Comprised of foreign communists whose backgrounds amply motivated them to desperate resistance, FTP-MOI was a notably aggressive partisan unit; a few months before this date’s executions, it had stunningly assassinated SS Col. Julius Ritter on the streets of Paris. Risky tactics, including larger-scale operations like the one that claimed Ritter (these required more partisans to know each other) entailed greater risk of penetration, and the November 1943 arrest of the Armenian commander Missak Manouchian and his group devastated FTP-MOI. After the customary interlude of torture, these were subjected to a show trial with 23 condemned to execution.*
As a gaggle of foreign terrorists, heavily Semitic, this clique looked to the occupation like a marvelous tar with which to blacken the Resistance. To that end the Germans produced a scarlet poster denouncing the Resistance as an “Army of Crime,” its soldiery labeled with strange names and alien nationalities converging on the swarthy Manouchian.**
Soon known as l’Affiche Rouge, the poster instead apotheosized its subjects. In the postwar period it became an emblem of the best of the Resistance — its multinational unity, France as an idea powerful enough that men and women of distant birth would give their lives for her. (Not to mention the postwar French Communists’ claim on le parti des fusillés.)
To this day in France, the backfiring propaganda sheet is one of the best-recognized artifacts of the Resistance.
The executions were naturally conducted quietly; the Germans strictly forbade public access to or photography of Resistance heroes in their martyrdoms for obvious reasons.
That made it especially surprising when a few pictures of this execution surfaced recently, surreptitiously snapped from an overlooking vantage by German motorbike officer Clemens Rüter, who kept them hidden for decades. They are to date the only known World War II photos of French Resistance members being executed.
* The 23rd, and the only woman in the group, was Romanian Olga Bancic, also known by the nom de guerre Pierrette; she was not shot on this date but deported to Stuttgart and beheaded there on May 10, 1944. There was also a 24th, a man named Migatulski, who was initially part of the same trial; he was instead remanded to French custody. (See coverage in the collaborationist La Matin from Feb. 19, 1944 and Feb. 22, 1944.)
** We’ve noted before that a Polish Jew named Joseph Epstein who was part of the same cell (and a prime candidate for racist demagoguing) avoided a place on l’Affiche Rouge thanks to his preternatural talent for remaining mum under interrogation.
Jean-Marie Arthus (“Marchand” by his nom de guerre), Jacques Baudry (“Andre”), Pierre Benoit (“Francis”), Pierre Grelot (“Paul”) and Lucien Legros (“Jeannot”)* started small with subversive pamphleting and placarding but soon moved on to sabotage and armed opposition in affiliation with the Francs-Tireurs et Partisans.
The arrest of one of their teachers, Raymond Burgard, in 1942 spurred them to lead a student demonstration whose mass arrest they barely escaped. By that time their identities were known, and the boys had to go underground; for their remaining months at liberty they lived on the run and participated in occasional (albeit not very damaging) armed attacks on occupying forces — until that summer, when French intelligence arrested Arthus, Baudry, Grelot and Legros, and French police later caught Benoit.
All five were handed off by their collaborationist countrymen to the eager claws of the Germans, who condemned them as terrorists at a military trial.
* A sixth school chum, Michel Agnellet, could easily have joined them at the execution posts and in the martyrologies, but the five who were captured did not permit their interrogators to extract his name.
August 16 is a day of reverence in France for the execution on that date in 1944 — just days ahead of the allied liberation of Paris — of 35 young Francs Tireurs partisans.
In a dastardly operation, a French collaborator known as “Jacques” — actually Guy Glebe d’Eu, who was himself executed after the war — who had insinuated himself into resistance networks lured the youths, all aged about 18 to 22, to a purported weapons-smuggling operation. They were unarmed when they arrived, but the Gestapo was not.
For most prisoners at the Netzweiler-Struthof concentration camp in Alsace, the fall of 1944 marked a time of disbursement to other detention sites — a clear sign that Allied forces were close at hand.
But both the disbursement order (in mid-September) and the Allied arrival at Struthof (in November) were just a little too late for Jacques Stosskopf, who was executed by the Nazis on Sept. 1 that year, even as the Germans were beginning preparations to disband the camp. How he was executed is unclear; stories from witnesses differ about whether prisoners at the camp were hanged, shot or gassed.
But it isn’t Stosskopf’s end that catches attention; rather, it is how he spent the war years, and his involvement, as a Frenchman, in the German U-boat war.
