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Transcript
The Épuration: a Twentieth Century Reign of Terror
Caitlin Vest
This paper was written for Dr. Cafaro’s Europe 1870 to the Present course.
On 21 June 1941, Irène Nèmirovsky, a Jewish author who fled her native Russia for Paris in 1920, dejectedly wrote in
her notebook, “France is going to join hands with Germany.”1 Fearing to draw too much attention to her Jewish background,
Nèmirovsky was a quiet mourner of the Franco-German Armistice who put her energy into writing a book about the French
experience during the war years.
Article III of the Franco-German Armistice declared, “All French authorities and officials of the occupied territory…
are to be promptly informed by the French Government to comply with the regulations of the German military commanders
and to cooperate with them in a correct manner.”2 This article simply required French authorities to cooperate with the
Germans. Some French actually cooperated with the German occupation more than was required by the articles of the
Armistice while others resisted the Nazis by taking part in public demonstrations and even acts of violence. A majority of
the French population, like Nèmirovsky, simply tried to survive the difficult times.
France has a long history of revolution and counterrevolution. Perry Biddiscombe writes, “every French war of the
modern period has borne elements of civil war.” 3 For France, the Second World War was merely a precursor to a divisive
internal struggle. The signing of the Armistice ended the conflict between the French and German states in June 1940.
However, an even more devastating Franco-French conflict emerged out of the Occupation and threatened the stability of
post-war France.
Robert Brasillach, the editor of the collaborationist newspaper Je Suis Partout described the years of Nazi Occupation
in France: “During these years the French have all more or less been to bed with Germany.”4 Brasillach suggests that all
French citizens collaborated with the German occupiers in some way. However, Stanley Hoffman distinguished between
collaboration with Germany and collaboration with the Nazis. The former, cooperation with the victorious power for reasons
of state and business5, was practiced most by the petit bourgeois who relied on “business as usual”6 and served German
customers, though often grudgingly.
The French, however, had more than simply a businesslike relationship with their occupiers. By late 1943, Germans
had fathered around 85,000 illegitimate children in France. Alistair Horne writes that the loss of two million French men
– prisoners of war or serving as slave labor – may have caused many French women to turn to the young, attractive, and
polite German men who occupied their cities. “But, most of all,” Horne continues, “as the war dragged on and life became
harsher and harsher in Paris, sleeping with a German often became the only way a woman could keep her children from
starvation.”7 Some French women were driven to prostitution as a result of financial need. However, in many cases,
German soldiers simply provided for their French lovers.8 For much of the French population, collaboration with their
German occupiers was a mechanism of survival.
Collaboration with Nazism, however, was an open cooperation with and support of the policies of the Nazi regime.9
These included people like the anti-Semitic Brasillach, who briefly served in the French military and was a prisoner of war until
he was released to take over the editorship of Je Suis Partout. In 1945, he was executed for his role as a collaborationist.10
The Occupation saw the rise of numerous newspapers. Les Nouveaux Temps supported the Nazi ideology and was
funded by Pierre Laval, Phillipe Pétain’s vice premier and chief aid, and Otto Abetz, the German ambassador to the Vichy
regime. Marcel Déat founded the paper L’Oeuvre as well as the Reassemblement Nationale Populaire (RNP), a fascist
collaborationist party.
These journalists cooperated with the German occupiers for various reasons. Déat had opposed France’s entry into
the war, and anti-Semites and anti-communists were attracted to the Nazi creed. However, according to Stanley Hoffman,
French collaborators were largely “social misfits and political deviants… Without the Nazis, their chance of gaining power
in France was nil, and in Germany the Nazi party and regime had made use of and given a sense of mission to comparable
misfits.”11 For many journalists, collaboration with Nazism provided them with greater opportunities than were offered by the
Third Republic.12 Some French were sincerely attracted to the spirit and firmness of the Germans, compared to the Third
Republic’s “supposed passivity and lack of dynamism, most starkly reflected in the easy defeat of 1940.”13 Disillusioned
with their own government, they sought guidance from another.
