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Germaine Tillion

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Germaine Tillion
Born(1907-05-30)30 May 1907
Allègre, France
Died18 April 2008(2008-04-18) (aged 100)
Saint-Mandé, France
Resting placePanthéon, Paris
EducationÉcole du Louvre
École Pratique des Hautes Études
École des langues orientales

Germaine Tillion (30 May 1907 – 18 April 2008) was a French ethnologist, known for her work in Algeria in the 1950s on behalf of the Government of France. A member of the French Resistance in World War II, she spent time in Ravensbrück concentration camp.


Tillion was born on May 30, 1907, in Allegre (Haute-Loire) in south-central France.[1] She was the daughter of Lucien Tillion, a magistrate, and Émilie Cussac Tillion.[2] Her mother was also noted as an art historian and a French resistance fighter.[2][3] She had a sister called Francoise and they were raised Catholic.[4]

Youth and studies[edit]

Tillion spent her youth with her family in Clermont-Ferrand. She left for Paris to study social anthropology with Marcel Mauss and Louis Massignon, obtaining degrees from the École pratique des hautes études, the École du Louvre, and the INALCO. Four times between 1934 and 1940 she did fieldwork in Algeria,[5] studying the Chaoui Berber people in the Aures region of northeastern Algeria, to prepare for her doctorate in anthropology.

French Resistance[edit]

French resistance in 1944

As Tillion returned to Paris from the field in 1940, France had been invaded by Germany. As her first act of resistance, she helped a Jewish family by giving them her family's papers. She became one of the members in the French Resistance in the network of the Musée de l'Homme in Paris. Her missions included helping prisoners to escape and organizing intelligence for the allied forces from 1940 to 1942.

Betrayed by the priest Robert Alesch who had joined her resistance network and gained her confidence, she was arrested on August 13, 1942.[citation needed] She was transported in the Convoi des 31000 in 1943.[6]


On 21 October 1943, Tillion was sent to the German concentration camp of Ravensbrück, near Berlin with her mother, Émilie, also a resistante. From her arrival on 21 October 1943 to the fall of the camp in spring 1945, she secretly wrote an operetta comedy to entertain the fellow prisoners. "Le Verfügbar aux Enfers" describes the camp life of the "Verfügbar" (German for "available", the lowest class of prisoners who could be used for any kind of work).[citation needed] At the same time she undertook a precise ethnographic analysis of the concentration camp. Other prisoners included Geneviève de Gaulle-Anthonioz, Jacqueline Fleury and Fleury's mother.

Her mother was killed in the camp in March 1945. Tillion escaped Ravensbrück in the spring of that year in a rescue operation of the Swedish Red Cross that had been negotiated by Folke Bernadotte.

Female prisoners in Ravensbrück

In 1973, she published Ravensbruck: An eyewitness account of a women's concentration camp,[7] detailing both her own personal experiences as an inmate as well as her remarkable contemporary and post-war research into the functioning of the camps, movements of prisoners, administrative operations and covert and overt crimes committed by the SS. She reported the presence of a gas chamber at Ravensbruck when other scholars had written that none existed in the Western camps, and affirmed that executions escalated during the waning days of the war, a chilling tribute to the efficiency and automated nature of the Nazi "killing machines."

She documented the dual but conflicting purposes of the camps; on the one hand, to carry out the Final Solution as quickly as possible, and on the other, to manage a very large and profitable slave labor force in support of the war effort (with profits reportedly going to SS leadership, a business structure created by Himmler himself).

Finally, she gives chilling vignettes of prisoners, prison staff, and the "professionals" who were central to the operation and execution of increasingly bizarre Nazi mandates in an attempt to explore the twisted psychology and outright evil behavior of often average participants who were instrumental in allowing, and then nurturing the death machines.

After the war[edit]

After the war, Tillion worked on the history of the Second World War, the war crimes of the Nazis and the Soviet Gulags from 1945 to 1954. She started an education program for French prisoners. As a professor (directeur d'études) of the École des hautes études en sciences sociales she undertook 20 scientific missions in North Africa and the Middle East.

Algerian war[edit]

Tillion returned to Algeria in 1954 to observe and analyze the situation at the brink of the Algerian War of Independence. She described as the principal cause of the conflict the pauperization ("clochardisation") of the Algerian population. In order to ameliorate the situation, she launched 'Social Centres' in October 1955, intended to make available higher education as well as vocational training to the rural population, allowing them to survive in the cities.

