The 50 Hostages

By Château des ducs de Bretagne - Musée d'histoire de Nantes

On October 24, 1941, the funeral of Lieutenant-Colonel Karl Hotz was held in the city of Nantes. Filmed by the German authorities, a procession of German soldiers accompanied the officer's casket to the La Gaudinière cemetery. The residents were required to close all businesses and stop all activity to pay homage to Hotz. The event was reported in the local press.

Le lieutenant-colonel Hotz à Châteaubriant (1940)Château des ducs de Bretagne - Musée d'histoire de Nantes

Hotz, an engineer and German soldier, was appointed Feldkommandant (field commander) of Nantes by the German authorities when Nantes was occupied. Having taken vacations in Nantes between 1929 and 1933, he knew the city well and had taken part in the works to fill the Loire and Erdre rivers, making him well respected by the residents of the city. He was assassinated on October 20, 1941, on Rue du Roi-Albert in Nantes, by Gilbert Brustlein. The repression that followed would scar the population of Nantes deeply.

Photographie Gilbert Brustlein (1941)Château des ducs de Bretagne - Musée d'histoire de Nantes

Gilbert Brustlein was a Parisian resistance fighter and member of the Communist party's Youth Battalions. Together with his comrade Pierre Georges, known in the Resistance by the pseudonym Colonel Fabien, he had taken part in the assassination of a German Naval officer in Barbès in August 1941.

Gilbert Brustlein, résistantChâteau des ducs de Bretagne - Musée d'histoire de Nantes

Following that, in October of the same year, he received orders for a mission in Nantes, alongside Marcel Bourdarias and Spartaco Guisco. The objectives of the mission, set by the leadership of the Communist party, were to sabotage the railways and assassinate a German officer.

Photographie de Marcel BourdariasChâteau des ducs de Bretagne - Musée d'histoire de Nantes

Marcel Bourdarias and Spartaco Guisco were both also Resistance fighters and Communist fighters.

Photographie de Spartaco GuiscoChâteau des ducs de Bretagne - Musée d'histoire de Nantes

With 10 years of experience behind him, including in the Spanish Civil War, Spartaco Guisco was in charge of the operation.

Arme de poing (1935/1941) by Manufacture d'armes des Pyrénées française (MAPF). Marque "Unique"Château des ducs de Bretagne - Musée d'histoire de Nantes

On October 20, 1941, they made their move. With the sabotage attempt a failure, Gilbert Brustlein and Spartaco Guisco headed downtown to kill a high-ranking German officer, as their mission dictated.

Assassinat du Lieutnant Colonel Hotz, scène de l'exécution Assassinat du Lieutnant Colonel Hotz, scène de l'exécution (1941-10-20)Château des ducs de Bretagne - Musée d'histoire de Nantes

Near the cathedral and neighboring Kommandantur, the two men saw Lieutenant-Colonel Hotz in the street, accompanied by Captain Wilhelm Sieger. Gilbert Brustlein killed Hotz with two gunshots to the back, while Spartaco Guisco's gun jammed, saving Wilhelm Sieger's life.

Avis. Un registre est ouvert à la Préfecture et à la Mairie où seront recueillies les signatures des personnes qui désireraient s'inscrire à la suite de l'odieux attentat dont vient d'être victime M. le lieutenant-colonel Hotz, chef de la Feld-kommandantur de Nantes. Nantes, le 21 octobre 1941. (1941-10-21) by Ville de NantesChâteau des ducs de Bretagne - Musée d'histoire de Nantes

Immediately after the attack, an investigation was launched by the French police. Responsibility fell first of all to the central commissioner's men, before rapidly being entrusted to Division Commissioner Delgay. A local restaurant owner gave a precise description of two men who had come regularly to her establishment on October 18 and 19. Soon enough, the perpetrators of the attack were identified. Gilbert Brustlein managed to reach Spain, from where he travelled to London. As for Spartaco Guisco and Michel Bourdarias, they were arrested in France a few months later by the German authorities, and shot on April 17, 1942, at the Mont-Valérien fortress in Paris, which was then being used as a prison.

