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Why are Ceuta and Melilla Spanish?

How did these two cities in North Africa become Spanish and why do they remain so to this day?

Why are Ceuta and Melilla Spanish?
Painting depicting the signing of the Treaty of Wad-Ras (1860), which put an end to the African War and increased Spain's control over Ceuta and Melilla. Painting: Joaquín Domínguez Bécquer.

The Spanish territories of Ceuta and Melilla are Europe’s only landmasses in continental Africa.

Their borders with Morocco are the only physical borders between Europe and Africa, and they have for centuries existed as places of contested sovereignty that ebb and flow alongside other political tensions in the region.

Humanitarian crises in Ceuta and Melilla have made headlines in recent years as thousands have attempted to cross the border into Spain from adjacent Morocco, whose leaders refer to them as the occupied “Sebtah and Melilah”.

But what’s the backstory to Ceuta and Melilla? Where are they? Why are they Spanish, and are they politically relevant today?

Where are they?

Ceuta and Melilla are technically Spanish autonomous cities on mainland Africa in a similar way to Catalonia and the Basque Country are in mainland Spain.

Ceuta is bordered by Morocco on Africa’s northern coast, sitting on the boundary between the Atlantic and Mediterranean oceans. It sits about 17 km away from Cádiz province across the Strait of Gibraltar, and is just 18.5 km2 with 76,000 inhabitants. 

Melilla sits 250 km further eastwards down the coast towards Algeria, and is just 12.3 km2 with a population of 86,000.

Map of Morocco’s (in green) and Spain’s (in orange) borders, highlighting places of Spanish sovereignty in the north African nation, which includes Ceuta and Melilla but also several other small territories.


In the 5th century Ceuta and Melilla were colonised by the Carthaginians, then the Greeks, and finally the Romans.

From the 7th century, Ceuta was ruled by competing Berber and Arab dynasties, and in the 8th century both Ceuta and Melilla were port towns used as launch-pads for the Moorish conquest of the Iberian peninsula that would last for centuries and stretch as far north as Galicia. 

Melilla first fell under Spanish rule in 1497, invaded as part of the Christian reconquista of the peninsula that ended in the late-fifteenth century, and Ceuta, which was a Portuguese territory from 1415, was given to Spain under the Treaty of Lisbon in 1668.

Tile panel by Jorge Colaço (1864–1942) at the São Bento railway station, depicting Prince Henry the Navigator during the conquest of Ceuta. Photo: HombreDHojalata/Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Both Ceuta and Melilla were attacked intermittently by North African forces throughout the next century and became heavily fortified. They also served as strategic hubs for trade because of their advantageous locations linking the Mediterranean with the Atlantic.

For centuries and even to this day, they have had a sizeable Spanish military population living there, and at a time both territories served as a type of penal colony for convicts banished from the Iberian peninsula. 

Why are Ceuta and Melilla still Spanish?

In the 1930s, Spanish troops stationed in Ceuta and Melilla were some of the first to rebel against the government and played a key role in Franco’s seizure of power.

When Morocco finally gained its independence in 1956 after decades of rule by the French and Spanish, Spain refused to include Ceuta and Melilla in any negotiations and they remained Spanish territories.

Morocco has made several sovereignty claims to the territories since gaining independence.

In 2002, tensions flared when Moroccan soldiers occupied the Spanish-controlled Parsley Island off the coast of mainland Morocco. They were eventually removed by force by the Spanish navy.

General view of the 16th century fortress known as “Melilla la Vieja” (The Old Melilla) located in the port of the Spanish enclave of Melilla. (Photo by JORGE GUERRERO / AFP)

Spanish King Juan Carlos – himself no stranger to controversies – infuriated Moroccans by making an official state visit to Melilla in 2007, and in recent years the territories have also played a role in politics.

