Chapter Nine: Louis Martin-Chauffier
He falls between the lesser witnesses, whom he surpasses due to his effort to explain in a learned way the experiences which he lived through, and the great tenors like David Rousset, whose power of analysis he lacks, or like Eugen Kogon, whose exactness and attention to detail he lacks. Given that, and taking into account the place that he occupies in post-war literature and journalism, he cannot be. Martin-Chauffier is a writer by profession. He belongs to that class of writers called “committed.” He is committed, but he frees himself often enough — in order to recommit himself, since commitment is second nature to him. He has been known as a fellow-traveler, and he is now an anti-Communist. Probably, moreover, for the same reasons and under the same circumstances — i.e., it is the thing to do. He could not fail to give his testimony on the concentration camps for a couple of reasons: First, because his profession is writing. Second, because he had to get straight for himself what had happened to him. The others profited by him. Doubtless, he did not realize that he was saying just what everybody else said, although he expressed it differently. The title of his testimony is L'Homme et la Bete (1948, Gallimard). As far as originality is concerned, he saw the cardboard boxes, which contained the margarine — made of coal, of course — which were given to us with the label “Guaranteed to contain no fat.” Other than that, his testimony is a long chain of reasoning based on facts which the author has isolated from all moral or other reflections.
I. The Line of Argument
Before he was deported to Neuengame, Louis Martin-Chauffier was for a while at Compiegne-Royallieu. He knew Captain Douce there, who was then camp elder. Here is his opinion of him:
Captain Douce, “doyen” of the camp and zealous servant of those who had put him in that position, perched on a table, doing his figures out loud, chain-smoking the cigarettes which had been refused to us, against regulations. (p. 51).
At Neuengame, he knew Andre who was one of the important inmates in the camp, an official with authority, chosen from the prisoners by the S.S.. This is the portrait he gives of him:
Narrowly watched by the S.S. a most suspicious sort, he was forced, in order to keep the role he had chosen and gotten with difficulty, to speak roughly to the prisoners, to make a show of being without feeling, unbending and brutal in his language. He knew that the least sign of weakness would inexorably bring denunciation down on him, and his immediate dismissal. Nearly everyone was taken in by his manner, believed him to be working with the SS, their creature, our enemy. Since he was responsible for the sorting out and allocation of posts, he was blamed for all those he sent to the Kommandos, with apparent indifference, deaf to prayers, pleas, recriminations… When a thousand deportees were to go to the Kommandos, and only about 990 were piling into the cattle cars, no one realized how many ruses Andre had used, all the risks he had run, to preserve ten men from probable death… He knew that he was universally detested or suspect. He had chosen it that way, preferring the service he could render to esteem …
As I saw Andre, he accepted in the same spirit the menacing cordiality of the SS, the corresponding servility of the Kapos and the Block chiefs, the hostility of the mass. I think that he had risen above humiliation, substituted a glacial purity for his own inner courage, a stranger even to himself. He had renounced his being, in favor of a duty which in his eyes was deserving of this submission. (Pages 167-168-169.)
Thus of the two men fulfilling the same function, one gets the laconic severity and contempt of the author, while the other enjoys not only his approving indulgence, but even his admiration. When one examines this inconsistency further, one learns, during the course of reading the work, that Andre rendered considerable service to Martin-Chauffier in circumstances when his life was in danger. I did not know Captain Douce at Compiegne, but it is very likely that, compared with Andre, his only mistake was in not knowing how to choose the people for whom he did favors — since he, too, certainly had his favorites — and in having too limited a familiarity with literature to know that there was in his realm a certain number of Martin-Chauffiers, and even Martin-Chauffier himself.