A native of Paris (born Nov. 27, 1898, in the City of Light), Stosskopf was of Alsatian heritage and spoke fluent German. He joined the French artillery in 1917 and received the French Croix de Guerre for his actions in World War I.
After the war, he entered the Ecole Polytechnique and earned a degree in marine engineering. As World War II approached, Stosskopf was appointed to lead the naval construction unit at Lorient, on the French coast. He eventually was promoted to the rank of Chief Engineer, 1st Class.
In June 1940, the German army took control of Lorient and began using the naval facility there to repair and resupply their U-boats. When they realized that the U-boats were vulnerable to attack by Allied air forces, the Germans set about fortifying the base as a refuge for their submarines.
Stosskopf worked with the Germans to design the new U-boat station, creating one of the most famous and impenetrable naval bases of the war: the double roof over the bunkers allowed them to withstand even a direct bomb hit, so even though the city of Lorient itself was almost 90% destroyed by Allied bomb raids, the bunkers continued to stand.
Between 1940 and 1944, the Germans built three such bunkers, capable of sheltering more than 25 submarines; from these fastnesses, German U-boats carried out relentless attacks against both military and civilian targets.
Because of his involvement with the naval station, Stosskopf was considered a collaborator by the local French citizenry. So when he disappeared in February 1944, they assumed that he had been promoted by his German compatriots and had been called to work in Germany.
In fact, all the while he was working on the U-boat port, Stosskopf had been collaborating not with the Germans but with the Alliance Reseau, a French resistance group headed by Marie-Madeleine Fourcade. Each week, he met with his resistance contact, providing information about boats going out to sea, the names of their captains, and the location of the missions. Because of these reports, many U-boats were intercepted at sea and their captains killed in Allied attacks.
In the end, Stosskopf was given up by a captured member of the Resistance, and he was caught up in the German Nacht und Nebel (Night and Fog) program. This roundup of suspected resistors of the Reich was undertaken by the Germans as a last-ditch attempt to regain some control over a war they could see slipping away; Nacht und Nebel abductees were spirited away at night and disappeared “into the fog” — never to be heard from again.
It was also the first camp liberated by the Allies (on Nov. 23, 1944), but by that time, most of the detainees had been evacuated. (For more detailed information on this camp and its prisoners, go to www.scrapbookpages.com/Natzweiler. Or, for a different perspective, read Night and Fog, by Arne Brun Lie, a prisoner’s account of life at Struthof, or the novel Necropolis, by Boris Pahor, a story based on his own experiences at the camp.)
At war’s end, the citizens of Lorient were amazed to learn the truth of Stosskopf’s activities, which were made public when he posthumously received the French Legion of Honour (1945). In 1946, the submarine base at Lorient was renamed in his honor. Today, visitors can tour the base at Lorient and see how it was operated.
Submarine Base Chief Engineer Stosskopf
Arrested and deported by the Gestapo Feb 21, 1944, for his activity in the resistance.
To get a personal look at Jacques Stosskopf, read Jacques Camille Louis Stosskopf 1898-1944, a book of documents and testimony about his life compiled by his children, Francois Stosskopf and Elizabeth Meysembourg-Stosskopf.
No longer employable as a chemist, she put her training to good use manufacturing explosives in her apartment. (Today, a plaque in the 19th arrondissement marks the building.)
Arrested by French police on May 16, 1942, she was condemned to death by a German military court but deported to Germany to suffer that punishment. Her husband, Fredo Serazin, was subsequently murdered by the Gestapo in prison.
As France Bloch-Serazin was born in 1913, she has recently enjoyed a renewed appreciation around the centennial of her birth, including the homage (French link) of her native city of Poitiers.
You can read all about this hecatomb and its aftermath on this very thorough and impressive website dedicated to the atrocity, from which much of the information in this account is drawn.
The tiny village, which you could walk through in all of ten minutes, had been the victim of mistaken identity.
Twenty miles away was a somewhat larger town with a similar name, Oradour-sur-Vayres, which was known for its Resistance activity. Adolf Diekmann, commander of the SS battalion, had been informed that the French Resistance had captured an SS officer (possibly the kidnapped Waffen-SS Sturmbahnfuhrer Helmut Kampfe, who had been executed by the Resistance earlier that same day) in Oradour-sur-Vayres and decided reprisals were needed, but he got the two villages mixed up and went to Oradour-sur-Glane instead.
When the SS arrived in the village at lunchtime, they ordered all the inhabitants to assemble in the fairground to have their papers checked. Everyone had to come, including children and the sick. Six people who were not residents but happened to be in the village at the time were also sent to the fairground.
