Tillion, Germaine (Marie Rosine)

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TILLION, Germaine (Marie Rosine)

Nationality: French. Born: Allegre, 30 May 1907. Education: University of Paris, M.A.; diplomas from Practical School of Advanced Studies, National School of Living Oriental Languages, and School of the Louvre. Career: Conducted ethnographic missions in the Aures (Algeria), 1934-40; member, Musée de l'Homme (French resistance network), 1940-42; prisoner, Paris, 1942-43; prisoner of war, Ravensbrück, Germany, 1943-45; investigated German war crimes and Soviet concentration camps, 1945-54; conducted inquires into injustices in Algeria, 1954-62. Director and chair in ethnography of the Maghreb, Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, Paris, beginning 1957. Participated in National Science Research Center missions among the Tauregs and Moors, 1964-65 and 1966. Awards: Officer, French Legion of Honor, 1975; Croix de Guerre; Rosette of Resistance.



Ravensbrück. 1946; revised and expanded edition, 1973; translated as Ravensbrück, 1975; revised edition, 1988.


L'Algérie en 1957. 1957; as Algeria: The Realities, 1958.

Les Ennemis-complémentaires. 1960; as France and Algeria: Complementary Enemies, 1961.

L'Afrique bascule vers l'avenir; L'Algerie en 1957 et autres textes. 1960.

Le Harem et les cousins. 1966; as The Republic of Cousins: Women's Oppression in Mediterranean Society, 1983.

La Traversée du mal: Entretien avec Jean Lacouture, with Jean Lacouture. 1997.

Il était une fois l'ethnographie. 2000.


Critical Studies:

"Reflections on Three Ravensbrucks" by Pierre Vidal-Naquet, translated by David Ames Curtis, in South Atlantic Quarterly, 96(4), Fall 1997, pp. 881-94; Le Témoignage est un combat: Une biographie de Germaine Tillion by Jean Lacouture, 2000.

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When she joined one of the first cells of the French resistance in Paris in 1940, Germaine Tillion was a rising star in the field of ethnography and cultural anthropology and had spent several years researching the Berber population in North Africa. One of her mentors was Marcel Mauss, the famous Jewish anthropologist, who helped open her eyes to the seriousness and scope of Nazi crimes. Tillion was arrested in 1942 and spent the next 14 months in French prisons, where she was allowed to continue her scholarly activities. In 1943 she was deported along with other female prisoners to the Ravensbrück labor camp for women, where she remained until the end of the war. Tillion used her tenacity and scientific skills to gather information both during and after the period of her captivity. After the war she devoted much of her life to documenting and analyzing the Holocaust, using her personal experience as a guide but not limiting herself to it. Her three books on Ravensbrück, published in 1946, 1973, and 1988, respectively, are therefore valuable not only as eyewitness accounts but also as examples of rigorous, comprehensive scientific inquiry into the Nazi practices of deportation, slave labor, and mass murder. Though she has been criticized at times for allowing her personal experience to be overshadowed by a wall of academic research, such as in the review by Nancy R. Chiswick in Contemporary Sociology (1977), the combination of testimonial and scientific method help place Ravensbrück among the most important French works on the Holocaust.

Tillion's scientific career is not easily dissociable from her political activities both before and after the war or from her wartime captivity. Her early research on the Berbers centered on the role of ethnicity in a social and political context, which in turn led her to examine developments in Germany, especially the policies affecting Jews, with more insight and objectivity than many of her contemporaries. She started her North African research over again in the 1950s (all her earlier notes and manuscripts had been lost or destroyed at the time of her transfer to Ravensbrück), just in time to witness the rise of the Algerian independence movement. When the Algerian war broke out, Tillion became an outspoken critic of French colonialism and military policy. Her growing scientific reputation, along with her own wartime experiences, contributed to her credibility. In the 1950s and '60s she published numerous articles and several books on France's relationship with Algeria, on family structures and women in North African society, and on postcolonialism.

Tillion achieved scientific fame as an Africanist but never strayed very far from her commitment to the growing field of Holocaust studies. Much of her insight into the Algerian conflict stems from connections she perceived with World War II, including some historical and, at times, ironic continuities between the two conflicts: in the 1973 edition of Ravensbrück, for example, she includes a testimonial by an Algerian woman who, after being tortured by French soldiers, was treated by a German doctor of the French Foreign Legion who had been a member of the SS.

It was not only Tillion's ongoing research on Nazi camps that compelled her to publish the revised and expanded versions of Ravensbrück but also the growing phenomenon of Holocaust denial, including some that emanated from the academic establishment. She specifically mentions Olga Wormser-Migot's doctoral thesis, The Nazi Concentrationary System published by Presses Universitaires de France in 1968, in which the existence of gas chambers at Buchenwald, Dachau, and Mauthausen is questioned. Sensing that the attacks on the Holocaust would only grow more frequent, Tillion promoted the work of other Holocaust historians and went into the archives to find corroboration of her own memories and those of her fellow survivors. Her contribution to the history of the Holocaust consists primarily of her skill in gathering and recording information while a prisoner and her subsequent lifelong quest to recover and synthesize data as a means of correcting and supporting the growing number of eyewitness accounts, including her own. In addition, she consistently displays in her work an ability to discuss the broad historical context of the Holocaust, as well as an attempt to explain its causes and effects from a philosophical, rather than strictly historical or sociological, perspective.

—M. Martin Guiney

See the essay on Ravensbrück.