To an extent, French intellectuals, such as writers and publishers, also collaborated with the Germans. Publishers
agreed to suppress literary works by Jews and dissidents, and, as a result, Otto Abetz limited German interference with
the publishing industry.14 Authors submitted their works for approval by the censors in order to continue writing and
maintain their literary survival. Both writers and publishers collaborated with the German authorities and, as a result,
France published an average of 6,400 books each year of the war, more than any other country in the world.15
Not all intellectuals, however, agreed to censorship, and around 8,000 authors were banned.16 This illustrates that
some French people chose to resist their occupiers. The French Resistance was composed mostly of urban, upper
and middle class French men and women.17 In 1941, Hitler’s invasion of Russia turned a former supporter, the French
Communist Party, against Germany, adding a powerful dimension to the Resistance. Despite these supporters, Horne
writes that the Resistance was only “a small minority,”18 a fact that would prove divisive following the Liberation.
Resistance to the Nazis was more difficult in Paris than in the French suburbs, as systems of communication were
under constant surveillance and escape was nearly impossible. Resistors also lived in fear of délation, or denouncement
by neighbors.19 Despite these obstacles, however, Paris was the center for most resistance movements in France.20 The
first significant, though unsuccessful, expression of opposition to the Germans was a demonstration by a group of Parisian
students following the arrest of a popular professor of the Sorbonne. On Armistice Day 1940, the students marched down
the Champs-Elysées to the Etoile, singing the Marseillaise and chanting the name of General Charles de Gaulle. The Nazis
arrested 123 of the demonstrators.20 The first réseau, or Resistance network, was hardly more effective. Formed by a
group of ethnologists, it managed to produce an underground newspaper, called Résistance, before many of the members
were denounced to the German authorities. By 1942, eight of the ethnologists had been executed and eleven deported.22
The Franco-German Alliance forbade French citizens to fight against their occupiers. According to the Armistice,
“French citizens who violate this provision are to be treated by German troops as insurgents,”23 and in the early years of
the Occupation, most Resistance groups opposed violence. They performed pranks to humiliate the Germans and raise
French morale. In the later years of the Occupation, however, the number of people joining the Resistance increased as
a result of the ever growing possibility of an Allied invasion.24 Resistors often resorted to violence in order to achieve their
desired ends. In 1944, in the small town of Ascq, local saboteurs destroyed the railway line going from Brussels to Lille.
Even these violent acts of aggression, however, proved largely ineffective. A German military train was stopped by the
explosion but no military personnel were injured.25
Despite there being no German casualties, reprisal on the town was immediate and destructive, resulting in the
deaths of 86 French citizens. The quick reprisal was in accordance with new instructions, authorized by Hitler in 1941.
These stated “If troops are attacked in any manner…there is to be an immediate return of fire. If innocent persons are hit
this is regrettable, but entirely the fault of the terrorists.”26 These instructions were to prevent German troops from being
exposed to further attack by resistance fighters.27
By the end of the Occupation, the Germans had executed 11,000 French resistors and another 5,000 had been
deported to concentration camps. Members of the Resistance chose to endanger their own lives and the lives of other
members of their community. This risk was not taken for a single set of ideological or political views, which varied between
individuals. In fact, there was some conflict within the resistance – particularly towards the end of the war and between
communists and Gaullists28 – about how the government would be run after the war was over. However, all parties agreed
that reform was impossible as long as the Nazis were undefeated.29
The population was generally receptive to the Resistance, making widespread demonstrations possible. In 1942,
Resistance newspapers urged the people to wear the national colors on Bastille Day, and the response was sixty-six
demonstrations throughout France, though most were in the Southern Zone.30 The response of the French community,
however, was not always positive. As demonstrated by the events in Ascq, an individual act of resistance had a profound
impact on the community as a whole. The German occupiers viewed acts of resistance as a form of terrorism, and
considered the whole community responsible for “terrorist acts committed within them.” 31 Robert Gildea writes that the
French population responded to the Resistance in different ways: by creating a “cult of the heroes,” by directing their anger
toward the Germans, or with resentment toward the resistors themselves.32
The initial response of the Ascq community was hatred toward the Germans. However, there was also tension within
the community, for the 86 dead fell into two groups: the fusillés and the massacres. The fusillés were the saboteurs,
responsible for the destruction of the railway line, and shot by the Germans, and the massacres were the innocent members
of the community who were massacred as a result of the sabotage. In 1994, on the fiftieth anniversary of the massacre,
Robert Gildea interviewed an Ascq resident: “On the question of forgiveness she said that there were not one but two
groups of people who had to be forgiven: the Germans of course, but also ‘those who set off the explosion so close to a
town’.”33
The most detrimental effect the Occupation had on France, however, was not the destruction of French villages and
lives by the Germans. It was the civil strife that the Occupation and, more specifically, the collaboration of French citizens
caused. In June 1941, Némirovsky wrote, “I cannot forgive certain individuals, those who reject me, those who coldly
abandon us, those who are prepared to stab you in the back. Those people…if I could just get my hands on them.” 34
Némirovsky did not get her revenge. The following July, she was arrested and deported to Auschwitz, where she died.
