The lost lion of Paris: the extraordinary story of George Dukson
Georges Dukson was one of the great heroes of the Resistance. But when the French capital was liberated, General de Gaulle wanted him out of the picture. Matthew Cobb investigates a tragic injustice
Wednesday 12 August 2009
It is 3pm on Saturday 26 August 1944. Paris is liberated. Under a blazing sun, General Charles de Gaulle, in full dress uniform, is standing at the Arc de Triomphe. He is at the head of a massive parade to celebrate the end– the previous day – of Nazi rule in the French capital. He also wants to show who is the new master in the country.
To the left of de Gaulle is Georges Bidault, head of the Conseil National de la Résistance; to the right, de Gaulle's personal delegate, Alexandre Parodi. Behind them can be seen the leading figures of the Free French army and the Resistance. Out of sight, behind the camera, are four tanks of General Leclerc's 2nd Armoured Division, which the day before had entered Paris and helped seal victory. Beyond them, a million joyous Parisians line the sides of the Champs Elysees. This is a moment, and an image, that will go down in history.
But there is another figure in this iconic photograph, taken 65 years ago this month (and shown right). On the right there is the only black person in the photo – indeed, one of the few black people on the demonstration. He is wearing a mixture of civilian clothes and military puttees. His right arm is in a sling. In every respect he is different from the smartly-dressed white men who dominate the demonstration.
His name was Georges Dukson, he was only 22, and he was not supposed to be there.
Caught up in the enthusiasm of the moment, convinced that he had as much right to be there as anyone else, Dukson had simply invited himself on to the head of the parade. His presence was completely unscripted, a piece of spontaneous bravura, and it was soon snuffed out by protocol. Newsreel rushes show Dukson being unceremoniously kicked off the march, at gunpoint, shortly after the photo was taken. Despite being a true representative of the Resistance rank and file, he had no place on de Gaulle's demonstration, which was supposed to be tightly organised.
The Parisian Resistance radio station, which had broadcast throughout the fighting, bringing Parisians hour-by-hour updates on the imminent arrival of Leclerc's troops, had called the population on to the streets. A US army plane, carrying a newsreel team, circled low overhead, capturing the images for audiences the world over. So many people turned up that de Gaulle's plan for a classic military parade was rapidly transformed into what one eye-witness, Simone de Beauvoir, called "a magnificent, if chaotic, popular carnival".
The Resistance members who lined the demonstration – and who, the day before, had been fighting the Germans in the streets – were not the disciplined troops de Gaulle wanted to see. Even the Tricolour flags were not all quite right – a massive banner in the Spanish Republican colours of violet, red and yellow stretched across the Champs Elysées, highlighting the presence of over 300 Republicans in the ranks of the Leclerc Division.
At first, de Gaulle was furious. "What a shambles! Who's in charge here?" he barked, tearing a strip off Resistance leader Jean de Vogüé and reducing him to tears. But when the Free French leader saw the enthusiasm of the hundreds of thousands of Parisians, he soon realised that something quite extraordinary was happening – he later claimed that his presence on the march showed he was "the instrument of destiny".
Even if not everyone shared de Gaulle's sense of his own importance, one participant described the amazing emotions unleashed by Liberation: "What overwhelming joy after four years of sadness! How the impetuosity contrasted with German rigidity! There was an explosion of jubilation, perhaps not from the whole of France, but from the true France, revolutionary France, which appeared all over the country, smashed the barriers of ordinary life and spread, messily and chaotically."
Throughout the parade, the tumultuous chaos and indiscipline of the crowd irritated de Gaulle. At one point, de Gaulle noticed a young résistant, one of the thousands who had risked their lives in the fighting, and who were lining the Champs Elysées. The young man wore an FFI (Forces Françaises de l'Intérieur) resistance armband, had a cigarette hanging from his lips, and was mad with joy. De Gaulle beckoned him over and spoke a few words into his ear; the résistant returned to the edge of the crowd. "What did he say to you?" he was eagerly asked. "Don't smoke on the procession," was the reply.
Was de Gaulle aware of Dukson's audacity in getting to the front of the parade? Perhaps. As he later wrote in his memoirs: "Some people with minor walk-on roles joined the cortege of my comrades, even though they had no right to. But no one paid them any attention." Dukson was undoubtedly the most notable of those "people with minor walk-on roles"; but he was not ignored, he was thrown off the procession. His face did not fit, even though, like many other resistance fighters who were also absent – women, communists, ordinary workers, foreigners – he truly had a right to be there.
