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.