Throughout the Second World War, several resistance groups cropped up in opposition to the Nazis. Some groups resembled armies that fought in the style of guerilla warfare. Some were based on obtaining and sharing Nazi intelligence with the Allies, and others focused on sabotage to restrict the Third Reich. Regardless of the main goal, resisting was no easy task. It took immense amounts of courage to actively fight against the Nazi regime in occupied territories.
Armies swarmed, and the SS were everywhere. Any person of importance in occupied areas either had to be aligned with the Nazi Party or replaced by someone who was. The idea, then, of teenagers resisting the advances of the Third Reich is almost preposterous. However, many youth organizations popped up throughout occupied Europe. One such organization, La Main Noire, based in Alsace, was one of the first groups to resist the Nazis in World War II.
WWII Alsace & Origins of La Main Noire
The region of Alsace was annexed into the Third Reich in June 1940. This was a special case in the reign of the Nazis, as it was not simply occupied but incorporated into the state of Nazi Germany. The Germans saw Alsace as a propaganda piece due to its unique blend of French and German culture. Hitler’s aim in incorporating the region was to humiliate the French, who had forcibly taken the region back following the First World War. The Führer went so far as to force the French to sign away the region in the same cable car where the Treaty of Versailles was ratified.
Strasbourg, the region’s cultural and economic capital, was under siege. Immediately after taking the city, the Nazis started on their predictable path of judenrein, which aimed to rid the region of its Jewish population. By July 15, 1940, the last Jewish residents of Strasbourg were deported. The remaining Alsatians were declared German citizens, administratively aligned with the state of Baden. The city was forcibly influenced by the Germans, with statues removed, plazas renamed, and German language use strictly enforced. The Nazis also called this the de-Francization, as it eliminated all traces of French or Alsatian language and culture in public.
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Many Alsatians loathed Nazi rule, but in a state of such complete control, it seemed that there was little they could do. Marcel Weinum, a 16-year-old student from Strasbourg, thought differently. In September of 1940, Weinum and several other teenagers formed a resistance group they called La Main Noire (The Black Hand). The group was composed solely of underage students aged 14 to 17, except for Weinum’s foster brother, Charles Lebold, who was 24. Most members were also fervent Catholics, which contributed to the group’s name.
La Main Noire was an iconic relic, the literal hand of Saint Attala, the patron saint of Strasbourg. Throughout history, several claimed that miracles were performed in the presence of the hand, and Weinum took inspiration from this, saying that his group would symboliser la main vengeresse qui s’oppose aux affronts nazis faits à l’Alsace, or, “symbolize the vengeful hand which opposes the Nazi affronts made in Alsace.”
Marcel Weinum & the Black Hand Members
Marcel Weinum was born in Brumath, a town north of Strasbourg, on February 5, 1924. He had completed his secondary schooling at the Cathedral of Notre Dame-Strasbourg and was working as a draftsman’s apprentice when the Nazis annexed Alsace. He and his family were evacuated to the region of Dordogne in 1939, along with many other Alsatians, in anticipation of the Nazi invasion. After the armistice that ceded the region to the Third Reich, Weinum returned to Strasbourg, where he formed La Main Noire one month later.
The group was composed of 25 members, broken up into cells of three. Each cell was given a leader, and many members never met. All members of The Black Hand used codenames, with Weinum going by the pseudonym “Schmidtt.” Later, the group leaders the Nazis identified along with Weinum were Ceslav Sieradzki, Weinum’s assistant, Jean-Jacques Bastian, Lucien Entzmann, Marcel Keller, and René Kleinmann. These group leaders were 15 to 17 years old and were nearly all apprentices to tradesmen. They fearlessly led groups in missions of sabotage, which began on a small scale and eventually led to an assassination attempt.
The Black Hand was formed and run entirely by teenagers, with no adult supporters. Most of the members’ parents were unaware of their resistance activities. The group of boys secretly carried out several missions against the Nazis, providing a voice of opposition within the community of Strasbourg.
The Objectives and Actions of the Black Hand
While many resistance groups were dedicated to espionage or intelligence, La Main Noire had essentially one objective: sabotage. The Nazis that annexed Alsace, Strasbourg specifically, had turned the city on its head. Nazification was all about forced assimilation, and La Main Noire saw this as an attack on the Alsatian identity.
