Obituary: Charles Tillon
Thursday 14 January 1993
LAST YEAR, when he celebrated his 95th birthday, Charles Tillon was interviewed by the newspaper Ouest-France. He was then living in the south but he complained that he was not only a forgotten man but that he was particularly forgotten in Britain.
Tillon was born in Rennes where his mother had a cafe near to the cathedral. He went to a technical school and started work in a factory at the age of 16. But the greatest influence on his life was that of his father who was an active trade unionist and a devoted admirer of the socialist leader Jean Jaures. When in 1924 Tillon supported and animated the strike of the sardine-factory workers in Douarnenez (the first Breton town to have a Communist mayor) he saw himself as following in the tradition of his father.
But his importance was national. Having joined the navy during the war, Tillon organised a mutiny in 1919 when his ship was anchored off Greece. He suspected that his ship was intended to be used against the Bolsheviks but it was the refusal of the captain to set sail for Toulon that was his more popular argument. The mutiny collapsed within hours and Tillon was imprisoned for five years. On his release he promptly joined the Young Communist Party.
Between the wars he was a leading trade-union agitator, frequently receiving prison sentences and fines for actions that were considered illegal. But he was elected deputy for Aubervilliers in 1936, and having made successful contact with certain Soviet agents he became a member of the Political Bureau. He volunteered to fight in the Spanish Civil War and witnessed the defeat of the Republicans. By the time war broke out, as a member of the Central Committee and the Political Bureau he was one of the most prominent members of the party in France and as such was forced to go into hiding when the French government outlawed the Communists.
Defeat showed that Tillon was not thinking along the lines of official party policy. On 17 June 1940 (the day before de Gaulle broadcast from London), Tillon denounced Petain and his request for an armistice with the Germans. From his hideout in the Bordeaux region he began to organise a skeleton resistance movement while other Communists in Paris were seeking to come to some understanding with the Germans. When these manoeuvres failed, and when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, it was natural that Tillon should be regarded as a representative of Communist resistance. He became the leader of the Francs-Tireurs et Partisans Francais (FTPF), which refused to co-operate with other non-Communist forces and which was determined to wage outright war against the Germans. When asked if he had listened to de Gaulle's broadcasts from London, Tillon later said that he had done so but that he did not pay any attention to them. In particular, he had ignored de Gaulle's order that Germans should not be killed because of the reprisals that would follow. 'I had my own church to look after,' he said.
At the time of the Liberation, Tillon was one of three leaders of the party in Paris. It has been suggested that he became suspicious of a certain reluctance to organise a rising in the capital because Stalin was not anxious to see France liberated too soon, thus enabling American forces to advance more rapidly across Europe. But while this is by no means certain, it was probably the moment when Tillon became uncertain in his political loyalties. He accepted de Gaulle's invitation to join the provisional government, first as Minister for Aviation and then, after de Gaulle had resigned, he remained as Minister for Armaments and later for Reconstruction. He took his ministerial duties seriously but he retained some of his old Resistance organisation around him and maintained his belief that the Resistance should continue to play a leading role in French affairs. Some in the party feared his ambitions. Just as de Gaulle had been attracted to a courageous Resistance leader, so many might prefer this mutineer and militant to Maurice Thorez, who had spent the war years in Moscow.
At all events Tillon continued to give proof of his Stalinism. In January 1950, after a mock trial, Tillon denounced in the most violent terms those (including leading writers such as Vercors and Jean Cassou) who had supported Marshal Tito in his quarrel with Moscow. It was ironical that nine months later, Tillon found himself forced to confess to certain errors and in 1952 he faced exactly the same sort of trial that he had inflicted on others. He was accused of disloyalty and it was claimed that his disapproval of the veiled revolution of 1944 represented factionalism. Tillon withdrew, and although, under the influence of the poet and Communist Louis Aragon, attempts were made to rehabilitate him, he devoted himself to writing and painting. But in 1968 he denounced the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and went on to accuse publicly the Communist leader Georges Marchais of having volunteered to work in Germany in 1943. He was then definitively expelled from the party.
Some see a coherence in Tillon's career. Just as he had revolted against social injustice and naval discipline, so he eventually revolted against Stalinism. But others are not so sure, and he has been accused of many things, including having a responsibility for bloodshed in Algeria in 1945. At all events this dedicated militant was not only a great orator but, as his autobiography La revolte vient de loin (1969) shows, a remarkably talented writer.
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