The Haunting of Paris: Georges Mandel and the Long Legacy of Nazi Violence

Town & Country 6 August 2019
By James McAuley

A resistance hero, a recovered painting, a familiar street in Paris: Who was Mandel and what does his murder 75 years ago have to do with France today?

The story was a story for about five minutes. It was another internet flash, this time about a painting stolen by the Nazis and returned to the rightful heirs—a headline clicked on in midafternoon, shared, forgotten.

I even forget where I saw it. Perhaps a wire report, perhaps a French news site. And yet here I am, one week later, standing in a forest before a concrete monument. It is five feet tall and nearly as wide, pocked and discolored from years of weather, a block standing in the grass among stubby trees next to a highway about an hour outside Paris. On the monument a man’s face—the face of the man from whom the painting was stolen—is shown in profile, his eyes fixed in the distance, the lapels of his coat casting shadows in relief.

Georges Mandel, photographed in 1932, when he was a member of France’s parliament. Opposite: A painting by Thomas Couture that the Nazis stole from Mandel when they occupied Paris. It was returned to his heirs earlier this year.

The words below the face tell anyone driving by this forest or ­biking along its punishing trails that he was killed on the 7th of July, 1944. “Est mort assassiné par les ennemis de la France.” ­Assassinated on this spot, shot 16 times by French soldiers loyal to the Nazis.

His name was Georges Mandel. If you live in Paris, you probably know his name from street signs on the elegant avenue that bears it, which extends from the Place du Trocadéro toward the Bois de Boulogne. You probably would not know that he was a resistance fighter who struggled to save France from being taken over by the Nazis and who was gunned down for his efforts in this place where today Parisians picnic on buttered bread and wine.

After the war a monument was erected in Fontainebleau Forest, where Mandel was executed in 1944.

I knew that street, and I saw the story about his painting, and now I’m standing in a forest, trying to get closer to understanding why the man on the concrete block was assassinated, why the return of his looted artwork 75 years later made the news, and why any of this matters.

The Bibliothèque Nationale de France is a complex of monolithic glass towers that line the Seine near the eastern edge of the city. You book in advance the items you want to see, and they land with a thud in your cubicle. On the subject of Georges Mandel there are some good biographies, some bad biographies (one of which was written by former French president Nicolas Sarkozy), and a host of newspaper clippings on microfiche that are barely legible. What struck me most, however, was a memoir by the essayist Emmanuel Berl, one of Mandel’s closest friends, that was a best-seller after the war but has long since faded into historians’ footnotes. It brings you closer to an understanding of the man than anything else does.

Mandel was actually born Louis Georges Rothschild, in 1885, to an affluent Alsatian Jewish family in the suburbs of western Paris. He dropped “Rothschild” when, at 21, he became a reporter for ­L’­Aurore, a left-wing newspaper owned by Georges Clemenceau, who later became France’s prime minister and the lead negotiator on the Treaty of Versailles.

Mandel thought the name Rothschild was too identifiably Jewish and, moreover, too Rothschild; it suggested that he belonged to the pan-European banking dynasty that was so often the subject of anti-Semitic invective and outlandish conspiracy theories. So he decided on his middle name followed by his mother’s maiden name: Georges Mandel.

Berl, a lifelong confidant, was not surprised at this attempt at reinvention. “He suffered, I think, from his unattractive physique,” Berl wrote. “More small than big, more fat than thin, stooped from the behind, bulging from the front, his fleshy face with features too sharp seemed to combine the unfortunate traits of intensity and idleness.”

Georges Mandel, French Politician Circa 1900.

What appeared most consequential in Mandel’s understanding of himself was not so much his birth name as his Alsatian identity. Alsace-Lorraine, a region in eastern France, has passed back and forth between France and Germany for centuries, and its culture has always been a curious pastiche of the two countries: kugelhopf in the cafés, Voltaire in the schools.

Before the Second World War it was also home to a sizable Jewish community that had had to make a choice about its future a couple of generations earlier. In 1871, after the Franco-Prussian War, the Prussian army took control of the region from the French, and citizens of the famously hybrid enclave were allowed to choose which nationality they would keep. Few of those who chose France embraced the cause more strongly than the Alsatian Jews; moving from Strasbourg and Mulhouse to Paris, many became crucial contributors to the cultural ferment of the French fin-de-siècle. Most of all, they were patriots.

These were Mandel’s people.

Pierre Birnbaum, one of France’s most revered historians, has great tufts of graying hair and kind eyes. He lives in a sprawling, book-strewn cave on a high floor of a gray, unadorned apartment building not far from the headquarters of Le Monde. The books fill countless shelves—the multitude of volumes befits a towering figure in French intellectual history. Born in Lourdes in 1940, Birnbaum is a leading authority on France’s Jewish history—and, these days, the return of anti-Semitism. He is used to being asked by journalists to explain why France has been struck by a new wave of anti-­Semitic violence, but when I tell him I want to ask about Georges Mandel and why he’s not very well known in the English-speaking world, he smiles.

