The Asturian journalist presents the book "The two consuls", which tells the story of the Spanish diplomat Eduardo Propper de Callejón and the Portuguese Arístides de Sousa Mendes, who helped thousands of Jews to escape in the face of the Nazi horror

Diego Carcedo: "The two consuls knew they were risking a lot, but they were desperate to act in the face of the Nazi occupation"


Atalayar talks with Diego Carcedo, an Asturian journalist with a long career and author of the book " The two consuls", published by Espasa. A great and affable man, historian by vocation and journalist by "chance", as he acknowledges that, according to him, he has been very "lucky" in his journalistic career. It must be said that blessed "chance" has allowed us to enjoy the articles and journalistic stories of this thoroughbred journalist over so many years and, as they say, "luck" is for those who seek it and Diego Carcedo has deserved it for his intense search for the truth and for stories and facts to tell over so many years of his career. Many years as a reporter for the newspaper La Nueva España, in his native Asturias, for the Pyresa agency, for Televisión Española (TVE) and as a correspondent in Lisbon and New York. He was also director of TVE's news services and director of Radio Nacional de España and is currently president of the Association of European Journalists, a columnist for the Vocento group's newspapers and a contributor to various media, including Atalayar, which is a great honour for us. 

Now it is time to talk about " The Two Consuls ", your latest historical novel which recounts the real-life experience of the Spaniard Eduardo Propper de Callejón and the Portuguese Arístides de Sousa Mendes, both consuls in Bordeaux during the Nazi occupation of France in the early stages of the Second World War, in the spring of 1940. Both of them, following their own humanitarian and personal dictates, stood up to all the authorities and their respective governments, both the Spanish government of Francisco Franco and that of Portugal's Oliveira de Salazar, both sympathetic to the German Nazi regime, to facilitate the escape of thousands of Jews from French territory to Spain and Portugal. 


What else can you tell us about the book to encourage us to read it?

It is a historical novel that has a rigorously historical part, which is what happened in France after the German invasion. With the Nazi entry into Paris, the French government established itself in Bordeaux, but it didn't last long, it was the second time it had done so after the First World War. In the meantime, half a million people, Jews fleeing from France, but also from countries previously occupied by the Nazis, such as Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg, Poland, gathered in Bordeaux with no accommodation, no food, everything closed, wishing to escape somewhere. They had only two exits, one by sea to England, but they were turned back even by sinking the ships that arrived, and the Iberian peninsula: Portugal and Spain. Both Portugal and Spain were ruled by two Nazi-friendly, very anti-Jewish dictatorships, especially the Spanish one, which forbade the issuing of visas to facilitate the entry of these refugees into their countries. 

That is where these two consuls appeared. 

They were the two remaining consuls who kept the consulate open. The other consuls fled. The Portuguese Arístides de Sousa Mendes, who had been consul in Bordeaux for a year and a bit, and the Spaniard Eduardo Propper de Callejón, who was not a consul as such, was the secretary of the Spanish Embassy in Paris and was sent by the ambassador on the day the Germans entered Paris to accompany the French government to Bordeaux, as Spain's ambassador to the French government. But he found in Bordeaux that there was nowhere to stay and no one to deal with. He went to the Consulate, saw that it was empty and abandoned, and had it cleaned and set up as an office there. Soon there was a queue of people queuing outside the Consulate for visas to go to Spain.

He immediately got in touch with the Portuguese who was already giving them out. This happened in June 1940. It all happened in little more than a week. The two had very similar characteristics, they were monarchists, very religious, the Portuguese was at odds with the dictator Salazar, although he belonged to an aristocratic family and had been a student of Salazar's in Coimbra, he had had problems with him because he was a monarchist and the dictator did not want the monarchy. And the Spaniard had been a diplomat during the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera, but when the Republic was established he did not want to represent it abroad, asked to leave and lived on his own in Madrid until Franco established the government in Burgos and went there to begin to act as a diplomat for the Spanish regime that was being established.

The story tells the internal debate about following official guidelines or following your own feeling of seeing how people are suffering and need to be helped. 

This is a question for both of them. First, the Portuguese received a sharp order from the Portuguese Ministry of Foreign Affairs prohibiting the issuing of visas, especially to Jews. The Spaniard did not receive this order and when he saw the queues of visa applicants, he spoke to the ambassador in Paris to see what he could do and he told him it was better not to give them; but Propper de Callejón insisted, seeing the drama that was going on there and that most of them were Sephardim who spoke old Spanish, and the ambassador gave him a free hand to do what he thought best in conscience, as he saw fit. He automatically started issuing visas, he connected with the Portuguese immediately and they shared these humanitarian feelings and started issuing visas together. Those going to Portugal had to pass through Spain and the Spaniard began to issue transit visas to reach Portuguese territory and, in turn, those who wanted to stay in Spain remained in Spanish territory. Thus, between them, they issued some 37,000 visas in little more than a week, according to our calculations based on ministerial and consular documents. Both were exhausted from issuing visas. 

Exhausted and risking their status and their careers.

