Tillion, Germaine (1907—)
Tillion, Germaine (1907—)
Pioneering French ethnologist, a student of Algerian desert tribes, who was an early leader in the French Resistance during World War II, survived internment at the Ravensbrück concentration camp, wrote a germinal study of the camp system, and worked for peace during the Algerian War for Independence. Pronunciation: gher-MAYN TEE-YEE-OH. Born at Allègre (Haute-Loire) on May 30, 1907; daughter of Lucien Tillion (d. 1925, a magistrate) and Émilie (Cussac) Tillion (1875–1945, an art historian); educated at the Lycée Jeanne-d'Arc in Clermont-Ferrand and the Institut d'Ethnologie (Sorbonne).
Lived with a Berber tribe in southeastern Algeria (1934–40); joined the Resistance (1940); arrested and imprisoned (1942–43); interned at the Ravensbrück concentration camp (1943–45); published first edition of Ravensbrück (1946); sent on a mission to Algeria and founded the Centres sociaux (1954–56); published L'Algérie en 1957 and had secret meetings with Algerian leaders (1957); organized education for prisonerswhile at the Ministry of Education (1959–60); published Le Harem et les cousins, a study of the treatment of women in Mediterranean cultures (1967); published revised edition of Ravensbrück, responding to revisionist theses on the camp system (1973); ended her teaching career at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (1977); named president of the French Section of the Minority Rights Group (1978); published third edition (rev.) of Ravensbrück (1988).
Ravensbrück (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, rev. and aug., 1973, also Eng. trans.); Ravensbrück, suivi de "Les Exterminations par gaz à Ravensbrück" par Anise Postel-Vinay et "Les Exterminations par gaz à Hartheim, Mathausen et Gusen" par Pierre-Serge Choumoff, nouvelle édition entièrement refondue (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1988); L'Algérie en 1957 (Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1957, also Eng. trans.); L'Afrique bascule vers l'avenir: l'Algérie en 1957 et autres textes (Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1960); Les Ennemis complémentaires (Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1960, also Eng. trans.); Le Harem et les cousins (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1966, rev. ed., also Eng. trans., 1982); La Traversée du mal: Entretiens avec Jean Lacouture (Paris: Arléa, 1997); Il était une fois l'ethnographie (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 2000).
On June 17, 1940, as the German army rolled deep into France, Émilie Tillion and her daughter Germaine, a 33-year-old ethnologist just returned from six years in Algeria, inched their automobile along in an endless column of overladened vehicles crawling south from Paris in hopes of escaping the invaders. Word spread that an important announcement was coming from the government of Marshal Philippe Pétain, and the two women stopped and entered a house to hear it. At 12:30 pm, the aged soldier announced that France was asking for an armistice. Overwhelmed by anger and disgust, Germaine fled to the street and vomited. She did not hear General Charles de Gaulle's broadcast from London the next day proclaiming that no matter what the government might do, he and all who rallied to him would fight on until final victory. But Tillion did not need de Gaulle's summons to tell her where she would stand. She became a Resister from the first hour.
Germaine Tillion—she preferred the ancient pronunciation of the name, using a "yee" sound—was born in Allègre (Haute-Loire) in central France on May 30, 1907. A sister, Françoise , followed in 1909. Their father Lucien Tillion was a magistrate originally from Charolais (Saône-et-Loire). His family was fairly prosperous despite having had a spendthrift grandfather. It was Catholic but also Republican. Lucien boasted a broad general culture; he enjoyed archaeology, history, and photography, but especially music. He died in 1925, however, and it was her mother who had the greater influence. Germaine lovingly described her after her death in the Ravensbrück gas chamber as "a cherished model—unforgettable—of nobility of soul, understanding, and calm courage." Émilie Cussac Tillion (1875–1945) was from a family of prosperous landowners around Alleuze (Cantal) in central France. They were observant Catholics and Republicans like the Tillions, although more politically active, having furnished a line of "hereditary" mayors of the town since before the Revolution of 1789.
To avoid the influenza epidemic during the First World War, the Tillion sisters were sent in 1917 to live with relatives in Auvergne. They later graduated from the Lycée Jeanne-d'Arc in Clermont-Ferrand. Meanwhile, their parents moved after the war to Saint-Maur, a suburb of Paris. Neither parent tried to influence them unduly as to a career. Françoise enrolled at the École des Sciences politiques, one of few women to do so. Her mother being a historian of art, from childhood Germaine had heard talk of "old stones, of cathedrals, churches, and transepts." Her interests ranged so widely—psychology, Egyptology, pre-history, history of religions, Celtic culture—that she had trouble deciding. About 1930 she settled on ethnology, a branch of anthropology that analyzes the histories, similarities, and differences of cultures. It was fairly new in France, the Institut d'Ethnologie at the Sorbonne dating only from 1925. As she approached the time when she would do field work for her degree, she also attended courses at the École des Langues orientales.
At the Institut, Tillion was strongly influenced by two men, Marcel Mauss (1872–1950), the Institut's founder; and the Arabist-Islamisist Louis Massignon (1883–1962). Mauss, nephew of the sociologist Émile Durckheim, was a spellbinding polymath who specialized in the religion of "uncivilized" peoples. (He rejected the appellation.) He was an "armchair" scholar who nevertheless fervently preached the necessity of intensive field work, of living among peoples—preferably a single tribe, for example, over a long period of time—and observing everything possible. Tillion and several other students habitually escorted him around to his lectures at the Sorbonne and the Collège de France. It was at the Collège in 1932 that she met Massignon, a charismatic figure, ardent Catholic (friend of J.K. Huysmans and Jacques Maritain), and France's leading student of the Arab-Islamic world. He had practiced ethnology and took a multi-disciplinary approach to his studies.
Tillion at first felt some chagrin over the choice of a locale for her field work. Instead of South America or some romantic isle in the South Pacific, she found that Mauss, via Paul Rivet—founder of the Musée de l'Homme (the Museum of Man), an affiliate of the Institut—had presented her name to the London-based Society of African Languages and Cultures. The Society was proposing to send two women to study the Berbers of the Aurès Massif in eastern Algeria—a daring venture for female investigators. Once she and Thérèse Rivière accepted, however, Tillion soon realized Mauss was not just throwing her a bone; this was a truly exciting project.
As luck would have it, Rivière fell ill soon after they reached Algeria in the spring of 1934, so Tillion was left to go on alone. Critically important to her was a skilled interpreter, which she was fortunate to find before leaving Arris, the "capital" of the Aurès. She set off on horseback, accompanied by a dozen mules carrying her baggage and equipment, on a 14-hour, 40-mile (70 km.) trek to a Chaouïa-speaking tribe of Berbers, the Ah'Abderrahman, living in a district called l'Ahmar Khaddou. Tillion wanted to get well away from the few French at Arris in order to immerse herself completely in the native culture. She certainly succeeded, for none of the women of the tribe had ever seen a European; a few men had, but only because a French military doctor made an annual visit to vaccinate the children whom their fathers brought to him.
As described in her reading and by officials in Algiers, the inhabitants of the Aurès were little better than ignorant thieves and murderers—which only made her more sympathetic toward them. The tribe, about 800 in number, led a hard life. They were semi-nomadic, following their goats and sowing sparse crops of barley and coarse grain. Hunger was no stranger to them. Even so, she found herself welcome, helped by her dignified, calm, yet friendly demeanor. After several years, they gave her the title of tamhurt
("the Old One"), the highest degree of respect. Never in the course of six years with them, she testified, did they threaten her physically or steal her property, which she left unlocked and unguarded. Such violence as these "murderers" inflicted reminded her of 16th-century European gentlemen because virtually the sole motive was affronts to honor.
