The Épuration Sauvage

Whenever the Allies liberated a town or village during the advance across northern France, they often found that the first victims of what became known as the épuration sauvage – the unofficial purge – were the most vulnerable members of the community. ‘At Saint-Sauveur-le-Vicomte yesterday,’ David Bruce wrote in his diary, ‘the inhabitants had shaved the heads of twelve women who had been sleeping with German officers and soldiers. They must henceforth slink about the village. The Frenchmen with us think it is a very fitting and salutary punishment.’ Six weeks later, he discovered that a production line for head-shaving had been established in the Prefecture at Chartres as soon as the last Germans had been rounded up.

Among the accused were married women whose husbands were in Germany as prisoners or conscripts of the STO (Service de Travail Obligatoire). With as many men imprisoned or enslaved in this war as there were dead in the last, there was hardly a family which was not missing a father, son or brother. This collective loss had developed a strong emotional solidarity among those left behind, so any wife of a prisoner or deportee accused of ‘collaboration horizontale’ was guilty of a double betrayal. The fact that sleeping with a German might have been the only way for a woman to keep her children from starvation was scarcely considered when the communal fury was unleashed.

Some women were subject to even greater degradation. There are photographs of women stripped naked, tarred with swastikas, forced to give Nazi salutes, then paraded in the streets to be abused, with their illegitimate child in their arms. There are also reports in some areas of women tortured, even killed, during these barbaric rites. In the 18th arrondissement, a working-class area, a prostitute who had served German clients was kicked to death. Victims were not just working-class women. Pastor Boegner recorded the shaving of women’s heads in the 7th arrondissement, and there were a few cases of women of fashion receiving similar treatment, including the wife of one prince, and the daughter of another – Jacqueline de Broglie, whose mother was Daisy Fellowes, and whose Austrian husband, Alfred Kraus, had been accused of betraying members of the Resistance.

Head-shaving is said to have been inflicted on a well-known French count who had fallen for the martial attractions of the conquerors. He had earlier been arrested by the Feldgendarmerie for having enticed German soldiers to indulge in Unzucht zwischen Männern. Yet when the prisoner replied that his sexual tendency was not only honoured by the ancient Greeks but practised by the Führer himself, his captors were so terrified that this heresy might reach their superiors that they threw him back on to the street.

A number of Resistance leaders tried to stop the head-shaving. The Communist military commander, Colonel Rol-Tanguy, had posters run off and pasted up which warned of reprisals against the perpetrators of any further incidents. Another leader, René Porte, respected in his quartier not least for his strength, bashed together the heads of a group of youths he found shaving a woman’s head. One woman is said to have shouted at her shearers, ‘My ass is international, but my heart is French.’

A volatile mixture – moral outrage, suppressed fear, jealousy and guilt – seems to have produced a hysteria which was quickly spent. In too many cases the women were made scapegoats for the whole community. Whether men who had collaborated escaped more lightly as a result remains a difficult question to answer.

Most Allied soldiers seem to have been shocked or sickened by incidents of head-shaving, but in the battle zone the execution without trial of traitors provoked far fewer objections. There was a strong feeling among American, British and Canadian forces that, not having suffered the trauma of defeat and occupation, they had no right to sit in judgement on France’s private agony.


Political passion rejects shades of grey, yet during the four years of occupation France had witnessed every paradox imaginable, from antiSemites who saved Jews to bien-pensant anti-fascists who betrayed them, from black-marketeers who helped the Resistance to Resistance heroes who pocketed ‘expropriations’. Curiously, many who were Dreyfusards in their youth became passionately pro-Pétain. There were also examples of saintly self-sacrifice, as well as cases of the blackest evil, but these two extremes represented tiny minorities and were seized upon by political fanatics to demonstrate their point.

The philosopher Isaiah Berlin, who visited France many times during the immediate post-war period, came up with an informal but useful definition of acceptable conduct during the Occupation. To survive, you might have needed to do business with the Germans, whether as a waiter, a shoemaker, a writer or an actor, but ‘you did not have to be cosy with them’.