They both knew they were risking a lot, but they had to act in an atmosphere of desperation. With thousands of people fearful of Nazi activity. The Gestapo moved in, started arresting people, sending them to concentration camps in the north, shooting people, imprisoning them, staging military parades to frighten the refugees, who were in hiding. The French did not behave particularly well, they did not take the risk of keeping them at home. Also, the French police mostly sided with the Germans as collaborators. 

diego-carcedo-los-dos-consules A difficult situation.

A dramatic situation. I tried to retrieve information. I met people who were there. There were also some 50,000 Spanish refugees in Bordeaux at that time, exiles from the Civil War, who were very badly treated, who immediately fell into the hands of the Nazis who turned them into real slaves. They were put to work as slaves in the harbour works that were being prepared for the German submarines. Many had a very hard time, some managed to escape to other countries, others suffered there. Many died in the attempt to escape. They remained so until the armistice and the creation of the Free French Government under Marshal Petain. But the part of Bordeaux and Atlantic France was still occupied by the Germans and they did everything there. 

The main thread to introduce and tell the story is a Spanish journalist who is sent by his newspaper to Bordeaux to tell stories about what was going on there, a very pro-German media. 

A Spanish media of the time, pro-Franco, where most of the employees were Falangists, as were the top officials. This young journalist was the last one on the editorial staff, but the only one who spoke French there. He was in the newsroom that night when the teletypes alerted that the Germans had entered Paris. He was practically alone and first thing in the morning he ran to tell the editor in his office, who began to cheer and cheer for the Germans, very happy, along with others in the newsroom, about what was happening. And this journalist, who was rather the opposite, who didn't like what was going on, was waiting to see what to do, and in the end he was asked if he spoke French, to which he said yes, and he was sent to Bordeaux, where he stayed for a couple of weeks. 

The job was difficult, especially that journalist didn't have the freedom to tell what was really going on there.

This journalist first of all had no experience. He spoke French because his grandmother was French and his family had not exactly been Francoist. He arrived there not really knowing what to do, with a bewilderment, as we all have in our early stages. He had problems because there was no accommodation, even though he had money. The journalist had money, but there was no place to stay. But he was lucky enough to find a very shabby hotel with a Spanish employee, who was a Spanish refugee who had been placed there as a concierge. He established a close relationship and he would point things out to him and he found out that this man knew the Portuguese consul and so they made contact. 

The book tries to be rigorous with the historical data, starting with who these two people were and their backgrounds and what happened. But the other part is novelised, everything that was happening in that chaotic atmosphere of pain, with dramas and lost children, people arrested by the Gestapo or by the French police. These are the stories that the journalist told in his articles. He told a little about politics, but superficially. In Madrid, his work was not much liked because they expected reports with the joy that the Germans had occupied France and a large part of Europe. He told other social and tourist-type chronicles that did not go down well in his newspaper.

In this scenario, the two consuls who helped the Jews were relegated by their governments. The Portuguese was sent back to his country and the Spaniard was posted to Morocco. Spain's foreign policy was in the hands of Serrano Súñer, Francisco Franco's brother-in-law, a thoroughly pro-Nazi minister who was harshly criticised for defending Jewry. Propper de Callejón was in Morocco until the situation changed and he was reinstated as ambassador, and he was also the grandfather of a well-known actress, Helena Bonham Carter. She has spoken of her grandfather many times. Moreover, Propper de Callejón was married to a Rothschild, a wealthy aristocratic family. The Portuguese was persecuted, his salary was reduced to the minimum and he experienced rejection by the Portuguese, even by former friends who feared repression by the Portuguese police.

Despite the problems suffered by the two consuls, fate would have it that these two people were recognised for their work in helping Jews persecuted by the Nazi regime. 

Both were recognised thanks to some of those they had saved. Several were scattered around the world, but they remembered what had happened. They asked to be recognised at the Yad Vashem memorial in Jerusalem. They were made "Righteous Among the Nations". First the Portuguese and then the Spaniard were recognised with a tree and a plaque in their honour. Along with the Spaniard also Sanz Briz, who helped Jews in Hungary. 


You mentioned Angel Sanz Briz, another Spaniard to whom you dedicated a book earlier, another guardian angel for the Jews. 

The first Spaniard "Righteous Among the Nations" was Ángel Sanz Briz. He saved 5,000 Jews, he was ambassador to Hungary. He hid from the regime what he had done. I spoke to his family and children and wrote the book "A Spaniard in the Holocaust" about which the film "The Angel of Budapest" was made. The book was very successful, many editions were made. Then I wrote a second book about Spanish people who had saved Jews and non-Jews from the Holocaust. They were diplomats from different countries who had saved several people and who had also been recognised, entitled " Between beasts and heroes", for which I was awarded the National Essay Prize. 

" The Two Consuls" is my third book on this subject and was commissioned by Espasa, part of Planeta. It was commissioned a year ago. I received a lot of documentation on these characters about whom I wrote. 

Now you are returning to the case of the two consuls.

