“Of course I would have preferred to live. But what I want with all my heart is for my death to serve some purpose.”
– Letter from 17-year-old French partisan Guy Moquet
A common misconception of the French Resistance movement is that it was a cohesive effort united under Gen. Charles de Gaulle, the self-appointed leader of the London-based French Forces of the Interior (FFI). The truth was far different. De Gaulle, a junior brigadier general and minor government official prior to Vichy, was unknown to all but a few in France, and until 1942 the Resistance movement was composed of a wide variety of independent individuals, groups, and organizations that had little or no contact with each other. Thus it more resembled a painting by the pointillist Georges Seurat. From a distance it had a recognizable form. But the closer one got, that form fragmented into separate, often isolated, points of activity.
De Gaulle’s attempts to establish a Resistance network under FFI control was initially hampered by the fact that, as historian Julian Jackson wrote, “almost nothing was known about these organizations.” Also, De Gaulle was acutely aware of his anonymity among the general French population.
The most effective way to publicize himself and promote his agenda of the FFI was through the radio. The BBC allowed the Free French five minutes of broadcast time each evening. Though this method succeeded in promoting his name, it did not automatically cause the different groups in the Occupied Zone to rally to him.
The French Communist Party, the largest and most organized of the groups in France, was especially problematical. First, and most importantly, Communist leaders in Moscow dictated its agenda. Second, it had to live down two stains on its record – the first being that of collaboration as a result of the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 and the second, that it remained neutral during Germany’s conquest of France in 1940. Those two points of shame made the French Communist Party leaders zealous in proving their patriotism. The Front National, the military arm of the French Communist Party, emphasized killing German army officers and soldiers.
Shortly after France’s defeat, the German army established four prisoner of war camps at Châteaubriant, located at the base of the Brittany peninsula. In January 1941, all but one camp was shut down. That camp, located in the Choisel racecourse, contained civilian political dissidents arrested for an assortment of non-violent anti-occupation activities.
As the Front National’s killings of German occupation soldiers increased, Lt. Gen. Ernst Schaumburg, commandant of Gross Paris and second in command of occupied France, signed an order that stated, “From the 23rd August , all French people who are placed under arrest . . . are considered to be hostages. In the event of any further act, a number of hostages corresponding to the seriousness of the act will be shot.” And, soon some hostages were executed in reprisal. But the deadliest response came in October.
On Oct. 20, 1941, near the cathedral at Nantes in Brittany, Lt. Col. Karl Hotz, the commander of the German occupation forces in the region, was assassinated by two members of the Front National.
German reaction was immediate – and extreme. The Nazis, frustrated by the increasing acts of sabotage and killings, were determined to make an example of this assassination. On October 21, a German army officer arrived at Choisel. Later that day the Nazis announced that fifty hostages would be executed by firing squad.
One of the names on that list was 17-year-old Guy Moquet, a French Communist. All the condemned were allowed to write a farewell letter, and in his Moquet wrote, “My dearest Mother, my beloved little brother, my beloved father. I’m going to die! . . . Of course I would have preferred to live. But what I want with all my heart is for my death to serve some purpose.” On October 22, Moquet and 49 other hostages, refusing blindfolds, staring defiantly into the eyes of their executioners, and singing “La Marseillaise” were executed by firing squad.
When de Gaulle heard of this reprisal, he immediately recognized the threat it posed to his efforts to organize the Resistance under his authority. The next day, in his BBC broadcast, he said, “The war of the French people must be conducted by those whose responsibility it is, that is to say by me and by the National Committee. . . . For the present time the order I give for the occupied territory is not to kill the Germans.”
De Gaulle was being presumptuous to say the least, for he had no means of enforcing this “order.” Two days later, on October 25, that means arrived when Jean Moulin stepped into his office.