Spaniards who believe that Ceuta and Melilla should remain Spanish argue that both territories were part of Spain for more than 400 years before Morocco gained independence, considering their separation from Spain based only on their geographical location as non-negotiable as that of the Canary Islands, which have been Spanish since the 15th century. 

Unlike Gibraltar, which was given the status of colony by the UN in 1967, Ceuta and Melilla have not been classified as such by the United Nations given that they’re fully integrated into Spanish governance and administration. 

“Rabat knows well that it has no legal route to substantiate its claim (over Ceuta and Melilla), only a political one, and for this reason in principle it will never go to the International Court of Justice to reactivate a claim that has been frozen in the United Nations since 1975,” writer and analyst Ángel Manuel Ballesteros told El Faro de Ceuta.

In the last several years both the borders in Ceuta and Melilla have been the focus of attempts by refugees and asylum seekers from all over Africa, and the Spanish government’s treatment – including its illegal ‘pushback’ strategy – has earned it condemnation from human rights and refugee groups.

In March 2022, Ceuta became the focus of international news when as many as 10,000 people crossed the border from Morocco in a matter of days. The migration crisis was back in the news again in late June after at least 18 African migrants died when a huge crowd tried to cross into Melilla.

Migrants climb a sea wall in the northern town of Fnideq after attempting to cross the border from Morocco to Spain’s North African enclave of Ceuta on May 19th, 2021. (Photo by FADEL SENNA / AFP)

This came at the height of tensions between Madrid and Rabat, and it is believed that Moroccan border guards simply left their posts in a deliberate – and rather callous – negotiating tactic to instigate a humanitarian crisis after they were angered that Spain had treated Brahim Ghali, leader of the Polisario Front, a separatist group that campaigns for the independence of Western Sahara from Morocco, in a Ceuta hospital.

There is no indication at present that Spain will ever be willing to renounce Ceuta or Melilla as a bargaining chip over a dependence on natural gas supplies from the Maghreb or any possible future diplomatic spat between Morocco and Algeria, Spain and Algeria or Spain and Morocco.

READ ALSO: Why Spain’s Western Sahara U-turn is a risky move with no guarantees

But what does seem clear is that when it comes to controlling immigration from the African continent, Ceuta and Melilla are somewhat of an Achilles’ heel for Spain which Moroccan authorities are prepared to take advantage of. 

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How a town on Spain’s Costa Blanca became a Nazi retreat

Traditional wisdom tells us that many Nazis escaped to South America, but hundreds more also made Spain home following WWII with the help of fascist dictator Franco. The Valencian town of Dénia in particular hides a very dark past.

How a town on Spain's Costa Blanca became a Nazi retreat

Dénia, a small upmarket Costa Blanca port town on Spain’s easterly Mediterranean coast, is most famous for its golden beaches and lively street life.

If you’ve visited, you might’ve taken a stroll through the quaint town up to its castle, overlooking the picturesque marina, or seen the Roman ruins in its museum.

What you might not have realised is that that following the Second World War, Dénia became not only a place of transit for Nazis fleeing Europe (known as a ‘ratline’) but a place of safe haven for many who were allowed to make a home and enjoy their retirement there.

In reality, Dénia’s crystal clear waters have a much murkier past that reveals the ease with with Nazis settled on Spain’s costas, and the uncomfortable relationship between Franco’s Spain and the Third Reich.

READ MORE: Why Spain is still in the wrong time zone because of Hitler

From the 1930s to the mid-1990s there is evidence of the presence of prominent Nazis in the town of Denia (Alicante province). Photo: Capturando el Tiempo en Segundos/Unsplash

Costa Blanca, Nazi retirement home?

The Costa Blanca is one of the most sought after and visited tourist spots in the world. So much so, it seems, that even former Nazis agreed.

Dénia was, for example, the chosen destination of Gerhard Bremer, a high ranking Sturmbannführer in the Waffen SS who was awarded, among a whole host of medals and awards, the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross – an accolade only awarded for serious commitment to Nazi Germany.

