1944: Jean Cavailles, philosopher-mathematician

Add comment February 17th, 2011 Headsman

“A philosopher-mathematician loaded with explosives, lucid and reckless, resolute without optimism. If that’s not a hero, what is a hero?”

Georges Canguilhem

On this date in 1944, French intellectual Jean Cavaillès was shot at Arras for his role in the French Resistance.

The university lecturer had been called up as France mobilized against Germany, and captured in the ensuing German blitz.

Escaping, he started a subversive newspaper, was appointed to the Sorbonne, got captured again, escaped again, made it to London, and returned to occupied France to direct a sabotage campaign.

This “intellectual who loved explosives” was finally captured for good in the summer of 1943 along with his handler (and future French Foreign Minister) Christian Pineau.

On this day..

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1942: Boris Vilde, linguist

Add comment February 23rd, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1942, Estonian linguist and ethnographer Boris Vilde was shot with his French Resistance circle at Fort Mont-Valerien.

St. Petersburg-born, Estonian-raised, the young scientist came to Paris at age 25 (French link) with his life in a backpack.

In the eight short years remaining to him before he gave his life for his adopted land’s anti-Nazi resistance, Vilde cofounded the Paris Musee de l’Homme. (When visiting, be sure to look for the skull of Suleiman al-Halabi, a Syrian executed for assassinating one of Napoleon’s Egyptian officers in 1800.)

It says here that Vilde even imported the French word “resistance” into Estonian.

Boris knew whereof he spoke.

His Musee de l’Homme group recruited scientists and intellectuals and published anti-fascist propaganda.

When the Vichy government infiltrated it and had its principals condemned, one of Vilde’s compatriots is said to have bellowed at the firing squad at the last moment,

Imbeciles, it’s for you, too that I die.

On this day..

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1945: Denise Bloch, Lilian Rolfe and Violette Szabo

1 comment February 5th, 2010 Headsman

On or about this date in 1945, three women who had been caught behind German lines working for the British Special Operations Executive were shot at Ravensbruck.

Left to right: Denise Bloch, Lilian Rolfe, Violette Szabo.

Denise Bloch, Lilian Rolfe, and Violette Szabo were all fluent young Francophones who volunteered their services for Britain’s dangerous spying-and-sabotage operations in support of the French Resistance.

Bloch and Rolfe were wireless operators; Szabo, the most famous of the three, got her hands dirtier with explosives and sabotage.

One evening towards 1900 hours they were called out [of the punishment block] and taken to the courtyard by the crematorium. Camp Commandant Suhren [German Wikipedia link] made these arrangements. He read out the order for their shooting in the presence of the chief camp doctor, Dr. Trommer, SS Sergeant Zappe, SS Lance Corporal Schult, SS Corporal Schenk, and the dentist Dr. Hellinger

All three were very brave, and I was deeply moved. Suhren was also impressed by the bearing of these women. He was annoyed that the Gestapo did not themselves carry out these shootings.

Extensive and illustrated biographies on all three, as well as other SOE agents, can be found at 64 Baker Street: Bloch; Rolfe; Szabo.

Violette Szabo in particular was much written-of after the war (long out of print, the classic Carve Her Name With Pride was recently republished), and was posthumously awarded a variety of decorations by both England and France.

Szabo has what looks to be a charming museum in Herefordshire (phone ahead to Miss Rigby before visiting!); for a younger generation, she’s the inspiration behind “Violette Summers”, the protagonist of the video game Velvet Assassin.

On this day..

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1944: Marc Bloch, French historian

2 comments June 16th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1944, the Gestapo shot French historian Marc Bloch among a batch of Resistance members.

When war broke out between France and Germany in 1939, the 52-year-old professor spurned advice to get out of the country. Driven by his love of France, he resigned his post at the Sorbonne to join the reserves.

I was born in France, I have drunk the waters of her culture. I have made her past my own. I breathe freely only in her climate, and I have done my best, with others, to defend her interests.

