The French Flag both before 1940 and present-day

In a Ruined State

Chapter 4

A House Divided

The Flag of the Free French forces from 1940 to 45

    "A house divided against itself cannot stand" (Abraham Lincoln, 16 June 1858), Lincoln was paraphrasing the Gospel according to Saint Mark and both could have been referring to the French nation of the war years.

    This short chapter is only intended to set the political and military background in which Oradour-sur-Glane existed during 1944. For a fuller understanding and description of the events in France both from before the war and beyond its end, see the Bibliography.




    It must be remembered that in the 1930's the threat of Communism was perceived in much of Europe as being very real, very imminent and very horrible. The spectre of the spread of Bolshevik uprisings and / or invasion was anathema to many people and politicians in various countries exploited this fear to their own ends. In Germany the initial appeal of the Nazis was as much against Communism as against the Jews and other enemies of the people. Remember that the Horst Wessel Lied had become the Nazi anthem after its author was killed in a brawl with Communists in 1930.

    Overall, France in the 1930's was probably just as anti-Communist as was Germany, but France was a democracy with a tradition of freedom of speech and action, expressed in the phrase, "The Rights of Man" which had first been used during the Declaration of 1789 (at the beginning of, The French Revolution). Germany in contrast had been feeling its way towards democracy from having an autocratic monarchist political system, which had lasted until the abdication of the Kaiser in 1918.

    It is normal and usual for democracies to have divisions in political opinion, it being a hallmark of a free society that such activity is unexceptional. In most of the really successful democracies, successful in terms of economic and political influence that is, the numbers of political parties have always been small. For example The United States of America has only two effective parties, the Republicans and the Democrats. It is true that there is an American Communist Party and many other fringe groups of all sorts, but in terms of effective elected numbers, just the two main parties. It is also true that in times of national crisis in a democracy, party political differences are set aside in order to present a common front, as for example in Britain during the Second World War which had a coalition government.

    France in the years preceding the outbreak of W.W.II had a fractious political system with much intra-national squabbling. Politically in 1939 the Third Republic was in a less robust state than Great Britain, her main ally against Germany. Whilst both Britain and France had been alive to the threat of German expansionist policies and had been building up their armed forces in order to counter them; they were both less ready for war than Germany when it came. The reason for this was simple, Germany under Hitler had the express intention of spreading eastwards by military conquest and had been rearming with that aim in mind. Britain and France were only reacting to Germany's action and a reaction will always be slower, because it comes after and in response to, an action. Both Britain and France were doing all they could to avoid a conflict, Germany in contrast actively sought one (initially with Poland and then Russia).

    When the talking ended following the invasion of Poland on 1st September 1939 and the expiry of the 3rd September deadline, both Britain and France fully mobilised in order to react to German aggression. Significantly neither country attempted an invasion of Germany itself. Time passed, the allies armaments industries went into high gear, more British troops were sent to France and the period known in Britain as the Phoney War began.

    In May 1940, using their tried technique of Blitzkrieg (Lightning War) the Germans invaded France via Belgium and Holland, swiftly rolled up the combined British and French armed forces. The speed of the collapse took France by surprise and it was with an almost audible gasp of horror that the nation realised the scale of the disaster being visited upon it. A disaster some said of its own making. After all it was France that had declared war on Germany, most definitely and emphatically not the other way round.

    With literally hundreds of thousands of military casualties and civilian refugees fleeing from the fighting, the French government tentatively sought for an armistice. They were to find that Hitler was inclined to grant them relatively easy terms in order to reach a swift conclusion to a war that he had not wanted. Apart from insisting that the armistice be signed in the same railway carriage that had been used to sign the armistice for the end of W.W.I, the Germans behaved quite moderately, especially so in comparison to their behaviour in Poland.

