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June 1, 2010

German reprisals against French civilians in World War II

Yesterday I wrote a blog post about the village of Maillé in France which was destroyed by German troops in a reprisal during World War II.  I referred to the Maillé incident as a “legal reprisal” and a regular reader of this blog made a comment, asking “Legal to whom?” He also questioned what DeGaulle would have thought about the Maillé reprisal.

The Geneva Convention of 1929 was a set of laws, written to protect Prisoners of War.  Under the rules of the Convention of 1929, POWs were protected from reprisals.  However, it was not until the Geneva Convention of 1949 that civilians were protected against reprisals. The Geneva Convention of 1949 states that the principle of the prohibition of reprisals against persons has now become part of international law in respect to all persons, whether they are members of the armed forces or civilians.

According to international law during World War II, under the Geneva Convention of 1929, it was legal to violate the laws of war by responding with a reprisal against civilians in order to stop guerrilla actions that were against international law. So to answer the question “Legal to whom?” the Germans considered reprisals to be legal during World War II.

At this point, let me give you the back story on Maillé:

Germany invaded France on May 10, 1940, going around the Maginot Line, which the French had built to protect them from enemy invasion. On June 17, 1940, Marshal Henri Philippe Pétain, the new prime minister of France, asked the Germans for surrender terms and an Armistice was signed on June 22, 1940. The French agreed to an immediate “cessation of fighting.”

Charles de Gaulle, a tank corps officer in the French Army, refused to take part in the surrender; he fled to England where, on the eve of the French capitulation, he broadcast a message to the French people over the BBC on June 18, 1940. This historic speech rallied the French people and helped to start the resistance movement.

The French resistance fighters blew up bridges, derailed trains, directed the British in the bombing of German troop trains, kidnapped and killed German army officers, and ambushed German troops. They took no prisoners, but rather killed any German soldiers who surrendered to them, sometimes mutilating their bodies for good measure. The Nazis referred to them as “terrorists.”

The photo below shows a Nazi poster which depicts the heroes of the French resistance as members of an Army of Crime.

German poster calls French Resistance fighters “terrorists”

According to the terms of the Armistice signed on June 22, 1940, the 1.5 million captured French soldiers, who were prisoners of war, were to be held in captivity until the end of the war. The French agreed to this because they thought that the British would surrender in a few weeks; instead, the British rejected all peace offers by the Germans and the French POWs remained in prison for five long years. Many of them escaped and joined the Maquis, one of the most notorious resistance groups, which distinguished itself by committing atrocities against German soldiers.

The Maquis was independent from the other resistance groups; they operated as guerrilla fighters in rural areas and especially in mountainous regions. The name Maquis comes from a word that means bushes that grow along country roads. The Maquis literally hid in the bushes, darting out to kidnap German Army officers and execute them in a barbarous fashion.

Major Helmut Kämpfe was killed by the French Resistance

The man in the photo above is Major Helmut Kämpfe, the commander of Der Führer Battalion 3, who was kidnapped by members of the FTP, the French Communist resistance, on 9 June 1944. The reason that the SS soldiers went to Oradour-sur-Glane on June 10, 1944 was to look for Kämpfe.  Allegedly, the French resistance fighters in Oradour-sur-Glane were going to execute Kämpfe by ceremoniously burning him alive that day. Kämpfe was the highest ranking officer ever to be captured by the resistance, and his execution was to be a big event. No one knows for sure how Major Kämpfe died, but there has been speculation that he was burned alive.

The Maquisards, as the fighters in the Maquis were called, were politically diverse. Some of them, like the “Red Spaniards” who were former soldiers in the Spanish Civil War, were Communists, but in general, the Communists had their own resistance organizations, such as the FTP. This was a resistance group, formed by the Communist party, called the Francs-Tireurs et Partisans. The Communist party also formed the Front National which fought in the resistance.

