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“They Are Just Savages”: German Massacres of Black

Soldiers from the French Army in 1940*

Raffael Scheck
Colby College

When the German army fought in France in May and June 1940, it encountered
a large number of black African soldiers who had been drafted into the French
army. Whereas German troops, with some notable exceptions, treated white
French POWs according to the Geneva convention on the treatment of pris-
oners of war (1929), they dealt with the black Africans in a way that anticipated
the horrors of the racialized warfare associated with the later German cam-
paigns in the Balkans and the Soviet Union. In close combat, German units
fought against black soldiers of the French army with a ruthlessness that sug-
gested that no prisoners would be taken. On many occasions, black prisoners
of war were shot—sometimes up to several hundred at a time. When Germans
did not kill black prisoners outright, they often separated them from the white
French captives and subjected them to harsh treatment. Most of these incidents
happened during the German offensive against the French defenses along the
Somme River launched on June 5 and during the pursuit of the retreating
French in the following two and a half weeks. Random killings, abuse, and
neglect of black Africans continued en route to the gathering places for pris-
oners and in the German POW camps. The records in the French army archives
document the killing of approximately fifteen hundred black POWs during the
campaign, but the fact that these materials are incomplete suggests that the
actual number was much higher—perhaps twice as high.1

* I wish to thank my colleagues Elizabeth Leonard, James L. Webb, and Robert S.

Weisbrot and the journal’s two anonymous reviewers for precious suggestions on how
to improve this article. Myron Echenberg, Nancy Lawler, Gerhard A. Weinberg, Jon-
athan Steinberg, Paul Gaujac, and Antoine Champeaux also provided much-appreciated
help for this project. The archival research would not have been possible without the
funding provided by the Social Science Division at Colby College (grants 01.2253 and
The records of the French West African units are held by the Service historique de
l’armée de terre (SHAT) in Vincennes. Additional documentation exists at the Centre
d’histoire et d’études des troupes d’outre-mer (CHETOM) in Fréjus as well as in local
archives. The German archival sources, held at the Bundesarchiv-Militärarchiv (BA-
The Journal of Modern History 77 (June 2005): 325–344
䉷 2005 by The University of Chicago. 0022-2801/2005/7702-0003$10.00
All rights reserved.
326 Scheck

In this article I will argue that a combination of ideological and situational

factors led to the killing of black African soldiers in the front lines. Older
notions about black Africans and, in particular, their role in the French army
in World War I and its aftermath had been infused with Nazi racism to cast
the black soldier as a cannibalistic, mutilating barbarian. This powerful prej-
udice found an apparent confirmation in the German encounters with black
African troops, who often mounted desperate resistance in close combat. The
interplay of racist notions and a particular type of fighting, which Omer Bartov
sees as central to explaining the atrocious behavior of the Wehrmacht (the
German armed forces) in the Soviet Union, thus was already at work in the
western campaign of 1940 in the Germans’ treatment of black African sol-
diers.2 This suggests that the Wehrmacht was willing to embrace the Nazi
notion of racialized warfare and its murderous applications earlier than has
previously been assumed.
Literature on the German massacres of black Africans in 1940 is scarce, and
no focused treatment of the topic has been published so far. Few general works
about the campaign of 1940 mention the massacres of black Africans.3 Two
books on African soldiers in the service of France treat some incidents in detail
but do not consider German sources. The first, Nancy Lawler’s Soldiers of
Misfortune: Ivoirien Tirailleurs of World War II, is based on interviews with
veterans from the northern provinces of Ivory Coast. The second, Myron
Echenberg’s Colonial Conscripts: The Tirailleurs Sénégalais in French West
Africa, 1857–1960, presents a survey of the recruitment and deployment of
the troops drafted in France’s sub-Saharan colonies from Mauritania to Niger
(the Tirailleurs Sénégalais came from a region much larger than today’s Re-
public of Senegal).4 David Killingray’s essay “Africans and African Americans
in Enemy Hands” draws interesting comparisons between the treatment of
black Africans and African Americans as POWs of the Axis powers but adds

MA) in Freiburg im Breisgau, rarely mention the massacres explicitly but provide
information on the attitudes and experiences of the perpetrators.
Omer Bartov, Hitler’s Army (Oxford and New York, 1992).
The exceptions are Jean-Pierre Azéma, From Munich to the Liberation, 1938–1944,
trans. Janet Lloyd, Cambridge History of Modern France, vol. 6 (Cambridge, 1984),
39–40, and “Le choc armé et les débandades,” in La France des années noires, vol. 1,
De la défaite à Vichy, ed. Jean-Pierre Azéma and François Bédarida (Paris, 2000), 97–
129, at 102 and 111; and Roger Bruge, Juin 1940: Le mois maudit (Paris, 1980), 117–
18, and Les combattants du 18 juin, vol. 1, Le sang versé (Paris, 1982).
Nancy Ellen Lawler, Soldiers of Misfortune: Ivoirien Tirailleurs of World War II
(Athens, OH, 1992); Myron Echenberg, Colonial Conscripts: The Tirailleurs Sénéga-
lais in French West Africa, 1857–1960 (London, 1991). See also Myron Echenberg,
“Morts pour la France: The African Soldier in France during the Second World War,”
Journal of African History 26 (1985): 363–80, an earlier version of the chapter on that
topic in Colonial Conscripts.
German Massacres of Black Soldiers in 1940 327

little to the information provided by Lawler and Echenberg.5 The unpublished

master’s thesis by Julien Fargettas, “Le massacre des soldats du 25ème Régi-
ment de Tirailleurs Sénégalais,” presents an excellent discussion of a large
massacre near Lyon, but it is limited by the author’s exclusive use of French-
language materials.6 Some information can also be found in biographies of the
poet and first president of Senegal, Léopold Sédar Senghor, who was a Tir-
ailleur in 1940. Senghor and others in his unit were almost killed after being
captured on June 20, 1940. As in some other cases, the intervention of a white
French officer induced the Germans not to carry out the massacre.7 Some works
on antiblack feeling during the Nazi period mention the killings of black sol-
diers, but the information presented there is derived from the titles mentioned
The belated and marginal treatment of the massacres of 1940 is stunning,
considering that they were well known at the time. A French radio broadcast
shortly after the liberation of France stated that murders of African POWs had
been “common currency” during the German campaign of 1940.9 German
wartime publications, without openly admitting the atrocities, made unmistak-
able allusions to them.10 But it seems that this knowledge soon fell below the
radar of public and scholarly perception. French scholarship on the traumatic
defeat of 1940 and the following Vichy period was slow in coming, and the

