Saturday, January 28, 2012

Remembering a hero of the French Resistance

I was greatly moved to read a BBC interview with Raymond Aubrac, one of the heroes of the French Resistance during World War II. The subject of the interview wasn't M. Aubrac, however; it was perhaps the greatest of French Resistance leaders, a man very little known outside France, but whose courage and leadership rival anyone else in the pantheon of heroes of the world. That man was Jean Moulin.

Jean Moulin and the Cross of Lorraine, symbol of the French Resistance
(image courtesy of Wikipedia)

I've known of M. Moulin since my teens, when I first came across a book describing his achievements. He was a man almost unique among French wartime leaders. He overcame his own left-wing political views to become an ambassador for unity among all wartime factions, groups and ideologies. As André Malraux would later eulogize him:

Each Resistance group could claim its legitimacy from the ally that armed and supported it; or even from its courage alone. General de Gaulle alone could call upon the Resistance movements to unite and to form one with all the other struggles ... That was why Jean Moulin carried with him, in the false bottom of a box of matches, a microfilm of the following extremely simple order: "Mr. Moulin's task is to bring about, within the zone of metropolitan France not directly occupied, unity of action by all elements resisting the enemy and his collaborators." Unwearyingly, he pointed out to group leaders the danger of the Resistance being torn apart between different influences. Each major event - Russia's entry into the war, then America's, the landings in North Africa - further strengthened his position. In the wake of the landings, it began to seem likely that France would once again become a theatre of operations. The clandestine press and the intelligence service (even when backed up by the infiltration of public services) were geared to Occupation, however, and not to war. Although the Resistance might be well aware that it could not liberate France without the Allies, it was equally aware of the military aid that its unity could contribute to the Allied cause. Gradually the Resistance learned that, while it was relatively easy to blow up a bridge, it was no less easy to repair it; if, however, the Resistance could blow up two hundred bridges, it would be difficult for the Germans to repair them all at once. In short, the Resistance realised that if they were to provide effective aid to Allied armies on landing, they would have to have an overall plan. It was vital that, on every road and on every railway line in France, clandestine groups should methodically disrupt the concentration of German armoured divisions. And such an overall plan could only be devised and executed by a united Resistance.

This was the end towards which Jean Moulin toiled, day after day, difficulty after difficulty, from one Resistance movement to another: "And now let us try to calm tempers on the other side . . . ". Inevitably, there were problems of clashing personalities; worse still, there was the poverty of fighting France, the maddening certainty for each maquis or free group that it was being despoiled for the benefit of another group, which in turn was equally prey to the same illusion. Who now can tell what relentless efforts it took to speak the same language to radical or reactionary teachers, to reactionary or liberal officers, to Trotskyists or Communists fresh out of Moscow, all destined for the same deliverance or the same prison; what rigour was required of this supporter of the Spanish Republic, once a "Prefect of the left", driven out by Vichy, to insist that even former members of a secret far-right organisation, the "cagoulards", should be welcomed into the common struggle!

Jean Moulin had no need to usurp the glory of others: it was not he who created Combat, Libération, Franc-tireur, it was Frenay, d'Astier, Jean-Pierre Lévy. It was not he who set up the many movements in the northern zone whose names are now remembered in history. It was not he who created the regiments, but it was he that created the army. He was the Carnot of the Resistance.

Inevitably, the amount of travel involved in this Herculean task, and the fact that his identity as an "ambassador of Resistance" inevitably became widely known, meant that M. Moulin became a priority target for the German occupation forces. Let M. Aubrac describe what happened, and what followed.

... the end came on 21 June 1943 at a doctor's house in Caluire, a suburb of the south-eastern city of Lyon. A clandestine meeting of Resistance leaders had been called to make arrangements following the arrest of a senior colleague.

But someone had tipped off the Gestapo and its notorious local chief Klaus Barbie. Moulin was arrested with seven others. After prolonged torture, he died on a train to Berlin.