And it is not beside the point to add that this kind of reasoning leads to:
I have always admired, with some fear and some repulsion THOSE who, in order to serve their country or a cause they consider just, are willing to face all the consequences of duplicity: the contemptuous defiance of the enemy employing them, and his confidence when HE deceives THEM; and the disgust of his comrades in battle who see in HIM a traitor; and the abject comraderie of the real traitors or those who have simply sold themselves, who seeing HIM doing the same thing, consider HIM as ONE of them. It requires a self-renunciation that is beyond me, a guile which confounds me and goes against my grain. (1) (Page 168)
One wonders whether Petain’s attorneys might not make use of this kind of argument, whose pungency comes from having issued from the pen of one of crypto-Communism’s finest ornaments. If Petainism becomes fashionable again, Martin-Chauffier, in any case, will have reason to be proud of it, and perhaps to profit from it…
II. Another Line of Argument
In the camp the author was talking with a doctor who said to him:
There are at present in the camp three times as many sick people as I can take care of. The war will be over in five or six months, at the latest. It is up to me to see to it that the greatest possible number hold out. I have decided. You and others, you will get better slowly. If I send you back to the, camp in this state and at this season (we were at the end of December) you will be dead in three weeks. I am going to keep you here. And — listen carefully — I am going to bring in those who are not so seriously afflicted, those that a stay in the Revier can save. Those who are lost, I am going to reject.(2) I cannot afford the luxury of letting them in just to give them a peaceful death. What I can assure is the care of the living. The others will die eight days sooner: in any case, they would die too soon. It can’t be helped, I am not here to be sentimental, but to be effective. That’s my job. All my colleagues are in agreement, that’s the right thing to do … Everytime that I refuse to let in a dying man, and he looks at me with stupor, fear, with reproach, I would like to explain to him that I am exchanging his lost life for a life that can be saved. He would not understand, etc… (Page 160)
As far as admittance into the infirmary is concerned, I had the experience that one could get into the Revier and be cared for (in a loose manner of speaking) for reasons among which sickness or infirmity were sometimes only secondary; knowhow, pull, politics and bribery were the common reasons for getting a hospital bed. I attributed this fact to the general conditions of concentration camp life. Further, if some prisoner doctors behaved the way Martin-Chaufrier says this one did, that conduct should be recorded as both a philosophical argument and as a causal element, side by side with the “sadism” of the SS, in explaining the large number of deaths. For it takes a great deal of knowledge, confidence, and also presumption, for a doctor to determine in a few minutes who can be saved and who cannot. And, I am very much afraid that if such were the case generally among doctors, then once having taken this first step toward a new code of professional conduct, they might progressively arrive at another by asking themselves no longer who could be saved but who ought to be saved and who ought not and by resolving this problem of conscience on grounds that have nothing to do with therapeutics.
III. The Regime of the Camps
The treatment inflicted on us by the S.S. was the execution of a plan worked out in high places. It could have refinements, embellishments, flourishes, due to the initiative, the imagination, the tastes of the head of the camp; sadism has nuances. The overall plan was fixed. Before killing us or making us die, we had to be debased. (Page 85)
During the occupation, there existed in France an Association of the Families of Deportees and Political Internees. If a family sent an inquiry to the Association for information about what had become of its deportee, it received, in the return mail, a report coming from those German “high places.”
Here is this report. (3)
Weimar camp. — The camp is situated 9 k m. from Weimar and is connected to it with a railroad. It lies at an altitude of 800 m. It consists of three enclosures of concentrically strung barbed wire. In the first enclosure, the prisoners barracks, between the first and the second, the factories and the workshops where T.S.F. accessories are manufactured, pieces of machinery, etc… Between the second and the third lies an area not yet built upon, which has just been cleared of trees, and where they are laying out camp streets and a small railroad.
The first enclosure of barbed wire is electrified and is marked out with a great many watch towers, on top of which there are three armed men. No sentinels in the second and third enclosures, but within the area of the factories there is an SS caserne; during the night they patrol with dogs, likewise in the third enclosure.
The camp spreads over 8 km and contains about 30,000 internees. At the beginning of the Nazi regime, its enemies were interned there. The population is partly French, partly foreign, anti-Nazi Germans, but who remain Germans, and who make up most of the Block chiefs. There are also Russians, among them officers of the Red Army, Hungarians, Poles, Belgians, Dutch, etc. …
The camp regulations are as follows:
4:30 — Rise, wash, under surveillance, stripped to the waist; washing the body is obligatory.
5:30 — a half liter of soup or coffee, with 450 gr. of bread (at times they have less bread, but they have an abundant ration of potatoes of good quality), 30 gr. margarine, a slice of sausage or a piece of cheese.
12:00 — noon — coffee.
18:30 — a liter of good thick soup.
In the morning at six, leave for work. Assembly is by job, factory, quarry, woodcutters, etc… In each detachment the men line up in rows of five, holding each other by the arm so that the ranks are well aligned and separated. Then they leave, with music at the head (70 or 80 musicians from among the prisoners, in uniform: red pants, blue jackets with black trimming.)
Sanitation in the camp is very good. At the head of this is Professor Richet, deportee. Medical checkup every day. There are numerous doctors, an infirmary and a hospital, just as for a regiment. The internees wear the costume of German convicts made of artificial cloth, relatively warm. Their underclothing has been disinfected on arrival. There is one blanket for two men.
There is no chapel in the camp. There are, however, a number of priests among the internees, but they generally have concealed their calling. These priests gather together the faithful for talks, recitation of the rosary, etc. … Free time — Complete liberty in the camp on Sunday afternoon. This afternoon is enlivened by a theatrical group organized by the prisoners. Cinema, once or twice per week (German films), radio in each barrack (German news). Fine concerts are given by the orchestra made up of internees.
All the prisoners agree that they are better off at Weimar than they were at Fresnes or in the other French prisons.
