Approaches to the Marseillaise under German Occupation

An anthem and a flag for two Frances

Bernard RICHARD - Approches de la Marseillaise sous l’Occupation allemande : Un hymne et un drapeau pour deux France.

Under the Occupation, the national anthem blossomed across the political spectrum, in both Free France and Vichy France, the so-called ”free” zone not occupied by the Germans.

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It was one of the songs sung by the Resistance and opponents of Pétain and Hitler. Prisoners condemned to death, whether on the right or the left, would sing it before the firing squads. Yet it was also frequently sung by Marshal Pétain’s men, in particular at the official ceremonies and parades so dear to this rump state whose independence - if it ever had any - was steadily diminishing. Indeed, the de facto authorities of Vichy made abundant “festive” use of the Marseillaise, from start to finish, in the free zone. When Marshal Pétain was finally permitted by the Occupiers to come to Paris to lament and denounce the Allied bombings, in late April 1944, he was received by crowds who applauded not so much Pétain himself, but the fact that, after years of scarcity, they were at last able to see the tricolour flags instead of the swastika, the star-studded kepi of a Frenchman instead of the omnipresent German caps, and to hear and sing the Marseillaise, which had been prohibited in the occupied zone since the beginning of the Occupation.


We will return to this theme later on, with a look at Les fêtes du maréchal, by Rémi Dalisson (CNRS Éditions, ‘Biblis’ collection).


On 22 October 1941, near Châteaubriant, western France, the 27 prisoners chosen by the Germans, doubtless with the aid of Pétain’s interior minister, Pierre Pucheu (for which he would be killed by firing squad in Algiers in 1943), left the Choisel camp and were taken in three German trucks to be executed by firing squad nearby. Among them was 17-year-old Guy Môquet, imprisoned there by Vichy for distributing communist pamphlets in Paris in October 1940. They would be killed in retaliation for the death, on 20 October, of the German commander in Nantes, murdered by the Resistance. Once loaded onto the trucks, the prisoners began singing the Marseillaise, and were soon joined by all the prisoners remaining in the camp. “Throughout the journey to the Soudan quarry, they did not stop singing The Internationale, Chant du Départ and the Marseillaise… and before each burst of gunfire they shouted ‘Vive la France!’” (Words written by the head of the local German military headquarters to the deputy prefect of Châteaubriant, Bernard Lecornu, who recorded them in his memoir, Un Préfet sous l’Occupation allemande - Châteaubriant, Saint-Nazaire, Tulle (A Prefect under the German Occupation - Châteaubriant, Saint-Nazaire, Tulle), published by France-Empire, Paris, 1984.)


Poster paying tribute to the executed Châteaubriant prisoners


To the sound of the Marseillaise and the Internationale, that day, 22 October 1941, marked an important turning-point in relations between occupier and occupied. Many French communes would later have a street or square named after the “Martyrs of Châteaubriant”.


On 30 October, an anonymous poem entitled Châteaubriant !  Choisel! On 30 October, an anonymous poem entitled Châteaubriant ! Choisel ! was written at the site of the executions (published in Europe magazine, no 543-544, 1974, ‘La Poésie de la Résistance’, p. 218):


Châteaubriant! Choisel!  Bloody quarry!


Trucks, soldiers... Grating, roaring engines.

I risk a glance, and see Timbaud and Ténine, who climb

into the bleak truck, their hands bound, but their voices

free, lashing out around them at all the dogs at bay!


Suddenly, La Marseillaise and the Internationale.

They sing of their faith! This is the final struggle.

The camp replies. The voices rise, grow, swell...

They depart, the buzz dies down, it is over.


Soon, we rush outside, crying, singing, shouting.

They took 27 of us! And most loathsome of all:

one was aged only 17, and three not yet 20.

An act worthy of a killer, not a conqueror.