Extraordinarily, some 70 years later, the man who walked with Jean Moulin across Lyon to take part in that ill-fated meeting - who actually stood next to him in the doctor's waiting-room as they were handcuffed by Barbie's men - is still alive to tell the tale.

Raymond Aubrac is France's last survivor from the senior ranks of the Resistance. He is 97 and slightly stooped, but otherwise hale and more than happy to relive those extraordinary times.

"What you have to remember is that when you are living your life on the run, as we were, you are constantly worrying about being arrested," he says.

"So when the Gestapo burst into the house, it was a shock but not a surprise. I was sitting beside Moulin and when the Gestapo burst in, he told me: 'I have a piece of paper in my pocket. Make it disappear.'

"So I put my hand in his pocket and took out the paper and swallowed it - which is not easy. I have no idea what was written on it.

"After the war, I came back to the house in Caluire - and there on the mantelpiece in the waiting-room was my pipe. Exactly where I had left it when the Gestapo came!"

. . .

By that time Aubrac had met Moulin on several occasions and, like everyone else, he had fallen under his spell. "He is very difficult to describe, because in physical appearance he was very normal - except perhaps his eyes," says Aubrac today.

"But it was his way of discussing matters that was so interesting. Never once did he use the way of authority. Don't forget he had real power - over money, over communications, over all the agents.

"And many in the Resistance could have seen him as an enemy. But he never forced his ideas on people. Instead he used a kind of Platonic discussion method, so that all views were aired.

"He was indeed a remarkable man. And do you know for the last 70 years, every time that I find myself confronting a problem I always ask myself what Moulin would have advised me to do. That was the kind of person he was."

After the Caluire arrests, Aubrac saw Moulin only one more time. It was at the Montluc prison in Lyon, were they were taken after the arrests.

"My cell was on the first floor. There were eye-holes in the doors which were meant for the guards, but we could also use them to look out. And the last time I saw Moulin, he was being carried down the stairs outside my cell by two SS men.

"He was in a very bad state. Only later did I learn that he was being taken to Paris, and from there on to Berlin. But he died on the way."

. . .

Aubrac's subsequent story is another chapter of courage and derring-do. Within weeks of his arrest, he was sentenced to death by a court in Paris.

"But luckily they did not shoot me straightaway. That was standard practice. They would wait because they thought we could still be useful to them in some way." The delay gave Aubrac's wife Lucie time to come up with an escape plan.

How Lucie and her Resistance group sprung Aubrac from the clutches of the Nazis is today one of France's best-known stories from the war - as uplifting for the French as the Caluire episode is grim.

Somehow Lucie managed to persuade the German commander that she was a) pregnant by the prisoner Aubrac (this was actually true) and b) unmarried to him.

By feigning horror at the prospect of the child being born out of wedlock, she got the commander to agree to a pre-execution marriage.

And so on 21 October, the convoy taking Aubrac back to Montluc jail from his "marriage" ceremony at police headquarters was attacked by a heavily-armed Resistance gang. Three Germans were killed and 14 prisoners escaped.

"One of the Resistance cars overtook the truck in which I was being transported, and when the two vehicles were level they shot the German driver," recalls Aubrac, who received a ricochet bullet in the side of the face.

There's more at the link.

Jean Moulin displayed his greatest heroism in captivity. As "ambassador of the Resistance", he alone among its leaders knew virtually everything there was to know about that organization: its member groups, their leaders, their plans, the nature and location of their weapons and supply dumps, the names of many of the British and Free French agents sent to help them organize against the Germans and the names and addresses of those who concealed them. If the Gestapo were ever desperate to break anyone, to make him talk, it was Jean Moulin: but he never broke, not even while enduring endless days and weeks of their most brutal, sadistic and vicious tortures. He took his secrets with him to the grave, to the future mortal peril of Nazi Germany, when the Resistance he helped to organize assisted in the liberation of France in 1944.

