Germaine Tillion (1907-2008)

Interred at the Panthéon on 27 May 2015, Germaine Tillion was an ethnologist at the Musée de l’Homme and a pioneer of the French Resistance.

The ethnologist, research at the Musée de l’Homme

Germaine Tillion’s background testifies to her insatiable curiosity… She studied archaeology, prehistory and art history at the Ecole du Louvre, followed by Celtic studies and dabbling in Semitic epigraphy at the Sorbonne and the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, and later attended the lectures of Marcel Mauss at the Collège de France and the Institut d’Ethnologie. She also studied psychology. From 1927 to 1934, she joined in the effervescence of the students who were classifying the ethnographic collection of the old, run-down Trocadero Ethnography Museum, ancestor of the Musée de l’Homme.

In 1934, the museum offered to send her to study the Shawia Berbers in the Aures Mountains of Algeria. Her first mission took place 1935-1936. She was accompanied by Thérèse Rivière, sister of Georges-Henri Rivière, then deputy director of the Musée de l’Homme. Thérèse fell ill, and Germaine Tillion continued the study on her own.

French Resistance

In May 1940, following her second mission, the ethnologist returned to France. Unaware of what was transpiring, she found herself in Paris right after a capitulation she found revolting. A patriot and a republican, she worked with Colonel Paul Hauet, who was running an association to help colonial soldiers, the UNCC (national union for colonial combatants), which he used as a cover to help prisoners of war escape. She expanded her actions to collect intelligence on the German army, troop movements and prisoner camps. It was through Germaine Tillion that Paul Hauet met Boris Vildé’s resistance group.

After the arrest of the Musée de l’Homme network’s main resistance fighters in early 1941, the organization derived from the UNCC took over the network’s activities until 5 July 1941, when Paul Hauet was arrested. After that, Germain Tillion took over.

Betrayed by the priest Robert Alesch, she too was arrested on 13 August 1942, held in solitary confinement at the Santé prison and transferred two months later to Fresnes. During her incarceration, she managed to take notes and never ceased to imagine ways to enter into communication with her camrades.

“For me, resistance consists of saying “no.” But to say no is already an affirmation. It is very positive, the movement of saying no to an assassination, to a crime. Nothing is more creative, more life-affirming than saying no to an assassination, to cruelty, to the death penalty.”

Interview conducted in 2002 by Alison Rice and published in Research in African Literatures, 35 (2004), 1, p.162-179. In Tzvetan Todorov, Le siècle de Germaine Tillion, 2008, p.350.


On 23 October 1943, Germaine Tillion was deported under the NN directive (Nacht und Nebel, Night and fog: people accused of sabotage and resistance representing a danger to German security and condemned to disappear without a trace) to Ravensbrück where she spent a year and a half in captivity.

Fearless, the ethnologist kept up her acts of resistance even inside the camp, managing to sneak out notes that were passed to her secretly by her fellow female detainees as well as photographs of the women who were victims of pseudo-medical experiments.

She even composed an operetta on the condition of the Verfügbar, an “available” prisoner pliable to every whim. In Le Verfügbar aux enfers, Germaine Tillion shows a remarkable sense of humour: “I was told “you must resist”…/ I said yes, I got the gist / That’s how on the northern line / I got a seat without a whine…” The unfinished operetta, the energy and humour of which declined as the days and months in camp passed, remained hidden for over forty years. Germaine Tillion finally agreed to a stage production, performed at the Théâtre du Châtelet in 2007.

The ethnologist of the Aurès mountains also put the ethnological experience she’d gained in Algeria to use, analysing the camp’s structure with an insatiable will to understand the logic behind how it functioned and to decode its horrors in order to survive. Her resistance in camp became that of the spirit, a fight not to succumb to madness or despair.

While evading as much work as possible, Germaine Tillion couldn’t escape daily camp life with its hunger, disease, exhaustion, or absence of hygiene, nor her despair on learning the death of her mother, who had also been deported to Ravensbrück and killed in the gas chamber in March 1945.

After the war

Liberated by the Swedish Red Cross in May 1945, Germaine Tillion devoted part of her life to studying the Nazi concentration camp system, a study that began in secret within the camp walls, continued in Sweden with two fellow deportees, and conducted until she returned to Algeria. Convoy after convoy, she reconstructed the itineraries of the women deported to Ravensbrück, the conditions of their arrest, their transfer from one camp to another, the circumstances surrounding their death or what became of them after the liberation. The long, meticulous undertaking was motivated by her desire to bear witness to and keep some trace of these broken destinies, before they faded into oblivion.

Beginning in 1945, Germaine Tillion began administrative procedures relating to the Musée de l’Homme network to obtain medals and military pensions for the resistance fighters as voluntary combatants. She registered the group under the name “Musée de l’Homme Network-Hauet-Vildé” in 1946 in honour of the martyrs of the Musée de l’Homme.

“That day, in the offices of Fighting France, in between other things, I was asked to give a name to our organization and that’s how it was baptized the “Réseau du Musée de l’Homme”. Why that name? Because whenever we spoke of the first to die, we would say “the ones from the museum…”

“Le réseau Musée de l’Homme”, in A la recherche du vrai et du juste. A propos rompus avec le siècle, edited by Tzvetan Todorov, Paris, Seuil, 2001, p.145.L’ethnologue, des études au Musée de l’Homme.

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