The following year, on 27 May 1942, the dramatic episode of these men singing the national anthem as they went to their deaths, was recalled in particularly vivid and indignant terms by Paul Claudel, in his letter to Cardinal Gerlier, Archbishop of Lyon and Primate of the Gauls. In it, he denounced the attitude of the French Church upon the death of Cardinal Baudrillart, that “fervent collaborator, who has just been honoured with the most magnificent official and religious funeral [...] When the cardinal reaches the other side, the 27 executed men, at the head of an army whose numbers swell by the day, shall shoulder their arms and form a guard of honour for him. For the equal of Cauchon [the 15th-century bishop who presided over the trial of Joan of Arc], the Church of France could not burn enough incense. For those Frenchmen who were sacrificed, not a prayer, not a single gesture of charity or indignation.”(Claudel, Journal, II, 1933-1953, Éditions Gallimard, 1991, p. 400-401, cited by Philippe Burrin, La France à l’heure allemande, 1940-1944, Éditions du Seuil, ‘Points’ collection no H 238, p. 228-229). We know that General de Gaulle forbade the Archbishop of Paris, Cardinal Suhard, from attending the Te Deum at Notre-Dame on 26 August 1944, in celebration of the Liberation. This was because, in July 1944, Suhard had honoured with his presence, in that same cathedral, a funeral mass for the traitor Philippe Henriot, Vichy’s propaganda minister, executed by the Resistance in late June.


Many accounts of the period under occupation evoke the role of the national anthem. In his Journal des années noires (Éditions Gallimard, 1947, republished by Livre de Poche, no 1719, p. 420-421), Jean Guéhenno wrote: “3 November 1943. Every day, the Germans shoot prisoners and hostages in Fresnes. V... tells how every morning it is the same incredible scene. The order passes from cell to cell, along the gutters, pipes and conduits: at 6 am, for those in cell 32 […] At the agreed time, the whole prison begins singing La Marseillaise or Chant du Départ. The prisoners have broken all the windows so that the victims hear their song of farewell as they cross the yard. The Germans have forbidden singing. They say examples will be made, and threaten torture and the firing-squad. But to no avail. The prison continues to sing. Such a thing should never leave our thoughts.”


And when a concentration camp is liberated, very often it is La Marseillaise that is sung by the deportees, each in their own language. One camp survivor, Jean Léger, tells of his experience (Jean Léger, Petite chronique de l’horreur ordinaire, published by ANACR, Yonne, Auxerre, 1998). On 30 April 1945, at Allach, a sub-camp of Dachau, the day after the SS had vanished into thin air, abandoning weapons and uniforms, “a helmet cautiously peeped over the earthworks, followed by others, and the liberators broke through the barbed wire. Spontaneously, the Marseillaise rang out, and I am sure I heard it sung in languages other than our own.” Thus, as a universal song of freedom and liberation,the Marseillaise, sung in various languages, filled the air of the camp, liberated at last.


And it was of course the Marseillaise  which punctuated the announcements of victory on the French-language BBC, such as the armistice imposed on Victor Emmanuel III and Marshal Badoglio, on 8 September 1943. As one attentive listener, Léon Werth, wrote in his war diary, Déposition, journal de guerre 1940-1944 (Éditions Viviane Hamy, 1992, p. 519): “The news was first of all given straight, with no preparation or comment, and concluded with the Marseillaise.” The same author goes on to record, on 23 November 1940 (Déposition, p. 103), how an old chair-maker, François, sang the sixth couplet softly to him, as he finished weaving the straw seat of a chair.


 “He interrupted his work, but did not let go of his wisp of sedge. And, as if he were saying a prayer, in a quiet voice, yet articulating every word, he sang:


Freedom, cherished freedom / Lead and sustain our avenging arms


He sang for himself and for me. He sang as he would recite a prayer. An old chairmaker sings me a couplet of the Marseillaise and I am moved.” And how could he not be?


It is true that the sixth couplet was the one Marshal Pétain was most fond of, to the point that his supporters nicknamed it “the Marshal’s couplet”, but here, from the context, it is clearly not Pétain who is being revered, but cherished freedom.


Still in Déposition (p. 157), Werth refers indirectly to “the Marshal’s couplet” on 21 January 1941, in respect of a pamphlet posted on the official noticeboard of Bourg-en-Bresse secondary school, clearly with the headmaster’s permission:


“If you want freedom: PETAIN /

   If you want to be slaves to Jews and Freemasons: DE GAULLE”


In the special edition of Le Monde entitled 1945, un monde éclaté sort de la guerre (1945: a shattered world emerges from the war), Guy Scarpetta recalls the convoy of 750 deportees of various nationalities, including French, Polish and Spanish, on their way from Toulouse to Dachau in July/August 1944 who, for want of a bridge close by, were made, under guard, to cross from one bank of the River Rhône to the other, in a gruelling ten-mile march. On their way through Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the deportees sang La Marseillaise, “as if to signal to the village’s inhabitants shut up in their homes that ‘they are France’”. The author adds: “As a number of them [Dachau survivors] told me, for some it was first and foremost a national song; for others, a republican song; for still others, a revolutionary song. And for many, it was all three.” The Marseillaise, both French and universal.


