The Liberation of France: Histories and Memories



Amid all the commemorations of D Day it is sometimes forgotten how far the French liberated themselves. The lens focuses too much on Allied forces and not enough on ordinary French people.

Of course de Gaulle told them that they had freed themselves. ‘Paris liberated! Liberated by its own efforts, liberated by its people with the help of the armies of France, with the help of all of France, that is France in combat. The one France, the true France, eternal France’. But it is significant that he stressed the armies of France – among them the 2nd Armoured Division of General Leclerc – and ‘one France, eternal France’ which was a way of isolating resisters among Vichyites and time-servers in the name of national unity.

Yet national insurrection was what some people preached and in Paris it became a reality. It was popular among communists who were influential on key organisations such as the Paris Liberation Committee (CPL).  Its chairman was André Tollet, brought up in the Faubourg Saint-Antoine where the French Revolution began, an upholster by trade  and communist by affiliation. He was shaped by the memory of the Paris Commune – the songs of Eugène Pottier and the annual pilgrimage to the Père Lachaise cemetery where the last Communards were shot. Arrested by Vichy in 1940 he tunnelled out of a camp at Compiègne and returned to Paris to build resistance activity in the  underground labour movement. He fought for a Paris edition of the liberation committees that were being set up in secret all over France  that was in some way a reincarnation of the Paris Commune.

MNRTolletAndrePhotoFrance (1)

André Tollet

Permission to use the photo from the Musée de la Résistance


As chair of the CPL, Tollet pressed for a strategy of immediate action and national insurrection. This was an act of defiance against de Gaulle and the Allies, who were reluctant to arm the French and did not want them to go into action until after D Day.  On 18Aaugust 1944, as the Allied armies approached, Tollet secured a majority on the Paris Committee for insurrection. Against him were ranged adversaries like Léo Hamon, a former communist who feared that insurrection was a pretext for a communist seizure of power. Behind his back Hamon used his contact with the Swedish consul Nordling to negotiated a truce with the Germans to give the French and Allied armies more time to get to Paris and take control of the situation. But Tollet made sure that the truce was limited to 24 hours and on 22 August Paris was again in insurrection, as it had been in 1789, 1830, 1848 and 1871. Tollet remembered, ‘Barricades were being thrown up with fervour. The science of insurrection had been passed down between the generations. We were very close to the Faubourg Saint-Antoine. I remember an old upholsterer who, as he took tacks from his mouth, was humming Pottier’s old song, L’insurgé, son vrai nom c’est l’homme’. 

As chair of the CPL Tollet was in line to become leader of the new Paris city council. But this was completely unacceptable to de Gaulle, who shoed in a timeserving socialist politician. Tollet was soon having to defend the honour of the people of Paris against those who suggested that the insurgents were just rioters and looters.

Subsequently Tollet battled for the memory of the insurrection of Paris in the story of resistance and liberation. He wrote a book in 1969 on the role of the working class in the Resistance. And he was a prime mover in the opening in 1985 of a Musée National de la Résistance in Champigny-sur-Marne, where his spirit lives on to this day.



Cecile Rol-Tanguy

One of the star attractions at the conference on 13 June will be the testimony of Cécile Rol-Tanguy. Aged 95, she is a surviving member of the communist resistance group, the Francs-Tireurs et Partisans, and contributed to the Paris insurrection of August 1944, of which her husband Henri was a leader.

I interviewed Mme Rol-Tanguy in her Paris flat two years ago in June 2012. As I approached she waved to me from her balcony and  looked so sprightly that I was unsure whether it was her or her daughter Claire, who is general secretary of the Friends of Fighters of Republican Spain, who I was also to meet and will also be speaking on 13 June.

It was this sharing of a resistance experience in a couple and across generations that inspired the idea of looking at resistance as a Family Affair. For why did some people become resisters in metropolitan France or join the Free French while most did not? Could there be a sociological explanation based on class or region? Or should we look at the influence of parents or siblings, even grandparents?  Was the kitchen table the clue to engagement in resistance activity?

Cécile Rol-Tanguy’s father, François Le Bihan, was a member of the French Communist Party and involved in the Secours International. She recalled the flat in Paris constantly full of political exiles from across Europe. She might have become a schoolteacher but her family needed her to work so she started as a typist for the Metalworkers Union in 1936. There she met a metalworker and trade-union official Henri Tanguy, also of Breton origin. When he went off to fight with the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War she was his ‘war godmother’, writing him letters from home. They were married in April 1939.