In the week of bloody street fighting that preceded the German surrender, Dukson had played a vital role for the Resistance in the 17th arrondissement in the north of Paris, earning the title "the Lion of the 17th". When fighting broke out near his home on 20 August, Dukson rushed to help out and was put in command of a contingent of FFI Resistance fighters.
Together with his comrades, Dukson destroyed several German troop lorries, and even captured a tank, leaping on to it and killing the driver. In the spectacular newsreel footage that was taken during the Paris insurrection (see independent.co.uk/liberation – and overleaf), Dukson can be seen grinning on top of the vehicle.
When the Resistance seized a new tank from a factory, they sent it out on to the streets to help the uprising; Dukson's group, armed only with revolvers and grenades, bravely accompanied it. On 21 August, Dukson was wounded in the arm by a bullet, and he was again filmed on the newsreel, being helped by his comrades, clutching his rifle.
As a consequence of his bravery, Dukson was rapidly promoted to the rank of sub-Lieutenant, and his fame soon spread through Paris. Holding court each night in a bar on the rue de Chéroy, he became a minor celebrity. Signed photographs of him were sold for 100 francs. You had to pay only 15 francs for a photo of de Gaulle.
It was in that bar – now boarded up – that the journalist René Dunan met Dukson during the fighting and immediately fell under his spell. After the war was over, Dunan wrote down Dukson's "magnificent and sad story".
In 1939, when the Second World War broke out, Dukson lived in Gabon, in what was then French West Africa. As his father had in 1914, Georges joined the French Army to fight in Europe. Captured shortly before the fall of France in 1940, Sergeant Dukson spent two years in a German prisoner-of-war camp before escaping and making his way back to France. Exactly how he managed this feat – a black man on the roads of Nazi Germany would surely have attracted attention – has been lost to history, but by 1943 he was a fugitive in occupied Paris.
While the Nazis goose-stepped along the streets, rounding up Jews and members of the Resistance, Dukson simply tried to survive. He also fell madly in love with a girl who worked in a pharmacy and courted her with black market steak and other gifts. He even gave her a stolen fountain pen, but she returned it, saying it was too valuable, and broke his heart.
Then came the Paris insurrection of August 1944, and Dukson's moment of glory. President Roosevelt, who was deeply suspicious of de Gaulle, had initially wanted to impose a military government on liberated France, but the ability of the Resistance to take power as the Nazis retreated, combined with the real popular support for de Gaulle, made this a non-starter. De Gaulle, meanwhile, wanted to ensure that he, and not the Resistance, would be in control when peace came. That meant imposing his authority and taking the guns out of the hands of the Resistance fighters as soon as possible.
Until the Paris Resistance launched its insurrection, the Allies intended to bypass the city. But the possibility that the Resistance might take control in the capital led the Allied High Command to send General Leclerc's armoured division, along with an American column, into Paris. On 25 August, the Free French troops commanded by General Leclerc finally drove into the capital to complete the liberation begun by the Parisian population.
But although black soldiers from French West Africa had formed the original heart of de Gaulle's Free French army – nearly 20,000 had joined up by October 1942 – none of Dukson's comrades from Africa were with Leclerc. We now know that the British and the Americans wanted Paris to be liberated by white faces, and took steps to remove African soldiers from the Leclerc division. (It was The Independent , reporting the work of the historian Olivier Wieviorka, that broke this story in January 2007.) Allied High Command claimed that the Parisians would be hostile to black fighters.
Dukson's role, and his fame in the capital, proved that the Allies were wrong about this – but to no avail. The appalling way in which hundreds of thousands of Free French Arab soldiers were treated was highlighted in the harrowing feature film Days of Glory (2006). The story of the African fighters, and of men like Dukson, has yet to be told.
Dukson was not the only African in the Resistance. Of the 1,030 members of the Order of the Liberation created by Charles de Gaulle, 14 were African. Hundreds of other black people played vital roles in the struggle. Most are long forgotten.
Addi Ba, born in French Guinea in 1913, helped set up one of the first Resistance camps in the Vosges, and spied on German positions, noting down the details in Arabic he had learnt from the Koran. When the camp was attacked in July 1943, Addi Ba was captured and horribly tortured, then executed five months later.
On 20 June 1944, 53 Senegalese soldiers imprisoned in Lyons were freed by a Resistance raid, and joined fighters in the mountainous Vercors region above Grenoble, where they were warmly welcomed by the local population. When the Nazis eventually overran the Vercors, in July 1944, many of the Senegalese soldiers escaped and went on to take part in the liberation of Lyons. Other black Resistance fighters joined in the fighting to liberate Agen in the South West.
Probably the most famous black Resistance fighter was the American singer and dancer, Josephine Baker. She joined the Free French, first as a nurse, then as a member of the Air Force. At the same time, she carried out underground work for Free French Intelligence, and was eventually awarded the Croix de Guerre.