"Avis. Au crépuscule du 21 octobre 1941, un jour après le crime qui vient d'être commis à Nantes (...)" (1941-10-23) by Von STÜPNAGELChâteau des ducs de Bretagne - Musée d'histoire de Nantes

Lieutenant-Colonel Hotz died a few minutes after the attack. Otto von Stülpnagel, head of the German occupation forces in France, was quickly alerted and informed Adolf Hitler.

Nantais ! 'Ne laissez plus faire de mal à la France'. (1941-10) by Etat FrançaisChâteau des ducs de Bretagne - Musée d'histoire de Nantes

The repression was brutal. Von Stülpnagel, on the Führer's orders, was to execute 100 hostages. He drew up a list of hostages with the help of the governor of the military region of Angers. Pierre Pucheu, minister of the interior for the Vichy regime, also submitted a list, drawn up by his office. Von Stülpnagel decided to shoot 50 hostages at once, and 50 hostages 48 hours later if the perpetrators of the attack were not identified.

Le Phare de la Loire, de Bretagne et de Vendée (1941-10-24) by Le Phare de la LoireChâteau des ducs de Bretagne - Musée d'histoire de Nantes

The 50 hostages, selected by the German and French authorities in large part for their political leanings, were communists, trade unionists, or members of the Resistance. They were already in prison when the list was drawn up. Forty-eight of them were killed on October 20 and 22, 1941. Five were killed in Mont-Valérien in Paris, 27 at the concentration camp in Châteaubriant, and 16 at the Bêle firing range in Nantes. Two men on the list escaped the death penalty for administrative reasons. Even so, those shot in reprisal for the assassination are known today as the "50 hostages."

Le Phare de la Loire, de Bretagne et de Vendée (1941-10-25) by Le Phare de la LoireChâteau des ducs de Bretagne - Musée d'histoire de Nantes

Some of the families of the hostages only learned of the executions several days later in the newspaper or on notices put up in the city. Hoping to avert the second wave of executions, some of them wrote to the German authorities asking for clemency for their loved ones, while others offered to take the hostages' place. Some workers at the Brest Arsenal decided to go on strike on October 25, 1941, in protest of the event.

Portrait de Philippe Pétain (1939/1945) by SimontChâteau des ducs de Bretagne - Musée d'histoire de Nantes

Marshal Pétain then gave a speech on the radio on October 22, 1941. He urged the French people to "No longer do harm to France!" This appeal to end all acts of resistance towards the occupiers was fully in line with Pétainist policy.

Le général de Gaulle (1943/1944)Château des ducs de Bretagne - Musée d'histoire de Nantes

Reactions to this event were national and international. Across the Atlantic, Franklin D. Roosevelt firmly condemned the executions, as did Churchill in London, who threatened the German authorities with reprisals in turn. Charles de Gaulle, in his address on October 23, 1941, also condemned the execution of the hostages and recognized the assassination of Lieutenant-Colonel Hotz as an act of resistance, but called on the French people to stop assassinating German soldiers in order to not incur further reprisals from the occupiers.

Monument aux Cinquantes otages à Nantes, Château des ducs de Bretagne, From the collection of: Château des ducs de Bretagne - Musée d'histoire de Nantes
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The second series of executions was cancelled: the German authorities did not want to stoke French hostility because, in the aftermath of the October 22, they had realized the effect of the hostage executions. In November 1941, Charles de Gaulle awarded the city of Nantes the Order of Liberation, an honor bestowed on heroes of the liberation of France. The communist party did not claim responsibility for the event until the 1950s. The scars left by the execution of Lieutenant-Colonel Hotz and the repression that followed remain in the city's memory of the World War II to this day.

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This exhibition was created by the teams of the Castle of the Dukes of Brittany – Nantes History Museum.

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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