Raymond Aubrac: French Resistance leader whose wife daringly freed him from captivity

 

Even 97 years seems too short a span to have encompassed the many lives of Raymond Aubrac. He was one of the first leaders of the jumbled and mutually suspicious French Resistance movements during the 1939-45 war. Until his death this week, he was the sole survivor of a group of Resistance leaders arrested at Caluire in the Lyon suburbs in June 1943 by the local Gestapo chief, Klaus Barbie.

He was twice rescued from German captivity by his wife, Lucie. When she was six months pregnant, she organised and led an attack on a prison truck in October 1943 which freed him from Barbie's torturers and a sentence of death. The incident inspired cartoon books and a film, Lucie Aubrac, in 1997. It also led to allegations – disproved in a series of libel actions before Lucie's death in 2007 – that the Aubracs had been Nazi double-agents.

After the war, Aubrac became a friend of the Vietnamese Communist leader Ho Chi Minh. He played an important role as a go-between before, during and after the negotiatations between North Vietnam and the United States which ended the Vietnam war in the early 1970s. He was one of the few Westerners in Saigon when the North Vietnamese army captured the city in 1975. He also played a significant part in the creation of the new Moroccan state after independence from France.

Aubrac was politically active until a few days before his death. He was among the signatories of an article in Le Monde on 2 April criticising President Nicolas Sarkozy for dismantling the post-Liberation concensus on a French welfare state. He continued to give media interviews, sometimes in the excellent English that he first learned as a student at Harvard University in the 1930s.

Raymond Aubrac was born as Raymond Samuel on 31 July 1914 in Vesoul in eastern France. His parents were wealthy, jewish shop-owners who died in Auschwitz. He took the name "Aubrac" in the Resistance. Like many of his colleagues, he retained his "nom de Guerre" after the war. At the time of France's defeat in June 1940, Aubrac was an engineer officer in the Maginot Line. He was captured by the German army, but freed from an internment camp by his wife Lucie (née Bernard).

They moved to Lyon under a series of false names and helped to create Libération-Sud, one of the first resistance movements in the nominally "free" zone of southern France administered by the government of marshall Philippe Pétain in Vichy. Although he was a self-declared "fellow traveller" rather than a Communist Party member, the various resistance groups led by Aubrac were largely Communist-inspired. In 1942, General Charles de Gaulle sent an emissary, Jean Moulin, to re-unite the disparate movements under Gaullist control. The jealousies and suspicions were never fully resolved – during the war or afterwards.

Aubrac and Moulin were among the eight Resistance leaders ambushed by Barbie's Gestapo at a house in Caluire in June 1943. Moulin was tortured and died in captivity. Aubrac was tortured and sentenced to death. Lucie Aubrac bribed a Nazi officer to allow her to "marry" Raymond in prison, even though they were already married. During the "ceremony" she managed to give him advance notice of a rescue attempt.

Four cars, led by Lucie, ambushed a truck carrying Raymond and other detainees from one prison to another. Five German guards were killed and all the prisoners freed. In February 1944, both the Aubracs were flown to London in an RAF Lysander aircraft. A few days later, their daughter, Catherine, first of their three children, was born.

In Paris after the war, Aubrac became friends with a Vietnamese nationalist leader called Ho Chi Minh. The extent to which their meeting was engineered by Soviet influence remains in dispute. Ho Chi Minh became godfather to the Aubrac's second child, Elizabeth. (The godfather of their first was De Gaulle). Even when he was the successful leader of the Vietnamese rebellion against France, and then the leader of North Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh found a way to send "Babeth" a present on her birthday.

From 1976, Aubrac's connection with "Uncle Ho" made him a go-between in secret and then open negotiations between the US and Vietnam. In 1975, he was employed by the UN Secretary General, Kurt Waldheim, to communicate with the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong in the final months of the war.

Aubrac's undisguised Communist sympathies made him a controversial figure with the French right until the end. How could a man who risked his life for France in 1940-44 support the Vietnamese rebellion against French colonial rule in the 1950s? Aubrac said that he saw no contradiction; quite the opposite. All the same, the extent of his post-war links with Moscow and other Soviet-bloc states remains in dispute.

Towards the end of his life, he and his wife fought off – successfully – allegations that they had betrayed the secret of the Caluire meeting to allow Barbie to capture Jean Moulin. The allegations were first made – as a final act of malice – in a "testament" left by Klaus Barbie himself following his trial for crimes against humanity in Lyon in 1987. A panel of historians set up by the newspaper Liberation in 1997 laid the allegations to rest. The questioning of the panel exposed, nonetheless, inconsistencies in the Aubracs' accounts of events in Lyon in 1943. Both the Aubracs, and especially Lucie, remained bitter about what they regarded as unnecessarily hostile treatment.

Daniel Cordier, 97, a close confidante of Moulin and one of the last surviving Resistance figures, said yesterday that it was inevitable that the myths surrounding the "secret war" should generate controversy. The biggest myth of all, he said, was that most French people supported the Resistance.

Of Raymond Aubrac, he said: "We should remember a man who behaved admirably at a time when the majority of French people betrayed France."

John Lichfield

Raymond Aubrac, Resistance leader: born Vesoul, France 31 July 1914; married Lucie Bernard (died 2007, three children); died Paris 10 April 2012.

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