The Debt of WWII French Resistance Writers to WWI Veterans, Post 2: Jean Moulin
This post is the second in a WWrite series on the debt of WWII French Resistance Writers to WWI Veterans. Last week, the blog featured resister Albert Camus and the influence of his father, a WWI soldier who died at the Battle of the Marne. This week, WWrite explores the most famous French Resistance icon, Jean Moulin. One of France's most celebrated WWII heroes began his fight in WWI as a soldier and an artist. The experience, which he discusses in his book, First Combat, shaped his rise as the leader of France's Resistance Army, also known as the "Army of Shadows."
In Paris on December 19, 1964, the ashes of French WWII Resistance hero, Jean Moulin, were transferred from their original resting place at Père Lachaise Cemetery to the Pantheon, an architectural masterpiece located on the Montagne St. Geneviève in the Latin Quarter. Moulin, taken prisoner by the Nazis in 1943, died in a train station in Metz as he was deported to Germany from Lyon, France.
The Pantheon, designed as a church by the architect Jacques-German Soufflot during the reign of Louis XV to honor the patron saint of Paris, St. Geneviève, is a peristyle building that was deconsecrated during the French Revolution in 1791 and renamed the Pantheon, a patriotic monument that contains the graves of great writers, scientists, generals, philosophers, artists, and politicians who have made great contributions to the history of France. Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Marie Curie, Victor Hugo, Alexander Dumas, and Simone Weil are among the 70+ illustrious figures housed there. The Pantheon also houses a copy of Foucault’s Pendulum.
Moulin, born and raised in the south of France, was Prefect of Chartres at the time of the Nazi invasion in 1940. When he was relieved of his functions, he decided to flee to London and joined Charles de Gaulle, leader-in-exile of Free France. De Gaulle, unable to unify to the multitude of fractious resistance groups who had trouble collaborating with each other, asked Moulin to become his ambassador and head of the French domestic resistance within Vichy and Nazi-occupied France. Moulin is credited with bringing unity to the French Resistance and giving credence to De Gaulle as their leader. He succeeded and was able to form a National Resistance Board that met in a villa in Caluire, France in 1943. Weeks later, he was arrested when the Gestapo raided the villa. He was tortured by the infamous Klaus Barbie in Lyon and then sent to his death supposedly without giving away any information about underground Resistance activities.
At the time of the ashes transfer to the Pantheon, France was far from the victory in WWI and the liberation in WWII that had given it some sense of patriotic, national cohesion. In 1964, the country was troubled and deeply divided by the events of the Algerian War, which had ended with Algeria’s independence in 1962. The figure of Jean Moulin aroused a general consensus and, in 1964, encouraged French to rally behind the myth of the French Resistance united around General de Gaulle, who was president at the time.
At the Pantheon ceremony, in front of a mass of military troops, war and Resistance veterans, political dignitaries, and public spectators, fellow-resister, writer, Minister of Cultural Affairs, André Malraux, called for a resuscitation of French solidarity through Jean Moulin:
It has been more than twenty years since Jean Moulin left us in a December, no doubt similar to this one, to be parachuted onto the soil of Provence, to become leader of the people of the night. Without this ceremony, how many children from France would have known his name? He was killed; and since then, sixteen million more children have been born ... May the commemorations of the two wars end today by the resurrection of the people of shadows who this man led, who he symbolizes, and who enter with him as a humble solemn guard around his dead body.
While “the two wars” to which Malraux refers are undoubtedly WWII and the Algerian War, WWI could be easily added, especially when considering its influence on Jean Moulin’s writing and his role in the Resistance. WWI and its outcomes divided the French population just as much as its other 20th century conflicts. Many argued over the fate of the Versailles Treaty, the division of the old Empire, and the ways in which France would heal itself politically and socially in the aftermath of destruction and mass death, both civilian and military.