    The French were to be allowed to keep their Fleet and all colonial possessions; the Germans would not occupy any overseas territory, even on a temporary basis. The mainland of France would however be partitioned (see map) according to German demands, with, for example the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine being immediately ceded to Germany. This had the effect of making all the inhabitants of those provinces German citizens with effect from the armistice date of 22nd June 1940. One consequence of this action was the forced dispersal on 16th July of some 22,000 persons from Alsace-Lorraine to the Free Zone (i.e. Vichy France) because they were judged to be, 'French from within'. This included a total of 45 citizens from Charly (now renamed Charly-Oradour) who moved to Oradour-sur-Glane: see list of names. These people were given just half-an-hour to pack a maximum of 30 kilograms of luggage each and take a maximum of 2000 Francs per person. The group from Charly included the Godfrin family, all of whom except the young Roger were to die at Oradour on 10 June 1944: see memorial.

    The Germans never insisted that the government of the Free Zone be at Vichy, indeed at the beginning of the armistice negotiations they had said that subject to certain conditions, Paris would be quite acceptable to them. However as things worked out, the people who were to form the government of the Free Zone happened to be in Bordeaux at the time of the armistice and moved from there in stages to the spa town of Vichy. Vichy although it did not have any of the large buildings normally required for a seat of government was a fair distance from Paris and the German High Command. There seems little doubt that the French politicians who formed the government of the Free Zone preferred to be away from the main seat of German power in France and thus were quite happy not to use Paris as a base.

    In the chaos that was the political scene in France during June 1940, two names especially stand out, Henri Philippe Benoni Omer Joseph Pétain, Marshal of France and Pierre Laval, leader of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Pétain was brought into the government in the early days of the German invasion and it was he, with his great prestige as the hero of the battle of Verdun in W.W.I, who was primarily instrumental in seeking an armistice. Later this was to be perhaps the main reason for his fall from grace, as none fall harder than those whom the public have elevated and in whom they have placed their trust when that trust is shown to be false.

    After the signing of the armistice, Pétain became head of state in the Free Zone and Laval (eventually) his Prime Minister. Both men have been judged harshly by their critics for their collaborationist stance. After the war Pétain was sentenced to death, but eventually exiled to the Ile d'Yeu where he died on 23rd July 1951 and Laval was shot by firing squad (after an attempt at suicide the same morning) on 15th October 1945.

    Pétain claimed all along that he had acted in the best interests of France and that he had made the difficult decision to stop the fighting as the only viable option in an impossible situation. France in 1945 did not thank him for his efforts. Laval was seemingly even more of a collaborator than Pétain in that he had day-to-day control of negotiations with the Germans and allowed (or did not protest enough) many slights. He also helped recruit Frenchmen for the German Army and introduced the hated S.T.O. Notes on language and terms used. Perhaps the darkest action carried out by the Vichy government was their collaborationist organisation of the roundup and deportation of French Jews from the Free Zone to German hands in the Occupied Zone. The relationship between Pétain and Laval was not always harmonious and Laval was dismissed in December 1940 before being brought back (at Hitler's insistence) in April 1942.

    Pétain was an autocratic leader who nevertheless had (in 1940) a strong appeal to many Frenchmen. He used the 'Royal We' in issuing decrees and issued them in his own name as head of state. The standard formula was: "We Marshal of France, Head of the French State …. The Council of Ministers being in agreement, DECREE …." (from, The Vichy Regime by Robert Aron), there was not much of the democratic process in evidence.

    Pétain also changed the most dearly held slogan in France from that of, "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity", the watchwords of the French Revolution of 1789 to, "Work, Family, Country".

    It might be imagined from the 21st century, looking back to 1940 that Pétain and his government were universally despised by the French nation from the beginning, but this was not the case. In 1945 when Pétain voluntarily returned to France many French people who called for his execution, had in 1940 regarded him as a saviour. Pétain personally, did regard himself as the saviour of France and declared, "The French people will never forget that I saved them (at Vichy) as I had saved them at Verdun". Unfortunately by 1945 most French people had cause to regret their involvement with the Third Reich and transferred their feelings of helpless, impotent, frustrated involvement into ones of displaced rage, focussed onto their leaders. Basically they blamed them for their own torpor and collective weak, frightened, inaction. Having had a nasty fright the people now railed against those who had led them into the dark and betrayed their trust.

