Sunday, February 13, 2011

Dr Marcel Petiot: Résistant or villain?




(Top) The Eiffel Tower, Paris during the German Occupation
(Courtesy of The Memorial Museum, Caen)
(Bottom) The Eiffel Tower, Paris in the 21st Century


In 1946 Dr Marcel Petiot was put on trial for murder during the dark days of German Occupation. His defence was mainly based on him belonging to a resistance network. Despite these claims he was found guilty and sentenced to death. But was Dr Petiot truly a hero or villain?

For additional information click on ‘Comments’ below

9 Comments:

Blogger ritsonvaljos said...

(1) Dr Petiot’s trial

The trial of Dr Marcel Petiot began on 18 March 1946. It lasted sixteen days. He was charged with 27 murders. The speculation was that there had been at least 63 killings after 'appropriating' the property of his victims. .

Dr Petiot acknowledged killing 19 people, but claimed to have been "... active in the Resistance ...". His claims included that he had been the founder and head of a Resistance network code-named 'Fly-Tox'. He had provided medical certificates enabling Frenchmen called up for S.T.O. (Service Travail Obligatoire / Compulsory Work Order) to evade having to go to work in Germany.

Through his Resistance network he had been able to obtain information about secret weapons being built in Germany, provided false papers for escaping Allied airmen and generally been useful to the Allied cause. In Paris, his group had brought about the deaths of informers and dangerous German agents at the request of other Resistance groups.

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Tuesday, 15 February, 2011  
Blogger ritsonvaljos said...

(2) Dr Petiot’s activities during the Occupation

Not one person from the French Resistance came forward in support of Dr Petiot's claims. Neither did any Allied airman or successful civilian escapee come forward to verify he had helped them during the Occupation. The prosecution and the wider public opinion - if one can put it that way - believed that Dr Petiot had taken advantage of the war and the German Occupation. He had taken advantage of desperate and vulnerable people who faced capture and torture by the Gestapo by claiming he could help them.

He was able to persuade these people who were desperate to escape the Gestapo to give him huge sums of money - which he claimed he would need to prepare their escape. Then, one by one, they were invited to his rented house on Rue Le Sueur in the centre of Paris (between the Avenue Foch and Boulevard de la Grande Armée). They brought with them one suitcase and their jewellery. A number of these were later found at the premises on Rue Le Sueur – proof that this was the end of the escape route for that particular escapee.

During the Occupation it was not unknown for a person to ‘disappear’ without trace and without any known reason. Often, even family and friends did not know where their loved ones were or what had happened to them. So there was the opportunity for an unscrupulous person to use this situation to their own personal advantage.

None of the escapees who came into contact with Dr Petiot ever travelled along an escape route. According to the prosecution case they were killed in the house by Dr Petiot, their bodies were dissected, and then disposed of. Initially it was believed he disposed of the bodies in the Seine but later disposed of them at the house, which is what ultimately led to his downfall.

Not all the 'alleged' crimes that it was believed that Dr Petiot had committed during the Occupation could be proven in a court of law. Nevertheless, the police had found the evidence at the house on Rue Le Sueur. There were cremated bodies found and many of their personal belongings. None of the human remains were ever identified as German Occupiers.

Of 135 counts of the indictments the jury found Dr Petiot guilty of 132. He was sentenced to death, still claiming his innocence. All appeals for clemency were rejected. The execution took place at the Santé prison at 02.00 am on 25 May 1946. The house on Rue Le Sueur where most of the killings were believed to have taken place - No 21 - was pulled down in 1957 and a new office complex built on the site.

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Tuesday, 15 February, 2011  
Blogger ritsonvaljos said...

(3) Wartime background to the trial

The French police and fire brigade were called to 21 Rue Le Sueur on 11 March 1944 after neighbours complained of fumes and smoke from a chimney. After breaking into the house, the police first discovered the burning flesh and some of the secrets of the house. Dr Petiot's office was called and he arrived - making the claim that the bodies were traitors of France and Germans his network had disposed of and that he was an important Resistance leader. Three months before D-Day, the police let him go on his promise to return. He then disappeared.

He was not seen of again until 31 October 1944, after the Liberation. On that day a somewhat disguised Dr Petiot was recognised in a Paris Métro station and arrested. As outlined above he came to trial 18 months later.