To document myself I went to Portugal, I visited the Foreign Ministry, I asked for documentation. I went to the village of Arístides de Sousa, to Cabanas de Viriato, I spoke to the people. I went to his house, a palace he had restored. I also went to Bordeaux, I found the street where the Portuguese Consulate was. I tried to look in French newspapers from those days. I spoke to some veteran journalists, who told me all about what was going on there at that time and the horror during the Nazi persecution of the Jews. The Portuguese consul was consul general for the whole of this French region and had three honorary consuls over whom he had command, one in Bayonne who refused to give visas on orders from Lisbon. Many anecdotes that are true. 

The documentation work with Propper de Callejón was more difficult because there was much less information. A much more normal life. Nothing remained of the time he spent in Bordeaux, only the documents from the Spanish Consulate. One of the couples who went there to apply for visas to leave France was Salvador Dalí and his wife. It was difficult to find data. I was able to find a lot of information about visas given to people, for example, political figures from Belgium, Holland or Luxembourg. They were fleeing and they all ended up in Bordeaux. 

The Spanish consul couldn't do much more because he was alone. The Portuguese consul had help from two of his sons and his wife. He was not helped by the chancellor of the Consulate, and they had many clashes because the chancellor, who was the one who signed the visas, said that the government order not to issue visas to Jews had to be respected. They also had a lot of problems living in Bordeaux, where food was rationed. 

I even tried to talk to Helena Bonham Carter and I was willing to go to London, but I didn't manage in the end to get more information about her grandfather Edward Propper de Callejon.


You have a lot of experience as a correspondent and special envoy. 

Precisely, I have a lot of experience of that. I have been to many countries on a variety of issues, sometimes for conflicts and disasters and sometimes for other more peaceful matters. With many anecdotes, such as the one in which several Spanish waiters, during a convention in Geneva where the United States and North Vietnam were negotiating peace, started shouting in the cafeteria because Franco's Admiral Carrero Blanco had been assassinated in Spain.

The book deals with the Nazi occupation during World War II. What is the job of a journalist in situations like that?

A journalist's job is to find out what is going on, which is very difficult. You never find out a quarter of the half of it. In wars, everything is closed down and they try to deceive you to deceive the enemy, to try to sell their arguments to get more money, more support, more weapons. They try to deceive you in every way and also not to tell you the truth about what is going on. I was in seven wars and the only one where there were no problems like that was Vietnam. The Americans were fighting against the communists in the North and they were defending democracy, although it didn't exist in the South either, and they opened the doors to the press, we did whatever we wanted. We were accredited and had access to everything. You could board helicopters and planes on attack missions. I did it two or three times and I have many anecdotes like a trip to Saigon with a hundred American soldiers in the aircraft. 

You have to resort to a lot of tricks in the face of so much hardship. You have to cheat and trick to get information.

The first working trip I made was to Greece, when the colonels' coup d'état ended the monarchy of King Constantine. I was very young on that trip, I was sent there in a hurry, without knowing Greek, and I was lucky. It is a coincidence that I am a journalist and I have been very lucky to make a living from journalism. There in Greece I stayed in a hotel with other journalists. At the Spanish Francoist Embassy in Greece, they didn't say anything and the French had more access, so I had to resort to trickery to get information.


The book is set during the Second World War and, who would have thought, we now have another war in the heart of Europe. What do you think of the unjustified Russian invasion of Ukraine?

It's very similar to what the Nazis did to other countries. I think it is barbaric, an invasion against a sovereign country, against a peaceful country, which does not create any problem or challenge for you, even if Putin invents it. I think it is an atrocity. Fortunately, NATO has reacted actively. There was a precedent with the invasion of the Crimean peninsula, which was part of Ukraine. There the Russians had a historical argument because the territory had been ceded to the Ukrainian Soviet Republic under Khrushchev. Ukraine became independent when the former Soviet Republics became independent, it is a very large country and the main cereal producer. It had a pro-Russian president and there were demonstrations in Kiev leading to the president's departure. 

I found it very good that NATO acted. Putin wants to occupy the annexed pro-Russian area, control the south, Ukraine's Black Sea approaches and entrench the fact that Ukraine did not join NATO. Ukraine's current president, Zelensky, who was a comedian, tried to accelerate and mismanaged NATO and EU membership, and this must have set Vladimir Putin off. NATO was logically not going to join directly, although it did join with the Americans in a deeper way than expected. Moreover, the Ukrainians reacted bravely and their armed forces grew in strength with Western arms, intelligence and military strategist support. 


Can this military conflict become more global?

I don't think so. They have been invading Ukraine for eight months. But it can be said that the Third World War is already developing on another level; in Spain we don't hear bombings, it doesn't affect us, but we are suffering from the war. The inflation throughout Europe and the United States is a consequence of this small war, not comparable to world wars. It has no direct international implications yet, and the Russians are not advancing either, they are even retreating in some areas. The war has been going on for eight months and we all believe that it will be resolved as all wars are, by negotiation, just as the Second World War ended with the negotiation of the armistice after the fall of Nazism. Although a pact and negotiations take months. I think there are also many interests, such as those of the US military industry, which has a lot of weight in the economy and has exercised control over the different US presidents throughout history.