She did not remain in the Aurès continuously, but took furloughs of several months in Paris in 1935, 1937, and 1939 to recuperate, consult with her advisers, and write up her notes. In 1937 the London society, at Mauss' suggestion, charged her with a complementary inquiry to allow her to finish her thesis. During her last two missions (1938–39, 1939–40), with the help of the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), she pursued the same work but also tried to look at the larger regional scene and Algeria as a whole. She became gravely concerned about the effects of poverty, population growth, and food scarcity. In a lecture in Paris during her 1937–38 winter layover, she spoke of growing instability in the country—a prophetic warning, it turned out.
All my life I have wanted to understand human nature, the world in which I live.
Tillion bade her Algerian Berber friends a final farewell on May 21, 1940. Not because of the Second World War (begun September 1, 1939), but because the spring of 1940 marked her scheduled terminal date. She did not learn of the German invasion of France (May 12) until she arrived in Arris. Anxious to join her mother, she finally reached Paris on June 9, five days before the German entry. At Saint-Maur, she found her mother stoical in the face of disaster. (Françoise was safe, having married an administrator now in Indochina.) They decided to leave Paris for the South, departing on June 13, and heard Pétain's call for an armistice on the 17th. Concluding that it was pointless to go on, they reentered Paris on June 24.
Germaine swiftly concluded that the government set up by Pétain at Vichy in the Unoccupied Zone was traitorous. She was no Germanophobe, but simply—quite simply, without thinking much about it—a patriot. She had stayed with a colleague in Königsberg, East Prussia, from December 1932 to February 1933, the very time that Hitler was coming to power. She observed the local Nazis and thought them "ridiculous." In 1938, she visited Bavaria for a week and was disturbed by the militarism and aggressiveness on display. But she felt no hatred for Germans as such. Now, in June 1940, she concluded she must no longer ignore public affairs as she had for years. She wanted to "do something," but what "something" might be eluded her. Deciding she needed contacts and information, she went to the headquarters of the Red Cross. She entered but found the place deserted. While she was puzzling over this, another young woman came in from the street. After some conversation, the woman gave her the telephone number of a Colonel Paul Hauet, a retired 74-year-old officer of colonial troops who had offered himself as a hostage for Paris.
Tillion looked him up. They decided to use the moribund National Union of Colonial Combattants (UNCC) to establish contact with French colonial troops now POWs but still in France. The ostensible object was to find out who they were and arrange to send them letters and packages from sympathetic people. Secretly, the purpose was to aid escaped prisoners. For a headquarters, Tillion selected an apartment at 2, rue Bréguer, conveniently located between her Saint-Maur home and the Bibliothèque Nationale and the Musée de l'Homme, where she continued to work on her thesis. She stopped by the rue Bréguer daily to see Hauet, meet escapees and other fugitives, and furnish them with clothing, money, false papers, and information about routes and safe houses in order to reach the Unoccupied Zone. Hauet's group, which eventually numbered about 80, became involved mainly in aiding these fugitives, writing and distributing pamphlets, and (especially) gathering intelligence about the Germans. One of Hauet's key contacts was a fellow retired colonel, Charles du Theil de La Rochère, an intelligence specialist, around whom another group coalesced. Sending information to London posed continual problems. Hauet and La Rochère generally used a Captain d'Autrevaux of the Vichy army.
Tillion did not know more than a few of Hauet's contacts—she met La Rochère only once—and told few about her own at the Musée de l'Homme and the other museums at the Trocadéro and Chaillot palaces. Led by Boris Vildé, an escaped POW who was a linguist from the Baltic and a naturalized French citizen, Anatole Lewitsky, an anthropologist from Russia, and Yvonne Oddon , a colleague and close friend of Tillion's, the museum Resisters initially were young left-wing intellectuals who had been opposing fascism since before the war. As the museum group expanded, however, it incorporated (as did Hauet's and La Rochère's) people from every walk of life. Many women were involved, both in ordinary and leadership roles. After the war, the government asked Tillion to document the composition and activities of these groups as part of a national effort to identify all Resistance organizations in order to award valid decorations and pensions; rather arbitrarily, she named the museum, Hauet, and La Rochère network after the Musée de l'Homme.
At its peak in early 1941, it numbered about 300 persons, with "cores" or "grouplets," as Tillion described them, scattered across the whole Occupied Zone. After the Allied invasion of French North Africa in November 1942, the Germans occupied all of France and the Vichy government became increasingly irrelevant. The Resistance grew far more structured and powerful, with a central direction imposed by de Gaulle's Free French movement. Tillion's experience of the Resistance was confined wholly to the pre-November 1942 period. She learned specifics about de Gaulle mostly after she was arrested and interned (August 1942). Before that she and her comrades knew him only as "our man," "the one who is right," who "agrees with us." While the vast majority of the French were not active in Resistance groups, Tillion found almost everyone willing to connive, so activists lived "like fish in the sea." As did Simone Veil , a fellow survivor of the death camps, Tillion sharply criticized the famous postwar film about the Occupation, La Chagrin et la Pitié (1971), which portrayed the masses as mostly silent collaborators and the Resisters as exaltés or "boy scouts." The game was dangerous, certainly. Almost all who joined the Resistance in 1940 ended up arrested and either deported or shot. After the war, Tillion remarked that one had to be "very lucky" to have survived.
Misfortune struck the Musée de l'Homme network early on. Between mid-January and mid-April 1941, Vildé, Lewitsky, Oddon, and 16 others were arrested, betrayed by one Albert Gaveau, Vildé's right-hand man but a double agent. They were imprisoned and eventually, in February 1942, tried. Tillion escaped arrest because Gaveau did not know all of Vildé's contacts. But she did all she could to aid the prisoners, sending food and supplies and meeting almost daily with their lawyers and families. She even thought seriously of engineering an escape, but finally decided to try to persuade Monseigneur Baudrillart, rector of the Catholic Institute and member of the Académie Française, to intercede. She visited him on February 9 before the verdicts came down. He reluctantly signed a letter she had written to be sent to Hitler asking for clemency, a move suggested by Vildé's attorney. The verdicts, including seven death sentences, were not set aside, and on February 23, 1942, Vildé, Lewitsky, and five others were shot. They were among the earliest martyrs of the Resistance.
More misfortune followed when Hauet and La Rochère were arrested on July 4–5, 1941. (Hauet was released but was arrested again 20 months later; both he and La Rochère died in deportation.) Tillion found herself in charge of what remained of their groups. She made new contacts, most important (in early 1942) with Jacques Legrand ("Bernard"), who headed "Gloria SMH," a British Intelligence network. This contact more or less solved the problem of regular communication with London. (It was in Gloria SMH that she first met Anise Girard, later Anise Postel-Vinay , called "Danielle," who was deported with her and became a lifelong friend.) Tillion may well have aroused suspicion, however, when on July 14 she organized the escape of a young Jew, Juliette Tenine , from a medical facility where she had been put temporarily after her arrest. Tenine was the sister of the Communist mayor of Ivry, who had been shot as a hostage just before her arrest. Assisted by Tillion, Tenine and her family went into hiding.