David Killingray, “Africans and African Americans in Enemy Hands,” in Prisoners
of War and Their Captors in World War II, ed. Bob Moore and Kent Fedorowich
(Oxford and Washington, DC, 1996), 181–204.
Julien Fargettas, “Le massacre des soldats du 25ème Régiment de Tirailleurs Sé-
négalais Région lyonnaise—19 et 20 juin 1940,” 2 vols. (Mémoire de maı̂trise, Uni-
versité de Saint-Etienne, 2000). For a summary of some aspects of the thesis, see Julien
Fargettas, “Les tirailleurs sénégalais dans la campagne de mai–juin 1940,” in Les
troupes de marine dans l’Armée de terre: Un siècle d’histoire, ed. Centre d’études
d’histoire de la défense ([Paris], 2001), 137–48.
Janet G. Vaillant, Black, French, and African: A Life of Léopold Sédar Senghor
(Cambridge, MA, 1990), 166–67; Jacques L. Hymans, Léopold Sédar Senghor: An
Intellectual Biography (Edinburgh, 1971), 109.
Clarence Lusane, Hitler’s Black Victims: The Historical Experiences of Afro-Ger-
mans, European Blacks, Africans, and African Americans in the Nazi Era (New York,
2002); Robert W. Kesting, “Blacks under the Swastika: A Research Note,” Journal of
Negro History 83 (1998): 84–99; Robert W. Kesting, “The Black Experience during
the Holocaust,” in The Holocaust and History: The Known, the Unknown, the Disputed,
and the Reexamined, ed. Michael Berenbaum and Abraham J. Peck (Bloomington, IN,
and Indianapolis, 1998), 358–65.
“It has become known since then [1940] that these killings were common currency
on the French front.” SHAT 34 N 1081: “Notice sur le Capitaine Indigène Charles
Der Feldzug in Frankreich: 10. Mai–23. Juni 1940 (n.p., n.d. [1940?]), and Mit
dem Generalkommando XXXX. A.K. vom Rhein zum Atlantik: Feldzug gegen Frankreich
(n.p., n. d. [1940?]), both from the library of the Bundesarchiv-Militärarchiv.
328 Scheck

prevailing image of the Wehrmacht in West Germany, as presented in the

memoirs of generals and the popular press, drew a strict line between atrocities
committed by the SS and the alleged professionalism and fairness of the Wehr-
macht.11 The condition and accessibility of archival resources may also have
discouraged scholarly research into the matter: the incomplete and damaged
German divisional records became available to the public only in the late
1960s, and it took until the early 1980s before France opened its military
documents for 1940.12 Although there were always doubters in Germany and
elsewhere, the paradigm of the “clean” Wehrmacht has vanished in scholarship
only recently, and it may still be quite strong among a minority of Germans,
as some angry reactions to the famous exhibit The Crimes of the Wehrmacht
suggest.13 In recent years, the pathbreaking works on the German army’s com-
plicity in racial crimes have understandably focused on the Soviet Union,
where the greatest atrocities took place and where the German army can be
linked to the implementation of the Holocaust. Even the Wehrmacht exhibit
excluded the 1940 campaign in France (while giving short shrift to Wehrmacht
crimes in Poland in 1939).14
France had begun mobilizing West African soldiers as early as the 1850s,
and the Tirailleurs Sénégalais played an important role in the expansion and
policing of the French empire in Africa. Given France’s increasing demo-
graphic weakness in comparison to Germany, the thought of raising a large
army of black Africans in the defense of the French mainland became more
attractive in the first years of the twentieth century. An energetic officer, Gen-
eral Charles Mangin, propagated the notion of the “inborn” fighting virtues of
the natives of French West Africa and inspired the mobilization of over
160,000 Tirailleurs Sénégalais during the First World War.15 With France’s

For an excellent survey of the debate on the crimes of the Wehrmacht, see Jean
Solchany, “La lente dissipation d’une légende: La ‘Wehrmacht’ sous le regard de
l’histoire,” Revue d’Histoire Moderne et Contemporaine 47 (2000): 323–53. The clas-
sic work on Vichy is Henry Russo, The Vichy Syndrome: History and Memory in France
since 1944, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge, MA, 1991).
For the French documents, see Echenberg, Colonial Conscripts, 87.
Ulrich Herbert, ed. Nationalsozialistische Vernichtungspolitik 1939–1945: Neue
Forschungen und Kontroversen (Frankfurt am Main, 1998); Wolfram Wette, Die Wehr-
macht: Feindbilder, Vernichtungskrieg, Legenden, 2nd ed. (Frankfurt am Main, 2002),
262–67. The exhibition The Crimes of the Wehrmacht was shown in most German
and Austrian cities from 1995 to 2004.
Hannes Heer and Klaus Naumann, eds. Vernichtungskrieg: Verbrechen der Wehr-
macht 1941 bis 1944 (Hamburg, 1995). For war crimes in Poland, see Alexander Ros-
sino, Hitler Strikes Poland: Blitzkrieg, Ideology, and Atrocity (Lawrence, KS, 2003).
Marc Michel, “Colonisation et défense nationale: Le Général Mangin et la force
noire,” Guerres mondiales et conflits contemporains 37 (1987): 27–44; Echenberg,
Colonial Conscripts, 25–46; Fargettas, “Les tirailleurs sénégalais,” 138. For the most
German Massacres of Black Soldiers in 1940 329

own manpower shortage exacerbated by the losses of this war, Mangin was
allowed to broaden his efforts after 1918. The introduction of a conscription
system for French West Africa in 1919 assured a steady supply of Tirailleurs
Sénégalais, who were used as occupation troops in the German Rhineland and
in the French Levant. In the campaign of May–June 1940, approximately
sixty-six thousand Tirailleurs Sénégalais experienced combat in France to-
gether with a small number of other black Africans from Madagascar and
French Equatorial Africa, where recruiting efforts were much less organized
than in West Africa.16 Whereas some Tirailleurs belonged to African regiments
with predominantly white officers (Régiments de Tirailleurs Sénégalais
[RTS]), others were integrated with white soldiers from France into mixed
regiments (Régiments d’Infanterie Coloniale Mixtes Sénégalais [RICMS]),
also led mostly by white officers. Although the conscription system was widely
resented in French West Africa and although Africans sometimes encountered
prejudice and racism from white French officers, the Tirailleurs Sénégalais
were reliable troops determined to defend France. Some Tirailleur Sénégalais
regiments had acquired a reputation for heroic fighting in the First World War
and in the wars against Moroccan warlords and rebels in the 1920s.17
The Germans encountered some Tirailleurs Sénégalais in the first phase of
their offensive, which involved the encirclement and defeat of large Allied
forces in Belgium and northern France (May 10–June 4, 1940), but massacres
of black POWs are not widely reported from this period. The exception was
the killing of wounded Tirailleurs in and near Aubigny, a village on the left
bank of the Somme River about ten kilometers east of Amiens. The Germans
had occupied Aubigny on their way to the English Channel, but units of the
Twenty-fourth RTS had retaken it on May 23. The next day, the Germans
fought their way back into the village and shot fifty wounded Tirailleurs whom
the French had left behind.18 French battle reports indicate more killing of

detailed treatment, see Marc Michel, L’appel à l’Afrique: Contributions et réactions à

