Say this city has ten million souls,
Some are living in mansions, some are living in holes:
Yet there’s no place for us, my dear, yet there’s no place for us.
‘Refugee Blues’, W.H. Auden
Marseille is an old-fashioned town. ‘You still have a queen,’ the lady checking museum tickets remarked. ‘So why don’t you cut her throat? Kings and queens are pointless, cost a fortune.’ Red Republicanism, 1793 brand, is not extinct here.
[*] Margot Dembo’s new translation is published in August (NYRB, 280 pp., £9.99, 978 1 59017 625 1).
Vol. 35 No. 15 · 8 August 2013
Neal Ascherson oversimplifies the story of the destruction in 1943 of the north side of the Vieux Port in Marseille (LRB, 18 July). The story is set out in Alèssi Dell’Umbria’s excellent Histoire universelle de Marseille. The north side of the port had for many years been earmarked for re-development by urban planners and property developers, who saw the city as a refuge for gangsters, foreigners, prostitutes, proletarians, idlers and every other group disliked by the French bourgeoisie. In the early 1940s the city was controlled by the fascist deputy mayor, Simon Sabiani, a colourful figure closely linked to local gangsters and sympathetic to Vichy and the Wehrmacht. In 1941 the Vichy government commissioned Eugène Beaudouin to prepare plans for the rebuilding of the port and the city as a whole. The north side of the port was dynamited in February 1943. This was the oldest part of the city, settled since its founding by the Greeks around 600 BC. The German army were involved because of their professional expertise with explosives; the dynamiting wasn’t, as Ascherson suggests, a reprisal. The 12,000 inhabitants of the area were expelled; 1650 were sent to concentration camps, of whom 782 were Jews, none of whom survived.
Vol. 35 No. 16 · 29 August 2013
William Firebrace, in his letter about my article on Marseille in the Second World War, suggests that the dynamiting of the Vieux Port in 1943 was little more than a council programme of slum clearance (Letters, 8 August). The Wehrmacht, in that version, were merely contractors called in to do the job because of their skill at demolition. Even allowing for patriotic myth-making, which prefers to blame the Germans rather than the French Vichy authorities for the crimes of the Occupation, that is a long way from the popular memory of what happened, and from the official history. Robert Mencherini, author of Ici-Même: Marseille 1940-44, records that the city already had plans to redevelop the quarter, including a plan drawn up in 1942. But he continues:
The German authorities, suspecting that [the Vieux Port] harboured deserters and ‘international terrorists’, considered it extremely dangerous. Moreover, the Nazis were anxious rapidly to increase the total of deportations, in the framework of the ‘Final Solution’. In early 1943, using the pretext of the [Resistance] bomb attack on 3 January, Hitler issued an order for the razing of the northern districts of the Vieux Port and the deportation of their inhabitants.
Carl Oberg, supreme commander of the SS and police in occupied France, went to Marseille to explain the plan to the municipal and regional prefects and the chief of police. Their disgrace is that they consented to what followed, not that they devised it.