Paris, Occupied France · August 21, 1941

On this date in 1941 in Paris, a 22-year-old member of the French Resis­tance named Georges Pierre, who took the nom de guerre of Fabien or Fredo, fired two bullets into the back of Alfons Moser, a young Ger­man naval officer, at the Barbes Rochechouart metro station. These were the opening shots of the partisan war­fare that would soon para­lyze Axis forces all over France. Adolf Hitler demanded the imme­di­ate exe­cu­tion of one hun­dred hostages. The number was reduced to ten. Marshal Philippe Pétain, the 85‑year‑old titular head of the French govern­ment, pro­posed that his Vichy regime carry out the exe­cu­tions by guil­lo­tine in public; how­ever, Ger­man mili­tary autho­rities, fearing reper­cus­sions from the French public, insisted that the exe­cu­tions be done in private. Begin­ning on August 28 and over the next seve­ral days, French judges sent eleven inno­cent French­men to their deaths. Between August and the end of 1941, there were 68 serious attacks on Ger­mans in and around Paris alone. The bru­tality with which these attacks were met, the mass exe­cu­tions of hos­tages, plus the growing war­time short­ages of food, were at last com­bining to turn average French citi­zens against their Ger­man occu­piers and French col­labo­rators. Pétain him­self remarked that “from various parts of France, I begin to feel an un­pleas­ant wind getting up.” Alfons Moser’s death marked a turning point in the French Resis­tance, and the wind never let up. Large and small resis­tance opera­tions cul­mi­nated in two hor­rific German repri­sals on June 9–10, 1944, in Tulle and Oradour-sur-Glane in cen­tral France. In repri­sal for résis­tants killing, harrying, and slowing them down as they attempted to reach the Allied beach­heads in Nor­mandy, men of the 2nd SS Panzer Divi­sion “Das Reich,” one of Hitler’s most elite armor units, rounded up 500 men and women of Tulle and hanged 99 from bal­co­nies and street lights. The next day the blood­thirsty troopers ringed Oradour-sur-Glane, herded the women and chil­dren into a church, which they set on fire, and shot the men, killing 642 vil­lagers. According to French sources, between May 1940 and Septem­ber 1944 a total of 6,000 French­men were mas­sacred (massacrés) by the Ger­mans and their “allies,” 25,000 were shot (fusillés), and 27,000 résis­tants died during depor­ta­tion, not to mention the tens of thou­sands of déportés who died following incarceration.

Few accounts of wartime France have affected me more deeply than Caro­line Moore­head’s heart­breaking yet inspiring his­tory of 230 women of the French Resis­tance, age 17 to 67, who were sent by Philippe Pétain’s collab­o­rationist Vichy regime to Nazi death camps in the east. Only forty-nine returned to a libe­rated France. Drawing from inter­views with these women and their fami­lies, and from chilling records she accessed in French, Ger­man, and Polish archives, Moore­head traces the grim 27-month odys­sey of these women in A Train in Winter. Their col­lec­tive voices are a remark­able testa­ment to extraor­di­nary courage, sur­vival, and the enduring power of friend­ship in a world scarcely imag­i­nable. Moore­head’s book is on my short list of books to read twice. —Norm Haskett

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German Atrocities in France and the French Resistance

Oradour-sur-Glane ChurchOradour-sur-Glane ruin

Left: The church in Oradour-sur-Glane in which 245 women vil­lagers or visi­tors and 205 chil­dren were burnt to death or shot as they attempted to escape. Their hus­bands, sons, and brothers were marched to nearby barns, lined up, and shot. One woman and six men sur­vived the mas­sacre. 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. Photo taken June 11, 2004.

Right: Wrecked hardware (bicycles, sewing machine, etc.) six decades later, left as a reminder of the bar­barity of the Ger­man repri­sal in Oradour-sur-Glane. In January 1953 a mili­tary tri­bunal in Bor­deaux heard the case against the sur­viving 65 of the approx­i­mately 200 Ger­man sol­diers who had been inv­olved in the reprisal. Only 21 defen­dants were in court. On Febru­ary 11, 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. Milice’s mem­ber­ship may have reached 25,000–35,000 (including part-time mem­bers and non-com­batants) by 1944. Milicien operated in both the “free zone” (Vichy France) and in the Ger­man zone (zone occupée), including Paris. Many milicien 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.

Oradour Sur Glane: Death of a French Village