30 April 2014

Prison de Montluc

Every week, my wife and I run by what appears to be an unfinished mural along Rue du Dauphiné in the 3e. On the far left of this wall there is a painting of World War II resistance hero Jean Moulin, at the other end, some 200 metres down the road, there are two carefree children in modern clothes, happily racing one another. In between,  names are crudely scrawled - almost scratched - on a somewhat bland blue-and-brown background. 

We had always assumed that these were the names of people whom the artist would one day paint at that location on the wall. But another part of the fresco suggests otherwise: a series of painted tally marks which topple over and eventually turn into birds and fly away. 

One day, curiosity got the better of me, and I followed the wall around to the other side. And there I discovered what the mural meant. Because this was the scene of possibly the darkest chapter in the history of Lyon: the Prison de Montluc. 

Aerial photograph showing the military courthouse in the foreground,
cross-shaped cell block behind, ateliers on the right.
The double-walled, three-floor detention centre, court and prison was hurriedly erected next to Montluc Fort in 1921 out of fear by the French authorities of another outbreak of war in Europe and the concomitant need for extra military penitentiaries. However it saw relatively little use apart from the internment of 104 Chinese students even before its official inauguration. Partly because of the poor quality of its construction, the Prison de Montluc was declared unfit for habitation and closed in the autumn of 1932.

In late 1939, a few months after the outbreak of the Second World War, the French government needed a military prison again. So the already relatively decrepit Montluc was given a lick of paint and reopened. And thanks to the imposition of a state of emergency, the authorities could bend the rules to allow it to also hold civilian detainees: communists, anarchists, pacifists and other undesirables. 

After the French surrender to the Nazis and the subsequent armistice, on 22 June 1940, which gave Germany control over northern France, the Prison de Montluc became an instrument of Vichy repression because Lyon lay in the "Zone Libre" left by the Nazis to be run by its puppet leader, Marshal Pétain

Plan of the ground floor of the cell block: cells for convicts on the left,
refectory in the middle, pre-trial detention centre on the right
Although the number of inmates at Montluc gradually increased, and also included resistants, Gaullists and even Tunisian independence-fighter Habib Bourguiba, conditions there were still relatively humane, with those awaiting trial kept in the detention wing - strictly divided into officers and others - and convicts housed in the larger, prison wing.

Cells on the ground floor
Things changed dramatically following the Nazi invasion of the Zone Libre in November 1942.
In early January 1943, the Germans requisitioned 30 of the 122 cells at Montluc for their use. By 17 February they had taken over the entire prison and the French guards were sent packing. But even that was a mere veneer. Whereas Wehrmacht (i.e. regular) soldiers guarded the prisoners, the fate of the prisoners was decided by a far worse Nazi entity: the Gestapo, Hitler's feared and ruthless Secret State Police. 

And in 1943-44 the local Gestapo chief was the then 29-year-old SS Obersturmführer Klaus Barbie, a man whose brutality would later earn him the nickname "The Butcher of Lyon".

Second floor of the cell block
Before the Nazis and Barbie arrived, all Montluc's prisoners had been male. Now women were also held there, as were children, the old and infirm, as well as hostages, Jews awaiting deportation, indeed anyone the Gestapo wanted to arrest, interrogate or simply get rid of. 

The Nazis used the Prison de Montluc as the principal processing centre for the entire south-eastern part of France. From there, members of the Resistance and other political detainees were transported by rail to prison camps in Compèigne and later Romainville in northern France. Jews were sent first by regular passenger train to Drancy internment camp near Paris and then in cattle wagons to extermination camps in Germany and Poland. Others were simply taken away and shot. 

However, the Gestapo couldn't keep pace with its interrogation, deportation and summary execution, so Montluc received many more detainees than were leaving.

As the prison population rose - eventually to about 1200 - single occupancy was no longer an option, and up to eight people were crammed into cells less than 4m² in size, all furniture removed and the prisoners forced to sleep in shifts on straw "matresses". They were allowed out for ten minutes a day, there was a single slop-bucket per cell and certainly no privacy, the food consisted of a watery soup, a chunk of bread a day and coffee substitute. The conditions were insanitary, to say the least, and detainees were plagued by tics.

Up to 100 prisoners were lodged in what had previously been the refectory, some even in the showers, while possibly as many as 200 Jews were crammed into a 30 metre-long and 6 metre-wide wooden barrack in the courtyard with space for no more than about 70-80. The furnishings inside the so-called "Jews' Barrack" consisted mainly of three-level bunk beds not dissimilar to those found in German concentration camps. 

The "Jews' Barrack" in the prison courtyard
Families arrested together were split up, the women and children being kept in the former ateliers (workshops) on the far side of the courtyard, the men in the cell block or the "Jews' Barrack".

Squalid living conditions were just one side of the coin at Montluc. The other was the twice-daily round of interrogations at Gestapo headquarters on Avenue Berthelot, led by Barbie himself, as well as the almost random execution of sometimes large numbers of inmates. Prisoners told to leave their cell "avec baggages" (with luggage) knew they were being deported. Those ordered out "sans baggages" (without luggage) faced interrogation or death.

