The Destruction of Le Panier

Sixty-five years ago, the Nazis carried out one of their most spectacular atrocities in occupied France, destroying almost an entire quartier of Marseilles. John Gimlette pays a visit to Le Panier, and finds it still physically and emotionally scarred.

It was a place of legendary squalor. Most of the streets were too narrow and steep even for carts, and the fish had to be carried up on poles. Surprisingly, amongst those who’d briefly wallowed in its filth were Napoleon, Casanova, the painter Puget, and a convent of nuns who cut off their noses to scare the Saracen raiders. And the district’s filles de joie were known to sailors everywhere as some of the most obliging and unrepentant in the world.

The Germans detested Marseille. The head of the French Gestapo, Karl Oberg, described the city as ‘a cancer’, and declared that ‘Europe cannot survive until Marseille has been purified’. As for Le Panier, despite the fact that it was no more than a miserable ghetto of refugees, it was referred to in Berlin, rather mystically, as the Kasbah Marseillais.

Seldom has fantasy ever got such a grip of reality. It seems Reichsführer Himmler had been taken in by the oafish Oberg’s reports, in which Le Panier was portrayed as teeming with spies and gun-runners; Oberg predicted that wild gangs of bandits would soon be breaking free and screaming up though France. Alarmed, Himmler demanded a ‘radikale Lösung’, or radical solution, a clear indication of the atrocity required. In Oberg he had a man he could rely on to do something catastrophically futile.

Almost as soon as they arrived in Marseille, in November 1942, the Germans began organizing the systematic destruction of Le Panier. It was not their first attempt at town planning (they had already blown up Hamburg’s Gängeviertel district), but it was easily their most savage.

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