France Pays Tribute to Foreigners in the Resistance

May 24, 2024

Image from the ceremony at the Paris Panthéon.

This year marks the 80th anniversary of many World War II milestones in France, from the D-Day landings in June, 1944, and those of Province in August to the Liberation of Paris. In fact, some activities are already in full swing. For example, on February 2, the Shoah Memorial of Paris opened the exhibition “Foreigners in the French Resistance,” which highlights the participation of hundreds of men and women from various countries and creeds who took up arms against the German occupation to free their adopted homeland.

After 1945, in light of the pressing need to reunify the newly liberated country, the mainstream interpretation of the war—penned by Charles de Gaulle—underlined the participation of the FFI (Forces Françaises de l’Intérieur, i.e. the Resistance), the Leclerc Division, and the French Army of General De Lattre de Tassigny, while underplaying the role of British and American armies. The hundreds of monuments to the Allied forces that can still be found across France to this day illustrate that their sacrifices are deeply appreciated and unforgotten, despite the official emphasis on the role played by locals. Over recent years, however, new generations of historians have chipped away at the Gaullist narrative in order to foreground the role foreigners played in the French Resistance—and even in regular French forces. Readers of The Volunteer may remember a previous article that discussed the recognition of the Spanish Loyalists enlisted in the Leclerc Division who were part of the spearhead that entered a beleaguered Paris on August 24, 1944.

The recognition of foreign-born members of the Resistance went a step further on February 21. On the exact day of the 80th anniversary of the execution of the “Group Manouchian,” the remains of Missak Manouchian, an Armenian-born member of the Francs Tireurs Partisans-Main d’Oeuvre Immigrée, “FTP-MOI,” and those of his wife, Melinée, were transferred to the Panthéon, an imposing building in the Latin Quarter sitting atop the Mont Sainte Geneviève, a stone’s throw from the Sorbonne. Originally a church dedicated to the patron saint of the city, during Napoleon’s regime it was repurposed as a final resting place for exceptional icons of French history. Since space is quite limited, to be reinterred in the Panthéon—or to have a cenotaph or a name inscribed on plaque placed in the national shrine—is considered one of the highest national honors, and a decision left to the President of the Republic. Some well-known honorees include Victor Hugo, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Jean Moulin, and André Malraux. There are at present only five women among them, including, since 2021, the American-born French citizen Josephine Baker (1906-1975), who in addition to her artistic career held the rank of lieutenant in the French Resistance.

The eloquent and touching national ceremony in honor of Manouchian and his wife lasted over two hours, was televised live, led by President Emmanuel Macron, and attended by hundreds of dignitaries. In addition, thousands came from all over the country to line the streets around the imposing Panthéon despite the rain.

Missak (left) and Mélinée Manouchian (standing), with Berdjouhi Elekian in the 1930s. Public domain.

The Francs Tireurs Partisans-Main d’Oeuvre Immigrée was a branch of the French Communist Party resistance movement composed mainly of foreign immigrants. In August 1943, Missak Manouchian was appointed its military commander for the Paris metropolitan region. In October and November of the same year, a band of 24 FTP-MOI Resistance members, one woman and 23 men, only three of whom were French born, were arrested and handed over to the Gestapo, after having been trailed/shadowed for months by the French police. The collective later became known as the “Group Manouchain,” thanks in part to a 1955 poem by Louis Aragon and its musical version published in 1959 by Leo Ferré. Photographs of ten members were used in the “Affiche Rouge” or “Red Poster,” a key Nazi print and film propaganda campaign of February 1944 whose objective was to prove to the French public that the Resistance was the work of foreign Jews and reds (“An Army of Crime”), and that honest patriotic French men and women did not take up arms against Germany.

The campaign failed for many reasons—among them the fact that on September 23, 1943, in Paris, the FTP-MOI group had executed Nazi SS General Julius Ritter. Ritter was officer in charge of the hated Service du Travail Obligatoire (Mandatory Labor Service), which sent Frenchmen of military age across the Rhine as replacement labor for Germans drafted for the Eastern Front. In late 1943, the tide was turning in France as more and more citizens were rooting for the Allies. The more determined among them had already joined the FFI, of which the FTP-MOI was part.

When we look more closely at the identities of the Group Manouchian, we see that six men were International Brigade veterans: four Poles (Jonas Geduldig, Szlama Grywacz, Stanislas Kubacki, and Joseph Epstein, who was Manouchian’s commander and was executed later); one Hungarian (Francisc Wolf); and one Spaniard (Celestino Alfonso). This clearly illustrates that for many, the armed fight against Nazism and Fascism did not begin in September 1939, but rather in the summer of 1936. In fact, in many areas of France that were liberated during the summer of 1944 by or with the assistance of the FFI, International Brigade veterans and Spanish Loyalist refugees often formed the core of resistance groups.

This year’s “Panthéonisation”—as it is referred to in France—is momentous. It marks a major turning point in the French memory of World War II. In order to honor the group as a whole, the reinterment of Missak and Melinée Manouchian was accompanied by the posting of a plaque inscribed with the names of the 24 FTP-MOI members, all of whom were communists and 21 were foreigners. It is the first time that communists and foreigners are officially recognized for their contribution to the French Resistance.

It is certain that this year’s commemoration of the 80th anniversary of the liberation of Paris, in August, will continue to honor foreign participation. It is rumored that the Prime Minister of Spain may attend as an official tribute to the Loyalists of the Leclerc Division. In addition, it is said that the U.S. Fourth Infantry Division, which landed on Utah beach on June 6 and accompanied the Second French Armored Division of Leclerc into Paris on August 25, will be honored for the first time. And let’s not forget that Lincoln veteran Larry Cane was a lieutenant in the Combat Engineers of said division, having earned a Silver Star in combat in the Normandy hedgerows. Through him, like through the vets on the Affiche Rouge, we come full circle once again from the war in Spain in 1936 to the liberation of Europe in 1944-45.

Robert S. Coale is Professor of Hispanic Studies at the Université de Rouen-Normandie in France and a member of the Board of ALBA.