For communists the outbreak of war meant not so much fighting at the front as political repression at home. Although they had been for years at the avant-garde of the anti-fascist struggle the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939 turned them overnight into traitors. The Party press and organisation was closed down and communist activists were liable to arrest and imprisonment. Things became worse after the defeat and German Occupation, Cécile’s father was arrested in June 1941 and deported to Auschwitz. Her husband returned from the war and became involved with her in resistance activity. Having lost so much, she asked herself, what more did she have to lose?

Cécile exemplifies the positive role of women in the resistance. She acted as her husband’s courier, arranging contacts, carrying instructions and even weapons, concealed in her baby’s pram. Her own mother supported her, baby-sitting when she needed to go on a mission. She played a key role in the insurrection of Paris that Henri, as head of the Forces Françaises de l’Intérieure, the famous FFIs, commanded. The day after the liberation of Paris she was introduced to Charles de Gaulle at the Ministry of Defence along with other resistance leaders. She was the only woman in the room, wearing a blue dress that a shop assistant friend of hers had grabbed from the Champs-Elysées. ‘Personally I did not find it very welcoming’, she remembers. ‘It was a very small reception, without even a glass of wine to finish with.’

Cécile Rol-Tanguy was awarded a medal for her resistance activities but most women were not. The definition of resistance activity was based on military action, and women supported those with guns rather than using them themselves (but see the Blog about  Madeleine Riffaud, who did shoot a German!). Henri, known as Colonel Rol, joined the army that invaded Germany in 1945 but as a communist he did not enjoy promotion during the Cold War and was given a desk job at Versailles. In 1966 he nevertheless made an appearance in the Franco-American film Is Paris burning?  played by Bruno Cremer who looked strikingly like him. Cécile remained in the shadow of her husband until his death in 2002. Since then she was emerged as a treasure of the French resistance, constantly invited to speak to schoolchildren about her experiences. We are delighted to welcome her and her daughters to London.

THE LIBERATION OF PARIS, AUGUST 1944: THE TORN EXERCISE BOOK by Sally Palmer (MPhil, University of Sussex)

Sally Palmer, a postgraduate at the University of Sussex, shares her insights and her sources about the Liberation:

I am an M. Phil. student at the University of Sussex, supervised by Dr Chris Warne, Director of the Centre of Resistance Studies at Sussex, working on unpublished texts written by women during the Occupation of France 1940-1944.  These are texts from French archives in Paris.  They are primary sources, stored in brown envelopes in dusty document boxes in archives in the basement.  But they were written to be read and talked about.

I want to reclaim such women’s voices.  I think they are worth hearing because they provide a mediation of the historical reality of the German Occupation of France and because they offer a gendered perspective of a military occupation of a European capital city.  The texts reveal a particular historical present with a wealth of detail of lived experience.  They demonstrate the reach and impact of legislation and statute by the Vichy Government and German Military Command, on women’s subjective experience.  This is the image of the writer as witness, occupying a unique position in relation to events recounted.  By reaching out to a group of readers external to events, the witness or writer demolishes the deceptive image of history as an abstraction, in favour of its impact on individuals.[1] And this is what such unpublished texts tangibly demonstrate.

The unpublished text that I have identified offers a fluid understanding of significant historical events such as The Liberation of Paris in August 1944.

The text foregrounds the subjective experience of Michelle Laforest who attends the lycee Camille See in Paris. The only biographical details we have are that she lives with her parents and brother in Rue Lecourbe in the 15 th arrondissement of Paris. The text is not written contemporaneously nor is it dated. It provides a resistance discourse from the perspective of a lycéenne in Paris and is a well-informed observer of Occupied Paris.  The text privileges a clear focus on events and a narrative based on agency.

I should emphasise that this text is not written contemporaneously and has the benefit of hindsight. The language used skilfully portrays relationships, emotions and feelings and is a delight to read.

The following are extracts are from unpublished text by Michelle Laforest, entitled, ‘The Torn Exercise Book, Paris, August 1944’. This text is in the archive of the Musée Jean Moulin in Paris.