During the liberation of Paris, the Marseillaise was often to be heard. Father Bruckberger, who took part in the event, recounts various episodes in his Mémoires: “25 August, 7 pm: Each man corrects his stance in the main courtyard [of the police headquarters]. A row of guards frames the steps. The flag is in place. Outside, on the Boulevard du Palais, General de Gaulle arrives by car from city hall and gets out. The fire brigade band plays Aux champs. The musical director makes a quick gesture and they suddenly break into a rousing rendition of the Marseillaise.  Earlier, in 1941 and 1942, Father Bruckberger tells of the executions of prisoners, most of them communists, from Clairvaux prison, which in theory was for common criminals: each time, the condemned men and their fellow inmates sang the Marseillaise. He goes on to write: “The Vichy Government bears the further shame of making communism a common crime, and thereby supplying the German execution posts.”


Meanwhile, in the so-called “free zone”, the anthem was part of all the parades of the Army of the Armistice in Vichy and in the garrison towns, an army which masked how lacking it was in armaments and purpose, with the dazzle of its uniforms, flags and singing. The Marseillaise sung by the civilian or military authorities, in particular with the sixth verse (“Sacred love of the motherland”), nicknamed “the Marshal’s couplet”, was not the same Marseillaise  as the subversive anthem sung by demonstrators on 11 November, 1 May or 14 July, outside the official ceremonies and in direct defiance of the authorities. Of course, the same might be said of the tricolour flags and rosettes, identical and yet symbolising such vastly different things when sported, officially on the one hand, dangerously, clandestinely, challengingly on the other.


Coat of arms of the Chantiers de la Jeunesse, August 1940


At the Fête du Drapeau, the big parade held in the Vichy camp on 28 June 1941, Marshal Pétain, accompanied by Admiral Darlan, formally handed over the flag of the Chantiers de la Jeunesse, bearing the francisca (battleaxe), to its president, General de la Porte du Theil, before two thousand young people who, the previous evening, had performed songs and given gymnastics demonstrations. As the flag was handed over, these two thousand youths “performed for the first time, in the yard bathed in morning light, their young faces turned towards their leader, the Hymne au Maréchal (Marshal’s Anthem), written by a prisoner. For a fortnight they had rehearsed the piece in their camps, in groups, in a range of pitches. Sung by this intermingling mass of two thousand young voices, the slow, simple anthem, with its naive words - “Glorious soldier of our France, receive the homage of our hearts. Victor of Verdun, pure symbol of valour, may God keep you and protect you, and protect our banners” - yet set to such pure, sweeping, almost liturgical music, expressed an astonishing fervour, astonishing even to those who had heard the power of the shouts of love for the Marshal a hundred times before. For centuries, no song in France had attained this degree of intensity and quiet lyricism.” (Jean Bouchon, in the booklet À 20 ans dans les Chantiers de la Jeunesse, a supplement to issue no 38 of Vaillance, l’hebdomadaire d’une France plus belle.) The journalist, in his lyrical style, continues: “The Marseillaise that followed took on a heightened nobility.” So here we have a “Marshal’s Anthem” that surpasses, yet at the same time, because of its proximity, gives greater sparkle to the national anthem.


A leader worshipped and venerated as never before



Let us return to the Resistance, who brandished the Marseillaise outside the official programme.


In Études Héraultaises, no 42, of 2012, historian Jean-Claude Richard looks at the Bastille Day celebrations of 14 July 1942 in Montpellier and the surrounding area. In the departmental capital, the ceremonies went off smoothly and with dignity, according to the report published on the 15th in the (controlled) press: “It was in hope and contemplation - hope in the destiny of our country, contemplation towards our dead and our prisoners - that Montpellier celebrated Bastille Day.” It was a rather gloomy occasion:  the Sonnerie aux Morts bugle call and laying of wreaths at the war memorial at 8.30 am, followed by religious ceremonies in the cathedral and Protestant church at 10 am, all in the presence of the authorities, who in the afternoon attended a prize-giving at the Petit Lycée. The speech at the prize-giving was made by General de Lattre de Tassigny, commander of the 16th Military Division, on the theme of “The military leader is the leader of the youth”, and concluded with a reminder of “the legendary figure” and “the promise of experience” of Marshal Pétain. Obviously, the rest of the day was hushed up by the press and the authorities.