But there were to be no medals for Dukson. In the chaos that followed the Liberation of Paris, he took over an abandoned German garage and started selling the supplies he found there. Then he began "requisitioning" goods for the black market. Arrested on the orders of the Military Governor of Paris, he was shot and wounded while trying to escape, was taken to hospital and died on the operating table.
Despite his sad end, Dukson's role in the liberation of Paris represented the true spirit of the Resistance. In those famous images, full of pomp and politics, populated by white men in suits and uniforms, Dukson's unscripted appearance, bloodied but unbowed, audacious and full of verve, showed the role of ordinary French people in liberating their country. And that, no doubt, at least partly explains why he was so unwelcome.
Around 2,000 Parisians died in the struggle to liberate Paris, along with perhaps 800 résistants and over 100 Free French and American soldiers. Like the death, the credit for the liberation was shared – the Allied advance had shaken the German garrison and made the insurrection possible; the Parisian résistants had sensed the time was ripe to free the city; and the Free French army provided the weight to put an end to the fighting.
For de Gaulle, the outcome could not have been better. Acutely aware of the power of symbols, he had been able to enter Paris as a hero, surfing on the wave of a popular uprising, but firmly based on the traditional power of the army.
In the heroic days of August 1944 a new French myth had been forged; at its heart was de Gaulle. Throughout the war he had belittled, ignored or undermined the Resistance, yet he had finally ridden it to power, brushing aside those ordinary people whose sacrifice had helped bring about Liberation – people like Georges Dukson.
Matthew Cobb is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Manchester and the author of 'The Resistance: The French Fight Against The Nazis' (Simon & Schuster, £17.99). To order a copy for the special price of £16.19 (free P&P) call Independent Books Direct on 08430 600 030, or visit www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk. To see archive film of the march, go to independent.co.uk/liberation
Overlooked? Other black heroes in French history
The Chevalier de Saint-George (1745-1799)
Illegitimate son of a slave and a plantation owner, Joseph Boulogne, his given name, came from Guadeloupe. Taken to Paris at 14, he became a superb swordsman and an even better composer, known as "The Black Mozart". Fêted at court, he later supported the Revolution. In 1792 he became colonel of a corps of 1,000 black troops, the Légion de Saint-George, defeating counter-revolutionary forces. He later narrowly escaped the guillotine, dying in poverty.
Thomas-Alexandre Dumas (1762-1806)
The son of a slave, Dumas enlisted in the French army in 1786 and after the Revolution, became a leading officer in the Légion de Saint-George. He fought with distinction in several campaigns – the Austrians nicknamed him "the black devil" – and became a general. But he fell from favour after questioning the wisdom of Napoleon's Egypt campaign and, like the Chevalier de Saint-George, died in poverty. He did, however, leave a son, Alexandre Dumas, père, author of 'The Three Musketeers' and father of Alexandre Dumas, fils.
Jean-Baptiste Belley (c1746-1805)
A Senegal-born slave taken to Saint-Domingue (later Haiti), Belley managed to purchase his freedom, fought in the Haitian revolution of 1791 and in 1793 was elected (as member for Saint-Domingue) to France's National Convention. He also sat on the Council of 500. He took part in the debate in February 1794 in which the Covention voted to abolish slavery, but lost his seat in 1797. He spent the last three years of his life in prison in France after taking part in an ill-fated expedition to return Saint-Domingue to French rule.
Gaston Monnerville (1897-1991)
One of the most powerful men in France for two decades, Monnerville grew up in French Guyana, the grandson of a slave, and studied in Toulouse, becoming a lawyer. Having served as undersecretary of state for the colonies, he joined the Navy at the start of the war and was at sea at the time of France's capitulation. He attacked the "public lies" of the Vichy regime and was active in the Resistance. A delegate to the First and Second Constituent Assemblies of the Fourth Republic, he was President of the Council of the Republic from 1947-59. He was then President of the Senate until 1968.
Félix Eboué (1884-1944)
Born in French Guyana, Eboué was a respected colonial administrator, appointed governor of Chad just before the Second World War. Following the armistice of June 1940, he ensured that, in contrast to many of France's African colonies, Chad aligned itself with General de Gaulle's Free French rather than the Vichy regime – which sentenced him to death in absentia. Eboué's brave move was crucial in giving de Gaulle legitimacy and a power-base in Africa. Made governor-general of French Equatorial Africa and later a member of the Council of the Order of the Liberation, Eboué died a few months before the liberation of Paris. His ashes rest in the Panthéon, yet he has faded from public memory.
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