As the war dragged on and conditions became harsher, especially in Paris, resentment of collaborationists grew and,
by 1943, reprisals by resistance fighters were increasing.35 Reprisals were most extensive in Paris, where collaborationism
was most visible.36 General Charles de Gaulle recognized that occupation and collaboration had divided France. However,
he maintained that the State, not individuals, should judge and punish collaborators. In a 1944 broadcast de Gaulle said,
“It is true that many made mistakes at one moment or the other, since this thirty years’ war broke out in 1914…Let us try to
forget! France is made up of all Frenchmen. Unless she is to perish, she needs the hearts, the spirits and the strength of
all her sons and daughters.”37
Much of the punishment that took place, however, was not government sanctioned, and this came to be known as
the épuration sauvage, or wild purge. Julian Jackson writes that there were three distinct phases of the epuration. The
first, which resulted in about 2,400 deaths, transpired before France was actually liberated in June 1944. These deaths
Jackson considers to have occurred during the Occupation, as a result of Resistance violence.38 Another 5,000 deaths
occurred during fighting between D-Day and the actual Liberation: “These were acts of war rather than examples of ‘people’s
justice’.”39 According to Jackson, the actual épuration sauvage took place between the Liberation and the establishment of
courts to deal with issues of collaboration, and 1,600 people were killed during this phase.40
The first acts of vengeance were against the defeated Germans, but the French soon turned against their own
country men and women. The public shaving of women’s heads is an infamous act associated with the épuration sauvage.
According to Jackson, this occurred almost exclusively in two phases: in August and September of 1944 and May and
June of 1945. The latter phase was in response to deportees returning from concentration camps.41 Shaving heads was
a consequence reserved for women and was a punishment for délation and having sexual relations with Germans. These
two acts were associated with each other as, if a woman had an intimate relationship with a German, it was assumed that
she had denounced resistors to him.42
Many of the prominent collaborators were unceremoniously taken from their homes and interned at Drancy, the
infamous way-station for Jewish deportees on their way to concentration camps. The collaborationists were treated in much
the same manner as the Jews who had previously resided there. Alistair Horne writes that 4,000 accused collaborators,
many held without charge or documentation, spent days at Drancy. According to one of these inmates, they were
at the mercy of forty [Free French of the Interior]. These were commanded by a young chief of twenty-two,
himself liberated from Drancy and animated with the single spirit of retaliation… Numerous women have been
violated. Many internees were woken up at night and beaten until blood flowed.43
Anti-collaborationist feelings were further aroused by the growing awareness of the horrors that had taken place in Nazi
concentration camps. Two Parisian jails were stormed after a newsfilm of the liberation of Belsen was shown. Prisoners
were taken out and lynched in a manner reminiscent of the Reign of Terror.44
In September 1944, de Gaulle took notice of excesses and, to prevent further immoderation, he appointed an officer
to inspect internment camps and prisons.45 Official tribunals were also established to judge and punish collaborationists.46
In November 1944, a High Court of Justice was established to judge Vichy ministers. De Gaulle’s decree created a legal
way to punish collaborators while declaring the illegitimacy of the Vichy government.
The head of the Vichy government, Phillipe Pétain was tried in the summer of 1945. At his trial, it was revealed that
120,000 Jews had been deported, including Iréne Némirovsky and her husband, and only 15,000 had returned. Pétain was
sentenced to life in prison, which proved to be only six years. He died in the Ile de Yeu in 1951 at the age of 95.47 Laval –
whom in 1942 Némirovsky called one of “the most hated men in France”48 – was killed by a firing squad in 1945, following
a dramatic trial and attempted suicide.49
Non-government collaborationists tried in French courts were judged based on Article 75 of the French penal code,
which condemned treason and sharing information with the enemy.50 According to a 1945 American newspaper article, a
sixteen year old boy was tried for passing information to the Germans in exchange for money and cigarettes. In addition,
a cleaning woman denounced her fellow workers for listening to the BBC because “they had teamed up to give her the
hardest cleaning jobs.”51 Neither of these defendants was given death sentences though the paper reported that a woman
who denounced a French Jewess had been executed.
