Paris, Occupied France · August 21, 1941

On this date in 1941 in Paris a 22‑year-old Communist member of the French Resis­tance named Pierre Georges (noms de guerre, Frédo and Colonel Fabien) fired two bullets into the back of Alfons Moser, a young Ger­man naval officer, at the Barbès-Roche­chouart metro station. These were the opening shots of the partisan war­fare that would soon para­lyze German 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 collab­o­ra­tionist 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. Marshal Pétain him­self remarked that “from various parts of France, I begin to feel an unpleasant wind getting up.”

Young 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 and 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 following D-Day (June 6), 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 the nearby sleepy hamlet of 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 résis­tants and déportés (76,000 Jewish déportés alone) who died following their incar­cer­ation in POW camps, concen­tration camps, or death factories in Germany and Eastern Europe.

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

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 executed. One woman and six men sur­vived the mas­sacre. After the war a new vil­lage was built on a near­by site. By order 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 is left as a lasting reminder of the bar­barity of the Ger­man repri­sal in Oradour-sur-Glane. In January 1953 a mili­tary tri­bunal in Bor­deaux, France, 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 noncom­batants) 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