“Is he that well known in France?” Birnbaum says.


Even historians, Birnbaum admits, have a hard time pinning Mandel down. “He was somewhat atypical in his ideology, with a quite hard political line, one that was even supported by the right-wing,” he says. A respected figure in French politics but not a major one, Mandel rose to become what Birnbaum calls a “juif d’État,” Jew of the state, a loyal civil servant who bracketed his or her individual identity inside the ostensibly universal promise of the French Republic. “His value is different,” Birnbaum says. “He’s a dramatic figure because of what he lived.”

n 1791, France, an infant republic, became the first Western European country to emancipate its Jews, granting them full legal rights. In many this inspired a fierce loyalty, a feeling that was perhaps rooted in indebtedness but ultimately culminated in pride.

Mandel’s friend Emmanuel Berl, who was also Jewish, saw something in Mandel that typified the promise of the Third Republic, the system of government that fell in 1940. “His passionate love of France, spread among Jewish families like his own, who detached themselves from Judaism and brought to their homeland the zeal their ancestors brought to their ancient law, was eager for sacrifices and renunciations,” Berl wrote in La fin de la IIIe République. And Mandel certainly made them.

Mandel entered politics first as Clemenceau’s aide. A staunch fiscal conservative, he soon developed a reputation for assiduousness, rising through the ranks of the Third Republic. In 1919 he was elected to the Assemblée Nationale, the French parliament, as a deputy from the Gironde, the administrative department in southwestern France that encompasses the city of Bordeaux. In 1932 he steered a universal suffrage bill through the Assemblée Nationale that would have extended the franchise to women. The French Senate rejected the bill, and women could not vote in France until as late as 1944.

Georges Mandel leaving the Elysee palace on January 29, 1933 in Paris, France.

But nowhere was Mandel more forward-thinking than regarding the rise of fascism in Europe. In the mid-1930s, when many in the French government still thought that Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini might be reasoned with, Mandel—like Winston Churchill, who soon became a close ally—was a constant voice of dissent. As Berl remembered: “From 1934, he would say, ‘We can no longer save ourselves, we can only be saved.’”

But a few years later, who had said what and when became academic. In June 1940, France fell to Hitler’s army, and the French government had to flee the capital, first to Tours, then to Bordeaux. Mandel, by then France’s minister of the interior, was part of the convoy.

In the early days after the invasion, it was unclear how the Nazis would rule their latest conquest and how the existing French government would respond. In the midst of the chaos, on the night of Thursday, June 13, Mandel spoke privately on the steps of the town hall in Tours with Charles de Gaulle, a relatively obscure military officer in whom Mandel nevertheless saw something. He urged de Gaulle that night to leave for London, where he could continue the fight. “You have great duties to perform, general, but with the advantage of being, out of all of us, an intact man,” Mandel said, a line de Gaulle later recorded in his memoirs.

Hitler toured Paris in July 1940.

Churchill preferred Mandel to de Gaulle, who could be arrogant and intractable, and he tried to convince Mandel to come to London as well, sending a plane to Bordeaux on the morning of June 17. But Mandel would not leave. Edward Spears, Churchill’s aide, was with Mandel the night he refused to go, and he later recalled the scene in his memoirs. “You fear for me because I am a Jew,” Mandel told Spears. “Well, it’s just because I am a Jew that I will not go tomorrow. It would look as if I was afraid, as if I was running away.”

Once it became clear that the nominally autonomous French gov­ernment installed by the Germans was not loyal to republican principles at all, however, he realized he had to go. Along with several other government ministers, he set sail on the SS Massilia for France’s colonies in North Africa on June 21, 1940. Their plan was to organize a colonial militia that could rise up against the Nazis and take back control of the mainland. Mandel’s life had been uprooted, but not entirely: The Massilia’s register records that he traveled with both his official girlfriend and his mistress.

After fleeing Paris for Bordeaux, Mandel attempted to escape from the German forces by going to North Africa. He was arrested in Morocco in 1940 and transported to the Château de Chazeron, in central France. Below: A dispatch from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency about Mandel’s imprisonment by the Vichy government.

The North African resistance was a dream that never materialized. In August 1940, Mandel was captured in Morocco by the Vichy authorities and returned to France. He was handed over to the Germans and deported to the Buchenwald concentration camp, where he was kept alongside Léon Blum, France’s left-wing (and first Jewish) prime minister. In 1944, Mandel was returned to France as a political hostage. On the night of July 7, as he was being transferred from one prison to another, he was shot 16 times by the Milice, the Vichy government’s paramilitary force.

he painting had a hole in it. That’s how the Germans who ended up with it determined earlier this year that it was Mandel’s. The title of the painting, which dates from the 1850s, is Portrait of a Seated Young Woman, by Thomas Couture, and the hole was near the young woman’s left hand, which clutches a cross pendant. The subject is a classic example of a mid-19th-century bourgeois Parisienne; her glance is either a smile or a judgment.

