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Maastricht University

Learning Occupation – Francis Thiallet and the History of France and Germany 1917-1957

Julia Wambach, Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Berlin

The particularly dense history of mutual occupations between France and Germany in the first half of the 20th century allowed for biographical continuity of occupation personnel from one occupation to the next. My contribution traces the life of Francis Thiallet, a French soldier and administrator. Born in 1898, he experienced and actively took part in no less than four French and German occupations in his lifetime – both as occupier and occupied. Based on Thiallet’s self-published memoir and sources from the French archives, my paper tries to capture the lessons Thiallet learned from the First World War, the Rhineland occupation, Vichy France, and the Allied Occupation of Germany after the Second World War, and even Colonialism.

Francis Thiallet became a soldier in the French army in 1917 almost at the end of the First World War and fought in Northern France, parts of which had been under German occupation since 1914. To secure the cease-fire, French and Allied troops entered Germany as agreed in the armistice and occupied the left bank of the Rhine in December 1918. Thiallet was part of this occupation, first as second lieutenant in the army corps and, after his demobilization, as part of the Inter-Allied Rhineland High Commission (1920-1930) led by Frenchman Paul Tirard. At the Rhineland commission, Thiallet gained experience in governing a district – Bad Kreuznach – and developed his administrative and German language skills sufficiently to be called to important tasks at the Rhineland Commission’s headquarters in Koblenz during the passive resistance and the separatist uprisings in 1923/24.

During his stay, he built up a network of friends and acquaintances – at work but also during the pleasant free-time activities the Rhineland offered to the French occupiers. Thiallet not only met his future wife, a French national who was visiting the French occupation zone, and had his first child there, he also laid the grounds for his career in the upcoming French and German military occupations in 1940 and 1945. Thiallet found a ‘very dear friend’ in Jean Rivalland, who during the Rhineland occupation was a lieutenant in the 5e Régiment de Tirailleurs. Rivalland was a member of the nationalist rightwing Action française and had a prominent career in the Vichy administration. As Secretary General at the Vichy ministry of interior, Rivalland offered Thiallet in 1942 a position as police intendant of Rennes, a city in German occupied Brittany, which Thiallet gladly accepted. He claimed in his memoir that he had learned from the Rhineland occupation how to organize an administration under foreign rule and potentially resist the occupier. But he also had the language skills to communicate with the Germans and was an expert in preventing uprisings, since he had written a legal dissertation in the interwar period on how the Rhineland commission had reconciled strike movements. The Vichy administration promoted him quickly and awarded him a Francisque for his loyalty. After the fall of Vichy France in 1944, the Ministry of Interior’s purge commission did not reintegrate him into its ranks. This exclusion from a prefectural career was bitter for Thiallet and he repeatedly mentions this rejection throughout his memoir, speaking of an ‘unjust removal’.

However, another French occupation of Germany was being prepared, and Thiallet longed to serve in the military again, seeing himself qualified to ‘render appreciable services’ in ‘analogous circumstances’. He contacted a fellow Rhineland veteran, General Louis Koeltz, head of the military mission for German affairs (MMAA). Koeltz hired freshly purged Thiallet as instructor at the training facility of the Administration Militaire Française en Allemagne (AMFA) on the basis of his experiences with German occupations. At the AMFA, the distribution of positions for the French occupation of Germany took place and Thiallet was appointed head of the military government of Speyer in the Palatinate in March 1945 with the war still ongoing. It was there that Thiallet lived what he described as ‘the most unforgettable days’ of his life; it was a time when his knowledge and experience in occupations and dealing with the Germans finally played out – the culmination of a task he had been learning since 1917. Thiallet kept up with his acquaintances from the interwar period, encouraged friends to join him in the occupation zone, met with German administrators, many of whom had also already held positions during the interwar occupation. His good life as an occupier was only disturbed when his Vichy past was uncovered by a French parliamentary commission in the spring of 1946. He was forced to leave his position in the military government but remained in occupied Germany.

What helped Thiallet now, in addition to his German language and occupation skills, was his experience in the French colonies. After his departure from Germany in 1925, he had, with the help of his father-in-law, found employment as inspector at the Crédit Foncier d’Algerie et de Tunisie in Tangier and Casablanca until 1931. With this experience in mind, Emile Laffon, head of the French occupation administration in Germany, entrusted Thiallet with a mission to control the finances of the German big industrial businesses under French sequestration. One of Thiallet’s main tasks was to bind the French and the German industry closer together, which meant convincing German businesses to purchase their raw material in North Africa from distributors favoured by the French occupiers, therefore integrating the German economy into the French Empire. When the businesses returned to Germans hands in the early 1950s, this time for good, Thaillet’s stay in Germany came to an end.

Thiallet’s professional career, expertise, and networks were so tied to the mutual occupations between France and Germany since the end of the First World War that he could not find a job after he left Germany in 1952. Emile Laffon, his superior in French-occupied Germany tried to find him employment in the European Coal and Steel Community and the mining/nuclear sector, none of which led to a full-time position. Laffon’s death in 1957 finally ended Thiallet’s hopes for future employment. He died aged 100 in 1998.

By the example of Francis Thiallet, I would like to show that there was not just a continuity between the occupations during the Second World War and the peacetime occupations that immediately followed but, at least in the French and German case, there was a much longer history of interwoven occupations since (at least) the First World War that translated into personal first-hand experiences of multiple occupations. This long history led to the creation of a pool of occupation experts who had learned the necessary skills to occupy a country (especially language and administrative skills) that could be reused in the next occupation – be it as occupier or occupied. The close personal bonds and networks between the occupation veterans also enabled them to bridge the reversals or ends of an occupation when their services were no longer needed or when their involvement in an occupation had become politically problematic. Memoirs like Francis Thiallet’s, I would like to suggest, are a particularly apt source to explore the subject of  role reversals in (multiple) occupations as they capture the way individuals made sense of and reflected on the turning points in their lives.


Photo credits:

Cover picture: Front cover of Thiallet’s self-published memoir:
‘Au soir d’une longue vie’.






Julia Wambach is a Researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Berlin, Germany.