First pictures of French Resistance killed by Nazi firing squad
The only photos of French Resistance agents facing the firing squad at the Nazis' largest execution site in France are on public display for the first time.
They are being displayed to the public for the first time in Mont Valérien, a 19th century fort outside Paris where the Nazis executed more than 1,000 resistance fighters and hostages during the Second World War – the largest number in one site in France.
The Nazis arrested Resistance members and "hostages" – mainly Communists or Jews arrested in reprisal for the death of German soldiers – and sentenced them to death in military tribunals. The convicted were then driven by military lorries to the isolated fort, west of Paris. They were kept in a chapel, and some of their scrawled final messages on the walls with their name, date of death and "Vive la France" have just been restored.
"They took them here, as they could kill them quietly and discreetly, without fear of rescue attempts" said Chloe Théault, from France's war veterans office who works at Mont Valérien.
The men – for all women were sent to Germany and decapitated so as not to enrage the local population – were attached to five wooden poles in a clearing, blindfolded and shot by a group of 60 fusiliers. The firing squad was large so that no German knew who he had shot. One random gun always carried blanks.
Despite the huge numbers shot, no photographs existed of these executions, due to Nazi fears they would be used for propaganda purposes. One German broke the rules, however. Clemens Rüter, a non-commissioned officer tasked with providing a motorcycle escort to the convicts hid in the bushes on February 21, 1941 and took three snaps of an execution with his Minox camera.
He never spoke of them, and left the film in the camera untouched for 40 years. It was only while on a pilgrimage to Rome – shortly before the death – that this anti-Nazi Catholic told a fellow German pilgrim and room-mate about his dark secret.
"He felt guilty; he was opposed to the executions and ashamed. He opened his heart to this comrade," said Jean-Louis Macron, former chaplain of Mont Valérien.
By chance, Mr Ruter's room-mate worked for the Franz Stock association. Franz Stock, known as "Hell's chaplain", was often at Mont Valérien and his moral and spiritual support to French convicts in their final hour turned him into a symbol of Franco-German reconciliation.
The association developed the negatives, but for years they were not made public, the men shot remained unidentified, and one historian even declared they were fake mock-ups.
However, Serge Klarsfield, France's most famous Nazi hunter, took an interest in the photos, and last December finally identified those killed as members of a famous network led by Missak Manouchian – a charismatic Armenian poet and factory worker, who led the deadliest, best-organised anti-Nazi force in Paris.
Manouchian was part of the Communist resistance group FTP-MOI. The Nazis dubbed him and his immigrant colleagues "The Army of Crime", whose feats were recently turned into a feature film of the same name. They were given a filmed show trial and their faces appeared on red posters known as "l"Affiche Rouge" around the country as Nazi propaganda suggesting the Resistance was run by shady foreigners.
Among the 19 letters on display at the permanent exhibition opened on Saturday is Manouchian's farewell to his wife, which begins "My Dear Mélinée, my beloved little orphan. In a few hours I will no longer be of this world." In a remarkable display of generosity, he beseeches his wife to remarry after his death 16 November 1943 and says he bears no grudges, except towards the person who denounced him and his 23 companions.
"At the moment of death I proclaim that I harbour no hatred towards the German people and against anyone at all, everyone will receive their just deserts," he writes, adding that the war "will not last much longer."
Friday marked 70 years since Charles de Gaulle launched his famous June 18 appeal from London, calling on the French from a BBC studio to rise up against Nazism.