It’s surprising where research can lead you. I have been reading about World War II and France. Robert Gildea’s book Marianne in Chains: Daily Life in the Heart of France During the German Occupation describes everyday life in the Occupied Zone and investigates certain myths about ordinary French people’s attitudes and fears.
A chapter of Gildea’s book inspired my short story, ‘The List’. The story originally appeared in the anthology Pearl Harbor and More: Stories of WWII – December 1941, published to mark the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Pearl Harbor. That book is no longer available, but ‘The List’ will be appearing in a different format shortly [November 2020].
Increasing Resistance activity and reprisals
Gildea explores the aftermath of the assassination of the Feldkommandant (German military commander) of Nantes, Lieutenant-Colonel Karl Hotz, on 20th October 1941. This was the first assassination of a high-ranking German officer in occupied France.
Resistance activity began in earnest in Paris in August-September 1941 as the implications of the German invasion of Russia in June sank in. Combined with a communist demonstration in Paris in August 1941, this led the German military authorities to ban the Communist Party in France. They associated communism with Jews and saw “Jewish Bolsheviks” as responsible for Resistance activities.
From October, Resistance activity moved to the provinces, because of the German crackdown in Paris. Following Hotz’s assassination, Hitler ordered that 100 to 150 hostages should be shot and set a reward of one million gold francs for information about the killers. The German military commander in France, Otto von Stülpnagel, tried to delay the executions but was overruled and ordered to execute 50 immediately. In the event, 48 were shot, since two men on the hostage list were not actually in custody.
Gildea describes the frenzied activity that followed Hotz’s death to try to commute the executions. Another assassination in Bordeaux on 21st October only intensified the situation. Maréchal Pétain, in a misguidedly heroic gesture, even offered himself as a hostage instead. A further 50 hostages designated for execution in the Hotz case were eventually reprieved and one of the killers was denounced and arrested.
The High Command in Berlin was adamant that mass executions were the way to deter Resistance attacks. It believed that this would drive a wedge between ordinary French people and Resistance fighters. But Stülpnagel felt that mass executions would have the opposite effect by intensifying friction between the French and the Germans and damaging Germany’s economic exploitation of France.
This difference of opinion led to Stülpnagel’s resignation in February 1942. However, his successor (his cousin) experienced similar difficulties. There began to be discrepancies between the numbers of hostages ordered to be shot and those actually executed. And so, mass deportations of “Jewish Bolsheviks” combined with more limited executions became the standard reprisals policy. In May 1942, the SS took over responsibility for reprisals from the Wehrmacht but continued with this policy.
Naturally, I’ve simplified a complex and confused situation. But the story led me to imagine what local reactions would have been to the reprisals following Hotz’s killing and how this altered the balance between French and Germans.
In ‘The List’ I invented a left-wing worker of Jewish origins, on the hostage list but not actually in custody, and a widowed Countess, a former opera singer of humble birth, who is asked to help him escape. Her internal conflict and how she resolves it is the fulcrum of the story. I also took the liberty of changing some of the historical facts, including the dates, to fit the story.
I have expanded ‘The List‘ into a trilogy, starting in 1897 and following the main character, the Countess, up till 1945. Book 1, Overture, is published. Books 2 and 3 will follow in 2020-21.
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Copyright © Vanessa Couchman 2016, all rights reserved.