l’effort de guerre en A.O.F. (1914–1919) (Paris, 1982).
The overall number of Tirailleurs Sénégalais deployed in France between Septem-
ber 3, 1939, and June 25, 1940, was 100,000, but around one-third of them were still
in training or in transit when the armistice took effect; see “Troupes Coloniales en
1939–1940: La mobilisation et la période d’attente,” L’Ancre d’Or Bazeilles, no. 256
(1990), 27–38. For a list of soldiers mobilized in France’s colonies in 1939–40, see
Fargettas, “Le massacre des soldats,” 2:26. Altogether, over 122,000 people were mo-
bilized in French West Africa before the armistice, including 9,622 Europeans (mostly
officers). The Tirailleurs Sénégalais made up the lion’s share of the colonial troops
(275,354 men, total), followed by the Indo-Chinese units (88,898 men).
Jean de Pradel de Lamaze and Paul Devautour, “L’armée d’Afrique dans la guerre
1914–1918 et les campagnes d’après-guerre (1918–1939),” in L’armée d’Afrique
(1830–1962), ed. Robert Huré (Paris, 1977), 263–307.
SHAT 34 N 1097: “Rapport sur la capture et la captivité. Médecin-Lt. Hollecker.”
330 Scheck

wounded Tirailleurs in the following three days while heavy fighting continued
in this area.19
The vast majority of black POWs, however, were killed during the second
phase of the campaign, which started with the German attack across the
Somme River in northern France (June 5) and ended with the armistice twenty
days later. Tirailleurs Sénégalais were holding several sectors of the Weygand
Line, the new defensive position from the Somme to the Maginot Line that
the French Army Command had prepared after the disaster in Belgium and
northern France. When the Germans stormed across the Somme, they encoun-
tered resolute opposition, not least from the Tirailleurs Sénégalais. Strong-
points of Tirailleur resistance were ruthlessly bombarded by artillery and
flamethrowers, and, where this was impracticable, German units tracked down
and killed the Tirailleurs one by one. There is usually no evidence allowing
us to determine whether any of these Tirailleurs attempted to surrender before
being shot, but it is notable that usually when prisoners were taken during
these “cleansing” operations they were white.20 While this is suspicious
enough, plentiful evidence exists of abuses and murders of Tirailleurs who
became prisoners of the Germans and thus should have enjoyed the protection
of the Geneva convention.
A cluster of massacres happened during the battles on the southern shore of
the Somme in a group of small towns and villages including Airaines, ten to
twenty kilometers west of Amiens. Here the German Second, Sixth, and Forty-
sixth Infantry as well as the Fifth and Seventh Panzer divisions (the latter
under General Erwin Rommel) fought against the Forty-fourth and Fifty-third
RICMS. It took the Germans three days to overwhelm all French resistance in
this area. Already on the first day (June 5), massacres of Tirailleurs occurred.
After conquering the village Hangest-sur-Somme, German troops shot several
black POWs.21 A white French officer later described what happened after he
surrendered with other white officers and an undisclosed number of Tirailleurs
in this area: “The enemy then appears, furious, beside himself, ready to finish

SHAT 34 N 109: “Rapport du Colonel Froissard-Broussia”; CHETOM 15 H 144:
“Les attaques vers la Somme.”
An antitank company of the German Forty-sixth Infantry Division, for example,
was charged with “cleansing” a forest south of the Somme on the evening of June 5.
It reported: “Twenty-seven Tirailleurs Sénégalais were shot, two Frenchmen were taken
prisoner.” BA-MA, RH 26-46/47: “46 Division. Abendmeldung der Abteilung Panzer-
jäger 52,” June 5, 1940. For similar descriptions, see BA-MA, RH 26-46/47: “46 Di-
vision. Abendmeldung der Abteilung Panzerjäger 52,” June 5, 1940; and BA-MA, RH
26-46/4 Anlagen zum KTB Nr. 3 (27.12.1939-6.6.1940): “An Flakabteilung 37. Ge-
SHAT 34 N 1079: “Rapport du Capitaine Campos-Hugueney.” See also Echenberg,
Colonial Conscripts, 94.
German Massacres of Black Soldiers in 1940 331

us off all together. An extremely engaged intervention by a German officer

prevents the troops from executing the European officers, but there was no
indigenous man alive anymore after a few moments.”22 A physician from the
Fifty-third RICMS reported that the Germans gave the black prisoners no food
for several days, although the blacks received some bread smuggled to them
from the rations of white French POWs.23 Still, on June 7 a captured French
lieutenant learned that the Germans had undressed several Tirailleurs and killed
them with their coupe-coupes, the customary bush knives of West African
soldiers. A German officer told the lieutenant and other captured French of-
ficers that “from noon on no Senegalese would be taken prisoner anymore”
because they had shot at dispersed Germans—which was not a war crime.24
In several instances, black prisoners were shot when they fell behind on a
march to an assembly point or when they stepped too far outside the marching
column.25 Obviously, trigger-happy German soldiers interpreted such incidents
as escape attempts. Their strictness with black soldiers contrasts with the lar-
gesse shown toward white French prisoners, who often found it easy to escape.
In the area east and south of Amiens, another cluster of abuses and massacres
occurred. Here the Twenty-fourth RTS, which had fought at Aubigny in May,
and the Sixteenth RTS defeated a strong German attack on June 5 but were
pushed southward on the following days, until the unit was surrounded and
largely destroyed near the village of Erquinvillers, about twenty-five kilome-
ters east of Beauvais, on June 8–9. German patrols pursued dispersed Tirail-
leurs and shot many of them on the night of June 9–10. One white officer
described the capture of his group during that night: “The Germans separated
us [the white officers] immediately from the indigenous [soldiers], who were
led in the opposite direction; a little later, I heard rapid salvos of an automatic
weapon coming from the direction where they had disappeared.”26 Another
white officer described a similar scene nearby: “The Europeans . . . had to sit
in front of a ravine under the barrels of machine guns while about fifty sur-
viving Tirailleurs were led to a nearby place and shot with a machine gun. We,
the officers, were able to confirm this later when we were led onto trucks that
drove us toward captivity.”27 How many black POWs were killed in the region
of Erquinvillers was impossible to determine because it proved difficult to
distinguish between Tirailleurs killed while trying to break through to the south
and those killed after having surrendered. A cautious French document states

SHAT 34 N 1079: “Rapport du Sous-Lt. Joseph Latour.”
SHAT 34 N 1081: “Rapport du Médecin T. C. Bonne.”
SHAT 34 N 1079: “Rapport du Lieutenant Pottier.”
SHAT 34 N 1081: “Rapport du Chef de Bataillon Costa”; and SHAT 34 N 1079:
“Compte rendu d’évasion, Sergeant Binet (5–10 juin 1940).”
SHAT 34 N 1097: “Rapport du Lt. Michaël Dhoste.”
SHAT 34 N 1097: “Rapport du Commandant Benezet.”
332 Scheck

that around 150 black POWs and 6 white officers in charge of them were shot,
but other French inquiries put the figure at 400–500 murdered West Africans.28
In the days following this battle, the French defenses began to collapse and
the Germans advanced rapidly toward the south. Paris surrendered without a
fight on June 14, and three days later the new French prime minister, Marshal
Philippe Pétain, called for an armistice. Eyewitness accounts prove a continued
pattern of threats, abuses, and massacres as Tirailleurs Sénégalais fell into
German hands during these last days of the campaign. Approximately one
hundred black POWs, many of them wounded, were murdered after the Ger-
man Eighteenth Army destroyed the Twenty-sixth RTS in the département
Eure west of Paris on June 16.29 Other massacres happened on the following
days in the départments Yonne and Côte d’Or (southeast of Paris), in the town
Clamecy (Nièvre), and in Lorraine.30 In most cases the Tirailleurs had resisted
before being captured, but there are also examples of killings without any
previous resistance. In the town Sillé-le-Guillaume near Le Mans, for example,
the Germans on June 19 shot fourteen Tirailleurs belonging to a colonial ar-
tillery unit that had not seen any combat. The Tirailleurs were separated from
the other POWs assembled in the center of town, led away, and shot near a
railroad bridge.31
The best-researched massacre of Tirailleurs Sénégalais took place in some
villages northwest of Lyon on June 19 and 20. Here units of the Twenty-fifth
RTS, which had been formed only a short time before and had not seen major
combat, decided to make a last stand defending a road leading to Lyon. The
unit commanders knew that France had been defeated and that negotiations
for a peaceful surrender of Lyon were under way, but they deemed resistance
necessary for reasons of honor. Fargettas shows that the Tirailleurs were asked
by their officers whether they would agree to fight to the last—which they all
did—in defiance of a withdrawal order issued by their army command.32 Sev-