A look at Jean Moulin’s role in WWI provides an interesting perspective on his commitment to French solidarity during WWII. It is interesting to note that some of Moulin’s most important biographers state, and some even denounce the fact that he played an inconsequential role in the Great War. However, when we consider that Moulin was only 15 when the war broke out in 1914, his participation demands to be seen through another lens.
Living in the south of France, he was far from the fighting. Yet, as Joëlle Beurier, Professor of Cultural History at the University of Reims and specialist in images produced during WWI, writes in an article entitled “Jean Moulin and the Great War: Elements for Analyzing his Redemption,” that his family discovered the misery of the invaded regions when they quickly took in a poor family of refugees, a mother and her five children. His father, too old to be mobilized, transformed a middle school into a hospital for the wounded in August 1914. His mother sewed clothes for soldiers and finally, his sister started a nursing program at the Montpellier Red Cross. Moulin’s older friend, Paul Chauvet, joined the French army before he had the chance to be drafted.
These influences on the impressionable Moulin must have been enormous. At 16, already an accomplished young artist, he almost entirely stopped drawing romantic pictures and began drafting images dedicated only to WWI. As Beurier argues, he focused on the world around him more than on his interior world. He sacrificed artistic liberty for political engagement. In his drawings, he represented his personal opinions on important events; so much so that it seemed to him necessary to defend the country, to publish the drawings to play his part in the Great War. He seems to have understood the historical dimension of the event in a way different from the vast majority of children or teenagers of that time. His drawings, inspired by the war, are different those of other pupils who, according to Beurier, often copied things they saw in the newspaper. Moulin invented his own images, came up with clever caricatures, and made sharp judgments.
For example, in the drawing below, he criticizes American neutrality before its entrance in 1917, a sentiment common among the French. (Thankfully, they changed their minds afterwards!) Here, Woodrow Wilson is presented as a heartless grocer who takes advantage of the death of his compatriots while, from his windows, he watches the torpedoing of the Lusitania. An open vault reveals the currencies of all the European belligerents: mark, shilling, franc. Cases containing weapons bound for Berlin are piling up beside the shells destined for Paris. Leaning on his counter, the American president quietly smokes a cigarette. The drawing is in whistle-blower style that teeters on the verge of violence as he accuses the American president of sacrificing his nation for mercantile profit.
Through the war, Moulin used his taste and a talent for drawing for propaganda purposes in favor of the France. As Beurier says, he fought with his pen. Later on, his drawings were featured in the French war-related media.
Finally, at 18, Moulin was mobilized on April 17, 1918 and began accelerated training. He had just lost his grandmother Clarisse. As his sister, Laure Moulin, reports in her own book about her brother, the family was very affected; it was, in Laure's own words, “the end of their youth.”
He left on September 20, 1918 for the front a few days after the death of his godmother, Jeanne Sabatier, who died on September 11th of Spanish flu that was sweeping the continent. Just as his company was preparing to enter the front line of combat Charmes, the Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918.
While at Charmes, he encountered British POWs heading home from Germany. In a letter to his parents in November 2018, he expresses shock at their miserable state:
They are scary. They are just skeletons. I chatted with one of them at the English canteen. He couldn’t have weighed more than 30 kilos (66 pounds). He told me everything they had suffered. It's horrible. We’ll have to keep a few days here to treat them before sending them home. We must ration them. Many, it seems, died on the way here from eating too much.
Reminiscent of reports of liberated prisoners from WWII German concentration camps, it is hard not to wonder if this observation helped cultivate his rage against the Nazis that pushed him to resist 20 years later.
Moulin’s WWI experience comes back in his book, First Combat, which he wrote before his death in 1943. The memoir begins while he is still Prefect of Chartres in June 1940, just after the French surrender to the Nazis. The city is overwhelmed with refugees from the North and simultaneously emptied of its own inhabitants. Almost alone at his post, he witnesses the first Wehrmacht’s first detachments take over. He is summoned by a German officer, who tries to torture him into signing a false document damaging the honor of the French army that is still intact and fighting for Free France in Africa. In the following extract, he tells the tale of his refusal to sign, citing French WWI soldiers as one of his primary reasons:
"Sign," said the blond officer. "It costs you to taunt German officers. "
As I don’t lean over to take the pen, I get a blow between the shoulder blades that makes me stagger. The officer behind me had hit me violently with the barrel of his gun.
