PARIS — In February, 1944, the Nazi occupation force, preparing to execute 23 members of the French Resistance, slapped copies of a poster on buildings throughout Paris that pictured and identified 10 of the condemned men.
Not one had a French name: Manouchian, Grzywacz, Elek, Wasjbrot, Witchitz, Fingerweig, Boczov, Fontanot, Alfonso, Rayman. All were immigrants. The Germans identified the leader, Missack Manouchian, as Armenian, and the others as five Polish Jews, two Hungarian Jews, one Italian and one Spaniard. All were Communists.
This “red poster,” venerated in a 1955 poem by the French writer Louis Aragon, has a hallowed place now in the annals of immigrants who fought against the Nazi occupation of France, for it is a glorification of their role and of their martyrdom. The poster was pasted up all over town for a far different reason, however.
The Nazis wanted to sully the name of the Resistance by making it seem Communist, foreign and Jewish. There was enough truth in that assertion to trouble the French then and to continue to trouble them now.
Now, more than 40 years later, a controversy has erupted over the arrest and execution of this band of anti-Nazi battlers, known, from their leader’s name, as the Manouchian group. The French Communist Party has been accused of allowing these Communist resisters to fall into the hands of the Nazis.
According to the accusation, denied vehemently by the party, the Communist leaders wanted their comrades out of the way to make sure that, as liberation approached, the Communist wing of the Resistance would be controlled by native French and not foreign immigrants. This may have seemed even more necessary toward the end of the war when the Communists were in competition with the native French followers of Gen. Charles de Gaulle for control of the Resistance movement.
Many historians doubt that any kind of blatant and cynical betrayal took place, but they still question the Communist attitude toward the immigrants. At the least, the party seems lax about protecting them.
This summer, a documentary about these resisters was scheduled, banned and then finally shown on national television. A two-hour debate followed the documentary on television, and for a time arguments about the role of the immigrants and Jews in the Resistance filled the national newspapers and magazines of France.
Fall From Grace
The troubling controversy reflected both the great difficulty that the French have in dealing with their behavior during the Nazi occupation and the extraordinary, recent fall from grace of the Communist Party, which now faces challenges to some of its most cherished myths of World War II.
The documentary’s director, Serge Mosco, may have erred in trying to touch both nerves. Even some of those who lobbied for the telecast of the film, such as the prominent Jewish lawyer Serge Klarsfeld, believe Mosco was wrong to bring up the Communist betrayal issue. Klarsfeld says that the controversy has drawn attention away from the real issue of the film–the nature of the French Resistance.
“It was mostly immigrants–and most of them were Jews–who killed Nazis,” Klarsfeld said in a recent interview. “In the first year of the war, France was like a sanitarium for the Germans. They could go there for a rest.” It was not until the Jews and immigrants began battling that the Resistance got under way.
“What is important for us,” Klarsfeld said, “is that everyone should know that Jews were among the most important members of the Resistance of France.”
Image Doesn’t Fit
All this conflicts with an image that most French like to have about the Resistance–the image of many native French abhorring the Nazi occupation, secretly supporting the cause of De Gaulle and his Free French Forces outside France, and early on joining the Resistance in France to battle the German oppressors. The image does not fit the historical record.
Until June, 1941, when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, there was no resistance at all inside France. The majority of the French supported the pro-Fascist Vichy government of Marshal Henri Petain. De Gaulle discouraged acts of terrorism by his followers for fear of reprisals against innocent civilians. The Communist Party was not going to attack Germans so long as the Soviet Union had a nonaggression treaty with Germany.
After the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union, however, the Communists began the French Resistance. A large number of their recruits were young immigrants, many of them workers with Communist backgrounds.
After the summer of 1942, when the French police rounded up thousands upon thousands of foreign-born Jews and turned them over to the Germans for deportation to extermination camps, many children of these Jews joined the Communist-led Resistance.