For many there was no such thing as a good German, and, for the Communist Party especially, the notion of a good Pétainist was treason in itself. All the crimes of the Germans in France were heaped upon Vichy, clouding an already complicated issue still further. The Communists’ anger was both genuine and artificial. Their strength of feeling over Vichy’s selection of Communist hostages for execution, or over its close cooperation with the Gestapo and the dispatch of French workers to slave labour in Germany, cannot be doubted. Yet there was a deliberate political purpose behind their condemnation of Vichy. The greater the purge of every part of the administration which had continued to work under Vichy, from the police to the post office, the greater the opportunity for Communist control after the war.

One can define acceptable and unacceptable behaviour under enemy occupation, but to decide degrees of guilt or fitting punishment in the strong emotions of the period is difficult. However, it seems to have been generally agreed that the denunciation of fellow French men and women to the Germans was a shooting offence.

News of last-minute massacres of political prisoners carried out by German forces just before they retreated and details of barbaric Gestapo tortures filled the Resistance press and fuelled the strong desire for vengeance.

Moreover, the Resistance did attract ill-educated youths who were prepared to join any group, no matter what its ideology, as long as it gave them a gun. It also attracted many last-minute conversions – collaborators trying to efface a dubious record by being plus résistants que les résistants – as well as opportunists who saw the chance for plunder. Although a despicable minority, their crimes, along with the excesses of some genuine resistants, tarnished the reputation of the movement as a whole. One of the most notorious gangs of brigands, 150-strong, operated in the Loire valley, where Michel Debré had been appointed Commissioner of the Republic. They had collaborated with the Germans, then fought against them at the Liberation. In the early autumn of 1944, they continued to loot and kill until their leader was arrested, largely thanks to the efforts of Debré.

In addition to head-shaving and summary executions, the épuration sauvage included sentences handed out by FFI military tribunals or the local Comité de Libération; looting under the guise of searches; and the lynching of prisoners set free by conventional courts. Many of those executed were undoubtedly guilty, for the German occupation had created a climate in which crime flourished. France had never seen as much trafficking, racketeering, theft, blackmail, abduction and murder as it did in those four years. But since the Germans and most of the miliciens responsible for the worst crimes had departed, many innocent people as well as guilty ones were killed out of rage and frustration. In a number of cases, both German soldiers and collaborators were saved by French veterans of the Great War, who, with considerable courage, told the would-be executioners that they had no right to kill anybody without a trial.

The Paris police, who had worked so closely with the Germans during the Occupation, now turned on each other. When the strike of 15 August was announced from the Prefecture of Police, it was made clear that its purpose was to help with the liberation of Paris. But instead of joining in street battles for control of the capital, many policemen (sometimes accompanied by FFI) went on what one author called a ‘chasse au collègues’ – a hunt for colleagues. Hundreds of policemen were arrested and held in the Prefecture, and one or two may even have been killed to stop them incriminating their assassins.

By the end of August a police purge committee had been formed, headed by a Communist resistant called Arthur Airaud, who had been tortured by the police Special Brigades in March 1944. Airaud was a ruthless operator who wanted not only revenge but also as many fellow Communists in the police force as possible. By 5 October, Luizet was obliged to sign an order suspending 700 officials and administrators working in the police and justice departments. Within the following year, the list of those suspended and brought before the police purge committees ran to over 3,000 names.

The provisional government’s efforts to put a skeleton administration into place to restore law and order were impressive, but a new Commissioner of the Republic could not hope to exert authority from the first moment. However much the Gaullists wished to maintain the fiction that they were simply reintroducing ‘Republican legality’, the system, in many places, had to be rebuilt almost from nothing. Often, the local liberation committees simply ignored the authority of representatives of the provisional government.

On 26 August, the day that General de Gaulle marched down the Champs-Élysées, a group of FFI arrested the consul-general of the Republic of San Marino at his house and took him off, without any explanation, to their improvised headquarters at the Lycée Buffon. It is possible that the FFI militiamen had confused the ancient Republic of San Marino with Mussolini’s puppet republic of Salo. In any case, they took the consul-general’s money, jewels and car. He was then transferred to Fresnes prison and released on 7 November without any charges having been brought against him.