After being convicted at the Nuremberg trials, Bremer lived happily in Dénia until his death in 1989, becoming a local businessmen and building bungalows and hotels during the birth of tourism on the Costa Blanca.

Bremer and his family were reportedly integrated in the community, with his children attending local schools. 

In fact, some Nazis were so comfortable in Spain that many, although remaining discreet of course, never felt the need to renounce their Nazi ideology.

According to Spanish historian José Muñoz, every April 20th a group of Germans met at the Finita restaurant in Dénia to celebrate Hitler’s birth.

“They did it in a discreet way, a small group of people during the week, not with a party open to the whole town,” he told Spanish website Newtrawl, “they were not idiots”.

READ MORE: Spain seeks return of Nazi gifts ‘proving’ Aryan origins

Another of the first to arrive on the Costa Blanca was Johannes Bernhardt, an honourary general of the SS and businessman who had supplied weapons to Franco, who then rewarded him with Spanish nationality in order to prevent his deportation.

According to historian Stanley G. Payne, “Bernhardt lived discreetly between Madrid and Dénia, without integrating with the locals. In 1953, he left for Argentina.

A third prominent Nazi in Dénia was Anton Galler, alleged by the Italian government to be the commander of the Nazi army responsible for a massacre at Sant’Anna. He lived in Dénia for the rest of his life and was buried there in 1995.

It is also believed that the notorious Otto Skorzeny, the man who organised the mission to rescue Benito Mussolini from captivity in September 1943 and who was nicknamed ‘the most dangerous man in Spain’, also lived on the Costa Blanca. 

Hitler shakes hands with Spanish fascist dictaror Francisco Franco at Hendaye train station on the French-Spanish border October 23rd1940. (Photo by AFP)

Nazis in other parts of Spain

These notable examples of known high-ranking Nazis in Dénia are just handful of hundreds of suspected Nazis that made their homes in Spain following the war.

And it was no secret; in 1947 the United States wrote to Franco with a list of 104 people suspected of being Nazis, or at least connected to the Nazi party, who were on Spanish territory.

Their initial list was as many as 1,600 names, although ultimately the Americans focused on the 104 most notorious names on the list for extradition. 

But perhaps former high-ranking Nazis making their home in Spain didn’t come as that much of a surprise to the British intelligence services.

During the war many in the British establishment worried about Spanish sympathies towards Nazi Germany, so much so that MI6 bribed top Spanish officials with bribes equivalent to €179 million in order to maintain the country’s neutrality.

Infamous Belgian Nazi Léon Degrelle made a home in Málaga, on the Costa del Sol, and in this case went to no great lengths to hide his identity. After relocating to Málaga with the help of the Spanish government and keeping a low profile for a few years, Degrelle became an increasingly public figure in the 1960s.

He socialised with other Nazis hiding out in Spain, including Austrian SS coronel Otto Skorzeny, and even wore his SS uniform to his daughter’s wedding in1969. 

After diplomatic tensions between Spain and Belgium throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s, Degrelle took Spanish citizenship and lived very comfortably in Málaga having done well financially because his construction company built American airbases in Spain, incredibly, under his real name.

Degrelle felt so comfortable in Spain, in fact, that he attended a centenary celebration of Hitler’s birthday in Madrid in 1989.

As for Skorzeny, who wasn’t so happy to also be nicknamed Scarface, in an interview with the Daily Express in 1952 he said: “I finally feel free in Spain, I can remove my mask and don’t have any reasons to live in secret”.

There are hundreds more Nazis and Nazi sympathisers who found a safe haven in Francoist Spain, from the Basque Country to Barcelona or Mallorca, living the rest of their lives in peace under the Spanish sun despite the crimes they committed. 

If you wish to delve further into the history of the Nazis in Spain, there are several books offering far more detail on the matter, as well as the 2021 Spanish-Belgian film The Replacement (trailer below) or the new Spanish series Jaguar.