    To be fair to the French nation of 1939-44, it is easy from a safe distance to say today that they behaved in a spineless and cowardly manner, much harder to imagine how they should have behaved for the best. How would you, the reader act if your country were to be invaded, would you nobly take up arms and fight the conqueror at every possible opportunity regardless of the consequences, both personal and to your fellow countrymen? Or would you keep your head down and hope for someone else to deliver you from evil?

    On 11th November 1942 Hitler wrote to Pétain explaining that from then on German troops would occupy the whole of France, including all of the Free Zone. This was because of the expected invasion threat of the British-American army via the south of France, which Vichy France by itself would not be able to prevent. It is noteworthy that Hitler specifically states in this letter, "that as soon as the situation in the Mediterranean is improved to the point that it is no longer imperilling the interests of the Reich in maritime France, I have decided to withdraw immediately my troops inside the former line of demarcation". Hitler also re-iterated the point about the location of Pétain's headquarters; "I would also like to give you the assurance, Marshal, that you and your government will be free to move without any limitations in the whole of France".

    From the above it can be seen that the Germans were not wholly reneging on the armistice of June 1940, they were just modifying it on a temporary basis until such time as the war situation allowed it to be reinstated. It suited Germany to have France as a semi-ally rather than as an out-and-out conquered territory; fewer troops were needed to garrison the country that way. The effect on the sense of French national identity, pride and self-respect was that of a horribly demoralising and confusing nightmare. Ordinary people in France found their anger and sympathies varying with the passing of the days. In May-June 1940 they were anti-German, after the British Navy shelled the French Fleet in Mers-el-Kebir harbour on 3rd July they became anti-British. When the German occupation and demands for reparations became onerous, opinion turned against the Reich, when the RAF bombed targets in France, Britain was cursed. You can see similar emotions today in Iraq, when Saddam was overthrown, there was jubilation, one year on and there was anger.

    The Vichy government was at first hailed by many in the Free Zone (and many outside the Zone), only later did it become the target for more widespread vituperation, especially when the war was seen to be going against Germany. These violent opinion swings were only to be expected in a people without true self-determination and whose destiny was not in their own hands. However, they led at times to irrational decisions being made in a confused atmosphere.

    One group in particular that underwent a radical about-face during the occupation was the French Communist Party. They originally had been at best ambivalent about The Third Reich. This was as a result of the 23rd August 1939 treaty between Russia and Germany, which made the two countries allies. Since all the different national Communist Parties took their lead from Moscow, the French Party was told not to rock the boat when the Franco-German armistice of June 1940 was signed. However after the German invasion of Russia on 22nd June 1941, the Party became the most active of all those groups opposing the German presence on French soil. Their opposition took the form of vigorous and at times foolhardy armed action led by the FTP (Francs Tireurs et Partisans): see Notes on language and terms used.

    It was normal practice after 1942 for the Germans to have quite large numbers of garrison troops deployed throughout the Free Zone and from late 1943, to use the south of the country as a rest and retraining area. This is how Das Reich came to be quartered around Montauban in early 1944.

    At the beginning of June 1944 the Vichy government was still very much in place in the Free Zone, but was becoming increasingly unpopular as a result of its overt collaboration with the Germans, especially over the matter of the, Service du Travail Obligatoire (S.T.O.) see Notes on language and terms used.

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    It is not known for certain just when the first act of resistance activity took place following the signing of the armistice on 22nd June 1940. Most probably it was some small gesture by an independently minded citizen such as altering road signs so as to misdirect the German military traffic. What must be appreciated is that 'The French Resistance' did not spring up fully formed and implacably united against the foe all by itself in the days immediately following the armistice. In fact it was never a united force at any time during the occupation.