Tillion's arrest resulted from plans for another prison escape. Abbé Robert Alesch, vicar of the parish of La Varenne, had joined a group of young men in Saint-Maur and La Varenne plotting more escapes into the Unoccupied Zone, and they agreed to let him meet their "chief": Tillion. On August 13, 1942, Tillion had a rendezvous at the Gare de Lyon with Alesch and an Intelligence agent, Gilbert, a close friend of Legrand in Gloria SMH. Independent of the escape project, Tillion wanted very much to have some documents, concealed by Gilbert in a matchbox, taken by Alesch to a radio post in the Unoccupied Zone. Gilbert handed over the matchbox, and she told him to leave. She accompanied Alesch to the gate and saw him get his ticket punched. As he walked away into a crowd, a man tapped her shoulder and said, "German police. Follow me." She recalled that she replied in a half-ironic, half-aggressive tone, "You think perhaps I'm Jewish?" "No," he replied, "I knew right away that you're not. We only want to check your papers." Once this was done, three men bundled her into a car which sped off to the rue des Saussaies headquarters of the German military police (the Abwehr, not the Gestapo). Tillion's life in the Resistance was over.
She learned later that Gilbert also had been picked up. Alesch was in the Germans' pay, it turned out. He had penetrated Gloria SMH and had set the trap. Arrested by the Americans in 1944, he was tried and shot in 1948.
Tillion was questioned and then lodged in the Santé Prison until her transfer to Fresnes on October 13. She was interrogated at the rue de Saussaies on August 13, 14, 17, and 25, and October 9, 21, and 23. She was not tortured, but on one occasion she was told at nightfall that she would be shot in the morning. On October 23, she was formally charged with spying, terrorism, harboring an English parachutist, attempting to free prisoners from Fresnes, and aiding Germany's enemies. She denied everything. After some weeks of reflection, she asked for a pen and paper so she could address the tribunal. Her long letter, a sly masterpiece of irony, mockery, and injured innocence, again denied all charges. She never learned how her captors reacted, but it appears she earned a reputation as a hard case; Gestapo officers, it was said, would pound the table whenever her name was mentioned.
Although held incommunicado for five months, she exchanged news by corresponding with a friend on a piece of cloth which was then smuggled via the laundry in the lining of a dress furnished by the Red Cross. She learned to communicate with the cells immediately above and below her via the heating-duct opening. Eventually, the wardens relaxed her regime and allowed her to resume work on her thesis, which helped occupy her mind and fill the empty hours. In January 1943, the prison's chaplain passed on a gift from her mother, a tiny Imitation of Christ in which Germaine wrote notes about her captivity. He also relayed some appalling news: her mother had been arrested and was now in Fresnes. Tillion's arrest had inevitably led to her mother's. In Fresnes, they communicated secretly through letters, and once, on April 11, they caught sight of one another for a moment and exchanged smiles and signs. In August, however, her mother was sent to Romainville.
Tillion's projected trial never took place. By 1943, the Germans had neither the time, personnel, nor inclination to honor judicial norms. On October 21, she was put in a railroad coach with 24 other women. Four of them, whom she did not know, had been arrested, she learned, in the same round-up as she as a result of Alesch's betrayals. The papers of all 24 were marked with the mysterious letters "NN," for " Nacht und Nebel" (Night and Fog), a Hitlerian conceit used to label prisoners consigned to certain death. They were taken to Aachen, spent a week in a relatively comfortable prison, and then entrained to Fürstenberg, about 50 miles (80 km.) north of Berlin. From there, on October 31, two trucks took them on the 20-minute ride to the concentration camp at Ravensbrück. Once inside the gates, the prisoners knew this place was like nothing they had known so far. The very air breathed death.
Ravensbrück was a labor camp, although in January 1945 it would acquire its own gas chamber. Worn-out prisoners who did not die on the premises from exhaustion, disease, beating, or shooting, were routinely shipped to extermination camps, mostly in Poland. The maximum number of prisoners was around 45,000, reached in the last months; when Tillion arrived in latter 1943 there were around 17,000 living in 32 "blocks" (barracks). Besides the thousands working inside the camp, more thousands were employed outside or loaned to a Siemens plant nearby or other factories. They were worked twelve hours per day and subjected to four roll calls, which could last for hours regardless of the weather. Practically all of the prisoners were women—Jehovah's Witnesses, Gypsies (Roma), Jews, common-law criminals, and "politicals" (mainly Resistance leaders, many of whom were Communists) from all over Europe, but principally Poland, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Germany, and France. Their social origins ranged from the aristocracy to the poorest peasantry. About a third of the French were Resisters, the rest criminals, prostitutes who had infected German occupiers, or merely the unlucky. Perhaps because they tended to be more uncooperative than the others, the French were picked upon more by the SS, starved more, and ranked at the bottom of the nationality groups. (Such, anyhow, was Tillion's perception of the matter.) German-speakers ranked at the top. Those designated NN were "living dead," subject to unlimited exploitation. There was also a category called Verfügbar (available), who could be used on any kind of job, especially the most vile. Tillion was both an NN and a Verfügbar. Prisoners were employed in virtually all capacities in the camp, including block warden, infirmary nurse, and (if German-speaking) secretary in the camp offices. Largely because of the office workers and transfers from other camps, news from the outside world circulated with remarkable speed. Within a week of her arrival, for example, Tillion learned from a Czech transfer from Auschwitz about the extermination of Jews there; and days in advance in 1944 she learned of Paris' imminent liberation.
Upon her arrival, her baggage—including her thesis—was confiscated and a red triangle, for "political," affixed to her, making her a special target of the SS guards. She was quarantined, came down with diphtheria, and was sent to the infirmary. When she got out, she was weak and barely able to walk. She had meanwhile resolved to avoid work altogether. For seven or eight months, she managed by cleverness and the complicity of friends to hide out in various blocks—a considerable exploit. Ironically, since she was a Verfügbar, she was in no particular authority's purview, which helped her to "fall through the cracks" and move about. She made many friends, among them (besides Anise Postel-Vinay) Denise Jacob , sister of Simone (Jacob) Veil; Geneviève de Gaulle (later Anthonioz), General de Gaulle's niece; and Margarete Buber-Neumann , a survivor of Stalin's Gulag. Tillion also made highly useful contacts among the mostly Austrian and Czech secretaries, whom she pumped for information. Luckily, the secretaries were "politicals," not common-law criminals as in most camps, and thus were apt to be more intelligent and inclined toward collaboration.
Eventually she was caught and set to unloading and classifying SS loot in freight cars from all over Europe. Her comrades, however, thought she was physically unsuited for this job, so they hid her in a packing case for a time. Found again, she was hitched to an iron roller used by the crew which maintained the camp's streets. Her health, excellent before her imprisonment, suffered greatly. At various times, Tillion contracted diphtheria, scurvy, bronchitis, and septicemia. Existing on a diet of rutabaga soup and bread, she once weighed as little as 65 lbs. (30 kg.). Her "capital discipline," which she used to keep herself going, was to groom and wash daily. The stench and cold and crowded quarters she could abide, but not the vermin. She would delicately pick them out of her clothing and give them to a neighbor to kill.
Tillion owed her survival, she wrote, "first—and most definitely—to chance, then to anger and the motivation to reveal the crimes I had witnessed, and finally to a union of friendship." Her comrades in suffering admired the pluck and guile which made her a kind of Robin Hood of the camp. She helped them in return, not least of all by keeping hope alive. Ever since the first days of the occupation of France, she was sure the Allies would win in the end. As for the chances of survival, Anise Postel-Vinay recalled her saying more than once, "My dear, in every human event, when all seems lost, there is still a 5 to 7 percent presence of the unknown, the unforeseen. It's a law of human societies." How astonishing it was that while hiding out in the packing case, no less, she wrote an operetta and read it to her 15 or 20 companions. It was a parody of Offenbach's Orpheus in Hell entitled Le Verfügbar aux enfers, operette-revue en un prologue et 3 actes (The Verfügbar in Hell). It took the form of a lecture describing a strange new animal, the Verfügbar, with comments offered by a Greek chorus singing well-known tunes. (The operetta, on 118 15×10 cm. pages, got by the SS, and made it to Paris after her release.)
