The world of undercover life in France during the Nazi occupation was full of threats. Both members of the French Resistance and the agents of the Special Operations Executive who sought to support them faced the most fearsome torture if they fell into the hands of the Gestapo. The Germans were hunting them down and there was treachery within the ranks from some members who had been compromised by the Nazis.
The French Resistance had been formed from many different groups with many different political allegiances and objectives. One man who played a critical role in uniting them into a disciplined force was Jean Moulin. After imprisonment by the Nazis he had fled to Britain where he had met de Gaulle. He then parachuted back into France and spent 1942 meeting the different affiliations and bringing them together. After another visit to Britain he was back in France in the spring of 1943 to redouble his efforts:
The Resistance was gaining in strength; fugitives from the forced labour draft would soon be taking to the maquis. The Gestapo was growing stronger too, and the Milice were everywhere. It was a time when, out in the countryside, we listened tensely to the barking of dogs in the depths of the night; a time when multi-coloured parachutes, laden with weapons and cigarettes, fell from the sky by the light of flares burning in forest clearings or on windswept plateaus; a time of cellars, and the desperate cries of the torture victims, their voices like those of children… The great battle in the darkness had begun.
On 27 May 1943, the first meeting of the National Council of the Resistance was held in Paris, in the rue du Four.
Jean Moulin restated the aims of Free France: “to prosecute the war; to restore freedom of expression to the French people; to re-establish republican freedoms in a state which incorporates social justice and which possesses a sense of greatness; to work with the Allies on establishing real international collaboration, both economic and social, in a world in which France has regained her prestige.”
Then he read out a message from General de Gaulle, assigning the first Council of the Resistance its primary goal: to maintain the unity of the Resistance it represented.
Each of its members went in daily peril of his life. On 9 June, General Delestraint, commander of the secret army, unified at last, was taken prisoner in Paris.
There was no obvious successor, as so often happens in the secret world. Before the arrival of Serreules, Jean Moulin said on many occasions, “Had I been captured, I would not even have had time to brief a deputy…”. He wanted the appointment of a successor to be made with the agreement of the Resistance movements, particularly those in the south. He was to meet their representatives on 21 June, in Caluire.
They were waiting for him.
So, too, was the Gestapo.
Treason played its part – as did destiny, which made the normally punctual Jean Moulin three quarters of an hour late, only to be matched by the tardiness of the German police. Soon enough, they learned that they had captured the head of the Resistance.
Little good it did them. In the Montluc fort in Lyons, on the day that the Gestapo agent handed him writing materials because torture had left him unable to speak, Jean Moulin sketched a caricature of his torturer. As for what followed, let us turn to the stark words of his sister: “His part was played, and his ordeal began. Jeered at, savagely beaten, his head bleeding, his internal organs ruptured, he attained the limits of human suffering without betraying a single secret, he who knew everything.”
Let us be quite clear that, for the days in which he was still able to speak or write, the fate of the whole Resistance hung on the courage of this one man. As Mademoiselle Moulin put it, he knew everything.
From the memorial speech by André Malraux on the occasion of the Transfer of Jean Moulin’s ashes to the Panthéon
French Resistance has a detailed account of the events of 21 June 1943 and the subsequent interrogations. There remains considerable controversy about who betrayed Moulin and the group.