Hans Frank is a Jewish political journalist working for the Munich Post. While visiting Berlin in late 1932, he clashes with his father over how serious a threat is posed by the rise of Hitler's Nazi Party. When he learns his father and the editor of the Munich Post have both been detained, he decides to flee Berlin. Through connections with a transnational network of activists organizing against fascism and anti-Semitism, Hans seeks refuge in Paris until the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, which he covers as a journalist. When the Spanish Republic falls to Franco, it is his wake-up call: he travels to Sidi Bel Abbes in Algeria to join the French Foreign Legion. After fighting with the Legionnaires for several years, he returns to Algeria in June 1940, when Marshal Petain's pro-Nazi Vichy government takes control of France and its colonies, including Algeria.
In September 1940, the Vichy regime declares foreign Jews and Spanish republicans to be "undesirables" and calls for their internment. As a German Jew, Hans realizes he is at risk in Algeria, and decides to leave for Morocco. Waiting for his train in Algiers, Hans is detained along with other European Jews, Spanish republicans, and Algerian nationalists and sent to a work camp in the Sahara called Djelfa—one of a network of over seventy labor, disciplinary, and internment camps operated by Vichy authorities in France's North and West African colonies. Hans and his fellow prisoners are forced to do backbreaking work constructing rail lines through the desert. When they refuse the guards' orders, Hans and others are sent to Djenien-Bou-Rezg, a disciplinary camp with even more oppressive conditions. As the Free French forces led by General Leclerc retake French African colonies, Hans begins to plot his escape.