    It is easy to imagine that the Resistance was a natural and inevitable thing that came into being of its own volition as a natural consequence of the German conquest. It is true that some resistance to the Germans would have taken place in any event, but and it is a big but, effective resistance needs leadership, a strategy, equipment, money and co-ordination. For these guiding factors to be in place, good communications and transport are needed and for these to work effectively, it meant that the leadership and control had to come from outside France. It was only in an unoccupied country with freedom of movement and no concerns about imminent search and arrest that a nation-wide resistance network could be initiated and organised. Inevitably this led to the French Resistance being run mainly by the SOE (and later with OSS involvement) from London: see Notes on language and terms used for a description of the various resistance organisations and their opponents).

    In the early days of opposition there was inevitably a plethora of small resistance groups, whose activities were uncoordinated and at times whose actions compromised each other. It took time for London to establish contact with the various groups on the ground and establish some effective sense of directed purpose to their efforts.

    The main focus in the early days (prior to the communists joining the opposition forces) came from General de Gaulle who became the head of the Free French forces, based in London and to whom the FFI owed their loyalty. After the German invasion of Russia on 22nd June 1941, the French Communist Party decided that after all their real loyalty was to France and they then took up arms against the invader. They formed the FTP and from the first they were aggressive, showing little sympathy for their own countrymen who suffered as a result of their activities. In fact they became regarded as worse than the Germans in some areas as a result of their stealing money and other goods for their own use. They certainly were more arbitrary in their administration of what they perceived as justice and this caused much bitterness, after all if you had suffered some wrong at the hands of the Germans anywhere in France, you could at least complain to the military authorities. If you were wronged by the Resistance, to whom could you turn?

    The best known attempt at unifying the different resistance groups took place under Jean Moulin (Mouvement uni Résistance, or M.U.R.) in Paris during May 1943. He organised a meeting of Franc-Tireur (not to be confused with the FTP), Libération and Combat, but at their next meeting a month later at Caluire near Lyons, they were betrayed and Moulin captured by SS-Obersturmführer Klaus Barbie and later killed. There has been much controversy over this affair as just one man, Réné Hardy escaped the ambush and he has had to live with the constant suspicion of his being a German agent. Barbie, the head of the Gestapo in Lyons was eventually traced, arrested, tried and imprisoned in 1987 at Lyons High Court.

    The political reaction of the Vichy government in the Free Zone to the rising resistance activity was the setting up on 30th January 1943 of the Milice Nationale, this worked closely with the Germans in suppressing all forms of opposition. The Milice, it must be remembered were French, not German. They were the most deadly threat of all to resistance activity because they had the advantages of local knowledge and could pass for disaffected Frenchmen in order to infiltrate resistance groups. The Milice quickly gained a reputation for brutal treatment of suspects, not even exceeded by the Gestapo. Their leader was Joseph Darnand, a W.W.I hero who was personally appointed by Pétain to lead the fight, "against democracy, against Gaullist dissidents and against the Jewish leprosy" (The Vichy Regime by Robert Aron). As can be seen they were a right wing and anti-Semitic organisation. Eventually even Pétain was moved to protest about their excesses, "The Milice has gained the hideous reputation of using methods which … succeeded in establishing an atmosphere of police terror which had been unknown in our country till today" (The Vichy Regime by Robert Aron).

    As has been mentioned before, the FFI (which was the name given to all Resistance members allied to de Gaulle) were more involved with intelligence gathering and preparing for D-Day than in outright attacks on the Germans. In contrast the FTP were the wild ones who would at times take quite large risks in order to attack Germans and their material. What also set the FTP apart in from other groups was that they seemed to ignore the consequences of their actions on the local population. A good example of this was their attack on the town of Tulle on 7-8 June 1944: see Chapter 6 for more detail. The main body of the FTP fighters slipped away from the town as the soldiers from Das Reich arrived, leaving the townspeople to pay the price. A total of 99 men were hanged in reprisal, only two of whom were known to be members of the Resistance, the other 97 were selected by arbitrary means and must be assumed by normal judicial standards to be innocent of direct involvement.

