry of War in Madrid and also worked as an interpreter between the Defence Council and the German volunteers of the Dimitrov International Brigade. 

 

These women weren't appendages to their husbands. They were self-confident, combative and cosmopolitan. Many of them had met and gotten to know and love their husbands in the political struggle and had stood by them as equals. Like their husbands, they were active antifascists

 

Most of the women who came to Spain did not belong to any political party. Hatred of fascism and war, love for humanity and life were the motives that brought them to join the fight against the Franco fascists.

 

The following are the political affiliations of the German women that we could determine from the biographies:

 

Communist Party of Germany 35

Communist Youth Association of Germany 2

Social Democratic Party 4  

Partido Obrero de Unificacion Marxista (POUM) 8  

German Anarcho-Syndicalists (DAS) 5 

Free Workers Union of Germany (FAUD) 2 

Socialist Workers Party (SAP) 2 

Socialist Student Union 1 

Red Help (Socorro Rojo) 4 

Member of an Anarchist Party 1

Unió Socialista de Catalunya (USC) 1

 

The following are the occupations in which the women worked before going to Spain: 

 

Nurse; print shop worker; doctor; textile worker; typist; cook; medical assistant; physiotherapist and masseuse; X-ray assistant; infant nurse; bank and administrative employee; grocery store owner; sales assistant; furrier; librarian and translator; bookseller; scholar; social worker; housekeeper; nanny; cutter; actress; secretary; dental assistant; business manager; dentist; medical student; kindergarten teacher; journalist; writer; photographer; fashion draughtswoman; sewing assistant; paramedic; clerk; interpreter; teacher.

 

In Republican Spain, women worked as doctors, physiotherapists, radiologists, nurses, X-ray technicians, nursing assistants, paramedics in the hospitals of the International Brigades or in militia columns. They were staff members in children's homes of the International Brigades, interpreters and translators, photographers and journalists, cooks, kindergarten teachers, and milicianas in the Grupo Internacional, Columna Durutti, the Thälmann Group and the POUM militias. 

 

They were also newsreaders and technical staff at radio stations (Deutscher Freiheitssender 29,8, UGT in Madrid, Radio Barcelona CNT and Radio Madrid).

 

They were also found in the PSUC's Foreign Service, in the PSUC's International Department, in the IB's Cultural Commission, in the Press Department, in the PSUC's Propaganda Commissariat, in the IB's Rear-Affairs Service and in the administration of its medical service.

 

However, the majority of women worked in the medical field (57).

 

These are just a few examples:

 

Margarita Zimbal (Zimmermann, Margarete) was a member of the Social Democratic Workers Party, emigrated to Spain and lived in Barcelona. She was a member of a POUM militia unit became an infantryman during the July 1936 coup. In August 1936 she was a participant in the Mallorca operation.

 

On 23 October 1936 it was reported in La Vanguardia that Margarita Zimbal was wounded at the front of Huesca on 22 October 1936.  She died of her wounds on 23 October 1936.

 

Lotte Möller-Spangenberg belonged to the Communist Party of Germany. From 1933 she did illegal work, emigrated in May 1933 to England and Denmark. In May 1937 she went to Spain. Lotte Möller worked as a machinist, editor and narrator for the German Freedom Channel 29.8 and with Käthe Dahlem in Franz Dahlem's office. At the end of 1939 she made her way to Sweden and Denmark. Here she was arrested in Copenhagen in May 1941, held in Vestre prison until June 1943, and interned for another three months in the Horserød camp. At the beginning of October 1943 she was sent to the Stutthof concentration camp, and at the beginning of May 1945 she was liberated by British troops. The Red Cross allowed her to return to Denmark. 

 

Marta Drumm, a member of the Social Democratic Party of Germany, went to Albacete with her husband Hermann in February 1937 as a paramedic. Her husband fought as a lieutenant in the 3rd Company of the Thälmann Battalion and was killed on 1 September 1937. Marta was in her fifth month of pregnancy at this time. Nevertheless, she continued to work as a surgical nurse until 14 days before the birth of her child, who was named Hermann after his father. 