We call attention to the families of the deportees that the Allied bombardment of the factories at Weimar toward the end of August did not find a single victim among the deportees of the camp.
Jean Puissant, who quoted the above, followed it with this appraisal: “a monument of deceit and lies.”
Self-evidently, it is written in a benevolent style. It does not say that in the workshops of Buchenwald the pieces of machinery being made were weapons. It does not speak of the hangings for sabotage, the numerous roll-calls, the conditions of work, or the physical punishments. It does not point out that the Sunday afternoon liberty was subject to limitations which depended upon what went on in the place; nor does it say that if the priests gathered together their faithful for talks and prayers, that such gatherings were clandestine and, were held at the risk that they might be taken for a meeting of conspirators. It even lies when it says that the deportees thought they were better off than in French prisons, that the August 1944 bombardment had no victims among the internees, and that most of the trains leaving Compiegne or Fresnes at that date were headed for Weimar.
But, such as it is this text is closer to the truth than the testimony of Frere Birin, particularly with regard to the food. And, it still is a resume of the regulations of the camps as they were established by the higher levels of the Nazi government. That these regulations were not applied often at the local level is certain. History will tell why. Probably, it will consider the war as the major cause as well as the principle of camp administration by the prisoners themselves. The deterioration which, in a hierarchical administration, all orders undergo as they are handed down from the top to the bottom will be listed also. This deterioration can be seen, for example, in a regiment where the orders of the colonel are delivered by the lieutenant to the sergeant who has the responsibility for their execution. Everyone knows that in a caserne it is the sergeant who is dangerous, not the colonel.
For my part, I am convinced that, within the constraints imposed by the condition of total war, there was nothing to prevent the prisoners who administered over us, who commanded us, who supervised us, and who cadred us, from making life in a concentration camp something resembling closely the picture that the Germans presented to the families of prisoners.
I saw my unfortunate comrades, guilty only of not having strong enough arms, die under blows lavished on them by German political prisoners promoted to overseer, who had become the accomplices of their former enemies. (Page 92)
Those brutes, while striking, did not at first intend to kill; nevertheless they did kill in an access of joyous fury, eyes bloodshot, face scarlet and foam on their lips, because they could not stop themselves, they had to go to the very end of their pleasure.
Here we have a deed which, for change, is imputed to the prisoners without any qualifications. One never knows: it is possible that there are people who kill “in an access of joyous fury” and whose only purpose is “to go to the very end of their pleasure.” In the normal world, there are abnormal people; likewise, there can also be some in a world where everything is abnormal, such as a concentration camp. But, I am rather led to think that if a Kapo, a Block Chief, or a camp elder let himself go to that extent, it was for motives arising from more likely reasons: the need for revenge; the desire to please the masters who had given him his choice post; the desire to hold onto it at any price, etc. I believe that even if they had resorted to the brutality which is described above, they usually stopped short of killing a man, since his death might have gotten them in trouble with the SS, at least at Buchenwald and Dora.
In spite of this explanation, Martin-Chauffier must be forgiven for having cited two more actions whose criminal nature can in no way be considered the result of the execution of a plan “worked out in high places":
Each week the Kapo of the Revier made his rounds (he was completely ignorant about it), examined the temperature charts whose margins were covered with remarks about a disturbing diagnosis, looked at the sick: if he didn’t like their looks, he stated that they were to leave, whatever condition they were in. The doctor tried to forestall or influence his decision, which was difficult to foresee, since the Kapo whose impressions took the place of knowledge was a lunatic, besides. (Page 185). The frigid draft, the obligatory washing stripped to the waist, were hygienic provisions. Each killing process was thus cloaked in the guise of sanitation. This proved to be most efficacious. All those who suffered from some chest ailment were carried out in a few days. (Page 192).
Nothing obliged the Kapo, the Stubendienst, or the Pfleger of the Revier, to let a draft of ice cold air through, to make the unfortunate patients in their care wash bare-chested in cold water, or to render medical decisions without the concurrence of the treating physicians. Nevertheless, they did do it, with the aim of pleasing the SS, who most of the time knew nothing about it, and of holding on to the positions which saved their lives. One would like to have seen Martin-Chauffier direct his accusations against them with as much vigor as he has done against the SS, or — at least — divide the responsibility between them.
V. A Qualified Witness?
The following is an account of Martin-Chauffier that was written by Dominique Canavaggio (former editor-in-chief of Temps de Paris and son-in-law of Pastor Boegner):
Louis Martin-Chauffier — who later was to be arrested by the Gestapo and sent to Auschwitz — was a contributor to Sept jours, a weekly newspaper of Jean Prouvost. One morning when I was in Lyon he visited me. His face was distorted with anxiety. He said, “My daughter has tuberculosis; her condition is very serious. I have tried to have her treated in France. It is impossible: nowhere here does one find combined the necessary altitude, comfortable accommodations and board: only a sojourn in Switzerland could save her. Do you think that she could obtain a travel pass from Laval?”