For this number, see Lawler, Soldiers of Misfortune, 95–96. The lower number
comes from CHETOM 15 H 144, dossier 7.
See the testimonies by Avenel, Coutures, and Taillefer-Grimaldi in SHAT 34 N
1099; see also Maurice Rives and Robert Dietrich, Héros méconnus, 1914–1918,
1939–1945 (Paris, 1990), 179–81.
Maurice Rives, “Les combattants de l’honneur (1),” L’Ancre d’Or, no. 260 (1991),
27–38; Archives communales de la ville de Clamecy, 4 H 55, 4 H 56, and 1 M 49.
For the massacres in Lorraine, see nn. 78–79 below.
André Hu and Frank Tourel, “Informations sur le massacre des soldats sénégalais
à Sillé le Guillaume le 19 juin 1940,” unpublished manuscript, SHAT.
Fargettas, “Le massacre des soldats,” 2:74–75. Considering Lawler’s interviews
(see Soldiers of Misfortune), however, we have to wonder whether the Tirailleurs, who
were often kept in the dark about the general situation, fully understood the hopeless-
ness of the plan.
German Massacres of Black Soldiers in 1940 333

eral battalions of the Twenty-fifth RTS engaged German units in a fierce battle
but were overwhelmed after a few hours. At least fifty survivors were murdered
on June 19 and 20.33 The German units fighting in this region were the SS
“Totenkopf” Division, which did not formally belong to the Wehrmacht, and
the Großdeutschland Infantry Regiment. Help was also given by tanks dis-
patched from the Tenth Panzer Division, which was approaching Lyon from
the northeast.34 Some Tirailleurs were tortured before being killed, and in one
case German tanks rolled over the bodies of shot Tirailleurs to make sure there
would be no survivors.35
The German hatred of black Africans continued to manifest itself after the
battles. For example, the Germans frequently seized or destroyed the military
name tags of dead Tirailleurs, thus preventing the identification of the corpses.
Some German units prohibited the burial of dead Tirailleurs Sénégalais; after
the armistice, an ordinance appeared forbidding the marking and decorating
of their graves.36 In one case, German officials even tried to blame the Tirail-
leurs for the death of French civilians during a German bombardment. Jean
Moulin, the prefect of the département Eure-et-Loir who later emerged as a
Resistance leader, was pressured to sign a declaration confirming this lie on
June 17. Moulin refused to do so even under torture and was released only
after he tried to kill himself.37 In the temporary POW camps, black prisoners
often received inadequate food supplies and medical care, and some killings
and physical abuses are reported as well. The situation improved after a few
months, however, when permanent POW camps were established and when
the German government began to consider acquiring a foothold in French West
Africa.38 The black POWs seem to have received better food and treatment

Fargettas, “Le massacre des soldats,” 2:159. The SS “Totenkopf” Division re-
corded having taken three hundred prisoners, mostly blacks. BA-MA, RS 3-3/5: “Be-
treff: Kurzer Bericht. 21.6.1940. Von SS-Hauptsturmführer und Kompagniechef Kuntz,”
and “Gefechtsbericht vom 20.6.1940.” Azéma (in “Le choc armé,” 111) speaks of
nearly one thousand killed but gives no evidence for this. If we include the Tirailleurs
killed in battle, this number may be appropriate.
Albert Schick, Die 10. Panzer-Division 1939–1943 (Cologne, 1993), 231–32.
It is unclear whether these were tanks of the Tenth Panzer Division or of the SS
“Totenkopf” division. The latter, although an infantry division, had some Skoda tanks
from captured Czechoslovakian stocks. See Truppenkameradschaft der 3. SS-Panzer-
division and Wolfgang Vopersal, eds., Soldaten, Kämpfer, Kameraden: Marsch und
Kämpfe der SS-Totenkopf-Division, 5 vols. (Bielefeld, 1983–), 1:119.
CHETOM 15 H 144: “Stadtkommandantur Marcelcave”; and Fargettas, “Le mas-
sacre des soldats,” 2:99–100, 114–15.
See Moulin’s report, cited in Pierre Péan, Vies et morts de Jean Moulin: Eléments
d’une biographie (Paris, 1998), 232–43.
See Norman Goda, Tomorrow the World: Hitler, Northwest Africa, and the Path
334 Scheck

than white prisoners for a while.39 Thousands of Tirailleurs were released from
the POW camps in the course of the war, most because of illness. One of them
was Léopold Senghor, who obtained release in 1942 with the help of friends
and a French doctor.40 Still, many black POWs perished in the camps or after
dismissal, mostly because of pulmonary disease. To what extent bad treatment
exacerbated the West Africans’ vulnerability to disease is unclear, however.41
* * *
When trying to determine why the massacres of black POWs happened, we
first have to consider that the Wehrmacht in May and June 1940 did not have
an order that, like Hitler’s notorious Kommissarbefehl of 1941 against the
political commissars of the Red Army, decreed the execution of a specific
group of prisoners. The German army command had distributed the text of the
Geneva convention to all units in August 1939, and the guidelines for the
treatment of POWs in German divisional records for 1940 reiterated those
principles without singling out African prisoners.42 Specific orders on black
POWs were issued in some units, but they only warned of the “perfidious”
fighting methods of the blacks and asked that black prisoners be strictly
guarded and treated “with the greatest rigor.”43 These orders may help to ex-
plain the ruthlessness with which German soldiers attacked Tirailleur strong-
holds and some of the cruelty toward black POWs, but they implied that cap-
tured black soldiers would be led to the rear, not shot on the spot. It had been

