When I studied abroad in Spain this past summer, I took two classes in Spanish history. At first, I was very worried that I would not be able to keep up with classes held completely in Spanish, but I ended up truly enjoying them. In one of these classes, I was assigned a few reports about topics of my choosing. Although all of the topics were new and interesting to me, my favorite by far was a paper I wrote about “La Nueve.” I was especially proud of this paper because in addition to writing it in Spanish, I challenged myself by doing all of my research in Spanish as well.
A central focus of our class was the Spanish Civil War. Up until the year 1936, Spain was a constitutional monarchy. However, with the rebellion of a far-right group called “El Falange,” the king was dethroned and Francisco Franco rose to power as a dictator. The leftist group that fought against Franco’s forces were known as “Los Republicanos,” or the republicans. After the victory of the Falange, Franco initiated the expulsion (and sometimes execution) of known republicans. So at the end of the war in 1939, thousands of these soldiers and sympathizers (approximately 465,000) left the country. A popular destination was France. Even after taking dangerous routes, often on foot, to reach France, the republicans were not well received. France’s economy was still recovering from the great depression, and the newcomers were seen as moochers and competition by the native French. Once again, they became the underdogs of society.
To deal with the influx of people, the French government set up concentration camp-like centers for the Spanish, and tried to redistribute them to neighboring countries when possible. However, this process was slow and impractical. Ironically, the start of the Second World War provided France with an alternative solution to the great volume of Spaniards that had arrived in their country. With so many people desperate for work, they had an enormous source of cheap labor. What was more, many of the republicans were recent veterans, and were certainly willing to take up arms against fascism.
Those who chose to fight were sent to the French Foreign Legion. One particular division in which many Spaniards ended up was called the ninth company, under Mariscal Philippe Leclerc. Often referred to as simply “The Ninth,” these men were assigned quite a task—liberate Paris from the Nazis. Why them? The Spanish company had quickly gained a reputation for being seasoned, tough, and especially successful in combat in urban areas. Of course, they were not the only forces assigned to enter Paris—but they were chosen to spearhead the effort. The night of August 24, 1944, the 120 troops of The Ninth Company arrived on the outskirts of Paris. They drove armed vehicles, each one painted with a name. Many of these names were those of battles in the Spanish Civil War, such as “Ebro” and “Brúñete.” Another was called “Durruti,” in honor of the anarchist leader José Buenaventura Durruti who was struck down by Franco’s forces. There was even a tank bearing the name “Don Quixote,” simply an affectionate reference to Spanish culture. In these vehicles, The Ninth stormed Paris and arrived at the Hotel de Ville, a large building in the center of the city that was not controlled by Nazis. There, they received a warm welcome from Parisians, and quickly set up a formidable canon to defend their new ground (the canon was nicknamed “Abuelo”). As the rest of the French forces began to enter Paris, the Nazis made the decision to retreat. Over the next few days, there were various battles in and around the city as the Nazis slowly made their way out. But after the dust settled, Paris was back in the hands of the French. The Ninth visited numerous other Nazi-controlled cities in northern France, liberating all that they could. Unfortunately, many of their troops perished during these efforts—but they most certainly did not die in vain.
What I love so much about the story of The Ninth is its poetry. After losing all they had—including their home—to a fascist leader, these Spaniards remained loyal to democracy. They may have lost to Franco, but the soldiers of the Ninth Company continued to fight against fascism across Europe. Against all odds, they went from outcasts to heroes in their new country—and not once did they forget what they were fighting for.