French military atrocities 1933, 1944 and 1957: the normalisation of military terror tactics

Twentieth century French history is filled with horrific examples of brutal violence. Extra-judicial murder, torture, terror attacks on civilians and swaggering intimidation were routinely used*. Beliefs in racial superiority and entitlement legitimised atrocities. The French army provide a chilling context for reviews of Nazi atrocities. French soldiers, committing extra-judicial murder, weren’t psychopaths: they were acting ‘normally’. An extended book review by Max Hastings in The London Review of Books** makes this point in a single, throwaway sentence. This sentence deserves to be developed.

Although Hastings review is about the American My Lai massacre in Vietnam he takes the opportunity to consider other examples of military atrocities elsewhere. In his first paragraph he reviews the massacre at Oradour-sur-Glane in France, 1944. Oradour was a classic SS action with 642 men, women and children murdered. This was justified as a counter-terrorism action and was a thoroughly mendacious description of a revenge attack. Those responsible were identified after the Allied invasion swept the Nazis out of France. At the war crimes trial in Bordeaux, 1953, to the acute embarrassment of the prosecutors, French Nazis were implicated. Panzer division Das Reich was mainly manned by French Nazis, virtually all of whom – 14 out of 15- were released within a year of sentence.

French colonial history suggests that any conviction was a triumph for justice and early release was inevitable. In French Indo-China, 1933, the following is a transcript of the trial of soldiers who’d massacred prisoners.

The President [to Legionnaire Palowski]: Had you received instructions to execute prisoners?Palowski: Yes, instructions from Monsieur Robin, who afterwards congratulated us and said: Tres bien! Continuez!*** Colonial France didn’t hesitate to inflict summary justice in their territories. Obeying orders was ‘congratulated’. Needless to relate they were acquitted even though they’d confirmed their own guilt. Twenty-four years later the French fought a quasi-civil war in Algeria. The military relied primarily on neighborhood raids, arrests, and torture, focusing its sweeps in the Casbah slum, an opposition stronghold. It killed thousands of Algerian civilians and combatants during the crackdown, successfully quelling FLN operations within Algiers.****” General Aussaresses, one of the guiding tacticians, claimed that,No one denied it. No one. And there was no investigation into torture here in France, or anywhere else,” said Collard. (Aussaresses lawyer).
“All (Aussaresses) did was to carry out the orders that were given by his leaders.”

Panzer division Das Reich had previously served in the Soviet Union. Nazi atrocities in the Soviet Union were of a different order to that which was inflicted in western Europe. France was admired by the conquering Nazis. Paris wasn’t bombed by the Luftwaffe and war damage was superficial. The country itself was permitted to retain a fig-leaf of independence with the sub-division into Occupied and Vichy France. It can be said that the French were very co-operative and submissive so when resistence occurred there was a sense of betrayal. Das Riech’s French Nazis knew what they had to do when told that Oradour was a hot-bed of resistence fighters and did it willingly. The only reason that Oradour is remembered is that it was exceptional in French wartime experience.

Hastings discussed the Oradour-sur-Glane massacre with an SS participant. “In 1980 a German veteran whom I interviewed for a book told me in conversation about the massacre with one of those who carried it out, said confidingly: ‘Speaking as one old SS man to another, Herr Muller, it was nothing. In Russia, we did such things every day**.’” In Russia, we did such things every day is an insight into how soldiers become crypto-psychopaths ready and willing to commit atrocities.

Those who slaughtered prisoners in Indo-China, civilians/freedom fighters in Algiers and French men, women and children in Oradour-sur-Glane are victims of a system which rewards obedience. And government knew this to be the case. They authorised and endorsed atrocities whilst trying to maintain an obfuscating distance from events. Atrocities are normalised and part of military action informing the narrative arc between soldiers and officers; officers and politicians.

*Likewise the British in Kenya, Germany in Namibia and Belgium in the Congo.

**Max Hastings: My Lai: Vietnam 1968 and the Descent into Darkness by Howard Jones: LRB pp19ff 25th January 2018

***La franche-indochine 12th June 1933

**** see also for the impunity that French troops had because they were authorised to commit acts of brutality. For General Aussaresses see


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