Twenty villagers who had some compelling reason to avoid the Nazis, or merely had a bad feeling about the whole thing, hid or left the village as soon as the SS division showed up. These twenty survived. One seven-year-old boy, Roger Godfrin, was spotted and shot at, but survived by playing dead. He was the only survivor in his family, and the youngest survivor from the town.
The women and children were locked in the village church, and the men were lead to barns and sheds where the machine guns were set up. They were shot in their lower bodies and legs, in order to prolong their deaths. One of the men, who’d lost a leg in World War I, supposedly cried out, “Those bastards! They have cut my other leg off!”
After the shooting, as the men of Oradour-sur-Glane lay helpless, the SS men locked the sheds and set them on fire.
Only six men were able to escape. They hid in some rabbit hutches for several hours before attempting to escape the village. Five of them made it, but Pierre-Henri Poutaraud was spotted later that day and shot dead. The SS man who shot him then tethered a horse to Poutaraud’s outstretched hand.
In all, 190 men were killed.
The SS division then went back to the church, set off a smoke bomb inside it, and set the building on fire. Anyone who tried to get out of the church was machine-gunned. One woman cried out that she was German, not French, and begged to be released, but the SS shoved her back into the flames.
47-year-old Marguerite Rouffanche was able to slip out the back window, and another woman followed her with her seven-month-old baby, but all three of them were shot and only Marguerite survived, hiding in a garden for more than 24 hours until help arrived. Her two daughters were killed. (Marguerite refused to leave Oradour after the massacre. She remained there for the rest of her ninety-one years and is now buried in the village cemetery.)
The church fire and shootings claimed the lives of 247 children and 205 women.
Children from the village’s girl’s school, in the 1942-1943 school year. All of these girls were killed in the massacre.
Unbeknownst to the Nazis, there were several Jews living in the village, among them five children between the ages of eight and fifteen. Twelve of them were killed. In the case of a Jewish family called Pinede, the parents decided to present themselves for inspection but told their three children to hide. The children survived; their parents did not. One of those three Jewish survivors was still alive as of 2004.
Several days passed for the 26 survivors were permitted to bury their dead. Only 52 of the bodies could be identified; the other ones were burned too badly to be recognizable.
Collective punishment in reprisal for the actions of others was par for the course in Nazi-occupied Europe, and Adolf Diekmann had directed his unit to commit a number of mass shootings. Even so, he didn’t have authorization for the bloody events at Oradour-sur-Glane and his commanding officer requested for a court-martial, saying, “I cannot allow the regiment to be charged with something like this.” Field Marshal Erwin Rommel supposedly volunteered to preside over the court-martial himself.
But before that could happen, the war took care of Diekmann: he was killed on the Normandy front on June 19, hit in the head with shrapnel, a mere nine days after his last atrocity. The front, in fact, took care of most of his unit: only 65 of the 200 members survived the war.
In 1953 in Bordeaux, a military tribunal convened to hear the case against the surviving members of the 2nd Panzer Division. Only 22 of them were present in the courtroom; the others were in East Germany, which refused to extradite them. All but one said they’d been conscripted into the SS; one of them admitted he’d joined voluntarily to fight Communism.
To further complicate matters, 15 of the defendants present were actually French nationals of German descent, from Alsace-Moselle, and 14 of them claimed they’d been drafted against their wishes.
(After they conquered France, Germany declared inhabitants of Alsace to be German citizens whether they wanted to be or not, and drafted the region’s men. The conscripts were known in France as Malgre-nous, meaning literally “despite ourselves.”)
In addition, eight of the French defendants had been under the age of 18 when they were drafted into the SS, making them minors under French law. Many French people, including some of the survivors of Oradour-sur-Glane, viewed the Alsatian conscripts as fellow-victims of Nazi Germany and didn’t believe they should be held responsible for their actions.
Most of the defendants were cagey.
They implicated each other, but not themselves, admitting to some specific offenses but denying other, far more serious ones. One man, for example, said he’d been part of an execution squad that shot 20 men, but insisted he’d only helped load the machine guns and hadn’t personally shot anyone. Another said he hadn’t been in Oradour-sur-Glane at all, but was stationed as a sentry outside the village to prevent escapes. Only one of the defendants had admitted to killing anyone at all prior to the trial.
Twelve members of the victims’ families came to watch the trial proceedings, including an eight-year-old girl whose father and grandfather had been killed. Marguerite Rouffanche was ill at the time of the trial and very weak, but she showed up anyway and testify about her experience. Roger Godfrin, the little boy who played dead, also testified.
