Wednesday, January 19

The forced labor with which the Franco regime built part of the train tracks in Spain


The train tracks in Spain have a Francoist past. What today is a conditioned path for walkers and cyclists between Alcañiz (Teruel) and Tortosa (Tarragona), one of the so-called Vía Verdes, was once one of the railway lines that were built by order of Franco. Nothing remembers in its more than 100 kilometers in length how and who raised it. The Val de Zafán railway that circulated there, as it was called, is part of the route that is no longer used for this purpose, but the history of the train is not only a story of accelerated disappearance since the 90s, also of how the Franco regime took advantage of the workforce of those defeated in the Civil War to extend it.

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Although this facet of the repressive system of the dictatorship is hardly known, thousands of inmates and prisoners worked on the railroad from 1938 to the end of the 1950s, building and rebuilding bridges, tunnels and tracks: trains still pass through several, some are They have become Greenways and many others are dismantled. It has taken more than four decades since Franco’s death for an initiative to recognize him at the public level through a web page on railway historical memory, presented a few months ago by Renfe and the Ministry of Development.

The project delves into the Franco regime’s repression of the railroads and approaches the forced labor used in these civil works, considered of great importance for the dictatorship. In addition to an exhaustive database, the website includes a map where you can see which roads. “They were works of three types; the priority at the beginning was the repairs of the lines destroyed by the war, there was also a double track expansion and the opening of new lines”, explains the historian and professor at the Public University of Navarra, Fernando Mendiola.

Main railway works made by workers

SOURCES: memoriahistoricaferroviaria.org and Miguel Muñoz, historian of the Spanish Railways Foundation

Main railway works done

by forced laborers (1938-1957)

SOURCES: memoriahistorricaFerrorviaria.orrg and Miguel Muñorzhistorriador of the

Fundacion of the Ferrorcarrunscathed ANDSpanishs


Mendiola and Juan Carlos García-Funes, a researcher also at the University of Navarra, have delved into the archives, files and memories of the prisoners to develop a database on the type of works, number of workers and dates on which they were carried out. cape. An article of Mendiola and the doctoral thesis of García Funes have served as a source to make the map. According to the figures they handle, in the last months of the Civil War, work on the railroad accounted for 7.1% of that carried out by prisoners of war; in 1939 and 1940, 9,000 workers were employed, which remained “close to 3,000” until 1945 and thereafter fell below 500.

A good part of the works were concentrated in the northeast and center of the peninsula and some were works directly at the stations. There were repairs in Seville or Extremadura, Tarragona, Barcelona or Girona and several sections of double track on the Madrid-Zaragoza line. In new lines highlights the completion of the one that linked Madrid and Burgos, now in disuse; or the already mentioned Val de Zafán railway, which became strategic for the Francoist Army: “It had a key role in the Battle of the Ebro because it was an easy way to supply weapons, food and soldiers a few kilometers from the front”, Mendiola says.

I work for Spanishize to the reds

Those who worked on the railroad were prisoners of war, especially during the first years, and prisoners sentenced to Franco’s prisons. Both the State benefited from them (Renfe from 1941 and before the two large Spanish railway companies that were integrated into the operator) as well as the intermediary construction companies to which the works were awarded. The work system was organized on the basis of a double modality: on the one hand, there were the battalions of workers, which were not concentration camps but did depend on the concentration system, and on the other, the criminal detachments.

In the latter were thousands of prisoners to whom the System of Redemption of Penalties for Work was applied, a way of responding to the overcrowding of prisons in the postwar period, but which went much further. Its ideologue was the Jesuit José Agustín Pérez del Pulgar, who based this project of ideological repression on Christian doctrine. Thus, by means of an order published in the BOE, the regime created in October 1938 the Redemption Board, which he himself directed, and which aimed at the “spiritual improvement of the families of the prisoners and of these themselves” through “the enormous work of stripping them the poison of the ideas of hatred and antipatria “.

The theory on which it was based is explained by research Archeology of the Francoist criminal detachments on the Madrid-Burgos railway: the case of Bustarviejo, in which several historians have participated: through redemption “the prisoner came out of his anti-Spanish red status […] and recovered the lost national spirit, “they detail.” In the institutions of confinement and repression, the created order was staged in a practical way [por el franquismo]: the existence of a Spain and an anti-Spain, the Spanishization and purification of the reds, and Christian redemption through work “.

Cold and hungry in the barracks

Isaac Arenal, who fought in the Republican Army, belonged to a battalion, specifically the 95th Working Soldiers Battalion. Deceased in 2013, he left written his memoirs in which he recounts his passage through different lines. In them he refers to “the daily work, very heavy” after walking “with our picks and shovels on his shoulders” to reach “the cut”, but also points to the “passive resistance” that several began to do to boycott the work. On the conditions, he assures that “the food was scarce and bad” based on potatoes and water; and “between hunger and cold the winter passed” in 1942, tells about the time he was in Arcos de Jalón (Soria).

“The day to day was marked by very harsh discipline, continuous humiliation, physical punishment and extras and very painful material conditions,” explains Mendiola. In these battalions there were about 500 or 600 prisoners guarded by escort soldiers and under the command of officers who depended on the Army and “normally” they were moving from one place to another, as in the case of the 95th Working Soldiers Battalion in which Isaac was. Arenal. In addition to Arcos de Jalón (Soria), the battalion passed between 1942 and 1946 through another eight points, including Alsasua (Navarra) or Algeciras (Cádiz) until its dissolution in Lora del Río (Seville).

In the case of the penal detachments, in which they were prisoners, to which the other form of forced labor was applied (the Penalty Redemption System), they were a kind of “barracks organized around a courtyard that used to have a a cross or a flag “and that” they were assigned by sections of track, “says historian Alicia Quintero, who has studied the detachments of the Madrid-Burgos railway line. The objective “was to have prisoners on site” whom they kept “in a very precarious situation.”

The memory of Bustarviejo

Unlike the battalions, the penal detachments were fixed and some have even documented the existence of huts in which the families of the prisoners were. This is the case of Bustarviejo, a town in Madrid in which the Franco regime used forced labor to finish the Madrid-Burgos line.

Currently without service, it was one of the most numerous, in which more prisoners used the Franco regime, but its origin dates back to the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera, explains Quintero: “It began as part of a plan to create direct railways, a Megalomaniac project as was a trend in the dictators of the time, but it was only built from Burgos to the Lozoya Valley, so the missing section was taken up by Franco. The dictatorship put many resources into it, it must be remembered that Burgos had been the headquarters of the National Defense Board “.

Along with other historians and archaeologists, Quintero began in 2006 to study the Bustarviejo penal detachment and there they found the huts around the detachment. “They were two-square-meter huts in which women and children lived and that reveal how the prison system was also suffered by families,” describes the historian.

Today the Bustarviejo penal detachment is one of the few historical sites that are preserved and has been recovered and enabled to become a monument to the Republicans who worked there, an exercise in memory that contributes to paying off the historical railway debt that still exists today. Spain continues to drag.

[Mapa elaborado por David Velasco]



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