toward America, Texas A&M University Military History Series, no. 57 (College Sta-
tion, TX, 1998); and Vaillant, Black, French, and African, 180. See also SHAT 34 N
1090: “Rapport d’Evasion du Lt. de la réserve Fall, Papa Gueyé (29.1.1941),” and
“Compte-rendu d’évasion. Sous-Lt. Philippe, Émile. 7.9.1940,” in the same folder.
See SHAT 34 N 1090: the testimonies by Philippe Vergez and Gueyé Fall. Some
black POWs had been transported to camps in Germany, but most of them were returned
to France by the end of 1940. See Yves Durand, La captivité: Histoire des prisonniers
de guerre français, 1939–1945 (Paris, 1982), 58–60.
Vaillant, Black, French, and African, 177; Hymans, Léopold Sédar Senghor, 112.
Vaillant claims he was released in February; Hymans says June.
Echenberg, Colonial Conscripts, 96–97; Durand, La captivité, 59; Hélène de Gobi-
neau, Noblesse d’Afrique (Paris, 1946), 12, 99–102. For an example of the ambiguity
regarding numbers, see Killingray, “Africans and African Americans in Enemy Hands,”
181, 190. The discrepancies in the available data forbid precise statements on the death
rate of black POWs after the campaign. After comparing all numbers, I conclude that
there are between one thousand and four thousand unaccounted-for black POWs.
See, e.g., BA-MA, RH 26-4/17: “Gefangenen-Abschub”; BA-MA, RH 26-12/6:
“Merkblatt für Gefangenenwesen, 5.6.1940”; and BA-MA, RH 26-27/4: “Besondere
Anordnungen für die Versorgung” (with instructions on the treatment of POWs, late
May 1940). But German orders stated that armed civilians had to be treated according
to court-martial rules: BA-MA, RH 26-11/3: “Tagesbefehl Nr. 9,” April 9, 1940.
BA-MA, RH 26-4/16, p. 1 (burned sheet); and Bruge, Juin 1940, 118.
German Massacres of Black Soldiers in 1940 335

customary in World War I to shoot POWs in revenge for war crimes committed
by the enemy, but such reprisals were forbidden by article 2 of the Geneva
convention. The treatment of captured Tirailleurs Sénégalais therefore de-
pended on individual commanders.
In making their decisions, German commanders must have found it difficult,
maybe impossible, to negate the influence of a tradition that defined armed
black men as cruel savages and illegitimate combatants. Already during the
colonial wars in Namibia and East Africa in 1904–7, the German army had
circulated (mostly fabricated) stories of Africans having mutilated German
soldiers and settlers. These atrocity stories served to justify the harshest pos-
sible repression of Africans—even genocide.44 In World War I, German pro-
paganda denounced the use of “wild” Africans in a war among allegedly “civ-
ilized” Europeans and accused the Tirailleurs Sénégalais of having mutilated
German prisoners and dead soldiers.45 Although no massacres of black POWs
similar in scale to those of 1940 are known from the First World War, there is
evidence that German soldiers shot some captured Tirailleurs, probably in
retaliation for killings of German prisoners.46 Later, the presence of Tirailleurs
Sénégalais in the French occupation army in the Rhineland triggered a histri-
onic German press campaign suggesting that the French had let loose “unciv-
ilized hordes” of rapists and perverts on the German population (the “Black
Horror on the Rhine”). That many alleged crimes lacked corroborating evi-
dence did not undermine the power of the accusations.47 Radical rightists in
Germany spoke of a “Negroized France” that needed to draft Africans to make
up for its weaknesses (such as abundant hedonism and a low birthrate) and
that would further degenerate through racial mixing.48 The Nazis, who placed

Horst Drechsler, Let Us Die Fighting: The Struggle of the Herero and Nama
against German Imperialism (1884–1915), trans. Bernd Zöllner (London, 1980), 146;
Helmut Walser Smith, “The Talk of Genocide, the Rhetoric of Miscegenation: Notes
on Debates in the German Reichstag Concerning Southwest Africa, 1904–1914,” in
The Imperialist Imagination: German Colonialism and Its Legacy, ed. Sara Friedrichs-
meyer, Sara Lennox, and Susanne Zantop (Ann Arbor, MI, 1998), 107–23, at 112–13.
Echenberg, Colonial Conscripts, 33–35.
Joe Lunn, Memoirs of the Maelstrom: A Senegalese Oral History of the First World
War (Portsmouth, NH, 1999), 136.
Sally Marks, “Black Watch on the Rhine: A Study in Propaganda, Prejudice, and
Prurience,” European Studies Review 13 (1983): 297–334; Keith Nelson, “‘The Black
Horror on the Rhine’; Race as a Factor in Post–World War I Diplomacy,” Journal of
Modern History 42 (1970): 606–27; Gisela Lebzelter, “Die ‘Schwarze Schmach’: Vor-
urteile—Propaganda—Mythos,” Geschichte und Gesellschaft 11 (1985): 37–58; Rai-
ner Pommerin, Sterilisierung der Rheinlandbastarde: Das Schicksal einer farbigen
Minderheit 1918–1937 (Düsseldorf, 1979).
See, e.g., Käthe Schirmacher, “Frankreichs farbige Truppen,” in Frauenkorres-
pondenz der DNVP 7, no. 51. July 13, 1925; and Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, trans.
336 Scheck

black Africans very low on their racial hierarchy, fanned the flames of the
“Black Horror” campaign and secretly sterilized the mixed-race children from
the period of the French occupation of the Rhineland after taking power in
1933. By this time, Nazi control of the media ensured that the voices opposing
the demonization of black soldiers had lost all public outlets in Germany.49
Many German officers and soldiers preparing for the attack on France therefore
had been confronted with images that cast the black soldiers of the French
army as mutilating “savages” who would not respect the Geneva convention
and in turn did not deserve to be protected by it.
During the western campaign of 1940, a German propaganda offensive dra-
matically revived these images as part of a psychological warfare campaign.
In an effort “to fill the German people with anger and hate against France
within two weeks,” Minister for Propaganda Joseph Goebbels issued two di-
rectives to the German media on May 29 and 30, respectively, aiming to renew
memories of the “Black Horror” and to denounce France’s use of colonial
troops in the war.50 A look at the Völkischer Beobachter, the official newspaper
of the Nazi Party, reveals that Goebbels’s directives were immediately put into
action. On May 30 the paper charged the French with the murder of defenseless
German prisoners and threatened retribution particularly against West African
soldiers, called “black animals clothed in khaki by the French”: “We will no
longer tolerate that German soldiers have their throats cut by colored soldiers
. . . and that our wounded are murdered in bestial ways. . . . These murderous
beasts will find no pardon.”51 Similar stories appeared in other newspapers,
the radio, and the weekly newsreels shown in German cinemas over the fol-
lowing days. Some German prisoners, mostly aviators, had indeed been mis-
handled by French civilians or soldiers, including Moroccans, but in no case
were West Africans involved.52
The biweekly statements on public opinion compiled by the German Se-
curity Service (SD) suggest that Goebbels’s campaign met with overwhelming
and immediate success. As early as June 3, the SD concluded on the basis of
local reports from the previous three days that “the hatred of the population,