“The BBC played an important role in our life.  We were not allowed to listen to it at home.  The radio was in the dining room, but even if we turned it on at very low volume, the noise of the crackling interference would denounce us.  My father was nearby and we were frightened.  So in the evening, after dinner, we went to listen to the radio at some neighbours; Monsieur and Madame D.  Monsieur D was brave, enthusiastic and optimistic. It was a pleasure to talk to him.  He belonged to a Resistance network linked to England, and it was he who had also involved my brother in this network.  There we would be, all five of us, Monsieur and Madame D, their daughter and my brother and I, sitting in front of the radio at 9.15p.m.  Often, we would hear, like an echo the sound of the same radio interference on the floors of the flats above and below, which made us laugh.

We would listen to the programme “Les Francais parlent aux Francais”.

And then before the next programme, the loud, deep voice would come over the airwaves: “Honneur et Patrie! And now, General de Gaulle”.  Then, we would all hold our breath, and everyone became particularly serious and attentive.  I would shiver expectantly.  General de Gaulle, I imagined him tall and handsome, his sword at his side, wearing his military cap with stars, and gold fringes on his epaulettes.  He was so strong, so brave.  And also his wonderful name, how could anyone have a more beautiful name?


And then the day that we had hoped for, for so long, arrived.  D Day, a spring day the 6th of June 1944.  The news broke suddenly, “Yes, the 6th of June, the Allies have landed, yes, they have landed, is it really true?”  The news spread from house to house, from courtyard to courtyard, in the market, in the shops, in the long queues for food. We heard it on the radio! Finally, finally, finally! They had come.


It was one of those hot August days with more and more German lorries leaving the city and we could hear in the distance what sounded like the thunder of a storm but the sky was blue and the sound was not that of a bombardment. It was gunfire! The allies were coming, they were on their way, and they were nearly here! The name you kept hearing was” Leclerc; Leclerc’s lads will be here soon”. There was a kind of effervescence everywhere on the streets and in the homes. There was discussion about building barricades to stop any stragglers fleeing and to defend each neighbourhood and to help the attack if needed.

An idea took hold – we needed flags; a collective idea, as if everyone had the same thought at the same time.  We would make the flags and hang them at the windows.  It was the women’s idea.  We would use sheets to make the French flag and the Allies flags.  But how were we going to do it?  Quick, tea towels, old sheets cut in strips.  A piece of luck, there was a shop that sold dyes in the courtyard.  We ran down and started boiling water in the tubs.  Some red dye.  Some blue dye.  The red didn’t work very well, the material come out pinkish read, not the flamboyant red we had hoped for. Too bad.  Next, we needed to dry the material, iron it and nail it to a baton.

How many stars are there on the American flag?  But never mind, we’ll have to just put some on, and that will be good enough.  The Russian flag with its hammer and sickle?  Well that’s far too difficult.  We just won’t put them.  The flat will just be plain red.

But the most difficult was the English flag, it was a real tour de force when it was finished with its diagonal cross and vertical cross and horizontal cross.  It was almost impossible to make, and we had to get on with it quickly.  Finally the flags were made, brandished ceremoniously and then hung out the windows.

Everywhere the windows were decked with flags.  The flags fluttered gently in the breeze.  It was even more beautiful than on the 14th of July.

Now we were only waiting for the Allied troops to arrive.


(The writer then describes how through word of mouth she and her friend became involved in helping out at an outpost in the neighbourhood which was run by the U.F.F.  This was the Communist Party’s Union of French Women and part of the F.F.I.)


Louisette was the leader of the group based at Rue Lecourbe and Vaugirard.  She was very striking, tall, dark haired, beautiful and voluble.  My friend and I were both intimidated and admiring.  She introduced us to the group as “our two little ambassadors” and we were given armbands with U.F.F. embroidered on each.

The next day, wearing our school aprons and our armbands of course, we were sent out.  We started on the top floors of the flats and worked out way down.  We rang the doorbell and asked, “Would you have anything to give to your local F.F.I, yes, food or also weapons, especially weapons”.  But we weren’t given any weapons, not even an old revolver.  Nothing.  However, we were always given some food, potatoes or pasta despite the current poverty and food shortages.

