Anthropologists in the French Resistance

Like specialists in most of the other social sciences, anthropologists rallied to the flag during the Second World War. They not only offered their services to the governments at war but also fought to have their discipline recognized as a valuable resource for the war effort whose expertise should be acknowledged. The swift defeat of France in 1940 meant that French anthropologists never saw the same opportunity to serve. Instead, those in occupied France found other ways to take part in the war.

The nexus of much of that resistance was the Musée de l’Homme (Museum of Man), which opened in 1878 as the Musée d’Ethnographie and was renamed in 1936 to reflect the broader ambitions of its director, Paul Rivet, and his vision of a museum that encompassed both ethnographic artifacts and physical skeletons, the museum was the center of cultural anthropology in France. The Musée’s staff was eclectic. The librarian, Yvonne Oddon, held one of the first certificates in library science ever issued in France and was supposedly hired by the deputy director, Georges Henri Rivière, after an interview in a taxi on the rue de Rivoli. Many, like museum designer Anatole Lewitsky, Americanist Henri Lehman, and Africanist Deborah Lifszyc were émigrés, some escapees from Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s Russia.

After the fall of France, many of the staff – still working by day on the exhibits and their research – joined the nascent resistance against the German occupation. With the connivance of the director of the Musée de l’Homme, Paul Rivet, they took advantage of the museum’s reproduction equipment to produce the clandestine newspaper Résistance from the museum’s basement. When the Gestapo raided the museum on the morning of April 11, 1941, they arrested the museum’s librarian, Yvonne Oddon, the museographer Lewitsky, and the Estonian anthropology student Boris Vildé. Also caught in the net was the art historian Agnès Humbert, who worked with Rivière at the museum’s sister institution, which was devoted to French folk art and culture.

Humbert had kept a diary throughout her time with the group that recorded many of their propaganda activities. In addition to typing the newspaper, Humbert created large stickers saying “Vive le general de Gaulle” (Humbert recalled “I’ve distributed these stickers to all our friends, and they are like excited children at the prospect of putting them up in public urinals, telephone boxes and Métro tunnels”). She also typed the same message onto five-franc notes, since “no one can afford to destroy a bank note.” The group also helped move downed Allied airmen – Humbert recalls a Polish pilot who was always concerned that feeding him not put his hosts out of pocket – collected military intelligence.

Humbert’s diary also captures her recollections of the excitement as well as the scope of the challenge they faced:

Here we are, most of us the wrong side of forty, careering along like students all fired up with passion and fervor, in the walke of a leader of whom we know absolutely nothing, of whom none of us has even seen a photograph. In the whole course of human history, has there ever been anything quite like it?

Four months later, she wrote that “it is inspiring to know that there are thousands and thousands of Parisians, anonymous ad unknown, working like us – often better than us – to organize a resistance movement that will soon become a liberation struggle.”

In truth, the Musée de l’Homme group would only survive a month or so more. Nineteen people were tried by the German occupation authorities in the “Vildé affair.” Seven of those were executed and another six, including Humbert, were imprisoned. Her experiences in prison, as a laborer deported to work in German rayon factories, and then as a displaced person after the liberation were added to her earlier diary and published as Notre Guerre (Our War) after the war (an English translation with extensive notes appeared as Résistance: A Woman’s Journal of Struggle and Defiance in Occupied France in 2008; all quotes above are from that edition).

Beyond that early group, many other anthropologists connected with the museum were also involved in the resistance. They included Germain Tillion, arrested in 1942 and imprisoned first at Fresnes and then in the Ravensbruck concentration camp, and the former colonial administrator Bernard Maupoil, arrested in 1943 and who died in the slave labor camp at Hersbruck in 1944. Other French anthropologists fought the Nazis outside France. Jacques Soustelle was serving in the military attaché’s office in Mexico City when France surrendered. He moved to London and joined the Free French. Claude Lévi-Strauss, who left France for the United States after capitulation but before the US entered the war, worked in the American Office of War Information.

In a way, resistance to the Nazis by the Musée de l’Homme anthropologists was an extension of their pre-war political commitments. As Alice L. Conklin explains in her book The Museum of Man: Race, Anthropology, and Empire in France, 1850–1950 (full disclosure: Professor Conklin was one of my professors in graduate school), the Musée de l’Homme and its circle were active opponents of scientific racism as it was promoted in Germany and in France. At the museum, Rivet and Rivière preached the essential unity of humanity and the common features of societies around the globe, engaging in a long and polemical debate with physical anthropologists who considered race the essential source of differences between societies are were comfortable, if not eager, to rank and judge them.

The anthropologists’ antipathy to the Nazi regime therefore went well beyond the occupation. So too, in the end, did their service. After the war, anthropologists associated with the Musée were among the leaders of the founding of UNESCO and its 1950 statement declaring common conceptions of race as “social myth.”

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