On one occasion which became part of the camp's lore, she confronted an SS guard who had begun savagely beating a young girl for no reason. Prudently holding her glasses behind her back, she stepped forward, squinted up at him, and said simply, "Nein." He became so flustered that he stopped and wandered away. She then wrote a respectful letter to the commandant about the guard's "failing in his proper duties," got it translated, and sent it off with the signatures of several university-educated comrades. No reply was received and no reprisals followed.
Ever the professional observer of human behavior, Tillion constantly studied the camp's inhabitants and its rulers' "system." She took notes and hid them away. She was not thinking, surely, of writing a book, but of helping her comrades understand so they could protect themselves. She made a crucial discovery when she questioned a secretary who typed a daily report on the camp's income which was sent to the chief of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, and some others. This proved that the camp system was not only focused on extermination of Germany's enemies, but was also a vast, obscenely profitable economic enterprise. Terror and profit reinforced each other. As early as March 1944, five months after her arrival, she gave a "lecture" to her French compatriots about how it worked.
As time went on, she became ever more determined to bear witness should she survive. One piece of evidence, which won notoriety at the war-crimes trials, concerned medical experiments on some Polish girls from Lublin whose legs were deliberately cut and infected. (See Oberheuser, Herta.) In August 1944, thousands of Poles from Warsaw arrived. Some had contrived to steal a camera. Tillion and her friends used it to photograph the girls' mutilated legs. The plight of the "Rabbits," as they were dubbed, moved the camp deeply. In a remarkable feat, the prisoners managed at great risk to save them repeatedly from gassing by hiding them (with help from a majority of the wardens, most of whom were Poles) and exchanging or changing their numbers.
On February 3, 1944, Tillion's mother arrived from Compiègne with 958 other women packed in cattle cars. Germaine got word immediately through the grapevine and was devastated. Émilie Tillion, though still vigorous, was 69, and Germaine knew that anybody over 60 was doomed. Through various complicities, Germaine got her mother's age changed on the records to something under 60. Thereafter, "through a thousand ruses and a thousand risks," they were able to stay in the same block. By January 1945, however, Ravensbrück had its own gas chamber; "selections" for death multiplied. On March 1, Germaine went to the infirmary with a terribly painful abscessed jaw. That same day Émilie found herself in a targeted block. Germaine managed to rejoin her for the night. The next day, she returned for treatment to the infirmary—a very dangerous place during selections—but had to stay because a sudden general rollcall made leaving even riskier. When three SS doctors came in on a selection tour, her friend Grete Buber-Neumann, who lived there and was lying in bed, hid her under her legs covered by a blanket. Émilie Tillion was not so lucky. Her friends spirited her to another block, but she was selected anyway. She was gassed that day or the next. Tillion, utterly distraught, smuggled letters and tiny packages to her for a week. When they finally came back unopened, she had to accept the terrible truth.
On March 5, Tillion's jaw was operated on by a young prisoner-doctor unknown to her and "visibly terrified by the instruments in her hand." She developed septicemia; her temperature peaked on March 15 at 41°C (c. 106°F). Deeply depressed over her mother's death, she nearly gave up but finally rallied, deciding to live no matter what in order to defy her captors and bear witness against them.
Ironically, she was freed because of an absurd idea of Heinrich Himmler's. He wanted to succeed Hitler (who was still alive) by making an agreement with the Americans. On February 12, 1945, he met the Swedish diplomat Count Folke Bernadotte to persuade him to act as intermediary. Other meetings followed on April 2, 21, and 23. At the April 2 meeting, they agreed that French prisoners at Ravensbrück would be exchanged for Germans presently interned in liberated France. On April 8, 300 were freed by the Swiss Red Cross—but no NNs were included. By sheer luck and by flitting between her block and the infirmary or unobtrusively "joining" labor details, Tillion survived the escalating comb-outs, which especially targeted the sick and malingerers. At last, on April 23 pursuant to Bernadotte's deal, 20 Swedish Red Cross buses rolled into camp. Relief parcels were distributed and 800 French women, including Tillion, began boarding. Despite numerous searches by the guards, she and her friends smuggled out her notes, her Imitation of Christ with its notes, the operetta text, and (carried by Tillion) an empty Red Cross powdered-milk carton concealing the roll of film of the Rabbits' mutilations, which she had hidden for months in some rags in her pocket. After tense waiting into the night, while the gas chamber continued its work, the convoy left for Padbourg, Denmark, where "unforgettable" soup and beds awaited. The next day, April 24, after another long delay, a train took the survivors to Göteborg, Sweden, where they were immediately hospitalized. Five days later the Red Army liberated Ravensbrück.
Since March 1, when she began to think she had little chance of survival, Tillion had been taking more explicit notes. Her mother's death inspired her to "at least shed some light on her murder and on her murderers." Once in Sweden, she began a systematic questioning of the exprisoners. As a professional ethnologist, she seemed predestined to be a pioneer in the study of the concentration-camp system. Indeed, it was she and an Austrian ex-prisoner, Eugen Kogon (Der SS-Staat, 1946), who paved the way for serious study of it. During three months in Sweden, she gathered a remarkable body of continually cross-checked written and oral responses which comprised the foundation of her later publications. These demonstrated convincingly that the system linked extermination with the exploitation of slave labor, especially after 1942.
Upon her return to Paris, she attended the trial of Marshal Pétain, about whom she tempered her judgment somewhat. She found the 89-year-old soldier a pitiable figure. Afterward, friends sent her to Switzerland to recuperate. While there she wrote a 77-page essay, "À la recherche de la vérité" (In Search of the Truth), which was published in 1946 in a collective work, Ravensbrück, containing other (far shorter) essays by fellow deportees. This essay needed filling out, however. Once she was back in Paris, the CNRS proposed that she return to Algeria. Having lost most of her notes, she decided instead to turn from study of North African civilization to European "decivilization," as she put it—to try to "understand how a European people with a better-than-average education could have sunk into such a dementia." The CNRS agreed to support a study of the camp system. Tillion gave herself to this labor for eight years, until late 1954.
While at work on the project, she attended the Hamburg trial (November 1946–January 1947) of Ravensbrück criminals conducted by the British. At first they refused to allow deportees to attend; but the two associations of women deportees were finally allowed to send an observer, and they chose Tillion. She attended all sessions but did not testify; otherwise, she could not have attended until after testifying, as was the case with other deportees. The French trial of Ravensbrück war-crimes was held in Rastatt in 1950–51. She and Geneviève de Gaulle-Anthonioz were called in February 1950 to testify about charges made by a pair of deportees (very shady types, they discovered) who claimed two female guards had decapitated a French woman before the whole camp. They were anguished to have to testify because, while they did not know one of the accused, they knew the other as a brute; they also knew the charge was false. Fortunately, the accusers did not appear. Tillion and de Gaulle testified on general matters, and the attorneys chose not to press them.
