French Armenian filmmaker Robert Guédiguian’s movie, “The Army of Crime,” which Richard Brody praised in The New Yorker (2010) as “vigorously heroic yet mournful Second World War drama,” reconstructed the deeds and the downfall of a group of foreign members of the French Resistance led by Armenian poet and activist Missak Manouchian (Manoushian).
Manouchian was born on September 1, 1906, in Adiyaman (vilayet of Mamuret-ul-Aziz). He survived the Armenian Genocide, harbored by a Kurdish family. His brother Karabet also survived the Genocide. Both orphaned siblings were accepted at an orphanage in Syria. They finally made their way to Marseilles in 1925.
The brothers moved to Paris, where Karabet Manouchian died in 1927. Missak had taken a job at a plant of the automobile company Citroën and joined a member of the General Confederation of Labour, a national association of trade unions that was the first of the major French confederations. He lost his job in the early 1930s, at the time of the Great Depression. He joined the Communist Party in 1934 and became secretary of the Committee of Assistance to Armenia (Hayastani Oknutian Gomide or HOG) the next year and editor of its weekly Zanku. In one of the meetings of the Committee, he met his future wife Melinée Assadourian (1913-1989).
Manouchian was a poet who founded two left-leaning literary magazines, Chank and Mshaguyt, with a fellow Communist friend and poet, Sema (Kegham Atmadjian). Besides their own poetry, they published articles on French literature and Armenian literature.
At the beginning of World War II, the young poet was evacuated from Paris as a foreigner. He returned after the defeat to Germany in June 1940 and was briefly arrested by the German authorities of occupation in June 1941, when the invasion of the Soviet Union began, but released a few weeks later by the efforts of his wife.
After becoming the political head of the Armenian section of the underground MOI (Immigrant Workforce Movement), the branch of foreign members of the Communist Party, from 1941-1943, Manouchian transferred in February 1943 to the FTP-MOI, a group of gunmen and saboteurs attached to the MOI in Paris. The group carried out almost thirty successful attacks on German interests from August to November 1943.
The Special Brigade No. 2 of the General Intelligence, a collaborationist French police force, undertook a large operation against resistance activists, which eventually led to the complete dismantling of the FTP-MOI network in Paris. A total of 68 persons were arrested, including Manouchian on the morning of November 16, 1943, in Évry Petit-Bourg. His wife managed to escape and survive the war.
Manouchian and the others were tortured to gain information, and eventually handed over to the Germans. The inner circle of twenty-three people (eleven Jewish, five Italians, three French, two Armenians, one Spaniard, and one Polish) was given a 1944 show trial for propaganda purposes before execution. Twenty-two men were shot on February 21, 1944, at Fort Mont-Valérien, near Paris. The only woman of the group was beheaded in the prison at Stuttgart (Germany) three months later. After the liberation, Manouchian would be posthumously awarded the highest order of the Legion of Honor.
In the wake of the execution, the Germans printed 15,000 propaganda posters on red background paper. The red posters (Affiche Rouge) bore photos of ten of the dead. The center photo of Manouchian had the following inscription: “Armenian gang leader, 56 bombings, 150 dead, 600 wounded.” The poster was intended to portray the Resistance as murderous foreigners who were a danger to law-abiding citizens. But people marked the red posters with "Morts pour la France!" (They died for France). Pasted on walls all over Paris, the posters became emblems of martyrdom by freedom fighters, and contributed to popular support for the Resistance.
The last letter of Manouchian to his wife stated: “I joined the Army of Liberation as a volunteer, and I die within inches of Victory and the final goal. Happy will be all those who will survive and taste the sweetness of Freedom and Peace of tomorrow. I'm sure that the French people and all the freedom combatants will know how to honor our memory with dignity. . . . With the help of friends who would like to honor me, you shall publish my poems and writings that are worth being read. You shall take my memories, if possible, to my relatives in Armenia.”
A commemorative plaque and a fresco remember the Manouchian group in Paris, as well as a park and a memorial in Évry Petit-Bourg. A street bears Manouchian’s name in Yerevan.