Ludwig Lore (New York, 1939), 625–26. This argument had already circulated in
France before 1914 as well. See Echenberg, Colonial Conscripts, 28.
Pommerin, Sterilisierung, 77–84. See also Alexandre Kum’a N’dumbé III, Hitler
voulait l’Afrique: Les plans secrets pour une Afrique fasciste, 1933–1945 (Paris, 1980).
Willi A. Boelcke, ed., Kriegspropaganda 1939–1941: Geheime Ministerkonfe-
renzen im Reichspropagandaministerium (Stuttgart, 1966), 368–70.
“So führt das ‘ritterliche’ Frankreich Krieg. Augenzeugen berichten; Französische
Morde an Wehrlosen; Harte Vergeltung ist diesem Abschaum der ‘Grande Nation’
gewiß!” Völkischer Beobachter 53, no. 151 (May 30, 1940): 4.
Alfred-Maurice de Zayas, The Wehrmacht War Crimes Bureau, 1939–1945 (Lin-
coln, NE, 1990), 147–51.
German Massacres of Black Soldiers in 1940 337

which so far has primarily targeted England, begins to turn with full force on
France, too. This is because of the news about the atrocities committed by
French colonial troops.” A report from East Prussia says, “The repeated news
on the radio about the murder and abuse of German prisoners by the French,
particularly by colored troops, has infused the entire population with amazing
anger and boundless hate.” A report from Innsbruck, Austria, detected over-
whelming popular desire for “the most ruthless revenge for these crimes.”53
One typical reaction was, “These black beasts should be shot after being cap-
Given that German civilians expressed such massive rage and called for the
killing of black POWs already in the first days of June, it is plausible that
officers and soldiers exposed to this propaganda had a similar reaction. Many
members of the Wehrmacht read the Völkischer Beobachter and heard the radio
programs that so impressed people at home. They did have some time to read
and listen to the radio while preparing for the offensives unleashed on June 5
on the lower Somme and on June 9 in other sectors. German army documents
from the campaign mirror all the elements of Goebbels’s propaganda. Descrip-
tions of combat with black soldiers are full of racist projections. An account
from the Sixth Infantry Division, for example, describes house-to-house com-
bat on the Somme on June 5:

In one house Private Apke wants to search the basement with his pistol in his hand
when a Negro jumps on him out of the dark and hits him three times with his bayonet.
Apke, having received only a light neck wound, drops the pistol and takes the gun from
the black man in a wrestling match. He rams the bayonet through the black man’s chest.
The wounded man screams and grabs Apke, trying to bite through his throat. Apke
liberates himself from the huge Negro only with great difficulty. Still reeling and
wounded from this fight, he calls his comrades. A hand grenade finishes off the Negro.55

In this as in many similar documents, the black soldier appears as a biting

beast of prey, a monkey hiding in trees, or a snake slithering through the
underbrush of a forest.56
The German prejudice also manifested itself in angry reproaches that Ger-
man officers directed at captured French officers who commanded black units.

Heinz Boberach, ed., Meldungen aus dem Reich 1938–1945: Die geheimen La-
geberichte des Sicherheitsdienstes der SS, vol. 4, Meldungen aus dem Reich Nr. 66 vom
15. März 1940–Nr. 101 vom 1. Juli 1940 (Herrsching, 1984), 1207.
Ibid., 1222, 1238–39.
BA-MA, RH 26-6/108: “Gefecht an der Somme am 5.6.1940.”
See, e.g., CHETOM 16 H 339: Die Wehrmacht, November 6, 1940, 21–22; and
Hans Schaefer, Division Sintzenich: Erlebnisberichte aus dem Feldzuge in Frankreich
1940 (Frankfurt am Main, n.d.), 172, 184.
338 Scheck

Usually the German interrogators expressed outrage over France’s use of “sav-
ages” in its army. A white officer from the Twenty-sixth RTS, quite typically,
was threatened with execution when the Germans who captured him found out
that he commanded a black unit. A German officer told him, “Your dirty
Negroes are savages who do not take prisoners and mutilate the German sol-
diers before killing them.”57 Another commander from this unit was asked by
the Germans, “Why do you wage war with savages, with Negroes?” When he
answered that the Africans fought for France because France had brought them
civilization, a German general became outraged over the word “civilization”
and claimed that a German officer had just been mutilated by Tirailleurs.58
When the commandant of the Twenty-fourth RTS protested against the physi-
cal abuse of captured Tirailleurs, a German corporal exclaimed, “They are just
savages.” The commandant replied that if there were savages nearby they were
to be found elsewhere than among the Tirailleurs—a courageous answer given
that he, too, had been threatened with execution.59
Not surprisingly, the racist images of black soldiers were most powerful in
units particularly committed to Nazi ideology. This is true for the SS “Toten-
kopf” Division and the Großdeutschland Infantry Regiment. The core of the
SS “Totenkopf” Division had been drafted from SS guards of concentration
camps such as Dachau and Buchenwald, and the Großdeutschland Regiment
was an elite unit previously charged with guard duty in the government center
of Berlin. The regimental documents recall with pride that Hitler himself once
called the Großdeutschland the “guard regiment of the German people.” The
war diaries of both units reveal a particularly vehement hatred of black soldiers.
The Großdeutschland was involved in the massacres near Erquinvillers and
Lyon, and the SS “Totenkopf” Division shared responsibility for the killings
near Lyon and possibly for some massacres in the départements Côte d’Or and
The stereotype of the mutilating black soldier, revived and reinforced by
Nazi propaganda in the midst of the French campaign, was certainly important
in motivating the killing of black POWs. Yet it cannot be the complete expla-
nation, because it fails to account for the inconsistency of the German actions.

SHAT 34 N 1099: “Rapport du Lt. Coutures.”
SHAT 34 N 1099: “Circonstances dans lesquelles le Capitaine Chouanière Paul
adjutant major au 3ème batallion du 26ème Régiment de Tirailleurs a été fait prisonnier
le 17 juin 1940 à Ermenonville la Petite.”
SHAT 34 N 1097: “Rapport du Colonel Amadée Fabre, ex-commandant du 24ème
See BA-MA, RS 3-3/2, 4, and 5; and, for the Großdeutschland Regiment, BA-
MA, RH 37, vols. 6327, 6328, 6335, 6392. I have found evidence for many smaller
massacres of black POWs along the route of the SS “Totenkopf ” Division but cannot
yet ascertain whether this unit had committed them.
German Massacres of Black Soldiers in 1940 339

Given that fifteen thousand to twenty thousand Tirailleurs Sénégalais were in

German POW camps at the end of the campaign, we can conclude that, overall,
West Africans were more likely to be taken prisoner than to be killed. The fact
that French officers report so many arguments with German officers about the
treatment of the Tirailleurs—and disagreements among the Germans them-
selves—confirms the inconsistency in treatment, which is also how West Af-
rican veterans remembered their experiences.61 Even in battle areas where
many massacres occurred, some Tirailleurs were being taken prisoner without
any abuses. An announcement by one German unit that all Tirailleurs would
be shot after noontime on June 7 near Airaines, for example, was ignored by
other units in the same sector.62 Sometimes French officers averted a massacre
by showing German soldiers the wounds of Tirailleurs Sénégalais. In the night
of massacres near Erquinvillers, a German soldier who had been a missionary
in Africa even stepped in to prevent a comrade from throwing a hand grenade
into a basement occupied by wounded Tirailleurs, and German soldiers then
helped the French physician to carry the wounded men to safety.63 In some
cases, French officers and physicians specifically commented on the good treat-
ment of black POWs. A physician from the Twelfth RTS, for example, noted
after being captured with many Tirailleurs in Lorraine, “The Tirailleurs are
treated the same way as the Europeans—with great consideration.” Of the
soldiers guarding the POWs, he wrote, “They are very correct; there is no
incident with the Senegalese.”64
The inconsistencies in the treatment of black prisoners suggest that situa-
tional factors, in combination with widespread prejudice, helped to trigger the
massacres. Could the mutilation of a German prisoner have been such a situ-
ational factor? In many cases, starting with the massacre in Aubigny on May
24, German officers justified the killing of black POWs by claiming that Tir-
ailleurs Sénégalais had mutilated German soldiers with their coupe-coupes.
Whether these allegations were true is hard to determine. White French officers
usually claimed that they belonged to “the realm of absurd legend,” as one of
them protested to his German captors.65 Veterans from Ivory Coast vehemently
rejected the charges, but one of the testimonies quoted by Lawler denied only
the mutilation of dead Germans while admitting cases of torture: “It is a totem
of war that you cannot take anything [from a dead soldier]. You could hurt the
enemy while he is alive—put nails through his hand before he is dead. That

