Mon, Aug 23, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Mastermind of French Resistance speaks out


Sixty years ago Maurice Kriegel-Valrimont was moving from safe-house to safe-house in German-occupied Paris, masterminding the popular insurrection that was to go down in national legend as the moment France won back its lost military honor.

On Aug. 25, 1944, he was there in the billiards-room of the Prefecture de Police when the capital's military governor Dietrich von Choltitz signed the surrender document, and he was on the half-track which then carried the humiliated general on a triumphant procession through the newly-liberated city.

A famous photograph shows the vehicle moving through ecstatic crowds on the its way to Montparnasse station. General Philippe Leclerc, commander of the French armored division that had just entered Paris, has his back to a bowed and dejected von Choltitz.

Bespectacled and in civilian clothes, Kriegel-Valrimont stands to the rear: the hidden theoretician of revolt who has finally thrown off the cloak of clandestinity to assume his place in history.

Now aged 90 and living in rural Burgundy, he is the last surviving player from one of the key moments of World War II: his mission still today, as a faithful man of the left, to emphasize the role of the anonymous masses in ending four years of Nazi occupation.

"In Paris we had a great advantage -- which was a tradition of popular uprising. There was the revolution of course in 1789, but after that 1830, 1848, above all the Commune in 1870. There was a body of doctrine. We knew how to do it," he recalled in an interview.

"On top of that we had all studied military theory -- Clausewitz and others -- and had a good grasp of when to act: not too early and not too late. I myself had no military training, but I had become an expert," he said.

By mid-August 1944, the writing was on the wall for the army that had marched victoriously into the French capital four years earlier. After the Normandy landings in June, the Allies were sweeping in from the west, and German troops were being withdrawn from Paris to put up a defense elsewhere.

As one of three members of the Military Action Committee (COMAC) of the National Resistance Council (CNR), Kriegel-Valrimont organized a series of strikes. He wrote the inflammatory texts that appeared overnight on fly-posters and underground news-sheets. Then Free French radio began broadcasting, and on Aug. 22 the barricades appeared.

"In 36 hours there were 600 or more. The people were like ants -- tens of thousands of them. Some of the barricades were real masterpieces, built by craftsmen and strong enough to stop a tank. Others would have just collapsed, but the Germans didn't know which was which."

"First fear had changed sides, and now the initiative changed sides too. The Germans were the ones forced onto the defensive, and they fell back on just a dozen centers of operation," he said.

Hundreds of Frenchmen died in the fighting, and their names can still be seen on memorial plaques across the capital which are decorated with flowers every anniversary. But the German collapse was swift, and after three days von Choltitz had negotiated his surrender and was brought to the Prefecture from his headquarters in the Hotel Meurice.

It was here that Kriegel-Valrimont performed the act for which he is most widely known. After seeing that in the original text the Germans surrendered only to Leclerc's army, he insisted that the Resistance -- the French Forces of the Interior (FFI) -- also be included. The wording was changed, with important implications for the balance of power in postwar France.

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