Malcolm Muggeridge was invited by an FFI group to accompany them on their nightly purges. They were ‘very young, with that curious hunted animal look that street-life gives’. He was taken to their base, an apartment on the Avenue Foch which had been occupied by the Gestapo, as the ‘empty champagne bottles and discarded erotica’ showed.

They boasted about their executions, took cigarette cases, jewels and money, which were recorded and locked up in a strong box to be handed over later. But what became of the booty afterwards was never revealed. ‘Considering their youth,’ wrote Muggeridge, ‘they behaved with horrifying callousness, arrogance and brutality.’ He was not surprised to hear later that their leader had been arrested and found to have a record of collaboration.

The most notorious false resistant was Dr Marcel Pétiot. Between 1942 and 1944, Pétiot set up his own escape line. Jews, members of the Resistance, even gangsters being hunted by the police, were directed to the doctor, who said he could arrange safe passages to Argentina. On the pretext that the Argentinian authorities demanded inoculations, he gave his clients a lethal injection of cyanide, then watched them die in agony. Pétiot disposed of the bodies efficiently, at least at the start of his grisly career: they were dissolved in quicklime, and what was left was incinerated. Towards the end, however, the sheer quantity of corpses gave him away. On 11 March 1944, noxious smoke and a hideous stench prompted neighbours to call the fire brigade to 21 rue Lesueur. On breaking in, they found dismembered trunks, arms and legs, scalped heads with flayed faces, all waiting to be burnt in a coal-fired stove already overflowing with human remains.

What happened next gives some idea of the tortuously difficult position of the Paris police in the months leading up to the Liberation. The man put in charge of the case was one of the most famous police inspectors in Paris: Georges-Victor Massu, who (with his predecessor) was the inspiration for Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret. Massu soon established that the author of these crimes was Dr Pétiot. What he did not know was whether Pétiot was killing to order.

Very early on in the investigation, Pétiot himself had appeared at the scene of the crime, on a bicycle. Posing as the leader of a Resistance network, he had told two of Massu’s subordinates that the bodies were those of ‘Boches’ and ‘collabos’ executed on Resistance orders. He had then vanished into the crowd – the police, who did not want to be in trouble at the Liberation, had let him go.

Yet the proximity of the charnel-house to the rue Lauriston, where the Gestapo’s henchmen tortured and killed their victims, had raised the possibility that Pétiot might be working for them. It was not until he had ascertained that the Germans had nothing to do with these murders that Massu felt able to proceed with a criminal investigation. Seven months later, Pétiot was caught – at a Paris métro station, wearing FFI uniform.


Rough justice, in the form of severe beatings, was another form of reprisal. French railwaymen, known as cheminots, had played a courageous and important role in the Resistance, sabotaging German rail movements. Many were members of the Communist Party and a considerable number had been shot for their activities. It is not surprising that the treatment of colleagues suspected of collaboration was brutal. During the autumn of 1944, seventy-seven managers, stationmasters and senior engineers were ‘made incapable of working’. None, however, is recorded as killed.

It was not just the FFI who mistreated captives. The old Brigades de Surveillance du Territoire, which remobilized themselves at the Liberation and purged the police, were controversial in their methods. Even women were said to have been tortured in the camp of Queueleu near Metz. ‘The BST of Metz,’ according to one lawyer’s report, ‘were unashamed of using methods for which the Gestapo was condemned – prolonged ducking in a bath – freezing – the plank torture – bastinado, etc….’

In Paris, those accused of collaboration by Resistance groups or denounced anonymously by a neighbour or concierge were usually arrested early in the morning, before they had a chance to dress.

A group of FFI burst into the apartment of the writer Alfred Fabre-Luce to arrest him, but he managed to slip out of the service entrance. (Fabre-Luce was doubly unfortunate: although a Pétainist, he had been imprisoned by the Germans for an anti-Nazi book he wrote.) The fifis, not finding their intended captive, took his old butler away instead.

Fabre-Luce’s wife, Charlotte, rang her brother, Prince Jean-Louis de Faucigny-Lucinge. He rushed round to 42 rue de Bassano, where an impromptu revolutionary tribunal had been established. He spotted the butler through a glass-panelled door, and also the Duchesse de Brissac, her hair dishevelled, wearing a fur coat which had been thrown on over her underclothes.