    The most well known of the FTP leaders in southern France was 'Colonel' Georges Guingouin an ex-school teacher from Limoges: see picture. Guingouin had been asked to help the attackers of Tulle and had refused to send any men, arms or ammunition, even when directly approached on the evening of the 7th June. It is significant the FTP leaders who attacked Tulle on the morning of the 7th June had not secured Guingouin's assistance before the attack began and he refused it when it was sought. So much for idea of a united, indivisible resistance movement all working to a common agreed goal.

    Georges Guingouin has been mentioned several times in this narrative and his name appears in just about every writing on the subject of Oradour. Since he has an important part of the story, his background will be outlined as follows.

    He was the son of a professional soldier, a non-commissioned officer, who was killed at Bapaume at the start of W.W.I. His mother had given him a thirst for reading, especially about patriotic events in France's past, such as the peasant resistance in the Vosges during 1815 and about the 'Francs Tireurs' (Free-Shooters) of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71.

    Guingouin had competed three years of military service in the infantry before the war, serving in the headquarters unit of the military school in Paris and this is undoubtedly where he picked up the necessary skills to organise and control his band of resistance fighters. Guingouin was a Communist, but he claimed to be able to work with and not against General de Gaulle and the other resistance groups.

    Between 1940 and 1942, there was comparatively little out and out fighting between the Germans and the resistance. For the most part the resistance carried out intelligence gathering activities, helping downed airmen escape and did relatively minor sabotage work, but not much by way of direct combat. During this time Guingouin went to some lengths to try and gain at least the neutrality of the local non-involved population, rather than their hostility, with all the dangers of betrayal which that brought. From 1943 onwards the resistance (the FTP), became much more aggressive, destroying the rail bridge at Bussy-Varache on the Limoges-Ussel line in March. Then a little later in May, Guingouin personally, with just one helper attacked the Wattelez rubber-processing factory near Limoges.

    Guingouin and his men had become such a nuisance, that the Vichy government in October 1943 made a determined effort (without success) to locate and destroy them, employing their own men and not German forces.

    This needs to be re-stated, Frenchmen were used in large numbers to hunt other Frenchmen.

    By early 1944, Guingouin and his men had become such an irritant, that no less a force that Das Reich (which was quartered around Montauban) was ordered to assist in the location and destruction of the FTP Resistance, or "Gangs" as the Germans called them. At first sight a group less suited to anti-partisan warfare than a Panzer Division would be hard to imagine, yet in this case there was some logic to it. The point being that Das Reich was in the area occupied by Guingouin's men at the time and many of its veterans had experience of fighting irregular forces (and dealing with the local civilian population). After the D-Day landings were seen to be serious and not just a diversionary feint, Das Reich's orders changed rapidly to send them north to Normandy. However for a few days they carried out what in effect became an anti-partisan operation whilst they headed north towards Normandy.

    There is no written evidence directly linking Guingouin with Helmut Kämpfe, but he was the "chief" of Jean Canou who abducted Kämpfe on 9th June (as described by Canou in 1953 at Bordeaux). As it is normally accepted practice that the head of an organisation, especially a military organisation, accepts responsibility for all its actions, Guingouin must therefore be regarded as having some considerable measure of responsibility for the events at Oradour on 10th June.

    After the war Georges Guingouin became (communist) mayor of Limoges from 1945-47. He remained politically active until 1953 when he was thrown out of the French Communist Party amidst much angst and soul searching over his wartime record and accusations of abuse of power. Latterly he has enjoyed something of a revival in public opinion, but has still not given a full and frank account of his dealings with Kämpfe.

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© Michael Williams: 2nd October 2000 ... revision Tuesday, 04 October 2022