In early January the German government returned the painting, which had hung in Mandel’s Paris apartment, to his last surviving relatives, his son-in-law Franz Reiner Wolfgang Joachim Kleinertz and his granddaughter Maria de las Mercedes Estrada. In 1940 the painting had been confiscated by Nazi agents, and it ultimately ended up in the infamous hoard illegally amassed by Nazi art dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt, which the German ­authorities would not discover until 2013, in the Munich apartment of Gurlitt’s 80-year-old son.

Mandel's last heirs, Maria de las Mercedes Estrada (left) and Wolfgang Kleinertz (center) are presented with "Portrait of a seated woman" by artist Thomas Couture, on January 8, 2019 in Berlin, which had been stolen from Estrada's grandfather by the Nazis.

The theft or destruction of personal property was a central aspect of the Holocaust: It was how the perpetrators emphasized the fact that the victims no longer existed. The victims whose belongings did somehow ­survive—collections that resurfaced, canvases that were reclaimed—were often prominent collectors, the works Klimts and Chagalls. But the full reality of Nazi plunder was far more mundane, which was perhaps the essence of its cruelty. It was never about money, it was about liquidation, about taking the things that gave joy to ordinary people in order to deny that they were in fact people.

The news story I had seen, about the return of the painting, included photographs of the repatriation ceremony—there were Kleinertz and Estrada, a dignified old man with a beard and a beaming old lady wearing tortoiseshell glasses, both wearing white gloves as they embraced Couture’s painting, looking a mix of stunned, proud, happy, and awkward.

Kleinertz lives in Paris and Berlin, and he was in Berlin when I reached him by phone. He told me a story that his late wife, Georges Mandel’s daughter, had been fond of telling about her father. One day a politician came into Mandel’s office during his tenure as France’s minister of posts (basically postmaster general). The politician, apparently as a way of breaking an awkward silence, made a joke about them both being Jewish. But Mandel did not find it funny. “I am a minister of the republic, not a minister for the Jews,” he replied. “That won’t earn you any special privileges from this office.” To Kleinertz, this was Mandel’s essence. “He was really someone attached to parliamentarianism and democracy. It’s the reason he was assassinated.”

To get to Fontainebleau Forest, where the Mandel monument stands, you drive out of Paris on Route Nationale 7, a highway that runs south from Orly Airport all the way to the Mediterranean coast. In the town of Fontainebleau there is a palace, the Château de Fontainebleau, a storied residence of the kings of France, which you can visit for 12 euros, plus four euros for the audio tour. And there is the forest, a 250-square-mile protected area, where, not too far from the obelisk in the center, the five-foot concrete block bearing Georges Mandel’s likeness sits in the waving grass.

The month after Kleinertz reclaimed the Couture portrait, the French interior ministry announced that anti-Semitic violence in the country had increased by 74 percent in 2018. France, home to Europe’s largest Jewish community, is also the only country in Europe where Jews are periodically killed for no other reason than for being Jewish, and more and more French Jews have begun to leave for Israel.

The interior ministry’s announcement came right around the time Yellow Vest protesters attacked Alain Finkielkraut, a prominent French-Jewish intellectual, as he was walking down the street. Anti-Semitic graffiti appeared all over the normally resplendent French capital; to cite but two examples, there was the word “Juden” scrawled in yellow paint on the window of a bagel shop, and there was a swastika drawn on a tribute to the Holocaust survivor and women’s rights advocate Simone Veil, a French national hero.

Earlier this year, a swastika was drawn over a portrait of late French politician and Holocaust survivor Simone Veil.

These felt both shocking and commonplace. There had also been a swastika spray-painted on the Left Bank apartment building next to my own, between the presidential election in 2017 and early 2018. It was nearly a year before anyone scrubbed it away; after a while the swastika had begun to seem part of the landscape, something no one could miss but that no one seemed to notice.

At the bottom of the spartan concrete memorial, below Mandel’s head, is an inscription from Tristan l’Hermite, the 17th-century French dramatist: “And when he was falling in the dust, the hands of victory closed his eyelids.” Indeed, the Vichy government fell, the republic was reborn, and Mandel’s ideals and his efforts—notably his dogged commitment to resisting fascism—showed him to be ahead of his time.

But the inscription may be a tad grandiose. To Berl it seemed that his friend had failed to understand what France had become under Nazi occupation, and also the reactionary forces that had always lingered beneath the surface and that manifested themselves during the Vichy regime. Mandel was so enchanted by the romance of the French Republic and its universal values that he failed to see the human frailty behind those values.

Léon Blum gives a speech at the inauguration of a stele in memory of Georges Mandel.

“The admiration and affection I had for him prevented me from resigning myself to the fact that he had seemed duped, which he was so little suited to being,” Berl wrote. Then again, Berl wrote, “At least his death looked like him. He would not have repudiated it.”

The painting is now back in the possession of his family, but while a painting can be reclaimed, a man’s life cannot. “It’s very difficult to obtain satisfaction, in the end,” Kleinertz told me. I think this is what struck me most about my visit to Mandel’s monument. No one else was there.
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