The National Memorial of Montluc Prison works with its German counterparts

Study trip participants before the port of Hamburg © Mémorial National de la prison de Montluc


Requisitioned by the German army during the Second World War, Montluc Prison was the site of detention of Jean Moulin, Marc Bloch and the children of Izieu. Of the prison’s 10 000 inmates, nearly 7 000 were deported.


Opened in 2010 as a Major National Remembrance Site, Montluc Prison National Memorial joined the sites managed by the Ministry of the Armed Forces and the National Office for Veterans and Victims of War (ONAC-VG).


The purpose of the memorial today is to pay tribute to the thousands of Resistance fighters, Jews and other victims of the Nazi and Vichy regimes during the Second World War, and to offer a better understanding of the policies of repression that were implemented. An essential regional actor in the transmission of that history, it is now important for the memorial to give its projects a European perspective. To that end, in April 2018, a training course was organised in France and Germany for history teachers from Lyon education authority. Entitled ‘From Montluc Prison to the concentration camps’, the course took these teachers to the Montluc Prison Memorial, the Royallieu Camp Internment Memorial, Neuengamme Concentration Camp Memorial, Denkort Bunker Valentin and the Bullenhuser Damm Memorial. The idea was to retrace the route taken by the inmates of Montluc Prison, who were deported to these camps via the Royallieu transit camp. The often tragic fates of these prisoners were the starting point for a discussion of three essential themes of contemporary historiography: understanding the occupation and internment in the southern zone, where Montluc Prison played a central role; learning about forced labour in the camps and subcamps; and how to use the study of the persecutors in a learning context.


At Montluc Prison National Memorial, a guided tour gave participants a grasp of the complex role played by the prison in the machinery of repression of both the German military command and Section IV of the SiPo-SD, commonly known as the Gestapo, commanded in Lyon by Klaus Barbie. Staff then presented the educational activities on offer, which are founded on the rigour of historical methodology. Based on the study of archive documents, workshops invite pupils to retrace the steps of the prisoners, while at the same time encouraging them to think about how history is written.


The day was rounded off with a talk by historian Thomas Fontaine on deportation. Explaining how he moved from the study of deportees to that of understanding deportation, he described the development of Nazi policies of repression and the system of distribution of deportees to the concentration camps.


Participants were then taken to the Royallieu Internment Camp Memorial, in Compiègne, where they were received by director Anne Bonamy. A rich site with an ambitious vision, the Royallieu Camp Memorial is set to team up with the Montluc Prison Memorial in the future, as most of the prison’s non-Jewish, male inmates passed through the camp.


A third part of the training course took place in Hamburg and Bremen, Germany. Teachers visited the Neuengamme Concentration Camp Memorial. Located 30 km from Hamburg, Neuengamme was the principal concentration camp in northwest Germany from 1940 to 1945. Around 100 400 people were deported there, including the inmates of Montluc Prison from spring 1944. From the Royallieu camp, four convoys totalling more than 7 000 people were taken to Neuengamme.


After a tour of the site, the head of the education department talked about a theme at the heart of the new French historiography - the study of the persecutors - and what approach Neuengamme has taken to the subject, which requires delicate, subtle handling in a learning and remembrance context.

The following day, forced labour was the theme of the study day at the Bunker Valentin memorial. A Kommando linked to Neuengamme, Bunker Valentin was intended to house a Nazi U-boat factory, but it was bombed by the Allies before it was completed. Ten thousand forced labourers, including large numbers of French prisoners from Montluc and later Royallieu, were compelled to build this vast structure. Nearly 3 000 lost their lives in the process, as a result of inhumane working conditions and the arbitrary violence of their persecutors. By looking in greater depth at the issue of forced labour, the teachers gained a grasp both of its diversity and of how the concentration camps developed over time: from being ‘brought into line’ ideologically (Gleichschaltung), to being exploited economically. Fanatical yet pragmatic, the Nazis used deported resistance fighters as an exploitable, interchangeable labour force for the war effort. It was private companies, however, that were responsible for managing production and hence for exploiting deportees, in complicity with the SS. Contemporary historiography is concerned with just that: understanding the porous boundaries between the concentration camps and civil society.


The science officer at the Bunker Valentin memorial, Christel Trouvé, presented the site’s learning activities. The innovative, interdisciplinary approach of the workshops appealed to participants.


The last day of the study trip, which included a walking tour of the streets of Hamburg, took place at the Bullenhuser Damm memorial. This subcamp of Neuengamme was the site chosen for the extermination of Jewish children subjected to medical experiments at the main camp, together with their carers, including Gabriel Florence, an inmate of Montluc Prison, on the night of 20 to 21 April 1945. A remembrance site since 2011, Bullenhuser Damm provided an opportunity to look at the history of the Holocaust and the war trials from a microhistorical angle.


Thus, the study trip’s strength was to offer participants a ‘decentralised’ perspective, by contrasting traditional French learning approaches and interpretations with German interpretative frameworks. The course showed how, rather than contradicting one another, the two are complementary. This Franco-German perspective on internment and deportation studies enabled participants to ‘decompartmentalise’ their thinking, in order to deepen their knowledge of the period. They will be keen to pass these original thematic perspectives on to pupils, whether in the classroom or out of school.


Montluc Prison National Memorial, which organised the training course, intends to pursue this partnership with the German memorials. The idea is to make it a long-term initiative and to show future generations that, after a long period of conflict, Franco-German relations are now at peace with the past. Showing the younger generation that history is not a foregone conclusion brings hope, and therefore courage. A return study trip to Montluc Prison National Memorial is planned for teachers and outreach staff of the German memorials.