11th Jul

In the last post, we talked about how the men and women of Dutch-Paris illustrate a few of the lessons in Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. They did not accept the slogans of propaganda but instead were “kind to our language” (lesson 9) and “believed in truth” (lesson 10).

The resisters in Dutch-Paris hid hundreds of Jews in occupied Belgium and France; smuggled hundreds more refugees, resisters and Allied aviators out of occupied territory, and acted as an international courier service that carried money, secret documents and personal letters throughout occupied western Europe. They were able to do so because they followed Snyder’s lessons 11.

Lesson 11 – “Investigate. Figure out things for yourself.”

Snyder is talking about how to figure out what is really going on in current politics. As we discussed in the last post, the men and women of Dutch-Paris did that by listening to the radio and reading the newspapers that the authorities made it a crime to listen to or read. If tyrants make it a crime to read something, there’s a pretty good chance that there’s something in it that’s of real value to a citizen.

As I mentioned in the last post, the men and women of Dutch-Paris saw through the propaganda of the day by finding reliable sources of facts and paying attention to the evidence in front of their own eyes.

But they also needed to investigate on a much more mundane level in order to do their illegal work. The Gestapo, for example, did not publish their patrol schedules or issue alerts that they would be raiding such and such a place at such and such a time. People who wanted to avoid the Gestapo and their ilk Read the rest of this entry »

27th Jun

Every citizen of every democracy should read Timothy Snyder’s short but important book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. Snyder uses examples from the history of Nazism and Communism and their domination of other countries to explain how tyrants take power in democracies and how individuals can defend their civil liberties in such times. He does not mention Dutch-Paris, but he could have. This and the following posts will describe how Dutch-Paris illustrates a few of Snyder’s lessons on how to fight tyranny.

Lesson 9 – “Be kind to our language. Avoid pronouncing phrases everyone else does….Make an effort to separate yourself from the internet. Read books.”

Obviously, the internet did not exist during the Second World War, but much the same thing did in the official and censored radio and newspapers that inundated civilians with propaganda. The men and women of Dutch-Paris did not rely on such dubious sources to tell them what to think. Instead they listened to the BBC, which stuck to the facts, or Swiss Radio, which came from neutral Switzerland, even though it was a crime to do so. They read illegal, underground newspapers. They observed with their own eyes and talked to other people to find out what they had observed.

So in 1943, for example, they did not fall for the official stories about how Germany was winning the war. They knew about the catastrophic defeat of the Wehrmacht at Stalingrad. They knew about the increasing volume of Allied bombers flying over the Netherlands and Belgium every single day to bomb Germany. They had enough facts to nourish the hope that the war would end and they would regain their liberties.

Even when the facts were downright depressing, the men and women of Dutch-Paris did not turn away from them. They did not take the bait of happy propaganda. This brings us to

Lesson 10 – “Believe in the truth. To abandon facts is to abandon freedom.”

When the Nazis and their collaborators started rounding up Jews in western Europe and deporting them in 1942, they announced that those men, women and children were being “resettled in the east.” That was enough explanation for most people. “Resettled in the east” sounded like they were going to work on big farms, which didn’t sound so very bad in the context of the war.

But John Weidner and his colleagues in the resistance did not accept the official slogan. They asked what it really meant and found out that being “resettled in the east” meant “going to die in Poland.” That put a whole different light on the matter. “Going to die in Poland” was bad.

They knew it was bad because they still remembered the truths that everyone accepted in their prewar democracies. According to fascism’s alternate facts, whatever benefited the master race was good. It followed that getting rid of people defined as enemies of that master race was bad. The resisters didn’t buy it. They stuck to the age-old consensus that murder is bad. Seeing the truth of what was happening and the truth of what it meant gave them the clarity of mind and the courage to resist.

13th Jun

Why was the Daughter Arrested?

In the last post I talked about Commander Lecatre, as we’ll call him, of the GMR, who was using his position as a Vichy border patrol to sneak resisters and others into and out of Spain. He and his daughter were arrested in May 1943.

Why was his 20-year-old daughter arrested? She did not work for the GMR, but she did work at the prefecture as a secretary. And she did work with her father in the resistance. For example, she altered the files of young men Read the rest of this entry »

30th May

Here’s another example of resisters disguising themselves as collaborators. The collaborationist French government, Vichy, created a paramilitary police force called the Groupe mobile de réserve or GMR (mobile reserve group). They have a nasty reputation from their zealous fight against resisters.

And yet, at least a few of them were resisters. For about two years before his arrest in May 1943, the commander of a GMR unit based in Perpignan used his position to get hundreds of fugitives, including Dutchmen, over the border into Spain. This man, who we’ll call Lecatre, commanded the border patrol in the eastern edge of the Pyrenees from Cerbère to Bourg-Madame.

Lecatre and his men took fugitives to the border, sometimes in GMR uniforms, and ushered them across. They also escorted clandestine French intelligence agents into and out of Spain. The GMR owned the rights to cut wood for fuel in a forest on the frontier. On the days that an intelligence agent needed to get to Spain, a GMR truck would Read the rest of this entry »

16th May

Everyone knows that being in the Resistance was a dangerous business. But not everyone realizes that if you were good at it, it could also have been dangerous after the Liberation.

Take the case of a young French woman (born 1924) whom we’ll call Jeanne. From mid-1942 until August 1944 Jeanne and her mother brought food and information to the maquis and to passeurs in their valley in the Pyrenees. They also sheltered Allied aviators in their home. If the Germans or French collaborators had caught them at it, the women would have been imprisoned and maybe even deported to the concentration camps as resisters. Yet at the Liberation in August 1944, the Resistance arrested Jeanne and Read the rest of this entry »

2nd May

It Really Mattered Who You Knew

A friend was telling me about the “new networking” in which the important thing is not who you know but what they know about you. I can see how that might be true if you’re looking for a job in 2017, but it was certainly not true in the Resistance during the Second World War.