Mme S. at the local dairy, the Black Market queen, arranged deliveries to the F.F.I. of boxes of butter, oils, and cheese.  She got in first, and was no fool.  She wasn’t going to wait until they came and requisitioned them.  She could see which way the wind was blowing.  Oh yes, Madame S was very patriotic.

And then the news broke, they had arrived in Paris.  Where were they?  Some said Notre Dame, others the Hotel de Ville.  Did it matter, they were here!  That was definite; it had been announced on the radio.

Evening came, and we returned home.  Suddenly, something amazing happened, which we would never have believed possible: the whole city was ablaze with lights.  My mother and I ran to the window.  It was fantastical, every house had all the lights blazing.  The black out and light curfew were over.  We turned all our lights on too.  Then we heard the Marseillaise being played on the piano, very loudly and with real passion.  It was the Russian woman nearby.  My mother was crying with tears of joy.  And then we heard the bells first those of the Church of Saint Lambert nearby and then those of St Francois Xavier and then others in the distance responding.

Paris was liberated.  We felt were living history.”

[1] Claire Gorrara, Women’s Representations of the Occupation in Post 68 France, Macmillan,1998


Guest Post contributed by Laura Hobson Faure (Sorbonne Nouvelle University-Paris 3) on her recently published book Un « Plan Marshall Juif » : La présence juive américaine en France, 1944-1954, Paris, Éditions Armand Colin, 2013.


Scholars of liberation France cannot fully grasp the postwar period without questioning the plight of the Jewish population as it reemerged from hiding or returned from camps or exile. From pariahs to citizens, how did Jews in France experience the transition from war to peace? How did the nation seek to reintegrate these individuals? More concretely, how did Jews reconstruct their lives and communities after Vichy and Nazi persecutions?

The growing historiography on Jewish life in postwar France has grappled with these questions, mapping out a complex portrait of the actors and political debates of French Jewish reconstruction.[1] However, until recently, the scholarly gaze on liberation France has been focused almost entirely on…. France. My recent contribution to the historiography, Un “Plan Marshall juif”: la présence juive américaine en France après la Shoah, 1944-1954 (Paris, Editions Armand Colin, 2013), argues that French Jewish reconstruction can only be understood in a transnational context. American Jewish organizations, in fact, played a central role in French Jewish reconstruction. While liberation marked the beginning of a difficult period in which Jews emerged from hiding and waited – often in vain – for the return of loved ones, most did not suffer in isolation. A diverse network of French Jewish welfare organizations had survived the war, which helped Jews as they sought to recover shattered lives and communities. These organizations provided a solid infrastructure into which American Jewish aid could be infused. Not only did American Jews provide funding for these welfare programs, they shaped their objectives and methods according to an American model, setting up what some called a “Jewish Marshall Plan”.

Although France was not the only European country to receive funding from American Jewish organizations, evidence shows that France occupied a particularly important place in the “Jewish Marshall Plan”. From 1944 through 1954, 27 million dollars were channeled to the Jews of France by one American Jewish organization alone.[2] Three quarters of the Jews of France had survived the war, meaning France had one of the highest Jewish survival rates in Western Europe.[3] At the liberation, with its Jewish population of 180,000 to 200,000 individuals, France was home to the largest Jewish community in Western continental Europe.[4]  France’s ports provided access to the Americas and to Palestine, turning it into an important crossroads for postwar European Jewish migrations. As a result of such migrations, France was one of the rare places in Europe where the postwar Jewish population was actually growing. Such factors led France to be seen as the new center for European Jewish life.

Jewish members of the American Armed Forces were the first to assist European Jewish survivors. As they liberated France, such soldiers and chaplains sought out local Jews as they emerged from hiding and provided them with basic necessities, moral support and at times even military clout to help them reclaim their stolen property. This aid co-existed, especially after December 1944, with the more formal efforts of American Jewish organizations.

The largest and most significant organizational response came from the American Joint Distribution Committee (known as the JDC or the Joint). This welfare organization was established in the United States at the outbreak of World War I and quickly became the official philanthropic representative of the American Jewish community overseas.In December of 1944, the JDC managed to send its first postwar American representative back to France and began responding to the needs of the Jewish population by funding a network of French Jewish welfare organizations of diverse ideological affiliations.

