On Sunday 5 September 1937, a gunshot disturbed the sleepy commune of Les Salles-de-Castillon in the Gironde. The shot was fired by Paul G., a local wine grower. On returning from a hunting trip, Paul had called round to the house of his neighbour, Armand R. A short discussion ensued before Paul shot to death Armand in front of his family. Paul left the scene of the crime on a bicycle, loudly proclaiming to the locals, ‘I’ve just killed a communist’.
The authorities decided that the murder was ‘clearly political’. Paul G. was well-known in the region for his activism in the extreme right-wing group the Croix de Feu, while Armand R. was a highly-regarded socialist councillor. There was a history of confrontation between the two men: Paul had threatened Armand several times and it seems that he had gone to see his neighbour on that day to provoke a heated political discussion.
The left-wing parties concurred with the police. Communist newspaper L’Humanité reported the incident as ‘a crime provoked by the hateful campaigns of the fascist press’. Local Radicals and members of the Ligue des Droits de l’Homme were said to be ‘overexcited’ by the news.
And yet… such a blatantly political murder was rare in France. Deaths were usually ‘accidental’ – that is, they occurred during spontaneous confrontations, or in the heat of a clash between a number of activists. Rarely (if at all) were killings premeditated, or committed with explicit political ideology in mind. It is possible that the murder of Armand R. was committed for purely political reasons. Yet the local press hinted at other factors too. La Petite Gironde reported that in ‘small rural communes’ like Les Salles, ‘everyone knows the opinion of their neighbour’. Quarrels could result, but they did not usually pass the bounds of verbal insults. It is unlikely that these ‘quarrels’ would have all been political in nature, and personal disputes must be taken into account. In fact, the same newspaper reported that Paul G. had claimed Armand R. owed him a sum of money. Whether this was true or not, hearsay and rumour serve to complicate the origin of such crimes.
However, it seems that the case of Paul G. bucks the trend. The fact that he boasted of ‘killing a communist’, and subsequently turned himself in to his employer, suggests that he was proud of his crime, and that Armand R. was targeted explicitly for his political loyalties. Nevertheless, as Eve Rosenhaft has argued in her study of communist streetfighters in interwar Berlin, while political affiliation and ideology placed activists in confrontational situations, personal motives and local relationships between enemies could be at the forefront of activists’ minds.
Archives nationales, Paris: F7 14817
Eve Rosenhaft, Beating the Fascists? The German Communists and Political Violence 1929-1933 (CUP, 1983).