Among the many illustrious names incarcerated in the Prison de Montluc by the Gestapo were historian Marc Bloch and Jean Moulin, the man who united the French Resistance movement and was subsequently betrayed and arrested at a meeting of Resistance leaders in Caluire-et-Cuire, just outside Lyon, on 21 June 1943. 

Gone, but not forgotten:
the children of Izieu
Following four days of harsh interrogation and torture by Klaus Barbie, Moulin was sent to Germany for further questioning, but died of his injuries en route.

On 6 April 1944, Barbie had the Gestapo arrest Jewish 44 children, some as young as 4, from an orphanage in Izieu, 60 kilometres east of Lyon. The children were interrogated individually and spent a night at Montluc jail before being handcuffed and taken to Perrache train station for deportation via Drancy to Auschwitz, where they were gassed on arrival.

Following the Normandy landings, in June 1944, Barbie stepped up his reign of terror and slaughter. When the rail-line to Paris was cut off, he ordered a train-load of 650 deportees, 300 of them Jews diverted and to travel directly to Auschwitz; a terrible journey that took 11 days.

The cell block as seen from within the inner walls
Throughout that summer, 627 Montluc prisoners, including Marc Bloch, were driven out of town sans baggages in larger and smaller groups to be shot, their bodies dumped into mass graves or simply left where they fell. One hundred and twenty people were executed in one particularly grizzly episode in Saint Genis-Laval on 20 August. Outraged by the scale of the massacre, French Resistance fighters vowed to execute one captured German soldier for every prisoner killed and surrounded the prison simply to stop detainees being taken out.

The view from inside the cells
With Allied forces advancing across Europe and bearing down on Germany itself, the Wehrmacht soldiers guarding Montluc jail were needed to defend their own country, and they were hurriedly redeployed. This enabled the remaining 950 prisoners at Montluc to free themselves on the night of 24 August 1944, ten days before Lyon itself was liberated, on 3 September.

Nevertheless, before slipping away, the Germans evacuated 109 Jewish Resistance-members from the prison on Barbie's orders. They were all shot at Bron airfield east of Lyon on 26 August.

Although there are no precise figures, almost 10,000 men, women and children are believed to have been incarcerated at the Prison de Montluc between 1942 and 1944, a quarter of them Jews. Of these, an estimated 7000 lost their lives.

After France's liberation, Montluc again became a military jail, initially for French collaborators, captured German soldiers and militiamen.

Between 1954 and 1962, Montluc Prison was used to incarcerate FLN freedom-fighters during the Algerian War. A dozen were executed there after being refused a pardon by Charles de Gaulle. In 1955, a decree declared that all death penalties in Lyon be carried out at the Prison de Montluc, whether by firing-squad or guillotine. Montluc's last death-row inmate was executed in 1972.

Following the dissolution of France's military tribunals, in 1983, Montluc jail became a civilian women's prison until 2009, when Lyon's three penitentiaries - Montluc, St. Paul and St. Joseph - were shut. That same year, the former Prison de Montluc was declared a national monument. It was opened to the public in 2010.

Before finishing, I should mention that Klaus Barbie's links with Lyon and the Prison de Montluc didn't end with his departure in late August 1944: After a spell in the Vosges, Barbie managed to flee to Germany, conceal his identity and avoid capture despite being sought by the UN War Crimes Commission.

The "Butcher of Lyon"
In 1947, he was recruited by the US Counter Intelligence Corps and, despite protests from the French, smuggled out to the United States because of his experience in fighting communists. Four years later, the CIA helped Barbie escape to Argentina via Vienna, where he was aided by future UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim, a former member of the SA

A year later, Barbie was sentenced to death in absentia by a French court for war crimes committed in Lyon and elsewhere.

In 1965, Barbie was recruited by the German intelligence service, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), even though it had known his true identity since 1961, when he had moved to Bolivia under the alias Klaus Altmann. Barbie was eventually extradited to France in 1983, where he was put on trial in Lyon in May 1987.

By way of retribution, French Justice Minister Robert Badinter - whose own father had been deported from Lyon while Barbie was in charge - insisted that the "Butcher of Lyon" spend a week at the Prison de Montluc while awaiting trial. 

Klaus Barbie was found guilty and given a life sentence for crimes against humanity. He died at Lyon's St. Paul prison four years later.


The Prison de Montluc can be visited on Wednesdays to Saturdays from 2-5.30pm. Highly informative two-hour guided tours (in French) start at 3.30pm.

Locate the Prison de Montluc on Google Maps


  1. merci pour cet article très instructif, je ne connaissais pas cet endroit, je pense aller le visiter prochainement aussi avec mes ados qui ont étudié la seconde guerre mondiale récemment … et bravo pour les photos !

  2. Bravo pour l'article.
    Pour info, le procès de Klaus Barbie a été le premier procès pour crime contre l'humanité en France.
    Lytomon in instagram


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