The JDC was not the only American Jewish organization to establish a program in postwar France. The Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS, also known as HICEM), established in New York at the end of the 19th century, was also active in France in the period leading up to World War II and during the war years, helping Jews emigrate from Europe. In the postwar period, this organization reestablished offices throughout France to help those who planned on leaving Europe. The American Jewish Committee, founded in the United States in 1906 to protect Jewish civil rights in the United States and abroad, established an office in Paris in 1947, where it sought to monitor anti-Semitism, facilitate the restitution of Jewish property, and, fitting with the period, fight Communism. The National Council of Jewish Women established a home for young Jewish women in Paris and organized a scholarship program for European Jewish women to study social work and related subjects in American universities. Other American Jewish organizations, such as the Jewish Labor Committee, worked closely through their ideological counterparts in France, directing their aid to assist the members of their cause. Still other organizations, such as the World Jewish Congress, or the World Union for Progressive Judaism, were not technically “American” organizations, yet deserve note because the majority of their funding, as well as the drive behind their French programs, came primarily from the United States. This nebulous group, which I call the “American Jewish presence,” generated various levels of conflict due to the overlapping missions and limited funding of those involved.

French Jewish leaders displayed ambiguous feelings toward American Jewish aid: feelings of profound gratitude co-existed with resentment over being told what to do.  Far from passive aid recipients, French Jews fought to reconstruct according to their own vision(s), usually resisting, but sometimes embracing American models. The structure of French Jewish life still bears the mark of this encounter. If American policies led to lasting change, it was the result of long-term, complex negotiations between the representatives of American Jewish organizations and French Jewish leadership.

Only a transnational perspective can allow us to understand the complexities of liberation France and the Jews: the story of the rebirth of French Jewish life was written primarily in Paris, but a significant chapter was indeed imported from New York.


[1] Cf. among others, Annette Wieviorka, Déportation et Génocide, Entre mémoire et l’oubli, Paris, Plon, 1992; Colette Zytnicki, Les Juifs à Toulouse entre 1945 et 1970, Une communauté toujours recommencée, Toulouse, Presses Universitaires du Mirail, 1998; Katy Hazan, Les Orphelins de la Shoah. Les Maisons de l’espoir, 1944-1960, Paris, Les Belles Lettres, 2000 ; Maud Mandel, In the Aftermath of Genocide: Armenians and Jews in Twentieth Century France, Duke University Press, 2003; K.H. Adler, Jews and Gender in Liberation France, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2003.

[2] The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Report by Loeb and Troper, October 1914 through December 31, 1973.

[3] Serge Klarsfeld estimates the total number of Jewish victims of the Final Solution in France at 80,000 (Klarsfeld, 1985, 180).

[4] Doris Bensimon and Sergio Della Pergola estimate the population at 180,000 at the end of 1944 (Bensimon and Della Pergola, 1984, 35). Annette Wieviorka estimates the Jewish population of France at just under 200,000 in the summer of 1944 (Wieviorka, 1995, 5-6).


We are delighted to post this guest blog written by Professor Rod Kedward which introduces us to the new Centre of Resistance Studies at the University of Sussex. For more information, click on this link.


This exciting Conference on the 70th Anniversary of the Liberation of France gives us, amongst many things, the opportunity to talk about oral testimonies by ex-Resisters.

In my experience their accounts of the Liberation are just as individual and specific as their memories of the four years which preceded it. The variations of personality and place are equally evident. The dramatic stories which emerge contain all the conflicting passions of the Liberation: joy, relief, pride, grief, anger, and revenge, and  there is no single national narrative or timescale. It is a staggered and fractured succession of local liberations over several months, with no equivalent in 1944 of that one day in 1918 on 11 November, when ‘the guns fell silent’.

The war against Nazi Germany still had to be won, and in all the testimonies there is a consciousness that the celebrations of the Liberation, the use and abuse of Resistance power, the hopes and fears of a social revolution, and the very triumph of ‘liberté’ however conceived, all happened in a kind of time vacuum, when everything seemed possible. Looking back, recounting liberation, the individual testimonies contribute powerfully to the complex picture of jubilation (la liesse de la libération) but also invariably rescue some element which they feel has been too easily neglected in the national or local imagination.

