After France was liberated from the Nazis in 1944, a wave of retributions swept through the country. Nazi collaborators and Gestapo informers were denounced; women suspected of having relationships with Germans were publicly humiliated by having their heads shaved; those engaged in the black market activities were labeled as “war profiteers” and trialed.
In the first fevered phase (remembered as épuration sauvage or wild purge, as opposed to later legal purges, épuration légale), one estimate noted that six thousand people were summarized executed for collaboration before the liberation of France, and four thousand thereafter. members and leaders of the milices. The US Army’s estimates were higher: eighty thousand, and one source even reported that the number executed was 105,000.
One such execution was well documented by Jean-Philippe Charbonnier in the village of Vienne, near Grenoble. Charbonnier spent a single roll of 35mm film to document the entire story of the public execution of a Nazi collaborator in front of a crowd of five thousand people. Each shot built up to the death by firing squad of a minor official who had possibly worked for the Gestapo with documentary and cinematic precision, beginning with the man being tied to a post, soldiers with rifles preparing for the task, then ultimately killing him.
Charbonnier remembered the day and the legal and moral ambiguities of that day:
In October, 1944, in the small town of Vienne (Isere), France, a French collaborator named Nitard was sentenced to death.
He was no large-scale spy — just a man who had been working as a clerk in the German administration, probably for the Gestapo. But one must remember that in the early days of Liberation in France, as in any other country that had suffered four years’ occupation, feelings ran high against any collaborator, big or small. And then, of course the really dangerous collaborators were not easy to bring to justice so the small fry had to pay the price for their more fortunate partners-in-crime. More fuel to the fire had been the executions by the Germans of many great patriots both in Lyons and in Vienne.
The outcry was therefore so violent that, even though Nitard’s appeal to the Courts of Justice in Grenoble had been successful, the shooting was ordered to take place, so as not to disappoint the population of Vienne, I cannot help feeling.
So that everyone in the town should have a chance to watch the execution and share in the general revenge, it was scheduled to take place at noon. Five thousand people, children included, crowded into the square in front of the old military barracks. So intense was the excitement that one could almost smell it as one can before a bullfight or even a good football game, while in the barrack square the condemned man gulped back the traditional glass of rum and lit the traditional cigarette. He puffed at it a few times, then stubbed it out, thrust the butt into his pocket and went to face the firing-squad.
He passed through a hall where the twelve rifles, one with a blank cartridge, had been laid out ready, and walked out into the square to be met by a priest, the firing-squad, its commanding officer and the now strangely silent crowd.
This demonstration of public justice shocked me profoundly. No one deplored collaboration more than I but this punishment seemed to me to be out of all proportion to this man’s relatively small crime. My nerves were taut. This man who was about to die was so close. I don’t remember whether the crowd was silent now, or not. I only know that I set my Leica automatically, as in a dream … or rather, a nightmare. Subconscious reflexes turned my battered old Summar F2 lens to the closest possible range while I tried to fight off feelings of disgust.
Suddenly I felt very close to that man standing alone in the square. The cigarette butt. Injustice to humanity. And then the overwhelming feeling that the man was dead already, that he was like a duck with its head cut off that runs for minutes before finally falling dead. He was dead before he ever entered the “arena” — even after fifteen years I can’t stand using that word.
The “show” was reaching its climax but now the man was untied from the post. He was a traitor and traitors are not given the right to meet death facing the squad. The seconds ticked by as he was bound with his back to the rifles. And then they fired.
Nitard never saw me although I was at times no more than five feet away. The whole story took up just one 35mm roll, as you can see — the biggest, most compact story I ever covered and one I wish never to have to cover again.”
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