 

In her commitment, not only for herself, but also for many others, Marta Strasser said as follows: ‘We have experienced happiness and success in our struggle, we have made mistakes and suffered many defeats, but we have always remained true to our ideals, even if we did not have an easy life as a result of it… We have given solidarity as best we could and have gotten this back a thousand times over.’

 

After the Spanish Civil War, German women were unable to return to their homeland. Many of them joined the resistance movement in the occupied countries to which they had gone as exiles. Of the 165, we found that 83 women went into exile from Spain to France, Algeria, Belgium, England, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Switzerland, Mexico, New Zealand, Colombia and the US. Of these, 46 went to France alone. For 82 women, it is no longer possible to determine where their journey led them from Spain.

 

After the occupation of France by the German Wehrmacht, many women who had crossed into France from Spain were interned in camps. Sixteen of these women were handed over to the German fascists, who brought them to Germany and sentenced them there or put them in concentration camps. This also happened in other countries occupied by the German Wehrmacht. 

 

One of the German women who was extradited from France to Germany was Betty Rosenfeld. Together with her sisters Charlotte and Ilse she emigrated to Palestine in 1935 and worked there in a kibbutz. In 1937 she went from there to Spain and worked as a nurse in the hospitals of the International Brigades in Murcia and Mataró. In Mataró, in March 1938, she married Sally Wittelson, a volunteer of the International Brigade whom she had met in Spain. For Betty and her husband, returning home was out of the question. In 1938 she left for France, where she lived with a group of former International Brigaders and Republican refugee families.

 

Betty and her husband Sally were interned on 10 June 1939. On 7 August 1942, she was extradited to Germany by the Vichy regime. In the Drancy concentration camp she met her husband again. On 7 September 1942, a train left Drancy with 998 Jewish women and men on board, among them Betty and Sally, and arrived two days later in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Here Betty was murdered. There is no evidence that husband Sally survived after his arrival in Auschwitz.

 

On the basis of our recorded biographies, we can report that about 27 German women fought in the resistance against the German occupiers. 

 

Lisa Ost and Hedwig Rahmel-Robens belonged to the French Resistance group Bir Hakeim, which operated in the Cevennes. Both were arrested by the French militia in May 1944 and extradited to the Gestapo. She was subjected to severe torture and remained steadfast. On 26 June 1944, she was murdered in Alès/Département Lòzere. Her body was thrown into a mine shaft near Puit de Célas together with the bodies of 80 other victims. The local population arranged the dignified burial of the victims in the cemetery of Alès. The gravestones of Hedwig Rahmel-Robens and Lisa Ost were marked: ‘German partisans, died for freedom, murdered by the Gestapo’.

 

Nor must we forget the German women outside Spain who supported the Spanish Republic. We have only been able to identify a few of them, but we know that throughout the world, and also in fascist Germany, millions of people stood in solidarity with Spain.

 

We know of 23 German women who, outside Spain, acted in solidarity with the Spanish Republic and with the international fighters interned in France after the Spanish war.

 

Let me mention a few of them:

 

Ruth Oesterreich emigrated from Germany to CSR in 1933 and joined the socialist group ‘New Beginnings’ there. In 1938 she went to France and from there to Brussels. She belonged to the scouting organisation ‘Marco Polo’, which informed the Spanish Republic about planned arms deliveries or shipments of German soldiers to Spain. She also collected important news, especially military news, from Germany for the French Resistance. Together with her daughter, also named Ruth, she was arrested by the Gestapo in Brussels on 21 April 1941 and taken to Aachen and Karlsruhe. While the daughter was released, Ruth Oesterreich was sent to Berlin and was sentenced to death for high treason and executed on 25 June 1943 in Berlin-Plötzensee.

 

and

 

Mrs Derksen, whose first name is not known, was from Duisburg, and brought volunteers who were on their way to Spain across the border near Kaltenkirchen. Her husband Wilhelm, who had been arrested by the Gestapo in January 1937, had previously carried out this task.

 

Of course, the numbers of men who rushed to the Republic's aid was significantly greater than that of women. But, as far as their willingness to fight and sacrifice was concerned, they were the equals of the men. Unfortunately, their actions have often been discounted because they were considered to be appendages to their husbands. This is unfair and requires correction. Their independence demands our appreciation today.

 

 

Posted on 23 November 2018.