Behavior that was deemed unpatriotic but not criminal was considered an offense of dégradation nationale, or national
indignity, and these cases were tried in the Civic Courts.52 Twenty-five percent of French defendants were convicted53 and
punishable by the temporary loss of civic rights.54 In Paris alone, 100,000 arrests were made,55 and, as a result of these
tribunals, more than 44,000 individuals spent some time in prison while another 1,500 to 1,600 were executed.56
Alistair Horne describes the arrest of the French actress Arletty who had taken a German lover. He writes “what was
held against her was not so much that she had slept with a German senior officer as that she had dined with him at the Ritz
when other Parisians went hungry.”57 The motives behind the violent épuration – both government sanctioned and savage
– were as many and various as the reasons behind collaboration and resistance. For some it was a necessary catharsis
following the humiliation of the Occupation. For others it was “vengeance mixed with justice.”58
Just as the Resistance knew that reform in France was impossible as long as the Nazis remained, advocates of the
épuration believed that, in order to make way for the creation of a new France, it was necessary to eliminate those who had
seemingly betrayed the old France. More than anything, the épuration reveals the complexity of Franco-French relations.
In 1942, Iréne Némirovsky wrote an entry in her notebook that expressed this complexity and seemed to foretell
the events that she would not live to see: “The French grew tired of the Republic as if she were an old wife. For them, the
dictatorship was a brief affair, adultery. But they intended to cheat on their wife, not to kill her. Now they realize she’s dead,
their Republic, their freedom. They’re mourning her.”59
Bibliography
Reference Sources
Hackett, Amy, ed. “Otto Abetz,” in Encyclopedia of the Third Reich. New York: MacMillan
Publishing Co., 1991.
Roberts, William J., ed. “Pierre Laval,” in France: a reference guide from the Renaissance to the
present. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2004.
________, “Marcel Déat,” in France: a reference guide from the Renaissance to the present.
New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2004.
________, “Resistance,” in France: a reference guide from the Renaissance to the present. New
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Associated Press. “French Purge Courts Try 20,000 in Nine Months; 991 Condemned to Die.” Owosso
Argus-Press. 13 July 1945.
Bloch, Marc. The Historian’s Craft. Translated by Peter Putnam. New York: Vintage Books, 1953.
De Gaulle, Charles. “Speech by General de Gaulle, broadcast on October 14th 1944.” In Salvation
1944-1946: Documents. Translated by Joyce Murchie and Hamish Erskine. New York: Simon and
Schuster, 1960. 127-130.
________. “Decree of November 18th 1944 establishing a High Court of Justice.” In Salvation 19441946: Documents. Translated by Joyce Murchie and Hamish Erskine. New York: Simon and
Schuster, 1960. 132-134.
Nèmirovsky, Irène. “Handwritten notes on the situation in France and her plans for Suite
Francaise, taken from her notebooks,” in Suite Francaise. Translated by Sandra Smith.
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006.
Pol, Heinz. Suicide of a Democracy. Translated by Heinz and Ruth Norden. New York: Reynal
and Hitchcock, 1940.
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Armed Forces and French Plenipotentiaries,” in Documents on German Foreign Policy
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Curtis, Michael. Verdict on Vichy: Power and Prejudice in the Vichy France Regime. New York:
Arcade Publishing, 2002.
Horne, Alistaire. Seven Ages of Paris. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002.
Jackson, Julian. France: The Dark years 1940-1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Novick, Peter. The Resistance Versus Vichy: The Purge of Collaborators in Liberated France.
New York: Columbia University Press, 1968.
Paxton, Robert O. Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order, 1940-1944. New York: Alfred A.
Knopf, 1972.
Journal Articles
Biddiscombe, Perry. “The Last White Terror: The Maquis Blanc and Its Impact in Liberated
France, 1944-1945.” The Journal of Modern History 73, no. 4 (Dec. 2001): 811-861.
