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French Resistance member Pierre Georges shot dead a German naval midshipman on August 21, 1941, at Barbès-Rochechouart metro station in occupied Paris – the first deadly attack on the occupiers, which prompted the Nazis to kill hundreds of hostages they were holding in the occupied zone. FRANCE 24 looks back at this seminal moment for La Resistance, 80 years on.
The crisp bureaucratic prose of the Paris police report captures the daring and drama: “This morning, at 8:05am on August 21, at Barbès-Rochechouart station, line 4, at the platform for the Porte d’Orléans direction, a German naval officer, Mr. [Alfons] Moser, was shot twice as he was getting into the first-class carriage. [...] An individual standing at the door of the carriage fired two shots from a gun, through his pocket, at the officer approaching the other door. The perpetrator and another individual quickly got off the train, ran to the exit, jumped over the barriers and fled the scene.”
The Resistance fighter who killed the naval officer was Pierre Georges, 21, who soon became known by his nom de guerre Colonel Fabien. Georges had been made second-in-command of the Communist youth battalion at the start of August 1941.
“The attack was his brainchild,” noted Gilles Ferragu, a professor at the University of Paris Nanterre and author of an overview of hostage-taking throughout history, Hostages, une histoire.
Sprinting through the streets of Paris, Georges shouted: “We’ve avenged Titi!” Two of his comrades, Samuel Tyszelman and Henri Gautherot, had been executed two days earlier after their arrest at an anti-Nazi demonstration earlier in the month. General Otto von Stulpnagel, German military commander in occupied France, issued a decree on August 14 that all communist activity was henceforth punishable by death.
The Barbès attack changed the nature of the Occupation. The Wehrmacht (German army) commander in the Paris region announced two days afterwards that “any French people arrested – whether by the German authorities in France or by the French for the Germans – are considered hostages”.
“In response to any other such act, and corresponding to its gravity, a number of hostages will be shot,” the decree continued.
“The killing of the German naval officer was a pretext for the Nazis’ intensified repression in France, focused on the hostage policy,” Ferragu noted.
“Of course, the Wehrmacht was quite happy to take French hostages after the June 1940 capitulation without shooting them,” he added. “But that changed in August 1941.”
Hatred of communism was at the centre of Hitler’s worldview, with a Nazi canard maintaining the ideology was a Jewish plot as part of a Judeo-Bolshevik conspiracy theory. But French communists kept a lid on their activities in light of the Nazis’ Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact with the USSR – until Hitler tore up the agreement, invading the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa in June 1941.
“The French Communist Party kept a low profile until then,” said Dominique Tantin, head of the Association pour un Maitron des fusillés et exécutés (an association for the memory of Nazi execution victims known as Maitron), which works to honour the memory of French Resistance members killed by the Nazis.
“After Operation Barbarossa, the communists became fully involved in the Resistance – despite initial concerns, such as a reluctance to kill soldiers because they could well have been members of the working class,” Tantin continued.
“The executions of Tyszelman and Gautherot provoked the communists to ramp up their activities – and Georges decided to set an example.”
The first Nazi hostage killings in retribution took place in early September and intensified over the course of the month. A September 16 decree from Berlin created a climate of terror by encouraging the German occupiers to engage in massive reprisals – targeting communist and Jewish prisoners, whom the Nazis deemed “ideologically guilty”.
The decree unleashed mass executions. The best-known in France is the killing of 48 hostages in Paris, and Nantes and Châteaubriant in western France on October 22, 1941, in reaction to the assassination of senior Wehrmacht officer Lieutenant-Colonel Karl Hotz.
“This was the first huge execution, and it caused a major shock,” Tantin wrote.
Two days later, 50 hostages were executed in Gironde in France’s rural southwest in retaliation for an attack on a German naval officer in Bordeaux. But it was on December 15, 1941, that the killings reached a record, with 95 hostages shot dead.
In total, from September to December 1941, the Nazis killed 243 French hostages, including 154 non-Jewish communists and 56 Jews, most of whom were communists.
Nazis ‘should have stayed home’
General Charles de Gaulle, the leader of Free France – the London-based government-in-exile that rejected the June 1940 Armistice – said on an October 23 BBC broadcast: “French killings of the German occupiers are absolutely justified. If the Germans don’t want to be killed, they should have stayed home and not gone to war with us.”
But De Gaulle also urged the Resistance to engage only in strikes of major symbolic value, on the grounds that “it’s currently too easy for the enemy to retaliate with massacres”.
However, despite their toll in French blood and tears, the Nazi reprisals achieved a major Resistance goal of winning over French hearts and minds.
“In spite of everything, it was the horror of the German hostage killings in revenge that achieved the Resistance’s objective – rousing French people from their apathy and shifting public opinion decisively in the Resistance’s favour,” as Tantin put it.
The Vichy puppet regime was also involved in the reprisals. “When the occupiers wanted to take revenge for the Nantes attack, the Nazis asked [Marshal Philippe] Pétain’s regime to provide a list of hostages – and Interior Minister Pierre Pucheu complied, furnishing the Germans with a list of 61 people, mainly communists,” Tantin noted.
But these reprisals were counter-productive for Vichy as well as for the Nazis. They were no deterrent; the Resistance attacks continued. A new Nazi measure on November 7 decreed that captured Resistance fighters had to be deported to Germany.
‘Forgotten in collective memory’
As French public opinion soured further into disgust with the Nazi occupiers – and as Germany needed French labour to help provide military materiel – the hostage-killing policy ended by the end of November 1942.
However, the Nazis revived the policy on one final occasion after that – taking 50 French hostages from a prison camp near Paris and shooting them dead, a few days after the assassination of an SS colonel in Paris in September 1943.
According to Maitron’s research, the Nazis killed 819 hostages in the occupied zone (northern France and the entire Atlantic Coast, directly occupied by the Nazis, as opposed to the central and southern zone run by the Vichy regime collaborators) between 1941 and 1943.
The group have been working to compile biographies of each and every French hostage the Nazis killed. “They have been forgotten in the collective memory, and we need to show people their stories and their characters," Tantin said.
As the poet Louis Aragon wrote in Les Martyrs after he recovered the testimonies and letters in 1942 of the Resistance fighters killed at Châteaubriant: “Do such things really happen in France? Yes, they do, you can be sure of that. These 27 men embodied France – in a way that the people who identified them to their German executioners do not. Their blood will not have been shed in vain.”
This article was translated from the original in French.