The Nazi massacre of African soldiers in French army, 80 years on

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As France crumbled under the Nazi invasion in June 1940, the German army engaged in a series of massacres against African soldiers in the Lyon region, in the southeast of the country. After shining a light on these atrocities thanks to the discovery of new photos, historian Julien Fargettas discussed them with FRANCE 24.

A photo shows the fear on the faces of the Senegalese riflemen fighting for the French army, as German soldiers lead them into a field. One of eight hitherto unpublished images depicting the Chasselay massacre, it shows some of a group of 40 soldiers who only had minutes to live, killed by machine-gun fire from Panzers positioned along a road.

These photos are at the centre of Julien Fargettas’ new work Juin 1940, combats et massacres en Lyonnais (“June 1940, battles and massacres in the Lyon region”, not translated into English). They were discovered in an old album bought by a young private collector, Baptiste Garin. “What these pictures reveal is that the perpetrators really thought this mass execution through,” said Fargettas. “It’s really disturbing. And when we look at the attitude of the German soldiers, we see that they’re showing no emotion.”

This was not the first time Nazis massacred African soldiers. “It started at the end of May 1940, in the Somme region,” Fargettas explained. “There was no order from high up saying that colonial prisoners of war should be killed or even ill-treated. It was impulsive, but the German military hierarchy did nothing to even try to stop it.”

Senegalese rifleman visit the cemetery commemorating their fallen comrades, September 24,1944
Senegalese rifleman visit the cemetery commemorating their fallen comrades, September 24,1944 © Archives of the Lyon region, Wikimedia

A history of propaganda

This hatred of black soldiers goes back to the First World War, Fargettas continued: “The Germans used them to accuse the Allies of savagery on the battlefield. The German army had itself been rightly accused of atrocities against civilians, especially in Belgium. Consequently, in response they used the image of the African sharpshooter as a propaganda weapon.”

The peace settlement adumbrated in the Treaty of Versailles meant that the Ruhr and Rhineland, along Germany’s western border, were occupied by France. Many troops from French colonies were stationed there. “In Germany there was a very intensive, mendacious propaganda campaign accusing African soldiers of mass rape and kidnapping. This is what the Germans called the “black horror on the Rhine”; slander which the Nazis would reuse.”

When many Wehrmacht soldiers entered France in May 1940, they had memories of this propaganda. African soldiers were abused by the invaders throughout the country. “These troops often fought very well, while of course the Germans sustained many losses despite their success in the Battle of France, so that produced anger which added to all the resentment already stored up,” said Fargettas.

On June 19, 1940, the violence culminated in the Chasselay massacre. This was two days after Marshal Philippe Pétain’s notorious announcement that he would seek an armistice with the Nazis. The 25th regiment of Senegalese riflemen was posted to the northwest of Lyon, to delay the enemy’s entry into France’s third largest city.

“The Germans expected to seize Lyon quite easily,” Fargettas recounted. “But on the morning of June 19, they faced very strong resistance, in battles lasting for several hours. After the Wehrmacht won the first battles in the afternoon, they executed French as well as African prisoners. But on the next day – after the last pockets of resistance were defeated – they divided the prisoners into two: The French on one side, the Africans on the other. They led the latter down an isolated road. They were sent to a field and machine-gunned.” During these massacres, some French soldiers were also executed or wounded for trying to intervene.

The Senegalese Tata at Chasselay.
The Senegalese Tata at Chasselay. © Taguelmoust, Wikimedia

‘Sacred land’

The Senegalese riflemens’ bodies were left on the ground. Despite the Germans forbidding it, people from Chasselay buried the remains in a mass grave. One man then took an interest in their fate: Jean-Baptiste Marchiani, head of the local office for victims of the war. In the summer of 1940, he offered to give them a proper burial, suggesting a memorial in the model of an African cemetery using red ochre.

“At first, he was faced with polite indifference from the Vichy authorities,” said Fargettas. “It’s clear why they didn’t want a tribute to riflemen massacred by the Germans. But Marchiani framed it as a potential propaganda tool to show Vichy’s attachment to the French Empire.”

On November 8, 1942, the project was finished. Chasselay’s Senegalese “tata” was inaugurated. In this “enclosure of sacred land” in the Wolof language, the bodies of 188 Senegalese riflemen found in the region are buried. “Vichy officials said they were killed in battle, and carefully avoided any mention of the massacres.”

The graveyard inside the tata at Chasselay.
The graveyard inside the tata at Chasselay. © Taguelmoust, Wikimedia 

The riflemen who escaped these massacres endured a long period of captivity afterwards. French soldiers were sent to prisoner of war camps in Germany; African soldiers were kept in France. “The Germans refused to transfer them; they did not want what they called ‘racial contamination’,” said Fargettas. “Therefore they kept them in the occupied zone, in particular camps they called Frontstalags, where incidents of abuse were common. Many were then dispatched to work in logging, farms or factories.”

In Chasselay, their fallen comrades were gradually being forgotten. Contrary to the wishes of Jean-Baptiste Marchiani, the tata did not become a place where thousands of people regularly flocked to pay their respects to the Senegalese riflemen who were massacred, even though an annual ceremony was organised there after the war. Often, their families, living thousands of miles away, cannot make the trip – and some don’t even know the fate of their loved ones.

“Even today, there are dozens of graves of unknown soldiers, while the archives show that there are plenty of soldiers still classed as missing, probably including those buried in Chasselay,” Fargettas said.

As well as writing books, Fargettas also works to try and find the specific identities of those soldiers killed in 1940. His ambition is for a plaque with all of their names to be put on the tata.