(Bloch had won the Legion of Honor for his brilliance and bravery in World War I, “always ready to March and give example.”)

High-profile intellectuals of Resistance proclivities and Jewish extraction, needless to say, had a problem in those terrible years.

The remarkable Bloch almost made it through the whole of the war in the French Resistance, but was arrested a few weeks before the Allied landing at Normandy, tortured, and shot. Comrades in arms remembered his death as an unusually sobering loss.

We couldn’t, no we couldn’t bear that image: Marc Bloch, our “Narbonne” of clandestine life, turned over to the Nazi beasts; this perfect exemplar of French dignity, of exquisite and profound humanism, this spirit become a prey of flesh in the vilest hands. We were there, a few of us, in Lyons, his friends, his comrades in the clandestine struggle, when we learned of the arrest, when we were immediately told that, “They tortured him.” A detainee had seen him in the offices of the Gestapo, bleeding from the mouth (that bloody trail in the place of the last malicious smile he had left me with on a street corner before being caught up in the horror). I remember: at those words, “He was bleeding,” we broke out in tears of rage. The most hardened lowered their heads despondently, as we do when things are just too unfair.

For months we waited, hoped. Deported? Still in Montluc? Transferred to another city? We didn’t know anything until the recent day when we were told, “There’s no more hope. He was executed at Trévoux on June 16, 1944. His clothes and papers were recognized.” They killed him, alongside a few others who he inspired with his courage.

For we know how he died. A kid of sixteen trembled not far from him. “This is going to hurt.” Marc Bloch affectionately took his hand and simply said, “No, my boy, it doesn’t hurt,” and fell first, crying out: “Vive La France!”

Marc Bloch, commemorated at this French site, bequeathed 20th century scholarship one of its great intellectual legacies. His The Historian’s Craft,* a composition halted short of completion by the Nazi firing squad, was posthumously published and remains one of the classic texts of historiography; the journal he co-founded in 1929 gave its name to a whole school of thought in the field. (Bloch’s own name also adorned a school in a more literal sense, the Marc Bloch University, now subsumed by the University of Strasbourg.)

Works By and About Marc Bloch

* The blog To The Roots is in the midst of a series of posts exploring The Historian’s Craft.

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1945: Gen. Charles Delestraint

2 comments April 19th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1945, French general and Resistance figure Charles Delestraint was hastily disposed of, ten days before the liberation of Dachau.

Delestraint, who also spent the First World War as a POW, was among those who noticed the hidebound military dogmas of the past needed updating.

With de Gaulle, Delestraint was a forceful advocate in the interwar period for mechanized warfare.

He didn’t get far enough, certainly not as far as the soon-to-be-vaunted Wehrmacht.

In 1940, just months after retirement, Delestraint was recalled to lead a mechanized division against the Germans, which of course turned out to be a spectacular triumph of tank warfare … for the Germans. While the French distributed armor units throughout their forces, the Germans massed them at a schwerpunkt aiming to break through the French line and speedily conquer in the rear.

Delestraint later remarked of the doctrinal difference,

We had 3,000 tanks and so did the Germans. We used them in a thousand packs of three, the Germans in three packs of a thousand.

Recruited subsequently into the French Resistance and thence betrayed, Delestraint enjoined the hospitality of many concentration camps and the tender mercies of one of their more infamous torturers.

Uncertainty remains over exactly how the Germans killed Delestraint, or even why the Dachau commandants wanted to finish off him in particular, although he was a primo catch in the anti-Resistance operation. The body was immediately cremated, camp records of the execution order disappeared if they ever existed, and eyewitness testimony at variance.

But dying in Dachau for the French Resistance? By any standard, that’s a passport to hero status, as attested by any number of Rue General Charles Delestraints to be found in his native land.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Concentration Camps,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Germany,History,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Torture,Wartime Executions

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