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Paris Underground: Subterranean Resistance and the Nazi Occupation

Lion de Belfort, Place Denfert-Rochereau

Written by Nigel Perrin.

Paris’s vast underground spaces have long been associated with revolution, resistance and clandestine activity of all kinds. Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel Les Misérables vividly depicted the city’s sewers (a stratum of the city he researched in some detail) as a literal and metaphorical underworld where criminals, fugitives and the dispossessed lurked under the feet of respectable citizens. But it is the 177 miles of interconnecting tunnels and quarries, commonly referred to as the “Catacombs” (despite only a tiny fraction ever being used to accommodate the dead) that have become suffused with a spirit of resistance. Here government troops pursued the revolutionaries of 1848 and the communards of 1871, and the far-Right Comité secret d’action révolutionnaire (better known as La Cagoule) planned to topple the Popular Front government of the 1930s by infiltrating the foundations of the Senate and other government buildings. In August 1944, the underground played a crucial role in a new uprising. From a disused air-raid shelter in Montparnasse, Henri Rol-Tanguy, the Paris chief of the Forces françaises de l’intérieur (FFI, the combined resistance forces operating under de Gaulle’s leadership), fought to liberate Paris from German occupation. His call to Parisians to rally to the barricades and defeat the oppressor held great cultural and historical resonance, while his heroic leadership came to exemplify the ingenuity and resourcefulness of a lightly-armed resistance against a much larger and better-equipped professional army.

Post-Liberation media coverage depicted the FFI’s command as a model of military orderliness and efficiency: in a re-enactment for a French newsreel released in November 1944, Rol-Tanguy along with his former staff, including his wife and secretary, Cécile, are seen calmly issuing orders while the fighting rages above them. The serendipitous location of Rol-Tanguy’s subterranean headquarters also imbued it with enormous symbolic significance. Just yards away stood the great bronze Lion of Belfort in the centre of Place Denfert-Rochereau, named after the colonel who had defied the Prussian siege of Belfort seventy-three years before. And in 1920 the former tollhouse directly above the bunker had accommodated the coffin of the Unknown Soldier, the night before its transfer to the Arc de Triomphe.

Given the legendary status accorded to Rol-Tanguy, the myth of the underground as the natural domain of resistance has endured. But a closer examination of this long-neglected aspect of Paris under occupation reveals a different picture. Above ground the occupation had reshaped Paris, imposing all kinds of spatial, social, economic, sexual and political restriction. But the spaces beneath it remained largely unregulated, creating a kind of demilitarised shadow of the city, neither extensively policed by the occupiers or Vichy authorities, nor exploited by resistance groups. Despite some unsubstantiated claims to the contrary, only fragmentary evidence exists linking resistance work with the underground. For example, trade unionist Marcel Paul recalled that weekly batches of pistols discarded into the sewers were donated to him by sympathetic sewermen, though often they proved too rusty to be of any use. Gilbert Tomazon, an engineer working for the Paris office of public works, took advantage of his special access to the catacombs to assist the British-backed intelligence network Gloria SMH: it served as a useful hiding place for documents, some of which would be couriered by a more famous member of his group, the playwright Samuel Beckett. Unlike Beckett, Tomazon later was arrested, deported and did not return.

Beyond a handful of similar, apocryphal tales, only one documented case of underground resistance activity really deserves attention. In 1943, a medical student, René Suttel, explored the air-raid shelter in the basement of Sainte-Anne, Paris’s oldest psychiatric hospital, where he was studying. Intrigued by an old locked gate set into the wall, he picked the lock and began exploring the tunnels beyond. Over the course of the following year, Suttel and fellow student Jean Talairach would map out the limestone networks of the Grand réseau sud, the great southern network stretching across four arrondissements of the Left bank. Their nightly explorations resulted in an extraordinarily detailed plan, annotated with numerous entries, exits and shortcuts, along with the unexpected discoveries of sophisticated German air raid shelters constructed under the Jardin du Luxembourg and neighbouring Lycée Montaigne. From the beginning, Suttel later wrote that his intention had always been to produce a plan to aid the work of the resistance. However, it was only in early 1944 that his map was delivered to Rol-Tanguy, and this phenomenal cartographic achievement ultimately did not encourage any underground operations before the insurrection in August. (It is worth noting that Talairach later became better known as the “Talairach Atlas”, a mapping achievement of a wholly different, but in some ways comparable, nature, charting the structure of the human brain.)

The symbol used by Suttel to mark his route [photo: Nigel Perrin]
Why, then, did resistance not flourish underground? Though the cramped nature of the tunnels would have restricted any large-scale undertakings, Rol-Tanguy’s archived papers do not shed any light on the question, though it seems that few were as intrepid and determined as Suttel to explore the potential of these spaces. Even the decision to move the FFI command to the bunker at Place Denfert-Rochereau was the product of last-minute expediency rather than careful planning. Neither does the underground appear to have become a place of refuge: while the celebrated story of Leopold Socha brought to light the hiding of Jews in the Polish city of Lvov (popularised by Agnieszka Holland’s 2011 In Darkness), not a single example of Parisians, Jewish or otherwise, escaping into the tunnels appears to have been recorded. And though metro and sewer workers became actively involved in supporting resistance during the last few days of occupation, no substantial mobilisation of their workforces is evident prior to August 1944. Indeed, the Compagnie du chemin der fer métropolitain de Paris, the company responsible for the running of the metro during the occupation, was quite obedient in its dealings with the Germans, particularly so in its treatment of black and Jewish citizens. Located underneath Place de la Résistance, the city’s sewer museum’s resistance credentials are limited to a few unassuming plaques to deported communist workers.

Since his death in 2002, Rol-Tanguy’s stature as a hero of the Liberation has become firmly rooted to the location of his underground exploits. His name now adorns the signs and information boards of the Denfert-Rochereau metro, and in 2004 the street outside it was renamed Avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy; in 2019, the Musée de la Libération will be reopened in the tollhouse sited above the FFI’s former headquarters, and may even offer access to it. In truth, resistance barely operated underneath Paris’s streets and played a marginal role – arguably too marginal – in the secret war against the Nazi occupation. But as the daily lines of tourists queueing to visit the Catacombs clearly attests, the inherent allure of underground spaces and their ability to propagate myths and legends remains as powerful as ever.

Nigel Perrin is a research student in the School of History at the University of Kent and the author of Spirit of Resistance: The Life of SOE Agent Harry Peulevé (Pen & Sword, 2014).

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