The 'dark' side of Marcel Petiot had revealed itself a number of times in the years before WW2. He had served in the French army in WW1, wounded and discharged. There had been some suggestion of a mental instability. Yet, he had went to medical school and passed his exams. He was even elected Mayor of Villeneuve-sur-Yonne in 1927, eventually leaving for Paris in 1933 after allegations of embezzlement. In Paris he had been arrested for stealing a cheap book from a bookstore on the Boulevard St Michel. His 'defence' for this act was 'mental irresponsibility' but was working on an important medical discovery!

In May 1943 Marcel Petiot had been picked up by the German Occupiers on suspicion of being implicated in a ring which helped people escape from France: namely what he went on to claim he had been doing in his 1946 trial. However, the Nazis had subsequently released Dr Petiot, one assumes because eventually they did not believe Dr Petiot was actually part of an escape network. Some patients - those with little or no money - Dr Petiot would treat for free. His character was of that of a 'Jekyll and Hyde'.

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Tuesday, 15 February, 2011  
Blogger ritsonvaljos said...

(4) A few personal comments

Those belonging to certain professional callings tend to be trusted by those they serve. In France, traditionally priests, nuns, midwives, nurses, doctors and teachers tended to be respected and trusted because of their position in society. Hence Dr Petiot was able to use his position of trust combined with the extraordinary situation of Occupation to take advantage of people who believed he was helping them. The person they believed was their saviour turned out to be their executioner.

I first came across the case of the ‘Petiot Affair’ several years ago while studying wartime France. It was a terribly shocking case when it first came to light at the end of the war and it remains so to this day. It is perhaps even worse because the motive seemed to be personal monetary gain from people in a desperate and vulnerable situation. Dr Petiot would even seem to have had the idea of claiming to be the leader of a Resistance network in case he was ever caught while he was killing his victims.

In the aftermath of the war he might even have got away with it if he had disappeared from Paris altogether and assumed a different identity. In cases like this there is usually a day of reckoning. For Dr Marcel Petiot arrived on 25 May 1946 when he paid for his crimes with his own life.

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Tuesday, 15 February, 2011  
Blogger ritsonvaljos said...

Additional information

(5) The wartime ‘V’ sign on the Eiffel Tower

During the WW2 German Occupation of Paris Germans appropriated the Allied ‘V for Victory’ sign and proudly – if somewhat misleadingly - proclaimed from the Eiffel Tower ‘Deutschland siegt auf allen Fronten’ (‘German is triumphant on all Fronts’).

After the Germans had left Paris the ‘V’ sign came down and many Parisians claimed to have been ‘résistants’ during all the long years of Occupation, including Dr Marcel Petiot. It was not always a simple matter to ‘prove’ – or sometimes even disprove – claims of having belonged to the French Resistance. Hence it can be difficult to determine the ‘truth’ of what happened in times when many things went unspoken and many actions unreported. History is not always quite the ‘exact science’ that some people seem to think!

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Tuesday, 15 February, 2011  
Blogger Catherine L said...

I could not agree more with your last sentence, as you can well imagine having read my book!
However in the case of Dr Petiot, there is little debate here in France as to his guilt. Claiming to have belonged to the Resistance was just the thing to do after the Liberation if you'd had any hand into fishy business during the Occupation. Dr Petiot's home furnace did not burn for the Resistance, his business was a nasty and mean one, and no one shed a tear when he was condemned.

Tuesday, 15 February, 2011  
Anonymous Neha said...

Hmmm, why would any doctor kill so many people for nothing?? She should be in a mental asylum as everyone thinks so!!!

Sunday, 13 November, 2011  
Blogger Cathie said...

1) Dr Petiot was a man, not a woman
2) not for nothing : he stole all his victims' property, after asking them for money, pretending to give thme visas and tickets to flee the country. He was by no means insane, just mean and greedy.

Sunday, 13 November, 2011  
Blogger ritsonvaljos said...

Reinforcing Catherine's comment and my previous posting, Dr Petiot was deemed took full advantage of the Occupation and his position as a trusted doctor to kill people for financial gain. Basically, that was what he was found guilty of and why he received the death penalty (as required by the law at that time).

'Marcel' is a masculine forename. The feminine form is spelt 'Marcelle'.

Sunday, 13 November, 2011  

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