Lawler, Soldiers of Misfortune, 98–99.
SHAT 34 N 1079: “Rapport du Lieutenant Pottier.”
SHAT 34 N 1097: “Rapport sur la capture et la captivité. Médecin-Lt. Hollecker,”
SHAT 34 N 1090: “Rapport de captivité et d’évasion du Médecin-Lieutenant Ver-
gez, Roger-Jacques.”
SHAT 34 N 1099: “Rapport du Lt. Coutures.”
340 Scheck

I did see happen. C’est la guerre [That is war]. The Germans took our men
and killed many of them. The French didn’t let us kill Germans when we
captured them. We had to keep them alive.”66 Occasionally, white French of-
ficers claimed that they prevented the abuse of German POWs by black troops.
On June 6, for example, two severely wounded German soldiers who had been
captured in Airaines became hysterical when they realized that they were
guarded by a Tirailleur Sénégalais. A French lieutenant reported, “I have to
say that I had to intervene with vehemence in order to prevent a Tirailleur with
a coupe-coupe in his hand from cutting off their heads.”67
While the available documentation makes it impossible to refute the German
accusations completely, there is reason to believe that they were inflated. We
have to consider that many encounters between Germans and Tirailleurs Sé-
négalais involved close combat in houses, bushes, or forests. The bayonet and,
naturally, the coupe-coupe were best suited for this. Killing the enemy with
these weapons made no noise that might have betrayed the defender and his
holdout.68 A long and heavy knife, wielded by a soldier in anticipation of
imminent death, would inflict severe cuts on the enemy similar to the effects
of deliberate mutilations. Many German soldiers found with the alleged mu-
tilations may have been killed in close combat with Tirailleurs Sénégalais using
their coupe-coupes. There was nothing illegal about this, and the coupe-coupe
was neither deadlier nor more “barbarous” than other weapons used in close
combat. Yet German officers and soldiers so much associated this weapon with
mutilations that the mere finding of coupe-coupes could enrage them and spark
abuses of black POWs.69 When German officers or soldiers found a dead com-
rade with a body part cut off they usually made no effort to investigate the
circumstances of his death. It would have been crucial, though difficult, to
ascertain whether a soldier had been killed after having surrendered or in the
course of combat. Only the first case would have constituted a war crime. Yet

Quoted in Lawler, Soldiers of Misfortune, 96.
SHAT 34 N 1081: “Rapport du Lt. Léon Bouzou: 5-7.6. 1940.” Some Tirailleurs
Sénégalais were drafted from areas in Africa where the ritual decapitation of enemies
belongs to the traditions of warfare and was reported even after 1940. Claude Sterckx,
La tête et les seins: La mutilation rituelle des ennemis et le concept de l’âme (Saar-
brücken, 1981), 79–82.
Black units, having run out of ammunition, repeatedly made suicidal charges with
coupe-coupes. See, e.g., SHAT 34 N 1099: “Relation succincte des combats auxquels
a pris part le régiment du 11 au 22 juin 1940.”
SHAT 34 N 1099: “Rapport du Lieutenant Georges Parisot”; CHETOM 15 H 144:
Robert Long. For an interpretation of the German obsession with the coupe-coupe as
a reflection of the fear of physical and mental fragmentation during and after World
War I, see Sandra Mass, “Das Trauma des weißen Mannes: Afrikanische Kolonialsol-
daten in propagandistischen Texten 1914–1923,” L’Homme: Zeitschrift für feminis-
tische Geschichtswissenschaft 12 (2001): 11–33.
German Massacres of Black Soldiers in 1940 341

the Germans tended to see what they wanted to see, believing that Tirailleurs
Sénégalais always mutilated prisoners with their coupe-coupes. The racist prej-
udice thus endowed this situational factor—the discovery of a dead German
with severe cuts—with a meaning that served to “justify” a massacre of black
Another situational factor increasing the likelihood of massacres was the
French “hedgehog” tactic pursued in the defense of the Weygand Line after
June 5. Rather than striving to hold a continuous line, which had proved di-
sastrous in the first weeks of the campaign, the French now pursued a defense
“in depth.” Wherever French soldiers faced superior German forces, they dug
in and formed so-called hedgehogs in villages, remote castles, and forests.
German tanks and infantry often passed these positions believing that the en-
emy had withdrawn. The remaining French, however, harassed the Germans
from the side and the rear and engaged them in close combat.70 To overwhelm
all the dispersed “hedgehogs,” the Germans had to wage many costly and
drawn-out battles. This form of combat was typical for the fighting around
Airaines and Erquinvillers.
The diaries of German divisions engaged in these areas described the hedge-
hog tactic as outrageous and disruptive, particularly when black units were
involved. A battle report of the German Forty-sixth Infantry Division, fighting
near Airaines, stated on the evening of June 5, 1940, “During the rapid advance
of our infantry south of the Somme, it became distressingly obvious that we
were often threatened from the side or rear because the colonial troops let our
attack roll over them but afterward reappeared and fought tenaciously.”71 In
Erquinvillers, a German officer justified the massacre of Tirailleurs Sénégalais
by placing them on the same level as the franc-tireurs, armed civilians mount-
ing irregular resistance not covered by the laws of war. (German officers had
the right to shoot franc-tireurs.)72 Fear of the Tirailleurs Sénégalais must have
reached almost paranoid levels, as the Germans were fighting against an often
invisible enemy who might hide with his coupe-coupe in a dark corner of a
house, in a ravine, or behind a tree—often at night. But this fear and the rage
accompanying it were inseparable from the demonic images of black soldiers
that many German soldiers carried with them. Troops from mainland France
and British units pursued the same tactic on the same front, but German reports