As soon as Alfred Fabre-Luce heard that his butler had been taken in his stead, he went straight to the rue Bassano to give himself up. The duchess, whose romantic friendships with German officers had become too well known, was taken off to the Conciergerie ‘like Marie Antoinette’. Lucinge telephoned her husband to warn himwhat had happened. The duke thanked him, but never mentioned the episode again. Most of those accused, however, were taken to police stations or the town hall of the arrondissement. The pianist Alfred Cortot was released after three days and three nights on a police-station bench.

The next step was transfer to the Prefecture of Police on the Île de la Cité. Many arrived at the Prefecture literally shaking with fear. Others were unbowed. Comte Jean de Castellane, younger brother of Boni de Castellane, the great fin-de-siècle swell described in his heyday as ‘rotten with chic’, proved worthy of his family’s traditions. One of the guards told Castellane to remove his shoelaces and braces, the normal procedure to stop prisoners hanging themselves. He regarded the man with a thunderstruck expression: ‘If you take away my braces, I will leave immediately.’

After a length of time which could vary from a couple of hours to a few days, prisoners were taken across to the ancient Conciergerie of blackened stone and pepperpot towers on the Quai de l’Horloge. From the Conciergerie, after a few hours, days or even weeks, some prisoners were transferred to the holding camp at the Vélodrome d’Hiver, that stadium of dreadful memory where the Jews had been taken after the ‘Great Round-up’. Then they would be sent either to Fresnes prison or to the camp at Drancy, the former staging post for Jews before they were forced on to cattle trucks bound for Germany. A number of women prisoners were sent to the fort of Noisy-le-Sec. Many prisoners were also held at the Santé prison – ill-named, since it possessed only twelve showers for a population which now numbered nearly 3,000 prisoners.

Drancy was completely run by the FFI for the first few weeks after the Liberation, to the frustration of the authorities. The Prefect of Police had no control at all and visitors were not welcome. Pastor Boegner, who finally managed to gain entry to Drancy on 15 September, discovered cells that measured three and a half metres by one and three-quarters, holding six people, with only two mattresses between them. Luizet at least achieved one objective, quite rapidly. On 20 September, Drancy was ‘liberated’ from the fifisand returned to the regular prison service.

The main prison for those accused of collaboration was Fresnes. It held so many celebrities that one inmate, a ‘trustie’ who helped with the catering, used to take his autograph book with him on meal rounds. There were many members of ‘le Tout-Paris de la collaboration’, like the film star Arletty and the actor-playwright Sacha Guitry, who had met either at the receptions of the Luftwaffe General Hanesse or in Otto Abetz’s salon. Albert Blaser, the head waiter at Maxim’s, was also briefly in Fresnes, as were the singer Tino Rossi and the publisher Bernard Grasset. Rossi was never in danger of execution, but that did not stop one of his female fans from offering to be shot in his place.

In Fresnes, Jean de Castellane was pleased to see Sacha Guitry. Castellane was something of a chatterbox, and since Guitry possessed a similar taste for jeux de mots, the two men made running jokes on the unsavoury conditions in the prison and on their own likely fate. Guitry later observed that beds which had been occupied by unexpectedly released prisoners were thought lucky and people clamoured to take themover.

Many inmates tried to depict themselves as victims of a second Terror. But savage as the épuration was in some places, this was hardly September 1793. Outraged at their treatment, few asked themselves what the camps and prisons had been like under the Vichy government. One well-dressed woman, given a palliasse to sleep on, asked for another. When told that prisoners were allowed only one each, she replied that it would be needed for her maid, whom she wished to summon to look after her. Another daughter of Daisy Fellowes, Emmeline de Casteja, served five months in Fresnes locked up with prostitutes. Their chief amusement, she told a friend later, was to jiggle their bare breasts at the men in the block opposite.

Before the war, Fresnes had no more than one prisoner for each of its 1,500 cells. Now there were 4,500 inmates. The bloc sanitaire was even more crowded than the bloc pénitentiaire, because many were unfit for the rigours of prison life. A considerable number were elderly and unaccustomed to a diet of dried vegetables and noodles.

