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Germaine Tillion (1907–2008)

Author of Ravensbrück

Includes the names: Tillion Germaine

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As a child, Germaine Tillion was was particularly close to her mother Émilie Tillion, an art historian who also edited well-known travel books. She went to Paris to study oriental languages, then became interested in ethnology, obtaining postgraduate degrees from some of the most prestigious French universities. She did fieldwork in Algeria between 1934 and 1940 to prepare for her doctorate. She returned to France at the outbreak of World War II, just before the German invasion of her country. She later wrote: "When I heard Pétain's speech [asking for an armistice with Germany], I vomited. Literally. It takes one second for the course of a life to change for ever. . . Once the choice is made, one must hold to it." She chose the French Resistance. In October 1940, she helped to establish the resistance group based in the Musée de l'Homme in Paris. A few months later, the leaders of that network were arrested and shot. Tillion continued her resistance work with another group until she was herself arrested in 1942 and deported to Ravensbrück concentration camp. Her mother, also in the Resistance, was arrested in 1944 and sent to the same camp. Tillion managed to keep and hide a journal and a comic operetta she was writing in the camp (it was later performed in honor of her 100th birthday). Her mother was killed, but Germaine Tillion survived. After liberation in 1945, she put aside her work on North Africa and began a decade of research on the concentration camps, trying to understand what she called the "history of the de-civilization of Europe." Her three books on Ravensbrück combined her personal memories with her professional analysis of their functioning. In 1954, Tillion was sent to Algeria by the French government to analyze and report on the Algerian War of Independence. She became famous for her efforts to end the cycle of violence during the French-Algerian struggle. By 1962, Tillion had returned to her anthropological research, also teaching in Paris, while continuing to be active in many social and political causes such as the emancipation of women and the end of torture. By the end of her long life, she had received numerous honors and decorations -- she was one of only five women to hold the Grand Croix of the Légion d'Honneur -- and historians had became interested in documenting her life. Two biographies of her appeared after 2000.
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