Hoffman, Stanley. “Collaborationism in France in World War II.” The Journal of Modern
History 40, no. 3. (Sept. 1968): 375-395.
Gildea, Robert. “Resistance, Reprisals, and Community in Occupied France.” Transactions of
the Royal Historical Society 13. (2002): 163-185.
Zdatny, Steven. “Collaboration or Resistance: French hairdressers and Vichy’s Labor Charter.”
French Historical Studies 20, No. 4. (Autumn, 1997): 737-772.
Irène Nèmirovsky. “Handwritten notes on the situation in France and her plans for Suite Francaise, taken from her
notebooks.” Suite Francaise (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006), 374.
U.S. Department of State, “Armistice Agreement between the German High Command of the Armed Forces and
French Plenipotentiaries,” In Documents on German Foreign Policy 1918-1945. Washington: Government
Printing Office, 1956,
Perry Biddiscombe. “The Last White Terror: The Maquis Blanc and Its Impact in Liberated France, 1944-1945.”
The Journal of Modern History. Vol. 73, No. 4 (December 2001). 812.
Alistair Horne, Seven Ages of Paris (New York: Vintage Books, 2004), 360.
Stanley Hoffman. “Collaborationism in France in World War II.” The Journal of Modern History. Vol. 40, No. 3
(Sept. 1968). 376.
Endnotes
1
2
3
Irène Nèmirovsky. “Handwritten notes on the situation in France and her plans for Suite Francaise, taken from her
notebooks.” Suite Francaise (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006), 374.
U.S. Department of State, “Armistice Agreement between the German High Command of the Armed Forces and
French Plenipotentiaries,” In Documents on German Foreign Policy 1918-1945. Washington: Government
Printing Office, 1956,
Perry Biddiscombe. “The Last White Terror: The Maquis Blanc and Its Impact in Liberated France, 1944-1945.”
The Journal of Modern History. Vol. 73, No. 4 (December 2001). 812.
Alistair Horne, Seven Ages of Paris (New York: Vintage Books, 2004), 360.
5
Stanley Hoffman. “Collaborationism in France in World War II.” The Journal of Modern History. Vol. 40, No. 3
(Sept. 1968). 376.
6
Horne, 360.
7
Ibid., 361.
8
Jackson 335.
9
Hoffman, 376.
10
Michael Curtis, Verdict on Vichy: Power and Prejudice in the Vichy France Regime (New York: Arcade
Publishing), 355.
11
Hoffman, 389-390.
12
Ibid., 383.
13
Biddiscombe, 814.
14
Horne, 360.
15
Ibid., 362.
16
Ibid.
17
Ibid.
18
Ibid., 377.
19
Horne, 367.
20
Jackson, 437.
21
Horne, 366.
22
Ibid., 366-7.
23
“Franco-German Armistice”, 765.
24
Horne, 367.
25
Robert Gildea. “Resistance, Reprisals, and Community in Occupied France.” Transactions of the Royal Historical
Society. Vol. 13 (2002). 167.
26
Gildea, 168-9.
27
Ibid., 168.
28
Horne, 367.
29
Jackson, 416.
30
Jackson, 439.
31
Gildea., 163.
32
Ibid., 164.
33
Ibid., 182.
34
Némirovsky, 374.
35
Horne, 376.
36
Ibid., 377.
37
“Speech by General de Gaulle, broadcast on October 14th 1944.” In Salvation 1944-1946:
Documents, trans. Joyce Murchie and Hamish Erskine, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1960, 130.
38
Jackson, 578.
39
Ibid., 579.
40
Jackson.
41
Ibid., 580-581.
42
Ibid., 182.
43
Horne, 377.
44
Ibid., 376.
45
Ibid.
46
Curtis, 268.
47
Horne, 377.
48
Némirovsky, 377.
49
Horne, 377.
50
Jackson, 512.
51
Associated Press, “French Purge Courts Try 20,000 in Nine Months; 991 Condemned to Die,” Owosso (Mich.)
Owosso Argus-Press, 13 July 1945, p. 3.
52
Jackson, 512.
53
Horne, 377.
54
Jackson, 512.
55
Horne, 377.
56
Curtis, 268.
57
Ibid., 376.
4
58
59
Horne, 375.
Némirovsky, 377.