At the beginning, prisoners had no right to a lawyer. Whenever they wrote letters, the guards usually read them and made sure they were never delivered. The only contact with the outside world was established through four representatives of the French Red Cross. These four ladies were swamped with work. Whenever possible, they obtained the address of each prisoner and a telephone number where they could contact the family to inform them. In many cases the families had had no news and had been left destitute when the breadwinner was arrested.

The work of the French Red Cross was greatly encouraged by the Prefect of Police, Charles Luizet, who was very keen to bring Fresnes back under control. Having managed to get the FFI guards out of Drancy three weeks after the Liberation, he was keen to purge the ‘auxiliary’ guards in Fresnes. It is alleged that in the early days of the Liberation a number of prisoners were taken out in the middle of the night and shot, and a few beaten to death; but since there were no reliable records of who had been arrested, and since the guards refused to release the names of those they held, the number of cases is impossible to assess.

Partly prompted by a campaign in the Communist press claiming that traitors were living in style, the Ministry of the Interior commissioned a report on the prison. ‘It must be acknowledged,’ wrote the Inspector-General of Prisons, ‘that the auxiliaries have let us down badly.’ Jewels and money had been stolen from prisoners and a flourishing black market existed. The guards charged prisoners 300 francs for a packet of cigarettes, 3,000 for a bottle of alcohol, and sold extra clothes when the weather turned cold. They also took bribes for turning a blind eye during lawyers’ visits.

Escoffier, the governor of the prison, tried to appeal to the better nature and patriotism of the guards, but his efforts clearly did little good ‘because trafficking continued just as before during the following months’. The Prefect of Police then sent in some of his men in disguise, but they were quickly spotted and had to be withdrawn before they could do anything useful. Altogether only ten guards were arrested in over six months.

The chaotic state of records and dossiers meant that many people were held for several months and then released for lack of evidence. ‘Many of the dossiers were empty,’ recorded the jurist Charpentier. ‘Others only contained anonymous denunciations. The worst thing was to have no dossier at all.’ Without a dossier, you could not even see a juge d’instruction to have your case heard.

On 21 September, General de Gaulle told Boegner that there had been 6,000 arrests in Paris, but that may well have represented only those processed through the Prefecture of Police. Altogether in France, around a third of a million dossiers were opened on the basis of accusations. It would appear that the main backlog of untried prisoners, particularly of people who should never have been arrested in the first place, began to be cleared by the end of 1944. Pastor Boegner was struck by the decline in the numbers of prisoners in January 1945. But release did not necessarily represent the end of the affair.

Some stories are so terrible that they are hard to believe. Roger Codou, a Communist veteran of the International Brigades, reached Lyons in October 1944. He had been summoned back by the party from Algeria, officially to work in the Cabinet of the Communist minister, Charles Tillon, but also to help set up a secret factory in Paris for manufacturing false papers. In Lyons, a Communist major from the FTP looked after him. During their time together he took Codou out to the military airfield of Bron. In August, the Germans had massacred 109 prisoners from Montluc prison on the runway, now used by French bombers flying over enemy territory ahead of de Lattre’s 1st Army. One of the pilots asked: ‘Have you got any customers for us tonight?’ The major then explained to Codou that, as a fitting punishment for traitors, any Vichyist prisoners acquitted by the courts in Lyons were kidnapped, bound and gagged, then taken to the airfield after dark and put in the bomb-bay of an aircraft on top of the bombs. They were then dropped on ‘their friends’ during the next sortie. Nearly fifty years later, Codou still did not know whether this was a ghastly revelation or told only to shock.

The scale and nature of the épuration are bitterly contested to this day. The wildest figures – 100,000 to 120,000 victims during the Occupation and after the Liberation – have long been discredited. Yet although the difference between the estimates has now narrowed considerably – approximately 10,800 according to the Institut d’Histoire du Temps Présent, and around 14,000 to 15,000 according to Henri Amouroux – strong disagreements remain. They reflect the conflicting attitudes of two generations – the older one, which experienced the dilemmas and sought to justify many of the compromises; and the younger one, which refused to condone Vichy’s assistance in deporting Jews to Germany.

