Paris, Occupied France September 28, 1941

On this date in 1941, in the wake of the first public assas­si­na­tion of a German officer in France, the German mili­tary autho­rities issued a Code of Hos­tages to the French people. Pools of French­men, whether detained by French autho­ri­ties or by the German Wehr­macht (armed forces) or the Gestapo (secret police) for “anti-German” and otherwise illegal activi­ties, were to be held in readiness as hos­tages against future attacks on German soldiers. Illegal activi­ties included espio­nage, sabo­tage, armed attacks, and distrib­uting anti-German tracts. Fifty to 100 French­men would be shot for every German killed. German author­i­ties went so far as to paste affiches rouge (red and black posters) on public walls replete with mug shots and names of “crim­i­nals,” “bandits,” “foreigners,” “terrorists,” and others they had arrested, tor­tured, and exe­cuted in prisons near and within Paris, the occupied French capital. Members of the French Resis­tance responded with their own wall pos­ters: “For every patriot shot, 10 Germans will be killed.”

It was open season on both sides for the rest of the war. In one of the most grue­some repri­sals—this on June 9, 1944, in the French indus­trial town of Tulle in Central France—a Waffen-SS (Armed Schutz­staffel) battalion of the Der Fuehrer Regi­ment, part of the elite 2nd SS Panzer Division “Das Reich,” together with mem­bers of the Sicher­heits­dienst (the Nazi Party’s intel­li­gence agency), first tor­tured, then murdered 99 ran­domly selected men aged between 17 and 42, hanging the victims’ bodies from trees, bal­co­nies, and lamp posts all over town. According to the Waffen-SS bat­tal­ion com­mander, the lethal repri­sal avenged a kid­napping and the killing of 40 Ger­man sol­diers by mem­bers of the French Resis­tance intent on hindering the divi­sion’s race from Southern France to Normandy, 450 miles away, to throw back the Allied landings there (Oper­a­tion Over­lord). Topping off the killings, another 321 cap­tives were sent to labor camps in the Third Reich, where 101 lost their lives. In total, the actions of the Germans claimed the lives of 213 Tulle civil­ians. The next day, June 10, the same Waffen-SS warriors mas­sacred 642 in­habi­tants, including women and children, in the farming village of Oradour-sur-Glane, 15 miles north of Tulle. (It turned out later that there were no résis­tants in Oradour-sur-Glane; some members of “Das Reich” considered it funny that they had murdered the wrong inhabitants.)

Marshal Philippe Pétain, the octo­ge­narian head of the col­lab­o­ra­tionist Vichy govern­ment, appealed to his coun­try­men for restraint, saying that by terms of the Franco-German armi­stice of June 22, 1940, French­men had agreed to lay down their wea­pons. He closed his eyes to the unequal tit-for-tat ratio of French dead to German dead and to the fact that truly inno­cent French­men were being detained and killed, declaring him­self more com­mitted than ever to col­lab­o­ration with the oppres­sors. (The German version of “collab­o­ra­tion” was Zusam­men­arbeit, “working together.”) According to French sources, between May 1940 and Septem­ber 1944 a total of 6,000 French­men were mas­sa­cred (massa­crés) by Germans working with their “allies” (most likely the Milice, a Vichy French para­mili­tary force), 25,000 were shot (fusillés), and 27,000 résis­tants died during depor­ta­tion, not to men­tion the tens of thou­sands of déportés who died following their incarceration in German concentration camps.

German Atrocities in France and the French Resistance

German reprisal killings: Oradour-sur-Glane Church, site of German atrocity, June 10, 1944German reprisal killings: Oradour-sur-Glane ruin, site of German atrocity, June 10, 1944

Left: The church in Oradour-sur-Glane in which, on June 10, 1944, 245 women vil­lagers and visi­tors and 205 chil­dren were burnt to death or shot as they attempted to escape from the clutches of a crazed Waffen-SS unit. Their hus­bands, sons, and brothers were marched to near­by barns, lined up, and shot, first in their legs to pre­vent them from moving. The victims were doused in gaso­line and the barns and their con­tents incin­erated. One woman and six men sur­vived the mas­sacre. The village was partially razed. After the war a new village was built on a near­by site. On the orders of French presi­dent Charles de Gaulle the ori­ginal vil­lage has been main­tained as a museum and perma­nent memo­rial to the cruelty of the Nazi occu­pa­tion. Today, the village martyr (martyred village) is a tourist desti­na­tion, complete with maps and guidebooks. Photo taken June 11, 2004.

Right: Wrecked hardware (bicycles, sewing machine, etc.) seven decades later, left as a reminder of the unspeak­able bar­barity of the German repri­sal in Oradour-sur-Glane. An ini­tial judi­cial inves­ti­gation by German autho­rities into the Tulle and Oradour-sur-Glane repri­sals, urged on by Field Marshal Erwin Rom­mel and Pétain’s Vichy French govern­ment, was opened, then suspended, in part because many of the perpe­trators had been killed in action during the Battle of Normandy. Finally in January 1953 a mili­tary tri­bunal in Bor­deaux, France, heard the case against the surviving 65 of the approxi­mately 200 Waffen-SS sol­diers who had been involved in the massacres. Only 21 defen­dants were in court because many of the accused could not be extra­dited from the new East Germany (German Demo­cratic Republic). On Febru­ary 1, 1953, with one exception all were convicted of war crimes.

Marquis members in northern France, 1944Captured French Resistance members, July 1944

Left: During the Allied invasion of Normandy, the Maquis (rural guer­rilla bands in Brit­tany and South­ern France) and other groups played an impor­tant role in delaying German mobili­za­tion. The FFI (Forces Fran­çaises de l’In­terieur, French irregu­lars) blew up rail­road tracks and repeat­edly attacked German Army equip­ment and garri­son trains on their way to the Chan­nel coast. This photo shows mem­bers of the Maquis in La Tresorerie near Bou­logne-sur-Mer, Northern France, September 14, 1944.

Right: Resistance members captured by the Milice, a Vichy French para­mili­tary force, July 1944. By 1944 Milice’s mem­ber­ship may have reached 25,000–35,000, including part-time mem­bers, non-com­ba­tants, and women, who com­prised 15 percent of the member­ship. Miliciens operated in both the “free zone” (Vichy France) and in the German-occupied zone (zone occupée), including Paris. Many miliciens were im­pri­soned for trea­son, exe­cuted following courts-mar­tial, or killed by résis­tants and civil­ians who revenged them­selves in the épuration sau­vage (pursuit of Nazi collabo­rators) that took place after the war’s end.

Short History of the French Resistance

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