The nature of Jean Moulin's death remains uncertain. The Nazis claimed he committed suicide while being transferred from France to Germany. Klaus Barbie, the so-called 'Butcher of Lyon' who commanded the Gestapo in that city, almost certainly interrogated and tortured M. Moulin personally; many believe he murdered him. Other sources state that M. Moulin died of the injuries he suffered under torture. After so many years, and the death of almost everyone who was involved, the truth will probably never be known.

Memorial to Jean Moulin at Chartres (image courtesy of Stephen McParlin)

M. Moulin's remains were transferred to the Panthéon in Paris on December 19th, 1964, to join those of other distinguished French citizens in that place of national honor. The speech given on that occasion by André Malraux has become one of the most famous in French history. Let's close with some more of his words.

Leader of the Resistance martyred in hideous cellars, behold through eyes now closed for ever all these black-clad women who watch over our companions: they are in mourning for France, and for you. Behold the dwarf oak forests of Quercy through which, under a flag made from knotted strips of muslin, flit members of the maquis that the Gestapo will never find because it believes only in tall trees, not those closer to the earth. Behold the prisoner who enters the luxury villa and wonders why he has been provided with a bathroom - he has yet to hear of the bath torture. Poor tortured king of shadows, behold your people of shadows rise up in the June night disfigured by torture.

Hear the roar of the German tanks, racing back towards Normandy, over the plaintive cries of sheep and cattle disturbed by their passing: thanks to you, the tanks will arrive too late. And, Prefect, as the Allied breakthrough begins, see the commissioners of the republic rise up from every town and city in France - all those that have not been killed. Like us, you envied Leclerc's epic tramps: now, Resistance fighter, behold your ragged tramps crawl from their forest hiding-places, laying their farmers' hands to bazookas to bring to a halt one of the finest armoured divisions of Hitler's empire, the Das Reich division.

As Leclerc entered the Invalides with his cortège of honour from the hot suns of Africa and the battles of Alsace, enter now, Jean Moulin, with your terrible cortège. With all those who, like you, died in the cellars without breaking; or even, perhaps more atrocious still, those who did break; with all those in the striped garb and shaven heads of the concentration camps, with the last stumbling body from the monstrous lines of Night and Fog, falling prey at last to the rifle-butts; with the eight thousand French women that never returned from the prisons, with the last woman who died in Ravensbrück for having sheltered one of ours. Enter here, accompanied by a people born of the shadow and who disappeared with that shadow - our brothers in the order of the Night. Commemorating the anniversary of the Liberation of Paris, I said, "Listen tonight, you the young people of my country, listen to these anniversary bells that will ring as they did fourteen years ago. May you hear them on this occasion: they will ring for you."

The accompaniment most fitted to today's tribute is the song that will now be sung, the song of the partisans that I have heard murmured like a chant of complicity, then intoned in the mists of the Vosges and the woods of Alsace, mingling with the lost cries of the hill-sheep as the bazookas of the Corrèze advanced against von Rundstedt's tanks, turned once more on Strasbourg. Young people of France, listen today to what was for us the song of misfortune. It is the funeral march of these ashes you see before you. Alongside those of Carnot with the soldiers of the Year II, those of Victor Hugo with his Misérables, and those of Jaurès under the guardian eye of justice, may they rest here with their long cortège of disfigured shadows. Today, young people of France, may you think of this man as you would have reached out your hands to his poor, unrecognisable face on that last day, to those lips that never let fall a word of betrayal: on that day, his was the face of France . . .

Nobly spoken words, in honor of a man who lived nobly and died heroically.

You can read more about Jean Moulin here. I think you'll find it worth your while.



Old NFO said...

That is an outstanding post Peter, and thanks for the links too! I only knew he was a resistance leader, not the rest of the story...

trailbee said...

Thank you for a great post and the link