Germaine Tillion (1907-2008)

Looks like the obits are accumulating. After Aimé Césaire another one of my heroes has passed away at the ripe old age of 100: anthropologist, feminist, resistance fighter, concentration camp survivor, Algeria peacemaker and writer Germaine Tillion. An amazing woman! Everyone should read at least one her books: The Republic of Cousins in which Tillion analyzes societal structures all around the Mediterranean basin and argues that the oppression suffered by women throughout that area

“is not an aberration specific to Islam, but part of a legacy from pagan prehistory that weighs upon Christian and Muslim society alike. The rise of the Republic of Cousins was a unique Mediterranean social innovation whereby the immemorial incest taboo was relaxed and marriage between first cousins in the paternal line became common. It set the stage for the debasement of the female condition and for much else besides, from economic expansionism to high birthrates. In the hinterlands of the Mediterranean’s northern shore, the Republic of Cousins ultimately gave way to the modern Republic of Citizens, though not without leaving deep traces in European and eventually American society. On the southern shore it still persists widely to this day, and many of its practices have been absorbed into Islam so profoundly that they are considered Islamic in origin by the peoples of Morocco and Algeria themselves.

In support of her thesis Tillion draws upon authors as diverse as Herodotus, Saint Paul, and Ibn Khaldun, on legend and literature, ethnography and personal history, sociological investigation and fascinating anecdote. The Republic of Cousins is a work of engaging charm and impressive scope, a blend of scientific insight, irreverent wit, and provocative speculation.” (to use the book description on Amazon)

And here is the AFP press release summary of her life:

Born to a prosperous family in mountainous central France on May 30, 1907, Tillion trained as an anthropologist in the 1930s and cultivated a life-long interest in Algeria.

“Anthropology gave me lucidity,” she wrote in later life. “It taught me from the very beginning to be respectful of other cultures.”

Between 1934 and 1940, she made four trips to Algeria, travelling on horseback and camping with Berber nomads as she gathered her firsthand observations.

But it was her wartime experiences that first brought her to wider public attention as a founding member of the “Museum of Mankind” intellectual resistance network at the start of German Occupation during World War II.

In 1942 she was betrayed by a priest working for the Gestapo and arrested at the Paris’ Gare de Lyon station.

At the same time her mother — also in the group — was picked up for hiding a British airman, and the two were sent to the all-woman concentration camp of Ravensbruck in late 1943.

Tillion used her academic training as a tool for survival, treating the camp as a case-study for observation — and after the war bringing out two definitive books on Ravensbruck.

Some 50,000 out of 132,000 inmates died from fatigue and disease as well as lethal injection and gassing — with Tillion’s own mother sent to the gas chamber in 1945.

She was also the author of an operetta, “Le Verfugbar aux Enfers” (The Camp-Worker goes to Hell).

Written in October 1944, it lay forgotten in a drawer for some 60 years before being premiered to thousands of people to mark her centenary.

After the war, Tillion returned to Algeria and at the request of the French government mediated during the years of crisis and war.

She created social centres for displaced rural Muslims, and in 1957, at the height of the battle of Algiers — which led to the country’s independence from France — negotiated a ceasefire during one secret meeting with the regional military commander.

Tillion was one of France’s most decorated people, being one of just five women awarded the Grand Cross of the Legion d’honneur.

She was also honoured with her country’s croix de guerre and Resistance medals, and Germany granted her the title of Commander of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic in 2004.

In nominating her, Germany said Tillion was “a great European” and “an exceptional person.”

Amongst many more honours, she received the Prix mondial Cino Del Duca for her lifetime’s work.

Tillion also wrote two autobiographies, but her seminal work remains “The Republic of Cousins: Wo
men’s Oppression in Mediterranean Society,” in which she examined the social position of women across North Africa and along much of the Mediterranean’s eastern shore.

She revealed to readers in France and beyond of how the “crime of honour” — in which a woman suspected of having violated a stringent code of sexual behaviour was murdered by members of her own family — was rarely punished severely.

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  1. mongibeddu says:

    I was very sad to read this, though she certainly had a long life. My father was in Ravensbruck at the end of the war, and I read Tillion’s book on the camp (or I guess it was just one of them) with great appreciation in high school. Later discovered The Republic of Cousins. One of the more impressive women of the twentieth century.

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