Irregulars and Partisans
The Communist Party organized these fighters against the Nazi occupation as the Immigrant Labor section of the Resistance force known as the Irregulars and Partisans. They used the unwieldy abbreviation FTP-MOI from the initials in French.
Missack Manouchian headed one of the FTP-MOI detachments with a spectacular record. The Manouchian fighters derailed a troop train, bombed the car carrying the German military commander of Paris, and killed the German official in charge of forcing young French to work in German factories.
The French secret police moved against the Irregulars and Partisans in 1943 with great force and efficiency. They arrested many Jewish Communists throughout the year, and, in a sudden series of raids, broke up the Manouchian group in November by arresting 58 Jewish resistance fighters, 29 others of foreign birth, and 21 native French. This wiped out the Jews and immigrants as a force within the Resistance.
Why were the Germans able to break up these immigrant detachments? There evidently was a good deal of carelessness within the Resistance movement at a time when the police were following its members closely.
Moreover, there is evidence that one member, after his arrest, informed on the others. Manouchian himself, in a letter written from prison, wrote that he pardoned all “but those who betrayed us and those who sold us.” His widow has publicly accused a Romanian-born leader of the French Communist Party of the betrayal (Romanians were allied with the Germans in WW2).
There is no hard evidence that the leaders of the party were betrayers but many analysts do fault the leadership of the party for refusing to let the Jewish fighters move outside Paris when it became clear in 1943 that the French secret police were close on their trail. On top of this, the party leadership, following the anti-Semitic tone of Stalin after the war, later tried to erase the role of the Jews and other immigrants from the history of the Resistance. The Resistance would be French, not foreign and Jewish.
Mosco’s documentary, called “Terrorists in Retreat,” was largely a memoir of survivors of the Manouchian unit who re-enacted some of their old terrorist acts and talked about the days of the Resistance. Some of their accents were so heavy that their spoken French was reinforced by French subtitles on the screen.
The question of the possibility of a betrayal by the Communist Party took up perhaps 15 minutes in almost 90 minutes of documentary film.
For the most part, the accusation was vague and indirect. The brother of one of the executed Jewish fighters said the party leadership had done nothing even though it knew that a member of the Resistance under arrest had informed the police about the others.
“The leaders of the party left Paris,” the brother said, “but they forced the others to stay until their arrest.”
There were more direct accusations, as well. In a crucial analysis on the program, historian Philippe Ganier-Raymond said: “The underground Communist Party saw that the army that would rise from the shadows after the war would be an army made up of foreigners, of Jews. . . . It was inconceivable that the resisters come from Central Europe and not from old-line French families. In my opinion, the leaders of the Irregulars and Partisans decided, with great cynicism, to sacrifice and abandon them.”
Still, Ganier-Raymond went on, without further proof he could not conclude that the party “delivered” these immigrants to the Gestapo.
Similar arguments before the broadcast provoked Communist Party outrage. Faced with this, government television officials decided to ask a panel of Resistance veterans for advice. They advised against the showing, and the program was canceled.
That, in turn, provoked another round of outrage, this time over censorship. Under this pressure, the government television changed its plans and presented the film, adding a two-hour debate to the program. In the end, the controversy led far more French viewers to see the program than if the Communist Party had not objected.
The Communist Party professed satisfaction with the program afterward because all the participants in the debate had agreed that there was no evidence to support the accusation that the party had betrayed the Manouchian group. At the same time, film director Mosco, Jewish leaders and immigrant veterans of the Resistance felt satisfied because the role of the immigrants had finally been made clear.
These two attitudes were reflected in two comments made after the television program. Sen. Charles Lederman, who represented the Communist Party in the program, said, “The debate is now closed.” However, Mosco told reporters, “It has only begun.”
In the newspaper Le Monde, Stephene Courtois, a historian who worked on the film, wrote: “Of course, the truth will out sooner or later, but the odds seem to be that this will happen later, rather than sooner.”