Casanova, Danielle (1909–1943)

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Casanova, Danielle (1909–1943)

French resistance leader and political activist. Born Vincentella Périni on January 9, 1909, in Ajaccio, Corsica; died in Auschwitz (Oswiecim), German-occupied Poland, on May 10, 1943; daughter of Olivier Périni and Marie Hyacinthe (Versini) Périni; had three sisters and one brother; married Laurent Casanova (1906–1972).

After Napoleon Bonaparte, Danielle Casanova is probably the best-known Corsican. Her name is instantly recognizable to most French men and women as a heroine of the World War II resistance. Born in Ajaccio, Vincentella

Périni grew up in a large family. One of four girls, she also had a brother, André. The family had strong political convictions, her parents being school teachers known for their republican and leftist loyalties. Vincentella and her siblings were by no means political conformists, however, exhibiting the flinty independence of an island people long accustomed to fighting and dying for their beliefs. While two of her sisters remained relatively indifferent to politics, her younger sister Emma was also drawn to radical ideas from an early age, becoming a militant Communist in the 1930s. Brother André, on the other hand, was a political moderate who became a colonial administrator in French Morocco where he served until his early death in 1942.

Always able to depend on her family for support, Vincentella moved to Paris in November 1927 to study dentistry. A serious pupil, she remained passionately interested in politics, joining the Federal Union of Students. Soon she became leader of that organization's section of dental students. In 1928, Périni joined the Young Communist League. Increasingly at home in the rough-and-tumble of Parisian student politics, she worked to shed her provincial identity, preferring the more sophisticated name of "Lella" to Vincentella. Active in two arrondisements, she emerged as the unchallenged political powerhouse of the activist medical students of the French capital, and by 1930 had become a force to be reckoned with as secretary of region IV of the Young Communist League.

Known to her friends from this point on as Danielle, it was during this period in her life that Périni met Algerian-born Laurent Casanova. Three years her senior, Casanova was a militant Communist whose family had migrated to north Africa from Corsica. Besides their shared Corsican roots, Danielle and Laurent were convinced that Marxism alone could save France from social chaos and Fascism. The couple was married in December 1933, having, however, little time for youthful diversions. Danielle struggled to establish her dental practice, fortunately receiving assistance from her grandmother, who provided a much-needed financial subsidy to equip her office. In the depths of the depression, clients at first were scarce, and Danielle had to share her office in a working-class district with a masseur, who used the office several days a week. Soon, however, she found a more stable work environment in "La Bellevilloise," a workers' dental cooperative.

During these years, Danielle Casanova was politically more active than ever, serving even before her marriage as a member of the central committee of the Young Communist League of France. Having impressed the inner circles of the French Communist Party with her leadership qualities, she was chosen in 1936 to be a member of the French delegation to an international youth congress in Moscow. There, she was elected to the central committee of the World Youth Congress. The Soviet party line at the time was one of cooperation with all anti-Fascist forces, and Danielle was able to forge ties to various organizations determined to fight Fascism both in France and abroad. Within the French party, her star was rising, because her husband, whose area of responsibility was clandestine work among the French military, had become a close collaborator of Maurice Thorez, the head of the party. But much of her influence derived from the fact that she was an indefatigable worker and a loyal party member whose faith in Marxism was absolute and who never questioned the Stalinist system of "democratic centralism."

The mid-1930s saw Danielle Casanova using every ounce of energy to bring about the creation of a Communist France. In March 1936, she added to her already numerous posts that of secretary of the Young Girls' Union of France, an organization that thrived during the Popular Front period when Communist ideological rigidity was relaxed in order to more effectively fight the threat of Fascism. The start of civil war in Spain in the summer of 1936 brought a host of new tasks, including collecting and shipping relief supplies to the Spanish Republican forces and the French volunteers of the International Brigades. On one occasion, Casanova personally accompanied a shipment of condensed milk for malnourished Spanish children in the war zone.

Throughout these years, Casanova was one of the most energetic leaders of the French Communist movement, organizing new units of the party and spreading the message that Fascism could be halted if all strata of France mobilized its latent strength. Probably the last gasp of optimism during this period took place in October 1938 when Danielle served as leader of the French delegation to the United States to attend a World Congress of Youth for Peace, which was held at Vassar College. Within months, the hopes that had sustained Danielle and her generation were shattered. In March 1939, Nazi Germany marched into Prague, snuffing out the remnants of Czech independence and a few weeks later the Spanish Republic capitulated to the forces of General Franco's Fascist hordes. In August 1939, Hitler and Stalin signed a non-aggression pact that made war inevitable.

Their intense loyalty to the Stalinist party meant that for Danielle and her husband there was no question as to what they would do once war was declared. Laurent had been in Moscow for several months in 1939 and Danielle prepared for underground work. Her clandestine work began within weeks of the start of hostilities due to the fact that the Communist Party was banned as a defeatist organization. Having fled from her home, Danielle lived under an assumed identity, organizing a program of systematic propaganda designed to weaken the French armed forces. After the defeat of France in June 1940, her responsibilities were shifted away from the military and in October Casanova was placed in charge of women's committees in Paris and the German-occupied zone of France. Starting with the German attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941, Casanova's task was to organize Young Communist cadres into effective partisan fighters.

Although Danielle's organization could boast of some successes, the Gestapo spared no effort to smash her own and other resistance groups. During a mass roundup in mid-February 1942, she was arrested along with a large number of other resistance activists. She was imprisoned and interrogated, first in La Santé in Paris and then in the prison of Romainville/ Seine. Convinced that they could not benefit by keeping her a prisoner in France, her German jailers deported Danielle to Auschwitz on January 24, 1943. Weakened in body but not in spirit, she died of typhus at Auschwitz on May 10, 1943.

Danielle Casanova did not disappear from French national consciousness with her death in a Nazi extermination camp. With liberation in 1944, the French sought to rehabilitate their national honor, an often difficult task given the fact that many men and women had in fact collaborated with the enemy or remained indifferent. The Communist Party, on the threshold of power in the immediate postwar years, had many martyrs they could point to, and Danielle Casanova was obviously one of the most attractive. A remarkable woman by any yardstick, even anti-Communists had to admit that she had shown great courage as a resistance leader and thus helped to salvage the nation's tattered honor.

The post-war leaders of the French Communist movement, which included her husband (who had survived the war, escaping German captivity to resume underground work), used her memory to enhance the legitimacy of their claim that their party had always opposed the Germans—which was not true during the period of the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939–41. Maurice Thorez and others compared Danielle to Joan of Arc, thus attempting to create a cult around her martyrdom. Her name was mentioned reverentially at all Communist mass meetings, and a painting commissioned by the party depicted her death in Auschwitz.

Laurent Casanova died in 1972 and by the early 1980s the divisive passions of a generation earlier were being transformed into unifying national mythologies. For most French, Danielle Casanova had lived and died as a courageous patriot despite the sometimes duplicitous policies of her party. Few objected when she was honored with a commemorative postage stamp in 1983, and most Corsicans were pleased when a large car ferry bearing her name was launched in 1989. Many French men and women live on streets named after her. With the passage of time and with changing views of history, Danielle Casanova, the Corsican revolutionary, has become an honored Frenchwoman, parallelling in many ways the historical evolution of the reputation of an earlier Corsican rebel, Napoleon Bonaparte.


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John Haag , University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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Casanova, Danielle (1909–1943)

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