After the Allied invasion at Normandy on June 6, 1944, the Maquis became particularly active. In preparation for the invasion, the British had dropped a large number of weapons and millions of francs by parachute into rural areas. The weapons were stored in farm houses and villages, ready for the resistance fighters who would play an important part in the liberation of Europe. As a result, the Maquis was very effective in preventing German troops from reaching the Normandy area to fight the invaders.

The reprisals against the Maquis by German troops became more and more vicious. Innocent French civilians suffered, as for example in the village of Oradour-sur-Glane, which was destroyed by Waffen-SS soldiers, in a reprisal, on June 10, 1944.

Here is a quote from Article 1. and Article 10. of the Armistice that the French signed after they surrendered to the Germans:

“1) The French government shall call a halt to all fighting against the German Reich in France, in French possessions, colonies, protectorates and mandates as well as at sea. It shall order an immediate laying down of arms by French units already enclosed by German troops.

10) The French government binds itself not to undertake any hostile actions against the German Reich with any part of the armed forces that are left to it or in any other manner.  [….]  French nationals that contravene these regulations shall be treated by the German forces as guerrillas.”

The designation as “guerrillas” was important to the Germans because guerrilla fighters were not recognized as “belligerents” under the Laws and Customs of War on Land, dated 18 October 1907, known as the Hague Convention.

The German Supreme Command never regarded the Maquisards (French resistance fighters) as “belligerents” but instead, according to the armistice agreement, they were treated as “guerrillas.”  The Germans believed that they were acting legally, according to international law, when they did reprisals against French civilians as a means of stopping the “guerrillas.”

On 8 June 1944, after the Normandy invasion, General Dwight D. Eisenhower informed the Germans that the French resistance groups were “part of the internal French forces” and were to be regarded as combatants under the Geneva Convention. The Germans did not accept Eisenhower’s decree because his declaration was unilateral and was never recognized by Germany.

According to the Hague Convention of 1907 which was in effect during World War II,  Article 1. states the following:

Article 1. The laws, the rights and the responsibilities of war apply not only to the army but also to the militia and volunteer corps if the following conditions are fulfilled:

1) if they are led by a person who is responsible for those under him,

2) if they bear a certain mark of distinction that is distinguishable from a distance,

3) they bear their weapons openly,

4) if they observe the laws and customs of warfare in what they do.

The Germans did not recognize the Maquisards as belligerents, nor as legal combatants, under this definition because the Marquisards never bore a certain mark of distinction, nor did they observe the laws and customs of warfare in what they did. Instead, the French Resistance committed horrendous atrocities against German soldiers who fell into their hands; the Resistance fighters did not treat German soldiers who surrendered to them according to the rules of the Geneva Convention of 1929.

The following is a quote from a book entitled Le Sel, la cendre, la flamme (Salt, Ash, Fire) written by Henri Rosencher, a Jewish medical student and a Communist member of the Maquis:

On the morning of the 17th of June, I arrived in the area of Lus-la-Croix-Haute, the “maquis” [zone of resistance] under the command of Commander Terrasson. They were waiting for me and took me off by car. The job at hand was mining a tunnel through which the Germans were expected to pass by train. The Rail resistance network had provided all the details. My only role was as advisor on explosives. TNT (Trinitrotoluene – a very powerful explosive) and plastic charges were going to collapse the mountain, sealing off the tunnel at both ends and its air shaft. When I got there, all the ground work was done. I only had to specify how much of the explosive was necessary, and where to put it. I checked the bickfords, primers, detonators, and crayons de mise à feu. We stationed our three teams and made sure that they could communicate with each other. I settled into the bushes with the team for the tunnel’s entrance. And we waited. Toward three p.m., we could hear the train coming. At the front came a platform car, with nothing on it, to be sacrificed to any mines that might be on the tracks, then a car with tools for repairs, and then an armored fortress car. Then came the cars over-stuffed with men in verdi-gris uniforms, and another armored car. The train entered the tunnel and after it had fully disappeared into it, we waited another minute before setting off the charge. Boulders collapsed and cascaded in a thunderous burst; a huge mass completely covered the entrance. Right after that, we heard one, then two huge explosions. The train has been taken prisoner. The 500 “feldgraus” inside weren’t about to leave, and the railway was blocked for a long, long time.

