This week, March 11th, marks the 50th anniversary of the shooting by firing squad near Paris of the last person (so far) to be executed by the state for political offences in France. 36-year-old Lieutenant-Colonel Jean Bastien-Thiry, a brilliant young officer of the French Air Force, was a rocket scientist (he invented the SS-10 anti-tank missile) – involved at the highest levels of France’s attempt under President De Gaulle to forge a path independent of US hegemony in developing its own defence capability.
A fervent Catholic and father of three young daughters, Bastien-Thiry was also deeply involved in plotting the violent death of De Gaulle, the autocratic ruler who had come from nowhere in 1940 to save France’s ‘honour’ after its shattering defeat by Hitler’s Germany and the abject peace made by De Gaulle’s old mentor, Marshal Petain – head of the collaborationist Vichy French regime. By the war’s end, by a mix of shady manoeuvring and Prima Donna hissy fits, De Gaulle had wangled himself a place at the Allied top table and a grateful nation, air-brushing its own abject role in the war, turned to him as its saviour.
But typically, De Gaulle gave up his power in another egotistical fit, hoping that the grateful French would give him the semi-monarchical powers he craved to re-make the Republic in his own haughty image. It took a decade, but in 1958 he was called from his country home again to take over a country wracked by an endless, and seemingly unwinnable, Vietnam-style colonial conflict in French-ruled Algeria. And this is where Bastien-Thiry entered the picture.
France’s army, humiliated by its defeat in World War Two, and its subsequent loss of Indo-China to Ho Chi Minh and General Giap’s barefoot Communist forces at the battle of Dien Bien Phu, was determined that this time, come what may, there would be no surrender to the FLN – the left-wing Arab nationalists who had been fighting to end French rule in Algeria since 1954. In their bitter battle to hang on to Algeria, the army, spearheaded by the famous French Foreign Legion, went to any lengths to defeat an equally ruthless enemy.
As Bruno Pontecorvo’s classic film The Battle of Algiers graphically portrays in unsparing, agonising detail, the FLN pioneered the use of bombs in crowded civilian cafes – a terror tactic that we have become all too used to today – while the French answered fire with fire by torturing suspected FLN prisoners with electrodes and waterboarding. These torture tactics helped to clear the FLN from Algiers but the war went on in the deserts and wadis of the vast Algerian interior. The French army enjoyed the hero-worshipping support of the ‘Pied-Noirs’ – the million white settlers who congregated in the cities of the coast – Algiers, Oran and Constantine – and in isolated farms, where they were often picked off and murdered by FLN bands.
The ‘Algerie Francaise’ lobby was powerful, and any idea of talking to the FLN ‘terrorists’ was anathema to the left-wing governments of the Fourth Republic in Paris, which succeeded each other with almost Italian rapidity. But the Algerian struggle was so costly in cash terms, and in the lives of the conscripted soldiers who fought there, that, like Vietnam in the US in the next decade, it ate away at the stability of mainland France. Finally, in 1958, the tottering Republic turned to De Gaulle and summoned him from the shadows to take over and save the nation once more.
De Gaulle, ruling by repeated referendums in which he successfully appealed to the French people for their support, gave himself quasi-dictatorial powers, abolished the Fourth Republic and created the Fifth in his own image – investing himself as President with powers even exceeding those of the US President. Prime Minister, cabinet and parliament became the puppets dancing to the old general’s imperious will. But De Gaulle had come to power as a man of the Right and an old soldier – specifically promising not to surrender to the FLN.
Once in the Elysee Palace, however, despite visiting Algiers, shouting ‘Vive Algerie Francaise!’ and assuring the settlers and the soldiers ambiguously ‘I have understood you!’ De Gaulle set about betraying the cause of French Algeira; initiated secret talks with the FLN and began a covert process leading inexorably to handing over the huge oil and gas-rich country to the hated terrorists he had been brought to power to defeat. The FLN, given the country on a plate in July 1962, rule in Algeria as ageing dictators to this day.
As soon as the Army and the Pied Noirs realised what the wily old man was up to, they started a resistance born of despair. They formed an underground terrorist army of their own – the OAS, or Secret Army Organisation – modelled on the maquis of the Second World War. The OAS carried out actions against both the FLN and Gaullist officials and goons inside Algeria, while in France itself they set about attempting to assassinate Charles De Gaulle himself. The two attempts that came closest to success were both masterminded by Lt.Col. Jean Bastien-Thiry, who carried on his day job at the Air Ministry but devoted his out-of-work hours to plotting the death of the head of state he saw as a traitor and dictator.
In the first attempt, a bomb was placed in a pile of builders’ sand along a route taken by De Gaulle’s car. But the wartime ‘plastique’ explosive was old and damp, and only succeeded in spurting hot sand across the General’s limo. The second attempt, a full-blown ambush in the south-eastern Paris suburb of Petit-Clamart in August 1962, portrayed in the opening scenes of Frederick Forsyth’s thriller Day of the Jackal, was the real deal. With Bastien-Thiry acting as the lookout signalman, and information from a secret source inside the Elysee on the President’s route, two carloads of OAS men, armed with sub-machine guns, waylaid De Gaulle’s Citroen DS, spraying it with bullets. Miraculously, thanks to the skilled driving of his chauffeur, both the president and his wife Yvonne survived.
Bastien-Thiry and his cohorts were soon rounded up, and the colonel, as ringleader, was condemned to death. De Gaulle refused to commute the sentence, allegedly because the plotters’ shots may have killed his innocent wife. Bastien-Thiry was shot by firing squad at the Fort d’Ivry outside Paris – now home to the French army’s archives – in March 1963.
Coincidentally, fifty years on, this week also saw the death in Germany of Ewald-Heinrich von Kleist-Schmenzin, the 90-year-old last survivor of the conspiracy to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Von Kleist-Schmenzin was one of the tightly knit group of aristocratic officers around Colonel Claus Schenck, Count von Stauffenberg, the charismatic hero who overcame wounds sustained in North Africa to become the head, heart and hand (he had only one) of the anti-Hitler conspiracy, which had been in existence for years but, until Stauffenberg, had never come close to killing the Fuhrer.
Enthused by Stauffenberg;’s dynamism, the conspiracy took on a new lease of life which led, in July 1944, to Stauffenberg placing a briefcase filled with plastic explosive next to Hitler at a conference. The bomb exploded, but imperfectly primed, failed to kill the dictator, and the Putsch that was planned to follow a successful assassination fizzled out once news of the Fuhrer’s survival spread. Kleist-Schmenzin was one of the handful of plotters who survived Hitler’s terrible vengeance.
Today, in Germany, Stauffenberg, Kleist-Schmemnzin and their co-conspirators are officially honoured as heroes for attempting to kill a Head of State in time of war. Bastien-Thiry, by contrast, is forgotten in France by all but his family and a handful of ultra-Catholic Rightists for attempting to do precisely the same. But as that arch cynic, Napoleon’s Foreign Minister Tallyrand remarked, ‘Treason is just a matter of dates’. And, if treason succeeds, why, ‘None dare call it treason’.
Nigel Jones is author of ‘Countdown to Valkyrie: the July Plot to Assassinate Hitler‘ and guides tours of wartime Francxe and Germany with www.historicaltrips.com