But the report of the police chief to the prefect presents the reality, in Montpellier and elsewhere. He reports that “a major propaganda effort was carried out by the underground movement Combat and the communist party, taking up the themes of foreign propaganda.” In particular, he tells of the presence, at around 6.30 pm, of some one hundred people singing the Marseillaise in Palavas-les-Flots, and goes on: “In Montpellier, at the same hour, a hundred people, mostly women and children, mostly wearing badges, marched slowly down Rue de la République in small groups; one group began singing the Marseillaise and, at the immediate intervention of the police, dispersed quietly. The number of people who had assembled at the same hour in Rue Foch, with the intention of demonstrating, can be estimated at 500. Some, mostly women, also wore tricolour ribbons or rosettes... [G]roups who had been driven into neighbouring streets began singing the Marseillaise… The intervention of the authorities was not criticised, for it was done without violence. However, there was great surprise that they should be prevented from singing the Marseillaise.” There follows a list of the 42 people arrested, including the future great historian of the French Revolution, Albert Soboul, a secondary school teacher who was dismissed and, when he was released, went underground (his police record contains the observation: “Communist sympathiser, lover of...”).


These demonstrations were the result of calls from the internal Resistance movements and Free France. Due in particular to the repercussions of the near spontaneous student demonstration on Paris’s Champs-Élysées on 11 November 1940, from then on, from London then Algiers, General de Gaulle called on the French people to demonstrate in public places “in the bit of France known as ‘unoccupied’”, on Bastille Day and Remembrance Day, as well as on Labour Day and Joan of Arc Day in May. He called for houses to be decked out with flags, and for the people to walk around the towns and villages wearing tricolour elements on their clothing, while singing the Marseillaise. For 14 July 1942, de Gaulle suggested the following scenario: “[E]verywhere, the Marseillaise shall be sung with one soul, at the tops of our voices, with tears in our eyes […] Flags are our pride! Processions are our hope! The Marseillaise is our rage! What we need and what we still have is pride, hope and rage. We shall make this clear tomorrow.” (Charles de Gaulle, Discours, vol. I, p. 249, ‘Le Cri de la France’ collection, published by LUF, Fribourg-Geneva, 1944.)


La Marseillaise lent its name to a number of underground Resistance newspapers, often those controlled by the French Communist Party, such as that printed in Marseille from December 1942 onwards, which went on being published after Liberation. The same title was given to a Free France weekly published in London from November 1942. 


Obviously, the songs which demonstrators and Resistance fighters sang in addition to the Marseillaise were not those included in the repertoire of the Pétainists, such as Maréchal, nous voilà !, by André Montagard, recorded by André Dassary, a march that was much taught and sung in schools, but was performed far less often at official ceremonies than the Marseillaise. This may have been because the words were too “boy-scoutish”, or even too childish, to appeal to adults:


All your children who love you and revere your years

   Have answered ‘Present’ to your supreme call.

   Marshal, here we are! Before you, the saviour of France,

   We, your boys, swear to serve and follow in your footsteps.

   Marshal, here we are!



Many, admittedly childish, parodies of Maréchal, nous voilà ! Many, admittedly childish, parodies of Maréchal, nous voilà ! were written and circulated in the form of leaflets by the Resistance (published in Europe  magazine, no 543-544, 1974, ‘La Poésie de la Résistance’, p. 212-213). Here is one example:


All the French who rage

About having been sold

Know that, spinelessly,

You surrendered yesterday.

Marshal, here we are!

In spite of you, we will save France.

We swear that one fine day

The enemy will leave once and for all.

Marshal, here we are!

We have found hope.

The motherland will be reborn.

Marshal, Marshal, in spite of you!


The flagship anthem of the French Revolution, meanwhile, showed great versatility. It was sung by those loyal to Pétain, in the free zone, including in official settings under strict surveillance and supervision. It was sung by demonstrators on instructions issued locally or from London, then Algiers. It was sung by hostages and Resistance fighters sentenced to death. It was sung by deportees, sometimes together with other revolutionary songs. The Free French also sang the Marche lorraine, other traditional military songs and the Chant des partisans, by Joseph Kessel and Maurice Druon, a new song which really only became popular after Liberation, once the danger had passed.


Bernard Richard, November 2016