As an illegal combatant, Henri Rosencher could have been summarily shot when he was captured, but he was sent to the Natzweiler concentration camp and allowed to live.  When Natzweiler was closed, he was transferred to Dachau where he was liberated by American soldiers on April 29, 1945.

If you want to know more about the French Resistance, check the children’s section at your local library.  You’re laughing, but I’m serious.  American school children study the French Resistance as part of their instruction in hatred of the German people. The French Resistance fighters are regarded as heroes for killing 500 German soldiers by blowing up a tunnel.

The village of Maillé was on a railroad line.  Who knows? Maybe a German troop train was blown up by the French Resistance near Maillé.  The survivors of Maillé claim that they were completely innocent, just as the Oradour-sur-Glane survivors claimed to be completely innocent.


  1. Is there any truth to what these former German soldiers said about WW2?

    Under the Geneva Convention of 1929 reprisals against civilian populations for partisan activities were legal until 1949. Whatever happened in Putten was, therefore, justified by international standards at the time and was not a war crime. https://furt…

    Trackback by Quora — October 19, 2015 @ 8:21 am

  2. Is there any truth to what these former German soldiers said about WW2?

    Trackback by Quora — October 19, 2015 @ 8:14 am

  3. anything an invader does is illegal.

    Comment by Z Deedle — October 20, 2014 @ 12:07 pm

  4. […] and killing civilians for no reason.  Instead of reporting the truth, that Oradour-sur-Glane was a reprisal action, the false portrayal of the destruction of this French village is used to demonize the German Army […]

    Pingback by World at War TV series misconstrues the Oradour-sur-Glane reprisal | Scrapbookpages Blog — July 28, 2013 @ 6:57 pm

  5. You can’t claim the Germans had legal rights during the wars they waged upon civilians during both WWI and WWII. Any agreements signed by the defeated politicians were under extreme duress and often the result of capitulation, hopelessness, and threats to ones family and countrymen being held hostage. The Nazi Occupation specialized in cruelty and through organizations such as the Milice, turning the French people upon themselves by rewarding a few of the traitors in return for persecuting their countrymen.

    In both WWI and WWII, the Germans indiscriminately attacked civilians, innocent men, women, and children and tried to make examples by shooting priests, mayors of towns, and the deportation of any male of military age deemed eligible for the STO slave labor organization in Germany. Read about the Belgian towns in the path of the Kaiser’s Army during WWI…. There are many cemeteries with graves of civilians with the headstones that say “Shot by the Germans”.

    It wasn’t just France. These attrocities were documented to have occured in just about all of the German occupied countries. Greece and Italy’s civilians also suffered horrendously at the hands of the German occupation authorities…not to mention hundreds of similar “Oradours” in the Soviet Union.

    The resistance evolved from the desire to do what comes naturally…. Free their country from the yoke of these Nazi beasts.

    Comment by Sherman Wolfe — December 23, 2012 @ 12:42 am

    • I disagree…as stated repeatedly by other analysts, the Hague Convention which was still in effect mandated certain conditions for treatment as legitimate combatants…wearing easily visible insignia, carrying arms openly (as compared to sneaking around bushes and sniping away at everything that doesn’t look Pepe Lepew enough), having officers lawfully responsible for their actions, and generaly acting in compliance with “accepted rules of war”, one of which clearly isn’t burning German officers alive Nero-style. La Resistance was just that, a loosely armed mob of cutthroats who acted exactly as they complained the Germans did, no more and no less. If “innocent civilians” got caught in the crossfire, or some Germans lost their self-control, that’s something the “Maquisards” should have thought about before sneaking around their towns and fellow countrymen knowing, or rightfully being expected to know, some of them would end up dead too. Despite the evil of the Nazi regime, German soldiers whether Wehrmacht or SS, acted appropriately chasing the enemy down as they did…it’s for individuals to answer for crimes, not a general policy against Guerillas which wasn’t illegal until 4 years after the war when the Geneva Convention of ’49 thus made them illegal. It’s absurd to suggest the Germans do nothing about a Resistance itself thoroughly illegal under the terms of the 1940 surrender…end of story, imho.