On 4 July 1957, during the battle of Algiers, she secretly met with National Liberation Front leader Yacef Saadi, at the instigation of the latter, to try to end the spiral of executions and indiscriminate attacks. Tillion was among the first to denounce the use of torture by French forces in the war. At the same time, she attended the International Meetings of the monastery of Toumliline in Morocco, conferences on contemporary challenges and interreligious dialogue.[8]

Later life[edit]

Tillion remained vocal on several political topics:

  • against the pauperization of the Algerian population
  • against the French use of torture in Algeria
  • for the emancipation of women in the Mediterranean

In 2004, along with several other French intellectuals, she launched a statement against torture in Iraq.

To celebrate her 100th birthday, her operetta "Le Verfügbar aux Enfers" premiered in 2007 at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris. She was Honorary Professor at France's School of Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (EHESS) at the time of her death in 2008.



  • L'Algérie aurésienne (in French). a collaboration with Nancy Woods. 2001. ISBN 2-7324-2769-1.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: others (link)
  • Tillion, Germaine (2000). Il était une fois l'ethnographie. Biographie (in French). ISBN 2-02-025702-5.
  • Les ennemis complémentaires (in French). 1960.
  • Le harem et les cousins (in French). 1966.
  • Algeria: The Realities. Translated by Ronald Matthews. Knopf. 1958.
  • L'Algérie en 1957 (in French). 1956.
  • L'Afrique bascule vers l'avenir (in French). 1959.
  • ——— (1975) [1st pub. Les cahiers du Rhône:1946 (French)]. Ravensbrück: An eyewitness account of a women's concentration camp. Translated by Satterwhite, Gerald (Anchor Books ed.). Garden City, New York: Doubleday Publishing. ISBN 978-0-385-00927-0. OCLC 1256078.


  1. ^ Cook, Bernard (2006). Women and War, Volume 1. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO. p. 587. ISBN 1-85109-770-8.
  2. ^ a b "Tillion, Germaine (1907—) | Encyclopedia.com". www.encyclopedia.com. Retrieved 2021-03-05.
  3. ^ Martin, Douglas (2008-04-25). "Germaine Tillion, French Anthropologist and Resistance Figure, Dies at 100 (Published 2008)". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2021-03-05.
  4. ^ Curtis, Lara R. (2019). "1. Introduction: Writing resistance and the question of gender - Charlotte Delbo, Noor Inayat Khan, and Germaine Tillion". Writing Resistance and the Question of Gender: Charlotte Delbo, Noor Inayat Khan, and Germaine Tillion. Switzerland: Springer Nature. p. 12. ISBN 978-3-030-31241-1.
  5. ^ Reid, Donald (2009). Germaine Tillion, Lucie Aubrac, and the Politics of Memories of the French Resistance. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing. p. 14. ISBN 978-1-84718-144-2.
  6. ^ Moorehead, Caroline (2011-11-01). A Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship and Survival in World War Two. Random House of Canada. ISBN 978-0-307-36667-2.
  7. ^ Tillion, Germaine (1975) [1st pub. Éditions du Seuil:1973 (French)]. Ravensbrück: An eyewitness account of a women's concentration camp. Translated by Satterwhite, Gerald (Anchor Books ed.). Garden City, New York: Doubleday Publishing. ISBN 978-0-385-00927-0.
  8. ^ Pont, Daniel (June 2022). "Pont Toumliline English - DIMMID". dimmid.org. Retrieved 25 January 2024.
  9. ^ Eveleth, Rose. "Paris is Adding Two More Women to the Pantheon (New Total: Three)". Smithsonian.com. Retrieved 1 November 2014.
  10. ^ Angelique Chrisafis in Paris (27 May 2015). "France president Francois Hollande adds resistance heroines to Panthéon | World news". The Guardian. Retrieved 30 May 2015.
  11. ^ AP (26 May 2015). "Paris celebrates WWII resistance heroes in Pantheon ceremony". Yahoo. Archived from the original on 17 April 2016. Retrieved 17 April 2016.

Further reading[edit]

  • Adams, Geoffrey (1998). The Call of Conscience: French Protestant Responses to the Algeria War, 1954-62. Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press.
  • Aussaresses, General Paul. The Battle of the Casbah: Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism in Algeria, 1955-1957. (New York: Enigma Books, 2010) ISBN 978-1-929631-30-8.
  • Charrad, Mounira (2001). States and Women's Rights. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Horne, Alistair (1978). A Savage War of Peace. New York: Viking Press.
  • Kahler, Eric (1957). The Tower and the Abyss: An Inquiry into the Transformation of the Individual. New York: Braziller.
  • Kraft, Joseph (1958). "In North Africa Peace Alone Will Not Be Enough." New York Times. July 6.
  • Michalczyk, John (1998). Resisters, Rescuers, and Refugees. Kansas City: Sheed and Ward.

External links[edit]