Simone Conquet, one of three women on the Liberation Committee in the Lot, wanted to re-direct the story towards the appalling suffering of those who were not there but had been deported; Pierre Boyer, a maquisard in the Aveyron put the local story into the perspective of the Allied losses in the Normandy landings, ‘We kept our heads high; we participated in the Liberation, but we owe everything to them’; Henri Cordesse, schoolteacher resister who became the Liberation Prefect of the Lozère, reflected on the spontaneity of the local demand for justice, but added that in the sexual retribution, ‘in the shaving of heads and so on…we touched rock bottom’;  and Francis Cammaerts, SOE leader of a resistance network in the south-east, revealed his own passion for justice in his story of a young resister ‘who came up to me and said he had 300 German prisoners, and wanted to know what the international conventions laid down about how much food and exercise they were entitled to.’ Cammaerts concluded, ‘There was something extraordinarily civilised about the Liberation. Far too little has been written about it.’

Justice then, justice now. Historians are involved in both. The testimonies of the actors at the time are vital for giving us local and individual colour, and even more for the hypotheses they suggest for further research, for giving the narrative new dimensions. There are extensive holdings of oral resistance testimony at dedicated national archives in Paris and an increasing number of local museums and archives throughout France, and here, in London, at the Imperial War Museum. To these the University of Sussex is adding a new Centre of Resistance Studies and an Archive of Resistance Testimony, both of which announce a comparative study of ‘resistance’ as a global concept, across time and place, elucidating the nature of covert and clandestine struggle by civilians and military alike, conscious of the creative role played in resistance by all forms of communication and cultural expression. There is the challenge of widening participation across the generations to promote continued  research and understanding of resistance, and to this end the Sussex Centre will work with an independent community and educational initiative called ‘Secret War, Museums and Learning Network.’

I much look forward to discussing all such initiatives in the chamber and corridors of the Conference. Congratulations to those who have organised it.

Rod Kedward 19.04.2014


It was almost 11pm on the night of 1 April 1944, and the citizens of a quiet little working-class village in Northern France, Ascq, were heading off to bed. Suddenly, the lights went off, and those living near the tracks heard a kind of clattering of engines. Must be another rail sabotage, some thought, no biggie. Indeed rail sabotages were very frequent in France in 1944, but they were often nothing to fuss over about. Usually, they were so minor that they only delayed trains for a couple of hours. This was especially true in Ascq, where two rail sabotages earlier that week had gone almost unnoticed. This third rail sabotage, however, was about to cause a lot more serious problems.

Within a few minutes, the citizens of Ascq were awaken with a startle: gunshots could be heard in the night, German was being yelled from the street, and men were being dragged out of their homes by SS men. As the Ascquois looked out of their windows, they could see bodies sprawled in the street, one of which was an old man in his underwear, with no shoes on.

But the biggest commotion was all the men in the town being herded near the train tracks. Those who followed them witnessed a terrible sight: SS men were lining up men in groups of twenty, and shooting them along the tracks. Indeed, the incoming train had been transporting the 12th SS Panzer-Division from the Eastern to the Western Front, and these SS men, who had been interrupted but not harmed by this sabotage, were carrying out reprisals for this act of resistance. After raiding the homes of the Ascquois, they shot the first group of twenty men;  then the second; then the third. And then suddenly, at 1am on 2 April they heard sirens approaching. It was the Gestapo, coming to put an end to this massacre. The fourth group of men were saved, and everyone rushed to their homes.

This is a quick glimpse at the surviving narrative of events: a story of how a sleepy, innocent French village was brutally murdered in the night by SS men. Otherwise known as the Massacre d’Ascq.

The case of Ascq is an interesting one: the sabotage on 1 April was so small it had not actually harmed any Germans, and as such it had not merited such intense reprisals – the occupying authorities clearly knew this, since they themselves put an end to to the massacre. However, this rail sabotage did represent growing anti-German attacks, the ever-expanding web of clandestine activities which threatened, and sometimes even killed, German men stationed in France. On the eve of the D-Day landings, tensions in France were peaking on both sides.