There were most definitely some qualifications that you wanted to keep quiet about during the war, such as: nerves of steel, strong convictions, excellent forger, terrific at dissembling, or willing to undertake hazardous journeys.

The story of Dutch-Paris makes it very clear that for both helpers and those they helped, it was who you knew that mattered most. After all, how did Jews and resisters who needed to escape occupied territory find Dutch-Paris or any other rescue network? Word of mouth. They knew someone with a connection to the line. That someone might be a cousin who worked for Dutch-Paris, or it could have been a French official whom they just met but who whispered a suggestion to find so-and-so who would know where to get help. One Jewish couple got out of the Netherlands because the woman’s hairdresser Read the rest of this entry »

18th Apr

As I’ve said before, the documents don’t explain why the men and women of Dutch-Paris joined the resistance. No one asked that question at the end of the war when the reports in the archives were written.

In late 1944 Weidner did write in an official report that they risked their lives to help strangers because it was their duty, but that has the air of the expected official story. Of course some of them might have felt it was their Christian or patriotic duty, but that would have made it everyone’s duty. Because only a small minority acted on it, it’s not a satisfactory reason. There had to be personal, individual reasons.

A couple of people in the line volunteered some explanation. One Dutch businessman, living in Brussels with his wife and seven children, mentioned that he felt he had to act both because of his Catholic faith and because he had not forgotten how the German occupiers treated his Belgian grandmother and aunt during the First World War.

This is speculation, but I do not think that it’s a coincidence that the three top leaders of Dutch-Paris, Jean Weidner and his two lieutenants, lived through the German occupation of Belgium during the First World War. They were all very young at the time, not even old enough for school when it began. And one of them was passed north through the barbed wire on the Dutch border to live with his grandparents in the Netherlands in order to get him out of the famine zone. Soon after the Armistice ended that war in 1918, Weidner’s family moved to Switzerland to recover from the deprivations of the Belgian occupation. So their formative memories and their family histories and cultures were shaped by the German occupation of Belgium, which was marked by hunger, disease and slave labor.

I also do not think that it is a coincidence that the biggest and best organized section of Dutch-Paris was the Comité in Brussels. The Dutch expats in the Comité found a lot of help from their Belgian neighbors. No one in Belgium had forgotten the last war, even if they may have drawn different conclusions from it.

Was the memory of the First World War enough to make everyone in Belgium a resister? No, plainly it was not. But I cannot help thinking that it contributed to the making of Dutch-Paris. At the very least, it might have made the men and women who did join Dutch-Paris and other resistance groups willing to believe the worst. Because they understood that bad things happen, they were willing to take action to stop them from happening.

4th Apr

As an escape line and rescue organization, Dutch-Paris ended at the Spanish frontier. The passeurs stopped at the border, handed out some pesetas that Dutch-Paris paid for, pointed the aviators and Engelandvaarders down the mountain towards the closest Spanish village and then turned around and headed back home. The resisters in Dutch-Paris did not know what happened in Spain because none of their fugitives came back. If they did, they certainly wouldn’t have given the men pesetas because the Guardia Civil just confiscated all their money.

Generally speaking, the first day or two after crossing the border went like this. Frenchmen tried to get as far into Spain as possible without being noticed because everyone knew that Franco’s Guardia Civil would turn them back over the border into the hands of the Germans. But Allied aviators and Dutchmen could rely on some diplomatic protection. They went into the nearest village or town and turned themselves into the Guardia Civil. Or sometimes the Guardia Civil saved them the trouble by waiting behind a boulder at the entrance to the village to arrest them.

The Guardia took the men’s particulars and their money and then sent them to an inn or café to eat and to clean up. Eventually the men moved south to the town of Viella courtesy of the Guardia Civil.  There they contacted Read the rest of this entry »

21st Mar

Another element that made every aviator’s evasion, and indeed every clandestine journey across occupied Europe, different was the fact that the enemy were not robots. Of course the German army and police were professional enough to be predictable, but even they had off days. And their orders changed in ways that resisters could not foresee. Besides, the Germans were not the only ones patrolling the trains and borders. A fugitive could encounter a wide array of local and foreign police and guards, some of whom were definitely more dedicated to their jobs than others.

Dutch-Paris did not send anyone into the streets much less on a train without a complete set of false documents. But the story of the British sergeant from the last post demonstrates that even something as obvious as having your documents checked did not always happen.

When our British sergeant, a handful of Americans and a couple of Dutch-Paris guides arrived at the train station in Brussels in January 1944, German officers searched Read the rest of this entry »

7th Mar

Despite the established routes and patterns of escape lines, every Allied aviator’s evasion was wildly unique. Certainly some crew members traveled the length of occupied Europe together and had similar stories. But even in the case of crew mates, men were left behind because of illness or took different trains to make a large group less noticeable.

Very rarely, if ever, did aviators parachute or crash into the hands of the network that took them across the Spanish border. Even when they had found their way to an escape line, they often had to change helpers because of arrests or because they crossed an international border.

Take the story of a British sergeant who was shot down near Groningen in the northern part of the Netherlands in October 1943. Because he had injured his leg, the rest of his crew left him with resisters to heal when they headed south. Our sergeant left his hiding place after 37 members of the organization helping him were arrested. He then planned to go to Sweden with a different escape line, but Read the rest of this entry »


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