During the trials, Tillion found herself feeling something akin to pity for the prisoners. They seemed so terribly ordinary, these men and women fallen from positions of absolute power over the lives of thousands. Their enormous crimes stood in such contrast to their shabby appearances and seamy attempts to deny their guilt.
She also sat on a jury, if an unofficial one. In November 1949, a former deportee, David Rousset, called upon the erstwhile Resistance deportees of Europe to form a commission (the CICRC) to investigate concentration-camp regimes. Tillion's Association des déportées et internées de la Résistance (ADIR) chose her to represent it. The CICRC conducted an investigation of the Soviet Union's Gulag. A former Soviet official, Viktor Kravtchenko, had published a book, I Chose Liberty, charging Stalin with running a vast camp regime. In May 1951 in Brussels, a CICRC jury, including Tillion, found Kravtchenko's charges justified—the first formal exposé and condemnation of the Gulag. When asked years later about comparisons between Hitler's and Stalin's camps, she noted that the Soviets didn't methodically kill children as did the SS and were not systematically racist; but in Ukraine, Stalin had unleashed genocide. In subsequent years the CICRC studied conditions in Greece, Franco's Spain, and Mao's China, among others. In 1957, Tillion represented it in an inquiry into the Algerian War prisons (see below).
Tillion's research included gathering data on the identities of all deported French women. She was able to list all the trains from France to Ravensbrück, often coach by coach, with names and numbers of the deportees, and especially to list the dead along with witnesses who had seen them die. The task involved combing vast files, e.g., of the war-crimes courts and the Gestapo and Abwehr, to corroborate the testimony obtained in Sweden in 1945. She also sent questionnaires to hundreds of former deportees or their families. In the summer of 1954, she went to the United States to examine the collections held by the American army. The McCarthy witch hunt was in full cry, but her service on the Brussels jury won her permission to consult the two librarians guarding the files. She and they presently became quite distressed to learn, however, that this trove was soon to be returned to Germany.
She turned the documentation over to the Ministry of Veterans, beginning in 1947, and the Comité d'histoire de la Deuxième Guerre mondiale. Ultimately, in 1995, they were deposited at Besançon in the Musée de la Résistance et de la Déportation (Fonds Germaine Tillion). When she finished in 1954, she also gave documents to her comrades in the Ravensbrück Society and the ADIR, which published Les Françaises à Ravensbrück (Gallimard, 1965). Tillion herself paid high respect to several women without whom the work of collecting and verifying information would have been "impossible": Denise Vernay and Anise Postel-Vinay; and three international friends: Nina Iwanska (Pole), Grete Buber-Neumann (German), and Zdenka Nedvedova (Czech). As far as Ravensbrück was concerned, "I thought I was done with it," she said. But as later events would prove, she was not.
In 1954, upon Tillion's return from the United States, her old mentor Louis Massignon asked her to accompany him to a meeting on November 25 with the current minister of the interior, François Mitterrand. A rising had begun on November 1 in Algeria in the Aurès. The place-name struck a chord with Massignon, who had immediately thought of Tillion. At the meeting, she accepted a mission to look into the situation of the populace in the region and elsewhere. Upon her arrival, she was shocked to learn of the rising and bloody repression at Sétif on May 8, 1945 (she was in Sweden), a town in "her" region. Although she had been apprehensive, in the 1930s the Aurès was still peaceful despite its increasing poverty. Her shock deepened as she viewed the misery into which all Algeria was now plunging. Medical progress had encouraged a population explosion resulting in a migration of masses of peasants to the cities, where they arrived without education or the social skills to adapt to urban life. Hunger ran rampant, families were disintegrating, and anger and hopelessness was festering.
While returning to Paris after three months, she stopped in Algiers and on February 22, 1955, met with the new governor-general Jacques Soustelle. A fellow ethnologist, he had once been a student with her at the Institut, associate director of the Musée de l'Homme in the late 1930s, and a militant Gaullist. Since he knew little about Algeria, he was glad to see her. She agreed to join his staff at once, in charge of social and educational affairs, asking only that she be allowed to protect her situation with the CNRS by taking a year's leave rather than resigning.
Soustelle, favoring enlightened, progressive measures, let her do as she saw fit. By far the most important action of her tenure was starting what she called "the great adventure of the Social Centers" (Centres sociaux). She believed that education of the displaced peasants was the key to Algeria's future. With the help of both French and Muslim teachers and social workers, beginning in March 1955 she set about creating a network of centers focused on education, professional training, and health, i.e., a scheme providing basic education for the illiterate masses while also growing a native élite. She directed the operation herself until she resigned in January 1956 upon Soustelle's recall. The centers eventually numbered several dozen with over 400 workers.
They operated in daunting circumstances. On August 20, 1955, a wave of killings (71 dead Europeans) and atrocities by the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) marked the start of outright civil war. Soustelle, profoundly shaken, began the brutal counter-offensive which the FLN had intended to provoke. (Even so, he officially sanctioned the Centres sociaux on October 27.) Tillion ploughed ahead, as did her successors. Many Algerians and even a fair number of settlers approved of the Centres. But to mix European and Algerian workers inevitably provoked suspicion and reprisals. The FLN tried to infiltrate the organization and intimidate the workers; three were murdered. As for the government, it resorted to judicial harassment. In 1957, 16 workers were arrested and tried, some after torture, by army authorities led by General Jacques Massu, a para charged with suppressing the rebellion. Most were acquitted but, in 1959, 20 more were arrested and tried, again with most being acquitted. "The great adventure" ended, to all intents and purposes, on March 15, 1962 (three days before signature of the Evian Accords ending the war) when the Secret Army Organization (OAS), comprised of French irreconcilables, assassinated six Centres sociaux leaders, including the director, Max Marchand, and the Muslim writer Mouloud Feraoun, both dear friends of Tillion's. The Centres sociaux had done much good and probably represented at that time the most constructive answer to Algeria's problems. But Tillion's project was a classic example of a grand idea which came too late.
Before returning to France after Soustelle's departure (February 2, 1956), Tillion spent three months with the Tuaregs studying family relations among the Berbers of the South and the Aurès. Once back in Paris, she found herself besieged by friends asking her to "explain" Algeria. The result was a concise book written from notes taken during her year there, published first in the Resisters' organ Voix et Visage, then as a pamphlet, finally by a major publisher, Éditions de Minuit, in 1957, under the misleading title L'Algérie en 1957. Misleading because it seemed to promise an account of events there now that the war was tearing France apart politically. Rather, it analyzed the social and economic reasons for the conflict. Informed, insightful, pithy, the book caught on immediately, making Tillion a major public figure. In describing Algeria's recent evolution, she coined a word which has become a standard term in describing the evolution of the Third World: clochardisation, literally "beggarization." She defined it in an interview years later as a process resulting from "the passage, without primary education leading to a skill, from the peasant condition (that is to say, natural) to the urban (that is to say, modern)."
Tillion contended that France and the settlers (mostly French and Italian) on the one hand and the Muslim Algerians on the other needed each other—were, as she put it, "complementary enemies." Without France, Algeria was condemned to economic regression and death. She pointed to how much France had done for Algeria—and how much more it had not done. Expulsion of the Europeans or partition of the country were neither feasible nor desirable. There was no simple solution. Relations between the opposing peoples must somehow move from colonialist exploitation into a regime of "collaboration." This was no endorsement of "Algérie française" (the cry of the settlers) nor "integration," i.e., simply "Frenchifying" Algeria. Still, "certainly in spite of me," as she later asserted, the settlers regarded her book as supporting both their contention that Algeria needed them (which it did) and their narrow views on the political future of the country—which it did not. She believed they must make an accommodation with Algerian self-determination.
