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The Death of Jean Moulin: The French Resistance Gets Its Greatest Martyr

When Jean Moulin offered his services to Gen. Charles de Gaulle in October 1941, the leader of the Free French based in London accepted with alacrity. Moulin, a former prefect (regional administrator), was the highest-ranking member of the pre-Vichy Third Republic to join de Gaulle’s organization. In addition, Moulin, who had been living in the Vichy zone, possessed knowledge about nacent French Resistance groups and their leaders. In return for money and arms, Moulin proposed to unite the different groups under the Free French banner, stating, “It would be insane and criminal, in the event of Allied action on the continent, not to make use of troops prepared for the greatest sacrifices, scattered and unorganized today, but tomorrow capable of making up a united army of parachute troops already in place, familiar with the terrain and having already selected their enemy and determined their objective.” He also warned that unless the Free French took action the Resistance would fall under communist influence.

French Resistance

Members of the French Resistance captured by the Germans await transport. The work Jean Moulin did in France for the Resistance was dangerous, but helped to make the Resistance a force in future Allied operations. Bundesarchiv photo

Impressed, de Gaulle appointed him Delegate of the French National Committee to the Unoccupied Zone. On Jan. 1, 1942, Moulin was parachuted back to France. Tucked in a matchbox was a microfilmed document signed by Gen. de Gaulle that said, “Mr. Moulin’s task is to bring about, within the zone of metropolitan France not directly occupied, unity of action by all elements resisting the enemy and his collaborators.”

Moulin was the right man in the right place at the right time for both the Free French and the Resistance. A prefect when the German army swept through France in the summer of 1940, when Moulin refused a German demand to sign a document confirming atrocities by Senegalese soldiers in the French army he was beaten and thrown into a barn containing a number of mutilated bodies. Believing that once the Germans renewed their torture he would sign the document, Moulin attempted suicide by slashing his throat with a shard of glass. A guard heard him and Moulin was taken to a hospital where he recovered, the document unsigned. Moulin was never again seen in public without a scarf that concealed the scar on his neck.

“. . . his was the face of France.”

—French Minister of Culture André Malraux

Because of his far-left convictions the far-right Vichy government dismissed him. That experience with the Germans and the Vichy government coupled with the authority and money from the Free French gave Moulin the credibility he needed to build an organized Resistance.

Klaus Barbie

SS Obersturmführer Klaus Barbie, who became known as the “Butcher of Lyon,” interrogated Jean Moulin. Bundesarchiv photo

Based in Lyon, operating under the code name “Max,” traveling throughout France and keeping one step ahead of the Gestapo and the despised Vichy milice police force, Moulin organized the Press and Information Bureau, a Resistance press service; the General Study Committee, a rudimentary brain trust charged with studying post-liberation reforms; a service that oversaw radio communications with London; another service that organized vital parachute drops and clandestine air transport between England and France; and a secret army, a pool of the paramilitary forces of the three major Resistance organizations whose actions were coordinated by London. His greatest triumph was the creation of the National Council of Resistance on May 27, 1943, a sixteen-member organization that precariously brought together representatives from eight Resistance groups, five political parties, and two trade unions. In a secret meeting held in Paris, its first action was a vote to recognize de Gaulle as the head of a French provisional government.

“Jeered at, savagely beaten, his head bleeding, his internal organs ruptured, he attained the limits of human suffering without betraying a single secret, he who knew everything.”

It was Moulin’s last success. Less than a month later Moulin was betrayed to the Gestapo, and on June 21, 1943, captured in Caluire, a suburb of Lyon. His jailer was SS Lt. Nikolaus “Klaus” Barbie, later infamous as the “Butcher of Lyon.” For the next three weeks Moulin was tortured. Occasionally Barbie displayed Moulin’s unconscious body in his office for other captured Resistance leaders to see. In Jean Moulin, the biography of her brother, Laure Moulin wrote, “Jeered at, savagely beaten, his head bleeding, his internal organs ruptured, he attained the limits of human suffering without betraying a single secret, he who knew everything.”

Moulin died in a train en route to Germany and  was buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. On Dec. 19, 1964, Moulin’s ashes were transferred to the Panthéon in a ceremony attended by President Charles de Gaulle and many surviving members of the Resistance. Cultural minister André Malraux, former member of the Resistance, French army officer, and author, delivered the eulogy that is considered one of the greatest speeches in French history.

Klaus Barbie survived the war and worked for a time for the British and the CIA. When evidence of his atrocities became known, in 1950 he fled to Bolivia. Extradited to France in 1983, his trial riveted the nation. Sentenced to life in prison, he died of cancer on Sept. 25, 1991.

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DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...