      Comment by Mark Overholser — January 30, 2013 @ 2:18 pm

  6. In 1939 Nazi Germany made a cowardly and unprovoked attack on Poland, in the full knowledge that both Great Britain and France were pledged to Polands defence. The statement that Hitler was begging Britain and France for peace is not only wrong, but crassly stupid. If Hitler had wanted peace, all he had to do was comply with the demand of Nevile Chamberlain, that he withdraw his forces fron Polish teritory. The nearest statement I have researched in this respect was that Hitler stated that the British were not the natural enemies of Germany. Hitler was confident that the devestating effect of the blitzkreig on Poland
    would deter Britain and France from fulfilling their pledge of support to Poland, and thus open the way for his expansion into central/southern Europe and eventually the big prize of Russia.
    As a follow on I would say don’t get your historical facts from the TV. The American war of independence was faught by the British (in their high visibility red tunics) against a mainly rag tag and bobtail guerilla army (though inspired and quite well organised)in civillian dress.
    We all know from recent military adventures, that the best armies in the world are no match for a well organised well supplied and dedicated civilian army.

    Comment by Mickmac — September 4, 2010 @ 3:10 pm

    • I wrote about “the unprovoked attack on Poland” in the blog post at this URL:

      Why didn’t Great Britain and France come to Poland’s defense? Was it because they didn’t care about Poland and just wanted an excuse to declare war on Germany?

      Why didn’t Great Britain and France pledge to come to the defense of Poland in case Poland was attacked by Russia? It is usually not taught in American schools that Russia attacked Poland on September 17, 1939.

      Hitler wanted to be Allies with Great Britain and also America, but he was rejected by both countries.

      I was not aware that Neville Chamberlain was willing to make peace with Germany if Germany would withdraw from Poland, but I will take your word for it. Did Chamberlain demand that Russia also withdraw from Poland?

      Comment by furtherglory — September 4, 2010 @ 4:37 pm

  7. Hm. I’d have to read up much more to even begin to respond (not that I have to). But since I’ve always been a fan of the French Resistance, I probably would disagree. After all, if the French hadn’t had a ‘phoney war’, along with the British, maybe they would not have been routed by the German Army.

    Someone had to stand up for their nation; and if the Resistance had fought less fiercely, I’m sure someone would now be writing about how wimpy they were.

    It’s hard to really judge if you’re not in that situation, like what’s going on in the Gaza convoy.

    Comment by paolosilv — June 3, 2010 @ 12:02 am

    • The “phoney war” was the period between September 28, 1939 when Poland was conquered and April 1940 when there was no fighting going on. The Germans called it the “Sitzkrieg,” which means sitting war because the Germans were just sitting around not doing anything because they didn’t want war with Great Britain and France. Hitler was begging the British and the French for peace, but the British and French wanted war with Germany. The “phony war” had nothing to do with the fact that France surrendered after only 5 weeks.

      I’ve been watching the TV series about “America, The Story of US.” It shows battle scenes in the Revolutionary War and the Civil War where soldiers lined up on each side and just shot at each other out in the open, wearing dress uniforms. That’s the way wars used to be fought. Germany fought that way in World War II, but the French opted to surrender and then fight as civilians, killing Germans soldiers by ambushing them or blowing up troop trains. Sorry, but I am not a fan of the French Resistance. If the French wanted to stand up for their nation, they should have done it in a fair fight, not by blowing up troop trains.

      Someone e-mailed me about the Gaza convoy and I thought it was a joke. I didn’t believe that this actually happened until I heard it on the TV news.

      Comment by furtherglory — June 3, 2010 @ 7:23 am

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