What in the photograph looks like a beautiful landscape today, used to be a dangerous border crossing zone between France and Spain in the first half of the 20th century, which many people crossed in flight.
Flight refers to escape by way of physical movement. However, people are not always able to flee by relying only on themselves. In some cases, people are locked up, as in the case of prison inmates, and perhaps hope for the aid of guards. Others stand in front of seemingly insurmountable seas, mountains or rivers and depend on the help of people who know the landscape and its secret pathways. One such example is Walter Benjamin, who fled across the Pyrenees, this beautiful landscape depicted above, in September 1940 with the help of Lisa Fittko. Others are confronted with “closed” borders and need the support of border guards. People who flee with the help of others take risks. They have to trust others out of necessity, and thus put their destiny in their hands.
Escape assistance can take various forms. Those who provide aid can furnish provisions and hide refugees, they can also issue new passports or lead refugees across a mountain range – as Lisa Fittko did. She not only helped Walter Benjamin but also numerous other refugees to cross the Pyrenees. Escape aid is any action that is carried out to help those escaping risk of death by persecution, torture or death. Escape assistance should not be considered as lugging (Schlepperei), which is motivated by enrichment, in principle. It can be an act of resistance against a political regime, but can also be carried out for humanitarian or altruistic reasons without material motivation (even today, human trafficking without intent to enrich goes largely unpunished).
However, escape assistance is not always free of charge. Despite donated clothes, food, forged papers or guides, one side has to be paid. Even if helpers do not earn money, they often have to ask the refugees for money. In some cases, financial resources are raised by foreign actors involved with refugee organizations or secret services – like those in Great Britain during the Second World War, who specifically supported certain refugee aid networks, such as Marie-Claire or Marie-Odile for example.
During the Second World War, refugee aid networks were established throughout Europe, especially in those parts of Europe which were occupied by the Third Reich/Nazi-regime. Refugee helpers such as the Red-Cross nurses Mary Lindell or Gabrielle Barré de Saint-Venant cooperated, used their social contacts and thus became what can be termed “escape aid managers.” This cooperation between nurses, hotel owners and often also larger organizations like the Church or the secret service opened up completely new possibilities. Escape could be planned over long distances and many stations. However, escape aid was not always a long-planned project of opposition members. Guards like the Swiss border guard Paul Grüninger or soldiers such as Anton Schmid in Vilnius, for example, or Willi Schulz in the Minsk Ghetto, helped people to escape spontaneously. These people were overwhelmed, disgusted and disillusioned by the cruel machinery of the Nazi state – unfortunately, they constituted only a minority.
The effort undertaken for a successful escape was and is considerable, the risk is high for both refugees and their helpers. Helpers can be captured by (border-)patrols, but may also die because of the severity of natural conditions. If they are caught, they risk punishment. Certainly, the risk and possible punishment differ depending on the political conditions and the country. While in France or Switzerland, the “dirty profession,” as the Swiss Federal Council called it in the 1940s, was punishable by imprisonment, the punishments in the Third Reich were much more severe. Draconian punishments awaited those who were caught by the Gestapo: “War treason” was punished by imprisonment in concentration camps in the “best” cases, but mostly it was punished by death by shooting or gas chamber. Anton Schmid was one of the helpers who lost his life in helping refugees. After having been caught, he was killed by the Nazis.
Dieckmann, Christoph, Deutsche Besatzungspolitik in Litauen 1941–1944, 2 Vol., Göttingen 2011.
List, Corinna von, Die Fluchthilfenetzwerke Marie-Claire und Marie-Odile. Zwei Gründerinnen, eine überlebte Geschichte, in: Francia. Forschungen zur Westeuropäischen Geschichte 43 (2016), 227–247.
Horn, Eva/Kaufmann, Stefan/Bröckling, Ulrich (ed.), Grenzverletzer. Von Schmugglern, Spionen und anderen subversiven Gestalten, Berlin 2002.
This blog post is part of the series “Following the Fugitive.” It is the result of the Master’s seminar “Der Chemin Walter Benjamin – oder: Auf dem Weg zu einer digitalen Fluchtgeschichte” (The Chemin Walter Benjamin, or: Towards a Digital History of Escape) at the Justus Liebig University Gießen, organized by Anne Friedrichs (Mainz) and Bettina Severin-Barboutie (Gießen) in Summer 2019. It was funded by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) and the North Rhine-Westphalian Academy of Sciences, Humanities and the Arts. We thank Fatin Abbas for linguistic support.