Expert as she was in unraveling the socioeconomic factors, she was not strong on their political and historical dimensions. Consequently, her book was praised and damned by all sides. Both the settlers and the FLN in 1957–58 rejected her thesis of "complementary enemies" (Lacouture). Sadly, the book, like the Centres sociaux scheme, came too late to help avert the worst. She seemed to have understood that, for by 1957 (when it became a bestseller) she was already moving well beyond her endorsement of Albert Camus' forlorn call (January 1956) for a "civil truce" and into open opposition to the government's policy.
It first became public in May 1957 when she (with Massignon and Jean-Paul Sartre) testified for the defense in the trial of Mohammad Ben Saddok, an assassin. She presented a photocopy of a bundle of compositions by Algerian school children who had been asked what they would do if they were invisible. Almost all said, "Kill a Frenchman." She thought those chilling replies should give the court pause in judging the conduct of this young product of the colonial system. (Saddok was spared execution and instead given life in solitary confinement.) Her testimony put her in the camp of those calling for a "war against the war."
The use of torture by the French was now, during Massu's offensive, becoming public knowledge. Evidence surfaced, in fact, that it had been employed since at least 1955. Tillion later admitted she had long been "simply unable to imagine" that France would stoop to such practices. When she finally learned the truth, she began to tell her friends, especially those in Rousset's CICRC and conscientious public figures, beginning with Charles de Gaulle. At the same time, however, she made no apologies for FLN terrorism, as did most leftist intellectuals, led by Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. The survivor of Ravensbrück refused to excuse torture or murder or atrocities by anyone whomsoever. She had witnessed more than enough barbarism for one lifetime.
Under pressure, Premier Guy Mollet granted permission to the CICRC to inspect camps in Algeria where FLN prisoners were held. An international committee—one representative each from Belgium, Norway, and the Netherlands, plus two from France, including Tillion—arrived in June 1957. It found that torture had become commonplace and that, for good reason, both the French and the Muslims feared each other. The committee recommended creation of a permanent body to monitor respect for human rights. It was during this tour (June–August) that Tillion found herself involved in the most extraordinary episode of all her experience in Algeria.
In Algiers on July 3, 1957, a trembling Muslim woman friend told her that "they" wanted to see her. When her friend added she didn't know who "they" were, the Resistance veteran pricked up her ears; she suggested that she meet a man the next day at the bus stop near the hotel and follow him. It was agreed. On July 4 she was led by a roundabout route to a fine home in the Casbah where she was ushered into the presence of two young armed men—Yacef Saâdi (or Saâdi Yacef—he used it both ways), the FLN chief of the Algiers zone, and his adjunct, Ali la Pointe—and two young women, one of them Zohra Drif . Uncertain of what they wanted, Tillion began speaking at length, uninterrupted, about her ideas in L'Algérie en 1957, which they evidently had read. After a long time Saâdi asked her in an anxious tone how she thought it would all end. She replied that neither side could win definitively, that if France grew tired and withdrew, Algeria would fall into "bloody regression." The conversation became tense. In the course of it, she excoriated them for murdering innocent people. Suddenly, Saâdi said he would no longer harm the civilians. Tillion was "stupefied." She noticed that he kept drawing connections between terrorist acts and the government's executions of terrorists. She asked him if he would keep his promise about the civilians if the executions continued. He disclaimed responsibility for anything if that happened.
The meeting lasted five hours. At the door she turned to Ali la Pointe and gently shaking him by the shoulders said, "Have you really understood what I said: 'Innocent blood cries for vengeance'?" He responded with a subdued "Oui, m'dame." She had told them several times she would have to report the conversation to the government. They merely shrugged. Only after leaving did she begin to think that since terrorist acts responded to executions, then if the executions ceased and they stopped their reprisals, the two sides might at last find it possible to talk. She and Saâdi had struck no bargain, but one was implicit in what he had said. (Many years later she confessed she still did not know for certain why he had asked her to meet him.) In any event, of one thing she was by now convinced after this meeting and the CICRC investigation: the desire for outright independence was genuine and deep.
On July 6, two days after the meeting, she flew to Paris with the CICRC commission. On the 8th, she requested a meeting with André Boulloche, a Resister and deportee well known to her and currently chief of staff to the new premier, Maurice Bourgès-Maunoury. He complied the same day. To Boulloche and Louis Mangin, a childhood friend and Resister who was now head of the premier's military cabinet, she told of her meeting with Saâdi and proposed suspending executions in hopes he would carry out his promise to spare civilians. Boulloche and Mangin appeared sympathetic. In due course, Boulloche informed her that Bourgès-Maunoury (who had several other contacts at work) wanted her to return to Algiers to converse with one or several members of the FLN's executive council to find out their "real" point of view. (This may have been a stall.) She would, however, have to go at her own risk—which was not inconsiderable given that the government's "control" of Massu's forces and the Europeans in Algiers was a polite fiction.
On July 24, as she was preparing to leave, an embarrassed Mangin informed her that two executions were scheduled for the 25th. She got up, went out to the street, and cried. Once recovered, she decided to go ahead even though the mission appeared hopeless. On the 25th in Algiers she learned that there had been three executions. Eight bombs exploded on the 27th, one close to her—but nobody was killed. So she decided to push on. Circumstances resulted in her seeing Saâdi again instead of an executive council member. They met on August 9. Zohra Drif was present again and this time took part in the conversation. Saâdi, relaxed and smiling, claimed he had arranged for there to be no deaths in the recent bombings. He cautioned that he would need at least three days to institute a ceasefire if the executive council should order it.
Tillion purchased a ticket to return on the 11th, but on the 10th she learned from Muslim friends that there had been two executions the night before. Desperate, she sent word to Saâdi begging him to forgo any reprisal. He consented, not without complaints and a threat to resume if his two imprisoned sisters died. He kept his word; the truce held—until he and Zohra Drif were arrested by the army six weeks later (September 22). Within a week, terrorist killings resumed in full force. From this point on, the war only intensified, while the Fourth Republic slid inexorably toward its death and the coming to power of Charles de Gaulle (June 1, 1958).
Tillion spent October and November 1957 leading a campaign to get Saâdi transferred from the army's hands (where his fate was certain) to the civil jurisdiction. She besieged newspaper editors and prominent political figures, among the latter de Gaulle. Their meeting lasted two hours. He had read L'Algérie en 1957 and praised it. What she now told him about conditions in Algeria was far more disturbing than what he was being told by people there trying to curry his favor. At one point she said France had a "magnificent" army, but later she described the terrible things it was doing, including the routine use of torture. In his inimitable manner, de Gaulle inquired, "And you call an army capable of what you have said a 'magnificent' army?"
The campaign succeeded, but a further effort, from late 1957 to the spring of 1958, to have Saâdi removed to France failed. Meanwhile, she composed a complete account of her meetings with him and submitted it to the authorities. Perhaps because of it—she liked to think so—the government put off trying and executing him forthwith. Finally, shortly after de Gaulle assumed office, Saâdi underwent three trials on three charges, on June 24, July 3, and August 25, 1958. Tillion was summoned to Algiers by the defense to testify in closed session on July 3 about her contacts with him and her impressions of him. When she finished, he rose and managed to hail the Resisters as "our models" before being silenced. She had to leave town immediately because of the danger posed by local fanatics and angry paras. A reliable para colonel volunteered to spirit her to the airport. On the way they noticed two men in a command car following them. When she reached the airport, she got out and called back to thank them for their "company." They covered their faces, spun around, and sped off.