There is, however, a general agreement that some 39,000 French were executed during the Occupation. Out of that figure, the Milice probably killed between 2,000 and 3,000– a tenth of the total, or less. The Milice was without doubt responsible for a large proportion of the other deaths, having in many cases provided information. Nevertheless, nobody can yet give an accurate idea of how many French men and women were betrayed to the Germans by the French of Vichy, or simply by neighbours with a grudge.

The battle lines of the debate have tended to concentrate on how many people were killed by the Resistance. This turns on the huge problem of defining the whole process. Do you include the settling of private accounts? Do you include the victims of criminal gangs who operated under Resistance colours?

The figures in certain areas are still contested. The département of the Seine, with the city of Paris, had the greatest population. Yet the Institut d’Histoire du Temps Présent lists a total of only 208 killings by members of the Resistance during the war, of which fifty-seven took place after the Liberation. And while it is true that there were no mass killings in the capital, there were countless deaths in suspicious circumstances in the sixteen months following the Liberation. For example, from September 1944 there was a very marked increase in the number of deaths listed as ‘violent death of undetermined nature’. From August 1944 until the end of the year they amounted to 424, while in the five months before the Liberation there had been only 259 cases. Murder by firearm more than doubled, from forty-two cases in 1943 to 107 in 1944.

How, for example, does one classify the case of the blacklisted publisher Denoël, who had brought out Céline’s Voyage au bout de la nuit in 1932 and more recently the work of the pro-Nazi polemicist Lucien Rebatet? Denoël, a Belgian, was found killed beside his car in December 1945. This may well have been a common crime, for there were many that particular winter, but one cannot rule out the possibility that the motive was political.

The épuration sauvage throughout France was not a phenomenon which burnt itself out within a couple of months of the Liberation. There was another surge of killings in January and February 1945, perhaps influenced by the fears raised during the Ardennes offensive. A larger wave, however, occurred in June 1945, following the shock of the deportees returning from the prison, labour and concentration camps. Many returning prisoners had scores to settle. Almost any Vichy official was at risk, however indirect his involvement in the policy of sending workers or prisoners to Germany. Others were frequently regarded as guilty simply for having supported a regime capable of sending French men and women to such a fate.

According to the less than comprehensive files of the Renseignements Généraux, the number of assassinations ‘de caractère politique’ did not begin to tail off until the second part of August 1945. Between 3 July and 13 August there had been 410 killings in a total of twenty départements. A small revival was recorded later in October. The most striking statistic, however, is revealed in the detailed figures for the week of 13 August 1945. Out of thirty-seven killings, thirty-three were carried out by explosives. Unfortunately, this is the only week for which such a breakdown is provided. One must of course be extremely wary of reading too much into it; yet perhaps it sheds light on the curiously high number of people listed as dead from‘gas explosions’.

In the Archives de la Ville de Paris, figures for causes of death in the metropolis are scrupulously broken down, even if the categories are not always consistent. From September 1944 the casualties from gas explosions increased dramatically. In 1942, 184 people died in gas explosions during September, October and December. In 1943,183 died during this period. But in 1944, no fewer than 660 died. Even allowing for pipes fractured during the fighting and the frequent interruptions of supply, it is hard to explain such a massive rise. The possibility must be acknowledged that a portion of the German demolition charges, discovered at the time of General von Choltitz’s surrender, might have been used for ‘popular justice’, or private revenge, with the explosions listed in the most convenient category by officials later.

Alfred Fabre-Luce wrote that ‘France is a country where, in revolutionary times, hysteria is tempered by corruption.’ Although partly true of many upheavals, this view is unduly cynical in the case of France in 1944. The restraint on hysteria came almost entirely from examples of physical and moral courage, men and women standing up and daring to say that it was wrong to punish people without a proper trial.

The real argument in the historical debate is essentially a question of degree. How brutal was the épuration sauvage in its context? If the reaction after the occupation of France is compared with those of the other occupied countries of north-western Europe – Belgium, Holland, Denmark and Norway – the épuration in France was ‘moderate’, according to Jean-Pierre Rioux. His colleague Henry Rousso has argued, on the other hand, that if one compares the number of executions with the number of French who served in German uniform, then it was much harsher than elsewhere. Accurate atrocity figures are of course vital, but the debate they inspire can quickly turn into a moral quagmire.

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