For a description of this tactic, see Alistair Horne, To Lose a Battle: France, 1940
(London, 1969), 489.
BA-MA, RH 26-46/47: “Abendmeldung am 5.6.”
SHAT 34 N 1097: “Rapport du Lt. Michaël Dhoste.” In the first months of the
First World War, the German army’s obsession with franc-tireurs had induced it to
commit widespread massacres of Belgian and French civilians. See John Horne and
Alan Kramer, German Atrocities, 1914: A History of Denial (New Haven, CT, and
London, 2001).
342 Scheck

about hedgehog positions occupied by white French or British troops usually

depicted their resistance as tough but legitimate.73
A final situational factor was determined French resistance in the last days
of the campaign. After Pétain’s call for an armistice (June 17), many German
soldiers expected that the French army would surrender or withdraw, although
the armistice was not signed until June 22 and took effect only in the morning
hours of June 25. Sometimes German advance patrols after June 17 approached
French defensive positions without cover, assuming that the French would no
longer fire. Yet in many places the French army did mount resistance and
inflicted heavy casualties on overconfident Wehrmacht units, and black troops
were often involved in these battles. Their will to resist had been strengthened
by the rumors they heard about the murder of black prisoners, and their op-
portunities to disengage from the front line were very limited.74 White French
soldiers could slip into civilian clothes and pose as civilians long enough to
get out of the danger zone, but blacks risked being caught as deserters by the
French or being taken prisoner by the Germans. As one French commander
cynically remarked after ordering his white soldiers to change into civilian
clothing while abandoning his black soldiers on a deserted farm, “Putting
civilian clothes on them will not make them white.”75 Moreover, having lost
their white officers, many Tirailleurs simply had no idea where to go. Most of
them knew little French and were ignorant of the local geography and the
position of friendly troops.76 These factors combined to make the Tirailleur
Sénégalais a soldier who often put up a determined defense until the very end.
As a consequence, black and mixed regiments suffered much higher casualty
rates than all-white units throughout the campaign.77
Most massacres of black POWs in the last days of the campaign occurred
in places where Tirailleurs Sénégalais mounted last-ditch resistance and in-
flicted heavy casualties on the Germans. Near Brillon in Lorraine, for example,
the first battalion of the Twelfth RTS found itself in a hopeless situation during
the night of June 15–16. But when the Germans sent emissaries asking its

For an example involving a British unit, see BA-MA, RH 26-12/12: “Divisionsta-
gesbefehl 87 (8.6.1940),” and point 3 of “Feindunterrichtung zum Divisionsbefehl zum
Vormarsch am 7.6.1940.” The sober tone of this report is surprising, given that other
contemporary German military documents passionately denounced “perfidious Al-
bion”—though more typically in the context of politics and naval warfare than in the
context of land war.
For examples of Tirailleurs having heard rumors of massacres, see SHAT 34 N
1081: “Compte Rendu du Cpt. René Brugnet,” and SHAT 34 N 1097: “Rapport du
Colonel Amadée Fabre; ex-commandant du 24ème RTS.”
SHAT 34 N 1081: “Rapport du Sergeant-Chef Maury.”
Lawler, Soldiers of Misfortune, 81, 86.
Ibid., 88; Echenberg, Colonial Conscripts, 95; Bruge, Juin 1940, 118.
German Massacres of Black Soldiers in 1940 343

commander to surrender, the battalion opened fire. After the Germans had
stormed the position, they killed black POWs, including many severely
wounded soldiers.78 Further south, units of the Fourteenth RTS had prepared
defensive positions in the town of Bourmont. A withdrawal order issued by
the French army command failed to reach these soldiers, who thus remained
committed to holding their positions to the last man. Parts of the German Tenth
and Eighty-Sixth Infantry Divisions attacked on June 18 and 19 and conquered
the town at the price of over three hundred casualties. Afterward, the Germans
shot at least thirty black POWs.79 As Fargettas has shown, a similar situation
triggered the massacres northwest of Lyon on June 19 and 20. A German
officer from the Großdeutschland Regiment, at the head of a group of soldiers,
had approached a French roadblock with a white flag and announced (wrongly)
that the armistice had been signed. The Tirailleurs opened fire and killed many
Encountering dogged resistance and suffering heavy casualties at a time
when the campaign had been decided, German soldiers often vented their anger
on their black prisoners. Yet, what German soldiers saw as a perfidious act of
resistance when black troops were involved, they tolerated, even appreciated,
as a fight for the sake of honor when white troops were involved. The much-
celebrated heroic resistance by the mostly white cadets of the officer school
of Saumur on the Loire, for instance, did not lead to a massacre once the
resistance had been overcome. The records of the German First Infantry Di-
vision fighting in Saumur even express respect for the defenders, including
some Arab and Berber sharpshooters.81
* * *
It is understandable that German soldiers, expecting a swift advance follow-
ing the Allied defeat in northern France and Belgium, were angered by the
obstinate French resistance after June 5 that slowed them down and caused
many casualties. The ever-present but rarely visible threat emanating from
“hedgehogs” intensified the normal battle fear, and the occurrence of deter-
mined resistance in the last days of the campaign provoked rage over the
seemingly senseless death of comrades. Such feelings have induced troops to
commit war crimes in other theaters of war—for example, in the Pacific war

Rives and Dietrich, Héros méconnus, 179–81.
SHAT 34 N 1093: “Rapport du Colonel Montangerand” and “Colonel Voillemin”;
see also Archives départementales de la Haute-Marne, Chaumont, 33 Rev. 898: “La
bataille de Bourmont 18–19–20 juin 1940”; and Archives de la Mairie de Bourmont:
“Historique de la bataille de Bourmont.”
Fargettas, “Le massacre des soldats,” 2:104–5. See also Fargettas, “Les Tirailleurs
Sénégalais,” 141.
BA-MA, RH 26-1/102: “Berichte über den Übergang über die Loire.”
344 Scheck

in 1941–45 and in Vietnam.82 Yet all situational factors and the anxiety they
created among the Germans would hardly have been effective without the
ideological prejudices that many German soldiers harbored already and that
were powerfully amplified by Goebbels’s propaganda campaign in late May
and early June. Only in light of their degrading image of black Africans could
members of the Wehrmacht associate Tirailleur resistance with irregular fight-
ing methods while accepting the same kind of resistance when displayed by
white troops. In reality, it was not the legitimacy of the fighting methods that
was at stake but the legitimacy of the people applying them. Even if some of
the accusations of torture and mutilations committed by Tirailleurs were true,
the wholesale revenge and the degrading rules for the burial of black soldiers
reveal a racist prejudice that needed little incentive to erupt in murderous
action—though not by all Germans, as proved by the many reported cases of
decent treatment of black POWs. The record of the SS “Totenkopf” Division
and the strongly Nazified Großdeutschland Infantry Regiment suggests that
devotion to Nazi ideology boosted the willingness to massacre black soldiers.
But regular Wehrmacht units were complicit in these crimes. The massacres
of Tirailleurs Sénégalais in 1940 show that it was possible, with the help of
propaganda and special circumstances, to draw parts of the Wehrmacht into a
kind of racialized warfare even before the war against the Soviet Union, in
which very different situational factors allowed for a much more extreme Nazi
indoctrination of the troops and much more extensive crimes.83

See Christopher Browning’s insightful discussion in Ordinary Men (New York,
1992), 159–89.
Bartov, Hitler’s Army, chaps. 1 and 2. Bartov stresses that in the Soviet Union, the
Germans soon found themselves fighting a better-equipped enemy with old-style trench
warfare and that high casualties rapidly destroyed the Wehrmacht’s primary groups,
whose cohesion has been seen as the key to earlier German successes. These circum-
stances made the German army more susceptible to the alternative structure of cohesion
provided by Nazi ideology, leading to a demonization of the enemy that justified the
worst atrocities. Both of these situational factors were absent in France in 1940, where
the Wehrmacht did not face a technologically superior and better-equipped enemy and
suffered much smaller losses.