Saâdi was condemned to death, but in 1959 de Gaulle pardoned him. Tillion remained active in trying to bring peace. Her Saint-Mandé apartment witnessed a parade of young Algerians, mainly students, who came and went, talked, ate, and slept over. Occasionally, officials privately sought her advice. She and Simone de Beauvoir, Simone Veil, and others collaborated with Gisèle Halimi in 1960–61 in forcing a formal investigation of the torture of Djamila Boupacha , a young woman accused of planting a bomb. (Hers was one of only two cases to win a full inquiry.) Tillion continued to write about the war. In 1960, she reissued L'Algérie en 1957, with added material and a new title, L'Afrique bascule vers l'avenir (Africa Teeters toward the Future). Also in 1960, she published Les Ennemis complémentaires, which included her account of the Saâdi meetings, parts of which had been leaked by L'Express on August 28, 1958. Predictably, her revelations brought down a rain of praise and denunciation, including charges of "treason." (In his two books on the war, published in 1962 and 1982, Saâdi was silent on the meetings with Tillion and expressed no regrets about FLN atrocities.) In the book, she pleaded for open negotiations with the FLN and for the latter to cease trying to find in Washington or Moscow some alternative to sitting down with the French. Her name was invoked everywhere by advocates of independence for Algeria. Which in the end proved to be the case; after four years of tortuous maneuverings, de Gaulle and the Algerian leaders signed the Evian Accords on March 18, 1962.
In the meantime, while advocating measures to bring an honorable end to the war, Tillion accepted a position in de Gaulle's administration when André Boulloche, now minister of Education, asked her to join his staff. She stayed a year (1958–59). Her principal achievement was to get primary responsibility for the education of prisoners removed from the Bureau of Prisons (where Simone Veil also was promoting education) to the Ministry of Education. Consequently, a highly motivated prisoner could now conceivably advance from illiteracy to a doctorate. She took pride in reforming a system in which heretofore it had taken, as she put it, six months at least for a prisoner to receive—maybe—authorization for "a slate and a piece of chalk."
Apart from membership on the Boupacha Committee, after the Saâdi trials Tillion no longer intervened personally in Algerian affairs. For many years she continued to receive Algerian visitors at her apartment. During the war she had waxed optimistic about the appearance of "a natural, united Algerian consciousness" which was "not to be confused with opposition to France, membership in Islam, or tribal chauvinism." Sadly, after the war she witnessed instead an intensifying clochardisation, power struggles and corruption in the FLN, the growth of Muslim fundamentalism, and the onset of virtual civil war. About all she could do was plead for better treatment of the hundreds of thousands of Algerians now settled in France.
She resumed full-time professional life after 1960. She continued her connection with the CNRS (dating back to 1937) and was named in 1960 Director of Studies at the 6th Section of the École Practique des Hautes Études (after 1975 the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales). As had Marcel Mauss, she attracted a group of 15 or so advanced students and taught in one-to-one or seminar settings. Her tapestried, dossier-and-book-strewn apartment in Saint-Mandé overlooking the Parc de Vincennes was a favorite venue. Her particular interests ran to the study of the condition of women in the Mediterranean world and to the oral literature of North Africa. Under the auspices of the CNRS, the EPHE, and the World Health Organization at various times in the '60s and '70s, she travelled extensively—to Algeria (of course), Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt (a favorite destination), Libya, Syria, Jordan, Israel, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, and India. Teams of researchers, many her students, usually accompanied her. Her only impediment was a chronic asthma, which she had contracted at Ravensbrück.
The principal fruit of her research was a controversial comparative study of women in the Mediterranean world, from the Greco-Latin north to the Arab-Berber south. Its provocative title alone—Le Harem et les cousins (1966)—elicited comment, as it seemed to promise a titillating excursion into Turkish seraglios and Muslim polygamy. Rather, it was an examination of the confining of females in all the Mediterranean cultures, of their enclosure in a family structure and set of attitudes and customs which, among other things, is both cause and result of a male sexual obsession with female virginity and leads, e.g., to crimes and blood feuds to protect the "honor" of the male or the family. Tillion contended that religion—Judaism, Christianity, even Islam—had far less to do with these characteristics than did the revolution wrought by the neolithic (late Stone Age) invention of settled agriculture, which encouraged endogamous marriage (i.e., within the tribe) in place of the custom of exogamous marriage practiced by hunter-gatherers.
With an assured food supply furnished by flocks and cultivated plants, the family or tribe found it advantageous to marry within itself, to "live from its own," build its population, crush external opposition by force, expand through warfare instead of seeking balance with its neighbors (as did the hunter-gatherers), and to urbanize, which required even stricter controls on women, such as cloistering and veiling. One of the most far-reaching measures was the prohibition of women from inheriting (despite Muhammad's commandment) because it would split the patrimony. Excluding women from inheriting and from many forms of social life resulted in a population of spoiled men and frustrated women. The latter accommodated themselves by "monopolizing" the children, notably creating a powerful tie between themselves and their eldest sons, the inheritors.
Tillion's work was groundbreaking. It was the first to propose a general theory explaining the origins of the subjugation of women in Mediterranean cultures and their neighbors to the east. By drawing attention to the neolithic agricultural revolution, she provoked a host of studies of these cultures which reexamined their origins, pushing them back to prehistoric times and relating them to the rise of endogamous marriage.
In 1968, Olga Wormser-Migot published a thesis, Le Système concentrationnaire Nazi. It was an early entry in a "revisionist" movement raising questions about the accepted accounts. She claimed there were no gas chambers in the Western camps, i.e., outside Eastern Europe, including Mauthausen and Ravensbrück. Tillion could not let such assertions go unanswered. The result was a second edition of Ravensbrück, in 1973, a revised and much-expanded version of the 1946 book. Given the notoriety she had won as author of L'Algérie en 1957 and Le Harem et les cousins, the book received wide attention.
It contained a more nuanced version of the 1946 material along with some changes and reorganization. To this was added a scientific analysis of oral and written evidence concerning the fate of "the 27,000s," the convoy of 959 women (including Tillion's mother) of January 30, 1944, who were numbered in the 27,000s. A third part raised questions about the "routineness" of horror and the "ordinariness" of its perpetrators. By now she had come to believe that there was nothing specifically "German" about the horrors; no people is exempt from a collective moral disaster. A fourth section—far from the least important—discussed with impressive insight the problems historians confront in discovering the closest approximation one can have to the truth ("the Truth" being beyond recovery), especially the relative worths of written and oral materials. Several appendices, mainly by collaborators, presented incontrovertible proofs of the Western death operations. The book closed with a short, ironic, bitterly humorous piece by a friend, Nelly Forget , arrested and tortured in Algeria in 1956, who found a former SS member, now a Foreign Legionnaire, a more humane jailer than the French paratroopers (paras).
A third edition of Ravensbrück, in 1988, was provoked in part by further revisionist writing which even went so far as to deny the Holocaust altogether, calling the death camps "a fraud." The edition developed in a "more critical and more personal fashion the intuitions of 1945 and the analyses of 1973," wrote Pierre Vidal-Naquet. In the mass of books about the Nazi concentration camps, this final version, published by Tillion in her 81st year, will remain, like its predecessors, one of the truly germinal works on the camps and a testimony to its author's resourcefulness, critical acumen, and perseverance.
