The Ghosts of Tulle: Will they haunt Franco-German Relations?

A working class industrial town strung out along the narrow valley of the Corrèze River, Tulle was never a place that France cared much about.  In the 1830’s, the French writer Prosper Mérimée described it as a “little town, squeezed into the depths of a narrow valley by steep mountains that seem to forbid it all expansion.”[i]  The early twentieth-century poet Paul Claudel said that “it’s no more than two or three long winding streets descending to a large factory and a small train station.”[ii]

The same descriptions could apply in 2012 except that the large factory, which had produced munitions for the state and was the town’s largest employer for over a century, was closed down in the 1990’s.

Tulle is best known today as the political fief of France’s President-elect, François Hollande.  Indeed, as Hollande gave his victory speech on Sunday evening, the sign flashing on his website and centered below him on the podium read “Tulle-dimanche 6 Mai 2012.”  But there was another date that Tulle was once more famous for and which has haunted the town for decades.  9 Juin 1944—June 9, 1944.  A date far more ingrained into the psyche of Tulle and perhaps Hollande, himself.

That was the day the German SS 2d Panzer (Das Reich) Division indulged itself in a mass hanging of Tulle’s young men and boys.  Tulle had been a Communist Party stronghold before, during and after the Second World War, and the Communist factions of the Resistance in the Limousin region had long been itching for a fight with the Germans.  June 6, D-Day, gave them the opportunity and on June 7 they attacked the German garrison guarding Tulle’s munitions factory.  By June 8th, the Maquis were in control of most of the town, having killed or maimed forty German soldiers and penning the rest up in their garrison.

But this tiny victory in the largest war the world had ever seen would prove to be fleeting.  The Das Reich Division had been ordered to head north to Normandy to bolster German forces trying to stem the Allied invasion.  And a unit of some 500 of the Das Reich’s soldiers was diverted en route to relieve the besieged Tulle garrison.  The Maquis melted back into the forests and hills of the Limousin and when the SS arrived in Tulle on June 9th only the town’s ordinary citizens were available for retribution.

And this was not just some ordinary barbarous SS Division; that would have been bad enough.  For the Das Reich killers had come from the Eastern Front where the year before they had fought at the major Battles of Kharkov and Kursk and whose commander at Tulle, Sturmbannführer Kowatch, remarked to a local official who protested: “In Russia we got used to hanging. We hanged more than 100,000 at Kharkov and Kiev, this is nothing for us here.”[iii]

The SS spent the morning of the 9th busily rounding their victims up, some 3,000 men and boys, out of which two batches of sixty were selected to be killed.  Other SS roamed the town, scavenging for any ropes and ladders they could find.  For the places of execution, the SS used whatever was handy: telephone poles, lamp posts, balconies all along the main thoroughfare, the Avenue de la Gare.  After a long leisurely lunch, the SS spent the afternoon hanging 99 of the 120 selectees, as the rest of the rounded up men and boys were forced to watch.  Also watching from behind their shutters of their homes were many citizens.  The SS left the bodies hanging in plain view for hours before ordering them to be hauled to the local garbage dump for burial. Another 101 young men and boys were deported to death camps in Germany from which they never returned.  This atrocity is less well known throughout the world than the Das Reich’s destruction the next day of the village of Oradour-sur-Glane and the killing of 642 of its inhabitants.  But it is well known to this day in Tulle.

While Oradour had suffered even more terribly, it had almost no survivors and became a symbol in France of German atrocities committed during the war.  Tulle, on the other hand, had plenty of survivors and witnesses, who suffered silently in the shadows of history.  Even today many of their children and grandchildren who had not yet been born on June 9, 1944, carry the same emotional scars as their parents and grandparents.

For decades, the inhabitants of Tulle were so overwhelmed by grief that they could not even discuss the massacre of June 9th.  There is a small museum of the Resistance in the town as there are such museums in many towns in France.  Few visit it, unable to bear the pain.  Many of the streets have been renamed after victims of the SS; apparitions that permanently hover over the town.  Many of the buildings along the Avenue de la Gare whose balconies were used by the SS to hang their victims have been torn down, but the recovered remains of those hanged are buried in the cemetery on the hill overlooking the town.  A cemetery visible from virtually every street.  The old Hotel St. Martin which housed the Gestapo torture chambers no longer exists either, but when one walks along the narrow river, one cannot help but imagine the terrible suffering of those imprisoned there in 1943 and 1944.  The Souilhac district of the town is now referred to as the Quartier des Martyrs.  Three words that speak volumes about this unspoken tragedy.

Yes, the ghosts remain, in the form of sad and bitter memories that still permeate the collective psyche of its citizens.  For virtually everyone in Tulle either had a family member, friend, neighbor or acquaintance that had either been hanged on June 9th or had been deported to the death camps.   There are other ghosts as well.  The ghosts of injustice.   Sturmbannführer Kowatch disappeared after the war and was never caught and punished for the Tulle Massacre.  The commander of the Das Reich Division, Brigadeführer Heinz Lammerding, was sentenced to death by a French court in 1951 but was never extradited from then West Germany and spent the rest of his life running a prosperous engineering firm in Düsseldorf.  Can there be any doubt that this lack of justice still haunts the town?

Today, some French sneeringly refer to German Chancellor Angela Merkel as “La Boche.”  But to many citizens of Tulle there is another German woman, Paulette Geissler, “la chienne,” who readily comes to mind.  For it is la chienne, convicted in 1951 and sentenced in absentia to three years for the minor crime of failing to assist someone in peril, who embodies everything terrible that happened that day.  While the inhabitants of Tulle may be reluctant to talk about the massacre they have never been reluctant to talk about la chienne whose behavior on June 9th is remembered as most vile: drinking and laughing as the victims dangled from ropes, dancing to accordion music, even participating in the selection process. Who can say what is true and what is not?  What is important is that la chienne was there at the time, consorting with the SS, and that she had the arrogance to make a nostalgic visit to Tulle in the 1970’s while on a hunt for foie gras in the neighboring Dordogne.  A visit in which she acted as if the massacre had never occurred.

When the citizens of Tulle see Chancellor Merkel’s image on television, do they conflate it with that of la chienne?  How can one think otherwise?  And does President Hollande?  Perhaps.  At the very least he is highly cognizant of the events of June 9th and the profound effect it has had on the town.   It is from these bitter unspoken memories and grief that has wrapped Tulle as a shroud that President Hollande arises.  While he has been criticized for being too bland a politician, that is perhaps only a mirror of the psyche of Tulle.  In any event, what happened on June 9, 1944 in Tulle and the decades long internal suffering of its inhabitants will no doubt play a part in how Hollande interacts with Germany and its Chancellor, Angela Merkel.

[i] P. Mérimée, Notes d’un voyage en Auvergne, 1838

[ii] Tulle et ses environs, Guidebook. Martel, 1997, P. 69

[iii] Antoine Soulier, Le Drame de Tulle, 1971, P. 26.


  1. monique chronley says:

    I read with much anticipation this passage.
    was 9 years old when this had happened. my neighbors Lucien was taken and sent to concentration camp and never came back it was about 23 years old. it is to be recorded that the priest interceded and saved many lives.
    my grandfather wounded in world war one and walked with difficulty and went in the city to offer himself instead of a neighbor being just. 14 years old . they both let them go. . La chienne even would decided would be chosen for what.. i live through the search of the SS house by house .they captured with great roughness any men they found . they were so evil. i was poked in the ribs with a bayonet to wake up and we were all sent in the street, the SS were searching for any men and unhappily find two next door.

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