Indeed, Ascq was not an isolated incident. In the spring and summer of 1944, over thirty towns experienced similar fates across France: swift, murderous, ‘unjustifiable’ acts of collective reprisals against ‘innocent’ villagers. Oradour-sur-Glane is the most famous case, closely followed by Tulle, Ascq and Maillé. But there were dozens more incidents, albeit on a smaller scale. Of course, when studying the martyred towns, not all the French were so innocent, and not all the Germans so guilty. This really came through in the Ascq trials in 1944 and later 1949, first against the French saboteurs who planted the explosives on 1 April, and second against Germans who had been part of this 12th SS Panzer-Division. Whilst the former continued to be blamed by the Ascquois themselves for having brought violence and bloodshed onto the town, the latter were pardoned by members of the community, and eventually released from their sentences.

Much work remains to be done on these individual massacres, but also on the broader web of martyred towns in the Second World War – a phenomenon which was not, in fact, exclusive to France, and a concept which had already emerged during the First World War. Indeed, the cultures of violence which emerged on the eve of the French Liberation must be analyzed in a broader framework in both time and space; for now, the micro-studies of individual martyred towns can hopefully help pave the way towards such a history.



De Gaulle honours the victims of Ascq, 29 June 1947

(photo from


* This is a summary taken from my upcoming ‘Martyred Towns at the Liberation: The Case of the Massacre d’Ascq’ in Broch and Carrol, eds., France in the Era Global Wars, 1914-45: Occupation, Politics, Empire and Entanglements (under contract with Palgrave Macmillan, expected Autumn 2014). The concept of ‘martyred towns’ pre-dates the Second World War, and the Massacre d’Ascq itself is far more complex than this short blurb could cover. For more information, see Sarah Bennett  Farmer, Martyred Village : Commemorating the 1944 Massacre at Oradour-sur-Glane (Berkeley ; London: University of California Press, 1999) and Robert Gildea, ‘Resistance, Reprisals and Community in Occupied France,’ Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 13 (January 1, 2003): 163–185.


The photos of 26 August appear to suggest that Dukson had just strolled onto the parade. He is clearly out of place – he is black, is clearly a Resistance fighter, and he is wounded. The remainder of those around de Gaulle were either military men, or leaders of the Resistance:

dukson 11


Dukson’s presence did not go unnoticed by either reporters or members of the public who were present. A number of diarists note that they saw a young black man marching at the side of the demonstration, but none of them described the incident at the beginning when Dukson was apparently thrown off the march.

A report in Le Figaro of 27 August gives some insight into why Dukson was so close to de Gaulle. A number of leading Resistance fighters, including Dukson, were invited to be part of the service d’ordre – the stewards on the demonstration. Careful inspection of some of the many photos of the demonstration reveals that Dukson was present at what was probably for de Gaulle the most symbolic moment of all – when he laid a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which sits right underneath the Arc de Triomphe. Dukson could not have just slipped in unnoticed; his presence there had meaning, both for de Gaulle and for Dukson himself, and it must have been officially sanctioned. Dukson, with his sling, can be seen just behind de Gaulle:


So whatever was happening in those photos taken at the beginning of the demonstration, Dukson’s presence was not the issue. It seems more likely that he was simply not quite doing the job that the rather testy-looking soldier expected him to do, and he was therefore unceremoniously pushed out of the way. This was hardly a comradely gesture, but it does not necessarily imply racism, or contempt. And if Dukson was being ejected from the demonstration, the gesture did not succeed. This American film, taken, towards the bottom of the Champs-Elysées, clearly shows Dukson still on the parade, playing his role as a steward. You can see him waving aside the cheering crowds, using his one good arm.

Sadly, in the weeks that followed the Liberation of Paris, Dukson got involved in the black market, was arrested and then shot while trying to escape; he died on the operating table.


These photos show how difficult it is to interpret even a relatively minor event from photographic evidence. It is still not clear why Dukson was manhandled in the way that he appears to have been. But his presence was legitimate, and he later carried out the duty that de Gaulle’s entourage had asked him to perform – helping guard and protect the head of the demonstration, right up there with de Gaulle and the Resistance and Free French leaders.

The massive amount of video and photographic images uploaded onto the internet every time there is a major event might seem like a boon to the historians of the future. But making sense of those images, even where they are not deliberately partisan, will be a massive task. No one form of evidence can be taken above any other – to rationally reconstruct past events we need to use all kinds of evidence, and above all put it into context. The camera can lie, and more importantly, it never tells the whole truth.