I promised him even to attempt the impossible, and upon my return I went immediately to see the head of the government in Vichy. Impossible was truly the right word, for since November 1942 the Germans tightly controlled all travel in and out of France at the Swiss frontier; they allowed, practically, no one to cross the border except some official persons. Besides, the name of Martin-Chauffier was already at that time suspected by Laval and was not likely, for that reason, to make things easier. Laval listened to my request without interrupting me, then when I had finished, he said, “Martin-Chauffier?… He is, I suppose, the fellow who at the time of Munich wrote an article in which he demanded that I should be sent to the gallows?”
“Yes,” Mr. President, “that is he.”
There was a moment of silence. I looked at him firmly. Finally he spoke, “Tell him that his daughter will go to Switzerland… Arrange the formalities with Bousquet.” “Thank you, Mr. President; I was sure that you would do it. And I am not sure that Martin-Chauffier will be grateful …”
He motioned me back and said, “I want no thanks. I do it from a sense of duty to mankind.”
As we have seen, Martin-Chauffier, was especially suited to become one of the leaders of the Resistance Movement in France. He furthermore “honored” with his (episodic) collaboration Le Figaro, Paris-Press, and Paris Match. The biographical reference work, Pharos, writes of him that before the war he made his political opinions clearly recognizable, and his sympathy for Communism during the Civil War in Spain confirmed them. In 1939 he traveled in the U.S.S.R. The year 1945 found him, naturally, again on the side of the Communists in the famous National Committee of Authors and among the most furious of persecutors.
Without doubt, he had to try to be forgiven for what had happened between these two dates. For today, Martin-Chauffier, like Eugen Kogon and David Rousset, holds himself aloof (or acts as if he held himself aloof) from the Communists, whose game he has played and continues to play. But, for how long? I pose this question for a very good reason.
On March 18, 1953, when I had just been sentenced by the Court of Appeals at Lyon, Jean Paulhan, since elected to the membership of the French Academy, wanted to express his sympathy; a 100,000 franc fine, together with an assessment of damages, in the sum of 800,000 francs, and a sentence of eight days in jail (which was suspended) had seemed alarming to him, and being less familiar than I was with such things, he did not know, as I did, that this judgment would surely be reversed by the Supreme Court. This is what he wrote:
I have followed (from a distance) your trial and the iniquitous judgment that ended it. Your book was splendid, and I wish I had written it. Perhaps it is due to it, and to the obvious absurdity of the quarrels they have tried to pick with you, that I am indebted for not having been prosecuted. (4) As for Martin-Chauffier, who indeed understands grammar but poorly, he was busy in 43 getting for the Germans (specifically from Maison Beraud, metallurgy, 315 rue Grimaldi, Lyon, for Captain Schwenn) ferrous and non-ferrous ores. That is what gives him the right to speak. Yours, with all sympathy.
The witness for the prosecution at my trial, Martin-Chauffier had not dared confront me at the bar, and that is easy to understand, but he all the same sent the President of the Court a telegram in which he demanded “a merciless condemnation.”
Moral: Ah! These witnesses — excuse me: Ah! These Resistants! That is all.
- This quotation has not been faked, in spite of the error in syntax that might make one think so, which is emphasized by the words in capital letters. In Le Droit de vivre of December 15, 1950, Martin-Chauffier claimed, in these words, that the text was correctly written: “It is useless to add that there is no error of syntax — another lie — but that a comma, inserted by M. Rassinier in place of the colon that I had put there, could deceive those not very sure of their grammar.” For Martin-Chauffier is convinced that one nail drives out another. And he is too sure of his grammar” for one to be able easily to count on him for the relations that exist between the verb and its subject or the pronoun and its antecedent. The moral: a gentleman who comes out of the Ecole des Chartes is evidently not obliged to know what is expected of a child of ten to get into the 6th grade. Not wanting to haggle over a penny we re-inserted the colon claimed by Mr. Martin-Chauffier which an unfortunate slip had indeed replaced with a semi-colon in the first edition: the reader who can see that this changes anything is kindly requested to write to us.
- Emphasized in the text.
- As far as I know this has only been cited by Jean Puissant in his book, La Colline sans oiseaux (Editions du Rond-Point, 1945). A generally honest and detailed monograph, one of the best testimonies on the camps.
- On February 20, 1952, Jean Paulhan had written an “Open Letter to the Directors of the Resistance” (Gallimard-Paris) in which he had questioned the prevailing orthodoxy, and which had produced as much emotion as Le Mensonge d'Ulysse.