The tribunal’s judge demanded the defendants view photographs of the charred corpses of the victims, saying, “Let them look at the glorious work of the valiant Third Company of Der Führer Regiment.”
When the prosecutor summed up the case, he referred to the defendants’ evasive statements and said, “You might as well say despite the heaps of ashes and ruins, that the massacre never took place. But the people of Oradour are dead.”
The tribunal deliberated for thirty-two hours before returning its verdicts. One of the defendants was able to prove he hadn’t been in Oradour-sur-Glane the day of the killings, and was acquitted. The rest were convicted.
The 46 members of the SS unit who hadn’t shown up for trial were sentenced to death in absentia, as was one of the German nationals and one of the French. The others got various prison sentences, mostly between five and eight years, none exceeding twelve years. The Germans tended to get longer prison terms than the French. In addition, the Germans were prohibited from residing in France for at least twenty years.
Survivors of the Oradour-sur-Glane massacre.
No one in France was happy with the tribunal’s ruling: some said the sentences were too harsh, others, too lenient. In the face of widespread protests from the Alsace area and threats to secede from France, the French National Assembly passed a bill granting amnesty to all Malgre-nous (at a vote of 319 to 211, with a whopping 83 abstentions) and 13 of the 14 Frenchmen were released only eight days after the verdict was rendered. (One of them, the one who had volunteered for the SS, got no sympathy from anyone and no such leniency.)
Germany was upset, saying it was unfair to pardon the French SS but not the Germans. But within five years, everyone had been freed. No one was actually executed.
In 1981, East German authorities tracked down Heinz Barth, a second lieutenant in the 2nd Panzer Division, and put him on trial in their country for his role in the Oradour-sur-Glane Massacre.
He never tried to deny his participation in the attack, and used the old “just following orders” defense, saying, “In war one acts harshly and with the means available.” Barth admitted he helped round up the village men and personally shot fifteen times into the crowd. He also acknowledged responsibility for the deaths of nearly 100 people in Czechoslovakia.
Barth was convicted in 1983 and sentenced to life in prison. In 1991, still behind bars, he was awarded a pension as a “war victim” because he’d been wounded in Normandy in August 1944 and lost a leg. The resulting howls of protest led the government of a newly reunited Germany to pass a law stripping convicted war criminals of their pensions.
Barth was released from prison in 1997, and managed to finagle his war pension back somehow. He died of cancer ten years later, at the age of 86.
Marguerite Rouffanche died in 1988. Her fellow-survivor Roger Godfrin died in 2004.
The survivors of Oradour-sur-Glane created a new village after the war, but the burned-out ruins of the old village remain, with rusted cars, sewing machines, bicycles and other personal items lying in plain sight on the street, a grim testimony to what happened there nearly seventy years ago.
On this date in 1944, Joseph Epstein* was shot with 18 others at Mont-Valerien outside Paris for their parts in the World War II French Resistance.
Joseph — “Jurek”, really — was born in Poland, but his communist politics got him harried out of Poland and Czechoslovakia and onward to France in the early 1930s.
There he completed his law studies, but was unable practice since he wasn’t a Frenchman.
But he was a perfect recruit for the international republican brigades of the imminent Spanish Civil War (he commanded an artillery battery named in honor of Tudor Vladimirescu).
War would drive Joseph Epstein hither and yon for his remaining years. After a spell in a French POW camp for Spanish Civil War refugees, Epstein signed up for the Foreign Legion, got captured and sent to a German POW camp, escaped to Switzerland, and returned to France.
There as “Colonel Gilles” of the communist resistance organization Francs-Tireurs et Partisans, he became the commissionaire of military operations for the capital and pioneered a shift in tactics towards guerrilla strikes using larger teams. Resistance fighter (and later, historian of the Resistance) Henri Nogueresexplained:
Most of the comrades adopted the three comrades system. But in Paris there were policemen and German soldiers everywhere: Joseph Epstein preferred to engage fifteen to twenty fighters per operation … [because] if in Paris during daylight, three persons only had to attack a military unit, there will always be a danger to be arrested that could lead to a partial or complete failure. By contrast, with a larger group, it was possible to gain a superiority if adopting a discrete strategy. The operations in Paris conducted in 1943 were placed under Colonel Gilles’ authority.
Epstein was arrested in the autumn of 1943 at a meeting with Missak Manouchian, and withstood months of brutal torture without so much as revealing his real name or national origin.