She also contributed regularly to Voix et Visage, and in 2000, responding to urging from friends, Tillion published a book based on notes she had taken while in the Aurès in the 1930s but had left behind in Paris, thus sparing them confiscation at Ravensbrück. Entitled Il était une fois l'ethnographie (Once Upon a Time There Was Ethnography), it also contained thoughts on the past and future of this discipline. She observed that some genres of it had become "outdated" because over the last 60 years societies had been fused by, especially, electronic inventions—the radio, the telephone, television, the Internet. Nevertheless, ethnology, "being a matter of patience, listening, courtesy, and time, can still serve for something, namely, teaching us how to live together." Looking ahead, she saw humanity confronting conditions which call into question the "sacrosanct neolithic [ideal of] growth." In the new millennium we must "invent something else."
Tillion retired from formal teaching in 1977. Well before then she had purchased a cottage on the south coast of Brittany at the village of Plouhinac (Morbihan), near the port of Lorient. Visitors, some complete strangers, continued to drop by as in Paris, many of them veterans of the war, the Resistance, and the deportation. In the early 1980s, she moved to another cottage nearby where she could plant trees and a garden. Thus, she divided her time between Paris and the coast.
Given her tireless energy, she of course remained engaged on several fronts. Politics was not one of them. She "explained" once that she belonged to "a generation of women born without the vote." More to the point, she remarked that she thought she had "more scientific curiosity than personal ambition." Although involved in selected public issues, she was an independent, unaffiliated with any party—save for one occasion. She harbored a profound admiration for Charles de Gaulle—although not for the constitution of his Fifth Republic, which she thought insufficiently democratic. On December 4, 1965, she sent a short letter to a Gaullist publication supporting his reelection. When he was forced into a runoff with Mitterrand, she spoke (as did other notables such as André Maurois, François Mauriac, and Maurice Schumann) at a Gaullist rally on December 14 at the Sports Palace. Such was the extent of her political "career," excluding (as one should) two years' service on governmental staffs.
As for causes which interested her, from 1960 she was vice-president of the Association for the Development of World Law; spoke on demographic problems at a United Nations colloquy in 1965; spoke at a 1969 colloquy on international jurisprudence, where she dealt with the defense of public health from air, water, and noise pollution; was president of the Association Against Modern Slavery, allied with the venerable Anti-Slavery Society in London; and joined the Minority Rights Group in 1978, where she was president of the French Section. Concerning this last cause, she regarded the protection of minorities as the most troubling political problem around the world now that national frontiers were reasonably stable. Minorities drawing her particular interest included Native Americans, the Kurds, and the Tuaregs of the Sahara. She also spoke out, in 1996, on behalf of stateless persons, a chronic problem in a world generating a steady supply of refugees.
Among other broadly political concerns, she opposed Israel's invasion of Lebanon (1982), supported statehood for the Palestinians, and urged Israel to negotiate with the Palestine Liberation Organization. During the Gulf War, she joined in an appeal to the Western alliance made by several French friends of the Arabs to take seriously a semi-official statement from Iraq on February 15, 1991, about its willingness to evacuate Kuwait—to no avail, however. And in 1992 she was invited to Moscow by survivors of the Gulag to help them organize their first official meeting. As for women's issues, above all in the Third World, she was of course deeply interested. Not surprisingly in light of her conclusions in Le Harem et les cousins, she fought the subjugation of women and in particular assailed the practice of preventing females from inheriting. Female circumcision, an issue sharply dividing the West from many Eastern and African societies, found her opposed to the practice. She emphatically did not adopt the view of many anthropologists that just because a custom is ancient it is therefore right and good.
Germaine Tillion's personality combined a large physical presence with a smiling welcome, straightforward and attentive. She treated everyone with equal respect, from beggars to students to heads of state. She was genuinely interested in people, individually or collectively, never dismissive or patronizing. She was also clever, even crafty. These characteristics underlay her genius for drawing the truth from people. She was a born investigator. Besides being utterly courageous, physically and morally, she was highly intelligent. Students coveted the opportunity to work under her direction, but they confessed, too, that it took some time to get up to her speed and become accustomed to the peculiarities of her mental processes. She was naturally lighthearted and humorous—but about work entirely serious, wholly absorbed in the matter at hand.
In advanced old age she confessed that she remained an optimist " une candide," about humanity. From prehistoric times to the present, it had survived every catastrophe and yet progressed. It gave her grounds for hope amidst all the evil she had witnessed and borne over a very long lifetime.
Her greatest joy was decades-old friendships. The closest were with her sister, Françoise; a niece Émilie; Geneviève de Gaulle-Anthonioz; Anise Postel-Vinay; Denise Vernay; Jacqueline Fleury ; and two assistants, Raphaëlle Anthonioz (sister-in-law of Geneviève), her secretary through 40 years, and Marlène Chamay . So it is not surprising that when the French government honored Tillion on December 23, 1999, she preferred to have it done at her Saint-Mandé apartment, with Geneviève de Gaulle-Anthonioz standing in for the president of the Republic. The decoration was the highest that France bestows: the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor.
Precious few men and a minuscule number of women have ever received this award. That Germaine Tillion was chosen to join them said all that was left to say about her.
Les Françaises à Ravensbrück. Publié par l'Amicale de Ravensbrück et l'Association des Déportées et Internées de la Résistance. Paris: Gallimard, 1965.
Lacouture, Jean. Le Témoignage est un combat: Une biographie de Germaine Tillion. Paris: Éditions de Seuil, 2000 (indispensable).
Maran, Rita. Torture: The Role of Ideology in the French Algerian War. NY: Praeger, 1989.
Tillion, Germaine. "À la recherche de la verité," in Ravensbrück. Neuchatel: Éditions de la Baconnière, 1946, pp. 11–88.
——. France and Algeria: Complementary Enemies. Trans. by Richard Howard. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1961.
——. "Première résistance en zone occupée (Du côte du réseau 'Musée de l'Homme-Hauet-Vildé')," in Revue d'histoire de la deuxième guerre mondiale. Vol. 8, no. 30, 1958, pp. 6–22.
——. Ravensbrück. Trans. by Gerald Satterwhite. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1975.
——. La Traversée du mal: Entretien avec Jean Lacouture. Paris: Arléa, 1997.
Vidal-Naquet, Pierre. "Réflexions sur trois Ravensbrück," in Réflexions sur la génocide. Paris: Éditions La Découverte, 1995.
"Les Vies de Germaine Tillion," in Esprit. February 2000, pp. 82–170 (Tillion's article on the Resistance [see above] plus essays by friends and colleagues).
Benamou, Georges-Marc. C'était un temps déraisonnable: les premiers résistants. Paris: Robert Laffont, 1989.
Blumenson, Martin. Le Réseau du musée de l'Homme. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1979.
Horne, Alistair. A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954–1962. NY: Viking Press, 1977.
Kogon, Eugen. The Theory and Practice of Hell: The German Concentration Camps and the System Behind Them. Trans. by Heinz Norden. NY: Farrar, Straus, 1949 (a translation and abridgement of Der SSStaat, 3rd ed., 1949).
Noguerès, Henri, Jean-Louis Vigier, and Marcel Degliame-Fouché. Histoire de la Résistance en France. 5 vols. Paris: Robert Laffont, 1967–81.
Reudy, John. Modern Algeria: The Origins and Development of a Nation. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1992.
Besançon, France: Fonds Germaine Tillion in the Musée de la Résistance et de la Déportation.
David S. Newhall , Pottinger Distinguished Professor of History Emeritus, Centre College, and author of Clemenceau: A Life at War (1991)