I protest against these odious treatments: "I was brought here to see the general? Then it is with him that I want to discuss."
My call to see the general is greeted by loud laughter accompanied by jokes in German that I can’t grasp.
"There is no longer any question of the general," said the young blond officer. "But we are going to take you to another officer." And he calls one of the officials from the entrance to whom he gives an order. The soldier seizes me by the shoulder and pushes me, rather than directs me, to another room of the house. As he wishes, I do not enter the doorway fast enough and so he hits me in the back with the butt of his rifle. This time, I fall to the floor. Before I have time to get up, boot kicks rain down on me. It’s the officer they’ve taken me to see who strikes.
I wonder if I will have the strength to get back on my feet.
In front of me, I now see the blond officer who followed us, the officer who welcomed me with his boots, and a soldier with a rifle and bayonet.
The little blond officer, whom I now call Executioner No. 1, makes a gesture to the soldier who points his bayonet on my chest, shouting in German: "Stand up! "
In a painful start, I stand up. I have terrible pain. I feel that my legs are hard to carry. Instinctively, I approach a chair to sit down. The soldier withdraws the bayonet brutally and slams the rifle butt on my feet. I can’t help but scream:
"When will these infamous processes cease? I said, after gathering my thoughts a little.
"Not before," said my executioner, "you have signed the protocol." And, again, he hands me the paper.
Me: "I do not understand why you are so brutal, using such methods. I was a soldier too, during the Great War, and I had learned to respect the German soldier. But the work you are doing right now dishonors your uniform.”
At these words, the two officers leap at me, shouting to me that they will not let themselves be abused.
One of them, the one who hit me when I was on the ground, a tall brown-haired man with an athletic body and a rough face, grabs my throat and squeezes to choke me. My Executioner No. 1 intervenes and I am finally let go.
While I painfully find my breath, they continue, in a mix of French and German, to shout gross insults.
They are now dragging me to a table where the "protocol" has been placed.
Me. “No, I will not sign. You know very well that I can’t put my signature at the bottom of a text which dishonors the French army.
My Executioner No. 1. “But there is no more French army. She is defeated, lamentably defeated. France collapsed. Her government fled. You are nothing anymore. All is finished.”
Moulin never signs the document, but he does attest to the fact that his reasons for resisting come from WWI when he refers to his respect for German soldiers. Was the image of the returning British WWI prisoners running through his mind during this torturous interrogation? Is he mocking them or challenging them? Is he mocking or challenging himself? Was he trying to tell the Germans they would eventually lose once more to the French as they did in the Great War because they were still disrespectful in the way they treated their prisoners? Historians of the French Resistance report that torture was used a method to information from captured Nazis and collaborators. Was Moulin trying to spell out a code of conduct for the Army of Shadows that he would eventually lead – one of decency or one of brutality? It’s also important to remember that Moulin drew caricatures of German soldiers in WWI, which could be viewed as disrespectful. Is Moulin making then a statement about war in general, that it is impossible for fighting soldiers to respect each other? Is he making an overture to peace?
While some argue Moulin was negligibly touched by WWI, First Combat, his memoir, shows differently. In this pivotal scene, which represents his first act of resistance, his decision seems to hinge on the fact that the Germans don’t respect him the way he had respected them in WWI. While the precise meaning of Moulin’s declaration remains ambiguous, it is sure that his engagement with WWI provided vital lessons for WWII underground resistance in the Army of Shadows. Through both his Great War politically-charged art and his military mobilization, Moulin acquired a great sense of why France should be defended at all costs. Certainly, WWI was one of the shadows Moulin fought under during the Nazi Occupation in WWII.