The Islamic State video marking the executions of 18 captured Syrian soldiers along with American aid worker Peter Kassig shocked the world for the usual reasons and one more as well. The militants did not wear masks. Two who appeared in the video, Michael Dos Santos and Maxime Hauchard, are French citizens. Their unmasking allowed the French to put faces to two of the more than 1,000 of their countrymen estimated to have given themselves to Islamic State and its terrifying worldview.
These particular faces have blurred the typical profile of a French Islamic militant: young men of a particular socioeconomic and psychological stamp, offspring of North African immigrants, no longer part of their parents’ world and not yet part of their new world. Raised in France’s broken and blasted suburbs, herded into dilapidated schools and handed worthless diplomas, suspected of being less than French because of their names and skin color, they may be drawn to a movement that promises them not just community, but also purpose.
Now the case is more complex. Dos Santos and Hauchard hail from relatively stable, bourgeois and, crucially, non-Muslim backgrounds. They were well liked in their communities and, had only recently converted to Islam. As David Thomson, a French radio journalist who has closely followed the evolution of French militants, concluded, these recruits “were perfectly integrated in their everyday lives before their departure” for Syria and Iraq.
Families and friends were baffled. As the stunned mayor of Bosc-Roger-en-Roumois, the village where Hauchard grew up, declared, “He was never a rebel.” Yet French historians will experience a certain deja vu. Seventy years ago, Nazi Germany created the notorious 33 Waffen Grenadier Division der SS Charlemagne. Commanded by German generals, this SS military division, familiarly known as the Charlemagne, was formed by some 8,000 French volunteers. The recruits were trained in Germany and fought on the Eastern Front alongside German soldiers as they slowly retreated against the inexorable advance of the Russian army.
The geographical distance between the ruins of Berlin, where remnants of the Charlemagne made their last stand, and the deserts of Iraq, where French recruits to Islamic State now sow terror, is vast. But the ideological and psychological distances are far shorter. The volunteers, then as now, were uniformly young and, as a result, impressionable and restless. In both cases, they represent a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds: poor and working class and bourgeois and well educated.
Indeed, being a product of France’s republican schools was not proof then or now against the allure of these movements. First, the military successes of the German army captured the imagination of young men, according to Philippe Carrard’s monograph, “The French Who Fought For Hitler.” As one Charlemagne veteran said, “Germany was triumphant! Wherever their armies went, they were victorious.” The lightning victories of Islamic State in northern Syria and Iraq may have had a similar effect on French recruits, who might latch on to the seemingly ineluctable rise of this movement.
Second, Islamic State recruitment videos share certain graphic elements found in German propaganda splashed across occupied France. The latter framed uniformed young men of steely resolve and Aryan features, embodying a masculine ideal that transcended national borders. In videos, the militants’ combat uniforms, topped by beards, offer their chosen audience another compelling masculine ideal.
Moreover, the motivations at play in 2014 surely reflect those that won the hearts and minds of young Frenchmen in 1944. Perhaps a thirst for adventure and power, as well as darker and nihilistic impulses. And something more: a Manichaean world view, totalitarian and exterminatory, whose simplicity seizes the imaginations of those eager to join a world-changing force. Whether it is the establishment of a new Sunni Muslim caliphate or a new European order, the millenarian promise remains the same.
Charlemagne members found reassurance in the way their choice was disdained by most of those they left behind, another sign of true believers. Likewise, one French Islamic State recruitment video warns, “It will be said that you have been indoctrinated and you will be scorned.”
The Charlemagne combatants saw themselves as crusaders against communism; as one Charlemagne volunteer wrote to his family: “I am leaving for Russia to fight the enemy of all civilizations: Bolshevism.” Replace “Russia” with “Syria,” and “Bolshevism” with “liberalism,” we might well find ourselves face to face with Hauchard.
Drawing these parallels between France’s past and present is more than a simple parlor game. It offers lessons that are both sobering and comforting. From one generation to the next, there will always be those susceptible to the siren call of millenarian movements that offer a heightened sense of purpose, along with the weapons and language to pursue it. And just as historians rightly underscore the extremely small percentage of Frenchmen who joined the Charlemagne ranks, future historians will no doubt do the same in regard to the French contingent in Islamic State.
Finally, the parallels should remind France, whose large Muslim community already and unfairly serves as a lightning rod for many discontents and disappointments, that Islam is no more responsible for the bloody-minded Islamic State recruits than anti-communism was for those who flocked to the colors of the Charlemagne Division 70 years ago.
Robert Zaretsky teaches French history at the Honors College at the University of Houston. His latest book, Boswell’s Enlightenment, will be published in February.