While this is a standard accomplishment in a Resistance martyrology, the proof of it in this case was that the ensuing “Manouchian Group” show trial, and the resulting famed “Affiche Rouge” poster, took great pains to depict Resistance members as foreigners and criminals.
As a Polish Jew who regularly ordered assassinations, Epstein would have made a fine exhibit … if the Nazis had known who he was. Instead, he’s conspicuous only by his absence.
The ironic consequence, according toanother Resistance veteran, was that “The man who, by far, was the greatest officer in all of France, the greatest tactician of the People’s War, is unknown to the general public. Of all military leaders, he was the most audacious, the most capable, the one who gave the French Resistance its originality compared to other European countries.”
On this date in 1946, ten* Spanish Republicans were shot — most famously including Cristino Garcia.
Garcia, a Communist veteran of the Spanish Civil War, had put his guerrilla skills to good use by joining the French Resistance during World War II.
Garcia ultimately held the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the Resistance, and was perhaps the most individually famous of the numerous Spaniards** who fought as maquisards. His unit broke out hundreds of people before potential deportation to German death camps, and Garcia helped orchestrate the guerrilla-led liberation of Foix in August 1944. (There’s a lengthier roundup of Garcia’s career in the field in Spanish, here.)
The French had nothing but good feelings for this guy, but Garcia wasn’t looking to take a pension from De Gaulle and settle down in a vineyard. As France fell to Allies, Garcia — going on ten years a professional leftist revolutionary — headed back to Spain (Spanish link) to carry on the fight against fascism closer to home.
His tasks over a few months in 1945 ran to the less legendary: bank attacks and the like, blurring the line between “ordinary” and “political” crimes. Garcia was also detailed as a result of intra-party politicking to murder fellow-Communist Gabriel Leon Trilla (Spanish link).†
As an agent of the Spanish Communist Party, which was backed by a French Communist Party riding high on its World War II heroics, Garcia’s situation became a national cause celebre. French left parties uniformly protested the planned execution, and the government made repeated diplomatic overtures to Madrid to stay the sentence. Editorialists protested floridly.
Have we forgotten that fascism exists at our border; Was it not against all fascisms that Cristino Garcia and thousands of our Spanish brothers fought with us on our soil? Did they not fall beside us, as at the Eysses prisons, under the same Nazi bullets, for France? And today will we disown their sacrifice, their blood and their martyrdom because the fight against fascism has moved to the other side of the Pyrenees? (from the Franc-Tireur, quoted here
Incensed when Franco ignore their appeals and shot the men anyway, France retaliated by closing its border with Spain on March 1, 1946. Spain did not neglect to point out the irony that, during the war years, innumerable resistance fighters and others fleeing Naziism or the Vichy regime had taken refuge by crossing that very border. (Less stress was understandably laid on the Francoists’ onetime demand — not honored by Paris — that France close its border against escaping Republicans in 1939.)
* I believe from press reports that there were 12 total executions of Republicans Feb. 21-22, 10 of which took place on Feb. 21. However, I might be mistaken about the overall numbers or their distribution by dates. Garcia’s, certainly, took place on Thursday the 21st.
On this date in 1944, just days after the Liberation of Paris secured the restoration of the French Republic, six collaborators were publicly shot in the foothills of the French Alps. They were the condemned of the first court-martial to sit in liberated France.
A London Times correspondent estimated that 4,000 or more of their countrymen braved cruel wind and rain to cheer the traitors’ deaths meted to these young members of the Vichy government’s hated milice.
They were among ten members of that militia captured at a training grounds in Grenoble, and the shooting of these six was preceded by a loudspeaker announcement decrying the tribunal which tried them for having the softness merely to imprison the other four.
“The Liberation Committee considers that the sentences which failed to inflict the death penalty on all the militiamen not to be in conformity with the wishes of the French people and accordingly promises, in conformity with those wishes, to see that the composition of the court-martial is revised in order to avoid a repetition of such weakness.” The people answered with a cheer.
-London Times, Sep. 4 1944
The executions, carried out on a grounds the Gestapo had once used to executed Resistance members, were also photographed, and the striking images published in the Oct. 2 issue of Life magazine. Once available online from Life at this now-dead link, the gallery is reproduced at this Chinese page; Warning: Disturbing Content.
“I am susceptible as most,” he wrote in Life‘s original dispatch. “When I first saw the 10 men and boys in the courtroom dock at this trial, I wanted to cry. They looked so young, wretched, unshaven … It was very easy to sentimentalize over these men, all of whom were underlings. It was easy to agree with the [collaborators’] chief defender, Pierre Guy, that France would be harming only herself if she killed them now.”