Alsace is a unique region, and though it had been handed back and forth between France and Germany for over 100 years, Alsatians did not take kindly to their culture being outlawed. In their eyes, they were neither German nor French, they were Alsatian. The forcible loss of this integral identity and the degradation of the Alsatian people by Nazis led Marcel Weinum and La Main Noire to unify at such young ages.
Based on this cultural loss, La Main Noire’s first actions were related to patriotism. In October of 1940, the group painted Crosses of Lorraine and patriotic inscriptions all over the walls of Strasbourg. This simple vandalism kicked off a streak of actions that would become the first Alsatian resistance movement.
The group quickly escalated their activities, moving to sabotage the Wehrmacht at railway stations and transmission offices in November 1940. The Black Hand also looted German vehicles, stealing weapons, intelligence documents, and fuel coupons. After they had finished their haul, they would then slash the car’s tires.
The following month, December 1940, the Nazi government required shopkeepers and local businesses to display an image or bust of Hitler in their windows. La Main Noire, having found a multitude of weapons in abandoned forts along the Maginot Line, bombed the businesses that displayed the image of the Führer in any form. Seemingly spurred on by a courageous sense of purpose and, perhaps, a bit of teenage curiosity, the group had explored several abandoned forts and recovered grenades, gun cartridges, and dynamite. They hid the weapons near their parents’ homes and eventually began to use them in several guerilla attacks.
In 1941, Weinum rented an apartment, which is thought to have been paid for through the burglary of Nazi offices. In addition to providing further weapons storage, Marcel Weinum also used the apartment as his propaganda headquarters, typing and distributing patriotic leaflets throughout the city. The flyers were scattered in the street, placed in mailboxes, pasted on walls and buildings, and sent to high-profile Germans.
The highest Nazi official in Alsace was called the Gauleiter. His job was administrative, and he served as a sort of chairman of the region. The man who governed Alsace and Baden was Robert Wagner, a hardline Nazi from the beginning and one of Hitler’s 11 governing officials. On May 8, 1941, Weinum and one of his associates, Albert Ulrich, each threw a grenade onto the windshield of Gauleiter Wagner’s car. The car exploded, but the Gauleiter was saved from a fiery death simply by being a few minutes late to return to his car. Wagner was, at this point, tired of dealing with La Main Noire and wanted to put a stop to their actions.
The End of La Main Noire & its Legacy
On May 20, 1941, a mere 12 days after their most important attack, Marcel Weinum and Ceslav Sieradzki were apprehended at the Swiss border. They had been attempting to cross the border near Basel to contact British intelligence and garner funds for their resistance. In the chaos of trying to escape, one of the group members shot and wounded a Nazi officer. They were immediately imprisoned.
The remaining 23 members of La Main Noire were also rounded up and arrested by the Gestapo. Most members were imprisoned at Strasbourg prison, while others were sent to Kehl. Eventually, many of the Black Hand’s members were eventually sent to Schirmeck, a concentration camp in Alsace. The same day he was sent to Schirmeck, Sieradzki was shot for “resistance.” This execution marked the first time the Nazis used the word resistance in Alsace, and Sieradzki was the first resistance fighter killed in the region.
Ten members of La Main Noire were sent to the Sondergericht, or the Nazi “people’s court,” in March 1942. Nine members were sentenced to prison terms and “rehabilitation” for resistance, while Marcel Weinum was sentenced to death by beheading. On April 14, 1942, at the age of 18, Marcel Weinum was executed. His last words were, “If I have to die, I die with a pure heart.”
Twelve members imprisoned at the Schirmeck camp were released into forced service for the Nazis, whether through hard labor or military service. After the war, several members of La Main Noire lived the rest of their lives in France.
Surprisingly, the Black Hand was all but forgotten until 2007. Gérard Pfister’s book, Marcel Weinum et La Main Noire, garnered the attention that the group deserved. The remaining five members were awarded the Medal of Honor of the city of Strasbourg in 2007, and Jean-Jacques Bastian was knighted into the Legion of Honor.
Today, the group is commemorated with a plaque at the Saint-Étienne episcopal college and the street in Strasbourg named Rue Marcel Weinum. Weinum and La Main Noire are remembered for being the first group to courageously oppose the Nazi regime in Alsace. Their story endures thanks to publications like Pfister’s, which keep their memory alive.